July 19, 2014 Leave a comment

The NYTimes editorial staff missed a great opportunity to educate the public about tests… and so for missed the chance. An op ed piece titled “How Testing Makes Us Smarter”, describes how low-stakes frequent tests for understanding, FORMATIVE assessments, work and high stakes periodic tests, SUMMATIVE assessments, do not. Without using the terms “Formative” and “Summative”, the article by Henry L. Roedinger III, advances an argument in favor of formative assessments but does nothing to distinguish formative and summative tests. His opening paragraph typifies the balance of the article:

TESTS have a bad reputation in education circles these days: They take time, the critics say, put students under pressure and, in the case of standardized testing, crowd out other educational priorities. But the truth is that, used properly, testing as part of an educational routine provides an important tool not just to measure learning, but to promote it.

This paragraph bundles “tests” together and makes no effort to distinguish summative from formative. The “critics” are NOT criticizing TEST per se: they are criticizing SUMMATIVE standardized tests that “…put students (and teachers) under pressure (and) crowd out other educational priorities”. I know of no teacher, administrator, or parent who opposes FORMATIVE tests that are “…part of an educational routine”. 

By NOT distinguishing between FORMATIVE and SUMMATIVE assessments the writer reinforces the notion that critics of “reform” are opposed to “testing” which is not the case. This “school reform” critic strongly supports well constructed tests that are part of an educational routine, tests that are designed to make certain that each and every student has gained a clear understanding of the content presented and has a grounding in the concepts needed to advance deeper understanding. What I strongly oppose is the misuse and overuse of standardized summative assessments.

The Times and Mr. Roedinger could have informed the public about the difference between these two kinds of tests, which would be a valuable service! Instead, the article subtly casts people into “pro-test” and “anti-test” camps, which is counterproductive.

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Highways: Another Victory for Anti-Government

July 18, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes had an article by Michael Shear describing Obama’s latest plan to address the crumbling infrastructure: private-public partnerships. This is a terrible idea. By taking this tack, the President is tacitly acknowledging that the Federal Government cannot provide the most basic of services any longer.  If your part of the country has billionaires or large corporations you will get good roads, predictable electrical services, safe drinking water, and adequate police protection. Otherwise, you better pay your local and State taxes or otherwise take your chances… But not to worry: your locality will be able to make lots of revenue if you allow fracking, are willing to compromise your local environment to allow large corporations to build factories manned by robots, or have any kind of extractable resources that can be obtained cheaply.

What does this mean for schools? Greater and greater differences between schools based on zip codes and less regulation and funding from all levels of government except the local level. After all, if we are going to fund roads based on user fees, why should we fund schools any differently?

Jonathan Chait Misses the Mark

July 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Jonathan Chait’s July 8 post on the New York Magazine Daily Intelligencer grossly mischaracterizes blogger Diane Ravitch and, by missing her points about public education, reinforces the “reformers-vs-unions” meme.

The most glaring error in Chait’s post is his characterization of Diane Ravitch as an evangelical convert to “teacher union absolutism”. As one who has read Ms. Ravitch’s blog for over a year and read nearly all of her books I cannot recall Ms. Ravitch opposing longer school days except when they are offered as a magic bullet, opposing charter schools that operate under the same rules and democratic governance structures as public schools, or opposing all compensation plans that vary from the traditional step and track system. Ms. Ravtich IS strongly opposed to the privatization movement, to efforts to deregulate public education, and the misuse of standardized tests. Any reader of her blog will find reams of evidence of abuses by for-profit charter schools (e.g. overpayment of unqualified CEOs, flawed purchasing practices, un-democratic governance), evidence of the adverse effects of deregulation (e.g. replacing experienced certified teachers with recent college graduates with no training in education, short-changing special education students, using public funds to teach religious topics), and gross misuse of standardized tests (e.g. as the basis for retaining and rewarding teachers). Diane Ravitch’s biggest concern with the “school reform movement” is that it completely overlooks the effects of poverty on children and completely overlooks the effects of money spent in affluent districts as compared to most urban and virtually all rural high-poverty districts.  Based on my reading of her prolific posts Ms.Ravitch  respects and supports the hard work of teachers and decries the bashing public education and teachers have received. I urge Mr. Chait to read some of the links in her posts on value added testing, on performance pay, and on the effects of poverty on children. I think he might be persuaded that his analysis of the problems in public education misses the mark.

