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The New Yorker’s Take on Cuomo’s Testing Initiative Understates VAM’s Statistical Flaws

March 12, 2015 Leave a comment

The New Yorker provides its readers with a “Daily Comment” feed that provides a column on a timely issue and, it being mid-March, the timely issue is the annual ritual of standardized testing in New York Schools. While I was heartened to see that the New Yorker was covering the emerging grassroots protests in opposition to the testing, I felt that Rebecca Mead’s article, “When a Teacher’s Job Depends on a Child’s Test”, neglected to emphasize the invalidity of the tests that are being used and failed to mention how the Common Core and standardized testing that accompanies the Common Core are being used to undercut the public’s faith in public education and thereby opening the door to privatization. A few phrases from the article will illustrate some of my concerns. To frame the issue of testing and teacher evaluation, Ms. Mead writes:

That teachers should be evaluated is an assertion with which no reasonable person involved with education—from a policy-maker to a parent—is likely to disagree. But how teachers might best be evaluated remains a contested science.

If a reader takes the time to click on the link, they will find that linking teacher evaluations to “growth” as measured by successive standardized tests is NOT “contested” any more than climate change is “contested” for the American Statistical Association has issued a statement indicating that the formulas used by states to evaluate teachers “can’t actually do this with sufficient reliability and validity” and, therefore, should not be used for any personnel decisions.  There is no mention of this anywhere in the article, which is an injustice to those of us who are opposed to the emphasis on standardized testing in public schools.

Further along in the article, Mead writes: “Cuomo’s faith in the results of state tests as the best measure of the abilities of both students and teachers is not universally shared.” At this juncture she emphasizes the political debates on testing at the expense of the educational and statistical ones. While she provides a thorough recounting the thoughtful testimony offered in Albany by Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Farina, she fails to mention the opposition of Superintendents groups, Principals associations, and school boards across the state, all of whom have expressed reservations about Cuomo’s plans based on the lack of educational value of the tests.

Ms. Mead is also remiss in allowing Arne Duncan to have it both ways on the testing issue, writing:

Even Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, whose department ties school funding to test results, has warned that “too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress,” noting that testing should only be one measure of progress. “In too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support,” Duncan wrote last fall.

She either doesn’t know that Mr. Duncan is the one who introduced the linkage of student tests to teacher evaluations with his misbegotten Race to the Top initiative or is giving him a free pass when he makes this disingenuous “warning”.

Ms. Mead provides a good overview of the nascent opt-out movement and notes that New York City is moving away from its reliance on tests as a means of determining placement in magnet schools. And, in the end, Ms. Mead DOES view Governor Cuomo faith in testing as a questionable political move:

In the light of such widespread skepticism about over-reliance on test results—and such widespread consensus about the detrimental effects engendered by teaching to the test—the governor’s doubling down on state test results to assess teachers’ effectiveness seems a questionable calculation.

From my perspective, though, in framing the opposition to testing as “widespread skepticism” Ms. Mead overlooks the settled science on value-added measures in the same way legislators in oil-rich states overlook climate change and, in so doing, perpetuates the public’s belief that standardized tests can be used to measure teacher performance.

Finally, and most importantly, Ms. Mead doesn’t challenge the notion that poor performance on tests is the result of poor teaching and bad schools. The tacit acceptance of Cuomo’s assertion that low test scores can be raised by ridding the schools of ineffective teacher effectively reinforces this meme and consequently reinforces the notion that schools can be “fixed” by firing bad teachers and replacing bad  government monopoly schools with good free-market schools. More than anything, THAT toxic assumption needs to be challenged, for THAT assumption is diminishing the ability to attract people into public school teaching.

Cuomo Arousing Sleeping Giants

February 27, 2015 Leave a comment

When I was Superintendent in Dutchess County NY the union president at the time lamented the fact that the younger members of the union had no appreciation for the battles she and her generation fought to secure the wages, benefits and working conditions that were a “given” in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The grassroots political activism of the unions was nascent and the sound economy at that time made it relatively easy to achieve collective bargaining agreements that both the taxpayers and the unions found acceptable. As a result parents, taxpayers, and teachers unions experienced a relatively positive relationship and public education was viewed in a generally positive light.

