Archive for April, 2013

HERE’S Why RTTT is a Problem!

April 30, 2013 Comments off

For months I’ve been blogging about the fact that RTTT and the corporate reformers are reinforcing the factory school model and working against the kind of individualization that is possible today thanks to technology…. and here’s an article and report that drive that point home!

The report, Competency Education Series: Policy Brief One [PDF], points out that, although the federal government has supported some aspects of competency-based learning, implementing the new model can be difficult because of federal restrictions.

The greatest conflict stems from disconnect with the work on the ground and federal accountability and assessment systems,” the report states. “Implementers faced with this disconnect have no choice but to juggle two systems: one required by federal law and one developed by the educators, students, parents, and community leaders committed to successful implementation of competency education.”

And where is this disconnect most evident: in the area of TIME, where the federal government wants to hold time constant while accepting variable performance while those of us who value mastery learning want to see performance as the constant while having time be the variable. The article describes the conflict as follows:

Time is the biggest point of contention between the two systems. The federal government measures school accountability as well as student achievement through time-based modules. Seat time and annual test results are the primary ways that the government keeps schools accountable, categorizes them, and targets them for intervention. And required end-of-year tests focus school instruction timelines in specific ways that do not allow students to move at their own pace, a key element of a competency-based system.

With the competency models, students take summative assessments at various times throughout the year. They demonstrate what they’ve learned as they’re learning — not just during one or two big testing seasons, as most schools do.

I would make one minor but non-trivial correction: most schools do NOT have “one or two big testing seasons”… in fact very few have “big testing seasons”. The advent of NCLB created the “big testing season”… many schools recognized the inappropriateness of summative assessments and were moving in the direction of formative assessments.

The article also explains the difference in testing between the federal NCLB/RTTT model and competency based learning:

Another big difference between the two systems is what gets tested. Competency-based learning focuses not just on content, but also on “soft skills” like communication, collaboration, and other higher-order thinking skills. In contrast, the federal assessments focus on the subjects of math and English Language Arts aligned with academic achievement standards, but not necessarily with core competencies. In other words, everything is based on a number score, not on whether the student can demonstrate that he can do each individual task determined to be a core competency.

Federal accountability standards track student achievement, not growth. Many competency-based models are tracking progression in career and college readiness as well as core competencies, and those can’t be reported to the federal government under the current rubrics.

NCLB and RTTT are obsessed with using data to track teacher and school progress; competency based testing generates information on individual student performance… and guess what parents care about? …guess what students care about? Parents care about their child’s performance and students care about their own performance. The federal government’s obsession with schools and teachers is misguided: it doesn’t meet the needs of parents or students, erodes the public’s confidence in public education, and reinforces a model of education that is outdated and counter-productive.

The only part I didn’t like about the article on competency based education was the concluding paragraph:

The KnowledgeWorks report doesn’t give a smoking-gun solution for the various problems it raises. Instead, the group intends to continue investigating how federal policies could encourage competency-based learning by studying the effects of the few programs the government has decided to fund in this area. The organization also plans to pull together best practices from states moving ahead despite the challenges and to figure out how competency-based education could be assessed in a more comparative way.

As a consultant who works extensively in New Hampshire, one of the states cited as moving forward with competencies, I’m afraid there isn’t much to see so far because districts who could benefit most from competencies are obsessed with getting their NECAP scores higher. Sadly, the “reform minded” federal government is blocking real reform by using tests given to age-based grade level cohorts as the basis for accountability.

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Homeland Security Spending Overtakes the New Deal

April 30, 2013 Comments off

This TomDispatch post is a couple of months old… but as our legislators debate budget cuts it is timely. The post incorporates an article written by Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman that includes these paragraphs:

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which celebrates its 10th birthday this March, has grown into a miniature Pentagon. It’s supposed to be the actual “defense” department — since the Pentagon is essentially a Department of Offense — and it’s rife with all the same issues and defects that critics of the military-industrial complex have decried for decades.  In other words, “homeland security” has become another obese boondoggle.

