Archive for November, 2012

For Profit Colleges Enter Division 1 Athletics

November 30, 2012 Comments off

In addition to reading daily blogs by Diane Ravitch, Yves Smith, the ASCD, the NYTimes, CNN, and the Boston Globe, I am an avid fan of Greg Easterbrook, the Tuesday Morning Quarterback who writes a weekly column for ESPN and periodically writes for Atlantic and other magazines and media outlet. Both Easterbrook and Joe Nocera, a NYTimes columnist write frequently about the hypocrisy of the NCAA, the institution that oversees college athletics and presumably ensures that the athletes playing on college teams are bona fide students. For better or worse, today’s NYTimes reports that a for-profit college, Grand Canyon University, is being elevated to a Division 1 status and playing in the Western Athletic Conference indicates that the NCAA isn’t completely hypocritical: it’s in effect acknowledging that graduation rates don’t really matter when it comes to judging an institution any more than those rates matter when it comes to determining whether a university is operating a sound athletic program.

The entry of a for-profit college into major college sports raised questions in the mind of at least one education consultant:

For-profit institutions have been criticized for spending more money on recruiting students and marketing their schools — particularly to draw online students — than actually educating them. A recent study found that more than half of the students who enroll in for-profit institutions leave without a degree, that those students are often left with hefty loans and that taxpayers, in a recent year, spent $32 billion on companies that operate such schools.

“I find it alarming that an institution with questionable academic practices is sort of ingratiating itself into the mainstream of American athletics,” said Barmak Nassirian, an independent consultant on higher education policy, adding, “That traditional, bona fide institutions find it not at all problematic, to be members of the same club, I think is a fair question to ask.”

Easterbrook knows why the question isn’t being asked. This past week he led his column praising Notre Dame for being ranked #1 in football— based on it’s graduation rates for football players as well as its #1 ranking in the nation. At the same time he chided the NCAA and the national media for overlooking this accomplishment. In Easterbook’s ideal  world, if athletic prowess isn’t matched with high graduation rates the school should not be qualified to win any championships. But the NCAA doesn’t place any emphasis on academic prowess and the national media don’t bring academics to the forefront in their reporting to college sports fans.

Interestingly, Arizona would be one of the last places to question academic practices: their flagship college, Arizona University, had only 46% of their football team graduate, among the worst in the country. I doubt that they will be leading the charge to keep their neighboring for-profit on-line institution out of Division 1 based on academic deficiencies.


VAM Flaws Glossed Over by ASCD

November 29, 2012 Comments off

The most recent ASCD online Journal is devoted to teacher evaluation and it features some articles on Value Added Measures, including one by McCREL consultants Bryan Goodwin and Kirsten Miller titled “Use Caution with Value Added Measures”. The article does a good job of delineating everything that is wrong with Value Added Measures, but— despite the fact they offer no antidote for any of the flaws— implicitly conclude that value added measures are here to stay, can be improved, and are better than what we have in place now.

They lead their list of VAM’s problems with this paragraph:

In many ways, the value-added teacher measurement model is still in its infancy, having emerged only in recent years as sophisticated data warehouses made it possible to measure the average growth of an entire class of students over the course of a school year. However, researchers have warned that what seems so simple and straightforward in theory is incredibly complicated in practice. Here are a few of the pitfalls.

What the paragraph fails to mention is that nearly all education researchers think that VAM is junk science– though they might state that assertion in more erudite terms. It also misrepresents VAM’s capabilities: VAM cannot  be used to “to measure the average growth of an entire class of students over the course of a school year” for reasons that are described in the list of pitfalls. One of the pitfalls is particularly comprehensive:

Data may be inaccurate. (After newspaper reports undercut the teacher ratings) multiple factual errors surfaced in New York’s data. For example, one teacher had data for a year when she was on maternity leave; another teacher taught 4th grade for five years but had no data (Clawson, 2012). Moreover, small samples—for example, classes with only 10 students—can paint inaccurate pictures of teachers because they are subject to statistical fluctuations (Goe, Bell, & Little, 2008).

Despite the fact that “data may be inaccurate”, the federal government is championing the use of this approach and the teachers whose ratings were published using this inaccurate data have no way of clearing their names after they’ve been published— as has occurred in NYC and LA. The computer aphorism “garbage in, garbage out” comes to mind!

The last section of the article poses the question “Still Better Than the Alternatives?” and appears to answer in the affirmative.

In general, the year-to-year correlation between value-added scores lies in the .30 to .40 range (Goldhaber & Hansen, 2010). Although this correlation is not large, researchers at the Brookings Institution note that it is almost identical to the correlation between SAT scores and college grade point average (.35); yet we continue to use SAT scores in making decisions about college admissions “because even though the prediction of success from SAT/ACT scores is modest, it is among the strongest available predictors” (Glazerman et al., 2010, p. 7).