Since that time, and especially since the implementation of universal standardized testing that resulted from the passage of No Child Left Behind, the public has been fed a steady diet of reports that “public schools are failing” and the only solution is to close them down and turn them over to the states. The “failing schools” meme was not enough for some politicians, however. Governors like Scott Walker and Andrew Cuomo assigned blame for the “failing schools” on “incompetent teachers” who are protected by “union contracts”… and instead of advocating the passage of laws that would streamline dismissal procedures for administrators or enable local school boards to remove arguably excessive and complicated procedural protections, Mr. Walker and Mr. Cuomo sought to eliminate unions altogether and impose invalid means of evaluations that would presumably identify the “incompetent teachers” whose performance was responsible for the low standardized test scores.

This tactic worked for Scott Walker in Wisconsin: he’s eviscerated the public employee unions in his state and imposed irrational and irresponsible teacher evaluation methods with the full support of the legislature and yesterday used that “crushing victory” as evidence that he can take on ISIS. Andrew Cuomo is about to see if he can pull off a similar tactic in NYS… but in doing so he is awaking two sleeping giants: the teachers unions and public school parents.

Those union members who have been inactive for decades are seeing that their jobs threatened and their existence challenged and they are getting aroused. And, as noted in an earlier post, without prompting from the unions the parents organizations in schools across NYC and the state are getting aroused as well. And as videos like the one I linked to earlier today are circulated more and more parents will see how Mr. Cuomo’s “reforms” designed to address a “crisis” ultimately undermine local control and local schools.

Both Governor Walker and Governor Cuomo are arousing progressive-minded voters to realize that they need to find candidates to challenge the conservative and neoliberal leaders who are stripping unions of their contractual rights, parents and board members of control of their schools, and voters of their opportunity to weigh in on the direction their states are headed…. and democracy is taking a beating as a result.

The Federal Government’s Leap from Charters to Vouchers

February 26, 2015 Leave a comment

The reporting on the wrangling going on in Congress relative to the reauthorization of NCLB plays up the Republicans-vs-Obama meme but misses several overarching points, which is unsurprising given the obfuscatory nomenclature being used by the legislators. Two articles, one by Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and another by Emma Brown of the Washington Post are long on the Duncan/Obama vs. House Republicans theme.

The Post article looks at the reauthorization through the national lens, quoting Arne Duncan’s characterization of the cuts to impoverished urban school districts as “devastating” and providing a chart that shows how the reduction in spending would play out in 33 such districts. It focussed on how the passage of the law would provide “Title 1 portability” allowing federal funds to be used wherever a child is enrolled in school and “…strip the federal Education Department of much of its current power, giving states far more latitude to decide how to define and intervene in struggling schools.”

The Journal article covers the portability issue but has less emphasis on Duncan-vs-the-House and more on how the cuts would impact Milwaukee schools, who stand to lose $159 million over six years if the new legislation passes. It also included more detailed description of the latitude that States would get as a result of the shift of power away from Washington:

Measuring student performance in schools would be left up to the states, the Common Core State Standards would be explicitly voluntary, (though they already are in Wisconsin and many other states) and the education secretary would not be able to encourage states to adopt educational standards by offering grant money or friendly agreements on other matters.

The House bill would continue annual, statewide testing requirements but states would have more authority to decide how to intervene in struggling schools and how to assess teachers. The federal government’s authority would be more limited.

As noted in the opening paragraph of this post, these article missed several overarching points:

