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Investing in Education Elections

October 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Minnpost blog post describes a “Tsunami” of cash flowing into the school board election in Minneapolis MN (hat tip to Diane Ravitch). It seems that there hare hundreds of thousands being spent on the election for two at-large seats in Minneapolis, and based on some on line research it is unclear to even political insiders why there is so much money flowing into this election… But given the sources of funding flowing into the newly created “Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund (Bloomberg’s giving $100,000 and TFA’s giving $90,000) and the fact that one of the candidates endorsed by the group has stated his desire to eliminate tenure, it is possible that those investing in the election hope to invest in for-profit charter schools. ele

The fact that the school board candidates have platitudinous campaigns makes it easy for them to sidestep questions like “Why are you allowing outside money to help fund your election?” or, perhaps more pointedly, “What do you think the outside investors will ask you to do on their behalf once you are elected and how comfortable are you with they likely requests?” or, to allow as little wiggle room as possible:”When he was mayor on NYC, Bloomberg replaced “failing public schools” with for-profit schools staffed by inexperienced teachers from TFA. What is your position on that strategy?” In elections where hundreds of thousands of dollars are flowing in, these questions need to be posed to those running for office and the candidates responses need to be shared widely. But as MN blogger Eric Ferguson noted in one of his posts, many voters are completely unaware of local elections…. but that may change this time since the new money flowing in is resulting in negative campaign flyers being sent to homes and negative robocalls being placed to voters. As the school board election in Minneapolis demonstrates, money makes a difference in campaigns— and not in a good way!

Dog Bites Man: Cuomo Attacks Public Schools

October 29, 2014 Leave a comment

In a development that surprises no one who WATCHES Cuomo’s behavior as opposed to LISTENING to his words, he made it abundantly clear in a meeting with the editorial board of the Daily News that he wants to dismantle the public school “monopoly”. His solution: competition featuring for-profit charters vs. “government run” schools. Ay yi yi!!!

If any teacher’s union President thinks that either Hilary Clinton or Andrew Cuomo are allies, they need a reality check. If NYSUT had any heart or courage they would advise their members to support the Green Party candidate…. and here’s what’s really sad after reading Thomas Edsall’s column earlier today: a Teachout candidacy on the Working Families ticket might have prevailed.

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Duncan’s Memo Redux

October 29, 2014 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago I posted on an article the NYTimes wrote touting a 37 page letter from Arne Duncan urging “…state officials, superintendents and principals to monitor policies and facilities and to make sure they are equitably distributed among students of all races.” As I noted in my earlier post, the letter is full of data that readers of this blog and other progressive blogs are well aware of: black students have fewer opportunities to take AP courses, advanced math courses, to be taught be certified teachers, and to attend school facilities that are equal to those available to affluent students. This letter is no different from ones I recall receiving from secretaries of education from the Reagan administration through this one… and they have probably been coming out since Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

Today the Times editors wrote a piece touting this memo again… but instead of focussing on the need for equitable allocation of school funds at the State level, they focused on teacher quality. at the district level. Here’s the closing paragraph:

The new guidance rightly focuses on teacher quality and says the department’s investigations will seek to expose school districts that unjustifiably provide minority children with ineffective, poorly trained teachers. Policies don’t have to be intentionally discriminatory to be illegal; race-neutral but ill-considered strategies can also have a terrible effect on minority students.

Residential housing patterns and historic town boundaries create the inequities that exist among school districts NOT district practices. Demonstrably unfair funding formulas create resource disparities NOT district practices. Duncan and Obama and the NYTimes are all blaming school districts from inequities that are not of their own making. Given this reality, I wrote the following letter to the editors of the Times: 

Secretary Duncan and President Obama need to stop exhorting DISTRICTS to equalize resources and take action where STATES have failed to do so. Over the past several decades all but five states have been sued over inequities in school funding. At the same time federal funds have been allocated to every district in the country, even the most affluent. Mr. Duncan wanted to ensure that resources applied more equitably he could take action in states where legislatures have not responded to court decisions calling for changes to the funding systems by directing all federal funds to those districts that state courts identified as being short-changed. If State legislatures fail to provide every child with an equal opportunity, the federal government has a responsibility to do so…. and writing persuasive memos will not change anyone’s behavior in the next two years any more than it has for the past 60.

 

You cannot expect the Philadelphia school district to adhere to a guideline that resources be equitably allocated when their budget provides roughly $7,000/student less than Lower Merion School District. It is not Philadelphia’s fault that they are under-resourced and allocating scarce funds among decrepit undermanned schools is no remedy. Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and the Times should put the spotlight where it belongs: on State legislatures who have not addressed lawsuits that call for changes in the funding formulas.

Frank Bruni is SO Wrong….

