Archive for January, 2015

The Golden Arches Come to Public Education

January 27, 2015 Comments off

NPR’s Anna Kamenetz recently gave a report on a study completed by NOLA school choice by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans suggesting that parent choice doesn’t always play out the way “free market” advocates think it will. Choice advocates believe that breaking the monopoly on public schools will create a competitive environment whereby parents will opt into schools that have better academic performance. This will create a virtuous circle where poor performing schools are driven out and only high performing schools remain.

From the outset I found this notion to be preposterous. If the free market worked in the fashion envisioned by “choice” advocates the Bronx would be full of grocery stores that offer the same items as those found in Bronxville and have sidewalk cafes comparable to those found in, say, Park Slope. Those advocating deregulated charter schools conveniently overlook the fact that poor neighborhoods and communities do not have car dealerships, department stores, boutiques, or hospitals that provide the wide array of consumer goods and services that are routinely available in the more affluent suburbs. The free market does not guarantee quality or equity for groceries, restaurants, consumer goods, or medical services… yet charter advocates seem to think it will provide “quality education” to economically disadvantaged children. After nearly a decade of nearly universal choice in NOLA (86% of the children do NOT attend their neighborhood school) here’s what the research found:

Parents, especially low-income parents, actually show strong preferences for other qualities like location and extracurriculars — preferences that can outweigh academics.

And what are the factors that parents value?

The study split families up into thirds based on the median income in their census tract. What they found was that the lowest-income New Orleans families were even more likely to pick schools that were close by, that offered extended days, and that had football and band in high school — and, conversely, they had a weaker preference for schools based on test scores.

This last point is crucial because it suggests that a choice-based system all by itself won’t necessarily increase equity… These parents appear to be more interested in factors other than academic quality as the state defines it. Maybe they have access to different, or less, information. If this is true, choice could actually increase, rather than diminish, achievement gaps within a city.

Based on my experience this is not at all surprising. The proximity means greater convenience and less of a “hassle cost”. What parent wants to put their child on a bus or drive them across town when the nearby school is comparable. The extended days provide working parents with child care for their elementary children. And good “football and band programs” are far more important to loosely engaged parents than “test scores”. Finally, parents are wise to the fact that test scores are not a reliable proxy for “quality” despite what politicians, economists, psycho-metricians, and privatizers believe. Informed parents, like informed travelers, rely less and less on metrics conceived by organization like AAA or Mobil Travel Guides and more and more on word-of-mouth reviews found in Trip Advisor.

There IS a lesson in all of this for public schools: instead of introducing “choice” they might provide all schools with after school programs and a robust extra-curricular program. Parents could opt out of the extended day if they wished to provide their children with less structured activities or activities different from those offered by the schools and extra-curriculars would remain optional. Oh… and last but not least… replace the test-driven metrics with “costumer reports” like those found in Trip Advisor.


The Disappearing Middle Class and Burgeoning School Population in Poverty

January 26, 2015 Comments off

Over the past several days, several articles cited a the Southern Education Foundation report indicating that more than half of the students in public schools qualify for free and reduced lunches. Yesterday’s Kennebec Journal editorial posted on line in had the strongest response to this finding. Titled “Public Schools Must Lead the Fight Against Poverty”, the editorial leads with this paragraph:

In the fight against poverty, public schools are the first line of defense. Teachers, counselors and administrators are in the best position to notice when a student is not getting enough food, doesn’t have the proper clothing or is otherwise experiencing something at home that makes learning difficult, and it is those adults who are in the best position to see that student gets the help he needs so that school is not such a struggle.

The article then enumerates all the ways public schools can intervene and assist students who enter with deficient academic and social skills and pulls no punches when it comes to the solution: more funding will be needed to accomplish all that public schools can and, according to the editors, must achieve if we hope to overcome the effects of poverty.

Midway through the editorial there is a brief paragraph offering an explanation of why the percentage of public school students raised in poverty is increasing:

There are a number of reasons for the increase — a rise in single-parent households and immigration, increased enrollment at private schools by those with means and stagnant wages amid rising costs — but the latest recession is not one of them.

