After reading a Forbes op ed column written by William Bennett, it dawned on me that we have gone decades without having a Secretary of Education who spoke out on behalf of the good work that public schools do in the face of adversity. Instead, from Terrell Bell forward each of the Secretaries of Education have used the theme of “failing public schools” as the basis for seeking more funding for schools and from Bennett forward each secretary has implicitly or explicitly promoted the notion that charter schools are a viable alternative. As a result, the re-branding of public education as “government schools” combined with our country’s deep faith in the marketplace has led voters to believe that the best way to fix the “failing public schools” is to replace them with deregulated for-profit charters that parents can opt into the same way they opt into buying a car.
Bennett’s column subtly plays into this notion and is full of disinformation and/or misinformation. Titled “Overcoming the Honesty Gap in Public Education” Bennett implies that States implemented watered down tests to look good but their “dishonesty” resulted in no improvement on the NAEP:
This is a serious problem, but, of course, it is not new. Intentional or not, many states have been offering less than truthful and accurate definitions of proficiency for far too long.
Of course one the reasons for that discrepancy was the fact that states were in effect permitted to develop their own standards and assessments, something that the Federal government was supposedly reversing with the implementation of NCLB Race to the Top. Ironically, one of the “reforms” in the new federal legislation is the chance for States to develop their own standards and assessments, which will exacerbate Bennett’s call for consistent definitions of proficiency.
Bennett also disingenuously misrepresents the development of the common core as a grassroots and voluntary undertaking:
Over the past five years, more than 40 states have diligently begun to implement the Common Core standards, which were conceived in mutual and voluntary agreement between the states, not under the pressure of the federal government. (Granted, the federal government has since intruded in some areas, but that is no longer the case and we must fight to ensure it doesn’t happen again.)
To paraphrase his earlier quote, Mr. Bennett is being “less than truthful and accurate” in his description of how the common core came into being. But the concluding sentences are the ones that jumped out at me because they are irreconcilable with the direction his party wants to take public education:
But the first step to addressing performance concerns is establishing a system that accurately identifies them through the implementation of higher standards and more rigorous testing requirements. American education is moving in the right direction right now. Let’s not slow or stop the progress.
Here’s my question for Mr. Bennett: if you are fighting to keep the federal government from intruding in mandatory testing how will you keep states from “offering less than truthful and accurate definitions of proficiency?”
A couple of days ago I got a letter from my daughter whose son attends public school in Brooklyn. The email, titled “Should Have Done My Homework”, lamented the fact that she gave permission for my Grandson to participate in the “Tripod Project“, an effort funded by Bill Gates to develop student questionnaires that can be used to help evaluate the performance of teachers. I wrote her a lengthy response, which I’ve used as the basis for this post. As indicated in previous posts, I have mixed feelings about Bill Gates. But, for reasons outlined below, I have generally positive feelings about using student feedback to help improve school and teacher performance. The opting out question is easy if your child’s test results are not going to be used to assign him or her to a magnet school or used to determine a grade in a course: you do not go to school on that day. As noted in earlier posts, the circumstances in NYC are different, making opting out in any grade level before middle school arguably harmful to a child’s future.
First my thoughts on Bill Gates, who I believe has good intentions but lacks respect for and understanding of public education. Contrary to the belief of many who oppose “reform”, I am not entirely sure that Bill Gates wants to use his philanthropy to make even more money. I know, for example, he’s matched millions of dollars Rotary Clubs across the world have raised to help eliminate polio. To the best of my knowledge, Bill Gates has no investments in the corporations that provide the polio vaccine nor has he developed any software to sell to Rotary Clubs or health agencies to track polio. In seeking to eliminate polio he has, to the best of my knowledge, deferred to public health and medical experts and spent his money how and where they advise him to. Consequently, health and medical professionals have admiration and respect for his efforts. I believe the Gates Foundation has provided grants in other fields in the same fashion, drawing on the expertise of practitioners and researchers in the fields where he believes his donations can make a difference. My problem with Bill Gates is that he DOESN’T confer with or listen to education experts. If he did, he would find that schools like Hanover High School in the district where I last worked has been doing student surveys for decades and, over that time, has developed a system that is scalable IF the teachers in school are engaged in the process the way Hanover High teachers were in the mid-1980s. What’s maddening and sad is that HAD Bill Gates sought out districts who were already doing this and championed their efforts he could have had as great an impact in public education as he’s had in fighting polio– which is virtually eliminated…. and he might have the good will of teachers and administrators across the country.
