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!

THE WORST Piece of EdTech Reporting?

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Each week I get a “Hack Education“, a compendium of news stories entertainingly complied by blogger Audrey Waters. Waters’s stories tend to focus on education technology but they often range into other fields and, like Yves Smith, are presented with witty and occasionally snarky commentary. One commentary in this week’s Hack Education caught my attention:

This is pretty much the worst piece of writing about education technology I’ve ever seen published in a major publication. Didn’t stop Edsurge from covering it and strangely attributing it to the WSJ and not Forbes. But hey.

Needless to say, I HAD to click on the link and read the article by Forbes contributor Phil DeMuth that was bad but maybe NOT the worst piece I’ve read— but I may be less selective in reading about EdTech than Ms. Waters.  I must confess that DID find myself nodding in agreement with some of the ideas it presented… lectures ARE boring and an inefficient means of teaching and MOOCs that consist solely of lectures are thus ineffective. And I agree that B. F. Skinner’s concepts are germane to on-line learning and should not be ignored. But I feel that DeMuth was too dismissive of Sal Khan’s work and oversold B.F. Skinner’s programmed learning as an efficient and effective means of replacing the direct instruction method we have in place.

From my perspective,Khan Academy-style teaching and learning holds the greatest promise for providing high quality supplementary instruction to large numbers of students. Sal Khan, unlike B.F. Skinner, acknowledges that he cannot replace the work of a classroom teacher. Rather he believes he can transform the teacher’s role. Instead of delivering chunks of information to groups of students batched by age cohorts and grading those students on their performance on periodic examinations the teacher can allow students to progress through lessons in content areas where information is hierarchically organized. This frees the time of the teacher to serve as a tutor in many content areas, using their accumulated skill and content knowledge to match the presentation of the materials with the child’s intellectual maturity and their accumulated skill and knowledge of child psychology to connect with each child in a fashion that motivates them to want to learn.  The shift from “sage on the stage to guide on the side” could actually occur if the teacher was no longer required to BE on a stage. The Khan Academy approach provides each student with a master teacher who can patiently provide an array of approaches so that each child can learning skills in step-wise progression or hear presentations of factual content in a fashion that will reinforce assigned readings. In effect, the large group instruction and lecture format could be replaced with supported self-directed learning— which is how self-actualized adults continue learning.

DeMuth’s biggest flaw notion that B.F. Skinner’s programmed learning is different from the traditional stand-and-deliver approach to teaching. Like the traditional model, Skinner assumes that knowledge is something that is pre-determined and poured into an individual. The lecturer splatters the content on a hall full of students while Skinner directs the stream more precisely… but in both cases the prescribed content is externally defined and imposed. The promise of education technology is that the teacher can help the student learn how to learn so the student can be the agent for learning and not a passive recipient. The current system of schooling, the factory model, insists that all students learn prescribed information at the same time. A network model would allow students to seek out the knowledge they want to master when they want to and allow the teacher to help the student to understand when mastery is accomplished. We need to use technology to help us move beyond factory schools instead of using it to make the factory school more efficient.

American Dream Out of Order

October 26, 2014 Leave a comment

Nick Kristof’s column in today’s NYTimes, “The American Dream is Leaving America”, is on the mark. In the column he draws on the finding of a recent OECD study that showed that our country is no longer turing out the most college graduates and no longer has the class mobility that we WANT to believe is in place. Why? Kristof believes that “THE best escalator to opportunity in America is education” and then offers lots of evidence to support his conclusion that the escalator is broken. To readers of this blog and many other progressive blogs this is not news. Nor is the fact that our funding mechanism for public schools is one of the primary reasons for this breakdown, as Kristof notes in his column:

A new Pew survey finds that Americans consider the greatest threat to our country to be the growing gap between the rich and poor. Yet we have constructed an education system, dependent on local property taxes, that provides great schools for the rich kids in the suburbs who need the least help, and broken, dangerous schools for inner-city children who desperately need a helping hand. Too often, America’s education system amplifies not opportunity but inequality. 

