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Middle School Application Blues in NYC… Where Choice = Headaches for Parents and Needless Pressure on Kids

September 18, 2015 Comments off

My daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, wrote a post on Facebook:

(My son) brought home a handout called ‘Your Next Steps’, which outlines the long and complicated middle school application process. It begins… and hopefully ends well. We’ll let you know next spring.

In nearly every town and city in America 5th grade students and their parents are not subjected to a “long and complicated” application to Middle School. Instead, for better or worse they attend the middle school where they are assigned by the district, which in most cases across the country is the one closest to where they reside. New York is different, though. It has different tiers of middle schools: some are competitive ones where acceptance rates are lower than 10%; others are magnet schools that screen children based on applications they submit; and– lowest on the totem pole– are the neighborhood schools that offer generic programs. High Schools have a similar system, which effectively means that students who wish to attend a competitive high school or specialized magnet school should make certain their child gets into a program other than the generic one offered  in their neighborhood school.

An article from the DNA Info blog written last year by Amy Zimmer offered an interactive map of middle school acceptance rates in 2013-14 and included this bit of information:

Across the city, 65 middle school programs accepted less than 10 percent of their applicants last year, making the public schools just as selective as Ivy League universities like Brown and UPenn, according to data DNAinfo obtained from the Department of Education through a Freedom of Information Law request.

And that paragraph was followed by these:

The low acceptance rates mean high stress levels for parents who say the middle school application process is just as complicated as applying to college — but for 10-year-olds.

“It was rather traumatic,” Harlem resident Robin Miles said of the year spent finding a middle school for her daughter, Olivia DuFord. “The city has not figured out yet how to simplify or even streamline the process.” 

And the process, as described later in the article and below, requires a lot of time and research on the part of the student… and inherently requires testing to determine which schools a child is eligible to attend:

Fifth-graders fill out a single application each December ranking all the middle schools they are eligible to attend, and then each district has a different way of choosing which students win spots at which school.

The key phrase in this sentence is “..they are eligible to attend”because many schools require test scores above a certain level which deny entry to students who fail to make the cut… and the cut scores for “gifted and talented” identification are as arbitrary as the cut scores for determining failing schools.

This application process is inherently unfair. If my daughter and her husband, both of whom have advanced degrees, find this application process daunting, imagine the difficulty someone without a high school degree or someone with no college background is encountering. Or how difficult it is for a single mom working two part-time jobs to find the time to review the reams of information on the middle school options her child has.

I have an idea for the city: instead of making parents go through this arduous process of selecting a middle school that might require burdensome transportation and after school care logistics, offer a high quality program for all children at all schools in the city. By subjecting middle schools to market forces, the city is subjecting parents to paperwork and 10 year old children to needless pressure. Restoring strong neighborhood middle schools would go a long way to restoring sanity— and equity– to public education.

Will Udacity’s Nanodegrees lead to Perelman’s Micro-Vouchers?

September 17, 2015 2 comments

In 1993 Lewis Perelman wrote a thought provoking book titled “Schools Out” which described how computer technology could eventual lead to a fragmentation of public education through the creation of “micro vouchers” that would enable students to take courses where they wanted to and when they wanted to. That same year, libertarian writer David Boaz wrote a book titled “Market Liberalism: A Paradigm for the 21st Century” that included a chapter by Perelman titled “The Learning Revolution” that provides a blueprint for what is transpiring today in education.  Some excerpts from Perelman’s essay make eerie reading in today’s world:

The productivity-focused goals of the new paradigm of national learning policy that should replace intrusive and irrelevant “national education goals”(NOTE: This was G.H.W. Bush’s initiative to address “failing schools”) can be summarized in four simple words: More, Better, Faster, and Cheaper. That is, policy needs to ensure the rapid development of HL (Hyper-Learning– a term Perelman coined to define the faster, more focussed instruction that technology could provide. See elaboration on this, below.) systems that enable citizens of all ages to learn more about everything; to learn better, especially those things that are relevant to productive work; to learn faster, with less waste of time; and to do all that at lower and steadily declining cost.

Perelman offered an action plan to make schools achieve the goals: de-credentialize; commercialize; capitalize; and bypass. The section on commercialization is particularly relevant, because it is one concept that conservatives and neo-liberals– both of whom believe in the magic of the marketplace– embrace. In this section Perelman introduces the concept of “micro vouchers”. Some excerpts from this section:

In recent years many politicians, business leaders, and families have begun to appreciate the essential importance of breaking up the socialist monopoly of the government-controlled education system. “Privatization” of public education is much needed and should be a national goal of the new president (i.e. Bill Clinton). But “school choice” is an inadequate strategy for achieving the benefits of a market economy in the learning sector or for unleashing the growth of the strategically crucial HL industry…

Instead, the new administration should be committed to commercial privatization of the entire education sector, based on a strategy of mi- crochoice using the financing mechanism of microvouchers.