But Chait’s biggest flaw is his reinforcement of the union-vs-reform meme. By painting Ms. Ravitch as an evangelist for unions who oppose “reform” he is overlooking the inherent inequities with our current system of schooling– especially the funding of schools. As noted in my earlier post “On Unions”, the NEA and AFT have played into the hands of the “reformers” by clinging to the status quo on issues like changing the step-and-track compensation system, changing the structure of the work day, and resisting changes that might be affected by embracing technology. But their reluctance to change is mirrored by the reluctance of locally elected school boards to change… and BOTH boards and unions need to recognize that the status quo no longer makes sense to many people in the communities… and if neither the Boards nor the unions move forward, I fear that those members of the public who want a different format for their children’s schooling will leave them both behind.



On Unions

July 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch posted an explanation on why unions are needed from one of her commenters, Lloyd Lofthouse who, like me, is retired from education and somewhat frustrated with the current state of affairs in public schools. I left a comment on the post, which I am elaborating on below.

Here’s my perspective on teachers unions as a retired Superintendent with 29 years of experience in 5 states:
=> The teachers union is not a monolith: each district and each State has it’s own unique history and, consequently, each union has its own unique reason for being. The mainstream media is prone to oversimplified black-white analyses. The right leaning media (e.g. Fox News) are especially prone to this and often cast “the teachers union” as a lock-step organization that dictates education policy to the states and has the Democratic Party in it’s pocket. Anyone who is at all familiar with public education knows this is untrue… but since repetition reinforces learning the public has bought the notion of a highly centralized and dictatorial union hook-line-and-sinker.
=> Younger teachers have not experienced the adverse effects of working in a non-union environment and are therefore unaware of the benefits and protections they are receiving as a result of the hard work done by those like Lloyd Lofthouse and other commenters who organized the first set of unions. Veteran teacher union leaders expressed this concern to me over a decade ago and I know anecdotally that many locals are finding it difficult to recruit leadership. Few teachers want to make the time commitment and assume the sometimes adversarial role that is needed to be a leader of a local teacher’s union. Since most education policy writers are in urban areas, they do not appreciate how difficult it is to lead a union AND teach full time, which is the predominant model for unions.
=> Unions are inherently conservative in the sense their desire to maintain the status quo. Because “the devil they know” is always preferable to the unknown, they are reluctant to change the step-and-track system compensation system, to accept individualized compensation packages, to make changes to the current scheduling format for schooling, or adopt peer evaluation systems. This adherence to the status quo makes it possible for “reformers” to present themselves as “bold innovators”. I am especially concerned that teachers unions have not taken more of a leadership role in defining how to make the best use of technology. I think that if the unions demanded better access to technology in their schools and made it clear they expect their students to have access to technology they would be taking the wind out of the sales of those who are seeking to disrupt schooling.

As one who believes in economic justice, I appreciate the need for unions in all sectors of the economy and believe that their diminishment has contributed to the suppression of wages over the past two or three decades… I would like to see all unions speaking up against the current system that values shareholders at the expense of the 99% and would like to see national teacher’s unions speak more stridently about the effects of poverty on children and less about the effects of the economy on their membership…

Shareholders v. Public Good

July 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Eduardo Porter’s column in today’s NYTimes, “Motivating Corporations to Do Good”, provides a history of the emergence of the notion of shareholder primacy and suggests that SOME corporations are beginning to at least pay lip service to the notion that they need to focus on the public good as well as the bottom line that pleases the shareholders first and foremost. The article provided the context that made this notion particularly attractive to businesses:

The 1970s and 1980s were an era of high inflation, high interest rates and low returns on investment. Globalization was exposing American companies to much greater competition from abroad, putting pressure on margins and redoubling executives’ attention on cost cutting and short-term profitability.

The article, though, only hinted at some of the consequences of shareholder primacy. In order to “redouble attention on cost cutting and short term profitability”, corporations off-shored jobs, replaced employees with benefits and pensions with “contractors”, developed complex schemes to avoid paying federal taxes, aggressively sought payments-in-lieu-of-taxes at the state and local levels, eliminated middle class jobs by consolidating regional offices and slashing layers of middle management, and diminished benefits and pensions of employees.

