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Atlantic Article Advises Against Aggregating Nation’s Schools

July 31, 2018 Comments off

Earlier this month, Atlantic writer Jack Schneider wrote an article urging our nation to stop thinking of “America’s Schools” as a monolith, arguing that in doing so we are doing more harm than good. At the outset of his essay. Mr. Schneider identified A Nation at Risk as the the point when we established “…a new way of talking about public education in the United States, a master narrative that has endured — and even subtly changed American education policy for the worse — over the past several decades.” That “master narrative” is that public education is a monolith and that it is “failing”. But Mr. Schneider asserts that this is not the case at all:

The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. Consider the issue of funding. On average, federal money accounts for less than 10 percent of education budgets across the country, and the rest of the financial responsibility falls to states and local schools. If local schools are unable to raise what they need, the state is usually well positioned to make up the difference, but states differ dramatically in their approaches. On average, states spend roughly $13,000 per student on public education — but looking at the average alone is misleading. Only about half of states spend anything close to that figure: A dozen spend 25 percent more than the national average, and 10 states spend 25 percent less. The result is significant disparities, and some striking incongruities. New York’s schools, for instance, spend roughly three times as much per student as Utah’s schools — a huge difference, even after accounting for New York’s higher cost of living.

And once the “collective conscience” of the politicians was roused by A Nation at Risk, both political parties bought into the “failing schools” narrative and began imposing one-size-fits-all solutions to the monolith, ignoring the reality that funding was hugely disparate and the policies governing schools resided in state and local governments. But Mr. Schneider does see a value in looking at public education as a national issue.

This is not to say that taking the national perspective can’t be valuable. Troubling patterns do exist across the U.S., and discussions about them can play an important role in shaping both public understanding and education policy. Achievement gaps across race and class, for instance, are an important reminder of broader social and economic inequalities, and advocates have used evidence about those patterns to make the case for universal early-childhood education. Similarly, a national dialogue about the disproportionate punishment of black and brown children in schools has drawn attention to an issue that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. These kinds of broad conversations can generate both political will and policy responses.

But, alas, while these kinds of broad conversations CAN generate political will and policy responses, they have not done so thus far. Instead, they’ve generated policy responses like NCLB, Race to the Top, and ESSA, all of which use standardized testing to reinforce the notion that public education is a monolith and it is failing. Mr. Schneider concludes his essay with this question:

The authors of “A Nation at Risk” concluded their report with a simple claim: “Education should be at the top of the Nation’s agenda.” And in creating a new kind of school-reform rhetoric, they seem to have achieved their aim. The question is, has it done more harm than good?

The answer is clear: it has done far more harm than good.

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America Loves Rankings and Lists… And WalletHub Delivers One of the Worst

July 31, 2018 Comments off

This morning’s Google feed on public education was full of articles from newspapers across the country reporting on their state’s ranking based on WalletHub’s analysis. This immediately led me to ask the following question: Who did the rankings and how were they determined?

I clicked on the WalletHub report link and found this synopsis, which, as my highlights indicate, if full of flawed thinking that immediately led me to the accurate conclusion that this was developed by conservative “reformers” who value the market place over “government schools”:

Securing a child’s academic success begins with choosing the right schools.But how can parents decide where to enroll their kids? Because children develop and learn at different rates, the ideal answer to that question varies based on each student’s needs. Unfortunately, most parents can’t afford to place their children in exclusive, private or preparatory schools that give their students greater individual attention.

For the majority of U.S. families, public education is the only option. But the quality of public school systems varies widely from state to state and is often a question of funding. Public elementary and secondary education money usually flows from three sources: the federal, state and local governments. According to the U.S. Department of Education, states contribute nearly as much as local governments, while the federal government supplies the smallest share. Some researchers have found that more resources — or taxes paid by residents — typically result in better school-system performance.

In the first sentence the writers state that “choice of schools” is readily available to parents, a notion supported by the second sentence. In the last sentence of the first paragraph the writers repeat the erroneous claim that “exclusive private or preparatory schools” offer students better outcomes than public schools. And the last sentence of the second paragraph cherry picks an unsubstantiated research finding that reliance on property taxes results in superior performance. These are all bullet points that conservative researchers love… and sure enough the team of experts who prepared this report come from think tanks and colleges and universities underwritten by “reform minded” billionaires.

So… how DID WalletHub generate their rankings? Here’s the overview:

Unlike other research that focuses primarily on academic outcomes or school finance, WalletHub’s analysis takes a more comprehensive approach. It accounts for performance, funding, safety, class size and instructor credentials. To determine the top-performing school systems in America, WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across 25 key metrics. Read on for our findings, expert insight from a panel of researchers and a full description of our methodology.