But here’s the strange thing: unlike the Pentagon, this monstrosity draws no attention whatsoever — even though, by our calculations, this country has spent a jaw-dropping $791 billion on “homeland security” since 9/11. To give you a sense of just how big that is, Washington spent an inflation-adjusted $500 billion on the entire New Deal.

Despite sucking up a sum of money that could have rebuilt crumbling infrastructure from coast to coast, this new agency and the very concept of “homeland security” have largely flown beneath the media radar — with disastrous results.

The article documents the history of the the Department of Homeland Security, noting that it was initially recommended in a white paper expressing concerns about American security written before 9/11. At the very end of the article Kramer and Heller write:

Meanwhile, the same report that warned in early 2001 of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil also recommended redoubling funding for education in science and technology.

In the current budget-cutting fever, the urge to protect boundless funding for national security programs by dismantling investment essential to this country’s greatness — including world-class education and infrastructure systems — is bound to be powerful.  So whenever you hear the phrase “homeland security,” watch out: your long-term safety may be at risk.

Do we have more funding for education? NO… the percentage of our GDP for education has declined since 9/11. Do we have broadband in every household and universal cell phone coverage? NO… you can get more reliable internet and cell phone coverage almost anywhere in the world.

We do have body scanners at airports and hordes of people inspecting our backpacks, suitcases, gel products, and shoes…. and we have cameras all over the place… and we have chips in our cell phones that track our locations (except in the places where cell coverage is checkered)… and we have Big Data warehouses in DC that monitor our internet posts— probably including this one… I wish the trillions spent on these “safety” initiatives made us feel safer… but based on what I read in the media, it’s a scary world out there!


Why State Tests Need to be Field Tested

April 30, 2013 Comments off

In the early 1990s I served on the Maryland State High School Assessment Steering Committee representing the Superintendents in the State. While my technical knowledge was limited in comparison to the committee members with backgrounds in statistics, I did possess a practical, political and operational expertise that the committee members listened to and respected.  As noted in an earlier blog post, Dr. Nancy Grasmick, who was the State Superintendent, supported and advocated for the perspective of Superintendents at the Board level and in the legislature. The MSSP assessments the state used were thoughtfully and democratically conceived and rolled out over at least a two year period with at least one administration of the test completed without the public release of data. This method was followed because the Superintendents explained to Dr. Grasmick that the administration of tests and the tests themselves would likely have glitches and teachers needed to give the test once to get a sense of the content and how students would react. While some of us resented the intrusion of testing on our time and even after the pilot there were some embarrassingly bad questions on tests, no one could claim they were blindsided.

Diane Ravitch’s blog had a link to an article reporting that Indiana, a state who rushed headlong into computer assisted instruction, encountered a few bumps in the road.

Multiple Indiana school districts, including Indianapolis Public Schools and South Bend Community Schools, suspended ISTEP+ testing for the day after students experienced problems with the testing website.

StateImpact confirmed with representatives at MSD Wayne Township, Brownsburg Community Schools and Culver Community Schools that students there won’t continue testing today. A representative of Fort Wayne Community Schools confirmed the district’s schools are “having issues” with testing.

The problem is likely more widespread, though. Messages on an email listserv of school technology directors suggests the problem spans the state, and reports from Twitter suggest other schools are halting administration of the test too.

This wouldn’t be a problem or be newsworthy if Indiana was doing this first-time use of computerized testing as a pilot and wouldn’t be national news if Indiana wasn’t planning to use these tests to evaluate teachers or schools. But it seems that Indiana is not the only state having difficulty implementing a high stakes test without doing the field tests. Over the past week I’ve read several articles on NY, MI, and MN where new tests have been questioned and/or run into implementation problems. I know the argument that “reformers” will make: the need for change is urgent and every year we wait to get these tests “just right” is a wasted year in the life of a child… but how many years are we willing to waste preparing students for poorly conceived and poorly administered tests? Better to wait a year than waste several… and it would be far better to abandon these state level summative assessments altogether and work on formative assessments that can be used for measuring mastery.

