Archive for September, 2013

Tax Breaks for Business = Budget Cuts for Schools

September 24, 2013 Comments off

Common Dreams blogger Paul Buchheit posted an essay titled “Add it Up: The Average American Family Pays $6,000 a Year in Subsidies to Big Business”… $6,000 that either could have gone into their pockets or, in at least the case of $80,000,000,000, gone into State coffers to help fund schools (see the second bullet). Here’s where the $6,000 figure comes from:

  • $870 per year in FEDERAL grants, as reported by the libertarian  Cato Institute.
  • $696 per year in State, County and local subsidies as reported in a New York Times investigation.
  • $722 per year for bank interest rate subsidies as reported by  Huffington Post.
  • $350 per year for retirement fund bank fees, as reported by Demos.
  • $1268 per year for overpriced medications according to economist Dean Baker.
  • $870 for corporate tax subsidies according to the Tax Foundation.
  • $1231 for revenues sheltered abroad based on an analysis by U.S. PIRG.

So while many of us bemoan the federal, state and local taxes we pay, few of us appreciate how much of our taxes backfill corporate welfare. If you want to be especially appalled, look at the the map in the NYTimes article cited above and you’ll see that five states who cut school funds because they lacked adequate funding for schools (TX,MI, OH, FLA and PA) gave tax incentives to corporations worth $37,810,000,000 with TX leading the way with $19,100,000,000 in subsidies for business while cutting school funding by $5,000,000,000. You don’t need an advanced degree in mathematics, economics, or ethics to see that this is unfair and unjust.



This Just In: Standardized Tests are Flawed

September 23, 2013 Comments off

Diane Ravtich had two posts on the flaws of standardized testing over the past few days: one summarizing a Fairtest report on the errors Pearson has made over the past several years and another describing the flaws in a recent State-wide test in Georgia.

As noted earlier posts, my confidence in the accuracy of standardized tests diminished appreciably in 1970, my first year in graduate school, when our class was asked to read the first chapter of an educational statistics book and find five errors on the Stanford Achievement Tests that the Philadelphia School district used to measure student performance. It seems that roughly 12% of the questions on the test were flawed. My further studies on testing underscored the reality that while tests yield precise results, they seldom yield accurate results. As these articles indicate, the “new improved tests” have as many bad questions as the Stanford Achievement tests of the 1970s but are now being used to make high stakes decisions on student, teacher, and school performance. I doubt that any statistician working for one of these enterprises like Pearson would support the use of these tests for the purpose set forth by the “reformers”, but speaking against that use would undercut the profits their company could make and would cast doubt on the whole notion that one massive end-of-year test is a valid means of measuring any individual or group performance with accuracy even though it will provide a measure that is precise.

As the flaws in testing become more widely known the parents and public might wake up to the fact that the test-based decision-making is not helping students succeed in school.

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Parents to the Rescue!

September 22, 2013 Comments off

The San Francisco Examiner ran an article today describing EdMatch, an enterprise launched by San Francisco parent Todd David. David saw a problem and came up with a solution, The problem?

Chronic underfunding of public schools, which leads to program cuts, which discourages parent involvement, which makes it easier for families to give up and leave San Francisco for better schools elsewhere.

The solution?

(David) found like-minded parents and started a group called edMatch to raise and distribute funds the school district can’t provide.

David asks private business to match every dollar parents are able to collect through bake sales, car washes and other fundraisers.

It’s not pocket change. Parents at all of San Francisco’s 114 schools raised a combined $6 million last year. With edMatch’s help, that means each school gets another $50,000 to boost arts, technology or whatever program is lacking.

EdMatch provides the money directly to school doing the fundraising, which is somewhat problematic since schools with affluent parents can raise funds more easily than schools serving poor children. David has come up with a workaround:

Of course, it’s easier when parents are wealthy and might even work as professional fundraisers. A Noe Valley PTA can easily raise $400,000 every year while parents in poorer neighborhoods struggle to raise $10,000.