My thoughts on the use of student and parent feedback to help assess school and teacher effectiveness are positive. In the New Hampshire/Vermont district I led for seven years, we instituted parent survey across the board… and it was PAINFULLY slow and time consuming but ultimately very helpful to the faculties and Boards when we set our annual goals. In order to develop a survey, we needed to get teachers and administrators to accept the notion that the results would be helpful and not punitive; we needed to get ALL parents to see the idea as being worthwhile (to avoid having only those with axes to grind responding to the survey); we had to figure out the logistics for collecting the data and keeping the open-ended responses confidential; and, we had to develop questions that would give us actionable feedback. It took two years to get the survey right and another two years to institutionalize it… but after all was said and done the surveys accomplished their stated goals: They DID provide us with information that both confirmed our beliefs about academic disciplines that were strong (or weak) in our schools and forced us to question some some mistaken beliefs we held in the same vein. The surveys, instituted in 2008, are still in use today. Here’s a link to page on the school district’s web site that has them:
The HS student surveys are especially informative! At the end of each course (which could be a quarter, a semester, or a school year) the teachers have each student complete a survey that has a bank of generic questions and the chance for specific questions the teacher is seeking feedback on. The survey results are collated electronically and shared with the teacher in advance of the teacher’s end of the year conference with their department head. At that conference the department head asks the teacher for their reaction to the surveys and, in most cases, the teachers share the detailed results. But here’s a part of the Hanover High “survey culture” that was particularly unique: when the department head or principal came in to observe the teacher in the classroom, the department head would periodically ask the teacher to leave 5-10 minutes before the end of the period. The department head then engaged the class in a free-form dialogue with to get unstructured and unvarnished feedback on the teacher’s skills. This kind of 360 degree performance evaluation permeated the environment in the school and, perhaps surprisingly to some who are reading this, engendered trust and confidence throughout the organization.
Given the opportunity to work in a high functioning district at the end of my career provided me with the opportunity to see how having the funds to hire the right kinds of teachers and the staff needed to conduct thorough and thoughtful evaluations made a HUGE difference in the culture and climate of the school…. And this experience makes me especially frustrated with the simplistic notion that standardized tests can be used as the sole basis for determining which teachers are “successful”…. and it makes me frustrated when Bill Gates doesn’t pick up the phone or Google “student surveys” to see how high functioning public high schools are doing this right… In the end, I think he’d determine that high performing schools have higher salaries across the board for teachers; have robust middle level managers who observe, support, and coach teachers; do not put much stock in standardized tests when it comes to evaluating teachers; and introduce change slowly, methodically, and democratically.
Now… as to the question of opting out on this particular initiative… I think this is a MUCH tougher call than opting out on the pilot Common Core tests. If teachers and parents want to see something other than standardized tests used to evaluate teachers, SOMEONE has to come up with the money to conduct the field tests of the alternative…. and it’s clear USDOE is NOT interested in anything BUT standardized tests and its also clear they don’t have any money for research. As noted above, it took us two years to develop a set of questions that provided us with helpful information, and we did it with the use of my time and the time of some technology support staff. Assuming Bill Gates it doing these pilot surveys as a means of finding something to supplement or supplant standardized testing then any child’s participation is worthwhile. I’d be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt… but, to paraphrase a former president, I think that trust needs to be verified. Based on every NYC parents well founded skepticism, I expect this and all future pilot efforts to be closely watched. I’ll be curious to see if Mr. Gates uses the data he gathers to conclude that information gathered on surveys is far more helpful than VAM.
The NYTimes op ed section today features an article by David Kohn titled “Let the Kinds Learn Through Play“. In the essay, Kohn describes the recent push to make pre-school and Kindergarten more “academic” in an effort to address the (sic) failing public schools as described in this paragraph:
By many measures, American educational achievement lags behind that of other countries; at the same time, millions of American students, many of them poor and from minority backgrounds, remain far below national norms. Advocates say that starting formal education earlier will help close these dual gaps.
He then describes how this notion of “starting formal education earlier” has the opposite effect on students, citing one study that showed early academic gains are short lived and another that showed early childhood students who had “academically oriented” programs did worse than students who had “child initiated” learning experiences.
From my perspective the article’s main message was important and helpful to those of us who favor experiential student centered instruction over didactic teacher led approaches. But I felt the article had two overarching flaws: it reinforced the “failing public schools” meme (the above phrase “By many measures, American educational achievement lags behind that of other countries” is a case in point); and it underemphasized the fact that “play” is neglected at ALL levels.
