Archive for March, 2014

Zombie Ideas

March 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Paul Krugman’s column in today’s NYTimes, “Jobs and Skills and Zombies”, describes the “skills gap” as a zombie idea,

…one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of a zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.

As I noted in a comment I left, there are other zombie ideas that deserve to “be killed by evidence”. Here’s what I wrote:

Here’s what’s really appalling: this zombie idea is used to support the need for the Common Core and the standardized tests that accompany them. Because of the alleged “skills gap” students are being given tests that are unrealistically difficult to pass and the results of these tests are used to support another zombie idea: American schools are failing! And who makes out well because of these zombie ideas? The oligarchs who use it to justify low wages and use it to privatize public schools.

Here’s what’s happening: if the evidence is disagreeable it gets contradicted by the voices of those Krugman calls “important people” and the repetition of the message from these “important people” becomes conventional wisdom that is very difficult to refute.

Opt Out Movement Getting Traction

March 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Friday’s NYTimes featured an article that acknowledged that parents were starting to send up to the standardized test regimen… and not just parents in “...the world of affluent white parents and celebrated schools, where children are largely destined to succeed.” As the article accurately notes, we have a two class system in public education: one that prepares students for test and one that embodies the principles of progressive education, and

… progressive education — with its excited learners immersed for months in astronomy or medievalism or Picasso — (is only in) the province of those able to send their children to some of the best private schools, or with the means to live in places with leading public schools.

Progressive minded educators who value equitable opportunities for all learners find it appalling that children raised in poverty are herded into schools where test-preparation is the sole emphasis. Children raised in poverty attend underfunded schools have often eliminated programs like art, music, and PE and de-emphasized untested areas like social studies and science. Moreover, the parents of children raised in poverty are often not as engaged as parents “with the means to live in places with leading public schools”, NOT because they care less about their children’s education, but because they are working hard to eke out a living. or, in some cases, coping with stressful health problems like addiction and mental health issues. The profiteers look at the “marketplace” of public education and see that imposing change is easiest in an environment where pushback will be limited… and so they have aggressively introduced for-profit schools in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods where they know parents are relatively disengaged in the life of the school. MAYBE the over testing imposed by NYS and RTTT will make it clear to these parents that their children are being denied the same opportunities as children in affluent “leading public schools”.

The article concluded with a paragraph describing State Commissioner John King’s thoughts about the testing issue:

Even the tests’ vocal advocates cannot entirely embrace the kind of instructional sentiment the exams have unleashed. In a recent letter to school superintendents, John B. King Jr., the state’s education commissioner, discouraged administrators from making placement and promotion decisions based solely on the tests. Speaking by telephone last week, Dr. King told me, “I worry that there’s a pedagogical mistake made in believing that if there’s more test prep, students will do better on the test.” In those fears, he hardly stands alone.

This paragraph prompted me to enter the following comment:

Sorry… but Dr. King’s letter discouraging “…administrators from making placement and promotion decisions based solely on tests” flies in the face of his assertion (and Duncan and Obama’s assertions) that teacher’s performance evaluations MUST be based on standardized tests. if Dr. King wanted NYS teachers to avoid teaching to the test he should firmly oppose the federal mandate that standardized test results be used to measure teacher performance… and if he believes teachers are making a “pedagogical mistake” by teaching test prep he should compare notes with Common Core author and ETS Chair David Coleman who is changing the SAT because of concerns he had that the test prep industry was improving student performance by prepping students for the test. “Reformers” like Dr. King and David Coleman advocate standardized tests to lend credence to the bogus charge that US schools are failing which, in turn, provides cover for the privatization of public schools.

Put another way: what teacher WOULDN’T try to teach-to-the-test if their public evaluation was based on how their students did on the test? You can’t administer “high stakes” tests and then complain that teachers are making a “pedagogical mistake” by teaching to that test. The best way to handle this is to give formative and summative testing back to the teachers and give more support to the children raised in poverty whose performance-as-measured-by-whatever-test will persistently be lower than children whose parents “have the means to live in places with leading public schools.”

Charts Depict Depressing Reality

March 30, 2014 Leave a comment

How bad is the inequality problem in our country? A look at the charts in this Demos post, “America’s Class System Across the Life Cycle” answers that question… and the answer isn’t heartening. Matt Breunig, the blogger who posted the charts, offers no solution to the problem, but several commenters note that an improved education system and improved social services would be an essential first step. And where would the funding for this come from? A look at Chart 10 (see the bottom of this post) provides an answer: establish an estate tax that limits inheritance to, say, $1,000,000. As Bruenig notes, “…rich adults get some extra help, usually mid-life, in the form of inheritance and other wealth transfers from their rich parents. The wealthiest 1 percent (in the SCF survey, which is less wealthy than the real 1 percent no doubt) have inherited an average of $2.7 million, 447 times more than the least wealthy group of adults.”