This sounds eminently reasonable… but in fact it relies mostly on test scores (roughly 50%), dropout rates (15%), and other external rankings (7%). Pupil-teacher ratio’s account for 3.64% of the rankings as does “share of licensed teachers”. 20% of the rankings are based on a list of ten variables that include “Number of School Shootings” and “Presence of Adopted and Enacted Laws Regulating Mandatory School Resource Officers”, the presumption being that there is some correlation between the two.

When all is said and done, the top ranked states are predictable: Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont. And here’s what is interesting: had the researchers used union membership, per pupil spending, and parent education levels as their primary metrics they would have come up with a similar ranking…. But those variables would undercut their baseline premises.

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YIKES! Are DeVos and Sessions Tipping Their Hand on School Safety by Visiting Armed Teachers in Arkansas?

July 30, 2018 Comments off

Herewith is a report from Politico‘s education blog, which provides daily updates on Betsy DeVos’ scheduled visits:

DEVOS, SESSIONS PLAN ARKANSAS VISIT THIS WEEK: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Sessions are headed to Arkansas this week to discuss school safety, according to local news reports. The superintendent of Lake Hamilton School District in Garland County told The Hot Springs Sentinel-Record that the planned visit on Wednesday is part of the Trump administration’s school safety commission. The rural school district has long employed armed security officers and some staff began carrying concealed weapons at school after Arkansas lawmakers recently legalized the practice, according to The Arkansas Times.

Is this the way Ms. DeVos’ school safety commission is headed? I hope not!

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Oklahoma City Foundation Editorial Advocates Support… but Fails to Mention $$$

July 30, 2018 Comments off

Mary Melon, writing on behalf of the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, wrote a heartfelt op ed piece advocating support for the incoming Superintendent of Schools and “…the entire staff of Oklahoma City Public Schools”.  The op ed piece failed to mention one important element of support, however: funding. While the kind of emotional support for schools is critically important, overlooking the need for more money— especially in Oklahoma— naive at best and disingenuous at worst.

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The Anti-Government Stance of BOTH Parties is Undercutting Idealism and Democracy

July 30, 2018 Comments off

A post yesterday by Diane Ravitch based on a NY Daily News op ed piece by progressive politician Mark Green got me thinking about the unrolling similarities between the tow political parties. In his op ed, Mr. Green calls on the Democratic party to embrace the fiery emotional language used by President Trump to motivate it’s own voters to turn out and support the many positions have widespread support:

On most major issues — guns, choice, Dreamers, immigration, the tax code, climate, “privatization” of Social Security — polling indicates that the party in exile does represent a progressive majority, indeed at times a super-majority, which is why Trump is at a record low in modern polling for a President at this point — with his approval rating underwater by 20 points, according to Quinnipiac.

“Still, are Democrats properly exploiting his weaknesses and their advantages? Not nearly enough. Where, for example, are those voices that understand the power of metaphor and narrative to keep Trump in the hole he dug for himself?

“Words, images and concepts are what shape and win political debates: like William Jennings Bryan saying “Americans won’t be crucified on a cross of gold” (well, he lost on that one), Teddy Roosevelt’s “malefactors of great wealth,” Barack Obama’s “Yes we can,” Ronald Reagan’s (albeit composite) “welfare queen”; Occupy’s “We are the 99%.”

“The Democratic Party, however, continues to fight the war with deeply outmoded rhetorical weaponry.

After reading this section of the article, I came to the conclusion that Mark Green missed two major points in his analysis, and that compelled me to leave this comment:

Mark Green overlooked former President Reagan’s phrase that captured the hearts and minds of our country, a phrase he delivered derisively, and a phrase that resonates with politicians in both parties: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you”. THAT phrase, more than any other, captures the disdain voters have for taxes, the disdain for those of us who worked in the public sector, and the disdain for those of us who got an education with the hopes we could help others less fortunate. The neo-liberals who wanted to “Reinvent Government” believed that by introducing the profit motive of the marketplace into operating government agencies they could have it both ways: they could assume control the government without espousing the value of government employees and the value of the government itself.

As it stands now, neither party is trying to convince voters that those who work for the government ARE here to help them, that their taxes are not confiscatory, that their best interests are served when they help the less fortunate, that there are thousands of individuals who want to help make our country better and do not aspire to make a million dollars and– therefore– are not motivated by “merit pay”, and that government regulations are not “red tape” but ultimately serve their interest.