The education escalator DOES exist for those who can afford to live in a school district where dollars are available. The less affluent residents of wealthy districts will have an array of academic support services, special education programs, and counseling services that would be the envy of the urban districts where a helping hand would be needed. I believe the escalator is also available for children whose parents are looking out for their children’s interest and WANT their children to succeed in school and do better in life than they did. Kristof implies or suggests three solutions: honoring the teaching profession more, paying our teachers more, and offering more Pre-K programs. In the end he offers the following insight:

Fixing the education system is the civil rights challenge of our era. A starting point is to embrace an ethos that was born in America but is now an expatriate: that we owe all children a fair start in life in the form of access to an education escalator.

As I see it, our challenge now is twofold. First, we need to recognize that pre-K is too late and ACADEMIC pre-K is insufficient. We need to fund early intervention programs to support prenatal care and support for economically disadvantaged parents of toddlers. As many previous NYTimes OpEd columns and blog posts here have noted, pre-K is too late and academic pre-K programs miss the point. The second challenge is to convince parents who are struggling to make ends meet that the system in place today is not rigged against them and their children. The children of the 5% of the workforce who have stopped looking for jobs, the children of minimum wage workers, and the children of single parents working two jobs to make ends meet are unlikely to believe the American Dream is in play for them.

We COULD restore the American Dream if we believed in the fundamental principles that underlie that notion. We COULD restore the American Dream if we thought of ALL children as OUR children and ALL Americans as neighbors. Unfortunately no one is running for office on that platform. Instead of offering solutions to the brown escalator our officials running for office are telling us who broke the escalator or suggesting that it’s still thee for those who are fit enough… those who have grit.

The Slippery Slope of Bible Distribution

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

The Google feed provided a link to a thought provoking article that appeared in the Independent Journal Review (IJR) titled “The Pamphlet Give Out to Kids in Public Schools, An X-Rated Book: Sex and Obscenity in the Bible” is Unacceptable”.

Here’s the background: The Freedom from Religion Foundation, (FFRF) announced plans to hand out materials at 11 public schools within Orange County, Florida, on January 16, National Religious Freedom Day. The Orange County Board sued to prevent the distribution of the materials, in part because the cover of the pamphlet, depicted below, was deemed by many people to be a smear against Christianity. Andrew Seidel, the FFRF attorney, rebutted this charge by noting that “some of the things that are in the Bible in terms of sex and compare that to the cover [of the pamphlet], the cover is pretty tame compared to anything that is in the Bible”. 

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The article goes on to note that “Seidel contended that despite the fact that the material may offend Christians, it is only fair since atheists feel the same way when Bibles are handed out in public schools.”

In many respects members of other religions should be grateful to the FFRF for raising this issue in a “religion vs. atheism” context because I believe that Muslims would feel as unsettled by the distribution of the Bible as Christians might feel unsettled by the distribution of the Koran. I recall from debates held at school board meetings regarding the provision of an opportunity for the distribution of Gideon’s Bibles on school grounds that we ultimately denied permission on the “slippery slope” argument. Namely, if we granted permission to one religious group we’d have to allow opportunities for ANY religious group to distribute materials…. which is precisely the argument the FFRF is making…. and what is the result?

On January 3, 2014 OCPS and FFRF came to an agreement and on June 3, 2014 a Motion to Dismiss was handed down which detailed that the “defendant unconditionally agreed to allow Plaintiffs to distribute the materials that Defendant had previously prohibited.”

Seidel has concluded that OCPS had backed down due to the illegality that the school could not forbid the distribution of FFRF material while simultaneously allowing the dissemination of the Bible in its schools.

Seidel indicated that the FFRF intends to launch similar actions against other school boards who allow the distribution of Bibles. My continued advice to boards: beware of the slippery slope!