  • Duncan’s pro-charter policies laid the groundwork for the notion of “portability”. By encouraging the expansion of private-for-profit charters within districts he effectively encouraged intra-district portability undercutting the notion of community schools and complicating a means of providing coordinated social services based on the students’ residence.
  • The Duncan/Obama “power grab” was a consequence of Congress’ inability to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, whose problems could have been solved legislatively since 2007 but didn’t because of the Republicans’ desire to move in the direction this bill will take them.
  • The term “Title I Portability” is Newspeak for Vouchers. Both articles use caveats to describe the term. The Journal writes: “Critics say Republicans are trying to open the door for federal funding to eventually follow low-income children into private, religious schools” and the Post writes: “…many Democrats see it as a first step toward federal vouchers that would allow students to use federal funding for private school enrollment.” As noted above, the door was opened and the first step taken when Duncan encouraged the spread of charter schools that allow intra-district portability. The obvious next step that is intended by this new wording is to allow the funds to go wherever the student enrolls.
  • Giving STATES the authority to decide how to intervene in failing schools, set standards, design assessments, and determine how teachers are evaluated is a giant step backward. One way States will “intervene” in failing districts is to provide them with vouchers. Indeed, as the Journal article notes, the concept of portability is already in place in many states and with 31 Republican Governors the notion will spread quickly across the country. When States set standards expect to see a de-emphasis on “controversial issues” like global warming, wars, evolution, and AP History and an emphasis on American Exceptionalism and junk science. And when States are allowed to develop assessments and evaluate teachers expect an expansion of VAM and a decline in the number of unionized teachers.
  • Giving STATES more authority to determine how to allocate funds to disadvantaged students is irresponsible given the fact that all but five states have been sued at one time or another for having unfair funding formulas.
  • The Journal quotes Duncan as characterizing the House bill as being “..like reverse Robin Hood. You’re stealing from the poor to give to the rich” and later adding “When you’re moving scarce resources from poor districts to wealthy districts, what problem is that trying to solve?“. Reporters need to point out to Mr. Duncan that by enabling the expansion of for-profit deregulated charters he was doing the same thing! “Robin Hood in Reverse” is when “CEOs” of low performing charter schools and their shareholders make more money than urban superintendents and the teachers in those schools.

These overarching consequences are overlooked because they don’t fit neatly into a “Obama-vs-Republican” context… which is too bad because this oversight will lead to more inequality and less opportunity for children raised in poverty. Here’s hoping a voice outside of the Obama/Duncan sphere will speak up and point out the flaws in both the current RTTT and the proposed federal legislation.

Citizens United, Medical Report Cards, and VAM

February 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Today’s Taking Note blog post in the NYTimes reports on Governor Cuomo’s decision to close down the State’s “Doctor Report Card” web site because ” it costs too much at $1.2 million a year“. Well going into the new Common Core New York was spending over $10 million per year on standardized tests and the new testing program that is required to provide Value Added Measures will require an even greater outlay of state funds.

So… at the same time Cuomo is closing a relatively inexpensive web page that provides worthwhile and helpful information about doctors he is promoting a costly and statistically flawed method for assessing the performance of teachers whose information is worthless. I suspect in both cases his political donors might be influencing his thinking.

Finger Lakes (NY) Teacher’s Letter to Cuomo Gets It Right

February 9, 2015 Leave a comment

The Finger Lakes Times published an open letter to Mario Cuomo from a veteran teacher, Ann Cook, that illustrated how his policies play out in the classroom. In successive paragraphs she illustrates how his proposal to use test results as 50% of a teacher’s evaluation:

  • Makes it impossible for teachers to avoid teaching to the test and effectively makes the students “pawns in a political game
  • Forces her and her colleagues to encourage principled parents to make their children to take these ill conceived tests because “….the parents who are asking me about opting out typically have the kids who are most likely to pass the test (a)nd if they opt out then teachers’ effectiveness scores will plummet” and they could lose their jobs.
  • Discourages teachers new to the profession, who “…can’t imagine spending their entire career in education because society doesn’t seem to value them anymore”.

She acknowledges that testing and accountability are needed, and concludes with this suggestion:

Want to make teachers better? In the education field we give our struggling students extra support to help them succeed. We find it works better than punishment. Rather than putting all our eggs in the assessment basket, why not focus some energy on the hiring, training and tenure granting practices of administrators and school boards?Let’s tackle the inequity in funding and work collaboratively to reduce poverty. We all want our schools to improve because we all want our children to be successful. So why not have a positive approach that works to elevate the field of education rather than destroy it?

Unfortunately I doubt that Governor Cuomo will heed Ms. Cook’s advice… and I doubt that few of her locally elected officials will take up her side on this issue because to do so would require the outlay of additional funds and “everyone knows” we spend way too much money on education and “don’t get nearly enough in return”. Unfortunately no one acknowledges the evidence: the districts who spend the most, the districts serving affluent children, DO get a lot in return.

