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Undercutting the “Reform” Narrative

December 31, 2013 Leave a comment

Today’s WSJ editorialized against the newly appointed NYC Chancellor Carmen Farina, calling her “…a competent steward of the education status quo” in marked contrast to the “…radical reform ideas” proposed by her predecessors who worked under Michael Bloomberg. And what were those radical reform ideas?

…more competition (charter schools) and more accountability (measuring school and teacher performance in part by how well students do on tests). Ms. Fariña is said to favor collaboration, rather than competition, among schools. Collaboration is a nice word, but it will achieve nothing if all it means is accommodating the demands of unions for less school choice and less accountability while demanding more money.

If charter schools and standardized tests had done anything to improve the overall performance of students by ANY metric a retreat from that direction would be appalling and would make perfect sense. No such evidence exists. Indeed, the metrics used to measure school performance have not changed appreciably during the Bloomberg years, and he has had control of the schools for over a decade. Holding children raised in poverty, over 40% of the school population, to high standards without providing more support for their learning before they enter school is foolish. diBlasio’s idea of taxing the affluent NYC residents to underwrite the costs of universal prekindergarten was one of the ideas that got him elected. much to the consternation of those WSJ readers who will have to foot the bill. Unsurprisingly, the WSJ decried this as “income redistribution” instead of providing the level playing field needed to ensure social mobility: 

But no amount of wealth shifting will raise the lifetime prospects of kids who can’t read or can only do 8th-grade math before they drop out of school. The education reform agenda is about reducing income inequality the old-fashioned American way—upward mobility and economic opportunity. By accommodating the education status quo, Mr. de Blasio will make the income gap even larger.

The WSJ offers no evidence that Bloomberg’s “education reform agenda ” provided “more upward mobility and economic opportunity” because the evidence contradict this: income inequality GREW during Bloomberg’s term of office as did the opportunities to advance economically. But no matter, the WSJ is not interested in “reform” anyway: they like things just the way they are and will continue to sell  the big lies their readers believe in.

Unfortunately, the WSJ’s big lies are painless to adopt and require no sacrifice on anyone’s part— except those unfortunate enough to be born into poverty. Worse, the WSJ’s big lies are difficult to undercut because the narrative that accompanies them is embedded deeply in the psyche of WSJ readers. The WSJ readers believe that government is inefficient and the “private sector can do it better”; believe they can have quality public services without paying taxes; and who believe it is possible for a poor child to improve his or her lot in life by applying themselves or “getting three consecutive high quality teachers”. Their magical thinking is supported by faith and not by evidence and, as one commenter notes, even data-mongers have difficulty overcoming faith-based beliefs. Those of us who want to help children raised in poverty need to change the perception that we oppose accountability. We should use the unarguable evidence provided by the testing regimen that charters, union-busting, and school-closing are NOT working and the higher expenditures in suburban districts DO make a difference.

Broadband Deficit Hurts Education Opportunity

December 30, 2013 Leave a comment

Last evening my daughter and son-in-law were visiting and we played an old-school game called Facts in Five that my daughter recalled playing when she was in JHS in the eighties. The game requires players to fill in a 5X5 grid that has letters running down the vertical column on the outside and categories running across the horizontal column on the top. The categories are things like “American authors”, or “Colleges”, or “Adjectives with 5 syllables”. Players try to fill in the grid in a 3 minute interval. When players read out their responses, they receive credit for each unique response. As we tallied scores last night, there were dozens of instances where we needed to determine the nationality of a particular author or whether a person was alive or dead or some factual element regarding an answer. In the “old days”, many of these kinds of debates required thumbing through reference books  or dictionaries…. but last night the answers came quickly through the use of my son-in-law’s cell phone which connected to our dsl.

