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Chicago School District’s Financial Chicanery

November 28, 2014 Comments off

Yves Smith wrote a post today about an investigative report recently completed by the Chicago Tribune describing the adverse consequences of the Chicago School District’s decision to “…obtain $1 billion of needed ten-year financing not through the time-and-tested route of a simple ten year bond sale but the supposedly cost-saving mechanism of issuing a floating-rate bond and swapping it into a fixed rate.”  While the technical flaws inherent in this decision by the school district are dense and arcane, it appears that MANY school districts and public entities fell prey to the use of questionable investment tools. Here’s Smith’s overview:

What is important about this story is that the CPS’ sorry experience has been replicated at state and local entities all over the US and abroad, yet remarkably few have been willing to sue. In some cases, it’s likely that rank corruption was involved, that the consultants hired to vet the deal were cronies and not up to the task, or worse, that key people at the issuer were overly close to the banks involved. In other cases, officials are afraid of banks, that if they sue them, they’ll be put on a financing black list and will have trouble fundraising. That’s nonsense by virtue of how competitive and fee-hungry bank are. And the more government authorities that got the nerve to sue, the less noteworthy any particular case would be.

Smith then summarizes the Tribune’s findings, which indicate that the Chicago school district experienced every problem in the highlighted phrase above. And here’s what is maddening about this:

  • Mayor Emmanuel’s unwillingness to sue the banks will shift the blame to the school district in the same way victims of predatory loans are blamed for their gullibility in accepting liar loans from banks.
  • The school district will be required to make budget cuts to offset the revenue lost as a result of financial mismanagement… and the budget cuts will affect the children in the schools while the banks who made the loans will be held harmless
  • The involvement of investors who make contributions to political campaigns and stand to gain if more for-profit charter schools open is suspicious.
  • It appears that these financial decisions were made during Duncan’s tenure as CEO of the CPS… a link that Smith did not make but which is not lost on many education policy wonks like me.

From my perspective, this is yet another example where de-regulation failed, where banks take the risk and taxpayers pay the price, and government takes the blame.

On USDOE’s Tracking of Teacher Prep

November 28, 2014 Comments off

The USDOE announced earlier this week that it plans to require states “…to develop rating systems for teacher preparation programs that would track a range of measures, including the job placement and retention rates of graduates and the academic performance of their students.” Unsurprisingly one of the metrics that USDOE is mandating as part of the rating system is some form of Value Added measures using standardized tests.

NYTimes article by Mokoto Rich outlines the rationale for this mandate, and it’s full of subtle reinforcements of “reform” advocates, which are flagged in red bold italicsEarly in the article Rich quotes Arne Duncan who frames this efforts as a “nothing short of a moral issue” because when they begin their careers teachers often “…have to figure out too much on the job by themselves.” The solution to this problem is to withhold grant funds from teacher preparation programs that do not pass muster. These paragraphs from the article exemplifies the attitude of the USDOE toward teacher preparation programs, most of which are offered in state funded colleges and universities:

Education experts said the new regulations were necessary to spur change, particularly among colleges that draw most of their tuition revenue from candidates enrolled in education programs.

“I think you need to wake up the university presidents to the fact that schools of education can’t be A.T.M.s for the rest of the college or university,” said Charles Barone, policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that pushes for test-based teacher evaluations and has battled teachers’ unions. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink— the UNIONS are the problem with introducing “reform”.)

