Two posts yesterday and an experience I had in a yoga class prompted this post today.
One post, by Bill Boyarski from Truthdig titled “No One Is Paying Attention to the Real Battle For Power”, describes a heretofore overlooked and crucial election result: Republicans captured 32 State Houses and a majority of the State governing bodies in the US… and this does NOT include three prominent “reform” Democrats: Cuomo, Malloy, and Raimondo. In essence this means 35 governors and state governments will be dancing to ALEC’s music when legislative sessions open early next year. Given this political reality, it is hard to imagine that 2/3 of the states will be open to changing the current “reform model” even IF they choose to abandon the Common Core as the basis for the administration of standardized tests.
The second, from Diane Ravitch, described the latest activism undertaken by the Lower Hudson Study Council (LHSC). Her post summarized the points the LHSC made in their meeting with the editorial board of the Journal News, a regional newspaper in suburban NYC, and closed with these sentences:
Since no part of Race to the Top was based on research, it is unlikely to produce good results. What it has produced is disruption, demoralization, outrage, and a vibrant anti-testing and anti-Common Core movement, led by parents.
On Monday evening I attended a yoga class in a local studio where one of the students was a first grade teacher with four years’ experience. She was lamenting to another class member who works in education that the test preparation begins in first grade and her little children. She indicated that the students are expected to complete “really rigorous” assignments and that many of them are struggling as a result… but she was accepting this as “the way things are today” in education.
All of this leads to the conclusion that the “old guard” Superintendents and principals need to speak as one because the “new breed” of TFA and Broad grads are in accord with the thinking of the “reformers”…. and the veteran teachers need to join in because many of the teachers hired in the past decade, like my yoga classmate, only know teaching as a “test prep” activity and see that as “the way things are today” in education. Finally, all of us who oppose the test-and-punish “reform” methods need to make certain we elect school board members who are on the same page… because with 32 Republicans (and Mario Cuomo) in State Houses the pushback on “reform” will have to come from the bottom up.
Education Week, the weekly newspaper that covers education policy, released their post election post mortem and I find myself mostly agreeing with the direction the new Congress is staking out… but as described below, there are some areas of disagreement that are very problematic. Here’s the bullet points they outlined in their article and my initial response to each.
NCLB Overhaul: Unable to get Congress to agree on a law to replace NCLB, President Obama and his Secretary of Education introduced the concept of issuing waivers, offering Race To The Top (RTTT) funds as an incentive to states who opted out of NCLB. As noted frequently in this blog, RTTT is a horrific amplification of NCLB incorporating discredited VAM methods for evaluating teachers and expanding the number of standardized tests students need to take. According to EdWeek the new Republican majority wants to abandon this misbegotten approach with one where:
…states would still have to test students, but they wouldn’t have to set goals for student achievement. In addition, they wouldn’t have to intervene in schools that aren’t making progress with particular subgroups of students, such as minorities or those with disabilities.
One favorable consequence of this would be the end of using low test scores as the remedy for closing public schools. Whether the emerging for-profit public schools will allow this to happen remains to be seen… but there may still be life in those for-profit charters given Senate Education Chair Lamar Alexander’s idea that States should establish their own accountability systems. It may be that NYS, for example, may want to establish an accountability system that evaluates teachers using VAM and mandates the closure of schools who fail to meet standards…
Common Core: Implicit in the establishment of STATE standards is the phasing out of the Common Core. Instead of having “…the federal Department of Education (turned) into a “national school board” and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan into a “waiver-granting czar” as Lamar Alexander views things, each state would have the opportunity to define it’s own standards. Would ALL States adopt the Common Core? From where I sit it is very doubtful. Expect to see some interesting science curricula emerging in the coming years should this come to pass.
Higher Education: One of the thickets the Republicans hope to untangle is the grant programs for higher education that are operated by the USDOE. One of the under-reported realities on the student loan crisis is that DOE gets revenues as a result of their oversight on this and neither the DOE nor the banks want to lose a potential revenue source. Reforming the loan program promises to be a daunting challenge given the pressure Congress is likely to get from for-profit colleges.
Federal Grants for PreK-12: Republicans do not support the RTTT or SIG grants that Obama and the Democrats favored, but it is possible their ideas for the grants might be particularly distasteful (see below). Worse, the Republicans might recommend eliminating the grants for K-12 and using the money to expand pre-Kindergarten or— even worse— balance the budget.
Vouchers and Charters: One idea Republicans have for existing K-12 grant funds is to launch a voucher program or expand charters:
Sen. Alexander also has a school choice proposal, which would allow states to take almost all of their federal K-12 funds and combine them into one giant block grant aimed at creating scholarships for low-income students that could be used at any school, private or public.
Rep. Kline (presumptive House Chair) is less inclined to support a voucher program and more interested in passing a bill that would replicate high-quality charter schools. Such a bill would be similar to a measure he ushered through the House last year.
“Parents need more options and choice, and public charter schools offer that, without the controversy that comes with vouchers for private schools,” Mr. Kline said.