I share this anecdote because it struck me as exemplary of the kind of ready information that is UN-available to many students and citizens as I read an article in today’s NYTimes titled “US Struggles to Keep Pace in Delivering Broadband Service”. The article featured a picture of Riga, Latvia, with a caption that read: “The capital city of Latvia, Riga, has an average Internet speed that is at least two-and-a-half times that of San Antonio“… oh… and the article report the cost is one fourth of San Antonio’s. Why? Because other countries subsidize the service, recognizing the importance of broadband to economic competitiveness. In our country, which protects the internet providers, we actually pass laws that make it difficult for consumers to acquire broadband in their homes. These two paragraphs summarize the sad state of affairs in our country.

Leticia Ozuna, a former San Antonio councilwoman who worked on the municipal broadband effort, said that in her former district in South San Antonio, some 70 percent of households had no Internet service. Often, she added, students gather at night in the parking lot of the Mission Branch Public Library to do homework using the library’s free Wi-Fi connection, long after the library itself has closed.

San Antonio’s power company has a largely unused fiber-optic network that local government offices have been using for high-speed Internet service for years, but a Texas law prevents the city from using the network to give low-cost service to consumers.

The article cites several examples of cities that have invested in broadband but kept the price prohibitively high for consumers, contrasting them to Korea where broadband is widely available. As the somewhat trivial “Fact-in-Five” incident illustrates, having even dsl provides a marked advantage in information gathering over books… and if I wanted to share information like MOOCs or Khan Academy and didn’t have broadband I would be at a complete loss.

And here’s what’s maddening: the conservative think tanks who excoriate the US education system using test data don’t see why we should use “horse race” data on band width to rank economic opportunities afforded through broadband:

“Some people like to look at it as a horse race,” said Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, “but I’m not sure that’s the right way to look at it.” He added, “We’re not at the starting gate, we’re not at the finish line. We’re somewhere in the middle of the race.”

It’s OK for us to be “in the middle of the race” when it comes to providing learning tools but completely unacceptable for us to be in the middle of race when it comes to education? What’s wrong with this picture?

No Common Ground on Common Core

December 28, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve written several blog posts on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) trying to strip away the contentiousness in an effort to find a common ground… but I have come to the same conclusion as blogger Bill Boyle whose recent post title, “The Myth of Neutrality and the Common Core”, describes the state of mind on the issue.

For those of us who worked in public education over the past four decades the debate over the common core echoes debates that go back to Dewey and Terman. The fundamental question is whether there are a set of facts that all children need to know by a certain point in their schooling or if schools should provide children with the tools they need to seek out information on their own. Terman, the father of standardized testing, believed there was a core set of measurable content that all  children should know at a certain point in their life and he designed metrics to determine if the children were making sufficient progress. Dewey, on the other hand, felt that children had a natural inclination to learn and, given the time and opportunity and coaching, would ultimately develop the skills needed to gain the knowledge necessary to succeed in life. As noted in earlier posts, Terman’s ideology clearly won out over Dewey’s, in large measure because it mirrors the beliefs in our country that standardization and efficiency are more important than diversity and creativity.

Boyle asserts that the the CCSS was written by corporatists: people who want to privatize public education and who intend to use the inability of students to pass normative tests to buttress the claim that students are attending  “failing public schools” that can only be fixed by introducing the efficiencies that exist in the private sector. And Boyle has evidence to support this contention. The folks who want to make a profit from public schools, though, are shrewd. they have got the endorsement of some professional organizations and some college professors and DID engage SOME teachers in row development and review of the standards. Moreover, the profiteers have done an outstanding job of public relations, not long because they have outright control of some media outlets but also because they are free to spend money on promotion. Public education must scrupulously account for every dollar they spend, and there isn’t a public school system in America who could budget 1% of what Exxon Mobil and the Chamber of Commerce spent to place advertisements for the Common Core in major media outlets.

What annoys Boyle, me, and the other writers whose articles are linked in his post is that there is no evidence whatsoever that the creation of a Common Core curriculum will address the greatest problems facing schools, which is the difficulties faced by the children raised in poverty. Worse, the institution of the Common Core and the testing regimen that accompanies it will only reinforce the outdated and outmoded model of schooling in place today: the model based on Terman’s premise that all children develop intellectually at the same rate and in the same fashion. This premise has been proven false for decades and is clearly wrongheaded based on the self-evident differences among children in terms of their physical growth. Instead of spending millions to reinforce the status quo it would be better to use those funds to develop a truly individualized system of education, a system that is possible now more than ever.

