$1,000,000,000 for Non-Existent Schools in Afghanistan… But We Can’t Afford $$$ for Schools and Need to Cut Food Stamps
“Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, and Ghost Schools“, Buzzfeed’s expose on the appalling abuse of USAID funds intended for the construction and operation of schools in Afghanistan, describes how money earmarked for schools went into the pockets of warlords instead. The idea of offering public education to educate young men and especially young women in that war-torn nation is sound and reflects the abiding belief that education is the most effective way to change the culture in a country. And the idea that these schools were thriving was especially heartening to those who hoped some long-term benefits might come from the billions being spent in that country. But sadly, the Buzzfeed journalists found we were being misled:
Over and over, the United States has touted education — for which it has spent more than $1 billion — as one of its premier successes in Afghanistan, a signature achievement that helped win over ordinary Afghans and dissuade a future generation of Taliban recruits. As the American mission faltered, U.S. officials repeatedly trumpeted impressive statistics — the number of schools built, girls enrolled, textbooks distributed, teachers trained, and dollars spent — to help justify the 13 years and more than 2,000 Americans killed since the United States invaded.
But a BuzzFeed News investigation — the first comprehensive journalistic reckoning, based on visits to schools across the country, internal U.S. and Afghan databases and documents, and more than 150 interviews — has found those claims to be massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper. The American effort to educate Afghanistan’s children was hollowed out by corruption and by short-term political and military goals that, time and again, took precedence over building a viable school system. And the U.S. government has known for years that it has been peddling hype.
The statistics about school construction are disheartening to read. The State Department and Defense Department both overstated the number of schools constructed by at least 20% and the quality of the construction, based on their own internal reports, was shoddy:
As for the schools America truly did build, U.S. officials repeatedly emphasized to Congress that they were constructed to high-quality standards. But in 2010, USAID’s inspector general published a review based on site visits to 30 schools. More than three-quarters suffered from physical problems, poor hardware, or other deficiencies that might expose students to “unhealthy and even dangerous conditions.” Also, the review found that “the International Building Code was not adhered to” in USAID’s school-building program.
This year, BuzzFeed News found that the overwhelming majority of the more than 50 U.S.-funded schools it visited resemble abandoned buildings — marred by collapsing roofs, shattered glass, boarded-up windows, protruding electrical wires, decaying doors, or other structural defects. At least a quarter of the schools BuzzFeed News visited do not have running water.
But the lack of accountability doesn’t stop with money spent on the construction of schools:
By obtaining internal records from the Afghan Ministry of Education, never before made public, BuzzFeed News also learned that more than 1,100 schools that the ministry publicly reported as active in 2011 were in fact not operating at all. Provincial documents show that teacher salaries — largely paid for with U.S. funds — continued to pour into ghost schools.
Some local officials even allege that those salaries sometimes end up in the hands of the Taliban. Certainly, U.S.-funded school projects have often lined the pockets of brutal warlords and reviled strongmen, which sometimes soured the local population on the U.S. and the Afghan government.
So we spent billions to construct non-existent school, even more money to pay the salaries of non-existent teachers, and no one seems to know where the money went!
Since 2002, the United States has invested more than $1 billion to provide education to Afghan children. But the American government does not know how many schools it has built, how many Afghan students are actually attending school, or how many teachers are actually teaching. What’s certain is the numbers for all of those are far less than what it has been peddling.
Education can make a difference. Unregulated education cannot. I loathed the mountains of paperwork we needed to do when I was a Superintendent for 29 years… but in the end it assured that the money we raised in taxes was accounted for carefully and went into the pockets of teachers who delivered instruction to students. At the very least, our government should spend money to make certain that the dollars we are spending to educate children in Afghanistan are not going to warlords who only want to teach the Koran.
University of Chicago Report Hails RTTT’s Results: “Reform” Policies Adopted With No Proof of Efficacy
A recent report written by the University of Chicago was hailed in a recent web site post with this headline: “Race to the Top Initiative Spurs US Education Policy Reform, Report Finds“. The University of Chicago’s late economist Milton Friedman is the father of the voucher movement, and the fact that his former home base is writing favorable reports about RTTT is not surprising, especially given the definition of the RTTT’s goals as they report them:
Race to the Top was designed to encourage higher state standards, create new data systems, improve teacher effectiveness, increase college readiness, stimulate charter-school expansion and strengthen low-performing schools.