NYTimes article in today’s newspaper provides a more detailed picture of the economic forces at play and the demographics of the “middle class” today as compared to 15 years ago:

But since 2000, the middle-class share of households has continued to narrow, the main reason being that more people have fallen to the bottom. At the same time, fewer of those in this group fit the traditional image of a married couple with children at home, a gap increasingly filled by the elderly.

The Times article shows that as people of my generation retire with pensions and social security, the percentage of over-65 members of the middle class is increasing. At the same time the unionized manufacturing jobs that offered decent wages and benefits to my generation are disappearing and being replaced by lower paying part-time jobs. The Times articles offers several profiles of middle class wage earners with school aged children who have fallen into the poverty range and while it doesn’t describe the impact on children it is obvious: job losses and wage decreases can only cause stress at home.

The Kennebec Journal editorial concludes with this assessment of what the public needs to do given the presence of so many children being raised in poverty:

The solution is a commitment to public education and all it has to accomplish.

That means not only valuing and rewarding the best educators, but also funding the pre-K and literacy programs that help low-income students get a fair start to school, as well as the preparatory and counseling initiatives that help them apply for and go to college.

That also means supporting the school-based social service programs that feed, clothe and counsel low-income students, and keep them engaged and learning after school and during the summer break.

It’s not easy, and it is certainly not cheap. But it is necessary. Failing to provide an equal education to low-income students is unfair when they make up a third of all students. When they make up more than half of all students, it’s a potential disaster.

To which I can only say: “Amen”.


Cuomo Declares “Crisis” Where None Exists, and Somewhere Reagan is Smiling

January 26, 2015 Comments off

I have read several articles and posts about Mario Cuomo’s State of the State speech wherein he declares that NYS schools are in a state of crisis…. but the NYTimes looked into the issue a couple of days ago and found no evidence to support that assertion. This quote captures the findings of independent education researchers:

In any case, experts said it would be hard to justify describing the situation in New York as a crisis, unless persistent mediocrity itself were a crisis. “Since the early ’90s, New York scored about average, and nothing’s changed,” said Tom Loveless, an education researcher and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, of the NAEP scores. “If New York schools are in a state of crisis, they’ve been in a state of crisis for 20 years.”

Well something HAS changed. It seems that Mr. Cuomo and his “reform” minded friends who operate or invest in privatized charter schools need to have a crisis declared in order to continue their expansion into the “market” of public education. A manufactured “crisis” will help accelerate the spread of these for-profit institutions across the state.

It also seems that Mr. Cuomo has joined the majority of governors who face financial challenges in declaring the “failure of public education” on “bad teachers”. Mr. Cuomo made the link explicit in his speech:

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, drew a contrast between students’ performance on state tests and teachers’ performance on their annual evaluations. Noting that only a third of students passed the state’s new reading and math tests, and that the vast majority of teachers received good marks, he said the current evaluation system was “baloney” and called for it to be made more stringent.

In Mr. Cuomo’s world there would be fewer “bad teachers” and higher test scores if only the evaluation systems were more stringent. But, as noted in earlier posts, Mr. Cuomo has created the low test score by instituting inappropriately scaled tests and Mr. Cuomo’s analysis of the evaluation systems overlooks the fact that many weak teachers leave the profession when they learn that they might be non-renewed, an action that requires no action by the local Board and is largely unreported in board minutes. Acknowledging that administrators are carefully and thoughtfully evaluating new teachers would not support the “crisis” narrative, though, and so it is unreported in the media and unappreciated by the public.

In declaring a “crisis” where none exists Mr. Cuomo is using the playbook of former President Ronald Reagan, “the great communicator” who declared government as the problem and appointed Terrell Bell whose publication “A Nation At Risk” started the whole meme of “failing schools”. Mr. Reagan would be pleased to see the son of one of his staunch liberal opponents extolling the virtues of the marketplace in public schools.