Archive for September, 2014

Columbus Media Discover Poverty’s Impact

September 22, 2014 Comments off

Today’s Columbus Dispatch featured an education article by Jim Siegal titled “Data Link Poverty, School Performance in Ohio” that stated what educators have known for decades:

No matter what measure is used — performance index, proficiency scores, ACT scores — the latest results are clear: Poverty rates continue to have a direct, negative link to Ohio student achievement.

To illustrate this reality in graphic form, the paper printed these three charts:


Here’s a question for the politicians in Ohio and every state in the union who claim that we need to use data to inform our decisions: what does this data tell you? Does it suggest that “bad teachers” are the problem? Does it suggest that if teachers were paid for performance of children in poverty would improve? Does it suggest that Teacher tenure is the problem? Does it suggest that teachers unions are the problem? Fortunately some legislators in Ohio are starting to see the light:

“If we are going to address poverty in the state of Ohio, the first thing we need to do is figure out how to start educating these kids,” said Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

There is just no way around it that we’re going to need to invest money in different ways than what we’ve been doing, because what we’ve been doing isn’t working.

So… how has Ohio been “investing money?” They are one of a handful of states that have supported on-line for-profit charter schools, advocated the removal of tenure for teachers, tried to link teacher pay to test scores, and issued report cards that provide parents with information about the performance of their child’s school. Has any of this worked? And since it hasn’t worked, what might work better?

It’s going to take a significant investment, but I can’t think of a better way to jump-start the economy,” she said. “If we have this many kids coming out of our schools incapable of doing jobs in the 21st century, you need to start there rather than jobs programs. Many of the interventions we look at to start the economy are coming too late.”

The data make an “extremely strong case” for more early-childhood education, Lehner said. Last year, she pushed for $100 million for early education and eventually got $48 million.

ASSUMING Ms. Lehner is serious about making a “significant investment”, early interventions are a far more productive avenue for spending than merit pay based on test scores and a far more productive use of political capital than arguing with unions and teachers about tenure.

For one Ohioan, this was not news at all:

Howard Fleeter, who analyzed the data on behalf of Ohio’s major public-education organizations, knows the correlation between poverty and performance isn’t exactly a breakthrough. The issue has been discussed nationally since at least the 1960s, and his Ohio report-card data back to 2007 show similar correlations each year.

The fact that we’re still looking at a graph in 2014 that shows this pattern is disturbing,” Fleeter said.

Actually, the “fact that we’re still looking at this graph” is evidence that the likelihood of political action is unlikely. It’s too easy to blame teachers for the failure that results from the effects of poverty… and it’s too hard to advocate for higher taxes, especially if those taxes go to the “takers” who are finding it hard to find work and whose children are suffering as a result. Here’s hoping this set of charts, probably the 50th set of such charts, will make a difference.

RTTT’s Overreach

September 22, 2014 Comments off

“Washington State Should Not Lose it’s NCLB Waiver”, one of yesterday’s blog posts by Diane Ravitch, included a petition a group of Washington public education leaders intend to send to Arne Duncan appealing for him to  rescind his decision to withdraw WA’s waiver because the State legislature failed to pass a law requiring VAM as part of teacher evaluations. The petition will include a link to a web site that will provide indicators that WA’s schools are not “failing” and includes several salient points on the way the tests are designed.

The petition misses one key point, however: NCLB and especially RTTT are expropriating policy areas that rightfully belong to State and local boards. I am no constitutional lawyer, but I seem to recall that the constitution gives states the authority to determine the kind of schooling their children need. Brown vs. Board of Education, which some might construe as an invasion of “states rights” wasn’t an EDUCATIONAL issue: it was a civil rights issue. NCLB and RTTT are different. When NCLB passed the State and local boards effectively ceded key decisions to the federal government. The Federal government would establish categories for the classification of schools and dictate the use of standardized tests as a key means of classification. RTTT took this a step further and, in doing so, flagged the overreach on the part of USDOE.

I think the The letter writers should have used their petition as an opportunity to explain to Duncan (AND Obama AND Congress) that STATE and LOCAL Boards set policy, not the Federal Government. Hopefully RTTT’s overreach will become evident to voters in ALL states and public education can get the testing genie back in the bottle.

Schooling is Now a Commodity

September 21, 2014 Comments off

Why Federal Ratings Wont Rein in College Cost”, the Upshot column by Susan Dynarski in today’s NYTimes, asserts that the proposed USDOE college rankings won’t have an appreciable impact on the spiraling costs of college. Why?  Because the costs of public colleges that enroll “the vast majority” of the students enrolled in post-secondary schools are controlled by State legislatures and they are increasingly shifting the burden of those costs to students. Dynarski summarizes this phenomenon in these paragraphs:

First, consider public colleges (attended by about 80 percent of undergraduates), where tuition has grown faster than inflation for decades. From 1988 to 2013, average tuition at four-year public colleges more than doubled, even after adjusting for inflation.