So at the same time that elite colleges and universities are questioning the efficacy of SATs as a predictive metric, schools are being asked to embrace it because while it is a weak  predictor of success it is– what?— a predictor that is numeric? That seems to be the argument based on the logic presented in a subsequent paragraph:

…in general, principals appear to be fairly accurate in identifying top and bottom performers, but they struggle to differentiate among teachers in the middle

And what is the purpose of differentiating “among teachers in the middle?” A workmanlike teacher is as important to the operation of the school as a workmanlike employee is in any organization and assigning a numeric value to the ratings makes them appear more scientific and exacting than they are in reality.

The irony of this VAM article that implicitly advocates the use of evaluation to sort and rank order teachers is that it appears in the same newsletter with articles that describe the benefits using evaluations to identify meaningful staff development that will result in the improvement of  the performance of ALL teachers. VAM isn’t designed for any purpose except naming and shaming. It should be abandoned.

The Vicious Cycle of Low Wage Jobs

November 29, 2012 Comments off

“Motherlode” a section of the NYTimes devoted to “…the personal, cultural and political aspects of family life” has an article in today’s newspaper that describes the vicious cycle created when welfare, childcare, education, and entry-level employment are placed in impermeable silos. The title of the article is “How Children Subsidize “Low, Low Prices”” and the answer is through low, low compensation for entry level jobs, especially the welfare-to-work jobs:

… the types of jobs available to most lower-income parents, mothers and fathers alike, are low-wage jobs that present their own problems to those trying to  support and raise a family. The lack of benefits, the inflexible hours and the often nonstandard shifts exacerbate the low pay and create a situation in which parents don’t have the time they want and need to spend with their children or the money to find high-quality substitutes (like activities and child care) for that time.

So parents who work in low wage jobs— especially single parents— have no way of overseeing the care for their own children creating a situation that replicates itself in future generations:

Adolescents from households headed by a low-income worker are more likely to drop out of school, to be obese and to take on adult roles too young. In providing child care for siblings and forgoing opportunities that require an engaged parent helping with homework or encouraging outside activities, teenage children in low-wage families are, (Boston University sociologists) Drs. Dodson and Albelda argue, “effectively subsidizing” their parents’ employment as home health aides, janitors, food-service providers and retail clerks….

And children thrust into their own care-giving roles are children who aren’t easily able to develop the skills they need to do better than a low-wage job for themselves as adults. The low-wage job cycle becomes a vicious one.

This cannot be fixed by lower taxes and privatization of public services. The only fix, in my judgment, is to achieve some kind of shared vision of how we want our country to look 25 years from now and begin getting government agencies working together to achieve that shared vision. The current two party set up precludes any possibility of developing a “shared vision” because both parties seem beholden to the ethos of shareholder primacy— and there are fewer and fewer BIG shareholders and those shareholders want more and more influence over how the government works. Here are the comments I offered at the conclusion of the article:

This is the legacy of the “Reagan revolution”, the adoption of shareholder primacy, and our insatiable desire for cheap stuff… but not to worry, privatized schools will fix it all!

Reagan convinced the public that government was the problem and that welfare was all going to moochers who rode around in Cadillacs and had no desire to work… Ever since then we’ve seen the social compact compromised.

At around the same time corporations decided it was more important to give shareholders big dividends than to provide employees with good wages and benefits… and big shareholders decided quarterly earnings were more important than long term growth and stability… the result was cutting cost by outsourcing of work, reducing benefits and eliminating defined benefit retirements.

And throughout the ages (or at least my 65 years on earth) American’s want cheap stuff and lots of it… and that desire for cheap stuff means we bought into the “no new taxes” mantra and acquiesced when corporations cut costs because it meant lower prices.

As a recently retired public educator I can’t help but notice that schools are the ones held responsible for all of this and we’re now supposed to fix it… all by ourselves… without any more government funding. Fortunately (wink, wink) the private sector is going to rescue public education by introducing low paying jobs and online courses.


Epistemic Closure and School Reform

November 28, 2012 Comments off

The Naked Capitalism blog cross posted “Revenge of the Reality Based Community” an article from The American Conservative written by Bruce Bartlett, a former Republican operative who became frustrated with his party’s refusal to accept facts. Midway through the article, after describing his awakening to the fact that the economics of the Bush II administration were not based on reality, Bartlett shared his views with Ron Suskind who was writing an article for the NYTimes. After the article was published, Bartlett described the fallout:

The day after the article appeared, my boss called to chew me out, saying that Karl Rove had called him personally to complain about it. I promised to be more circumspect in the future.