Still, edMatch dollars are spread equally to schools regardless of location or demographic. The reasoning is that no matter what a Noe Valley school raises on its own, the $50,000 from edMatch is a big windfall for a Bayview school.

“We don’t want to create disincentives for any PTA to raise money,” David said. “This is not about resolving social justice issues. This is about using additional funds as glue to bring parents into the school. Because every good school has an active parent community.”

EdMatch is, itself, a workaround. EdMatch effectively accepts the notion that schools are a fee-for-service enterprise like, say, garbage removal in our community. The more schools are funded on a “user fee” basis the more they become an individualized service as opposed to a common good… and the more the costs will be shifted to parents… and the easier it becomes to privatize them. EdMatch can stem the vicious cycle of underfunding, but without fair and equitable funding across the board for all public schools democracy will be challenged.

This Just In: MAYBE US Schools Aren’t So Bad!

September 22, 2013 Comments off

It’s a small and perhaps insignificant victory for those who know public schools aren’t failing to read “Do American Public schools really stink? Maybe Not”, an article in Politico, a journal that prides itself on offering  “…tough, fair and fun coverage of politics and government.” The article uses Diane Ravitch’s recent book Reign of Error as a springboard, and it does an admirable job of using her data to debunk the memes that we’re falling behind internationally, the schools are eroding our economy, we’re spending too much money, while generally supporting the notion that we have an equity problem in our school spending.

The title meets the “fun” criteria of their credo, and the article is “tough and fair”, providing a rare balanced perspective on the status of public education. While throwing a bone to the “schools are terrible” crowd by citing 2009 PISA data that they use to buttress their claims, it offers a counterbalance by citing 2011 TIMSS data and provides lots of information illustrating the unreliability of using tests to compare national public education systems, teachers, or public school systems. It indicates (perhaps charitably), that the data on charter schools is “muddy”, noting that:

Some charters have done exceedingly well at raising the test scores of low-income students. Others have not. Some of the most successful don’t serve anywhere near as many of the hardest-to-reach kids — those who are disabled, destitute or still learning English — as the struggling neighborhood schools all around them.

The article’s bottom line, though, falls short of endorsing Ravitch’s assertions and, by ending with a quote from Arne Duncan, making him sound like a moderating force in a contentious debate when, in fact, he is a proponent of privatized takeovers of the allegedly “failing” schools:

So what’s the bottom line here?

Ravitch argues that “corporate reformers” and “privatizers” have a vested interest in making it sound like teachers and schools are failing so they’ll be invited to run their own schools or sell educational technology at a profit. Reformers say that’s ridiculous and accuse their critics of prioritizing adult concerns like teacher union jobs over children’s needs.

The debate has grown so contentious — even nasty — that the two sides often talk past one another, except to hurl insults. That frustrates Duncan.

He has been blunt in his critiques of public schools, arguing that too many have unacceptably low standards for their students.

Yet in an interview with POLITICO, Duncan said he has little patience for those who argue that public education is a failed enterprise. Acceptance of the status quo bothers him just as much, he said.

“Yes, the trends are very encouraging, but yes, relative to our international counterparts we have a long way to go, so I feel a fundamental sense of urgency,” Duncan said. “We have to continue to get better — faster.”

I believe Arne Duncan believes the “reform” movement is changing the status quo and making schools better and different at the same time…. and I believe Diane Ravitch is serving an invaluable role as a whistle-blower to many middle class and suburban parents who do not recognize the corrosive effects the privatization movement is having on the democratic governance of schools. Where Politico falls short in its analysis in in the contention that Duncan isn’t taking sides: Arne is in the corner of the reform movement and his Race To The Top concept is based on the same premises as the reformers… and it is the “reform” movement who is prioritizing adult concerns: they want lower taxes for their corporations and higher profits for shareholders.

When corporations and businesses care about the common social good they will stop sheltering their federal taxes, stop seeking payments in lieu of taxes at the state and national level, and start looking at ways to provide support for children raised in poverty who are attending their neighborhood public schools.





