Toll Roads and Toll Schools

October 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes editorial page blog, Taking Note, has a short post by Vikas Bajaj titled “Republicans Against Toll Roads“. The blog talks about the pushback TX Republican legislators are getting as a result of their decision to fund road improvements through tolls instead of gasoline taxes. But voters are getting what they are paying for… and MAYBE the pushback in TX will spread the same way their current thinking about charging fees instead of taxes has spread.

As I noted in a comment I left on the blog, Texas’ Republican’s view of “the commons” is different from the rest of the country… but seemingly the thinking of Texas is spreading. IN, IL, and WI are all talking about toll roads as a workaround to tax increases which were needed because the mpg on cars was resulting in lower fuel consumption. But the “fee for service” model in TX has spread to schoos as well. Their public education funding is based on the same kind of premise: they underfund school districts who then charge fees to make up the difference. Texas is ranked 45th in the country in per capita spending, up from 49th. Prisons, though, are a GOOD place to spend if you’re a TX legislator! TX has more people in prison than ANY state and keeps spending even though it had 11,000 empty beds in 2013.

It would be nice if TX was an anomaly… but what has happened in TX mirrors what is happening in our country as a whole where we are cutting social spending but adding to a military budget that has excess capacity. MAYBE the outback in TX is a harbinger of what will happen across our country in the near future.

Born on 3rd Base

October 20, 2014 Leave a comment

The headline of Matt O’Brien’s Wonkblog in the Washington Post summarizes the whole story that, in turn, summarizes everything that’s wrong with our economy: “Poor Kids Who Do Everything Right Don’t Do Better Than Rich Kids Who Do Everything Wrong“. The article describes the findings of Richard Reeves and Isabell Sawhill describing the glass floors and glass ceilings that make our class system more rigid than it once was and make it difficult for children raised in poverty to move into the higher tiers of earning. This chart from Reeves and Sawhill’s report shows this graphically: Poor-Grads-Rich-Dropouts

O’Brien writes:

…rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom — 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells. Some meritocracy.”

It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.

As he notes earlier in the post, things are unlikely to improv given that affluent parents outspend other parents nearly 3-1 in providing enrichment opportunities for their children… and some of the folks at the very top of the pyramid are spending billions to convince the rest of us that all children raised in poverty need is “grit” to get ahead. O’Brien concludes his post with this:

It’s not quite a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose game where rich kids get better educations, yet still get ahead even if they don’t—but it’s close enough. And if it keeps up, the American Dream will be just that.

Amen….

The Bomb’s Too Big for the Plane

October 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Jay Matthews latest blog post in the Washington Post describes a concern raised by education policy writer Mike Petrilli about the “thin content” in his child’s first grade class in Montgomery County, MD. After recounting the somewhat contradictory response he got from two officials in the district in following up on this issue, Matthews invited early elementary teachers in Montgomery County to respond to him about the curriculum expectations. This whole post brought back memories from my career as Superintendent from 1981 through 2011.

In the late 1980s, when districts were reacting to the “rising tide of mediocrity” in public education, several books were written on the topic of curriculum in schools and several consultants made a good living offering workshops and lectures to schools. One of the books that captured the imagination of conservative thinkers and many upper middle class parents was Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch. While many books at the time were long on theories of teaching and learning, Cultural Literacy provided specifics about what students should know and read if they hoped to be culturally literate, to be able to converse with the great thinkers of the time. For the checklist minded, particularly those who favored the “Western Canon”, Hirsch’s books and essays were a Godsend. For teachers, particularly those in schools serving children raised in poverty, the lists were absurd. How could children who could not read at all in third grade be expected to complete the extensive listing of books for students at that grade level and begin to know the information about the world that Hirsch saw as foundational.

During that time, I was leading the Exeter NH School District and we were revamping our curriculum to not only respond to “the rising tide of mediocrity” charge but to also ensure that the students attending six elementary schools in six different communities were offering the content the Junior High and High School teachers believed students should know. While I didn’t know it at the time, I would walk three other districts through this same exercise in the next 25 years. And what I learned from this exercise is best summarized in the metaphor coined by education consultant Fenwick English: we built a bomb so big we can’t get the plane off the ground. That is, by developing curricula that met the expectations of content specialists at the secondary level of our schools and/or the entry level of colleges we created a curriculum that was so dense and full of objectives that no teacher could teach it an no student could learn it.