October 29, 2014 Leave a comment

“Toward Better Teachers”, Frank Bruni’s column in today’s NYTimes is so full of bad thinking I couldn’t decide where to start… so I started in the middle with this comment that captures the essence of some of the particularly bad ideas espoused by former NYC Commissioner Joel Klein and his fellow “reformers”:

Bruni writes that NYC “…wasn’t (and still isn’t) managing to lure enough of the best and brightest college graduates into classrooms.” The basis for this assertion, according to Joel Klein, is simple: SAT scores! “In the 1990s, college graduates who became elementary-school teachers in America averaged below 1,000 points, out of a total of 1,600, on the math and verbal Scholastic Aptitude Tests… the citywide average for all NYC teachers was about 970.” This raises some questions: Is there ANY study that demonstrates a correlation between good teaching at the elementary level and SAT scores? Is Klein suggesting that NYC use SAT scores to screen teachers? Is Klein suggesting the current “irrational” seniority pay scales be replaced with ones that reward teachers who obtained high SAT scores as a factor?

The notion that SAT scores can be used to identify “the best and brightest” teachers, like so many of the “reform” ideas, uses test results as a means of judging complicated work like teaching. By reducing teacher evaluation to a statistical artifact it becomes possible to rank “performance” with precision… but it is a precision that has nothing to do with the actual art of teaching. Data driven quants like Klein don’t understand the human factors that make teachers successful and motivated. Complicated analytics and differentiated pay might motivate hedge fund investors but they won’t motivate teachers because the best teachers only care about kid.

I’ll use the balance of this post to dissemble each example of bad thinking:

  • …poor parents, like rich ones, deserve options for their kids“. NO… poor parents deserve neighborhood schools that are as well funded and rich in support services and curricular offerings as those offered in affluent suburbs
  •  “Because of union contracts and tenure protections in place when (Klein) began the job, he claimed it was “virtually impossible to remove a teacher charged with incompetence,”. NO… as written in several previous posts , there is no tenure in public schools… and unless it was bargained away it teachers in NYS are required to serve probation before receiving a continuing contract that protects them from being fired for arbitrary and capricious reasons. Oh… and if it WAS bargained away it could be bargained back in again if the Mayor or Klein put it on tble… but neither Klein nor Mayor Bloomberg seemed inclined to seek solutions through collective bargaining.
  • The bogus reasoning that the SAT can serve as a proxy for hiring the “best and brightest” (see above)
  • “…teachers must acquire mastery of the actual subject matter they’re dealing with. Too frequently they don’t.” This “reform meme” was repeated without being challenged by Bruni (or any other NYTimes writer for that matter.) Here’s the fundamental question that needs to be asked of folks like Klein: “What constitutes “mastery of the subject matter” for an elementary teacher? For a music teacher? for a special ed teacher? If certification = mastery then I would be surprised to learn that teachers in NYC “frequently don’t “acquire mastery”. If certification DOESN’T equal mastery, it’s NOT the teachers’ problem, it’s the college and university’s problem and the NYSED’s problem. Oh.. and those Teach For America folks, do THEY have mastery?
  • Pay reform I: Klein advocates having “…teachers paid more for working in schools with “high-needs” students and for tackling subjects that require additional expertise.” The example Klein uses to make his point is paying science teachers more than PE teachers… which overlooks the reality that the teachers who would benefit most from getting a premium of working with “high needs kids” who require additional expertise would be special ed teachers.
  • Pay Reform II: “…“some kind of pay for performance, rewarding success.” Readers of this blog know that a performance pay is an  agreeable fantasy. Enough said.
  • Teachers “…owe us a discussion about education that fully acknowledges the existence of too many underperformers in their ranks.” I await evidence that there are “too many underperformed” in the teaching ranks… but I am also awaiting evidence that standardized tests yield helpful and meaningful information.

Disinvestment in Public Education

October 28, 2014 Leave a comment

This just in: most states are spending less on colleges and K-12 education. As a result:

  • Tuition costs for colleges are increasing (see chart below) making it increasingly difficult for students raised in poverty to afford college and increasing the debt of those who CAN afford to get in.
  • School districts who serve children raised in poverty and therefore rely heavily on State funding are receiving less per pupil making it increasingly difficult for them to succeed in schools
  • Public colleges and K-12 schools are either increasing class sizes or laying off teachers or both… and neither public colleges or public schools are compensating teachers at the levels they received before the recession.

We are in the midst of state and national campaigns… and no one running for office in my state (NH) is talking about increasing funding levels for public education at any level and from what I’ve read NO one is campaigning on a platform that advocates increased spending for education… but EVERYONE who is running claims to be in full support of “improving” education. It would be nice if those seeking improvements acknowledged that school improvement, like , say, home improvement, required more money. When it comes to college, the cost is shifted to students and when it comes to K-12 schooling, the cost is shifted to homeowners, and affluent homeowners can and will dig a little deeper to retain good schools while those in less affluent areas cannot increase their taxes to get the same yield. …. and the divide widens….