These consequences are just now playing out in the public sector where politicians play on the resentment of outsourced and overworked private sector employees by portraying public employees (like teachers) as greedy, lazy, and unmotivated and undeserving of decent wages, benefits and pensions. As noted frequently in this blog, the mantra that “government is the problem” adds fuel to this opposition. Moreover, the notion that public institutions should either run-like-a-business or become privatized is fueled by the same anti-government mantra.

In the economy at large we are witnessing the endgame of shareholder primacy: fewer and fewer individuals control more and more of the shares of stocks… and fewer and fewer individuals determine how the scarce resources will be allocated. And public education has a classic example of how this plays out in public policy: one individual– Bill Gates— is able to bankroll an entire “reform movement” that attempts to standardize and operate schools with the same models he and his fellow reformers operated their technology companies and hedge funds.

As a retired public school Superintendent with 29 years of experience in five different states in the NE, I can also attest to the effects of the “new economy” on parent engagement and school boards. Early in my career (in the early 1980s) we could draw on volunteers from the business community to serve on vocational education committees, to serve on ad hoc task forces, and– in some circumstances– to serve on school boards. As corporations shed middle management positions and community liaison positions, those remaining on the payroll were expected to work longer hours, cover bigger territories, and– with the advent of email and handheld devices– be “on call” 24/7. This insidious and subtle change in work expectations in the private sector diminished the involvement of the business community and working parents in schools… and that, in turn, contributed to the erosion in confidence in public education.

Finally, because of Citizens United we are witnessing more and more money from fewer and fewer people streaming into politics… and the voices of the 99% are increasingly muted.

There IS a way out of this… but it requires legislation and a mind shift that is seemingly impossible: we’d need to pass tax legislation that punishes short term profits, puts an end to tax breaks for corporations at all levels of the government, and offers tax credits to corporations who expand their full time workforce and provide higher wages and increased benefit levels to employees. We need to begin seeing where government CAN be a solution: it can reward good citizenship and economic well-being instead of rewarding chicanery and race-to-the-bottom wages.

Christie Backs Away from VAM

July 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Both Diane Ravitch and Cathy O’Neill cited the news that Chris Christie has announced a major change in the use of VAM to evaluation teachers, with Diane Ravitch providing a link to an article in the NorthJersey.Com web site where a detailed article appeared. According to the article, Christie announced he intended to rollback the use of VAM from 30% to 10%. To help him determine the future use of VAM to higher levels, he issued an executive order creating a commission that would “…review the effectiveness of all K-12 tests used to assess student knowledge… look at volume, frequency and impact of student testing throughout New Jersey school districts.” But here’s the kicker (with my emphases added: 

Christie will appoint all nine commission members, who should have expertise or experience in education policy or administration, according to his order. The commission will issue an initial report with recommendations by Dec. 31, and a final report seven months later.

The commission “should have” this expertise… but if Christie’s appointments to State operated districts are any indication of  the kind of qualifications he will be using to identify people with “expertise” no one in New Jersey should be assured the commission will know anything about the construction of standardized tests. Instead of requiring anyone on the commission to have expertise in psychometrics Christie is appointing people with expertise in “education policy or administration”. As one with expertise in both of those spheres I can assure readers there are few “education policy or administration” folks who know anything about psychometrics… and that one reason why so many of them have bought into VAM. If Christie is sincere about improving the use of tests in NJ he should appoint someone like Cathy O’Neill (aka the Mathbabe) or someone from FairTest to serve on this commission.

Finally, a political sidebar: the report of this commission will be issued in July 2015— right about the time the Christie for President campaign will be ramping up. Should be interesting times in NJ!

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Pearson Errors: Would You Trust Your Child to This Corporation?

July 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Pearson Errors: Would You Trust Your Child to This Corporation?.

Here’s a list of Pearson’s errors in administering standardized high stakes tests compiled by FairTest and blogged by Diane Ravitch. The list is as unsurprising as it is long.

The first course I took as a graduate student in educational administration in 1970 was on test construction. To get us started on gaining an understanding of the flaws in standardized tests the instructor distributed copies of the Stanford Achievement Test and asked us to find five errors in the construction of the questions after reading Chapter One of the assigned text. At the time the local Philadelphia newspapers used the Stanford Achievement test results to “rank” schools in the city— adding credence to the test’s validity and precision. In all, the test had roughly 75 questions… 13 of which were poorly constructed based on flaws described in Chapter One. In some cases there were two correct answers and in other cases there was no clear correct answer. Needless to say, I’ve been a skeptic of the “precision” of standardized testing ever since.

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