Yet here is a surprising fact: Public colleges are collecting about the same revenue per student today as they were 25 years ago. In 1988,educational revenue per full-time-equivalent student at public colleges was $11,300; in 2013, it was $11,500. (These amounts are adjusted for inflation and are expressed in 2013 dollars.)

That’s just a 3 percent increase. How can this be? If tuition has doubled, shouldn’t public colleges be getting double the revenue?

This reader was not at all surprised that public college operating costs are flat over the past 25 years. The same is probably true for public education costs. As I noted in the comment I wrote, this same shift is subtly taking place in K-12 schools where fees are increasingly levied for athletics, registration in AP courses, textbooks and materials of instruction, busing, etc. This is happening because politicians do not want to raise taxes for any reason. As a result, the costs of educating the next generation are being borne by local property taxes that only affluent communities can afford leaving economically disadvantaged and minority students in the lurch. Instead of asking taxpayers to cover the costs, the political “leaders” are developing ranking systems for schools that provide parents and students with “consumer information” so they can make “an informed choice”.

After explaining the reality of cost-shifting, Dynarski spends the balance of the article explaining the need for a well-conceived measures based on solid data. This call for ratings accepts the view that schooling is not the responsibility of the community but rather a commodity that K-12 parents and post-secondary students can intelligently “buy” if they have enough money or are willing to take out a loan. This kind of thinking contributes to the inequality of our country and erodes our sense of community. EVERY child is entitled to have access to a high quality education and EVERY citizen should share in that cost.

Teaching Fear and Getting Grenade Launchers

September 20, 2014 1 comment

Yesterday I had a chance to spend time with my granddaughter who just started Kindergarten in a rural Vermont school… and I found that fear is part of the hidden curriculum in public schools. When I asked her about her first week of school she told me about her music lesson and then told me that her class spent time in the basement so they could “hide from bad guys”.  She explained to me that this basement foray occurred after hearing the teacher explain 9-11, which, according to my kindergartner, was “a bunch of bad guys attacking us”. While I am not certain what was explained to the kindergartners or what the intention of the lesson was, I AM certain what was taken away from the lesson: be afraid… be very afraid!

This morning Diane Ravitch’s blog reported that San Diego schools decided to return the armored vehicle they received from the Pentagon. But my granddaughter’s report helped me understand why a school district might think receiving a grenade launcher, and M-16, or an armored vehicle might seem reasonable.  When kids (and parents) are fearful, grenade launchers might protect them from “bad guys”… oh, and as for playing outside after school? Maybe it’s not such a good idea. After all, “bad guys” lurk out there as well.

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Fenno’s Paradox and Schools

September 20, 2014 Comments off

Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell’s recent column, “Actually Public Schools are Getting Better, Not Worse”, describes a political science phenomenon known as “Fenno’s Paradox”:

It’s a bit like “Fenno’s paradox,” named for political scientist Richard Fenno Jr.: Americans hate Congress but like their own congressman; they hate the public school system but like the school they actually interact with.

There is a difference between Congress and public education, though: as Rampell notes in her column there is clear and unambiguous evidence that public education is functioning effectively and improving over time. The problem, as she describes it, is that the public’s expectations are ever increasing, adult’s memories of “the good old days when schools were tougher” are likely distorted, and the media’s “public school’s are failing” meme has gotten more and more traction over time.

She concludes her column with this somewhat measured praise for public education:

The truth is, today’s young people do need more, or at least different, kinds of training and education to succeed in the global marketplace for talent. And plenty of policy changes — like making the most challenging school districts more attractive places to work — could help improve outcomes for our most disadvantaged students. But in the meantime, let’s stop denying the measurable, if modest, progress that U.S. schools have made in the last half-century.

Making the most challenging school districts more attractive places to work” is a nice turn of phrase, but it glosses over the reality that accomplishing this high-minded outcome would require huge sums of money. To make the most challenging districts attractive places to work would require Congress to upgrade facilities, provide support services for children raised in poverty, increase staff so that teachers have manageable class sizes, and improve wages so that teachers in challenging districts have the same baseline compensation as teachers in affluent districts. That would require Congress to improve IT’S performance to the same level as public education… and require voters to insist that funds be available to improve every student’s opportunities. Alas, Congress’ action may be a reflection of the public’s silence on this issue. Another paradox, I’ll call it Goldstein’s Paradox (for the late MD politician Louis Goldstein) is that when it comes to paying taxes everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die.

To my Niece Who’s Going on Strike

September 19, 2014 1 comment

I learned with dismay that my niece’s school district in OH is going on strike. As a former Superintendent, I always avoided taking sides in labor relations, advocating that both sides seek a settlement instead of a “victory”. While I am not familiar with all the details, there some facts that seem especially problematic:

  • The board talked to the press about the offer before the teachers did
  • The board offered binding arbitration and the teachers refused
  • The board wants “merit pay” to be included as at least an “option” for the teachers to consider
  • The teachers want to cap class sizes
  • The teachers want to retain their current health benefits while the Board wants to offer a lump sum in lieu of benefits— presumably to get the money they need to provide the additional “merit” compensation

There are some political realities to strikes that are also problematic.

