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Arne Duncan Still True Believer in VAM, “Failure” of Public Schools, Standardized Testing

August 9, 2018 Comments off

Arne Duncan has written a new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, and he is getting lots of publicity as he tours the country selling his book and the tired ideas in it. Here’s the opening paragraph from a review of his book by Atlantic reporter Alia Wong:

Arne Duncan, the former education secretary under President Barack Obama, has always been more candid than others who’ve served in that role. He’s often used his platform to talk about what he sees as the persistent socioeconomic and racial disparities in access to quality schools. His new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, further cements that reputation. How Schools Work’s first chapter is titled “Lies, Lies Everywhere.” The first sentence: “Education runs on lies.” If one were to create a word cloud of the book, lies would probably pop out as one of the most frequently used words. Duncan writes that even the countless fantastic schools across the country “haven’t managed to defeat the lies that undermine our system so much as they’ve been able to circumvent them.” These lies, according to Duncan, include a culture of setting low expectations for high schoolers who later discover they’re not prepared for the real world, and poorly designed accountability systems that allow teachers to fudge their students’ test-score results.

This paragraph itself is full of canards about public education that only someone who never set foot in a public school could believe. I worked in an urban middle school, a blue collar suburban high school, and a rural high school that served many poor families. The teachers in these schools, even the weakest, had high expectations for their children.

As for the “accountability systems that allow teachers to fudge their test-score results”, I presume he must be referring to the grading systems that allow students to pass a course with a “C” or a “D”, grades that typically require a student to get grades that do not require mastery of ALL the information presented. And the norm-referenced tests that were the backbone of the RTTT “accountability systems” Mr. Duncan imposed on schools that were presumably designed to avoid the “fudging” did nothing to help students. They only reinforced the notion that students were poorly prepared because teachers were lazy and incompetent and did so by providing a sheen of precision.

In the interview with Ms. Wong that accompanied this overview of his book Mr. Duncan DID reveal an understanding of the root cause of “failing” schools… and it isn’t the teachers… it’s parents who are disengaged from the lives of their students, parent’s whose disengagement is often the result of working multiple jobs or, in the worst case, drug and alcohol abuse. Here’s Mr. Duncan’s take:

It’s the parents who aren’t present whose kids you have to worry about even more because those parents just have too much going on in their own lives to be engaged in their children’s education. Those kids are the ones I actually worry about the most.

But, as written frequently in this blog, actions speak louder than words. IF Mr. Duncan believed this as the head of public education in Chicago and then the nation, why did he not take action to provide support for the children of disengaged parents, the children whose performance pulls down the test scores he values so highly and whose ultimate withdrawal from schools increases the drop out rates he blames on “the system”?

Mr. Duncan’s perspective on gun violence was also on point. But like his views on the problems presented by disengaged parents, it’s a perspective he failed to share when he led the nation’s schools:

I talk a lot about gun violence—it’s what I’m dealing with in Chicago all the time; it unfortunately shaped me as a kid; we saw it in the Sandy Hook massacre, which happened when I was education secretary. There’s no political leader who says they don’t value kids, but the truth is: we value guns more than we value the lives of our children .And that is irrefutable if you look at the rates of gun deaths in the U.S. compared to other nations that make other policy choices.

Mr. Duncan purports to be one who perceives education as a great equalizer and one who attempts to use data to help him see what works and what doesn’t work. I wish that as Secretary of Education emeritus he would take a dispassion look at the true impact of RTTT and acknowledge that it was a doubling down on NCLB, a program he viewed as “horribly constructed.” I wish he would acknowledge that the standardized tests he advocated were not constructed to perform the VAM he mandated and resulted in the discrediting of the teaching profession. I wish that he would trumpet the need for programs to support parents who “…just have too much going on in their own lives to be engaged in their children’s education” and speak out against the politicians who value guns more than we value the lives of our children. Finally, I wish he would acknowledge that the programs he advocates, the expansion of choice and charters, reward those parents who are engaged in the lives of their children, sidestep the need for a larger investment in the safety net, and divert needed funds away from public schools.

