Tax Dodgers and Schools

July 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Paul Krugman’s column in this morning’s NYTimes describes the latest development in profiteering:

…the tax-avoidance strategy du jour: “inversion:”… a legal maneuver in which a company declares that its U.S. operations are owned by its foreign subsidiary, not the other way around, and uses this role reversal to shift reported profits out of American jurisdiction to someplace with a lower tax rate.

Readers of this blog should recognize this as the same strategy that corporate tax dodgers use to pit town-against-town and state-against-state in their efforts to race-to-the-bottom on employee compensation… and local and state property taxes.

I believe two underlying principles that “everyone agrees with” make it impossible to change our attitude toward taxation. The first principle, repeated over and over again by BOTH parties in various shades, is the Reagan mantra: GOVERNMENT IS THE PROBLEM. If “everyone agrees” that government is the problem then all taxes are confiscatory and those of us who are being “robbed” by the government taking OUR money have sympathy with the government taking, say, the Koch brothers’ or the Walton’s money… and we don’t begrudge a company for taking steps to avoid paying these onerous taxes.

The second principle is that of shareholder primacy, whereby profit-making trumps any sense of corporate public responsibility. As noted above, this plays out in local and State governments as well as at the Federal level. Pull the curtain back behind any announcement of a corporation locating in a community and you’ll see a sweetheart tax deal.

Both of these principles effect public education. Over the past decades the term “government run schools” was coined, repeated, and entered into the lexicon as evidence that PUBLIC education can’t work because it is run by the government… and we “all know” that government is the problem. And when local corporate taxes are rolled back or limited the burden is shifted to either state sales and/or income taxes or local property taxes and when they start increasing the push back is inevitable… and is often to the detriment of schools, roads, and publicly funded services.

I keep waiting for some politician to make the point that we are all in this together and we need to share in the responsibility for improving our country by paying our fair share of taxes. Doing so would not hurt 99% of the taxpayers…. but for the time being, it appears that the majority of Americans don’t see it that way, in part because no one has taken the time to explain how the system works.

Changing Gears in Mathematics

July 27, 2014 2 comments

Todday’s NYTimes Magazine features an article by Elizabeth Green titled “Why Do Americans Stink At Math?”, an article well worth reading because it provides a good description of what it would take to make Americans perform at a higher level but an article that underemphasizes or overlooks some of the subtle reasons that contribute to our deficiencies.

Ms. Green contrasts the Japanese methods of teaching mathematics with those used in the US, focussing on Akihiko Takahashi, an education reformer from Japan, and Takeshi Matsuyama, an elementary teacher affiliated with a university-based lab school who was his mentor. Together, they transformed mathematics instruction in Japan. Like Deming before them, Takahashi and Matsuyama implemented the recommendations of US experts, recommendations that our country rejected because they did not fit the hierarchical “factory model” of management that blinds us to new and different ways of thinking. Surprisingly Ms. Green overlooked the parallel to Deming’s experience, which mirrored that of Takahashi and Matsuyama and continues to limit our ability to innovate.

Ms. Green also contrasts the Japanese method of teacher training, which is ongoing and organic, with the virtual absence of training in our country. Instead of stand-alone workshops or the accumulation of graduate credits, Japanese teachers engage in “lesson study”, which is time provided for teachers to meet and discuss their teaching methods and to observe each other’s instruction. But she fails to emphasize the funding that would be required to provide the time needed for teachers to have the time for lesson study nor does she note that shift in thinking that would be required to move away from our credential-based method of measuring teacher learning, a method that is often based on seat time.

As one who led school districts from 1980 through 2011 I saw two other factors that Ms. Green overlooked or underemphasized: our country’s obsession with standardized tests and the unwillingness of parents and school boards to accept “non-traditional ways” of teaching mathematics and scheduling teacher time.

Ms. Green described how the emphasis on standardized tests reinforced “traditional” methods of teaching when she noted that while “…lesson study (in Japan)is pervasive in elementary and middle school, it is less so in high school where the emphasis is on cramming for college entrance exams”. In our country, the emphasis is on cramming for examinations from the very outset… and that emphasis is deleterious. Especially since to date, standardized tests have NOT measured the kinds of mathematics instruction valued by NCTM: they have focussed on the “skills” traditionally taught to parents and school board members, skills that are easy to test (see yesterday’s post for evidence of this).