The Sad Reality of Pre-School Funding

April 29, 2013 Comments off

President Obama’s pleas for more funding for pre-school education made a big headline… but I see a train wreck on the horizon when “new” federal money is used to backfill cuts made at the State level. Today’s Huffington Post headline article“Preschool Funding Reached State of Emergency in 2012”, describes how states, strapped for funding for regular education programs, made deep cuts in preschool education in 2012:

Funding per student for state pre-school programs has reached its lowest point in a decade, according to “The State of Preschool 2012,” the annual yearbook released by Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research. “The 2011-2012 school year was the worst in a decade for progress in access to high-quality pre-K for America’s children,” the authors wrote. After a decade of increasing enrollment, that growth stalled, according to the report. Though the 2011-2012 school year marks the first time pre-K enrollment didn’t increase along with the rate of population change.

Assuming Obama puts together a package that Congress will adopt (an admittedly HUGE assumption), the money won’t do anything to EXPAND preschool education: it will, instead, RESTORE preschool where states made cuts in previous year. Preschool education is one of many programs that everyone can agree on but no one can figure out how to institute. My wish: Congress would spend more time working on ways to solve problems they agree on and less time making “the other side” look bad for their positions and principles they disagree on. Both parties are so intent on making the other party look bad that neither party can achieve anything. In the meantime, the recent sequester is putting 70,000 more preschool children out on the streets…. but the airplanes are going to run on time!


Finding a Middle Ground.

April 29, 2013 Comments off

Three recent posts (here, here, and here) by Diane Ravitch pose the question: Can We Find a Middle Ground? The responses so far are running 2-to-1 against… and the commenters seem to believe that the level of contentiousness between privatizers and public school teachers, administrators, and boards is so high that dialogue is an impossibility. My contention is that we are not debating the right issue: if we REALLY want to reform schools in the true meaning of the word, we need to abandon the factory model and use technology and individual attention from adults to personalize instruction. Here’s the comment I made at the conclusion of the third posting:

These paragraphs, which advocate a different debate about schools from the one taking place in the media, are taken from the “About” section of my blog:

“Discourse on public education is stuck in a rut because the public thinks of public schools as factories. When I shared this observation with some colleagues a few years ago, their response was “So what? Everyone knows that! What difference does it make”. Their rejoinder was partially true. First, NOT everyone knows that schools are modeled after factories. Secondly, the notion that school-is-a-factory is so ingrained that we cannot conceive of a different method for organizing education. Finally, it DOES make a difference because when we unwittingly accept the notion that schools can only be organized like they are today we avoid asking questions like:

Why do we group students in grade levels based on their age?
Why do we group students within a particular grade level based on their rate of learning?
Why do we group students at all?
Why does school take place in a limited time frame?
Why do we believe there is “one best way” to educate ALL children?

All of these practices are in place because they result in “efficiency” in the factory school… and until we change our minds about how schools are organized, until we replace our conception of schools as a factory with a new mental model, we will continue measuring “quality” by giving standardized tests to students grouped in “grade levels” and recycling “new ideas” and “reforms” based on ways to run the factory more efficiently.”

My belief: the parents who are opting out of testing are rebelling not against testing, but against the factory model of schooling that treats their child like a widget instead of an individual. Those parents are talking among themselves and may soon find themselves attending home-school collaboratives that emphasize caring and cooperation instead of the for profit factory schools the privatizers are opening that emphasize competition.

The privatizers are not bent on “destroying” public education: they are bent on providing the status quo factory school model efficiently. In doing so they are using the business model that calls for outsourcing, downsizing, making extensive use of technology, and minimizing employees’ wages pensions and benefits. If we want to engage privatizers and the politicians who pander to them in a discussion we need to question the status quo and question their goal of efficiency instead of questioning their means of achieving efficiency using the current model in place.

