Archive for February, 2021

NYC Chancellor Carranza’s Resignation Underscores the Insidious Link Between Standardized Tests and Segregation… and the Political Peril When That Link is Broken

February 28, 2021 Comments off

I was dismayed to read that NYC Chancellor Richard Carranza submitted his resignation to Mayor De Blasio today. Despite the pushback he received from tabloids like the NYPost and many politicians and most affluent parents, he continued advocating for the end of the tyranny of standardized testing, tests that are used to ostensibly to dispassionately and objectively sort and select students based on their “merit”. Moreover, after some initial hesitancy he seemed endorse the community schools movement whose success and failure defied could not be readily identified by the conventional measures used in public education. In a system based on the premise that “choice” was the only way White parents would remain in the schools and “choice” was limited for those who scored poorly on standardized tests, Mr. Carranza stood firm in his opposition to the use of test scores as a gatekeeping mechanism because the effect of that system was the re-segregation of schools.

Unlike most businessmen, politicians, and parents, Mr. Carranza understood that standardized tests are not the ultimate metric. He understood that using a single standardized test to identify “gifted and talented” 4 year olds has no basis in psychometrics and led to highly stressed childhoods for any children who aspired to enter those programs, especially if the parents of those children saw the scores on those tests as evidence that their child might not get accepted to a “brand name” college or university. Mr. Carranza also understood that use of standardized tests to sort-and-select rising middle and high school students re-segregated schools in the city and rejected the notion that standardized test scores are a valid proxy for “successful schools”. This stance made him a pariah to those who wanted to maintain the status quo and an especially fearsome opponent to the parents who believed that high test scores were evidence of merit on the part of their children.

We’ve use standardized test scores to “measure” students from the time I entered elementary school in the 50s, to “measure” schools since the passage of No Child Left Behind, and— had the “value added mentality of Race to the Top prevailed, would be using them now to “measure” teachers. Standardized tests are not useful for any of the above. They are a crude measure of student performance in any content area, of no use in determining “school quality”, and are absolutely wrong for the purpose of measuring teachers. Yet they persist. Why? Because they are a cheap, fast, and seemingly exact means of setting normative standards for cohorts of students based on age.

Formative tests, the ones developed by independent publicly funded research-based organizations or classroom teachers, provide a means of determining if an individual student has mastered a skill. They are valuable for teachers to use to identify where an individual student is encountering difficulty and to explain to parents how their child is progressing in a particular content area. How an individual student compares to his ager cohorts is immaterial in the learning process. What is important that the student is mastering skills he or she will need to progress.

Using standardized tests for anything else is absurd. Maybe Richard Carranza’s departure will lead to a dialogue on this issue.

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Big Government and Racial Equality are Joined at the Hip. Could THAT Be the Reason the GOP Does Not Support Aid to State and Local Governments as Part of Pandemic Relief?

February 27, 2021 Comments off

AFL-CIO officer Lee Saunders and anti-poverty advocate William Barber III co-authored a Common Dream posts titled “Austerity as Fake News: It Is Time to Bury the Myth that a Race to the Bottom Will Get US to the Top“. The article argues that government policy during a financial crisis presents a fork in the road for policy makers: they can either support more government funded jobs or undercut the role government can play in job creation and retention. Mr. Saunders and Dr. Barber assert that in the last government crisis, the market meltdown in 2008, the government made the wrong choice and, in doing so, eliminated government jobs that employed many minorities who have already experienced a history of economic disenfranchisement by government policy for decades. 

Through their work in public education, public transit and public health, millions of African Americans have been able both to provide for their families and strengthen their communities. But now, those jobs are on the chopping block. Without federal aid, more layoffs loom, dragging down the entire job market with it. How do we know? The same thing happened a decade ago.

With the nation in the throes of the Great Recession, politicians of both parties responded by drastically cutting spending. Austerity became the watchword. Right-wing activist Grover Norquist, who once famously said he wanted to shrink government to a size he could drown in the bathtub, had his day in the sun. States and communities nationwide slashed public services to the bone, and African American families took the biggest hit. In 2012, 200,000 fewer African Americans held public sector jobs than just four years earlier.