The emphasis on standardization and efficiency do not support “play” of ANY kind. The authors of the Common Core assume that teachers and schools are accountable only for the development of those skills that can be measured with standardized tests. The Common Core also clings to the 1920s paradigm that the most efficient way to educate children is to batch them by age cohorts and measure their progress using standardized tests that are administered annually. To make matters worse, NCLB and Race to the Top assume that the students’ group performance on these annual tests is a reliable, valid and efficient way to measure school performance and teacher performance, and that each student’s performance on these tests is a reliable, valid and efficient means of determining their ability to learn. Because these tests have such an impact on the ratings of the school, teacher, and student, preparing for them becomes the focal point of schooling and anything else is superfluous and inefficient. The “work” in school is test preparation. Everything else is “play”.
Consequently, PE, Music, Art, libraries, and recess are all bundled together as unworthy of attention in school and, therefore, unworthy of funding. They’re not in the Common Core, they don’t have a battery of standardized tests to measure performance, and they all look like “play”. Maddeningly, the teachers who provide instruction in these “non-academic” courses are evaluated based on the student performance on standardized tests. The result? PE, Music, Art, Libraries all inject “Common Core” activities into their curricula so that students can do well on the tests. There is nothing sadder than witnessing students completing bubble tests in an empty gym, an art room with paints and clay in the cabinets, a silent music room, and a library with books on the shelves. Nothing sadder except a playground that is empty throughout the school day because the children have “work” to do.
And here’s what is especially frustrating: the tests the children are “working” to do well on are NOT valid or reliable measures nor do they measure what is IMPORTANT to learn in school… yet their importance to the lives of students, teachers and parents cannot be understated.
Standardization, tests, and efficiency are the enemy of creativity and are undercutting the future of public education. Here’s hoping that eventually the public will see the need to change our emphasis in public schools and allow us to move in a new direction.
Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Schools, wrote an article in EducationNext describing the kind of schools I would like to see in the future for all students. Titled “The Rise of AltSchool and Other Micro-Schools“, Horn’s essay describes several new “micro-schools” that offer personalized, individualized on-line instruction augmented by project-based learning and Socratic seminars. In Horn’s words: “Think one-room schoolhouse meets blended learning and home schooling meets private schooling.” He writes:
“Micro-schools are gaining traction among families who are dissatisfied with the quality of public schooling options and cannot afford or do not want to pay for a traditional private-school education.”
As noted in earlier posts, I believe that in the coming years that “niche” of dissatisfied families is likely to explode given the emphasis on standardized tests in today’s public schools, an emphasis that is unlikely to go away. The emphasis on standardized testing narrows the curriculum and reinforces age-based cohort groupings, both of which contradict the notion of personalization and neither of which capitalize on the potential for computer technology to individualize instruction. Worse, as engaged parents who are dissatisfied with this constraining curriculum leave public schools their children will, I believe, have a substantially richer educational background than the students left in the public schools making the economic divide even worse than it is now. A virtuous circle could replace this vicious cycle IF politicians abandoned the use of standardized tests to rate and evaluate schools. Standards-BASED tests, used as FORMATIVE assessments to measure the attainment of mastery, would help students, teachers, and parents determine if a student has mastered skills presented in the classroom or learned outside of the classroom. StandardIZED tests, used as SUMMATIVE assessments to measure the rate of mastery, will penalize immature and/or disinterested and/or disengaged learners. And when these summative assessments are used to judge schools and teachers, they become the focal point of instruction. When the curriculum is narrowed to only those topics that can be measured using a mass-produced standardized test creative and capable students become disengaged and their parents begin to look elsewhere for schooling. In the comment section, I appealed to Michael Horn and other writers who advocate the use of technology to individualize instruction, to speak out against the way tests are currently being used to judge schools, students, and teachers. If they did so, it might be possible for public schools to adapt to the kind of personalized approaches used in micro-schools… otherwise, micro-schools will expand by drawing creative and engaged students away from the public schools.
Many in the progressive blogosphere are celebrating the fact that the latest versions of ESEA (aka NCLB) are limiting the federal government’s ability to dictate education policy. While I strongly oppose the Obama/Duncan overreach in effectively mandating the use of VAM as a condition of receiving waivers from NCLB, I am very ambivalent about moving toward a state based accountability model based on the actions taken by various state legislatures. This post from Houston Chronicle blogger Chris Ladd is another piece of evidence that giving states the opportunity to set education policy might be a giant step backward.
Ladd describes two bills the Texas legislature is considering which, in combination, would have the effect of allowing taxpayers to make donations to a private fund in lieu of paying taxes and allowing parents to draw from this pool of funds to attend the school of their choice. Oh… and one little detail: the dollars required for this private fund are roughly 60% of the amount needed for school taxes now. The result?