Productivity in Public Education

April 28, 2013 Comments off

Diane Ravitch posted today on the “Skunk Works” in Michigan, a group of  the Governor selected from “…like-minded allies from far-right think tanks” to help him formulate “…a “value” school, with fewer teachers to save money”. The post was short and disparaging, but, I fear, failed to address this whole problem from a businessperson’s perspective. My comment did try to look at the issue in that way:

If you think like an economist or businessperson, the logic works like this:

==> If I can get the same product (as measured by standardized tests) for a lower cost and employing fewer people, I’ve increased the productivity of a bureaucratic government monopoly and reduced my taxes. What’s not to like?

To counter this logic we need to attack the metric: standardized testing… because given the nature of standardized tests combined with the kind of by-the-book (or computer) instruction advocated by for-profit folks it is likely that scores will NOT decline but staffing and costs WILL. I believe we need to emphasize the message that standardized tests are an incomplete and ineffective measure of learning.

I am uncomfortable with demonizing philanthropist/businessmen in part because, like Deming, I believe people don’t fail, systems do. In public education, the linchpin of the businesss-model accountability “system” is standardized testing… and anyone who’s worked in schools knows that they are full of flaws and of limited value in measuring either individual performance or school performance. They do provide precise information but not accurate information. Time to change the system… not reinforce it.

Criminalizing Truancy

April 28, 2013 Comments off

An article in today’s NYTimes on Texas’ decision to reduce the criminal penalty for truancy recalled the hours I spent in the Justice of the Peace’s office prosecuting parents early in my career. In my first administrative assignment as an Assistant Principal at a blue collar suburban HS one of my primary responsibilities was monitoring attendance. At that time in the mid-1970s, districts were reimbursed based on Average Daily Attendance, which had the effect of creating an incentive for schools to make certain students maintained good attendance. In cases where students missed school for extended periods we could bring charges against the parents and a fine would be levied against them. The school district provided schools with a resource in pursuing these parents, someone who’s title was something innocuous sounding like Home-School Visitor… but they acted as a de facto truant officer. As we paraded parents through the justice of the peace’s office it was clear to me that in most cases the parents had no control over their truant children, the parents could not pay any fines that would be levied, and, therefore, a change in behavior on the part of the student was highly likely.

Roughly 40 years later this problem persists… and the Texas legislature thought they had the answer: pass a tough law!

In Texas, a student who misses 10 days of school within six months, or three days within four weeks, can be charged with failure to attend school, a Class C misdemeanor under the state’s Education Code, or with a juvenile offense under the Family Code. Parents can be charged. If reported by the school district to a municipal or county court, they can face fines of up to $500 and be arrested if they fail to appear before a judge.

…Some school officials say the threats of fines and arrests are necessary in cases where students would otherwise skip class and their parents would not stop them.

But as is often (if not always) the case, there are some unintended consequences:

These students “may be left with a criminal conviction that can have lasting consequences or pose barriers to future educational opportunities, military service or job prospects,” Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed’s deputy director, wrote in the report. She argued that incremental sanctions — which try to keep students in school before punishing them — are more effective.

Recalling my conversations with the “Home School Visitor” who represented the schools in the Justice of the Peace’s office and studies conducted in a district I led in Maryland, I don’t think passing laws is the answer. The “Home School Visitor” knew all of the students and parents I was working with very well… because he had been working with them for years. The poor attendance patterns started early in the child’s schooling and persisted into HS. His observations were validated when we looked into the attendance patterns of truants in Maryland: students who missed several days in Kindergarten and elementary schools continued that pattern into secondary schools and, in some cases, dropped out of school entirely. Our remedy was to pass an attendance policy that mirrored the Texas law, but the consequences weren’t prosecution of parents: it was intervention by school social workers. The result: when data on school attendance was issued on school report cards in MD our district was always ranked near the top.

The bottom line: like so many issues in public education, in dealing with truancy, caring is more important than “law enforcement”.

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