Archive for December, 2013

The Gates Foundation’s Maddening Inconsistency

December 27, 2013 Comments off

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 Comments off

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 Comments off

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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