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Meaningful Metrics in Short Supply

November 27, 2015 Comments off

Two articles, one from the Tuck School of Business on-line newsletter on the short-changing of the Bureau of Labor Standards (BLS) and one from the NYPost criticizing NYC Mayor deBlasio’s abandonment of the grading system imposed on public schools are based on the same concern: the public’s lack of credible data is leading to flawed decision making.

Writing in the Tuck School’s newsletter, Dean Matt Slaughter and his colleague Matt Rees call the US Government’s decision to level fund the BLS as part of sequestration process “pound die and penny foolish”. Why? Slaughter and Reese contend that:

Healthy societies create, fund generously, and zealously protect from political meddling public agencies that collect and disseminate economic data: on workers, on families, on companies, and on all related economic actors and transactions.  The sounder the public economic data, the sounder the economic decisions of individuals, firms, and policymakers alike. Thus do these data contribute to long-run economic growth and prosperity.

The solution to the complaints about the impact of underfunding is predictable: turn the process over to the private sector! Rees and Slaughter disagree and in an open letter to Congress wrote:

To be sure, private-sector data initiatives such as ADP’s well-known monthly employment reports have a role to play. But they analyze only a slice of the labor market, and they benchmark their findings to BLS data, the gold standard for measuring employment. BLS remains the sole entity in either the public or the private realm with both the mandate and capacity to collect and provide to the public information on the labor market in its entirety. Data collection efforts by independent government agencies like the BLS also benefit from a stamp of legitimacy and neutrality that is difficult to match in the private sector.

They could have asked rhetorically “What happened when monitoring of mortgages was left to bond rating agencies?” Their point about the collection of insubstantial data and using that data to issue flawed public pronouncements is most prevalent in public education, where several statisticians bend over backward to provide politicians with simplistic metrics designed to inform the public about the quality of their schools. There is one BIG difference between the BLS data and that gathered by governments: data on school performance does NOT benefit from “…a stamp of legitimacy and neutrality”. Instead, the Bloomberg administration in its zealous effort to promote the need for and use of charter schools set cut scores on tests that initially “proved” scores of schools were failing and then used different standards to prove charter schools succeeded where public schools fell short of he mark. As the author of the NYPost article, Charles Sahm noted:

From 2007 through 2013, the New York City Department of Education released “Progress Reports,” which included an A-F letter grade for every public school in the city. These grades were based on year-to-year student progress on tests, overall student performance and school-environment surveys. While far from perfect, they provided parents with objective, data-driven information in a relatively easy-to-understand format.

Sahm went onto criticize de Blasio’s decision to abandon this letter grade system and replace it with “School Quality Reports” that label schools as excellent, good, fair or poor. Sahm’s complaint?

…while they still contain information on student achievement, the new format focuses mostly on the results of surveys of parents, teachers and (older) students.

The Department of Education said it wants to “focus on multiple measures of school improvement,” including the “six essential elements of the Framework for Great Schools: Rigorous Instruction, Collaborative Teachers, Supportive Environment, Effective School Leadership, Strong Family-Community Ties, and Trust.”

But parents probably care more about whether children can read or do math at grade level rather than whether teachers “feel respected” — one of the survey questions.

Sahm’s solution? You guessed it: he has a proprietary plan that is better than Bloomberg’s ratings or de Blasio’s!

If parents are looking for a simpler, more objective analysis of their child’s school, they may want to look to a new school-rating system from the Manhattan Institute at SchoolGrades.org.

In comparing the old Bloomberg plan that based the letter grade on a black-box calculation derived from student test scores or the spiffy Sahm plan that is an enhanced black box set of calculations, I’ll take de Blasio’s system that looks at a broader set of data that incorporates thinks like parent surveys and surveys of teachers.

Slaughter and Rees’ conclusions, too, illustrate the flaws in Sahm’s “solution”: which privatizes something the government should be doing at the national level and, in doing so, substitutes robust findings with ones that are “easy to understand” but ultimately meaningless.

