Archive for July, 2019

Upshot Article Oversimplifies “Solution” to Complicated Problem Congress Created

July 31, 2019 Comments off

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an article by Upshot writer Kevin Carey written on July 24 titled “It’s Easy to Forget, but a Program to Forgive Student Loans Already Exists“. There are two problems with the article from my perspective.

First, the “program to forgive student loans” is so convoluted that it’s “existence” is arguable. Contrary to the sub-headline that reads, “Democrats are campaigning to fix an issue that is already starting to resolve itself for many teachers and other public servants“, the article describes an issue that desperately needs to be fixed because the laws underpinning it were ill-conceived, allowed only five days for the initial application process, and changed directions several times over the course of time.  

Second, and most importantly, the implementation was botched because Congress failed to provide the funds needed to provide the staff required to make the implementation possible. Here are the most telling paragraphs from Mr. Carey’s article:

“(The borrowers) needed some good advice. Whom would they call? Not the Department of Education, which subcontracts the work of helping borrowers to “loan servicing companies”. Unfortunately, the servicers didn’t prove up to the task.

Loan servicers are paid a flat rate per borrower for processing loan payments and helping people navigate the repayment process. That means that the more time and effort a borrower requires, the less money the servicer makes. Someone who sets up an automatic debit from a checking account and never picks up the phone is a source of profits. Borrowers who need a lot of time-consuming assistance to ensure that their job, their loan and their repayment plan are all eligible for the forgiveness program are a financial liability.

The results were predictable. In June 2017, a few months before the first public servants were (theoretically) eligible for loan forgiveness, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a report describing the many ways loan servicers were messing things up.

This sums up the whole problem with government today: it is understaffed and therefore incapable of functioning effectively. Taxpayers want the government to come up with a FAST, CHEAP solution to complicated problems and to run like a business. As Mr. Carey explains later in the article, when USDOE outsourced their work to “loan servicing companies” they operated like a business and got a FAST and CHEAP “solution” to the complicated problem Congress created… a “solution” that padded the wallets of the “loan servicing companies” but left the borrowers high and dry…. and “proved” that government is the problem. The headline to this should read: “It’s Easy to Forget that an Effective Government Requires Bureaucrats”….

Mr. Carey concludes his article with evidence that more and more borrowers are becoming eligible, and seems to think that since the percentage of approved borrowers has increased the problem is taking care of itself. After reading the article and looking at the daunting amount the government is on the hook for, I’m not confident that there will be sufficient funds available to honor the promises they made to public employees— especially since the current administration is intent on keeping its promises to the billionaires and shareholders who received massive tax breaks.

Will NYS’s Review of Graduation Requirements End Regents Tests? Alas… I Doubt It

July 30, 2019 Comments off

A recent Chalkbeat article by Reema Amin reports that New York State will be launching a blue ribbon commission to look at graduation requirements. The commission, whose members have not been named, will examine four big questions, one of which is this:

How much does passing the state’s vaunted Regents exams improve graduation rates, student achievement, and college readiness?

Over two decades ago, when I was Superintendent in an Upstate New York district, the Board of Regents adopted a new set of graduation standards calling for all students to pass five Regents examinations on the pretext that doing so would signal that the high school graduates were ready for work or ready for higher education. The content supervisors in the district were not alarmed about the consequences for students, assuming that the cut scores for passing the Regents tests would be adjusted to ensure that more students would be able to pass. But several were concerned about the consequences for teachers, many of whom would need to change the content of their courses to focus on passing the test instead of focussing on important but difficult to measure skills like interpersonal communication, creative problem solving, and teamwork.

The committee examining graduation standards will have a tough sell if they choose to abandon the Regents, for there are generations of high school graduates who view the Regents as evidence of excellence even though study after study has shown, in Ms. Amin’s words:

…these assessments don’t better-prepare graduates for life after high school and can harm certain students, such as students of color from low-income families.

The four questions the committee will wrestle with are these:

what should children know and be able to do before they graduate;

how should they be able to demonstrate their knowledge;

to what degree does requiring the passage of Regents exams improve student achievement, graduation rates and college readiness;

and what other measures of achievement can signal high school completion.

