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The Choice Conundrum

August 19, 2012 Comments off

I am now receiving feeds from Diane Ravitch’s blog, and one of her posts on school choice featured an article from Fort Wayne Journal Gazette writer Karen Francisco on school choice in Indiana. The article offered several conundrums regarding school choice. What happens when parents want to stay in a “failing” charter school? Why can a private charter school accepting tax funds screen students but a public school accepting the same funds be compelled to educate whoever shows up? Why should suburban schools whose residents pay for small class sizes be compelled to accept students from less affluent districts? And here’s two more from the article itself:

If parents can choose to enroll their children in a school that teaches creationism as science – in contradiction to state academic standards and federal law – how have they succeeded while a Project School parent whose child passed ISTEP+ (the Indiana standardized achievement test) has failed? If a parent chooses to home-school but offers no instruction in math, how have they succeeded any more than the parent whose child passed the math portion of ISTEP+ at an Indianapolis school just handed over to a turnaround operator?

The article de-emphasizes one point that this blog (and Diane Ravitch) has repeatedly criticized: why is the metric for determining “failure” standardized achievement tests? When parents were asked why they wanted to stay in the “failing” charter school, they cited the safe atmosphere or the exposure to more motivated students. Unless schools address the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs they cannot expect to achieve the goal of teaching higher order thinking skills to all students.

Choice has been a favorite remedy of conservative thinkers for decades, but it overlooks two major flaws. First, given the choice, most Americans will opt for convenience and low cost over quality (see the obesity epidemic for evidence). Second, and the biggest choice conundrum: what child chose to be born into an economically challenge family?

We purport to be a country where every child has a chance to succeed, and yet evidence indicates that social mobility is diminishing in our country over the past several decades– the same decades when our investment in social programs has diminished (see my earlier post). We need to make some choices regarding our investment strategy as a country if we want to restore the social mobility we value.

Privatization: The Result of Desperate Government

August 15, 2012 Comments off

Paul Buchheit, a regular contributor to Common Dreams blog, posted an article earlier this week entitled “Five Ways Privatization Degrades America”. In one of the opening paragraphs, Buchheit references an article from the Cleveland Plain Dealer that led with the following paragraphs:

“Desperate government is our best customer. There will be a lot of desperate governments out there,” said the chairman of a major finance company specializing in infrastructure privatization, addressing the annual meeting of the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships in the midst of the financial crisis in 2008.

This prediction has borne out. As Wall Street’s meltdown brought down the economy, states and municipalities have seen their revenues fall and become increasingly desperate. They’ve increasingly turned to Wall Street and foreign investment firms to lease public assets and contract out services. Arizona, for instance, sold off legislative and court buildings to rent them back from private companies.

Buchheit’s article cites many examples of failed privatization initiatives including prisons, turnpikes, parking meters, water plants…. and schools.

Numerous examples of failed or ineffective privatization schemes show us that hasty, unregulated initiatives simply don’t work.

Stanford University study “reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their traditional public school counterparts.” A Department of Education study found that “On average, charter middle schools that hold lotteries are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.”…..

In Florida, abuses by the South Florida Preparatory Christian Academy went on for years without regulation or oversight, with hundreds of learning-disabled schoolchildren crammed into strip mall spaces where 20-something ‘teachers’ showed movies to pass the time.

In Philadelphia, an announcement of a $38 million charter school plan in May turned into a $139 million plan by July.

In Michigan, the low-income community of Muskegon Heights became the first American cityto surrender its entire school district to a charter school company. Details of the contract with Mosaica were not available to the public for some time after the deal was made. Butdata from the Michigan Department of Education revealed that Mosaica performed better than only 13% of the schools in the state of Michigan.

Also in Michigan, an investigation of administrative salaries elicited this response from charter contractor National Heritage Academies: “As a private company, NHA does not provide information on salaries for its employees.”

Education writer Danny Weil summarizes the charter school secrecy: “The fact is that most discussions of charters and vouchers are not done through legally mandated public hearings under law, but in back rooms or over expensive dinners, where business elites and Wall Street interests are the shot-callers in a secret parliament of moneyed interests.”

The bottom-line conclusion from the article is that privatization is successful on two fronts: it keeps taxes low in the short run by applying one-time infusions of cash or by limiting cost increases…. and it makes privatized enterprises wealthy.