The shifting of funds away from public education to vouchers or charters would clearly make the for-profit charter school operators happy, and Alexander’s notion that public funds could be used for ANY school will garner support from those sending they children to religiously affiliated schools. Moreover, their intention to push more responsibility for education policy back to states will also open the door in the 30+ states governed by Republicans to aggressively expand charters and experiment more with vouchers.
So it seems that public schools might have fewer assessments mandated at the Federal level and the Common Core might go away… but for-profit charters and post-secondary schools will thrive and public education will be increasingly viewed as a consumer product. I wish there was a critical mass of Democrats who were willing to fight for the funds needed to provide ALL children in the country with an equal opportunity for academic success… but the past six years indicate that the difference between approaches is one of degree and not direction. Here’s hoping that the 2016 Presidential campaign will include a meaningful debate on the purpose and direction of public education.
The New York Times is finally noticing that parents are pushing back against standardized testing… and with some coaching might begin to recognize that the whole standardized testing movement is based on simplistic and wrongheaded thinking.
Today’s paper features an article by Lizette Alvarez describing the parent pushback against the wide array of mandated standardized tests in FLA, testing that expanded greatly as a result of Jeb Bush’s initiatives a decade ago that was compounded by RTTT. I left a comment that was just under the 1500 character limit that made the following points:
- Standardized tests do not measure the quality of education,
- The new test results are lower because of the way they are scaled
- Using those tests to measure teacher performance is invalid and simplistic.
- Using test as the primary measure for “quality” will increase the focus on testing in the classroom.
- Politicians love standardized tests!
Standardized tests do not measure the quality of education: States have administered standardized tests for decades and the results are always the same: affluent districts serving the children of well educated parents always outscore the financially strapped districts serving children raised in poverty. The new test will be no different EXCEPT that there will be more failing students and schools.
The new test results are lower because of the way they are scaled: The new Common Core tests expand the number of “failing” schools because they are scaled to an artificial and idealized standard that assumes all students will graduate from high school ready for college instead of being scaled to the mean scores of an age cohort as they have been in the past. As a result, more students are “failing”, more schools are “falling”, and more districts are “failing”. Whether this is a bug or a feature depends on the extent to which you believe that politicians are in cahoots with squillionaires who are investing in for-profit charter schools and technology companies. For now, I’m on the fence. I think some politicians listen to investors but I also believe some politicians are naively convinced that schools CAN be measured based on test scores and test scores CAN improve if kids and teachers work harder. They believe this in large measure because considering the alternative might require them to raise taxes to provide more support for children raised in poverty.
Using those tests to measure teacher performance is invalid and simplistic: The value-added methodology that uses test scores to measure “growth” of students, teachers, and schools is a statistical artifact. There are reams of scholarly articles that undercut the validity of this approach. I’ve written about this frequently on this blog… enough said.
Using test as the primary measure for “quality” will increase the focus on testing in the classroom: When test results are used to evaluate teachers, to determine if schools will be closed, and to determine if entire districts will be taken over by the state or turned over to for-profit entrepreneurs, it is not surprising that they become the focal point in every classroom…. and as noted in a post earlier today, when those districts are strapped for money they cut everything BUT test preparation activities.
Politicians love standardized tests! They love the tests because they yield precise data that is inexpensive to collect and prove that schools are failing because of “bad teachers” and if the TEACHERS are the problem the fix for “failing schools” is inexpensive and fast: replace the “dead wood” teachers with new (and less expensive) teachers. Voila!
It is heartening to see that the Times is reporting on this nascent movement among parents… but somewhat distressing to see them reporting on this a month after the dust-ups in FLA and a week after a close election in that state and in several other states where “reform minded” governors got elected. Maybe after a spring of rebellion on tests some Presidential candidate will stand up against the test-and-punish approach and begin supporting the importance of public education and the effects poverty has on learning.
I’ve read several post mortems about the election and as a public education advocate and progressive I am coming to the same conclusion that Paul Simon reached four decades ago when he wrote about politics in “Mrs. Robinson”:
“Laugh about it, Shout about it, When you’ve got to choose,
Any way you look at it you lose”
Inside Higher Ed laments that the election may change the President’s opportunity to create and impose a rating system on colleges– which was a misbegotten idea from the outset as far as I was concerned– so had the Democrats won we’d be stuck with yet another bad means of measuring publicly funded enterprises. On the other hand, the new Republican majority in the Senate is likely to hamstring his effort to regulate the for-profit colleges, which means more money flowing from the pockets of disadvantaged college students into banks and the coffers of shareholders of the private schools.
The progressive blog Public School Shakedown’s analysis of the elections found some solace in the defeat of Governor Corbett in PA and Marshall Tuck in CA. The Pyrrhic nature of Tuck’s victory was the topic of a post here a few days ago, and Diane Ravitch, while happy to see Corbett and his budget cutting voted out of office, noted that the victory went to someone who serves on the board of a for-profit charter school. Another Pyrrhic victory.
