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Cuomo Sees the Light: the NYTimes… not so much

November 26, 2015 Leave a comment

In an article in today’s NYTimes, Kate Taylor reports that NY Governor Andrew Cuomo has let it be known that he is no longer in support of tying teacher evaluations to test scores and his recently announced Task Force on the Common Core is expected to incorporate such a recommendation in its findings. The Times infers that by creating the Task Force the governor is giving himself political cover to reverse his thinking on testing and now with the abandonment of the Race to the Top waivers that required such a shift he is free to do so.

One intriguing paragraph suggests that some of the Governor’s “school reform” donors have also accepted the political reality that tests are too dominant, but they repeated their bogus charges about the success rate of students:

It also appears that the advocates and donors to the governor who praised his call last winter for a more rigorous teacher evaluation system would not criticize him if it were now unwound.

StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that promotes charter schools and other education reforms, on whose board several of those donors sit, strongly endorsed the governor’s campaign to make test scores matter more in evaluations, saying the existing system bore “zero resemblance” to how students themselves were performing across the state.

Asked this week about a possible reversal, the organization’s executive director, Jenny Sedlis, said in an email, “When only a third of students in this state are performing on grade level, even without evaluations, we know that there’s ineffective teaching going on.”

A key fact the article neglects to mention: the passing grade on the test is not based on a percentage of students mastering a set of predetermined standards, it is determined by the setting of an arbitrary cut score. Cuomo’s reliance on tests to “prove” that “there’s ineffective teaching going on” put him in a box as more and more parents realized the tests were driving the joy out of their child’s schooling and the test results “proving” that school were “failing” were determined by state officials, not by their children’s performance on tests.

I keep hoping that someday someone in political office will stand up to this whole test-and-punish scheme and acknowledge that it is a failed policy. As noted in earlier posts, the reauthorization of ESEA was a golden opportunity for someone to step forward. Alas, we will have to wait for another decade or so to have the debate on testing.

Legal Drugs in School: Medication Trumps Meditation When Time is Constant

November 26, 2015 Leave a comment

The Guardian published an article earlier this week profiling the long term effects of taking behavior modifying prescription drugs over time, using profiles of six US students as exemplars. Writers Sarah Bosely and Baptiste Lingel offer a statistical overview contrasting American children to their British counterparts at the beginning of their article, “Generation Meds: The us Children Who Grow up on Prescriptoin Drugs”:

According to America’s Centers for Disease Control, 11% of four- to 17-year-olds in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD, a label for those who are disruptive in class and unable to concentrate; just over 6% are taking medication…

In the UK, meanwhile, about 3% of children are diagnosed with ADHD; just 1% are on medication. American children can go through six or seven different drugs quite early in their lives; in the UK, children are usually sent for cognitive behaviour therapy first, in line with guidance from the National Institute forHealth and Care Excellence.

But as the authors note, in the US the use of these drugs is most prevalent among middle-class east coast children:

But the official figure hides huge variation across regions and class. Numbers are very high in the white, middle-class east coast population, says Ilina Singh, professor of neuroscience and society at Oxford University, while there is under-diagnosis in poor white populations and among ethnic minorities.

“In the middle-class, educated group in New York, you probably are seeing kids who are just under more academic pressure,” she says. “Parents will begin to look at psychiatric diagnosis and treatment with drugs as one option for making children perform better. You have parents saying, ‘My child must be on Ritalin because all the other children in the class are.’”

As one of the students profiled noted with a degree of irony, sales and exchanges of pills which have a profound impact on he well being of children are not punished by the law but the use of marijuana and alcohol was monitored closely and resulted in arrests.

The reliance on drug therapy and psychiatry— the medicalization of social adjustment problems that are a natural part of growing up— reinforces the notion that there is a “silver bullet” cure for everything. It also reinforces the notion that a child who matures intellectually at a slower rate than an age peer is somehow deficient. Both of these ideas are wrongheaded.

Mindfulness meditation is a proven means of developing self-awareness that could ultimately lead to impulse control. Unlike Ritalin, however, it requires no purchase of drugs and does not offer immediate change to ones behavior. It does, however, help a child develop self-control and self-awareness, two skills that will benefit them throughout their life. If schools prescribed meditation practices for students who are challenged by having short attention spans and a lack of impulse control it might preclude their lifetime need for prescription drugs.

Our grouping of children by age and the invidious comparisons that are part of our factor school model also contribute to a child’s sense of inadequacy and their parent’s sense of urgency to do everything possible to ensure that their child is “keeping up” with his or her classmates. Abandoning our factory model where time is a constant an learning is variable would go a long way toward reducing the stress to “keep up” with everyone else.