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David Brooks Perpetuates a Myth

October 28, 2014 Leave a comment

David Brooks’ column today is based on a flawed premise, a premise whose power over the imaginations of the public is a tribute to the power of the media. The premise is that there is such a a marked difference between the political parties that something he calls “Partyism” exists…. and the fact that he can substantiate the existence of “partyism” is proof that the media can create an illusion that the general populous will believe is true. It is also a premise that someone like  Chris Hedges would see as further evidence that the free press is dead.

There are differences between the parties, but they tend to be substantially unimportant and tend to be exaggerated. A case in point is this section of Brooks’s article, which summarizes the findings of researchers who measured the level of discrimination shown based on political affiliations:

Politics is obviously a passionate activity, in which moral values clash. Debates over Obamacare, charter schools or whether the United States should intervene in Syria stir serious disagreement. But these studies are measuring something different. People’s essential worth is being measured by a political label: whether they should be hired, married, trusted or discriminated against.

The broad social phenomenon is that as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being hyper-moralized. People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.

The three items Brooks flags as differences between parties are in fact examples of where the parties are on the same sheet but the media have emphasized differences that are more nuanced than substantive. Obamacare is based on a model that came from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and a model that a Republican governor, Mitt Romney, put in place in Massachusetts. It is a model that progressives find clunky and needlessly privatized but one that both parties ultimately adopted. There is NO debate over charter schools or public education policy. BOTH parties advocate the use of standardized tests to determine the “success” of schools and BOTH parties advocate the closure of “failing” public schools and accept the notion that for profit charter schools are an acceptable replacement for public non-profit schools. What to do in Syria is not a partisan divide: neither party has presented a unified stance on the issue and both seem to agree that foreign policy should be based on American exceptionalism.

Not only are the the parties NOT substantially different on these policy issues, they are completely unified on the notion that unregulated capitalism is superior to any form of redistribution of resources and unified on the notion that there is no nee to address global warming in any way shape or form. In effect, by perpetuating the notion that the parties ARE different from each other by exaggerating small discrepancies they have been successful in avoiding the BIG questions facing our country: what to do about economic injustice nationally and globally and taking steps to stop the destruction of the planet. While the economic divide widens and the planet deteriorates we’re debating over how much profit pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies should make to provide medical care, how many for-profit charter schools there should be, and who we should give weapons to in a conflict thousands of miles away…. and concepts like “Partyism” reinforce the public perception that there is a REAL difference between the direction either party wants to lead us.

Lower Hudson Superintendents Expose VAM Sham

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Bravo to the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents for laying bare NY state’s sham evaluation system. (Full disclosure: I was chairman of this group in the late 1990s, so my support for their bravery might be biased) In a two-page position paper that is more measured than its title, “APPR Creates an Illusion of Teacher Accountability and Must Be Replaced”, the authors recount the findings of an independent study they commissioned. Those findings are summarized in one phrase: “...there is no ability to compare ratings between or among teachers or districts“. The position paper summarized three key findings from their study:

• Teachers whose students did not have to take Common Core exams typically received higher evaluation scores than teachers whose students did take the exams. The result? A double standard for teacher evaluation, and one that is ripe for legal challenge that will be costly to local districts.

• The State Education Department claims that individual local districts are responsible for 80% of the scoring under APPR, a claim that is wildly inaccurate. The Education Analytics study found that because of the APPR formula design, the local impact of scoring is closer to 35% of the total.

• The researchers identified that the required local assessments known as Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) – typically take 5‐10 years of data gathering, development and training before scores can be reliably used as an evaluative measure – are being used for APPR. They were critical of this effort, noting that the absence of training resources and rushed implementation have resulted in an inaccurate evaluation system.

Those findings notwithstanding, the Regents, the State Superintendent, and Governor Cuomo are all standing behind the tests, though Cuomo seemed disappointed that the tests found that 94% of the teacher were effective or highly effective, thereby undercutting his “reform” message that TEACHERS were the cause of low performance on the tests.

The Lower Hudson Council’s speaking out against the testing regimen is especially heartening because many of the districts in that group are among the most affluent in the state. Their children will likely “succeed” on measures like standardized tests. For the most part, these district superintendents have nothing to gain from taking this position except controversy among community members who buy into the notion that testing “proves” schools are bad and that VAM is a viable means of measuring teacher effectiveness… a meme that the media has promoted.

Will politicians and political appointees like the NY Regents— or Arnie Duncan for that matter— listen to school district leaders? Will other regional superintendent groups follow the LHCSS’s lead? Stay tuned!