Here’s the irony of the effort to make education profitable by introducing more tests: we will evolve into a two or three tiered system whereby some students will attend expensive private schools, other students will be stuck in the factory model we’ve had in place for decades, but an ever expanding number of students will drop out of schooling altogether and enroll in home schooling collectives rather than have their kids subjected to the testing regimen or go needlessly into debt to pay for K-12 schooling.

The Gates Foundation’s Maddening Inconsistency

December 27, 2013 Leave a comment

I just watched an Upworthy one minute video called “What Do The First 1000 Days of a Child’s Life Have to Do With Anything?”… and the answer, of course, is they have EVERYTHING to do with the child’s ultimate well being. The video was set in a third world country and emphasizes the importance of good nutrition during the mother’s pregnancy and during the first two years of a child’s life… the 1,000 days referenced in the title.

When I finished watching and saw that it was funded by Bill and Melinda Gates I couldn’t help wondering why it is that Bill Gates can’t see the inconsistency in his message for children raised in poverty abroad as compared to children raised in poverty in our country. In our country Bill Gates seems to think that all children should be equally ready for school even though nearly 25% of our nation’s children are being raised in families that qualify for food stamps. It’s as if poverty doesn’t matter in the US but DOES matter everywhere else on the globe. In my mind Bill Gates doesn’t belong in the same league with the Koch brothers or the Waltons: he has a genuine humanitarian streak and acts on his humanitarian impulses. But, like his fellow “education reform” philanthropists he seems unable to accept the reality that poverty in our country has as devastating effect on children as it has in Africa, India, or anywhere in the world. It is maddening that the same man who wants to end polio doesn’t want to end the inequality of opportunity that plagues our country.

 

The Big Lie

December 26, 2013 Leave a comment

Decades ago George Orwell described the process totalitarian governments use to win over the populous to their way of thinking: they creative a convincing narrative that serves their ends and they repeat it incessantly until it becomes conventional wisdom. The narrative can be especially convincing if it is intuitively appealing and has some moral overtones.

From the early 1990s through 2004 Diane Ravitch believed the narrative put forth by the business community regarding public education. In her words, as reported in an interview in District Administration magazine, she describes what changed her mind:

Yes, I went along with the zeitgeist that said, “We need testing. We need accountability. We need choice. We need competition.” These are ideas that appeal to very basic American values about choice and competition and holding people accountable for results.

But about five years into No Child Left Behind, I went to a conference at a conservative think tank. And there were a dozen papers from scholars across the country saying that No Child Left Behind wasn’t working here, it wasn’t working there.

The choice provisions weren’t working because the kids were not choosing to leave their neighborhood school. The tutoring provisions were not working because all these fly-by-night businesses were popping up. There wasn’t a single paper that said it’s working.

At the end of the day, I, who had been a believer, had become a nonbeliever. And from that point forward, I began listening and realized that this was not going to work ever. It simply was not going to get better five years later. The things I had been advocating for sounded good in theory, but I could no longer support what the evidence showed didn’t work.

Even more disturbingly, she became convinced that the business community and political establishment were telling the public a “Big Lie”:

The big lie was that we are failing and there’s a rising tide of mediocrity. We’ve now heard it so many times over the last 30 years, beginning with “A Nation At Risk,” that people believe it because it never gets countered.

But when you look at the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, people say, “Oh, American education is in terrible shape.” And then you ask, “Well, how’s your local school?” They say, “Oh, my local school is great. Love my local school. Love my teachers. They’re all terrific. But American education is failing.”

So the big lie has worked, but it hasn’t reached what people know from their own personal reality. The other point is that there is an assault on American public education today coming from federal government, coming from the foundations, coming from so many right-wing public policy think tanks that it is immensely destabilizing.