Both of these alternatives to medication require a shift in thinking… and that, alas, is a daunting challenge. But as Bernie Sanders notes frequently in his speeches, we DID elect an African American president and we HAVE accepted gay marriage as a legal right… we CAN change the thinking of people over time if we persist in showing what is fair and just and sensible. We may yet have a time when meditation is offered instead of medication… and learning is the constant and time is the variable.

Categories: Uncategorized

NCLB… RTTT… and now ESSA: The Factory School Prevails

November 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Let me begin this post by sharing an essay I wrote in 2002, lamenting the passage of NCLB:

The Bush bill to improve public schools is deeply flawed for the following reasons:

  • NCLB perpetuates the school factory: Grade levels, seat time, and sorting of students and schools based on standardized test results— key elements of the factory school— are incorporated in the legislation.

  • NCLB relies on tests that measure what’s easy to test instead of what’s important to test: The time line for implementation of the NCLB testing effectively requires the use of existing off-the-shelf pencil and paper tests.

  • NCLB will channel limited resources to underachieving students: The ranking of schools based on average yearly progress will compel school boards, administrators, and teachers to work on improving the performance of low achieving students to the detriment of average and above average students.

  • NCLB assumes that the private sector can accomplish better results than the public sector with the same amount of money: The ultimate “school choice” is not between public schools and sectarian schools, it is between public schools and for-profit schools. The for-profit schools and for-profit tutoring services are eagerly awaiting the lists of failing schools to target their services. We will learn soon that the problem with low achieving public school students has less to do with the instruction that occurs six hours per day than with the environment students live in 18 hours per day. In order to leave no child behind, we will need to coordinate student resources the same way we are now coordinating our law enforcement resources.

That was written shortly after NCLB was passed, and I’m sad to say the predictions in that essay were 100% accurate… and even worse, it exacerbated the divide between affluent school districts and those with limited resources. Following the passage of NCLB I had the good fortune to work from 2003-2011 in one of the highest performing school districts in the nation and NCLB had no impact whatsoever on our day-to-day instruction in the classroom. With the exception of two years where students in the special education cohort fell short, the schools in the district all exceeded the minimum test scores required without any modifications to our curriculum or instruction. Upon my retirement when I consulted in less affluent districts I saw a completely different and unsurprising world: a world where test results dominated the instructional practices. It was unsettling to realize that the children in these districts received a completely different (and much more dispiriting) education than the children in the affluent district I led.

I’ve read several analyses of the recently passed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act a.k.a. the “Every Student Succeeds Act” or ESSA and I’m afraid we are not only stuck in the factory school rut for the coming decade but also likely to see a marked decline in the support for public schools as a result. The “victories” won by the Democrats, as described by Casey Quinlan in Think Progress, were basically stopping the Republicans from short-changing the bill or reallocating funds in a fashion that defeated ESEA’s original purpose, which was to direct supplemental funds to poverty stricken districts. Their losses, on the other hand, were substantive, including guarantees for assistance for students with disabilities, students of color, and English language learners who fall short of the standards set by States and universal pre-K.

The losses for those of us who seek an end to the factory school model and seek social justice in public education are significant. According to Politico reporter Caitlin Emma the Fordham Institute’s President Michael Petrilli was “especially glad” to see an adaptive testing provision included in ESSA because:

…it “should open the door to true adaptive tests, which will lead to lots more accuracy for kids way above or below grade level (and thus more accuracy in their growth scores — important for schools and teachers)”

The bill’s continuation of testing that facilitates VAM is ironic because ESSA also includes language requiring Title I schools to adhere to “evidence based” instructional practices while effectively encouraging teacher evaluation practices that are NOT based on any evidence whatsoever.

Both articles noted that ESSA shifts responsibilities “back to the States”, which is an enormous step backward when the majority of states are under the control of Republican legislatures who favor the model of “running schools like a business” and privatization as the ultimate solution when schools are found to be “failing”. Astonishingly, I found myself concurring with Margaret Spelling’s assessment of the consequences of giving States and local school boards more autonomy in setting minimum standards:

“This is the era of local control where we lack state and federal frameworks that can keep school districts and superintendents and all of us on track and honest with ourselves about where we’re headed,” Spellings said. “With all these school out of the net, underperformance will reign.”

Without national standards states like TX and school districts like Jefferson County CO can adopt curricula that re-write history and ignore science…. and other southern states can crow about high performance on State tests while downplaying low scores on NAEP… and we will restore the separate but equal school systems that existed following Plessy v. Ferguson in the late 1800s.


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Do We Need Police for Safe Schools? I Think Not!

November 24, 2015 Leave a comment

Over the past two decades, the presence of police has increased in schools to the extent that students are arguably learning to live in a police state. Two recent articles underscore this trend and led me to the question that is the title of this post.