Ms. Green made no mention of how any effort to introduce “non-traditional” methods of mathematics instruction meets with resistance from parents who complain that “they can’t help their children with homework” because they “don’t understand” the work assigned. And when that attitude is combined with our obsession with test scores, if the scores don’t jump immediately the “new math” books are soon be abandoned in favor of the worksheets that match the tested curriculum and the meme about the “failure of new mathematics” is reinforced.

School boards not only face resistance from parents, they also face budget challenges, which can pose the biggest obstacle to introducing innovation. When administrators contemplate the implementation of something akin to “lesson study” they need to hire additional staff to provide release time for teachers to engage in such a program. One way to provide more release time is to increase class sizes (Japan has much larger class sizes than the US), a recommendation that flies in the face of conventional wisdom in the US and meets resistance from teachers as well as parents.

Finally, as noted repeatedly in this blog, we need to stop thinking of our schools as factories that pour information into students who progress along an assembly line in lockstep based on their age and whose progress is measured by standardized tests and hours spent in the classroom. The bottom line: until we stop thinking of our schools as factories we will see no meaningful change or improvement.

This Just In: NY CCSS Tests Flawed

July 26, 2014 Leave a comment

In two “Dog Bites Man” stories, Valerie Strauss’s July 24 and June 27 describe the flaws inherent in NYS’s Common Core tests— flaws that illustrate the inability of a pencil and paper test to measure the high-minded outcomes expected if the Common Core was implemented.

The July 24 article features a letter from the 3rd and 4th grade teachers at Shaker Road School which is part of the South Colonie School Dstrict, a district that serves relatively affluent parents in the Albany area. The letter describes the flaws in the writing section of the tests administered to grades they teach and notes  concerns about “…badly constructed questions and arbitrarily determined cut scores for what constitutes student proficiency on the tests”… flaws that are inherent in ANY standardized test. Indeed, it is the setting of cut scores that determines expectations far more than the standards that serve as the basis for the test questions.

The earlier June 27 post, which can be accessed via a link in the July 24 article, describes the flaws in the Algebra Regents test used to determine if a student can graduate from high school. When the “Regents-For-All” initiative was launched in the late 1990s and early 2000s there was suspicion that the cut scores might be lowered to guarantee higher pass rates. The advent of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards combined with the Blame Teachers First movement (see yesterday’s post), the cut scores were increased and the failure rate increased… which will add fuel to the fire that “public schools are failing” and need to be replaced by private schools that. presumably and contrary to all evidence, will do a better job.

I am glad that Valerie Strauss continues covering the flaws in standardized testing. I only wish her findings were gaining traction in the mainstream media who appear to believe the “schools-are-failing-and-can-be-fixed-without-money” fantasy spun by the privatizers.

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I Love Professional Sports but….

July 25, 2014 Leave a comment

David Sirota has been report in on the so-called “pension crisis” for several months, finding mountains of evidence that this crisis, like so many that result in cuts to public services and a demand for privatization, is not only manufactured, it’s exacerbated by politically motivated decisions.

In an article in the July 22 edition of the international Business Times Sirota describes the decisions of many urban mayors and/or governors of states with professional sports teams to subsidize the building of stadiums while simultaneously cutting things like pensions for public employees… and– while it is not noted in the article– funds for public education. The most egregious example of this is Detroit:

Detroit on Monday made itself the most prominent example of this trend. Officials in the financially devastated city announced that current and future municipal retirees had blessed a plan that will slash their pension benefits. On the same day, the billionaire owners of the Detroit Red Wings, the Ilitch family, unveiled details of an already approved taxpayer-financed stadium for the professional hockey team.

Many retirees now face a 4.5 percent cut in their previously negotiated cost-of-living adjustments, which is part of a larger plan to cut $7 billion of the city’s debt. At the same time, the public is on the hook for $283 million toward the new stadium after giving the Ilitches key parcels of land for $1.