  • BOTH SIDES LOSE SUPPORT DURING A STRIKE: To paraphrase Al Shanker:  “When the board calls the teachers “greedy, lazy, good-for-nothings” and the teachers call the Board members “hard-headed, heartless, know-nothings” the public believes them both.
  • AND…. BOTH SIDES NEED TO KEEP THE EYE ON THE PRIZE: Ultimately, both parties presumably want to pass a HIGHER budget if the board is serious about giving teachers performance pay and the teachers want to cap class size. A long strike with angry exchanges will make budget passage a challenge.
  • THE MEDIA LOVE CONFLICT: Facts will take a holiday during the strike and the media will ultimately decide “what the strike is about”… and it will not be a nuanced perspective on the issues, it will be a series of sound bites. A cautionary note: if the editors of the newspaper or the owners of TV and radio stations take the board’s side the public’s support for the teachers could diminish quickly…. and, based on my reading of Diane Ravitch’s reports from OH it seems the OH media have taken the side of fiscally conservative Boards and “reform” politicians against “unions”. Social media may be the best hope for the teachers to “make their case” to voters… but only if the reach extends beyond parents.
  • MANY MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC HAVE SEEN THEIR PAY AND BENEFITS DIMINISH: As noted in many previous posts, many middle class voters have lost the benefit packages corporations offered in the past and this has turned many voters against teachers who “traded” higher compensation for better benefits.
  • ARBITRATION IS PERCEIVED AS A “FAIR WAY” TO SETTLE LABOR DISPUTES: I trust that the Uniserv representative is ready to explain to voters in my niece’s community why the teachers decided to avoid arbitration as a means of reaching an agreement…. because if it doesn’t the public may be inclined to have sympathy for the Board.

As readers of this blog know, I believe merit pay is a losing proposition (see “Merit Pay: An Agreeable Fantasy” previously published in Education Week for details), especially merit pay that is linked in any way to test scores. Furthermore I believe that having manageable class sizes and a wide array of course offerings and support services is essential for ALL school districts, not just the most affluent ones.

I HOPE this turns out well for the parents, students, and community members in my niece’s community… but fear that both sides may be seeking a “victory” where a “settlement” is needed.

Where You Live Effects How You Do in School

September 19, 2014 Comments off

Thomas Edsall’s NYTimes op ed piece poses the question “Does Moving Poor People Work?”, and the bottom line answer is “Yes BUT…”

In the article Edsall reviews several longitudinal studies involving the effects of relocating poverty stricken families from public housing. In a study done by University of Chicago researcher Jens Ludwig that triggered the essay on housing vouchers, the researchers found “mixed results”. While some measures of well being improved,

“…a housing voucher that allowed recipients to move into a “low poverty” area – had “no consistent detectable impacts on adult economic self-sufficiency or children’s educational achievement outcomes, even for children who were too young to have enrolled in school at baseline.”

Ludwig’s findings were challenged by “some of the nation’s most prominent social science researchers”, notably William Julius Wilson who contended the study was flawed because those

“…who left public housing moved into segregated neighborhoods nonetheless, far from employment opportunities and with equally bad schools – often the same schools.”

Robert Sampson, a colleague of Wilson’s in the sociology department at Harvard, expressed additional concerns with the study, noting (with my emphasis added) that:

“…many of the adults in the program had lived in extreme poverty for decades and that the children, who were on average 11 years old when they entered the program, had spent their early years living in adversity. “The result,” he wrote, “is that developmental effects are difficult if not impossible to study in the research design,” which does not reveal the “lagged effects of severe disadvantage.”

Moreover, James Heckman, who has studied cognition in depth, concludes that by age 11 the opportunity for cognitive growth is limited. This makes any conclusions about the effects of this voucher program on academic performance questionable.

While the results of the Ludwig study were mixed, a study by the Rand Foundation done I’m Montgomery County demonstrated that moving poverty stricken families into decidedly middle class neighborhoods and schools DID make a difference:

The low-income minority children from public housing all started with similar math scores. But after seven years, those who went to schools where fewer than 20 percent of their classmates were poor shot ahead of those who went to schools where 20 to 80 percent of their classmates were poor. This difference in trajectories is shown in Figure 1 (below), in which the green line tracks math scores for poor children (defined as those receiving “free and reduced-priced meals” – a.k.a. FARM recipients) in relatively affluent schools, and the red line tracks math scores for poor children attending schools with much higher percentages of fellow students receiving FARM assistance.edsall-chart-master315Edsall concludes his article with this paragraph:

We have to figure out a better way to approach intervention, whether it’s education-based or neighborhood-based or both. Otherwise how can we interrupt the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage we are only beginning to understand?

Edsall didn’t note in the article that any decision to locate public housing in relatively affluent neighborhoods is likely to be contentious… nor did he note that “education-based” interventions will require additional revenues. My take on this: we already understand what we need to do to “… interrupt the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage”… we just don’t have the political will to do it.