To illustrate the idea of microchoice: If our choice of television channels worked the way school choice is proposed to, changing channels from HBO to CNN would require unplugging the TV set, taking it back to the store, exchanging it for a different model, and moving to a new neighborhood. In reality, of course, choosing among dozens or hundreds of video options requires no effort more strenuous than pushing a button. Similarly, modern HL technology can offer the individual even more choices of “teachers” and “schools” than of cable TV channels. HL’s broadband, intelligent, multimedia systems permit anyone to learn anything, anywhere, anytime with grade-A results by matching learning resources precisely with personal needs and learning styles.

Microvouchers that use modern electronic card–account technology can enable individual families or students to choose specific learning products and services, not just once a year or once a semester, but by the week, day, hour, or even second by second. Unlike vouchers for school or college tuition, microvouchers will create a true, wide-open, location-free, competitive market for learning that has the elasticity to efficiently and quickly match supply and demand.

After acknowledging that over 90 percent of funding for U.S. public education is supplied by state and local governments, Perelman suggests “the new president” could take two major steps “…to commercialize the government-controlled education sector and to pro-mote the development of the American HL industry that must replace it.” The two steps were the replacement of the current Federal funding mechanisms with “Federal micro vouchers”. Perelman envisioned the micro vouchers being

…allocated directly to households, in proportion to individual or family need, to be used for the purchase of any service or product that is demonstrably relevant to learning and development needs. The instrument of expenditure would not be paper stamps or vouchers but electronic account cards similar to credit or bank cards. The HL microvoucher program should leave families free to decide how best to distribute the account resources between adults and children and generally among the members of the household. That provision would recognize that the needs of disadvantaged children in many (perhaps even most) cases may be serve best by immediately improving the economic opportunities and status of the parents, as well as by developing the parenting skills.

All of this came to mind today when I read “Udacity Says It Can Teach Tech Skills to Millions, and Fast”, an article in today’s NYTimes by Farhad Manjoo, who, based on his thumbnail picture, was probably in elementary school when Perelman was writing about micro-vouchers. How? Udacity, one of the first organizations to offer MOOCs, has determined that while MOOCs face major obstacles in providing full-fledged degrees, they can provide “nano degrees” that meet the unique and specific needs of businesses. And what is a nano degree?

The nanodegree works like this: Last year, Udacity partnered with technology companies to create online courses geared toward teaching a set of discrete, highly prized technical skills — including mobile programming, data analysis and web development. Students who complete these courses are awarded the nanodegree, a credential that Udacity has worked with Google, AT&T and other companies to turn into a new form of workplace certification.

“We can’t turn you into a Nobel laureate,” Mr. Thrun told me. “But what we can do is something like upskilling — you’re a smart person, but the skills you have are inadequate for the current job market, or don’t let you get the job you aspire to have. We can help you get those skills.”

And how does Mr. Thrun envision them being funded? By students who are willing to pay a relatively modest tuition to get a credential that may, or may not, lead to employment. And so far it seems to be working for Udacity:

So far, Udacity’s new model shows a glimmer of success. A year after the program’s start, the company has 10,000 students enrolled in its nanodegree courses, and the number is growing by a third every month. Udacity charges $200 a month for the courses (students can take as little or as much time as they want to finish). When they successfully complete a course, Udacity gives back half the tuition. The company says that a typical student will earn a nanodegree in about five months — in other words, for around $500.

Because students take several months or longer to complete their degrees, it is too soon to tell exactly how many will finish. So far, Udacity estimates the graduation rate to be about 25 percent. Thousands of workers have earned degrees, and hundreds have found new jobs as a result.

I linked these nano degrees with Perelman’s micro vouchers because I see a connection between them. Thrun’s nano degrees seem analogous to Perelman’s micro-vouchers and both models are predicated on the notion that the market place should dictate what courses are offered and where students might get their education. Both rely more on technology than human interaction, and both aspire to the same four, simple goals set forth 22 years ago by Perelman: More, Better, Faster, and Cheaper… and Perelman’s claim that this would be advantageous for children raised in poverty notwithstanding, I remain unconvinced that this will provide more opportunity for them, be a better way for them to master the content we expect all students to learn, or enable them to learn more quickly. In the final analysis, the students who WILL benefit from opportunities like nano degrees will be those whose parents and districts spent money on… a lot more money than was spent on the children raised in poverty.