Responding to the first question will require consensus building among employers, post-secondary admissions counselors, and high school educators. Reaching consensus will be difficult but attainable. It is the metrics that will challenge the committee… for doing any kind of portfolio review is a laborious, time-intensive, and— therefore– costly process that the committee will likely find too daunting.

I hope I am wrong… but I think the Regents will survive yet another review in the same way that the entrance examinations to elite NYC high schools and SATs hang on despite evidence that they are not valid screening assessments. Like the entrance exams and the SATs, the Regents are a cheap, fast, and seemingly precise measure of “academic knowledge” that are “proven”— especially in the minds of those who succeeded on them in the past, who are those who will be making the decisions for the future.

Vermont Story on Delayed Test Results Illustrates Everything Wrong with Testing

July 29, 2019 Comments off

Our local paper, the Valley News, reprinted an article by Lola Duffort titled “School Test Score Data Nine Months Overdue“. This is unsurprising given the ambitious scope of the State’s new Annual Snapshot “dashboard” and the fact that the current State Department of Education is woefully understaffed. And this problem of ambitious analytics combined with understaffed state departments is not limited to Vermont. This toxic combination is a systemic problem brought about by federal legislators allowing and encouraging states to include more and more data on their “report cards” on the heels of states deciding to cut back staffs following the 2008 economic collapse, often making those cuts on data collection departments where much of the work was outsourced.

In an earlier article Ms. Duffort described the new expanded “dashboard” as follows:

The Vermont Agency of Education has released its first Annual Snapshot, a new online dashboard that will allow anyone to take a look at how each of the state’s public K-12 schools are doing, using a variety of new indicators.

The Snapshot is an intentional pivot away from the standardized-testing focused era of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which was widely criticized by educators — particularly in Vermont — for emphasizing too narrow a measure of school performance. The successor law to NCLB, the Every Student Succeeds Act, still requires testing, but it also allows states to name several new standards for appraising schools…

…the Snapshot aims to allow the public to see not just traditional measures of school performance – like test scores and graduation rates – but also information about school climate, staffing quality, spending priorities, and personalization.

As one who has written frequently about the inanity of rating schools based solely on test scores, I fully support this new direction by Vermont. But, as one who worked with state departments for 29 years and witnessed their de-staffing over that time period, I also understand that delivering on this promised expansive data will be difficult… and it will be especially so in Vermont where it appears the new commissioner is loathe to add staff:

The agency is “seriously understaffed,” said Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

“It’s resulted in delays and errors and a general inability to do their jobs. I’ve been trying to light a fire under Secretary French and this administration for a year now, to pick up the pace of hiring, but they seem content to continue running the agency well below full strength,” he said.

Staffing capacity at the agency worried House lawmakers enough last session that House Education chair Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, and Government Operations chair Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, held a joint hearing on the subject. The agency has lost about a fourth of its staff to budget cuts since the Great Recession.

But Webb said that, as for the test scores, she was “not concerned at this time,” since students, teachers, and districts have access to their individual results.

Sorry, Ms. Webb… but the whole point of providing the Snapshot was to provide MORE information than test results and providing those results nine months after the tests were administered is, to be blunt, ridiculous and useless. If a teacher failed to return a high-stakes test to a student nine months after the test was administered they would be looking for a new career. For the Annual Snapshot to serve ANY valid educational purpose it needs to be in the hands of teachers, administrators, and Board members within weeks— not nine months later. Moreover, between October 2018 and August 2019 it is likely that 1/4 of the school board members and a similar percentage of principals and teachers will change, especially in the small rural schools that constitute much of Vermont. Complicating matters even more, there are several new Boards in place now as a result of Act 46, making the late delivery of data even more problematic.

The solution, as always, is more resources— in this case for State Departments of Education. But finding support to pay for “bureaucrats” whose primary purpose is enforcement of regulations adopted by the legislature and State Board and the delivery of reports on a wide array of issues is not easy. It’s far easier to outsource data gathering, skimp on regulatory enforcement, and complain about the inefficiency of the State Department of Education…. because, well, “government is the problem”.