Since neither party is promoting the value of government or the idealism that lured millions to work to improve the lives of children and citizens through government service, it is not surprising that our voting rates are embarrassingly low and our sense of democracy is wavering.

It is clear that the GOP has embraced the social Darwinism of its libertarian wing. It is unclear what the DNC intends to offer as an antidote. Mr. Green IS right, though, that the pablum offered by the DNC is not going to motivate anyone to vote FOR them. Democrats will not “rhetorically rise to (the) historic challenge” posed by Mr. Trump until they offer a full-throated rebuttal to the notion that government is the problem.

End of Public Schools in Milwaukee?

July 29, 2018 Comments off

A throughly researched analysis of Wisconsin’s decision to embrace vouchers using a playbook that has an eerie similarity to the one being used in my home state, New Hampshire. The analysis also underscores the reality that the Democratic Party, now under the thrall of “reformers”, does not oppose the notion that privatization antithetical to democracy. Indeed, the neo-liberals who control the party believe in market-based solutions almost as much as the GOP.

tultican

This past school year, Wisconsin taxpayers sent $250,000,000 to religious schools. Catholics received the largest slice, but protestants, evangelicals and Jews got their cuts. Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) reveals that private Islamic schools took in $6,350,000. Of the 212 schools collecting voucher money, 197 were religious schools.

The Wisconsin voucher program was expanded before the 2014-2015 school year. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, “Seventy-five percent of eligible students who applied for taxpayer-funded subsidies to attend private and religious schools this fall in the statewide voucher program already attend private schools, ….”

Money taken from the public schools attended by the vast majority of Milwaukee’s students is sent to private religious schools. Public schools must adjust for stranded costs while paying to serve a higher percentage of special education students because private schools won’t take them. Forcing public schools to increase class sizes, reduce offerings such as music…

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Palm Beach Florida Exemplifies Disturbing Result of Flat Funding: Mid-Career Teachers Lose

July 28, 2018 Comments off

An article by Andrew Marra in yesterday’s Pal Beach Post describes the impact of a 2003 decision to withhold “automatic raises” on the mid-career teachers today… and it isn’t a pretty picture.

The article doesn’t offer a detailed description of the “automatic raises”, but it is evident that they are the pay increases that result from the traditional unified pay schedule that provides teachers with both a “step” and a “cost-of-living” (COLA) increase in their pay. The article indicates that in 2003 the Superintendent proposed eliminating these raises should a financial crisis warrant such action and the Board at that time concurred by a 4-3 vote. When the Great Recession took place, the step + COLA increases for mid-career teachers were abandoned entirely and eventually replaced with flat across-the-board pay increases. To make matters worse, the State funding for public education was flattened making any compensation increases a zero-sum game, and in that zero-sum environment mid-career teachers experienced diminished compensation so that new hires could get competitive pay. To make matters worse, the Florida State legislature passed a bill that required districts to give teachers rated “highly effective” larger raises than those rated “effective” based on test scores. Consequently, Marra reports that “highly effective” teachers generally receive an extra $350 to $450 when raises are given out. And as district officials note, this combined with flat funding makes it difficult for districts to address the under-compensation.

Mark Mitchell, the school district’s director of compensation, defended the district’s handling of teacher pay over the years, saying that no individual teacher’s pay was ever cut.

He said that what the district spends on employee salaries is largely constrained by the money the state Legislature provides each year.

State lawmakers’ unusually low boosts to education spending since the recession, he said, has made honoring the teachers’ old salary schedule impossible.

“When we started giving increases again, we couldn’t afford what was on the schedule,” he said. “We tried to do everything we could with what the state gave us.”

Years ago when I was in high school, I recall accompanying my mother to the grocery store and seeing my calculus teacher (and Mathematics Department head) working at the cash register. Even though I felt that it was demeaning to see my favorite teacher working at a menial part-time job, it didn’t prevent me from going into teaching. But the experience did make it clear that I would not be able to be a teacher unless I supplemented by income in some way… and did make the path to becoming an administrator more enticing.

I am not an advocate for the unified pay schedule, though I understand it’s appeal to teachers because it is usually fair and predictable. But I AM an advocate for providing enough compensation to teachers so that they can devote all of their time and energy to educating the children in their classrooms. If our country, our States, and our school districts are serious about providing all children with an opportunity for success, we need to provide the resources needed to ensure that they are taught by individuals whose attention is fully focussed on them… and not on the line of customers awaiting them at a grocery store.