…this (legislative package) offers Texas’ religious fundamentalists a huge achievement. They could finally destroy their most hated public institution – the schools. This proposal would gradually starve the public schools of their revenue stream, further cutting the amount that the state pays after years of careful under-funding. Meanwhile it would leave the public schools trapped under their existing infrastructure and mandates, a trap that would finally finish off the beast.
Undersized vouchers would fail to deliver enough funding to support a competent private education. Affluent families would get to take the money and run, receiving a state subsidy which they could combine with their family’s own contributions to pay for a reasonably good private education. Middle income families who can’t afford to pay above the voucher value would be left in the lurch, trapped between a collapsing public school system and a collection of cheap, storefront Christian madrassas.
A new generation of young people will be spared from learning about their history or discovering anything about the natural world that might challenge their religious assumptions. They’ll be ignorant, bigoted, and reliably pious, which this legislature will see as a big fat win.
Those who oppose the top-down Common Core and the requirement that students pass standardized tests based on the common core might end up with states adopting their own “core” of studies that offer skewed perspectives of history and ignore scientific findings that contradict religious beliefs. I think those of us who oppose the overreach of the USDOE should be careful what we wish for…. It may yield more disparity and disqualify than we have today!
MassLive.com reporter Michelle Williams posted an article on a recent poll conducted in Holyoke headlined “Poll Shows Shifting Opinion on Receivership of Public Schools”. Featuring fancy bar graphs and loaded with statistics, the article concludes that public opinion on the takeover of Holyoke schools is becoming more favorable.
Some background: Holyoke is a persistently low performing school district in MA based on test results and, subsequently, was recently targeted for takeover by the state. There has been an outcry among residents that this is contrary to their desires. Enter the Education Reform Now and their partner group Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) who contracted with the MassINC Polling Group to conduct a poll of residents to determine their support for this action. Their findings, as reported by Ms. Williams:
- Most respondents said Holyoke Public Schools need improvement.
- the perception of Holyoke Public Schools could make it difficult to retain or draw young families into the community
- 46 percent of Holyoke residents said they disapproved of a state takeover. 44 percent said they approved and 10 percent said they were not sure
But wait! Maybe the residents don’t appreciate the benefits of the takeover! Ms. Williams reports on some of the questions that followed the initial data gathering:
After the initial question on receivership, pollsters said the following to voters:“Some of the things the receiver could do include extending the school day, bringing in outside partners and removing ineffective principals or teachers. Based on what you now know, do you approve or disapprove of the proposal to bring in a receiver?”
This swayed some undecided residents and another two percent who initially disapproved.
The pollsters probably anticipated that this additional information would only sway a few residents, so they included another question:
MassINC then told residents that Lawrence Public Schools were placed in receivership. “Three years later, the Lawrence schools are improving, and both test scores and graduation rates are up,” they said.
After hearing of changes made in Lawrence, 55 percent of Holyoke residents polled said they’re in favor of receivership in their city. 40 percent said they disapprove – 18 percent saying they “strongly disapprove” – and five percent polled said they still didn’t know.
The inclusion of these kinds of leading questions in polls is called “push polling” and the findings of such polls are suspect… and writing a headline that suggests the public opinion is shifting is at best a misunderstanding of polls and at worst an effort to manipulate public opinion.
A quick internet search yielded one fact about Lawrence Public Schools that Ms. Williams (and the pollsters) conveniently overlooked: in 2012-13 Lawrence spent $20,389 per student while Holyoke spent $16,151. With roughly 6500 student enrolled in Holyoke, that differential would have provided over $26,000,000 more to Holyoke’s budget. I believe that might ave made a difference!
In my own effort to make sure readers of the article had some key information I offered the following comment:
Democrats for Education Reform is underwritten by hedge funders who believe that privatization will improve public education. Instead of cherry picking Lawrence as an example of a success, they might have used the findings of a recent report that found that State takeovers have not been successful. (see here for one article written on this report). Privatization will result in the loss of local control, will result in a narrowing of the curriculum to those items that are included on the standardized tests that are the measure used to determine if a school is improving, and— most importantly to investors— send tax dollars to whatever business oversees the failing schools. If Holyoke schools want to see long term improvement they should invest in robust prekindergarten programs and after school programs that provide structured activities for children and pre-teens.
Oh… one other fact omitted from the poll: Lawrence spends over $4,000 MORE per pupil than Holyoke. The poll might ask residents if an additional $26,000,000 might help improve Holyoke Schools… but that would be “throwing money at the problem”.
I hope that Ms. Williams writes another article on this poll that brings some of this information to light, because Holyoke residents need to understand that more funding is needed to get better results and that the State has no quick fixes that will work contrary to what DFER wants the world to believe.