According to the press release/web page, a study conducted at the University of Chicago by William Howell shows that one of the primary means of accomplishing this goal, policy changes at the State level, was a success:
In order to see whether Race to the Top stimulated the adoption of education reforms, Howell and a team of researchers examined whether a statewide governing body had actually enacted (not just proposed) upwards of 33 qualifying policies each year between 2001 and 2014. They found that states enacted reform policies at a much higher rate in the aftermath of Race to the Top.
A “team of researchers” was not needed to make this determination: the USDOE would not grant waivers unless such policies were adopted by State Boards and, given the desperate need for additional funds for schools in the aftermath of the crash in 2008 it did not take a herd of Ph.D. s to “research” this finding. A group of undergraduates could do it by spending an hour with Google. The next sentence in the web posting shows where the researchers should have spent some time:
Howell clarifies that the study “does not assess the efficacy of the particular policies promoted by the initiative, nor does it investigate how Race to the Top altered practices within schools or districts. Rather, the focus is the education policymaking process itself; the adoption of education policies is the outcome of interest.”
It is what Howell DIDN’T research that is the most germane question to answer as Congress considers the reauthorization of ESEA because the reauthorization is based on the same premises as NCLB and RTTT: the way to prepare more students for the workplace or college and to improve “low performing schools” is to set higher standards, collect more data on students (especially data from standardized tests), improve teaching in schools, and open more charter schools. Is there proof to support this? If there IS, the University of Chicago is not looking for it…. and if there IS no one running for office is championing it. On the contrary, both the University of Chicago research team and a herd of President candidates, and the US Congress assume that despite evidence to the contrary, the continuation of the “solutions” based on testing students and punishing and/or replacing “failing schools” is imperative. If we keep wishing for this to work it will…. just like if we keep wishing the global temperatures would decline they will.
The more I read about and think about the effort to repeal NCLB, the more I hope that no compromise will be reached. The latest brouhaha over the bill involves the Booker-Murphy Amendment, which is supported by the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) a think tank that supports the neo-liberal test-and-punish reforms advocated by the likes of Cuomo, Christie and Walker. Charles Barone, DFER’s policy director, summarizes the amendment’s elements as follows:
The amendment simply sets forth what we see as two non-negotiable principles that, in exchange for billions of dollars in federal aid:
1. States will assess school performance based on real and measurable results – not just for all students on average but for historically-disadvantaged groups of students including black students, Hispanic students, students from low-income families, students with disabilities and English Language Learners.
2. States or districts will intervene in schools where historically-disadvantaged groups of students consistently fail to meet state academic benchmarks.
“It’s on the second point that the underlying bill reauthorizing ESEA is most in need of improvement. Unlike the underlying bill, the Murphy amendment would not allow states and school districts to neglect schools that are chronically under-performing. It would not dictate hopelessness to parents whose children are trapped in those schools. It would not accept dropout factories that perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline.
What’s not to like about these premises? Well, in an open letter to Bernie Sanders who signed on to this amendment, a group of disaffected teachers and unions leaders argue against any quantitative measures:
Quantitative measures are invalid. They are masks for social inequalities. They merely highlight and then reflect economic and racial inequalities. Mel Riddile, “PISA: It’s Still ‘Poverty Not Stupid'” at the blog, “The Principal’s Corner”, found that numerical performance of districts mirrors the scale of economic inequalities of those districts. Statisticians have proven over and over again that the use of value added modeling is logically flawed. NCLB drove the use of value-added modeling (VAM) which negatively transformed the teaching and learning processes in the nation’s schools.
It’s unclear to me that the amendment itself would require or even lead to the use of VAM. As I understand it, this rider requires that any test scores be disaggregated by race and socio-economic demographics and require that states do something about “chronically underperforming” districts.
I think that Bernie Sanders is placed in an awkward situation with this bill. He is clearly opposed to privatization of public services, clearly supportive of unions, and clearly supportive of social justice. I do not believe that his support of this amendment is a signal that he supports VAM or that he favors testing as the sole means of accountability. Moreover, the presumptive nominee for the democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, is not subjected to a litmus test based on her support for or rejection of this amendment. My belief: if Hillary Clinton was still a Senator this would be the Booker-Murphy-Clinton amendment.
As I’ve written frequently in this blog, the whole idea of giving STATES the responsibility for determining how to measure school performance is troubling, especially given the direction most States are heading when it comes to issues like VAM, funding equity, and racial discrimination. Here’s hoping the bill dies before the President gets a chance to sign it into law. If it DOES pass, we’ll have at least another six years of testing… and we won’t be testing climate change and evolution in at least nine states in the union.