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Strange Bedfellows

August 13, 2012 Comments off

Diane Ravitch’s latest post is disheartening to one who hopes the Race-To-The-Top for Districts (RTTT-D) is somehow different from previous RTTT grants in terms of using metrics other than standardized achievement tests.

But I fear she is right on one score: either party will give us more privatization… and that is not going to make schools better even though it might make the cost of education lower.

Strange Bedfellows.

The “Big Data” Meme and the End of the Scientific Theory

August 12, 2012 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes article by Steve Lohr— “How Big Data Became So Big”— describes the “history” of the term Big Data, which was coined in 2008 and is now VERY BIG in education circles! When I called the Deputy Commissioner of Education in NH to get some advice on drafting a Race To The Top grant the first place he directed me was to articles on “Big Data” because it was a major topic at a recent conference he had attended in DC. Since that conversation in late May, both VT and NH received large federal grants to develop and implement data systems and on Friday the Race To The Top proposal was released and it includes language calling for personalized learning environment that will use “….collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools such as online learning platforms, computers, mobile devices, and learning algorithms to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student…” (emphasis added). 

The idea behind Big Data is that by tracking one’s internet footprint it is possible to divine an individual’s likes and dislikes, one’s interests, and— ultimately— what information an individual is “collecting” or, presumably, “learning”. The “like-dislike” algorithm is explicitly used by Netflix. Having recently signed up for this service, I was asked to rate movies I’d already seen and these ratings were used to give me some ideas about other movies that might be of interest. Amazon does the same thing but less explicitly: it told me when I bought a book online that “people who bought that book also bought X”. Note that neither the Netflix algorithm OR the Amazon algorithm are causal… they are associative. The Lohr essay included a link to a 2008 article in Wired magazine entitled “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete”. The Wired article provides several examples of how large scale associativity can yield better results than the “outdated” cause-and-effect thinking that has dominated science for centuries.

Lohr’s article concludes with these paragraphs:

IT may seem marketing gold, but Big Data also carries a darker connotation, as a linguistic cousin to the likes of Big Brother, Big Oil and Big Government.

“If only inadvertently, it does have a sinister flavor to it,” says Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.

Big Data’s enthusiasts say the rewards far outweigh the risks. Still, smart technologies that promise to observe, record and make inferences about human behavior as never before should prompt some second thoughts — both from the people building those technologies and from the people using them.

I can see big rewards from using big data… but after hearing presenters at Chautauqua last week I can also see the possibility for darker uses. Public schools need to proceed with a degree of caution in this area, but we can’t sit on the sidelines when the paradigm of learning is changing before us.

Reform “For The Children”

August 10, 2012 Comments off

The Naked Capitalism blog cross posted an article by from The Philadelphia Writing written by Matthew Mandel, identified as a National Board Certified teacher who is in his 11th year as a union Board member. While some of the article borders on a political rant, the point of the article— that politicians and “reformers” who cloak themselves as being “for the children” usually aren’t, is driven home effectively. One point in the article brought to mind a discussion I had yesterday with some colleagues in the north country of New Hampshire:

If it were about children, those who cut funding for vital family services would realize the inextricable link between childhood poverty and educational outcomes. These same politicians would be as incensed by children in their state having inadequate nourishment, dental, vision, and medical care as they are about whether same-sex partners have a right to be married.

All of us at the meeting– a union president from one district, a retired secondary principal, an assistant principal at a secondary school, the executive director of the collaborative I am working with, and I— strongly agreed that the cuts to social services in NH were having an adverse effect on the children in our schools… and yet none of the organizations who represent us at the State level testified in opposition to the cuts to those services. Why? Because our budgets were under assault from the State and we needed to stay focussed on the effects those cuts. In effect, instead of all agencies serving children working together to make a case for sustained funding, we were competing against each other for an ever declining pot of money.

If those advocating for effective public schools are serious about representing the needs of children, we should be testifying in support of full funding for social services that help parents who are struggling.

Globalization, Outsourcing and Education

August 10, 2012 Comments off

Outsourcing of work in the name of “efficiency” enables Americans to buy goods at ever lower prices, but the trade off is that more and more Americans are earning less and less money since we have to compete in the global market place. In  The Folly of Attacking Outsourcing, an article by Eduoardo Porter in the business section of the New York Times, outlines the steps our country can take to reverse this downward spiral of living conditions given “the fact that globalization is here to stay”:

But the fact that globalization is here to stay doesn’t mean that nothing can be done for workers, who have come to fear the process of global integration as a zero-sum game, which ends with their jobs moving somewhere where labor is cheaper. Some of the prescriptions are straightforward. Ambivalence toward globalization is not unique to the United States. But Americans tend to be more fearful of the impact of trade than, say, Europeans.