In a Truthout article last week, GS Potter describes “How Police Became Part of the Public School System and How to Get Them Out.” In the post, Potter uses the recent incident in South Carolina as an example of how police in schools are needlessly using force and goes on to describe the expansion of Student Resource Officers (SROs) from their inception in 1958 and their limited impact until the 1990s. Initially funded solely through small grants and local funds, SROs became a federal initiative beginning in the Clinton administration and expanding dramatically thereafter: :

 In the 1990s, though, police presence in public schools nationwide grew exponentially. During this decade, both the National Association for School Resource Officers was formed, and the US Justice Department developed their COPS in Schools grant program. This federal support dramatically increased the number of law enforcement officers in classrooms across the country. For example, according to a report published in Justice Quarterly, “As of July 2005, COPS has awarded in excess of $753 million to more than 3,000 grantees to hire more than 6,500 SROs through the CIS program and more than $10 million to hire approximately 100 SROs through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program.”

This huge outlay of federal funds continues, with the Obama administration seeking an additional $150,000,000 for the coming year to bring the total number of federally funded SROs to 17,000. The roots of the problem with this program are in the fact that there is no clear delineation of the roles and responsibilities of law enforcement officials and school officials and the fact that most SROs lack the ability to work with emotionally handicapped and diverse populations. Evidence of this inability emerge when one examines the statistics on those arrested by officers for misconduct in schools. Potter writes:

…according to a joint letter written by the US Department of Education and the Department of Justice, “certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more than their peers.” Similarly, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights reports that Black students are suspended and expelled three times more frequently than white students, and that Indigenous students are also punished disproportionately. The report also states that students with disabilities “represent 12% of the student populations, but 58% of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement and 75% of those physically restrained at school…. Black students represent 19% of students with disabilities … but 36% of these students who are restrained at school …”

The unfair treatment received by disadvantaged students in the classroom has only been reinforced by law enforcement agencies that also have records of unfairly targeting members of disadvantaged populations in their communities.

Potter describes the impact of SROs on minority and disabled students in detail, but overlooks the subtle impact the poise presence has on the entire student body. The presence of SROs disempowers the administration in the school since their power to punish is small in comparison to that of the police. The presence of SROs also undercuts the Principal’s ability to create a culture of caring, a climate that could mitigate the need for any forceful discipline. Finally, the presence of SROs sends a message to students that the only means of having a safe environment is to have visible police presence everywhere.

After reading Potter’s blog post in Truthout, I found an article by Mak Ojutku in yesterday’s Jersey Post especially chilling. The report describes a partnership between the Jersey City School Board and the Jersey City Police “to create a new way for students, faculty, and parents to report inappropriate activity in and around city schools.” WeTip, a 24/7 hotline to the police department, will make it possible for students to report:

“…anything from school bullying to major crimes. Depending on the information provided, the tip will be forwarded to the district’s security office or the police department.

The article doesn’t explain who will make the determination as to whether an incident warrants intervention by the police… and as a high school disciplinarian for six years I can assure you that the police and schools have different standards when it comes to defining misconduct.

The article concludes with the numbers one should call to make a report:

The hotline can be reached at the following designated numbers: 1-800-78-CRIME, 1-855-86-BULLY, 1-800-47-DRUGS, and 1-800-HIT-N-RUN.

I think it’s time to call 1-800-PEACENOW, reduce the number of SROs and use the funds to bring in guidance counselors and social workers for students.

The Blessed Class of ’65 at West Chester High

November 23, 2015 Leave a comment

I just spent this past weekend at the reunion of the Class of 1965 from West Chester (PA) High School. Roughly 100 of us from a class of over 500 attended the $65/plate dinner, some coming from all of the country and some from around the corner where they’ve lived for decades. At a breakfast the next morning, one of my classmates who works implementing a medical technology information system he devised shared an observation from an older relative of his who was in his 80s: that our generation, the ones who came of age after World War II, lived in the best of times in all of the civilized world. Looking around the table at a group of classmates and their spouses who shared the experience of attending West Chester schools during the early 1960s, it was hard to refute. Our parents wanted us all to have better lives than they had and so they spent money to improve our schools and communities. The economy they worked in was almost always expanding and their incomes and well being rose with it. None of us wanted for food, clothing, or shelter and all of us around the table went to college and most of us has degrees beyond college… and those working were doing so by choice and those in retirement lived in communities of their choice. We all worked hard to get where we were now… but we all knew that the hard work would pay off eventually and with the system in place at the time it was true.

I’ve written many posts contrasting the era I was raised in with the era my grandchildren are experiencing. The future was perpetually bright for us. We grew up with a President who urged us to dream impossible dreams: to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, to put an end to poverty and racial intolerance, and stand firm for the principles that made our democracy the best form of government in the world. When he was struck down by an assassin in our sophomore year his successor picked up those aspirations and kept the spirits of our country high. Most of us who graduated in 1965 were oblivious of our military’s increasing presence in Southeast Asia or the racial tensions simmering in the cities: we only saw the bright future that lay ahead for us if we worked hard and get a good education.