When I read this analysis, a light bulb went off. When the GOP was in control of spending, one of their non-negotiable items in formulating the second round of pandemic relief was the demand that no funds be allowed to help state governments fill budget gaps. This stance was built into the 2017 tax package, which included a provision that limited the deductions for state and local taxes, a notion that was disingenuously promoted as a way to shift the tax burden to wealthy citizens. What this gambit would do in the long run is gut government services at all levels, especially in those states who offered robust safety nets and jobs that enabled wage earners to “provide for their families and strengthen communities”. 

Mr. Saunders and Dr. Barber assert that we have not learned from our experience of a decade ago:

Ten years later, inexplicably, we are in danger of making the same public policy mistakes again. It is devastating enough that African Americans are disproportionately contracting Covid-19 and dying at higher rates than the population at-large. But because of the gutting of public services, we are also being pummeled economically. In just a year’s time, between September 2019 and September 2020, the number of Black people on the nation’s public payrolls shrunk by 211,000. This is one of the critical, yet often unspoken, reasons the pandemic has raged out of control. Giving pink slips to the very people who can bring the virus to heel is the worst possible crisis management strategy.

And things will get worse if Congress does not step in. Who will get shots into arms if more public health professionals are axed? How will laid off Americans get the unemployment benefits they have paid into when states shed more claims processors? How will small businesses survive when basic services like sanitation, clean water and road maintenance—normally so dependable that they are never included in any business model—erode even further?

Mr. Saunders and Dr. Barber do not state the obvious: the GOP has conflated government anti-poverty spending with providing assistance to “undeserving recipients”, and when they speak of “undeserving recipients” they refer implicitly or explicitly to the “Welfare Queens” Ronald Reagan wrongfully singled out decades ago. The article concludes with these paragraphs:

In the immediate term, we need Congress to come through with emergency aid to save these jobs and services. But in the long term, to vanquish the virus, build a prosperous economy for all and ensure that people earn a living wage as well, it is time to bury for good the fake news of austerity: that somehow a race to the bottom will take us to the top.

This is the moment to remind people about the power of government action, especially but not exclusively during moments of crisis. When it is run competently, when public services are performed by dedicated and compassionate people, government can affirm human dignity, provide basic needs and improve lives on a grand scale.

Let’s get public service workers back on the job and bring back real investment in the essential services that sustain us all.


Minimum Wage and Student Debt are Linked… Loans Would be Lower or Non-Existent if Workers Earned More

February 26, 2021 Comments off

A light bulb went on when I read this article on the minimum wage controversy by Kenny Stancil. In the article Mr. Sancil calls out GOP Senator John Thune for sharing an anecdote on his work as a teenager:

A story of the $6 wage he earned working in a restaurant as a kid blew up in the face of Sen. John Thune overnight after economic justice advocates pointed out that the powerful Republican’s personal anecdote only goes to show that, adjusted for inflation, that seemingly low wage would now be somewhere north of $24 an hour—helping solidify the case that increasing the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 is the very least Congress should be doing.

“I started working by bussing tables at the Star Family Restaurant for $1/hour and slowly moved up to cook—the big leagues for a kid like me—to earn $6/hour,” Thune, who represents South Dakota and is the second-most powerful Republican in the Senate, tweeted Wednesday night. “Businesses in small towns survive on narrow margins. Mandating a $15 minimum wage would put many of them out of business.”

Several progressive critics quickly pointed out that, depending on the exact year when Thune, born in 1961, started earning $6 an hour, the seemingly modest wage he pulled in as a teenager would be equivalent to roughly $25 today.

This resonated with me, because I worked de facto minimum wage jobs throughout my youth: mowing lawns; delivering newspapers; and several bona-fide part-time minimum wage jobs as a painter, a mover; and a factory worker. I was not raised in poverty. Rather, my father encouraged me to work part-time so that I could pay for college and learn the work-ethic at a grass root level. I DID pay for my freshman year at Drexel University with my earnings and covered the costs for the balance of my college through the co-op jobs I worked. But there is no way I could do that with today’s prevailing wages for two reasons: the wages today are too low and the cost of college has gone up. This creates a gap that can only be filled by having a college student take out loans or working throughout their college careers— either of which compromise the experiencing college in the same way as a student whose tuition, room and board is fully funded.

If our country is serious about creating a world where equal opportunity is real we need to pay higher wages for entry-level and part-time work and pay higher taxes so that state colleges can be more affordable. We need to reinforce that part of our humanity that is willing to make sacrifices for others instead of feeding our selfishness.