Diane Ravitch, Mario Cuomo, Standard and Poors, and the Mathbabe

February 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday on NYC Chancellor Farina’s testimony that included a lengthier quote from Governor Mario Cuomo in rebuttal to Dr. Farina’s remarks (with my emphasis added):

“The test is really the only easy answer because it is objective numerical data and it was the same test with the same demographic,” Cuomo told a group of reporters and editors from The Buffalo News on Tuesday.”

The quote acknowledges what was already evident to most educators: he, like most politicians, is NOT looking for the BEST answer, he is looking for the EASY answer… and he’s also looking for a CHEAP and FAST answer. If anyone begins with the assumption that “bad teachers” are the reason students are failing state assessments and is, therefore, looking for a cheap, fast, and easy way to assess teacher performance, then VAM is the answer. If anyone wants to help students who are struggling in school, they know the answer is complicated, expensive, and time consuming.

Secondly, based on my reading of yesterday’s post by blogger Cathy O’Neill (aka the Mathbabe) Standard and Poors used that very phrase to defend themselves in a lawsuit they lost. In her post she quotes from Bloomberg:

S&P said in its request to dismiss the case that the government can’t base its fraud claims on S&P’s assertions that its ratings were independent, objective and free of conflicts of interest because U.S. courts have found that such vague and generalized statements are the kind of “puffery” that a reasonable investor wouldn’t rely on.

She then goes on to analogize VAM to Standard and Poors:

…(P)retty much all of the models make claims of being objective. It’s part of the marketing for those models, a requirement to lure people into using complex, mathematical black boxes instead of their own brains, and crucially, in place of their own sense of fairness and accountability.

Example: Value-added models for teachers are showered with claims of objectivity (see page 4 of this marketing brochure for example), even though those claims are questionable at best.

I believe Mario Cuomo is capable of understanding the flaws with VAM but he is also capable of understanding the power of puffery. He’s a shrewd politician who knows that voters, like those who purchased the worthless derivatives sold on Wall Street, can be lured into “using complex, mathematical black boxes instead of their brains and in place of their own sense of fairness and accountability.” The teachers defamed by the flawed statistics and the students whose needs will continue to be ignored will be collateral damage as Cuomo wages his campaign to persuade voters that he can improve schools by getting rid of bad teachers and privatization.  

Chancellor Farina Picking The Right Battle. Here’s Hoping She Wins!

February 4, 2015 Leave a comment

Andrew Cuomo’s “reform” proposals for NYS public education is politically charged and educationally flawed and in her assessment of his proposal NYC School Chancellor Carmen Farina avoided the politically charged issue and went after the ones that are educationally flawed.

The politically charged issue is the one of expanding the number of charter schools within the four walls of existing city schools, one that Farina deftly sidestepped by saying “making space for lots of new schools would be a challenge”. In the final analysis, that will be a battle that her boss, Mayor de Blasio may need to take up.

The educational flawed “reform” proposal is that 50% of a teachers evaluation be based on test scores and that classroom observations be conducted by “independent observers as opposed to the teachers’ own principals”. Farina rejected the 50% standard in a hearing before State legislators earlier this week stating that “We need a human touch any time we evaluate anyone for anything.”. She also rejected the idea of having observations done by someone other than the principal:

Ms. Fariña said that teachers needed to be observed over time, watched for things like whether they engaged with parents or gave special attention to students who needed extra help, and that “flybys” could not replace that.

The whole premise of the “reforms” suggested by Mr. Cuomo is that NYS’s dismal performance on its recent assessments was the result of “bad teachers” and the current evaluation systems in place only found 5% of the teachers to be deficient, which he said was “baloney”. It is unclear what percentage HE believed were ineffective. But if one begins with the assumption that “bad teachers” were responsible for the low test scores then roughly 65% of the teachers should be rated incompetent since roughly 65% of the students failed to achieve a proficiency rating.

By shifting the focus away from the root causes of low test scores– the effects of poverty on students and a poorly designed and hastily implemented testing procedure– Cuomo can continue the narrative that schools could be improved if lazy-highly-compensated-tenure-protected-union-supported-ineffective teachers were fired and replaced with bright and eager new teachers eager for work and willing to work as contractors instead of employees. Keep your eye on this battle, because it isn’t just about NYS… it’s about the direction our entire nation will head should another neo-liberal get elected to the Presidency.