Is a small group of individuals receiving an average of $2,700,000 in lightly taxed inheritance placing them at a distinct advantage? Did these inheritors earn this? Couldn’t much of this money be used to help provide social services and educational support for those children in the least wealthy households? This was the premise Bill deBlasio just tested and sadly— but predictably– the legislators in NYS blocked. Is this thinking out of the mainstream and un-American? Paul Krugman’s column in Friday’s NYTimes quoted from a speech given by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910:

“The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power,” and (he) followed that statement with a call for “a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes … increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”

At the conclusion of the article Krugman writes:

We don’t know how much of that wealth is inherited. But it’s interesting to look at the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. By my rough count, about a third of the top 50 inherited large fortunes. Another third are 65 or older, so they will probably be leaving large fortunes to their heirs. We aren’t yet a society with a hereditary aristocracy of wealth, but, if nothing changes, we’ll become that kind of society over the next couple of decades.

The chart below suggests that we might already BE “That kind of society” now… and if we aren’t yet, the 12 charts in the posting by Bruenig will convince you of the urgency to do something like deBlasio advocated and to do it quickly!


Intervene Earlier than PreK – NOW

March 29, 2014 Leave a comment

The solution to improving the school performance and health for children raised in poverty is staring us right in the face… but our will to implement the solution is missing. Yesterday’s NYTimes reported on the findings of the the Carolina Abecedarian Project, in which about 100 infants from low-income families in North Carolina were followed from early infancy to their mid-30s. The longitudinal study began in 1972 and the results are astonishing. Among the findings cited in the Times article were that the group that received intensive care from infancy to age five:

  • Was far healthier
  • Had sharply lower rates of high blood pressure and obesity
  • Had higher levels of so-called good cholesterol
  • Were four times as likely to have graduated from college.
  • Had no instances of had metabolic syndrome, the medical term for a group of risk factors that together substantially raise the chances for heart disease, diabetes and stroke, among the men in the group.
  • Had less likely instances of pre-hypertension or abdominal obesity among women in the group
  • Had higher likelihood of physically activity and good nutrition among the women in the group

And what was the early intervention that took place in the study? “The children were given full-time day care up to age 5 that included most of their daily meals, talking, games and other stimulating activities.” 

And what was the cost of this program? “Professor Heckman (who conducted the study) said the cost of the Abecedarian project was about $16,000 per child per year in 2010 dollars.” For those working on spreadsheets at home, that is significantly less than the cost of a full-day school program like prekindergarten… and the research supporting this is harder to refute than the studies cited by educators who are advocating for early childhood programs.

If the basic kinds of day care provided to Abecedarian participants were augmented with the training described in a March 25 NYTimes article on the “Providence Talks” project it would be possible to provide the kind of wraparound services that make schools like Geoffrey Canada’s charters work effectively. There are several political issues that might preclude the adoption of these kinds of programs, though:

  • They fall outside the structure of “school” as we know it (i.e. they would not be subject to unionization the way a prekindergarten program affiliated with a public school system might be) 
  • They require government intervention as opposed to privately operated programs (i.e. for profit charters won’t be able to offer these programs the way they could conceivably offer prekindergarten)and we have all accepted Reagan’s premise that government is the problem.
  • They require interagency collaboration, which can lead to privacy concerns among parents and interagency squabbling over who controls the program.

These are all adult concerns… and because adults seem incapable of resolving them children raised in poverty will continue to be short-changed. Here’s hoping these recently reported research findings give everyone an opportunity to examine new solutions to persistent problems.

Racial Inequality Persists

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

The NYTimes reported on a recent study completed by the USDOE that found “Racial minorities are more likely than white students to be suspended from school, to have less access to rigorous math and science classes, and to be taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience…” This is no surprise to anyone who has worked in or followed public education for the past four decades, and neither the NCLB and RTTT initiatives nor the “reform” initiatives will begin to address this disparity. The report highlights the high suspension rates for black prekindergarten students (you read that right— SUSPENSIONS for PREKINDERGARTEN students), the lack of offerings in algebra, biology, calculus, chemistry, geometry and physics at the high school level, and higher concentrations of first year teachers.

And what is the President proposing to address this problem?

In his budget request to Congress, President Obama has proposed a new phase of his administration’s Race to the Top competitive grant program, which would give $300 million in incentives to states and districts that put in place programs intended to close some of the educational gaps identified in the data.

Now to the average person on the street, $300,000,000 sounds like a lot of money… but if all the money went to NYC is wouldn’t come close to narrowing the ago between per pupil expenditures on the largely minority city students and students attending schools in nearby suburbs… And when $300,000,000 is spent across the country it will have even less of an effect. Indeed, assuming a single teacher’s total compensation package is $50,000, the $300,000,000 would only fund 6,000 teachers, hardly enough to make up for the program deficiencies highlighted in the article.

