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 non-partisan race for CA State Superintendent of Public Instruction pitted two Democrats against each other: the incumbent Tom Torklason who advocates continuation of the current model for non-profit public schools and neo-liberal challenger Marshall Tuck who advocates for market-based reform that would provide increasing amounts of public funding to for-profit charter schools. There were two other bright line distinctions between the candidates: Torklason opposed the Vergera decision that eliminated tenure for teachers in CA and opposes the use of test scores to measure teacher effectiveness; Tuck supported the Vergera decision and the use of VAM. As Mokota Rich of the NYTimes wrote, the CA race drew a lot of outside attention and money because it was viewed “…as a proxy for the national debate over teacher tenure rules, charter schools and other education issues that have divided Democrats.”
An hour ago Alexei Koseff of the Sacramento Bee reported the results, and as the title of this blog post intimates Torklason won. But the relatively narrow margin of victory (53-47) is an indication that the education reformers are making a substantial dent in public opinion. As Koseff noted, the Vergera case was a focal point of Tuck’s campaign:
Tuck built his campaign on the case, galvanizing supporters after a judge declared the policies unconstitutional in June. He wielded the ruling against Torlakson like a bludgeon, spending most of his public appearances urging California to reject the “status quo” and get behind the decision.
Over the past year, progressive bloggers lamented the attention the Vergera case generated while grudgingly acknowledging it was politically shrewd, particularly in its timing. Whether the case won or lost, it shone a light on “tenure” which is perceived by many voters as “protecting bad teachers”. This notion, in turn, plays into the hands of “reformers” who assert that our nation’s low performance on international tests can be easily fixed by ridding classrooms of “bad teachers who are protected by tenure”. This is akin to the logic that the budget can be balanced if we eliminate “waste, fraud, and abuse” but is a logic that resonates more than Torklason’s reaction to the Vergera case, as reported by Koseff:
Torklason said the case was an attack on teachers, who should not be blamed for the failings of the education system. He pushed for more school funding and was the rare politician to speak out in favor of extending tax hikes voters approved in Proposition 30 when they begin to expire in two years.
Given the choice of “reform” which can be accomplished by “eliminating bad teachers” and introducing competition into education with a reduction in taxes or the “status quo” which requires more funds to help existing public schools without a reduction in taxes makes “reform” appealing.
Here’s my optimistic take-away from 3000 miles away:
- The CA voters did not support the “status quo”, they rejected Tuck. Given the framing of these two articles from opposite sides of the country, it is evident that Tuck successfully framed Torklason as a defender of the “status quo”, particularly a defender of “the unions”. This framing accounted for the narrowness of the victory.
- CA voters are not prepared to adopt privatization as a solution, even if it results in tax savings. While the two media reports did not see the race as a referendum on spending, Tuck’s campaign implicitly rejected the argument that more spending was needed on schools and that “introducing competition” would preclude the need for a continuation of tax hikes in the future.
- CA voters see through the fallacy of defining teacher quality based on standardized test results. Both writers mentioned VAM as a political issue and Tuck and Torklason were on opposite sides of the fence on this issue. To the extent that voters rejected Tuck’s proposal for change they also rejected the notion that VAM is worthwhile.
But here’s why I see the results as ominous:
- The “reformers” framed the debate: By making the debate “reform” vs. “status quo” they simultaneously framed the debate as “taxpayers” vs. “unions” and “accountability” vs. “laissez-faire”. This, in turn, placed those of us who see the need for a holistic approach, one that would require more resources for the children raised in poverty, on the defensive.
- The anti-union sentiment is strong: When 47% support an explicitly anti-union candidate it is a sign that reliance on union voters is shaky. In a future post I will outline my thoughts on why the support for unions is eroding, but it is increasingly evident that mainstream voters are put off by candidates who get large sums of money from organized labor while ignoring the money streaming into candidates from the .1%.
- The failing schools meme is not going away: While Torklason did advocate for more funding for schools, he not use the campaign to dispute the fact that schools are failing and emphasize that schools serving children raised in poverty need more resources if Californians hope to see an increase in aggregate test scores.