Reagan’s Revolution, Norquist’s Quest Complete: Distrust in Government at All Time High

July 28, 2019 Comments off

Nearly four decades ago Ronald Reagan declared that government was the problem and twenty years later, GOP operative Grover Norquist declared his desire to shrink the federal government so that it was so small he could drown it in a bathtub. in 2010, as the GOP blocked any efforts by the Democrats to increase government spending, NYTimes columnist and Nobel economist Paul Krugman summarized the GOP’s strategy as follows:

“Rather than proposing unpopular spending cuts, Republicans would push through popular tax cuts, with the deliberate intention of worsening the government’s fiscal position. Spending cuts could then be sold as a necessity rather than a choice, the only way to eliminate an unsustainable budget deficit.” He wrote that the “…beast is starving, as planned…” and that “Republicans insist that the deficit must be eliminated, but they’re not willing either to raise taxes or to support cuts in any major government programs. And they’re not willing to participate in serious bipartisan discussions, either, because that might force them to explain their plan—and there isn’t any plan, except to regain power.

As readers of this blog realize, the GOP has shown itself willing to ride the coattails of a boorish charlatan in order to fulfill its plan to regain power… and the combination of tax cuts enacted by the GOP and their free spending on the military we now have an unsustainable $1,000,000,000,000+ deficit. Worse, as a result of the GOP’s persistent message that “government is the problem” and it’s profligacy now that it is in power, government IS the problem and, according to the most recent Pew Research Poll, voters trust in the government is at an all time low and waning. But that is not the worst news. As Matt Stevens reported earlier this week:

It will probably come as no surprise that most Americans distrust the federal government.

A new study released Monday by the Pew Research Center has found that to be true, and that Americans largely perceive trust in Washington to be shrinking. But the deep skepticism is not reserved solely for politicians, according to the survey: Almost two-thirds of respondents said they thought trust in each other had declined, too.

The report paints a rather dreary picture of how Americans today feel about their political leaders, the news media and their neighbors down the block.

Later in the article, Mr. Stevens dug deeper into the findings, and what he found is particularly disturbing but unsurprising to this “high truster”:

In general, those who were more likely to be “high trusters” were older, more educated and had higher household incomes than “low trusters.”

“Americans who might feel disadvantaged are less likely to express generalized trust in other people,” the report said.

The generational gap in trust that emerged was especially striking. Almost half of young adults between the age of 18 and 29 fell into the low trust category. The same was true about only one-fifth of respondents 65 and older.

Over all, the Pew study found that three-quarters of Americans thought confidence in the federal government was slipping, and 64 percent said the same about trust in each other.

It is completely unsurprising that those in the 18-to-29 demographic have low trust in government: they were raised in the post-Reagan era and came of age when Grover Norquist was promoting his ideas that big government was ipso facto a bad thing and taxes were ipso facto confiscatory and unnecessary. Why would anyone growing up in that era have trust in an institution that was “the problem”.

It is also unsurprising that most Americans sense that confidence in the federal government is waning. Those who voted for Trump did so based on the belief that he would drain the swamp and those who did not vote for him now feel that the leadership in Washington is either corrupt, incompetent, or both. As for the loss of trust in each other, based on what I read on social media, the tendency to “other-ize” is exacerbating educational, political, and economic divides. Many “friends” on social media make disparaging remarks about Trump voters, seeing them as an uniform mass that embraces racists, misogynists, and anti-intellectualism… and I sense that those with Trump 2020 bumper stickers look at my “friends” with the same disdain. How can we trust each other if we draw conclusions based on one’s support for a particular political party?

Despite the gloomy findings in the Pew poll, there was some good news:

On a more positive note, the survey found that strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans wished trust would rise.

More than 90 percent of both groups said they thought it was important to improve the level of confidence Americans have in government and in each other. And more than 80 percent thought such improvement was possible.

How can trust increase? A 66-year-old woman who responded to the survey has a good answer:

“Each one of us must reach out to others. It takes interaction with people face-to-face to realize that we do all inhabit this space and have a vested interest in working together to make it a successful, safe, and environmentally secure place to live. No man is an island.”

Get off social media and get into the flow of life in the community. Try to find a way to interact with people who hold different political views, who are in a different generation, who see the world differently. Democracy will work only if and when we do so.