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Uber-Capitalist David Brooks Champions Compassion and Caring over Individualism

November 27, 2015 Comments off

At least a dozen of the posts in this blog have been devoted to either de-bunking David Brooks’ columns or pointing out the paradoxes in his positions. One of the in-house conservative columnists for the NYTimes, Brooks’ columns often take on cultural issues that overlap with public education policy or examine the context of public schools. Today’s column, “Communities of Character“, like many of his essays, supports a broader role for schools that is a direct contradiction to the core values of conservative philosophy in general and today’s Republican party beliefs in particular. Here’s the argument Brooks presents at the outset of his column:

You’d think that schools would naturally nurture deep community bonds. But we live in an era and under a testing regime that emphasizes individual accomplishments, not community cohesion. Even when schools talk about values, they tend to talk about individualistic values, like grit, resilience and executive function, not the empathy, compassion and solidarity that are good for community and the heart.

Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education asked 10,000 middle and high school students if their parents cared more about their personal achievement or whether they were kind. Eighty percent said their parents cared more about achievement — individual over the group.

But there are some schools that nurture achievement precisely by building tight communities.

Brooks then describes two high schools that explicitly emphasize “community values” over individual effort, the Denver School of Science and Technology that convenes morning meetings four days a week to discuss the climate at the school and the Leaders School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn that is based on the philosophy of Outward Bound. It is unlikely that either school could be scaled up and also noteworthy that both are high schools which are largely exempt from the test-and-punish regimen that dominates each grade level in elementary and middle schools.

Here’s what I found maddening: The “testing regime that emphasizes individual accomplishments, not community cohesion” that Brooks laments is an artifact our legislature created and the regime will be continuing under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The schools that emphasize “individualistic values, like grit, resilience and executive function” and downplay “empathy, compassion and solidarity that are good for community and the heart” mirror the mindset of cold-hearted social Darwinists who believe that their success is deserved because they were born into relatively affluent middle class families… and that view is the dominant one of the conservative wing of the Republican party.

If our country believed in values that are “good for the community” we would stop characterizing government programs as “handouts” and view them as a helping hand for our neighbors in need… we would stop thinking of immigrants as latent radicals and see them as brothers and sisters whose lives have been disrupted by war… and we would publicly shame anyone who attempts to divide us into factions that fight against each other based on our race or religious convictions. Instead we think of our most disadvantaged citizens as “takers”, of immigrants as “moochers”, and gather at rallies for candidates like Donald Trump.

When it comes to schools, we would stop spending money on surveillance and door locks and start spending on counseling and community service projects… we would stop the practice of basing student success on individual test results and examine the students ability to relate to others in the classroom… and we would worry less about tax rates and more about the conditions many of our children face in their daily lives.

Cuomo Sees the Light: the NYTimes… not so much

November 26, 2015 Comments off

In an article in today’s NYTimes, Kate Taylor reports that NY Governor Andrew Cuomo has let it be known that he is no longer in support of tying teacher evaluations to test scores and his recently announced Task Force on the Common Core is expected to incorporate such a recommendation in its findings. The Times infers that by creating the Task Force the governor is giving himself political cover to reverse his thinking on testing and now with the abandonment of the Race to the Top waivers that required such a shift he is free to do so.

One intriguing paragraph suggests that some of the Governor’s “school reform” donors have also accepted the political reality that tests are too dominant, but they repeated their bogus charges about the success rate of students:

It also appears that the advocates and donors to the governor who praised his call last winter for a more rigorous teacher evaluation system would not criticize him if it were now unwound.

StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that promotes charter schools and other education reforms, on whose board several of those donors sit, strongly endorsed the governor’s campaign to make test scores matter more in evaluations, saying the existing system bore “zero resemblance” to how students themselves were performing across the state.

Asked this week about a possible reversal, the organization’s executive director, Jenny Sedlis, said in an email, “When only a third of students in this state are performing on grade level, even without evaluations, we know that there’s ineffective teaching going on.”

A key fact the article neglects to mention: the passing grade on the test is not based on a percentage of students mastering a set of predetermined standards, it is determined by the setting of an arbitrary cut score. Cuomo’s reliance on tests to “prove” that “there’s ineffective teaching going on” put him in a box as more and more parents realized the tests were driving the joy out of their child’s schooling and the test results “proving” that school were “failing” were determined by state officials, not by their children’s performance on tests.

I keep hoping that someday someone in political office will stand up to this whole test-and-punish scheme and acknowledge that it is a failed policy. As noted in earlier posts, the reauthorization of ESEA was a golden opportunity for someone to step forward. Alas, we will have to wait for another decade or so to have the debate on testing.