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Archive for September, 2013

The Fruits of Privatization and Standardization

September 28, 2013 Comments off

An article in today’s NYTimes describes the slipshod corner-cutting that resulted when the US Government decided to privatize background checks in the 1990s, the era when the notion of privatization took root. The toxic combination of standardization and underfunding led to “ghostwritten” background checks by employees of the USIS, the private firm that assumed responsibility for the background checks of civil servants and military personnel. Here’s a brief and sad history of the USIS:

Once an arm of the federal government, USIS was spun off into the private sector in the 1990s as U.S. Investigations Services. Former employees said it became aggressively focused on meeting revenue goals after it was bought in 2007 by Providence Equity Partners for $1.5 billion.

“It all became extremely numbers-intensive,” said a former executive with top-level management responsibility. “There would be a crisis situation when you were off by 2 percent” from a revenue quota.

A spokesman for Providence declined to comment.

Between 2005 and 2011, Congress held 14 hearings to bring attention to the problem of the security clearance backlog. A White House official in the Bush administration, Clay Johnson, was named chairman of a task force to tame the backlog. “We paid a lot of attention to it,” he said. “There was no excuse.”

Part of the solution was as simple as switching to online questionnaires. Another was enabling the personnel office to rapidly hire more field investigators, which it did by outsourcing 75 percent of the work to the private sector.

The time to close a file shrank from an average of 145 days in 2005 to 36 this year, according to the Federal Investigative Service, a bureaucratic triumph celebrated by Republicans and Democrats.

Hm-m-m-m… the time taken to close a file– the metric used to determine compensation– was shortened and everyone was happy…. but the QUALITY of the reviews and the files was diminished. Of course both political parties were happy: they didn’t have to raise the money needed to staff an office that did the kind of time consuming comprehensive background checks that typified those done previously by government agencies…. and now that it has come to light that the shooter in the US Naval yard murders had a slipshod background check they can shift the blame to the private agency who, while underfunded by the government managed to make a tidy profit for shareholders.

I’ve linked to this article because this sounds like the privatization movement in public schools. The privatization and quantification of complicated tasks is the result of the magical thinking that everything can be standardized. When background checks for secrecy clearings are counted like widgets it is no surprise that employees become heedless. When the quantification of schooling is reduced to a single test given at the end of the year, is it any surprise that teachers and administrators cut corners to get test scores higher?

Government leaders should be explaining to the public that some complicated endeavors require time and the only way to reduce the time needed is to add personnel which, alas for politicians, requires the raising of revenue. In background checks this means more people to complete thorough and comprehensive background checks. In schools it means more teachers to work with students individually to ensure their unique needs are being met.

The Crazy-making Testing of Four Year Olds

September 27, 2013 Comments off

A recent articles on testing four year olds to get into private schools illustrates the adverse and perverse consequences of high stakes testing and the negative influence it is having on children who haven’t even started school yet.

NYTimes article following up on the recent decision of elite private schools to abandon the ERB (see earlier post on this topic) reported on the fact that anything less than a score in the 99th percentile was demoralizing to parents. The Times rightly attributed these high scores to coaching but missed a chance to explain to readers WHY this happens. Standardized tests base their scales on the raw scores of cohorts of prior test takers. In the case of a test like the ERB, where the content of test items remain relatively fixed, coaching test-takers to master the content for the test can yield higher raw scores which, in turn, translate to larger number of students achieving higher percentiles. Furthermore, since tests like the ERB don’t have hundreds of questions, the difference between scoring in the 99th percentile and, say, the 95th percentile could be the result of missing one question. By explaining this to readers the Times could help them see the absurdity of using a standardized test to distinguish “Gifted and Talented” children from those children who are nominally “Ungifted and UnTalented”. If you don’t think that is happening to the four year olds who score in the 95th percentile instead of the 99th percentile, read this article or eavesdrop on conversations at the playground.

This high-stakes testing of four year olds has a perverse effect on preschool children. From the time they are born many parents track their physical and intellectual growth monitoring when they learn to walk, the size of their vocabulary, the complexity of their thought patterns, and their ability to perform mathematical calculations. The children are relentlessly compared to their peers and drilled, tutored and enrolled in a host of enrichment programs designed to increase their performance on standardized tests. And this test preparation is hardly limited to those preschoolers seeking entry to elite preschools. In districts like NYC tests are administered before children enroll in school to see if they are eligible for entry into magnet elementary schools and, once in school, they are immediately groomed for the next sequence of high-stakes tests to qualify them for magnet middle schools.

The coaching for entry level test also has the perverse effect of limiting the number of children raised in poverty from gaining access to the public magnet and charter schools in NYC or any other district where “gifted and talented” testing takes place. The children of parents who have the time and resources to prepare for tests will do far better than children whose parents are working two jobs to make ends meet or spend several hours in day care centers or homes that do not offer intellectual stimulation. This has the effect of perpetuating and exacerbating the class divides in place.

At some point parents will see the senselessness of placing their children on the testing treadmill and take back childhood. In the meantime, let the tests continue and ignore the consequences.

Competition vs. Participation

September 25, 2013 Comments off

An op ed article in today’s NYTimes titled “Losing is Good For You” discusses the purported consequences of giving everyone a trophy. In the article, author Ashley Merriman specifically singles out AYSO for scorn, which led me, as a former AYSO coach, to submit the following comment:

AYSO is not about sorting winners and losers. I was an AYSO coach in the late 1980s and support their “everyone plays the same number of minutes” ethos that was in place at that time. The purpose of AYSO soccer was to bring children together to teach them soccer fundamentals and teamwork… not to sort them into “stars” and “bench warmers”. If a child loved and excelled at soccer they could progress to “Lightening Soccer” where they would get better coaching (I only played intramural soccer) and a higher level of competition. AYSO is based on the premise that pre-teens are at widely divergent phases of physical growth. If we give MVP trophies to 8 year olds we are often rewarding the most physically mature child and when we give “most improved” we reward the child who just experienced a growth spurt over the past year. When everyone gets a trophy or ribbon in developmental activities like AYSO soccer, it emphasizes the importance of teamwork, a lesson a child cannot learn shooting the soccer ball in their back yard.

Merriman also makes the following assertion:

It’s accepted that, before punishing children, we must consider their individual levels of cognitive and emotional development. Then we monitor them, changing our approach if there’s a negative outcome.

This may be “accepted” in psychology texts but we clearly don’t practice it in schools where students are effectively punished when they fail to have the “individual level of cognitive development” that matches their age peers. Instead of “changing our approach” or questioning our traditional age-based grade-level system we identify them as failures. As one who taught in an urban middle school and worked in two high schools where children struggled to succeed academically I’ve witnessed the downside to academic competition: by the time a struggling student reaches eighth grade they’ve been told for seven consecutive years that they are failures and, having heard that message repeatedly they drop out of school as soon as they can.

The bottom line: Competition is destructive to children when their “individual levels of cognitive and emotional development” are not taken into account. Losing is only good for you if you have the resilience needed to deal with it.