One reason is that American workers are particularly ill equipped to cope with the dislocations caused by foreign competition. An American worker who loses her job to trade or technology will find herself in a much worse spot than if she was, say, German or French. For starters, she will lose her health insurance. And her unemployment benefits will be considerably less generous.

The United States also does a poor job of educating workers to take advantage of globalization’s opportunities. We were once the most educated nation in the world — the first to provide universal high school education and the first to provide widespread access to college. But college graduation rates have stagnated and are now at the same rate they were a generation ago, while a host of other countries have barreled ahead. The lag leaves American workers particularly exposed to foreign competition for lower-skilled jobs — which has been weighing down their wages for more than a decade.

The chart showing the differentials in college graduation rates is eye-opening: from 2000 to 2007 the percentage of students achieving a college degree before “the typical age of graduation” remained stuck at the mid-30% range while other countries like Iceland, Finland, and Denmark jumped to nearly 50% and countries like the Czech Republic, Portugal, Poland, Japan, Ireland, and the Slovak Republic pulled even or surpassed the United States in this metric. And this chart does not take into account the huge numbers of newly minted college graduates in India and China. In a global economy, where high wages correspond with more education and jobs flow across borders, we need to get more of our population ready to compete and we need to develop national policies that address this learning gap. Instead of spending time and money measuring 25% of the teachers in grades three through eight we need to focus our energy on preparing students for college.

Charters as Kudzu

August 10, 2012 Comments off

Common Dreams post, David Morris of the Institute for Local Self Reliance likens charter schools to kudzu, a Japanese plant introduced to the south for the purpose of reducing soil erosion that turned out to be an uncontrollable invasive that is choking all the indigenous plants in the region. The comparison is apt, as Morris demonstrates in his essay.

Charter schools initially received broad support because they were envisioned to be innovation centers, places where teachers could work together to try out new ideas to see if they would work with student populations that typically fell short in schools. But it quickly became evident that charter schools and public schools were going to compete with each other for students… and the field was rigged, and both political parties were complicit in fixing the game:

As charter schools began to vie with public schools for supremacy, Congress and the White House titled the playing field sharply in their favor. To improve public education No Child Left Behind (NCLB) enthusiastically embraced what came to be known as “high stakes accountability”. Parents of children in public schools that fail to make continued improvement on standardized tests for two years can transfer them to charter schools. If progress continues to stall the public school is closed. The NCLB pointedly does not apply to charter schools. To be eligible for funding from Obama’s Race to the Top program states must eliminate caps on charter schools. (emphasis added)

The post provides this short overview of the charter school movement, with my emphases added:

Charter schools are granted considerable autonomy. In return they have relatively short-term contracts that must be renewed. Originally renewal was envisioned as depending on whether charters were better than traditional public schoolsGerald Bracey recalls Joe Nathan, a leading pioneer in the charter school movement declaring in 1996, “Hundreds of charter schools have been created around this nation by educators who are willing to put their jobs on the line to say, ‘If we can’t improve student achievement, close down our school. This is accountability—clear specific and real.‘”

But a tension soon developed. Experimentation and innovation, by their nature, beget many failures. But politics and profits combined to stimulate a powerful reluctance to admit failure. One study for the U. S. Department of Education concluded, “Charter schools rarely face sanctions (revocation or nonrenewal).” Over its first 20 years about 2.5 percent of charter schools have been closed for academic reasons.

How many would have been closed if Joe Nathan’s metric had been used? The most comprehensive analysis of charter schools to date, done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), concluded that 37 percent of charter schools performed significantly worse than traditional public schools. Only 17 percent performed significantly better. The remainder did no better or worse.

Let’s see… 37% performed “significantly worse” and 2.5% had their charter’s revoked…. and of those schools in the “significantly worse” category, ALL accepted only parents who were opting out of public schools. That is, public schools had to take all comers and charters gleaned students from families seeking a better education for their child.

The article makes a persuasive case that money is the root of this problem: the private sector is increasingly taking over the operation of charter schools and using the same tactics to lower costs and increase profits as corporations: hire cheap lower paid (i.e. non-union) staff, focus only on the end product (test scores), and standardize everything. The factory school lives on, supported by our reliance on test scores as the primary metric for “quality”.

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