And last but not least, we have nominal Democrat Andrew Cuomo in New York, who during the last week promised to break up the “public school monopoly” . This editorial from the New York Daily News gives one a sense of what lies in store for New York Schools… and it isn’t pretty. The only thing that mitigates this fear is that Cuomo promised the Working Families he’d join their fight to elect a Democratic majority to the Senate and then sat on the sidelines. Oh… and that other promise about the Moreland Commission… he didn’t keep that one either. So those of us who believe the public school monopoly is better than, say, the internet provider monopolies in place in most of the country are hoping Cuomo keeps breaking promises.
From my perspective, one election outcome that has been underreported is that the states with referenda on minimum wage had turnouts ranging from the mid to high 40% range to the mid 50%— low by most standards but higher than the the 36.6% in the nation as a whole. And in those states where Republican governors were elected a progressive issue— increasing the minimum wage won handily. Unfortunately the Democrats running for office in those states did not link their fortunes to these votes. Why not? My guess is that they did not want to alienate the businesses who underwrite their campaigns or give their opponents a chance to cast them as “job-killers”. That’s too bad because it would have brought the debate on that issue to the forefront.
Those of us who want to see and end to the standardized testing regimen, the blaming of teachers, the dismantling of unions and race-to-the-bottom on wages and benefits for educators, and the wholesale privatization of schools have roughly a year to get our act together or once again we’ll be faced with NO choice… and students will be subjected to another four years of narrow and highly regimented teaching.
The NYTimes and other NYC media have criticized Bill De Blasio in the past few weeks for not having a plan to improve schools whose test scores have not improved over the past several years, intimating their support for the Bloomberg/Klein plan of closing the so-called “failing schools”. Yesterday, De Blasio announced his plan for low performing schools and it was a marked departure. Instead of closing the schools, his administration will keep them open and provide them with the resources they need to throve despite their challenges:
Students at those schools will receive an extra hour of instructional time each day, teachers will have extra professional training, and the schools will be encouraged to offer summer school. The schools will also be given additional resources, with $150 million spread over two years, about $39 million for this school year and $111 million in the next.
But the centerpiece of the proposal involves turning these institutions into so-called Community Schools, which try to address the challenges students face outside the classroom, with offerings like mental health services for those who need them or food for students who do not get enough to eat at home.
Implicit in De Blasio’s plan are the following notions:
- Improvement will not happen quickly. De Blasio is willing to provide the time required to turn around a school where lagging performance has demoralized teachers, parents, and students. This is a marked contrast to the “turnaround” concept whereby the outright closure of the school and replacement of the staff would yield instantaneous results.
- Students need more time to succeed: Much of the funding will be going toward the extension of the school day and the lengthening of the school year. As noted in multiple posts on this blog, we have operated for too many years on the notion that time is constant and performance is variable. By providing more classroom time for students, De Blasio is making performance the constant and time the variable.
- Bad teaching is not the fundamental problem: By allocating funds for health and social services, De Blasio is signaling his belief that teachers are doing the best they can and the effects of poverty need to be addressed.
- Teachers working in low performing schools need new approaches: The schools are not failing because teachers aren’t trying hard and they are not going to improve unless new approaches are attempted. De Blasio’s plan to fund staff development for teachers in these schools will provide time for training and implementing the new approaches.
The Times, which increasingly is showing its editorial bias for the “reform” agenda, effectively dismissed the ideas in the plan and offered Joel Klein the opportunity to make the preposterous claim that “the Bloomberg administration gave schools little help to improve.”, an assertion the Times did not counter. It did, however, counter De Blasio’s plan based on its own evidence:
While these programs are often popular with advocates, and already in use around the country for many decades, including in New York City, their performance has often been viewed as uneven. An analysis by The New York Times found that some of the community schools in Cincinnati, which is viewed as a leader in the approach, still showed dismal academic performances even after years of work and millions of dollars of investments.
The Star Tribune in Cincinnati in a May 2014 article touted the continuing success of the community schools model:
Over a decade, Cincinnati Public Schools’ graduation rate has jumped from 50 to 80 percent. And in the past five years, the reading and math proficiency of its elementary students has climbed in many schools.
Those gains have been fueled by big improvements in the performance of black students, who make up more than half of the district’s 30,000 students. In 2006, 2007 and 2010, black students’ graduation rates surpassed those of whites.
Here’s the bottom line: not ALL of Cincinnati’s schools improved, but since 2000 the district’s overall test scores rose and the overall graduation rate improved. NYC’s “turnaround plan” did not yield those results— unless one counts the improvement on NYC’s own tests as evidence. De Blasio is on the right track in supporting neighborhood schools and the teachers who work tirelessly to improve the lives and academic performance of students in those schools. I will not be surprised to see that the performance of these low performing schools improves in the aggregate… and not be surprised is SOME of the schools continue to struggle. One thing is clear: after a decade, the “close and re-open” model of the “reformers” did not work. It is time to try another model.