Interestingly, a couple of days after the Suskind article appeared, I happened to be at a reception for some right-wing organization that many of my think tank friends were also attending. I assumed I would get a lot of grief for my comments in the Suskind article and was surprised when there was none at all.

Finally, I started asking people about it. Not one person had read it or cared in the slightest what the New York Times had to say about anything. They all viewed it as having as much credibility as Pravda and a similar political philosophy as well. Some were indignant that I would even suspect them of reading a left-wing rag such as the New York Times.

I was flabbergasted. Until that moment I had not realized how closed the right-wing mind had become. Even assuming that my friends’ view of the Times’ philosophy was correct, which it most certainly was not, why would they not want to know what their enemy was thinking? This was my first exposure to what has been called “epistemic closure” among conservatives—living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction.

This sequence of events occurred in 2004, a few weeks before the re-election of George W. Bush and shortly after it was becoming evident to the general public that the whole rationale for our misadventure in Iraq was bogus…. and this “awakening” mirrors the one Diane Ravitch experienced when it dawned on her that the testing associated with NCLB was not reality based…

When objective, rigorous intellectuals who reach conclusions based on objective reality begin applying their thoughts to education the whole reform movement should come tumbling down… unless the education reform establishment suffers from epistemic closure.

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Arne Duncan for Secretary of State?

November 28, 2012 Comments off

I had to rub my eyes in disbelief when I read the last sentence of the first paragraph of Thom Friedman’s column titled “My Secretary of State”. It read:

….my own nominee for secretary of state would be the current education secretary, Arne Duncan.

As I read on I was a bit flattered but mostly incredulous as I read through the Friedman’s analysis. I was flattered because Friedman recognized the balancing act school superintendents face:

A big part of the job of secretary of state is also finding common ground between multiple constituencies: Congress, foreign countries, big business, the White House, the Pentagon and the diplomats. The same is true for a school superintendent, but the constituencies between which they have to forge common ground are so much more intimidating: They’re called “parents,” “teachers,” “students” and “school boards.”

Having worked in a large county district, small rural districts, and three other “in between” districts, I can attest to the fact that the balancing act and the scrutiny of every decision is similar in all settings. The difference is that in the larger districts there is more media coverage and less opportunity for personal contact with “parents”, “teachers”, and “students”. A superintendent in a district serving 17,000 students has limited contact with individual teachers, parents, and students and instead deals with proxies: the union leadership, the county PTA leadership, and the student representative. In smaller districts the Superintendent actually gets to know teachers the same way teachers know their students, gets to know parents beyond those who serve in PTO leadership positions, and gets to see students in the classrooms and attend events and activities featuring students. Arne Duncan had one advantage over most superintendents: he was appointed by and accountable to one individual and NOT a Board… which would change the dynamics of the “balancing act” substantially.

Mr. Friedman’s analogy of negotiations between school boards and unions with negotiations between nations was also flattering. While negotiations between unions and boards are sometimes contentious, the ultimate stakes are inconsequential compared to negotiations at the international level. The last time I looked, Randi Weingarten doesn’t have nuclear weapons… though an early Woody Allen movie did suggest that the world ended when Al Shanker got his hands on some.

I was also flattered to read the heart of Friedman’s premise for the Secretary of Education taking over as Secretary of State:

The biggest issue in the world today is growth, and, in this information age, improving educational outcomes for more young people is now the most important lever for increasing economic growth and narrowing income inequality. In other words, education is now the key to sustainable power.

But in the next sentence and in a later paragraph, I became incredulous:

To have a secretary of state who is one of the world’s leading authorities on education, well, everyone would want to talk to him….

…as our foreign budget shrinks, more and more of it will have to be converted from traditional grants to “Races to the Top,” which Duncan’s Education Department pioneered in U.S. school reform. We will have to tell needy countries that whoever comes up with the best ideas for educating their young women and girls or incentivizing start-ups or strengthening their rule of law will get our scarce foreign aid dollars. That race is the future of foreign aid.