While the subsidy is “only” 4% of the total package, it would probably go a long way toward funding either the pensions of the retirees… or the teachers, textbooks, and technology infrastructure needed in public schools. But housing the Red Wings in a new stadium is far more important than preparing their workforce for the future.

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Shameless Self Promoter Withering… But…

July 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Jeff Bryant’s Salon post yesterday gleefully described Michelle Rhee’s fall from glory but noted that someone is waiting in the wings to carry the privatization flame forward.

Bryant’s article recounts StudentsFirst’s loss of revenue, closing of schools, and overall loss of luster in the eyes of the mainstream media and— more importantly– in the eyes of donors. Bryant describes Rhee’s base of support as follows:

Supported by shadowy money and shaky science, these wealthy folks have created a “blame teachers first” campaign that seeks to address education problems rooted in inequality and low investment by attacking teachers’ job protections and professional status. Their efforts are, of course, “for the children.”

Bryant provides examples of StudentsFirst’s diminishing clout as a force for reform and provides many links to the work of bloggers and journalists who undercut Rhee’s claims of “success” in Washington DC and provides evidence of the stonewalling that continues to this day regarding cheating incidents that might have contributed to the marginal test score increases that occurred during Rhee’s tenure. All of this has led to Rhee’s decline in prominence…. but… as Bryant notes, the “blame teachers first” crowd is not cowed by the lack of results or the lack of evidence regarding the privatization movement. They’ve gravitated toward a new icon: CNN’s Campbell Brown. Here’s Bryant’s overview of Brown’s ascension, which is being propelled based on some bogus scare tactics that seem to be getting traction despite their lack of grounding in reality. I’ve added some emphases:

With Rhee and StudentsFirst sinking under the weight of over-promises, under-performance, and unproven practices, the Blame Teachers First crowd is now eagerly promoting Campbell Brown.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, Brown launched the group Partnership for Educational Justice, with a Veraga-inspired lawsuit in New York State to once again dilute teachers’ job protections, commonly called “tenure.” The suit clams students suffer from laws “making it too expensive, time-consuming and burdensome to fire bad teachers.”

An article in The Washington Post noted, “Brown has raised the issue of tenure in op-edsand on TV programs such as ‘Morning Joe.’ But she may be just getting warmed up.”

Actually, Brown has already been warmed up and is plenty ready to take the mound and pitch. As the very same article noted, Brown started her campaign against teachers some time ago, claiming that the New York City teachers’ union was obstructing efforts to fire teachers for sexual misconduct. Unfortunately for Brown, the ad campaign conducted by her organization Parents Transparency Project failed to note that, as The Post article recalled, at least 33 teachers had indeed been fired. “The balance were either fined, suspended or transferred for minor, non-criminal complaints.” Oops.

Further, as my colleague Dave Johnson recalled at the time, Brown penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal accusing the teachers’ union of “trying to block a bill to keep sexual predators out of schools.” It turned out, the union wanted to strengthen the bill, not stop it. Double oops.

Nevertheless – or as The Post reporter put it, “undaunted” – Brown has now decided to take on teacher personnel policies on behalf of, she claims, “millions of schoolchildren being denied a decent education.”

Bryant provides a detailed analysis of the funders of the Blame Teachers First crowd and highlights research conducted by Rutgers professor Bruce Baker which concludes that:

…finding enough good teachers to staff its schools – especially those serving high-needs kids – is not obstructed by tenure or seniority policies but more so due to the fact it “is abundantly clear that New York State school districts – especially those serving the state’s neediest children – lack the ability to pay the necessary wages to recruit and retain the workforce they need.

But addressing that issue would require the Rhee-Brown campaign to attack a different target instead – not teachers, but political leaders and lobbyists who influence legislation that keeps teacher compensation inadequate and school districts underfunded.

Sadly, those of us who are committed to making substantive changes to public education are mis-labelled as defenders of the status quo and/or union sympathizers while those who want to reinforce the current structure with standardized testing are called “innovators” and “reformers”… and the media are only too happy to emphasize this false dichotomy.