The REAL Boomer Prototype is NOT an Aging Flower Child…

July 27, 2019 Comments off

I just finished reading a week-old NYTimes article by Charles Homan titled “Bob Dylan and the Myth of Boomer Idealism”. The article was mostly about Martin Scorsese’s recent movie, Rolling Thunder Review”, which was a partly fictionalized account of a series of concerts Bob Dylan did in 1975. But the overarching theme was captured in this sentence that appeared near the middle of the article:

We know now that the real story wasn’t the people at the protests and the concerts; it was all the people who weren’t.

As one who did attend protests and concerts, but also one who worked with the public in an effort to pass school budgets and improve schools, this has always seemed true to me. My “fellow boomers” often appeared at the microphone complaining about how their taxes were being squandered on public education. They sometimes showed up to protest a syllabus that included a book about the traumas of growing up poor and Hispanic. More unsettling, they appeared at the microphone when we wrestled with re-drawing attendance zones so that schools were more racially and economically diverse. Where, I wondered, were those “fellow boomers” who sought a better world for the poor and downtrodden, who wanted a more progressive form of education?  As I observed national politics it became evident that “the people at the protests and the concerts” had little impact on elections even though pundits tended to think of the Boomers as flower children. Later in the same article Mr. Homan writes:

Today’s politics are shaped far less by the intra-Democratic street fighting of 1968 or Vietnam or Watergate than by the subtler, structural consequences of the Civil Rights and Immigration and Nationality Acts: the black-and-white part of the ’60s, not the Day-Glo coda that dominates the ex-hippie narrative.

I’m not sure Mr. Homan is entirely right in this assessment. I think that the intra-Democratic street fighting of 1968…Vietnam and Watergate DO dominate our politics today as much as Civil Rights and immigration. The progressive wing of the Democrats, who are chastised by the moderate DNC and largely marginalized by the mainstream media, represent those who went to protests and concerts and understood what the street-fighting of 1968 was about even if they didn’t support it. They also view any form of war as unacceptable and see the burgeoning budgets for the military as wasteful. They also have faith in government DESPITE the Watergate episode in our history, remaining fully engaged in the ideals of politics despite the smarmy undertow Watergate exposed. The Progressives also want racial justice as well as economic justice and want to restore America as the City of the Hill, the nation that welcomes those who are downtrodden and oppressed by their government.

One thing I am sure of: in 2020 we need to restore our focus on the ideals of this country instead of the power of this country. If we do so, that debate will be the focal point of all elections and we will have a substantial debate on ideas instead of a superficial round of name-calling.



“Learn Everywhere”, Chris Sununu and Frank Edelblut’s Backdoor Privatization Scheme, Unlikely to be Implemented

July 27, 2019 Comments off

NH Governor Chris Sununu and NH Secretary of Education Frank Edelblut, pro-privatization advocates, concocted a deschooling idea called “Learn Everywhere” that the current State Board of Education adopted over protests from every public education organization. The concept behind “Learn Everywhere” was that the State Board of Education would be able to grant high school credits to students who participated in learning opportunities outside of their public school. This is a wonderful concept… but there was no need for the State Board to adopt such a concept because one was already in place! Several years ago the State Board authorized local boards to do the same thing when they created “Extended Learning Opportunities”. But despite the existence of this opportunity, the State Board decided to get into the credit-granting business itself, an action that would clearly undercut the authority of local boards, and an action that was universally seen as a power grab. Here’s an excerpt from a report in the Manchester Union Leader that appeared when the “Learn Everywhere” proposal was on the verge of adoption:

In a letter to the Board of Education released on Tuesday, the top education groups were united in their criticism of Edelblut’s proposal.

“We believe that as proposed, the ‘Learn Everywhere’ rules trample local control, are highly skewed toward wealthy families, grant graduation credits from non-accredited, non-credential sources, and provide little oversight and limited protections to students with disabilities and their families,” the letter states….

The League of Women Voters echoed that theme in their statement, pointing out that “New Hampshire’s public schools already award credit for work done outside the traditional high school program, including Extended Learning Opportunities coordinated by the local high schools.”

“We urge the State Board of Education to support learning opportunities such as these rather than the ill-defined Learn Everywhere proposal.”

The “Learn Everywhere” proposal passed by a slim majority on the State Board, with Sununu appointees supporting the proposal and holdover board members opposing it.

