Archive for August, 2014

Remembering “A Nation At Risk” Part I

August 31, 2014 Comments off

A recent blog post from Diane Ravitch described the huge impact “A Nation at Risk” had on the public when it was issued. Many of the commenters lamented the fact that the mainstream media ignored the Sandia report, released in the early 1990s, which contradicted virtually all of the findings of the “Nation at Risk” report.

I began my service as Superintendent of Schools in 1981 and can attest to the outsize impact of “A Nation at Risk”. When it was published, I recall receiving enough copies for me to distribute to my school board members and administrators and advised that additional copies would be available for free or at least at cost. Like many of my colleagues, we saw this report as a means of waking the public to the need to support their public schools and to show that OUR schools were not “at risk”. By the time I took over my second assignment as Superintendent in Exeter NH, in 1984 we began examining our standardized test scores to see how we might improve on them. My assistant and I worked with the representatives of the company that published the standardized tests used in NH at that time and found a way to use the item analyses to determine the areas of the curriculum that contributed to our failure to achieve scores in the 95th percentile instead of the 85th percentile.

At one point during my four years at Exeter we received a grant from an anonymous donor for $10,000 to institute a program for gifted and talented students. The grant DID have on condition: we had to hire Joseph Renzulli as a consultant. While I was unfamiliar with Renzulli’s work at the time, my assistant had worked with him in CT and enthusiastically endorsed his work. At our first meeting with him, he asked me what I hoped to accomplish by implementing the gifted and talented program. I responded that I wanted to increase our test scores from the 85th percentile to the 95th percentile. He asked me why and I was taken aback. After a moment’s hesitation I gave this very bad response: “Why… because 95 is bigger than 85”. What followed was my first lesson in the hollowness of standardized test scores.

Unfortunately, I would need to wait two decades to get to a district where STATE standardized test scores and AP results no longer mattered and witness the advent of high stakes testing that continues unabated to this day.

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Private Public Partnerships: A Failed Magic Bullet

August 30, 2014 Comments off

Private Public Partnerships, or P3s, are one of the recent “silver bullets” proposed by those who want to “run government like a business”. But, as reported in the Pittsburg Post Gazette, these P3s are not quite as effective as advertised. First, some background on the P3s taken from the Gazette’s article:

President Ronald Reagan‘‍s plea to “get government off our backs” inspired a mistrust of government’‍s ability to efficiently provide roads, schools and other vital services at a cost taxpayers can afford. Mr. Reagan encouraged the belief that the private sector can do a better job. The result was replacing government workers with private sector workers who mow lawns around government buildings, collect trash, operate school cafeterias and buses, and provide other services under government contracts.

P3s are more far-reaching undertakings than hiring private companies as contractors. They involve turning over infrastructure to private investors who can design it, finance it, build it, operate it, and maintain it.

The ventures are attractive to cash-starved governments, which sometimes get hefty upfront payments. Even when they don‘‍t, investor funds enable governments to take on projects they might not otherwise be able to afford. The deals also fit many taxpayers’‍ notions about cutting waste, eliminating bureaucracy, and running government more like a business.

The article describes one of the celebrated P3 failures, Chicago’s decision to privatize parking meter collections that ultimately resulted in the city receiving “…$974 million less from the 75-year lease than it would have received by keeping the meters and operating them under the same terms it gave to the investors” but DID result in Morgan Stanley, who operates the system, receiving $61,000,000 reimbursement for “lost opportunities” when streets were closed for festivals and over $43,000,000 in profits. So, the Morgan Stanley shareholders got over $100,000,000 in profit while taxpayers lost the chance to save $974,000,000 on their bill. THIS is a good deal?

The four part series describes other adverse consequences of P3s that result primarily from overly optimistic revenue forecasts. For example, when a highway is built based on a long-range forecast based on a baseline of, say, 8 million fee-paying customers and only 7 million drivers participate, it results in the need to charge higher fees which, in turn, reduces the customer base even further. And what happens if the loan payments cannot be paid? No problem: the loans are backed by the federal government!

So… to recount: taxpayers don’t trust the government to build highways so they support having the government turn over the operation to the private sector who, in turn, earns profits or gets bailed out by the taxpayers if their revenue estimates are too high. Oh… and by charging fees they limit the use of these highways to those who can afford fees! Oh again… and because they are PRIVATE corporations their construction methods are not subject to public review or scrutiny.

Bottom line: P3s are an anti-democratic example of profiteering at its worst. They are a lose-lose proposition for taxpayers and a win-win proposition for shareholders.



So IS the Common Core Mandated or not?

August 29, 2014 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes has an article my Mokoto Rich reporting that Oklahoma lost its waivers because it failed to adopt the Common Core and did poorly on “…national tests. In 2013, only a third of fourth graders in the state reached proficiency in math and less than a third hit the benchmark in reading.” Waivers WERE granted to KS, VA, and IN even though they failed to adopt the Common Core. VA and IN “…adopted… standards that have been certified by the state’s universities”  but KS did not. The article is a muddle… but it’s really not Rich’s fault. The article is a muddle because the whole waiver process is a muddle. KS evidently GOT a waiver WITHOUT adopting the Common Core because, I goes, they didn’t do as poorly as OK on the standardized tests?

It’s all very confusing… which is why VT’s decision to sidestep the whole waiver process and have their school’s declared “failing” by NCLB seems to be the most sensible step in the Alice-in-Wonderland Waiver World of RTTT.

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