My daughter in Brooklyn sent me a link to a Salon article reacting to the recent spate of school board elections won in urban districts by candidates supported with dark money from potential profiteers. This led me to cut off my link to this Wired magazine article from 1992 describing the way the emerging computer technology could be used to turn a profit in schools, which were viewed as a potential cash cow by the late Lewis Perelman.
The Salon article provides a good recounting of the efforts of hedge fund managers to get into the “education market” which is valued at $1,700,000,000,000 per year… which is precisely why Perelman foresaw the entry of private enterprise into the marketplace. Having spent the past two years working with Superintendents and school boards in Vermont and New Hampshire I don’t foresee elections becoming politicized in this part of the world any time soon… but having previously worked in one of the largest districts in NYS and a county district in MD it would not be surprising to see “stealth” candidates who advocate privatization getting elected to board seats in larger districts in an effort to influence thinking of voters and possibly parents. The Salon article does point to the two hopeful signs of beating back privatization: the Bridgeport CT and Seattle board races… but the impact of these elections might be minimal given the outcome in other urban elections and in the trend of states giving mayors the authority to oversee schools. Sadly, the profit motive can be much stronger than the motive to help those less fortunate… and there is no evidence to date that the two can coexist.
Today’s NYTimes editorial, “The President of Inequality”, supports a speech President Obama gave to a group of businessmen yesterday where he pledged to make inequality his focus for the balance of his presidency. The editorial included many talking points that reflect ideas I’ve written about in this blog, noting how our current “lack of faith in government’s ability to do anything about inequality” started three decades ago during the Reagan administration:
….The emphasis on cutting taxes and spending that began in the Reagan years is a direct cause of economic insecurity now. It has led, for example, to education cuts that have harmed children in low-income school districts. Reversing those decisions can still have an enormous impact.
The editorial noted that the President did not offer any new ideas in this speech, and listed several issues that affect public education:
Greater spending on high-quality preschool, a new emphasis on career and technical education and affordable higher education would all help to lower the barriers to economic mobility. Stronger collective-bargaining laws and nondiscrimination protections would help restore a balance in workplaces now tilted strongly toward employers.
The President HAS spoken out in support of prekindergarten, but has put no money in his budget to fund it, instead offering millions of dollars to states through Race To The Top. He has said nothing about the debacle in Philadelphia where public education has been underfunded by the governor and the mayor while nearby suburban schools have flourished. He has said nothing about the governors across the country who have gutted collective bargaining agreements. He has said nothing about the recent decision in Detroit where a judge has determined that by declaring bankruptcy the city’s emergency manager can strip retirees of their pensions. Maybe he will begin speaking out about these injustices, all of which will have an impact on public education directly or indirectly. I hope so, though I did feel compelled to offer this comment:
To paraphrase Stephen Covey: Obama can’t talk his way out of problems he behaved himself into. Obama’s economic and education policies work against equality of opportunity. He has not advocated nearly enough for more money to upgrade the public infrastructure and so our country has fallen behind in the provision of broadband technology and our public schools in cities and poverty stricken districts are in disrepair. He has not actively opposed the cuts to food stamps and social services that undermine children’s ability to learn in school. And word of all, he has promoted the Race To The Top “competition” that undermines elected school boards, devalues any subjects not measured by standardized achievement tests, and promotes for profit privatized education. Most importantly, if President Obama wants to address inequality he will need to unapologetically seek a redistribution of funds… because the money for those in need has to come from those of us who are relatively well off.
I’m well off enough to know that any redistribution of money from, say, the top 20% to the lower 50% would require my taxes to go up. I’d rather have my federal taxes go up than have the states that pay my pension declare bankruptcy… because if that happened I’d be transferring my hard-earned money to bondholders and not those in need. Tax me now and transfer my money to those who need it.
Today the newspaper is full of reports about the PISA rankings, unsurprisingly focussing on the low numbers. Mokoto Rich’s NYTimes article, titled “American Students Lag, Mainly in Math, on International Tests” is typical of the hand-wringing genre that education writers and editorial pages churn out every time international test results are released. And this year, just to make certain no one missed the bad news on US schools, the USDOE staged a special PISA Day to announce the test results. In response to the advance warning about the release of PISA results, several bloggers and think tanks made some crucial points about the whole testing-and-ranking regimen. The most cogent of these critiques came from Richard Rothstein and Martin Carnoy of the Economic Policy Institute. In a post titled ““PISA Day” – An Ideological and Hyperventilated Exercise” they describe the USDOE’s limited advance release of data to organization’s whose perspectives are aligned with theirs:
“(T)he OECD and ED have… given their PISA report to selected advocacy groups that can be counted on, for the most part, to echo official interpretations and participate as a chorus in the official release.1 These are groups whose interpretation of the data has typically been aligned with that of the OECD and ED—that American schools are in decline and that international test scores portend an economic disaster for the United States, unless the school reform programs favored by the administration are followed.
The Department’s co-optation of these organizations in its official release is not an attempt to inform but rather to manipulate public opinion. Those with different interpretations of international test scores will see the reports only after the headlines have become history.
Rothstein and Canroy explain that the initial releases are necessarily superficial because the data from the tests are detailed and require months to glean through. They did exhaustive research on the 2009 PISA and 2011 TIMSS results and came to a series of conclusions that were contrary to the initial releases, conclusions that cannot be reduced to a glib soundbite or headline but results that are grounded in detailed research. Here is a synopsis of their findings:
- There is a test score gap between socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged students in every country.
- Countries’ average scores are affected by the relative numbers of advantaged and disadvantaged students in their schools… (The US is adversely affected by this factor)… Adjusting for differences in countries’ social class composition can also change their relative rankings.
- Trends in test scores over time vary more by social class in some countries than in others. In the United States, there have been striking gains over the last decade for disadvantaged students, but not for the more advantaged.
- In some countries, including the United States, students perform relatively better on some international tests than others, even though the tests purport to assess the same subject area. This may be because of flaws in one test or another, or because some tests are better aligned with a particular country’s curriculum than others.
- Some countries to which the United States is frequently unfavorably compared currently have higher test scores, but their test scores have been falling over time, while scores in the United States have not been similarly falling.
While Rothstein and Canroy did not mention it in their analysis, Diane Ravitch noted yesterday that most of the Asian countries whose scores exceed the US do not test all their students. The most notable of these bogus comparisons is “Shanghai”, which is often reported as “China” when in fact it is only one part of China, the most advanced and highly educated part of the country. Making comparisons with “China” even more bogus is the fact that the Chinese government gets to intervene before the test results are shared: “China has an unusual arrangement with the OECD (which administers the tests) by which the Chinese government is allowed to review the test scores and decide which provinces will release their scores.”
Rothstein and Canroy concluded their blog post by stating that they would not be commenting on the test results until they had a chance to examine the data more closely. Their penultimate paragraph, though, gives a concise explanation of what our country needs to do if it wants to improve itself:
Today, threats to the nation’s future prosperity come much less from flaws in our education system than from insufficiently stimulative fiscal policies which tolerate excessive unemployment, wasting much of the education our young people have acquired; an outdated infrastructure: regulatory and tax policies that reward speculation more than productivity; an over-extended military; declining public investment in research and innovation; a wasteful and inefficient health care system; and the fact that typical workers and their families, no matter how well educated, do not share in the fruits of productivity growth as they once did. The best education system we can imagine can’t succeed if we ignore these other problems.
Those who want the government to improve the opportunities for children raised in poverty are not making excuses: they are looking to strengthen our collective strength as a nation.
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