But passage of a regulation by an agency does not have the force of law. Before an agency’s rule can have the force of law it must be reviewed and accepted by the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, or JLCAR…. and, as Bill Duncan, State Board member and opponent to the “Learn Everywhere” proposal, wrote in an op ed article in the July 24 Concord Monitor, JCLAR opposes the rule as it is written. Why?

Central to the committee’s concerns is the provision that New Hampshire high schools “shall” accept graduation credits created by private groups accredited by the State Board of Education (SBOE).

Normally, when JLCAR sends a proposed rule back with a preliminary objection, the agency makes the required changes and resubmits the rule to JLCAR for a virtually assured final approval. That does not seem likely in this case.

While merely changing the requirement that schools “shall” accept Learn Everywhere credits to “may” would be the obvious remedy to the key JLCAR objection, SBOE will probably not do that. The whole goal of the Learn Everywhere program is to replace public school courses with privately created graduation credits overseen by the education department.The word “shall” is the heart of the project. So this may become a real battle, one in which both sides will feel the stakes are high.

It is ironic that the GOP, a party that espouses local control over everything, wants to take local control away when it comes to awarding high school credits. But the endgame of all of this is the replacement of public schools with for profit enterprises and/or religiously affiliated schools that are not staffed with certified teachers. That was Frank Edelblut’s vision when he ran for Governor and almost defeated Chris Sununu and has been his mission ever since he took control of the State Department of education.

Mr. Duncan’s op ed article asserts that the JCLAR ruling is likely to stop the complete implementation of “Learn Everywhere”… but it also underscores the importance of having a progressive-minded Governor and legislature in 2020 and thereafter… for if the GOP controlled JCLAR the pro-privatization movement would be gaining steam now. Every election is important… and thankfully the 2018 election restored a degree of moderation to the NH legislature. Here’s hoping it remains that way for the foreseeable future.

In Case You Misunderstood: The Trump Cuts to Welfare are Cruel to the Poor, Helpful to the Rich

July 27, 2019 Comments off

NYTimes guest op ed columnist and Georgetown Law Professor David Super wrote an essay published earlier this week offering a blunt and accurate assessment of President Trump’s “Poverty Policy”. Here’s the opening paragraph that summarizes Mr. Super’s opinion:

On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced proposed rules that would cut more than three million people off food assistance. This latest plan confirms what many have long suspected: The only thing unifying its policies on poverty is cruelty. Prior right-ring assaults on the poor at least claimed some semblance of a coherent theme. In contrast, this proposal, and earlier ones, are a grab-bag of mutually inconsistent ideas seemingly selected only to maximize harm.

Mr. Super’s article offers a “history” of cuts to the safety net that began with Ronald Reagan’s administration and continued during the Clinton administration when Newt Gingrich controlled the House. Both the Reagan and Gingrich “reforms” reduced funding for the safety net but offered block grants to the states so that they could administer the programs and, presumably, come up with better ways to solve the problem of intractable poverty. Mr. Super contrasts those “philosophies” to that of the Trump administration’s:

The Trump administration’s initiatives, by contrast, are federal power grabs. Current rules allow childless workers to receive more than three months of food assistance while they seek jobs only when their state certifies that they live in areas with insufficient jobs. The administration would strip states of that power. The Gingrich Congress gave states the flexibility to confer “categorical eligibility” for food assistance on those people the states deemed needy by giving them benefits with block grant funds; the Trump administration would largely eliminate that authority.

The earlier shredding of the safety net was done based on the conservative philosophy that STATES were better able to offer help to the needy and determine the job markets in their jurisdiction. The Trump administration just wants to cut benefits… period. But, as Mr. Super notes, there IS one constant:

The one constant is helping to pay for huge, unaffordable upper-income tax cuts. Mr. Trump pushed through a $2 trillion tax cut in December 2017. This reversed years of declining federal deficits. Most of the benefits went to extremely affluent individuals and corporate shareholders, many of them foreign.

Those in the heartland need to understand that Mr. Trump’s xenophobic message notwithstanding, his policies are hurting their neighbors who are suffering because of unemployment and underemployment and the beneficiaries of these new cruel polices “…are extremely affluent individuals and corporate shareholders, many of them foreign.”

The one constant is treating those who are suffering badly— be they foreigners or Americans— while helping those who are affluent— be they foreigners or Americans.