“Giving Doctors Grades“, an op ed article in today’s NYTimes by Sandeep Jauhar, describes the consequences of using simplistic metrics to determine the effectiveness of a complex operation: heart surgery. In the early 1990s, NYS decided to issue “Report Cards” to surgeons in an effort to provide easy-to-understand information on the ability of various medical practitioners. The result?
(T)he report cards backfired. They often penalized surgeons, like the senior surgeon at my hospital, who were aggressive about treating very sick patients and thus incurred higher mortality rates. When the statistics were publicized, some talented surgeons with higher-than-expected mortality statistics lost their operating privileges, while others, whose risk aversion had earned them lower-than-predicted rates, used the report cards to promote their services in advertisements.
This was an insult that the senior surgeon at my hospital could no longer countenance. “The so-called best surgeons are only doing the most straightforward cases,” he said disdainfully.
This sounded VERY familiar to me… and I left the following comment:
This wrongheaded method of measuring the performance of surgeons is analogous to the “Value Added” evaluation methods promoted by “school reformers” and adopted by Arne Duncan, Andrew Cuomo, the Regents, and host of other governors and State Boards. The standardized test scores used to “measure” teacher performance mirror the economic standing of the parents. Consequently teachers who choose to work with the most challenging students, like the surgeons who tackle the riskiest cases, could lose their jobs. Grading schools using test scores only serves to humiliate the entire faculty who choose to work with children raised in poverty. Both of these failed metrics have one thing in common: they are attempts to bring mathematical precision to fields of endeavor that are crafts more than sciences.
The notion that service organizations should be run like businesses leads to the need for “precise” metrics like mortality rates and VAM to be used in lieu of “the bottom line” so revered by businessmen. But service enterprises do not provide neat and tidy outcomes: they defy the kinds of measures that can be used to develop “stack ratings” or “grades” because they serve individuals who have different backgrounds, temperaments, and physical compositions. The desire to reduce everything to a single number to rank employees using some kind of “objective criteria” is ultimately a means to replacing the judgement of human managers with algorithms. It has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future— unless the future is led by robots.
A post by Amy Zimmer in DNAInfo, a blog that covers neighborhood news in NYC, reported the findings of a recent survey of NYC parents which show that “95% of the parents report satisfaction with their child’s education”. This flies in the face of the “reform” mentality that claims that hordes of parents want out of their “failing” urban schools and into charters… but as David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College Education professor noted, “This follows national data that parents tend to like their individual schools and teachers, but think less of the state of education generally,” analogizing the findings to those regarding Congress.
Two data points at the conclusion of the article jumped out at me:
No school saw less than 70 percent of parents satisfied with their children’s education.
Still, many schools did not get a lot of parent participation: less than half of parents filled out the survey at roughly 47 perent of schools.
I wish Ms. Zimmer probed more deeply into the first finding to figure out why the media reports on widespread dis-affection with schools while the survey shows the opposite. Is it possible (wink, wink) that the public relations campaigns of those operating for-profit schools are duping the mainstream media? Is it possible (wink, wink) that the politicians are responding to the demand of their political donors who operate for-profit schools more than they are responding to a grassroots dis-satisfaction with public education? A few follow up questions might shed some light on this alleged groundswell to close the local “failing” schools.
Another aspect of the second data point that might require more investigation: what were the demographics of the schools that had high response rates as compared to those who had low response rates. My hunch: the schools serving the children raised in poverty had the lowest response rates while the schools serving children raised in affluence had higher returns. This is not to “blame the parents” but rather to point out the well researched reality of our economy: parents who struggle to make ends meet are pressed for time and under more stress than well-to-do parents which leads to lower engagement levels when it comes to their children’s education.
Fairborn, OH, Loses a Committed and Dedicated Teacher. Somewhere in Ohio An Affluent District Would Welcome Him
Valerie Strauss’ turned over her Washington Post Answer Sheet blog to Scott Ervin, a Fairborn OH third grade teacher who outlined his reasons for quitting as a third grade teacher after 15 years. From his description of his work ethic and dedication to working with the most challenging students in a school that serves children raised in poverty I am confident that there is an affluent school district within driving distance that will be happy to hire him… and in that district Mr. Ervin won’t have to put up with Ohio’s laws that pertain to “failing schools”. As I wrote in an essay published in Education Week several years ago, this is the form of “merit pay” that is already in place in public education.