There is an aphorism that secondary teachers teach subjects and elementary teachers teach students. When secondary teachers develop the benchmarks they want to see all students entering their classrooms with “fundamental information” in their content area but the practical reality is that when TIME is a constant LEARNING will be variable… and in some cases CONTENT will be sacrificed. If the focus on learning was curriculum MASTERY instead of curriculum COVERAGE we might be able to provide content teachers with students who have the fundamental information they seek… but if we insist on schooling children the way we do now, and administering high stakes tests to age based cohorts of children, somethings got to give… and what is giving way is the content in areas that are not the subject of tests.

 

Culture Labs: An Idealistic Disconnect

October 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Dave Edwards October 17 post in Wired posits that American Schools are Training Kids for a World that Doesn’t Exist, which, on one level is nothing new, but on another level is more true than ever.

In 1967 Marshall McLuhan wrote that “When faced with a new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the recent past. We look at the present in a rearview mirror.”  I was a college student at that time, learning Fortran on a mainframe computer that was programmed using cards. I was taking discrete required prerequisite courses that would result in my being trained to meet the standards of a mechanical engineer at that time. The high school I graduated from two years earlier didn’t have a computer anywhere on campus and was organized the same way as it was in the 1930s. Both my high school and my college were preparing me for a world that didn’t exist when I graduated, doesn’t exist today, and hasn’t existed for several decades. So the fact that schools today are training kids for a world that doesn’t exist is nothing new.

That said, at the K-12 level, we are failing miserably to prepare students for today’s world. Why? Because while colleges have arguably updated their approaches to learning as evidenced by the description of the “culture labs” in the Wired article, K-12 schools are stuck in the factory paradigm of the 1930s and are being held accountable for delivering a circa 1930s education.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there was a debate about the direction education should take in the 1930s between the progressive forces who advocated the approaches of John Dewey and the more “scientific” methodology of Lewis Terman. In shorthand terminology, Dewey advocated discovery learning– constructivism— while Terman advocated the use of standardized tests to sort and select students based on how they compared to their age cohorts in learning a prescribed curriculum. Dewey lost the debate and as a result standardized tests have dominated the education landscape ever since.

And here’s the sad reality: if Dewey had won culture labs would have been “discovered” decades ago and would be in place now in every school, But instead, in the name of efficiency we insist on administering standardized tests to students throughout their schooling to categorize them based on a uniform learning curve. Too bad!

What If We Abandoned Standardized Tests?

October 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Valerie Strauss used her Washington Post column earlier this week to share FairTest’s proposal that we declare an indefinite moratorium on standardized testing so that districts could “…cut back their own test mandates (and) provide time and incentives for states and districts to revise their assessment and accountability programs.”

The most compelling argument for discontinuing the standardized testing regimen is offered in the concluding paragraph:

NAEP shows that overall gains in reading and math (since the advent of standardized testing) have just about halted. Progress toward closing achievement gaps has also slowed. Test-and-punish programs are wreaking havoc in many urban neighborhoods by contributing to school closures and resulting community destabilization.

A few days ago I shared a DRAFT of the ideal education platform in this blog that suggested a similar action. From my perspective the discontinuation of standardized testing with the exception of NAEP would give states the chance to use the Common Core as the basis for developing their own sets of standards and engage school leaders and parents in a dialogue about what measures are most important. This is echoed in FairTest’s proposal, which is summarized in the final sentence of the blog post:

The new (accountability0system would provide much stronger evidence of learning and progress, reveal far more about whether programs are working, and improve rather than undermine teaching and learning, for our most vulnerable children.

In closing, here is a reprint of the campaign position I would hope SOME Presidential candidate will take in the run up to 2016. Which ever candidate does so will get at least one volunteer in NH who will knock on doors and make phone calls.

  • Discontinue the use of standardized tests as the primary metric for rating schools. By now parents, teachers and voters are fully aware of the misuse of standardized testing in our public schools. They realize how demoralizing this testing is for teachers, school communities, and—most dishearteningly— for students. The use of standardized achievement tests to rate schools is narrowing the curriculum by pushing out subjects that cannot be tested inexpensively. This emphasis on testing dehumanizes the school by making the preparation for tests the focal point of classroom instruction. Worst of all, the testing provides the public with misleading, meaningless, and seemingly precise data that fails to measure the true value of schooling. The test results do accomplish one thing: they help persuade the public that our public schools are failing. If elected I will suspend the testing mandated by Race To The Top and issue a waiver exempting school districts from all tests mandated by No Child Left Behind. In place of these tests, I will direct the Secretary of Education to work with practitioners, post secondary institution leaders, and business leaders to devise an accountability framework that each state will use to develop their own unique means of measuring school effectiveness. One size does not fit all in the classroom, and we’ve learned the hard way that one size does not fit all in public schools.

