Archive for March, 2014

Surpluses and Privatization

March 27, 2014 Comments off

An article in today’s Pittsburgh Gazette describes the findings of the recently completed financial audit of Pittsburgh public schools, reporting that they had a surplus in excess of $20 million. The article described how revenues came in higher than anticipated and how expenditures still exceeded the budget but the net gain was $20 million… but the article didn’t emphasize that these savings benefitted taxpayers because they can be used to offset future taxes… and didn’t mention that these savings would, in all probability, disappear if schools were privatized because they would be passed along to shareholders  in the form of profits… and they didn’t mention whether the privatized schools in Pittsburgh were subject to the same scrutiny as the public schools— because they probably aren’t if PA courts apply the same logic as other states.

All of this budget policy is arcane and seldom newsworthy… but it is an important element of how government finances are managed and how budgets are built. The book Reinventing Government described how surplus management was often a function of state law and how laws defining the application of surpluses often create perverse incentives. Many states do not allow school districts to carry any surplus funds forward, which leads to a spend-it-or-lose-it mentality that consequently compels districts to go on spending sprees at the end of a year where revenues exceed expenditures. This spend-it-or-lose-it mentality can create a  culture of profligacy throughout the year as well as administrators try to minimize a positive fund balance since it will not result in any benefit to the district going forward. On the other hand, if the funds can be used to offset the amount to be raised in the subsequent year, administrators will be urged to suppress their spending to help build a reserve that might be needed for major construction projects or things like technology purchases. Cynics and skeptics look at this practice and assume that unions will use this money to fatten the contracts of teachers and administrators will happily submit to these contract benefits since their wages and benefits will increase correspondingly.

Businesspeople have a different idea. They look at this whole cycle and see opportunities for profit. If they take control of schools and don’t have to honor contracts, for profit schools find themselves in the same position as foreign car manufacturers had at the end of the 1960s. Since they don’t have any legacy costs they can offer the same level of services for a lower cost…. and to make matters worse, since they are private entities they don’t ave to follow the same rules as public schools when it comes to surplus management or, for that matter, public disclosure of their funds through audits.

When we prepared our budgets we always assumed replacement costs for teachers based on the middle step of the salary schedule and benefits that included 80% of a family health insurance policy, the employers share of social security, and whatever share we needed to pay toward the state pension: basically the average cost-per-teacher.  To make the math easy, we’ll say this was roughly $45,000 in wages and $15,000 in benefits per new teacher. A privately operated school starting from the ground up would use a different premise: they would assume they could hire teachers based on the first step of the contract, offer the Obamacare minimum health coverage, have a smaller social security payment, and offer no pension benefits whatsoever. The whole package might add up to $40,000. Now, if the new private school gets the same per pupil funding as the public school and doesn’t have to follow the same accounting rules, where does the surplus go? If you said “the taxpayers” you’re wrong…. it goes to the shareholders. And who are the shareholders? The hedge fund investors who put up the money. It doesn’t take an MBA in finance to see why businesspeople look at public schools and see $$$$$. Nor does it take an MBA in advertising to see how easy it is to sell the public on the idea that privatization will save them money while diverting their hard earned tax dollars into the pockets of the so called “reformers” who are speculating on these ventures.

Our Education Spring Goes National: Report from Fairtest

March 26, 2014 Comments off

To quote Smoky Robinson: “Like a snowball rolling down the side of a snow covered ill…. it’s growing”

Diane Ravitch's blog

Say no to high-stakes testing!

Say no to data mining of your children ,

Say no to corporate reform!

Say no to those who want to monetize our children!

Here is a report from Bob Schaeffer of Fairtest:

Anyone who still believes that the resistance to testing misuse and overuse is confined to a few big cities and “liberal” activists, should click through this week’s news clips. In fact, testing protests are spreading across “deep red” states” such as Alaska, Tennessee, Texas and Utah. And “conservative” commentators are speaking out against standardized exam overkill.