Arne Duncan may be an astute politician, but he is NOT “…one of the world’s leading authorities on education”! And, as I’ve written on several occasions in this blog, his reliance on junk science like VAM to measure school and student performance is misguided at best and supportive of the emerging privatization movement at worse…. and linking “Race to the Top” and ‘reform” in the same sentence is maddening. Race to the Top reinforces everything that is wrong with the way our schools are structured. All of this led to my comment, which may or may not be published:

Arne Duncan’s so-called reforms have not improved schools one bit… even using the nonsensical metrics he has imposed through Race To The Top. If we are really interested in reforming our schools we need use technology to abandon the age-based grade cohorts and standardized test metrics that define the factory school and develop personalized education plans that match instruction to each student’s abilities, learning styles, and interests. Knowing what we know today about child development and having a wide array of freeware available on the web it is frustrating to see our Secretary of Education reinforcing the factory model of schooling developed in the 1920s. Arne Duncan is not reforming education, he’s engineering the model in place. Sal Khan and the developers of MOOCs, on the other hand, are making the kinds of disruptive change that will ultimately redefine schooling. See the Network Schools blog at for more.

DO think Friedman is right that Race-to-the-Top style grants are the way to transform schools, but I do NOT think the incentives embedded in Race to the Top do anything to promote transformation… they perpetuate the factory model and emphasize teaching-to-the-test over creative problem solving and sorting and selecting students over educating each student to the fullest.

A Promising Parent Engagement Model

November 27, 2012 Comments off

Edutopia, the George Lucas Foundation’s education enterprise that supports the use of technology to ensure that students graduate with 21st Century skills, featured an article by Anne O’Brian in its November 26 on-line newsletter entitled “The Power of Academic Parent Teacher Teams. These teams take two forms:  a classroom team, which consists of all the parents and the classroom teacher; and the parent teacher team which consist of the parent(s), the teacher, and the student. The classroom team convenes three meetings per year and the content of those meetings focusses on ways the parents can support the school’s efforts at home. The parent-teacher team convenes once each year. Here’s a brief description of how those meetings work:

At these meetings, they review performance data, create an action plan for continuous improvement, discuss how to support student learning at home, and develop stronger relationships. Additional individual conferences are scheduled as needed.

According to According to Maria Paredes, the administrator who developed and copyrighted this process:

…one of the greatest challenges implementing this (or any model of family engagement) is some educators’ mindset about families. As she says, “We often doubt families’ capacity to help their children, and we often have mistaken perceptions of their ability to commit to higher expectations and standards for learning,” particularly for the families of disadvantaged and minority children.

Having worked in schools and led districts where many parents are disengaged, it is easy to forget that there are many parents who want  to be engaged in improving their child’s educational opportunities but don’t know how to do so. For many teachers, most of whom were raised in families where education was valued and good parenting came naturally, it is difficult to appreciate that parenting is a learned behavior.  When they encounter discipline problems– especially in middle and high schools, in most cases they find themselves dealing with parents are not engaged. It is not too hard for these teachers to conclude that the majority of parents are equally disengaged, creating the vicious cycle that Paredes describes.

The key: intervene early and follow through. When schools fail to do any outreach, the parents quickly conclude that “the teachers have given up on our kids”… whereas if intervention occurs for the parents of ALL students it can be infectious and lead to the opposite message.

Finally, any steps taken toward personalization will necessarily include this kind of outreach to parents: teachers and counselors will need parental support for whatever plan an individual student develops and parent engagement at all levels will help schools find external learning opportunities.

Testing: A Lousy Leadership Model

November 27, 2012 Comments off

In his column today, David Brooks shares the story of a viral email written by Nick Crews, an Englishman who was in despair over the lives of his adult children and the effect it was having on his grandchildren. The vitriolic missive, dubbed “The Crews Missile” excoriates his children for their serial failures and concluded with the following:

“I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about.”

He signed the e-mail, “I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed. Dad.”

Brooks’ concluding paragraphs discuss how this approach is doomed to failure.

The problem, of course, is that no matter how emotionally satisfying these tirades may be, they don’t really work. You can tell people that they are fat and that they shouldn’t eat more French fries, but that doesn’t mean they will stop. You can make all sorts of New Year’s resolutions, earnestly deciding to behave better, but that doesn’t mean you will.

People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.

Human behavior flows from hidden springs and calls for constant and crafty prodding more than blunt hectoring. The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not with a ferocious e-mail trying to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones….

It’s a lousy leadership model. Don’t try to bludgeon bad behavior. Change the underlying context. Change the behavior triggers. Displace bad behavior with different good behavior. Be oblique. Redirect.

As one who thinks the endless testing of children in schools is bludgeoning, I offered the following comment:

As an educator, I can attest to the fact that the Crews Missile Approach fails… and it fails because it “bludgeons bad behavior” (i.e. low test scores) without making any effort to change or even acknowledge the underlying context— which is poverty. No matter how many tests we administer— and we’ve tried a lot of tests in education— the results invariably show a high correlation between poverty and low test scores… yet instead of acknowledging this context and trying to change it we bludgeon the schools and teachers trying hard to work with these children… and it’s a lousy leadership model. 

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