NYS Commissioner Misses the Point on Tests… Makes VAM Even Shakier

September 17, 2015 Comments off

NYS’s new Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, walked into a mess and seems to be doing her best to make things even worse.

First the mess. Governor Cuomo passed legislation that binds schools to an evaluation system that is heavily dependent on value added measurements (VAM) based on standardized test results. Parent groups in NYS, particularly those in middle class districts, launched a successful opt-out movement against the standardized tests, a movement that makes the use of VAM in many districts an impossibility. The Board of Regents does not wholeheartedly support VAM (see previous post) but their chairman champions it.

In addressing these concerns, Ms. Elia seems to have come up with solutions that will ultimately alienate everyone. She’s recommended trimming back on the length of the tests– which will arguably make their VAM applications less valid. She’s switched vendors from Pearson to Questar, a company that will devise a completely new set of tests— further diminishing the validity of VAM measurements. In doing so, she has completely sidestepped the real concern of parents, which is the effects of test-based accountability on the curriculum in their schools. As one opt-out leader noted, Commissioner Elia’s actions will NOT change their thinking:

“Half a disaster is still a disaster,” said Loy Gross, a co-founder of the parent activist group United to Counter the Core, who added shortening the tests was just tinkering around the edges of a very large problem.

“And no,” she added, “it’s not going to appease parents who will continue to opt their kids out of tests.”

Based on her previous performance in FL, Ms. Elia is unlikely to back away from using tests as a major component of teacher evaluation, contentiousness over standardized testing will continue indefinitely, and children and teachers will have to wait for another Governor to take office before the problem is resolved… and by then the full privatization plan may be implemented. I hope this prognosis is wrong!

 

The Regents Tests and the Kid With The Clock

September 17, 2015 Comments off

Diane Ravitch’s post late yesterday lamented the Regent’s decision to continue using VAM as a basis for teacher employment, referencing an article that appeared in the Gannett papers that explained the background behind the 10-6 vote to support the state law enacted at the behest of governor Cuomo. Two of the Regents quoted in the article clearly see the flaws with the system:

“Quite frankly, I have met with hundreds of people, and all I hear is the joy of teaching is being squeezed out of them as a result of this process,” said Regent Judith Johnson, whose district stretches from Poughkeepsie to Westchester County. She voted against the proposal.

Having worked in that region for five years I am confident Ms. Johnson got an earful! One Regent who was among those who held their nose and voted in favor of the proposal on the grounds that they were compelled by law to devise an evaluation system in accordance with the law, wanted to be on record for his skepticism:

“We have to express a lack of confidence in the current evaluation system,” said Regent Roger Tilles of Long Island, who voted for the rules. “We have to express a lack of confidence in the current growth model. We have to … call for changes to the evaluation system as it currently exists.”

Diane Ravitch, concluded her post with this question:

Has anyone in Governor Cuomo’s office figured out where they will find better teachers to replace those who are fired as a result of his eagerness to oust teachers?

Having just read about the ridiculous arrest of a student in TX who brought a home-made clock to school to show his science class in TX, I left the following response to Ms. Ravitch’s question:

Where will Cuomo find better teachers to replace those who are fired? If teaching to the test is the goal (and it clearly IS the goal of the Regents and Mr. Cuomo) they might look to hire computer programmers and security guards. Programmers know how to develop algorithms for tasks that are iterative and standardized: they can write the programs for the inexpensive computer tablets that will be issued to each child. Security guards can maintain order and arrest creative students who make things at home— like the young man in Texas who made his own clock. With this combination NYS won’t need as many old-fashioned “teachers”— you know, the kind that get to know each child and design differentiated lessons that meet their needs.

My concern is that some charter school owner might read this and take it seriously… because that seems to be the staffing configuration many virtual schools favor.

Good Luck, Mayor de Blasio, On Getting Computer Courses in Place

September 16, 2015 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes has an article describing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to offer computer science to all students in NYC schools. Based on my experience, the mayor faces a daunting challenge.

I taught computer science in a Philadelphia public junior high school in 1971-72. I had 30-36 students in my classroom which was located across the hall from a storage closet that had a terminal connected to a mainframe “downtown”. My “training”? I had one course in Fortran in college in 1967— which made me the most qualified teacher on the staff. Here’s what I observed: computer science was unimportant to kids who were fearful of being jumped by a gang on the way home or worried about where there next meal was coming from or had no adult at home during the evening because of their parents’ work schedule. Moreover, these kids would never be able to lay their hands on a computer anywhere outside of the closet across the hall from my classroom.