A Strong Right-Wing Voice Joins the Chorus: Revolt Against the Tyranny of Standardized Testing

Countering Fears About Opting Out

New School Tests Don’t Make the Grade

Alaska Legislature Advances Bill Repealing Exit Exam, Awarding Retroactive Diplomas

Chicago Parents Irate About School Officials Questioning Children About Test Boycott

Opt-Out Movement Gains Momentum…

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Chutes and Ladders

March 26, 2014 Comments off

A few days ago my wife and I played Chutes and Ladders with our granddaughter. A game designed in the 1950s or 1960s, Chutes and Ladders has moralistic overtones that reinforce the notion that hard work and honesty pay off while deception and laziness will lead you downward. If you do a good deed like bringing food to your best friend in her sickbed, you advance on a ladder… and the BIGGER the good deed, the higher the ladder. If you something wrong, like steal cookies from the cookie jar, though, expect a rapid descent down a chute. Thomas Frank used the Chutes and Ladders game as a backdrop to his recent article in Salon article titled “There is no Meritocracy: It’s Just the 1% and the Game is Rigged”. The article is mostly political in nature, and it is the best rationale I’ve read for why progressives are deeply dismayed with President Obama. Like Thomas Frank, I expected Obama to address the blatant wrongdoing by the bankers and their enablers, but instead he’s given them a free pass across the board. Like Frank, I hoped that the change Obama would bring was a restoration of true opportunity for all children to advance based on their hard work.

While education and Race to the Top are not elaborated upon, they are included in the article to underscore the point that “accountability” has different meanings for different groups:

The distressing fact is that Obama had perhaps the greatest chance of any president in recent years to smash the barriers that keep the talented from climbing the ladder, and he chose to do nothing. The sledgehammer was in the president’s hands, the nation was cheering for him to start pounding—and he walked away from the job.

Oh, he is ready to hold kids and teachers accountable, all right—to make sure they all take some Big Test and are sorted accordingly….

Frank then describes how banks were allowed to continue operating as they had in the past with regulations applied that gave the appearance of tightening up. He concluded that section of his article with this:

And that’s the age of Obama: The standardized tests are for real, but the stress tests are often for show. Accountability for thee, but not for me.

So… how it 2014 different from 2008? Teachers test scores are held accountable for their performance with their ratings based on a convoluted formula publicized in the newspaper and bankers continue to remain free of any form of accountability for bringing the world’s biggest economy to its knees by selling convoluted products that had no value for extraordinarily high prices. Teachers are falling down the chutes for working tirelessly and the ladders for bankers are getting higher and higher.

Datapalooza Misses the Mark

March 25, 2014 Comments off

Diane Ravitch’s post today opened with a Youtube clip that appalled her and many of her readers… and, to a certain extent appalled me but for wholly different reasons. I wrote the following comment with a link to this post:

I’m heartened by this development for several reasons: it is open source, which means anyone can use the framework and teachers could add to, edit, or delete modules and objectives (as opposed to CCSS); it facilitates a movement toward individualized mastery learning (as opposed to the current age-based-grade levels); it uses frequent formative assessments to measure performance and provides immediate feedback to students and teachers alike (as opposed to the tri-annual SBAM and PARCC), and it makes teachers into diagnosticians and collaborators (as opposed to technicians who robotically follow a prescribed CCSS curriculum).

Here’s some questions I’d pose to Ferriera and USDOE based on my comment:

  1. Why on earth do you even care what a student’s grade in a course is or what percentile the student scores in? If we REALLY want to abandon the “one size fits all” model we need to abandon the comparisons that result from such a system. If we move to a pure mastery system, which is the true promise of technology, we don’t need to have “percentile rankings” or “grades”. Does anyone really care how long it took me to learn how to drive sufficiently well to get a license? Or does anyone care that it took me three tries to pass the written part of the driver’s license test? Do I get a “percentile ranking” or a “GPA” on my driver’s license? The driver’s license, the bar examination, and medical board tests are all mastery measures and once someone passes they get to drive a car, practice law, and get to be called “Dr.”… even if they were in the lowest percentile.
  2. Do you realize that this kind of tailored instruction would make mastery the end result instead of holding time constant and allowing learning to vary? This big data system assumes that students can take as much time as they need to progress and assumes that the difference in the rate of learning is a feature and not a bug. This leads to my next question….
  3. Why on earth are you spending money on standardized tests if you want to move away from “one-size-fit-all learning?” The system of learning Ferriera describes wouldn’t require annual or tri-annual standardized tests. It would instead require formative assessments that build toward a mastery assessment…. and the system Ferriera describes
  4. Can’t you do a better job of explaining how teachers’ roles and responsibilities will change? Several commenters believe that if a system like this is put in place it will make them into “technicians”. Based on my interpretation of this presentation teachers will need to become diagnosticians and collaborators who can help students when they are stuck in loops, customize instruction when there are no resources readily available on the Knewton network.
  5. Watch the Khan TED talk where he underscores what CAN’T be taught using on-line modules… and compare those skills to the ones valued by the business community. The arts, writing, verbal communication, and interpersonal skills are all important in life after formal education and none of them are taught particularly well in schools now and none of them are measured effectively with the standardized testing regimen beloved by “reformers”.