It is difficult to argue against more regulations and accountability, but there are several aspects of this proposal that are troubling:

  • It reinforces the notion that teachers are the primary reason schools are “failing”: If this initiative was part of a multi-pronged comprehensive plan to increase the public’s respect for the teaching profession it would be very helpful to public education. Instead, this plan makes it sound as if State colleges that prepare students are to blame for the struggles that teachers encounter in their first year, that they are to blame for the low standardized test scores that children in poverty achieve (but presumably NOT responsible for any of the high test scores in affluent districts), and that they accept unqualified teacher candidates in order to line their pockets.
  • It reinforces the notion that standardized tests can be used to measure teacher performance: VAM is a sham and the USDOE’s continued insistence that it be incorporated in accountability measures doesn’t change that reality. Oh… and Rich reinforces the “reform” meme that States CHOSE this methodology of student accountability and will therefore CHOOSE this methodology to measure teacher performance with this quote: “Although the rules do not require tests, 42 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have agreed with the Department of Education to develop teacher performance ratings that include test scores.” 
  • It implicitly reinforces the notion that programs like TFA are superior to “traditional” teacher training programs: One of the underreported changes that RTTT introduced was a deemphasis on districts reporting on the number of “Highly Qualified” teachers they had on the staff, a change that coincided with the promotion of programs like TFA and the expansion of deregulated for-profit charter schools. It will be interesting to see how TFA can sustain it’s standing as a quality teacher preparation program given the fact that most TFA classroom teachers leave the field after 2 years…. and even more interesting to see how USDOE takes action against State Boards who award charters to schools headed by CEOs who lack teaching credentials.
  • It implies that the ultimate value of college education is employability:  All of the accountability schemes I’ve read about to date imply that employability is more important than versatility: that is, learning a specific skill set is more important than learning how to learn. This is a terrible assumption to make because it assumes the entry skills required in today’s workforce are not going to change and this is clearly NOT the case in public education nor is it true in any field. USDOE and undergraduate colleges  cannot predict what the workforce requirements will be in 2050 any more than my college could have foreseen that I’d be sitting at home with access to the library of congress  listening to a collection of customized music selected for me by a computer algorithm sharing my views with readers across the country and (based on the information WordPress provides) across the globe. The research skills University of Pennsylvania required for my dissertation were obsolete 20 years later and the skills they require today will change in the next 20 years.
  • It assumes that “market incentives” driven by the rating system will increase the number of STEM teachers. The article includes this priceless quote based on the daft logic that job placement metrics will somehow enable teacher training institutions to motivate undergraduates to change their majors:

    Using metrics like job placement makes common sense, said Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which administers a program for people training to be high school teachers, because it would force programs to train people for actual job openings.

    “Education schools and universities educate a lot of elementary school teachers, an area that’s glutted,” Mr. Levine said. “On the other hand, we definitely need science and math teachers, which they don’t prepare.” 

Accountability is needed… but NOT the “reform” driven accountability advocated by the USDOE that will continue to demonize teachers as the cause of “failing schools” and assumes that STEM teachers will materialize if the metrics are right…

Computers and Conservatism

November 27, 2014 Comments off

Hack EducationAudrey Watters weekly blog, is always engaging and chock full of articles that are not typically covered in the mainstream press. Like one of my other favorite bloggers, Yves Smith who writes the Naked Capitalism blog, Watters offers an array of links with pithy, funny, and occasionally obscene commentary on each of the articles. Her one word comment to a link to a post from Heartland  Institute’s “Somewhat Reasonable” titled “How On-Line Education Can Save Conservatism” was: “Shudder“. After reading it I had the same response.

Heartland Institute is a Chicago based “30-year-old national nonprofit research organization dedicated to finding and promoting ideas that empower people.” A quick inspection of it’s home page indicates the website has a trove of articles on the climate change hoax, the benefits of free enterprise, the importance of liberty, and the idea that liberals are taking over. Here is it’s mission statement, with my emphases added:

The mission of The Heartland Institute is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems. Such solutions include parental choice in education, choice and personal responsibility in health care, market-based approaches to environmental protection, privatization of public services, and deregulation in areas where property rights and markets do a better job than government bureaucracies.

The Heartland Institute is a national nonprofit research and education organization based in Chicago. Founded in 1984, it is tax exempt under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code. It is not affiliated with any political party, business, or foundation.

Heartland has gained the endorsement of some of the top scholars, thinkers and politicians in the world – including Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, former Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, radio talk show host and constitutional scholar Mark R. Levin, and conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). See all the heavyweights who praise Heartland here.