Driving a Stake Through the Heart of the ESA Vampire is Tough in New Hampshire

May 6, 2018 Comments off

On Thursday our local newspaper reported on it’s front page that SB 193, the Education Savings Account bill was dead. But as Advancing New Hampshire Public Education’s (ANHPE) blog reported on Friday, the bill has been resuscitated by diehards in the Senate by appending the bill to an unrelated piece of legislation. Here’s the labyrinthine process that is underway as described in ANHPE:

The expectation at this point is that the House Education Committee will recommend that the amended HB 1636 be sent to a committee of conference and that the House will vote on that on May 10.  Here is the amendment adding SB 193 to HB 1636.  (This amendment, “Death Benefit for School Employee Killed in Line of Duty” was also added to HB 1636)

The House could kill the bill then and there but if it agrees to the committee of conference, the Speaker will name the committee members, probably then and there, and the committee will prepare its report.  The version of SB 193 added to HB 1636 is a version that the Senate passed in March, 2017 and that no one considers viable at this point.  The committee of conference will probably replace it with a version much like the one the House voted down this week.

The House would vote on the committee of conference report at the May 23 session.  If it passes, it will go immediately to the Senate.  If it fails, it is dead at that point.  The last day of the current legislative session is scheduled to be May 24.

Based on earlier ANHPE accounts it is evident that not only the Governor but also Catholic leaders want to see this bill passed. The tactic of wearing down the opposition and strong-arming GOP legislators to switch their votes is underway. Here’s hoping the 17 GOP legislators who sided with the Democrats will stay in the opposition column. Otherwise, the future of public education in NH will be in peril.

 

VAM: The Mathbabe Declares The Death of a Bad Idea… But I’m Not So Sure!

May 15, 2017 Comments off

Cathy O’Neill, a.k.a the Mathbabe, is now writing a column on the use and misuse of statistics for Bloomberg News. Her latest piece for Bloomberg titled “Don’t Grade Teachers with a Bad Algorithm” opens with this heartening paragraph:

For more than a decade, a glitchy and unaccountable algorithm has been making life difficult for America’s teachers. The good news is that its reign of terror might finally be drawing to a close.

Ms. O’Neill then provides a concise history and analysis of VAM— an acronym for Value Added Model– one that has been offered in earlier posts on this blog but one that bears recounting:

The VAM — actually a family of algorithms — purports to determine how much “value” an individual teacher adds to a classroom. It goes by standardized test scores, and holds teachers accountable for what’s called student growth, which comes down to the difference between how well students performed on a test and how well a predictive model “expected” them to do.

Derived in the 1980s from agricultural crop models, VAM got a big boost from the education reform movements of presidents Bush and Obama. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act called for federal standards, and Obama’s Race To The Top Act offered states some $350 billion in federal funds in exchange for instituting formal teacher assessments. Many states went for VAM, sometimes with bonuses and firings attached to the results.

Ms. O’Neill describes the flaws in VAM, the major one of which was it’s opacity. One of her friends, who was Principal of a school in Brooklyn asked to get a copy of the algorithm when VAM was instituted in NYC and was dismissively told it was unavailable and, anyway, “it’s math, you wouldn’t understand it.” So a building administrator, who was held accountable for the VAM results in her school, was not let in on the way VAM was calculated.

She concluded her article by offering two pieces of evidence supporting her contention that VAM is dead:

Happily, the tide appears to be turning. In 2015, a revamp of No Child Left Behind, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, removed the federal funding incentives that had supported the algorithm. In May 2016, a Long Island teacher named Sheri Lederman won a lawsuit against New York State in which a judge deemed the state’s VAM-based rating system “arbitrary and capricious.” And earlier this month, a group of teachers in Houston, where VAM had been used for firings and bonuseswon a lawsuit in which they successfully argued that the algorithm’s secretive and complex nature had effectively denied them due process.

VAM expert Audrey Amrein-Beardsley told me that the Houston decision, pertaining to the country’s seventh-largest school district, might have a “snowball effect,” influencing the outcome of other lawsuits across the country. Let’s hope so, because teachers deserve better.

While I sincerely hope Ms. Amrein-Beardsley is correct in her forecast of a “snowball effect”, given the inability of politicians to drive a stake through the heart of the Gaffer Curve myth (see my next post), I’m not at all certain this bad idea is dead just yet. Yes, ESSA DOES eliminate the federal funding incentives that supported the VAM algorithm… but there are several states (including NH, the State I reside in) that are led by Governors and legislators who believe in “hard data” provided by standardized tests and love the idea that these tests can prove that public education is “failing”…. and those Governors and legislators will be loathe to abandon simplistic ideas like VAM that demonstrate that “failing teachers” are the ultimate cause of “failing schools”. VAM won’t die until the public is willing to face the facts on public schools… that more money is needed to help the schools that serve the children raised in poverty.