Finally, for those anguishing over runaway data collection, we made an unwitting trade-off a long time ago when we allowed our personal information to be aggregated in exchange for free search engines, convenient on-line purchasing services, and free on-line entertainment.

And last… but not least… advertisers are gathering more and better data than they ever did before…. but advertisers were always gathering data on us. Analogously, Ferriera is pointing out that data mining provides educators with the same opportunity to gather more and better data… and we can’t deny that we’ve been gathering it all along. Just look at the stuffed file folders in the archives of you school district’s repository.


Real Science and Junk Science

March 24, 2014 Comments off

Diane Ravitch has had several blog posts offering frightening examples of the misapplication of VAM and the misuse of the term “standards” as it appears in the Common Core State Standards. (you can get to many of these posts by going here). In reading these in succession after being away from email for a couple of days I came to the following conclusion, which I posted as a comment:

The public generally perceives standards as unyielding and inflexible, and the “reformers” who marketed the common core state standards know that… they also know that the public generally perceives “standardized test scores” as a valid measure of student and school performance… this whole CCSS is a marketing tool, selling “privately operated” schools as the solution to “government run” schools

But there is a need for national standards if we hope to avoid the embarrassment of having STATE standards that incorporate creationism, which would be a good workaround in those states where there is pushback to NATIONAL standards as you noted in an earlier post ( If those “reformers” promoting the CCSS are truly interested in academic advancement for our country they should be leading the charge to have states promote real science like evolution instead of jun science like VAM…. but I don’t expect the “reform” crowd to be speaking up for science any time soon.

Some bloggers, most notably Bill Duncan here in NH, seem to believe the motives behind the CCSS are innocuous in terms of their intent… and I thought as much until a couple of months ago when the Tea Party and fundamentalists pushback began. Since then I have read no editorials from, say, Bill Gates or David Coleman on the need for rigorous standards in science, literature, or social studies. I have read no editorials from anyone associated with the development of the standards suggesting they were subject to revision or editing. Absent the advocacy for teaching proven science and/or written assurances that the standards are, in fact, flexible and capable of being edited, I can only conclude that their primary purpose is to facilitate the development of standardized tests that can be used to measure teacher performance via the unproven science of value added measure. If anyone knows of any article pushing states to abandon “creation science” or underscoring the ability to revise and improve the standards, please disabuse me of my beliefs.

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Comment: The Common Core “Standards” Are Not Standards

March 24, 2014 Comments off

Comment: The Common Core “Standards” Are Not Standards.

I’m cross-posting this instead of the original because it includes two important points which lead to one overarching conclusion:

  1. The issues Diane Ravitch raises regarding the definition of “standards” are validated by someone outside the field of education
  2. The NY Times is uninterested in publishing anything that is contrary to their narrative that test-driven reform is good

The only reason the Common Core State Standards are not “revised, updated and sometimes redacted” is that such standards cannot be measured with a standardized test…. and testing is the backbone of the privatization movement.

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Choice’s Parents CAN’T Make

March 24, 2014 Comments off

Common Dreams cross posted an article from Valerie Strauss titled “School Reformers Love Choice Except When….”, than elaborated on the following list

  • Parents want to opt out of standardized tests
  • Parents their neighborhood school to remain open and provided with resources
  • Parents want to elect school boards after legislators have eliminated them
  • Parents want to see not only the test results but the standardized tests themselves
  • Parents don’t want their child to take any online courses (Some states require at least one on-line course for graduation) 
  • Parents want a well rounded curriculum
  • Parents don’t want their child’s teacher evaluated in any way through the use of test scores

Ms. Strauss invited readers to add to the list, so I offered one more choice parents can’t make:

  • Parents want to send their child to a nearby school in a neighboring affluent district

Not every parent can afford to live in the best school districts in America and those who can afford to live there are often resentful of “social engineering” efforts to equalize school funding so that parents residing in less affluent districts have the same opportunities for their children. If this problem were easy to fix there would not be unresolved lawsuits on school funding in dozens of states: legislators would have solved it by raising taxes to provide resources for schools so that every child has an equal opportunity to learn,