Here’s what made me shudder: some of the ideas advocated in the article written by Justin Harkin echo ideas advocated in this blog and many other blogs written by those who believe that technology could make it possible to individualize education… and underscores the reality that if public education does not encourage cross communication among different economic classes and among children coming from households with markedly differing views on the world, technology will ultimately lead to a nation that is even more divided and more contentious than we have today.

The article begins with a litany describing how “U.S. education is rife with liberalism” because, as presumably everyone knows, “Teachers colleges and teachers unions have worked tirelessly to ensure that school systems across the country are stocked with educators that reject traditional free-market and liberty-focused curricula.” It goes on to provide survey data from UCLA faculty indicating the majority of them identify themselves as “far left” or “liberal”. At the end of the opening section it poses the question of how conservative parents might deal with this reality, answering that question with this paragraph:

The obvious answer is for parents to send children to private schools that embrace personal responsibility and liberty or to start homeschooling. In both situations, however, time, funding, and the teaching ability of the parent may stand in the way as nearly insurmountable obstacles. This is where the advancement of online education could save the day.

The rationale for using mediated on-line learning is very similar to the rationale often advanced in this blog:

Digital learning stands on its own or adds great blended value because it can adapt to the capacity and speed of individual learners, provide minute-by-minute feedback on learning progress, and provide rewards suitable for individual learners. It is similar to an imaginary inexhaustible, highly skilled tutor.

Justin Harkin then outlines how on-line learning to “…advance the cause of liberty”, describing the “astounding” results achieved by “highly successful private and charter schools (that) have taken advantage of this new technology,” offering Rocketship as an exemplar. His article concludes with this call to arms:

…It’s up to conservatives, Tea Party groups, private schools that espouse liberty, and homeschools to build educational systems that promote the values that built America. Technology has made the once-reasonable excuses of cost, location, and time no longer applicable.

With some hard work and innovative thinking, conservatives now have the opportunity to combat the liberal tide that has swept across the country’s education system over the past 50 years.

The call to arms to abandon public schools on the right is mirrored to a degree by the call to arms to abandon the testing regimen among progressives and the fact that technology DOES make it easier to home school, to offer alternative education programs for children, or to “un-school” could lead to a generation of students who never hear viewpoints that are antithetical to those held by their parents.

I may have a romanticized view of my schooling. I recall being in classes taught by both liberal and conservative teachers, both progressive and traditional teachers, and teachers of different races and ethnicities. I was in classes with “gifted” and “average” students— or more accurately classes with classmates whose parents attended college and classmates whose parents worked in the local factories or on the local farms. I was exposed to a full spectrum of political views and Western religions.

I may also have a romanticized view of the era I grew up in, the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was allowed to explore the woods near our house, play pick-up ball games with kids of all races and backgrounds, and went on family camping vacations across the United States. I was active in our church youth fellowship, played piano and guitar, acted in school plays, and, in retrospect, was generally happy with the opportunities I had in public school.  More importantly, I had a sense that the community cared about our generation and wanted us to have a better life. There was a hope that we would not have any more wars, that we would achieve racial harmony, that everyone would have a chance to get ahead, and we had a responsibility to help those who were less fortunate. Did I get that sense from my parents? From the three major networks who broadcast the news and offered TV programs? From the teachers in my school?

The homeschooling and charter schooling advocated in the Heartland blog and the Opt Out and Un-Schooling movements are all driven by disenfranchised parents who believe that public schools are too constraining or inculcating the wrong values. As technology advances, public education needs to make it clear that one of it’s primary functions is to teach children how to live in a democracy under the rule of law. It cannot do that if the school district boundaries segregate students based on economics and— yes– race, or if parents who espouse “liberty” and “Christian values” withhold their children, or if parents who value creativity and despise the regimentation resulting from standardized tests abandon public schools. It cannot do that if children stay at home working in front of computers or attend seminars with other children with like-minded parents. The fragmentation that is envisioned in the Heartland blog… that makes me shudder.