The real solution to the RACIAL inequality is addressing INCOME inequality. The NYTimes Economix section featured an article by Nancy Folbre titled “Helping Low-Income Children Succeed”. The best way to do this? $$$$$. In the article Folbre notes that as school expenditures diminish, middle class and affluent parents are backfilling the gaps:

Parents today spend more money on “child enrichment expenditures,” like private schools, extracurricular activities and home-learning materials, than ever before. Low-income families simply can’t keep up. In 1972-73, the poorest quintile of families spent, on average, about 24 percent as much as the richest 20 percent in this category. By 2005-06, they spent only 15 percent as much.

Folbre cites research findings that indicate that supplementing parents’ incomes can have a beneficial impact on their children’s performance in school. She then writes:

This finding defuses the claim that education reform alone can eliminate disparities. Vast differences in per capita student spending across school districts, and the institutional weaknesses of large bureaucracies, have greatly reduced the potentially equalizing impact of public education. These problems… need to be addressed in unison.

She suggest that “…simplistic recommendations like “just spend more” or “just promote charter schools,” will not work by themselves. Instead schools need to “…bridge the public and private sectors, increase spending in cost-effective ways and, most importantly, improve the quality of educational instruction for low-income students.”

Racial equality and income equality are intertwined, and they need to be addressed in unison and they need to be addressed soon…. a country that accepts high suspension rates in prekindergarten and vastly disparate spending for schools cannot remain egalitarian for long.


Helping Adrift Students

March 27, 2014 Leave a comment

The Fixes Section of the NYTimes editorial page offers creative solutions to thorny social issues. Today’s article “For Striving Students a Connection to Money”, describes SingleStop, a program that aggregates all of the government services that are available to people living in poverty. This program is designed to make these folks aware of the $65,000,000,000 in unclaimed benefits available to support them if they are seeking to improve themselves through education and training programs. To reach out to people who might qualify for this help, Single Stop is working collaboratively with community colleges, which enroll many students who meet the low income requirements for these jobs.

I believe that reaching out to students in community colleges is waiting too long. HS Guidance counselors spend much (if not MOST) of their time working with college bound students, and pay little attention to the 40-50% of HS graduates who are NOT going to college and NOT in danger of failing to graduate. These are the Adrift students, unsure of what they will do once they graduate, eager to leave home and be independent, and completely clueless as to how to make this happen. An organization like Single Stop could explain to these kids that there are ways they could access government services to help them with that transition and that using these resources is no different than their classmates availing themselves of government subsidized scholarships. For better or worse, and I think it’s for worse, students have gotten the message that seeking government help is a sign of weakness… unless of course you are enrolling in the armed forces (a government “hand out”) or getting s government subsidized loan to enroll in college. As the article states:

(The fact that $65,000,000,000 designed to provide assistance is unspent) should enrage us. It’s better for all of us if children can eat nutritious food, if people can graduate instead of dropping out, if families can live in stable housing instead of shelters and get preventive health care instead of waiting for a problem to require the emergency room. And not just in the my-brother’s-keeper sense; it’s better for our wallets as well. Helping people to live up to their potential is an excellent investment.

It DOES anger me that this money is not being accessed… but what is especially enraging is the reasons outlined in the highlighted section of the next paragraph:

Many people don’t use benefits they qualify for because they don’t know about them. Others don’t want to deal with a sign-up process that seems deliberately designed to discourage use: requiring multiple visits to multiple offices dealing with multiple forms of disrespect, with kids in tow and no money for gas or a MetroCard. Many try to sign up but fail, and then give up.

This just in: the sign up process IS deliberately designed to discourage use in the same way the new requirement for a photo ID discourages voting. Complex enrollment procedures are not a bug: they are a feature. The thinking seems to be if we make it difficult enough to sign up for benefits we can make it difficult for people to use the money we’ve set aside and we can then claim the money wasn’t needed at all. We need to make it as easy to get welfare benefits as it is to get an AK-47 or a handgun.

Prekindergarten Suspensions

March 27, 2014 Leave a comment

The lead editorial in today’s NYTimes, “Giving Up on 4 Year Olds”, expresses dismay over the recent report noting the high suspension rates for minorities in prekindergarten, particularly minorities with disabilities. Anyone who knows even a little about child development and reads about the politicians vision for prekindergarten could see this crisis coming: expecting antsy four year olds to begin working on academics so that they will be “ready for school” (or more accurately, ready for tests) is misguided and unrealistic. My comment to the article summarizes my thinking on the wrongheadedness of this concept of prekindergarten:

What gets measured beginning in 3rd grade has an effect on how business is conducted in earlier grade levels— including prekindergarten. Duncan and Obama seem to envision prekindergarten as the first step in getting students ready to pass standardized tests once they get to be in third grade. This results in a misguided focus on “academics”, turning what should be a nurturing and exploratory experience into one that is regimented and focused. When students’ innate desire to explore and inquire is stifled it is not surprising that they “misbehave” and when they are herded into large classes that “misbehavior” needs to be “dealt with firmly”. Suspension is the ultimate penalty for repeated “misbehavior”.