Looking back on the past 50 years I see that we might have been the last class to graduate from high school full of optimism. The cloud of Viet Nam, the racial discord, the inability of our government to provide the resources needed to help people get out of poverty, and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs diminished the hopes and opportunities of future classes of graduates. And yet I see some evidence of hearts and minds changing. After decades of the War on Drugs we are beginning to realize that addiction is a disease and not a moral problem. We DID elect and African American to the highest office— not once but twice. We are graduating a higher percentage of students from high school. And we are witnessing the legitimate candidacy of an avowed New Deal “democratic socialist” who seems to be intent on restoring the system to the way it was before Americans became convinced that “government is the problem”. I hope for the sake of my grandchildren that in the near future the blessings of the Class of 1965 are restored: that they, like my classmates, have a sense that the adults in the community want them to succeed and those elected to leadership positions give them visions for a peaceful and harmonious future.

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NYTimes Upshot Post Makes Flawed Assumption in its Charter School Analysis

November 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes Upshot section, purportedly dedicated to providing mathematical analyses to social problems, ran an article today on charter schools that included a flawed analysis by education professor (and charter advocate) Susan Dynarski. The article proclaims that charters work in urban areas but do not work so much in suburban regions.

Ms. Dynarski makes one significant error in her analysis: There is selection bias built into the lottery! The lottery requires a level of parent engagement that separates parents who care about their child’s education opportunity from those who do not. The best test would be to disaggregate the test scores of “lottery losers” from the classmates attending public school and compare that group of students with charter students. My hunch is that the children of engaged parents in public schools will do as well as children attending charters. The “secret sauce” that everyone is seeking is parent engagement… and the route to achieving that is to support the parents in poverty not the billionaires who are funding the charter school movement.

Terrorism, School Shootings, and Public Education

November 21, 2015 Leave a comment

The recent horrific events in Paris are serving as a backdrop for much of my reading of late, and two articles I just completed resonated in light of the killings last weekend. Taken together in the context of the terrorism in France they chart a course for public education in our country.

Earlier this month the New Yorker featured an article by Malcolm Gladwell titled “The Thresholds of Violence: How School Shootings Spread“. In typical Gladwell fashion, he takes one case involving a school shooter who was caught by police before he was able to complete the slaughter he planned and uses it to explain the root causes of an emerging trend. In this case the trend is school shootings and the explanation is a decision theory concept concept called “Thresholds”. The term was coined four decades ago by Stanford psychologist Mark Granovetter who sought to answer this question:

What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right? Granovetter took riots as one of his main examples, because a riot is a case of destructive violence that involves a great number of otherwise quite normal people who would not usually be disposed to violence.

Granovetter used the term “threshold” to answer the question:

A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

Gladwell convincingly asserts that school shootings are proliferating because individuals with a high threshold are contemplating school shootings because in he universe they live in they believe everyone is contemplating the same action. Returning to the riot metaphor Granovetter used to explain the threshold theory, Gladwell concludes his article with this chilling paragraph:

In the day of Eric Harris (one of the Columbine shooters profiled in depth in the article), we could try to console ourselves with the thought that there was nothing we could do, that no law or intervention or restrictions on guns could make a difference in the face of someone so evil. But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.

In the context of Gladwell’s conclusion and the events last weekend where radicalized young men engaged in acts of terror in Paris, last Sunday’s NYTimes article by Julie Scelfo titled “Teaching Peace in Elementary School” describes a broader but critically important roles for public education. Scelfo describes S.E.L., a recent trend in elementary education that is clearly for more important to the well being of our children and our nation than anything we measure using standardized achievement tests:

In many communities, elementary teachers, guidance counselors and administrators are embracing what is known as social and emotional learning, or S.E.L., a process through which people become more aware of their feelings and learn to relate more peacefully to others.

Feeling left out? Angry at your mom? Embarrassed to speak out loud during class? Proponents of S.E.L. say these feelings aren’t insignificant issues to be ignored in favor of the three R’s. Unless emotions are properly dealt with, they believe, children won’t be able to reach their full academic potential.

Worse, based on Gladwell’s assertions and the evidence we can see around us in the world, if these feelings are ignored our schools will perpetuate the climate where “boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement” might contemplate school shootings or be radicalized. Ever since Columbine we’ve spent billions on surveillance cameras and hiring SROs. Ever since 9-11 we’ve spent even more on personnel and computer technology to keep us safe from terrorists. And during that same time period we’ve spent every marginal dollar available to schools on testing and test preparation. It’s time to spend more on peace and less on armaments and surveillance.