Private Schools Drop Placement Tests

September 20, 2013 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes features an article by Javier Hernandez reporting that NYC’s elite private schools are planning to drop the ERB entry exams. Why? Because the test preparation industry has successfully increased the scores to such an extent that it no longer serves as a relevant factor in determining who is qualified. Three quotes stood out for me.  First:

For years, public and private schools across the country have grappled with questionsabout the value of standardized admissions exams. The city’s Education Department, responding to concerns that too many children were being coached for the test to entergifted and talented programs, modified its own exam this year, which backfired when even more students qualified for the programs.

So the public schools already went down this road and found that it leads to nowhere… But do the admissions folks in private schools and gifted and talented programs think testing is the problem? No way!

The association (of admissions officers) is working with experts to develop a new assessment by February. Dr. Hayot said it was too early to say what the assessments would look like, but she said the group was considering ways of measuring noncognitive skills, like resilience and attention span.

I understand why it is necessary to have one uniform rubric to measure all entrants: it DOES avoid a child being tested five different times for admission to five different schools… But devising a test of any kind can lead to the kind of reductionist lists described in a recent Huffington Post article by Alicia Bayer. The title, “What Should a Four-Year Old Know”, tells you everything you need to know about the wrongheadedness of admissions tests for Kindergarten.

The third quote came from the head of one of the popular NYC test prep businesses:

“Any uncertainty that you place in the process creates an absolute boom in test prep,” said Suzanne Rheault, chief executive of Aristotle Circle, one of the city’s more popular coaching programs. “People prep. They try to get information. They don’t want their kids to be guinea pigs.”

I wrote the following comment in response to Rheault’s quote:

Interesting to read that the test prep coach believes those parents who are applying to private schools don’t want their children to be guinea pigs… but everyone seems to be OK with the public school students in the entire State of NY being guinea pigs… I only hope that this is a signal that the absurdity of placement tests will disappear

I HOPE that is the case… but our national obsession with testing, ranking, and competition make it unlikely.

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Shootings in DC Flag Complex Questions

September 19, 2013 Comments off

The mass murders at the Washington DC Naval Yard flag many contradictions in public opinion that can be captured with these questions:

  • Under what conditions should the medical profession share records of mental health patients with law enforcement officials?
  • Under what conditions should mental health conditions be put into a registry available to law enforcement officials?
  • If it is important to place mental health patients in a registry, why shouldn’t guns be registered?
  • If a troubled employee with a rifle can get into a naval base, where there are all kinds of security measures in place and armed guards at the gate, how can we realistically expect a school to prevent a troubled student to enter a school? A shopping mall?
  • If a troubled employee can kill 12 people at a naval base before he is apprehended, how will armed teachers stop a troubled student?
  • And last… but not least… how can CT spend $15 million on security while districts in that state are cutting back on classroom teachers?
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Ron Paul Cuts to the Chase

September 18, 2013 Comments off

In the “you can’t make this up” category, we have Ron Paul’s latest tome on schooling: The School Revolution. Here’s an excerpt from Kevin Carey’s review of the book from the New Republic’s:

Ron Paul does not believe in federal funding of schools. Or state funding. Or any funding, because Ron Paul does not believes in “schools” as we know them today. Schools are part of the state, the state (by definition) wants to steal your freedom, and freedom is a good thing. So state schools indoctrinate children to believe in the state, a belief they carry to adulthood, at which point they enroll their children in state schools, and the cycle of serfdom begins anew. The logic of The School Revolution reaches no higher levels of complexity.

This would be funny except it reflects the ultimate endpoint of the privatization of public education: instead of having the STATE “indoctrinate” children we will have home-schooled students or students educated in private religious schools, schools sponsored by crackpot political organizations, and profiteering low-cost storefront schools. Instead of a unified vision for our future we will have a fragmented and dogmatic perspective on the world… or, in Carey’s words:

… a plan for the mass creation of crackpot autodidacts who are impervious to any evidence that contradicts their simple worldviews.

Live Free or Die taken to it’s extreme!

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