Obama Could End Testing Today

October 18, 2014 Leave a comment

I was frustrated to read a Christian Science Monitor article titled “As Overtesting Outcry Grows Education Leaders Pull Back on Standardized Tests” for several reasons. The comments and/or questions following quotes from the article will provide some insights into my frustration:

As the outcry against the overtesting of American children has grown, state and local education leaders – in a move endorsed by President Barack Obama– have announced a new focus on dialing back the volume of standardized testing and dialing up the quality.

“I have directed [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools,” Mr. Obama said in a statement Wednesday night.

Wait a minute! He’s supporting an improved assessment of student learning that is linked to a “fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schoolsAs long as teacher and school evaluations are linked with STUDENT test results districts will have a de facto incentive to test students early and often. And hasn’t the President read ANY of the research on VAM? There IS no valid means of linking test scores to teacher performance!

Whether a student faces a large number of tests is not solely determined by federal or state testing mandates, but is largely the product of local district decisions, concludes a report released Thursday by the Center for American Progress.

Wait a minute! As noted frequently in the blog, Race to the Top was a de facto mandate that States adopt the Common Core and also adopt standardized tests that had to be used, to quote the President, “as one part of fan evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools”. While the number of standardized tests administered throughout the year IS a local decision, the administration of a minimum number of high stakes tests is not… and the consequences of administering such tests is described above.

“As states and districts work to clear out unhelpful, unnecessary tests, it would be a grave mistake to stop annual statewide standardized assessments,” noted the Education Trust, a nonprofit working to close achievement gaps for disadvantaged students. “Parents deserve to know how their students are performing … when compared to their peers.”

We know how the comparisons will play out right now: well funded schools serving affluent students will outperform underfunded schools serving children raised in poverty. This isn’t a mystery. It’s been true for at least fifty years. How will MORE assessments help us unless we provide ALL students with the same level of programming and opportunity as the students in the most affluent schools receive?

More than 30 state and urban school leaders endorsed the new statement of principles, which supports Common Core aligned state testing. Among them was John King Jr., the education commissioner in New York. The state recently received a federal waiver to avoid double-testing 8th grade math students, and has offered grants to districts to help reduce nonessential testing.

When John King pushes back on the legislature’s unwillingness to provide equitable funding to public schools and pushes back on Governor Cuomo’s decided favoritism toward deregulated for profit charter schools and disavows VAM, he can be singled out as a school chief pushing back against testing.

Two paragraphs DID hit the nail on the head:

“Hollow pledges to ‘review the entire array of assessments’ are insufficient. In the short run, we need … an elimination of test-based consequences for students, teachers and schools,” said a statement from FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, applauded the state and local leaders’ effort to reduce testing and ensure high quality, but said in a statement that it “addresses the symptoms, not the root cause, of test fixation…. It’s unconscionable that everything about our schools, our kids and our teachers is reduced to one math and one English high-stakes standardized test per year” under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Finally, and most importantly, President Obama could end this madness. He ignited the over testing with Race to the Top: he can end it abruptly by eliminating all standardized tests except NAEP, which is minimally disruptive to schools and provides the most statistically significant findings. I hope that at least one candidate running for President will make a pledge to do that… otherwise the factory model will persist and we will continue to sort and select students based on their parents education and income and the wealth disparity will increase.

 

Milwaukee Bans Bribes for Enrolling in Charter and Voucher Schools

October 17, 2014 Leave a comment

wgersen:

Student bribes: Are they an unintended consequence of deregulated for-profit charters and vouchers or… are they a feature?

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

The Milwaukee Common Council passed an ordnance prohibiting the use of bribes to induce students to enroll in charter or voucher schools.

Despite the frequent boasting about “long waiting lists,” it turns out that many of these non-public schools have trouble filling their seats. Public schools are not allowed to offer cash prizes or gifts for enrolling, but privately managed schools were offering cash and other inducements to boost their numbers and get state money.

The ordinance that “the Common Council approved Tuesday also recommends the city’s lobbyists push for a statewide ban on the practice, which independent charter schools, private voucher schools and even day care centers have quietly used — in some cases for years — to boost enrollment numbers.

“Enrollment is the lifeblood for schools that rely on public funding because it guarantees a certain amount of per-pupil dollars from the state.”

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