My conclusion: in order for the mayor to be successful in this endeavor he needs to continue pushing for the anti-poverty measures he is advocating and he needs to make sure that when the kids leave school they will all have the same access to high-speed connectivity and up-to-date technology. I wish him well… and hope he succeeds!

Disillusionment with Democracy Reflected in Privatization Movement, Public Indifference in Local Politics

September 16, 2015 Comments off

“Across the Globe, A Growing Disillusionment with Democracy”, an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, describes an increasing diminishment in the importance of democracy in the minds of citizens across the globe, including citizens in “consolidated” democracies like the United States. The article cited three reasons for this trend in our country. First, we have  “materially comfortable lives” by international standards. Secondly, the emerging oligarchy in our country feels threatened by any policies that might change the existing economic orders. And so, thirdly, they spend large sums of money getting people elected who will not change the status quo. The American public, sensing their relative powerlessness, is willing to have someone else take over the country leading to recent findings that 29% of our country would support a military coup.

Foa and Mounk could buttress their argument by looking at what is happening in our most grassroots public institution— the public school board. In urban areas, businessmen and politicians who are increasingly frustrated by the inability of elected public school boards to tackle the problems facing students decide to hand over the responsibility to private businesses who answer only to shareholders. In rural areas, where the complexities of overseeing a public school system require many hours of volunteer work, more and more boards are struggling to find individuals to run for office leaving many seats vacant and leading to an openness to having the schools operated by private businesses. When local democratic institutions are undercut it undercuts the value of democracy on a larger scale and reinforces the power of the oligarchs.

Privatization, then, by taking power away from local voters fuels the erosion of democracy. If we hope to restore faith in our larger institutions, we need to begin at the lowest levels…. and voter turnout in “off-year” elections and town meetings is a disturbing sign that we are moving in the wrong direction.

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Ultra-Right Wing Publication Criticizes Police State Mentality in Public Schools

September 16, 2015 Comments off

I often find it unsettling when a publication like The Blaze publishes an article that I almost completely agree with… but John Whitehead’s article “Public School Students are the New Inmates in the American Police State” echoes many of the posts I’ve written about how over-protection of children in effectively training them to live in a totalitarian state. An attorney and President of the Rutherford Institute, a “non-profit conservative legal organization dedicated to the defense of civil, especially religious, liberties and human rights”, Whitehead’s article illustrates where libertarian and progressive ideals intersect. He asserts that America’s public schools are:

Microcosms of the police state (that) contain almost every aspect of the militarized, intolerant, senseless, overcriminalized, legalistic, surveillance-riddled, totalitarian landscape that plagues those of us on the “outside.”

The article specifically criticizes public school policies on zero tolerance, the suspension of children for petty offenses, the criminalization of misconduct that was previously handled internally by schools, and provides examples of especially mindless actions by heavy-handed administrators who operate by the book. And he calls out the profiteers who are behind this militarization of schools and the school-to-prison pipeline that results:

In their zeal to crack down on guns and lock down the schools, these cheerleaders for police state tactics in the schools might also fail to mention the lucrative, multi-million dollar deals being cut with military contractors such as Taser International to equip these school cops with tasers, tanks, rifles and $100,000 shooting detection systems.

Indeed, the transformation of hometown police departments into extensions of the military has been mirrored in the public schools, where school police have been gifted with high-powered M16 rifles, MRAP armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and other military gear. One Texas school district even boasts its own 12-member SWAT team.

As if it weren’t bad enough that the nation’s schools have come to resemble prisons—complete with surveillance cameras, metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, random locker searches and active shooter drills—the government is also contracting with private prisons to lock up young people for behavior that once would have merited a stern lecture. Nearly 40 percent of those young people who are arrested will serve time in a private prison, where the emphasis is on making profits for large megacorporations above all else.

Young people have become easy targets for the private prison industry. For instance, two Pennsylvania judges made headlines when it was revealed that they had been conspiring with two businessmen in a $2.6 million “kids for cash” scandal that resulted in more than 2500 children being found guilty and jailed in for-profit private prisons.

Whitehead concludes his essay with this line, which could have just as easily been written by Chris Hedges, Bill Moyers, Robert Reich, or Noam Chomsky:

But if you want to raise up a generation of freedom fighters, who will actually operate with justice, fairness, accountability and equality towards each other and their government, then run the schools like freedom forums. Remove the metal detectors and surveillance cameras, re-assign the cops elsewhere, and start treating our nation’s young people like citizens of a republic and not inmates in a police state.