 

 

Cuomo’s Anti-Corruption Commission: BIG Oops!

July 23, 2014 1 comment

I just received a “breaking news” email from the NYTimes” that had a link to a lengthy investigation article “Cuomo’s Office Hobbled State Ethics Inquiry. This in depth article by Times reporters

What resulted provided a grim assessment of state government as “a pay-to-play political culture driven by large checks,” and offered a long menu of recommendations to curtail the influence of money in Albany.

The commission also unsettled the governor when they began digging into lobbies that were designed to keep the names of donors anonymous. Why? It seems that:

…the biggest lobbying spender in 2011 and 2012 was one that was created to support the governor’s own agenda: the Committee to Save New York, which spent more than $16 million and did not disclose where its money came from.

The governor’s office responded to this NYTimes article with a 13 page rebuttal full of non-sequitors. As the article reported, Cuomo created this “independent commission” to “…root out corruption in state politics”, and made multiple assertions that the commission that could look at anything they wanted to look at including “… me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman”… but once a commission started rooting out corruption in HIS sphere he changed his thinking. His 13 page rebuttal is now asserting that “A commission appointed by and staffed by the executive cannot investigate the executive” because “It is a pure conflict of interest and would not pass the laugh test.” As I noted in a comment left on this article, at least one reader is laughing in bewilderment at this logic!

What does all of this have to do with public education? Readers of this blog and followers of “charter school politics” recall that in the clash between Bill deBlasio and charter maven Eve Moskovitz Cuomo appeared at Moskovitz’ rally supporting her for-profit charter school’s demand for free space in public school facilities while deBlasio was rallying to get more funds for NYC schools. Was this part of the “pay-to-play political culture driven by large checks”? I was hoping the Moreland Commission might find out the answer to that question… and hoping the NYTimes might be looking for the answer as well. The Moreland Commission is out of business but the Times still has a chance to get an answer… here’s hoping someone at the Times will ask.

Expect More: It’s Easy, Fast and Cheap!

July 22, 2014 Leave a comment

David Leonard’s Upshot article in today’s NYTimes describes the results from a recent study completed by Andreas Schleicher, the director of education and skills research at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the group that brought us the PISA test. According to the OECD, US Principals are more likely than their counterparts in other parts of the world to “…believe that many of their students come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes.”  The study also reports that “Based on the views of principals, a larger share of children in the United States are “socioeconomically disadvantaged” compared with those in Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, Romania and various other countries. 

Leonard offers a rationale for the first finding:

The usual caveats about correlation and causation apply, though. It’s also possible that an outside factor is driving the results of the survey question. The United States, for example, has an extensive and high-profile program of subsidizing lunches for lower-income children. If that program were driving principals’ definition of socioeconomic disadvantage, and other countries did not have similar programs, it could explain why this country is an outlier in the survey. In that case, American principals may or may not have lower academic expectations of their students.

Neither the OECD nor Mr. Leonard posed the question about the student demographics of “…Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, Romania and various other countries” but I would guess that none of those countries offer universal education to all students through high school and that many of them do not have or aggressively enforce child labor laws. Given those assumptions, it may be true that those countries, in fact, do have fewer “socioeconomically disadvantaged” children in their schools. I did some quick Google research and, using some of the data and some back-of-the-envelope lowball estimates offered the following comment:

Your notion that the principals answered honestly based on free and reduced lunch counts is plausible given the number of students who now qualify for that program, which is a proxy for “sociological disadvantage”. It is interesting that Mr. Schleicher is willing to suggest causality between expectations and performance based on the answer to a question posed to school principals on a questionnaire whose statistical basis is arguable but is unwilling to acknowledge ANY causality between poverty levels and academic performance as measured by a (presumably) valid standardized test (e.g. the PISA). Most voters and taxpayers like the notion that all you need to do is expect more from students and they will perform better academically. It’s an easy, quick and cheap fix to a complicated problem that requires time and— yes—money. 

Add “set higher expectations” to the long list of agreeable fantasies that fuel the fire of those who want easy, quick, and, most of all, CHEAP fixes to improving public education.