- Dark outside money is moving into school politics: The outside money invested in Tuck’s campaign necessitated a proportional response from teachers’ unions and that resulted in this outcome:
The contest drew more than $20 million in outside spending, more than for any other elected office in California this fall. Billionaire philanthropists looking to overhaul California’s low-ranking public schools squared off against powerful teacher unions defending their job protections, with both sides spending heavily on television attack ads and nasty mailers.
To paraphrase Al Shanker, when unions and school boards call each other names, the public believe them both. When school campaigns result in adults taking sides, and both sides spend heavily on “attack ads and nasty mailers“, the public believes what both sides are claiming and school children lose in the end. THAT is the MOST ominous result of the CA election.
In the global economy, it is often helpful to look at other developed countries’ experiences with political issues to gain a perspective on what is going on in our nation. An essay by Victorian Association of Secondary School Principals President Frank Sal titled “A Strong Public Education System Benefits All” in The Age, an Australian newspaper, describes an unfolding of events that has an eerie but unsurprising parallel to events unfolding on this side of the globe. Here’s what happened in Australia:
- A former Prime Minister with”ideologically driven funding approaches to the non-government sector” introduced the idea of rating schools based on value added assessments in the early 2000s.
- The data from the assessments illustrating the deficiencies of public schools indicated the potential benefits of introducing competition between the government and non-government sectors and allowing parents to choose the kind of school their child attends.
- Once the government began funding these non-government schools (which included parochial schools as well as for-profit charters) any efforts to reduce the payments faced a “large and very capable opposition”
- The result, “The political clout of these sectors has now reached the level where it can and does influence any government policy direction that may impact negatively on the non-government sector.”
The similarities don’t end there. It seems that all levels of the government are advocating funding for non-government schools and the parental choice that goes with it and those who operate the non-public schools are relentlessly “messaging” the voters about the failures of public education. Moreover, the expansion in the number of non-government schools has resulted in false advertising by the non-government schools, the ability of non-government schools to hire uncertified teachers, the ability of non-government schools to suspend and expel misbehaving and/or underachieving students, and the skimming of students who would do well on the standardized tests used to measure school effectiveness “regardless of school attended”. Oh… and after several years of data collection using VAM metrics there is no statistical difference between “government” and “non-government” schools despite all of the advantages of selectivity and discipline policies.
There MIGHT be one difference between Australia and the US when it comes to the operation of “non-government schools” based on Sal’s analysis. Describing the current perspective of voters in his nation situation in one of the opening paragraphs, writes “the notion of choice espoused by our politicians has been heard by the community at large as choice between sectors“. I do not believe our “community at large” has caught on to the reality of “choice” in the manner Sal describes. Based on my discussion with voters who are not as focussed on public education policy as I am, it is evident that they still believe in the magical thinking that “the market” can sort out good schools from bad ones and that anything with the label “government” on it is necessarily poorly run while anything run by a “business” is efficient. Based on articles I read in the mainstream media, it appears that the messaging of the profiteers has also penetrated the editorial boards of the largest newspapers in the country and most of those papers extol the power of the marketplace. And worse, unlike Australia which has a parliamentary form of government, we have only two political parties and neither party seems interested in restoring the public’s confidence in “government run” schools— or ANYTHING “government run” for that matter. Here’s hoping that the 2016 election will give US voters a chance to voice their opposition to the ongoing efforts to erode community-based public schools and replace them with a for-profit chains.
Thomas Kane is a true believer in Value Added Measures, and his article in EducationNext is persuasive on its surface but it glosses over three obstacles that VAM proponents tend to ignore…. obstacles that make the use of VAM costly, impractical, and, perhaps, impossible. Those obstacles are outlined below:
Schools would be required to substantially alter their grouping practices and/or test protocols in order to use to use “value added” assessments in a fashion that conforms with research models
Almost all the value added research has taken place in urban schools or county school districts where there are large grade-level cohorts, a common curriculum, common instructional practices, and comparable demographics. In these studies, researchers carefully controlled the grouping of students, the way tests were administered, and the nature of the tests. In order to replicate these research conditions in other districts, particularly the large number of small school districts across the country, elementary schools would need to make certain that:
- Teachers are assigned to comparable cohorts of students over a three year period (i.e. the same grade level, the same blend of regular and special education students, and same ability level IF ability level is the grouping practice)
- The student cohorts remain constant
- Assessments used to measure teacher performance are designed specifically for that purpose
- The assessments are administered in a pre-test/post test fashion instead of once annually
At the secondary level, where students typically have 4-7 teachers per day, it is difficult to imagine how any value-added measure could be used without dramatically expanding the tests administered at each grade level.