If you don’t believe in “the big lie” conspiracy theory— that the destabilization of public education is designed to pave the way for privatization of public schools, here’s some evidence:

  • Lee Fang reports in The Nation that Ted Mitchell, the nominee for USDOE’s second-in-command, has ties to Pearson and the privatization movement.
  • Robert Freeman offers a three-step recipe for tearing down public education in order to introduce privatization in his Common Dreams blog post:  First, lower the costs so you can jack up the profits; second, make the curriculum as narrow, rote, and regimented as you can; third, rinse and repeat five thousand times. He then describes how this is occurring through charter schools and choice.
  • The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington and Suzanne Goldenberg describe how conservative think tanks funded by the likes of the Koch brothers are funding efforts to undercut the public’s confidence in public schools and public services in general
  • The NYTimes’ Juan Hernandez describes how Pearson. the company that has made billions due to the increase in testing, was fined millions for subsidizing privatization efforts.
  • Unsurprisingly, Mother Jones weighs in on the issue of the .1% funding privatization movements, calling out the Gates Foundations investments in corporations whose actions are contrary to the Gates’ Foundation’s mission statement. While the article does not mention it, the Gates Foundation was a major (if not primary) investor in the Common Core, which is making the curriculum “…narrow, rote, and regimented” as described in Common Dreams.

Diane Ravitch is optimistic about the public’s ability to see through the Big Lie and believes they will ultimately see what is happening to their schools and communities and seek change through politics. She envisions:

A growing movement that will cause the politicians to say, “We really have to have change.”…

We all need to understand that what has been happening is not just an idea that some politician had in this state or that state. This is a national effort to undermine public education, to make people think that it stinks and anything is better than having community public schools.

The best way to spread the message is for lots of people to share it, talk about it, and see how they can mobilize to strengthen their public schools, not to defend the status quo. The status quo are the people who call themselves reformers. They reform nothing.

I don’t have nearly the readership of Diane Ravitch, but I will continue to do my part to “spread the message” that public education is NOT failing, we are failing our children— especially those raised in poverty.  A strong public education is the best means of improving the opportunities for those born into poverty, and testing them early and often will not improve the schools they attend or their quality of life. Coordinated early intervention is the best means of accomplishing that goal, and it can only be done through government funding.

VAM Undercutting Continues

December 26, 2013 Leave a comment

Value Added Measure (VAM) is the fantasy means of measuring education’s bottom line. The theory behind VAM, that a teacher’s value can be calculated measuring student “growth” using the results of standardized achievement tests, is proving to be statistically impossible because of the large number of intervening variables and the inexactness of the tests themselves. As a result of these inherent flaws, several districts are finding it impossible to use VAM as a basis for teacher evaluation… and that poses a MAJOR problem for USDOE because they predicated their entire Race To The Top program on the theory that teacher performance needed to be tied to test results. A blog post by Diane Ravitch on the VAM mess ends with this fitting summary:

The “errors” (with VAM) cannot be corrected because the method itself is the problem. The errors and flaws are integral to the method. VAM is Junk Science, the use of numbers to intimidate the innumerate, the use of data to quantify the unmeasurable.

To use a turn of phrase that is often seen in tech publications: the flaws are not a bug in VAM, they are a feature… and as Vamboozled blogger Audrey Amrein-Beardsley explains they can’t be fixed easily.

Herewith is a synopsis of several other articles on VAM and the misuse of testing information that appeared in the past week:

Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog found a host of errors in the VAM statistics used to measure teacher performance. These two paragraphs (with my emphasis added) describe the flaws:

Testing experts have long warned that using test scores to evaluate teachers is a bad idea, and that these formulas are subject to error, but such evaluation has become a central part of modern school reform. In the District, the evaluation of adults in the school system by test scores included everybody in a school building; until this year, that even included custodians. In some places around the country, teachers received evaluations based on test scores of students they never had. (It sounds incredible but it’s true.)