I base my assertion that Mr. Ervin could land a job in an affluent district on my experience as the former Superintendent of an affluent district in NH surrounded by several districts that had “failing schools” full of dedicated teachers, some of whom would jump into our applicant pools whenever we had an opening. Why? Because they knew that teachers in our district did not have to worry about test results because our students scored at the high end of the bell curve and their year-to-year performances never put the school in jeopardy of failing. Mr. Ervin’s experience brought to mind a teacher we recruited from a nearby district to work with students who were not eligible for special education services but did require one-on-one attention because of their inability to “fit” in the classrooms. Through behavioral interventions we were able to provide these students with the support they needed to do the kind of independent work teachers assigned and parents expected. Such a position was affordable in our district in two respects. First, we had the resources to pay for the position (though it was questioned whenever we needed to consider budget cuts) and second, we did not have to devote any resources to “test preparation”.
I consulted in financially strapped areas of the state after I retired in 2011 and worked in many under-resourced school districts in the pre-NCLB era. In less affluent districts after NCLB the focus was on avoiding designation as a School In Need of Improvement (a “SINI” status) or, as happened over time, working to get out of a SINI designation. The SINI focus meant that every class was dedicated to preparing for the NECAP, the standardized test used to determine whether a school was “failing” or “succeeding”. Many of the administrators and teachers I worked with thought the use of tests to measure their schools was preposterous but they all accepted it as a “given” and worked tirelessly to get enough of their students over the NECAP “cut score” so that their school could get out of the SINI status…. but the practical reality was that even when the school was out of the SINI status it was still obsessed with maintaining that status by, you guessed it, doing well on the next round of NECAPS. I found this vicious cycle astonishing and completely wrongheaded since I had spent seven years in a district that effectively paid no attention to NECAP scores. I also saw that the focus on NECAP scores took time away from the focus on what was most important: the cultivation of the love of learning and the ability of students to work independently on projects that interested them. The obsession with testing was taking the joy out of school for students as well as teachers.
I hope Mr. Ervin continues to teach and has applied to districts in his region that are not “failing” and that a Superintendent in Ohio reads Mr. Ervin’s post, looks through their applicant pool, and invites Mr. Ervin in for an interview. He may be good enough to merit a job in that district… THAT’s the kind of “merit pay” we have in America today.
“Grading the Common Core: No Teaching Experience Required”, a matter-of-fact article by Mokoto Rich in yesterday’s NYTimes, describes the techniques national standardized testing consortia are using to grade their Common Core tests… and it’s not a pretty picture! Instead of hiring trained and carefully screened teachers and professors to grade the tests as ETS does for its AP tests, PARCC and Pearson are hiring temporary employees recruited through want ads… and here are the results:
There was a onetime wedding planner, a retired medical technologist and a former Pearson saleswoman with a master’s degree in marital counseling. To get the job, like other scorers nationwide, they needed a four-year college degree with relevant coursework, but no teaching experience. They earned $12 to $14 an hour, with the possibility of small bonuses if they hit daily quality and volume targets.
I found it fitting that the linchpin of the factory school— the standardized test— was graded using the factory model perfected by fast-food chains, as described by a Pearson executive below:
Officials from Pearson and Parcc, a nonprofit consortium that has coordinated development of new Common Core tests, say strict training and scoring protocols are intended to ensure consistency, no matter who is marking the tests.
At times, the scoring process can evoke the way a restaurant chain monitors the work of its employees and the quality of its products.
“From the standpoint of comparing us to a Starbucks or McDonald’s, where you go into those places you know exactly what you’re going to get,” said Bob Sanders, vice president of content and scoring management at Pearson North America, when asked whether such an analogy was apt.
“McDonald’s has a process in place to make sure they put two patties on that Big Mac,” he continued. “We do that exact same thing. We have processes to oversee our processes, and to make sure they are being followed.”
An article several years ago disparagingly compared students to widgets being manufactured in a factory… and now we have an executive favorably comparing his corporation to McDonalds… which effectively compares students to raw meat being converted into hamburgers for mass consumption.
One thing Rich’s article did not mention: these tests were inextricably linked to RTTT grants that, in turn, mandated the use of these test results to evaluate teachers. The net result: wedding planners and retired radiologists being paid $12-$14 dollars per hour are determining the fate of experienced classroom teachers across the country. But hey… it’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s politically popular. What’s not to like?