The performance of a large number of teachers cannot be measured using existing assessments
Teachers at all grade levels who do not teach specific content that is not systematically assessed at the State level (i.e. Art, Music, PE, Guidance, Special Ed, Technology Education, etc) and secondary teachers whose content is not systematically assessed at the state level (currently all subject areas except English, Mathematics and Science) could not be measured be using the testing protocols in place. Moreover, given that assessments are administered at only one grade level in high schools, it is hard to envision how longitudinal information on student performance will be gathered. In summary, since state level tests are not in place for what is arguably a majority of teachers, any system linking student performance with teacher compensation is inherently inequitable.
It is unclear whether the new PARCC and SBAM assessments are specifically designed to generate “value added” measures
As written and designed, he forthcoming computerized tests may not yield individual student data with the kind of detail needed to measure improvement in individual students over time. This is particularly true in high-performing districts where the “headroom” is insufficient, making it impossible to measure “gains” of any kind.
BOTTOM LINE: If districts across the country were required to use the new computerized tests to implement value added measures for ALL teachers it would require several years. Each State would be required to develop new assessments for those content areas not covered by existing tests, field test those assessments, and implement them for multiple years before receiving the results needed to make any meaningful decisions on teacher performance. All of this assumes it is possible to design such an assessment for small rural schools and assumes assessments can be designed and implemented for secondary teachers and K-12 teachers in specialized subjects.
VAM will not work without huge outlays of money… and those funds would be better spent helping students who are living in poverty.
Bravo to the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents for laying bare NY state’s sham evaluation system. (Full disclosure: I was chairman of this group in the late 1990s, so my support for their bravery might be biased) In a two-page position paper that is more measured than its title, “APPR Creates an Illusion of Teacher Accountability and Must Be Replaced”, the authors recount the findings of an independent study they commissioned. Those findings are summarized in one phrase: “...there is no ability to compare ratings between or among teachers or districts“. The position paper summarized three key findings from their study:
• Teachers whose students did not have to take Common Core exams typically received higher evaluation scores than teachers whose students did take the exams. The result? A double standard for teacher evaluation, and one that is ripe for legal challenge that will be costly to local districts.
• The State Education Department claims that individual local districts are responsible for 80% of the scoring under APPR, a claim that is wildly inaccurate. The Education Analytics study found that because of the APPR formula design, the local impact of scoring is closer to 35% of the total.
• The researchers identified that the required local assessments known as Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) – typically take 5‐10 years of data gathering, development and training before scores can be reliably used as an evaluative measure – are being used for APPR. They were critical of this effort, noting that the absence of training resources and rushed implementation have resulted in an inaccurate evaluation system.
Those findings notwithstanding, the Regents, the State Superintendent, and Governor Cuomo are all standing behind the tests, though Cuomo seemed disappointed that the tests found that 94% of the teacher were effective or highly effective, thereby undercutting his “reform” message that TEACHERS were the cause of low performance on the tests.
The Lower Hudson Council’s speaking out against the testing regimen is especially heartening because many of the districts in that group are among the most affluent in the state. Their children will likely “succeed” on measures like standardized tests. For the most part, these district superintendents have nothing to gain from taking this position except controversy among community members who buy into the notion that testing “proves” schools are bad and that VAM is a viable means of measuring teacher effectiveness… a meme that the media has promoted.
Will politicians and political appointees like the NY Regents— or Arnie Duncan for that matter— listen to school district leaders? Will other regional superintendent groups follow the LHCSS’s lead? Stay tuned!