It is believed that at least 40 teachers received faulty evaluations for the year 2012-13 year. The school district will have to recalculate their scores, and, therefore, the bonuses, firings and other actions that resulted from the faulty scores.

I do not envy the HR staff who has to explain why they are rescinding a raise or the attorney who will have to defend the wrongful dismissal or withholding of pay… but I’m sure the “reformers” will have a way to deal with that kind of “collateral damage”.

The NYTimes reports that DC is not the only urban area facing challenges with teacher evaluation. In an article titled “Bumpy Start of Teacher Evaluation Program in NY Schools” the Times describes how the systematization of classroom observations is creating stress and paperwork… but no changes in the overall ratings of teachers. While VAM is not explicitly mentioned in the article, it is referenced indirectly, as in this paragraph:

Some teachers also said they were being partially graded on subjects they had no control over. Geoffrey E. Tulloch, a chef instructor at Food and Finance High School in Manhattan, said the school’s English Regents results counted in his evaluation.

The administrations response to this was that they would be developing a test that WAS relevant to items like culinary arts and finance. A criterion referenced test would make perfect sense in those areas… but is unlikely if the goal s to grade teachers on a bell curve.

The Education Opportunity Network’s blogger Jeff Bryant questions VAM as part of its overarching questions about the efficacy of using tests to measure the overall effectiveness of schools. He writes:

While these arguments rage over the relevancy of test scores in policy making, some are now questioning, to use the operative phrase in Anderson’s sentence above, whether it’s even possible or preferable “to quantify the value” in education.

The whole idea that teaching and learning is a pursuit that can be expressed and judged by numbers and rankings, which seems to be a forgone conclusion to policy makers and economists, is increasingly an unsettled matter to most Americans. What they see instead more and more looks like a nation turning its back on the well being of students – especially those who are most in need.

His post goes on to offer compelling evidence that we ARE turing our backs on our neediest children… but ends on a hopeful note that 2014 might find us abandoning tests in light of their limitations. Here’s hoping that’s the case!

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Inequality Erodes Trust

December 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Joseph Stiglitz’ op ed essay in Sunday’s NYTimes describes the ultimate result of the crash of 2008: a complete erosion of trust on all fronts and a corresponding belief that our system will operate best if it is unregulated and reliant on enlightened self-interest. One of the consequences of this anti-regulatory and anti-government thinking is the belief that teachers can only be trusted to work hard if they have performance incentives:

Similarly (to private sector CEOs), teachers must be given incentive pay to induce them to exert themselves. But teachers already work hard for low wages because they are dedicated to improving the lives of their students. Do we really believe that giving them $50 more, or even $500 more, as incentive pay will induce them to work harder? What we should do is increase teacher salaries generally because we recognize the value of their contributions and trust in their professionalism. According to the advocates of an incentive-based culture, though, this would be akin to giving something for nothing.

In practice, the right’s narrow focus on incentives has proved inimical to long-term thinking and so rife with opportunities for greed that it was bound to promote distrust, both in society and within companies. Bank managers and corporate executives search out creative accounting devices to make their enterprises look good in the short run, even if their long-run prospects are compromised. (NOTE: And administrators and teachers look for ways to cheat on tests used to determine their compensation)

Of course, incentives are an important component of human behavior. But the incentive movement has made them into a sort of religion, blind to all the other factors — social ties, moral impulses, compassion — that influence our conduct.

This is not just a coldhearted vision of human nature. It is also implausible. It is simply impossible to pay for trust every time it is required. Without trust, life would be absurdly expensive; good information would be nearly unobtainable; fraud would be even more rampant than it is; and transaction and litigation costs would soar. Our society would be as frozen as the banks were when their years of dishonesty came to a head and the crisis broke in 2007.

Stiglitz’ article is a must read: it explains the philosophical underpinning of the Ryan-Romney wing of the Republican party and the movement to privatize public services. Let’s hope that 2014 brings an upswing in trust!