Betsy DeVos’s Message to Bilked College Students: Caveat Emptor

June 13, 2018 Leave a comment

As noted in earlier posts, the USDOE under Betsy DeVos’ leadership seems ready, willing, and capable of throwing those students who enrolled in fraudulent degree programs under the bus in the name of the free market. Evidence of this reality was presented earlier this week when Ms. DeVos reinstated the so-called “watchdog” agency that accredited bogus educational enterprises. As reported in an article by Erica Green in yesterday’s NYTimes, Ms. DeVos used a flimsy bureaucratic procedural argument to distance herself from the decision to reinstate the formerly discredited “watchdog” group, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or Acics. As Ms. Green reported, this agency was stripped of its power in the waning months of the Obama administration:

Acics was stripped of its powers in December 2016 amid the collapse of two for-profit university chains, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, where students were encouraged to take on debt based on false promises, including jobs after graduation. The accrediting body was held responsible for allowing the schools to employ predatory recruitment practices.

The scandal rocked the for-profit college industry, which became a target of the Obama administration. And taxpayers are still covering the fallout as the DeVos Education Department manages more than 100,000 applications for debt relief totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. On Monday, a judge in San Francisco was set to hear arguments that the department should grant full loan relief to Corinthian students. On Wednesday, an Indianapolis court is set to approve a $1.5 billion settlementfor aggrieved ITT students.

But, according to her spokesperson, Ms. DeVos is powerless in this case because of a procedural snafu in the Obama administration’s decision to suspend Acics:

Education Department officials said that despite the March report (which condemned Acics), Ms. DeVos was obligated to reinstate Acics as an accrediting body for colleges and universities because of a federal court order that had faulted the process the Obama-era department had used to terminate its recognition. A federal judge sent the decision back to Ms. DeVos for reconsideration.

“The secretary did not make the determination to reinstate Acics,” Liz Hill, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This department can’t operate on or enforce a decision that was found invalid by the court.”

Many critics strongly disagree with this assertion:

Advocates say that Ms. DeVos is using the court order as a convenient excuse.

They note that the judge did not vacate the 2016 decision, and that Ms. DeVos was not compelled to reinstate Acics. The report provides the most up-to-date evaluation of the organization, which still oversees dozens of colleges. In March, Acics was accused by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, of accrediting “visa mills,” used by foreign students to come to the United States with minimal scrutiny.

“This report makes clear that Acics is a wholly unfit and unreliable evaluator of higher-education institutions,” said Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former Obama Education Department official. “Betsy DeVos may be content with ignoring the overwhelming outside consensus on Acics’s performance, but she cannot deny the expert opinions of her own staff.”

If this was the only time Ms. DeVos saw fit to overlook experts it might be possible to accept her decision. But like her predecessors, she has ignored evidence that VAM is invalid, that test-and-punish reforms have not improved public education, and that equitable funding is needed to close the performance gap between students attending affluent schools and those attending poverty-wracked schools. In this case, Ms. DeVos appears to be acting in the best interest of for-profit diploma mills that issue worthless degrees. It may just be coincidental that the man who appointed her led such an enterprise.

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Medium Blogger Suggests Alternatives to Fear-mongering “Active Shooter Drills”

June 12, 2018 Leave a comment

The typical response to the horrific school shootings has been to fight fear with fear. Instead taking steps to identify ways to prevent shootings, politicians, parents, and voters have the same response: we need to accept the fact that shootings will persist and prepare our children to deal with shootings and harden our schools to make sure they don’t happen again.

In “Active Shooter Drills Aren’t the Answer“, Medium blogger BrennaDemands looks more deeply at the source of the mindset that leads to the shootings, identifies some of the factors in the day-to-day lives of children that contribute to that mindset, and offers some ideas about how we might deal differently with shootings.

She opens her article by describing the impact of “duck and cover” drills on my generation, emphasizing the traumatic effect it had on many children. BrennaDemands then offers an insight from a fifth grade child she read in an Unworthy article that resonated with me:

When we were sitting under the desks, I had a slight bit of doubt in the idea. To my fifth-grade self, it didn’t seem like the best idea to just be hiding if someone were to come in and try and hurt us. It would only take a few seconds of searching to find 25-plus kids and a teacher all cramped under those tables. … At the time, I automatically assumed that the adults knew more than we did. I figured that we were much safer than I realize we actually were, in retrospect.

this resonated because it reflected how my fifth-grade self came to two realizations: that hiding under a desk would not save us from the effects of a nuclear explosion and that the chances of a nuclear attack on Tulsa, Oklahoma where I lived at the time were extraordinarily remote.

The fifth grade child’s quote addresses the preposterousness of hiding under a desk as a safety measure, and later in the essay she addresses the statistical realities of school shootings:

the likelihood a child will be killed at school is less than one in a million according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The chances of dying in a car or traffic accident are one in 5,000. And I feel comfortable on the road with my children knowing that I have taken steps to purchase a vehicle with safety features, installed the recommended car seats for their age and weight, and acquired training on how to drive a car at the appropriate speed limit.

But BrennaDemands is especially outraged at the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that the active shooter drills save lives, reports by the mainstream media notwithstanding. And she questions the value of reinforcing the idea that shootings are inevitable by holding these drills. Drawing on the statics cited above, she writes:

I do not need to simulate car crashes — with swerving and screaming and fire — for my children to understand what to do in the event of an emergency. There is no benefit to enacting a realistic car crash scenario that would outweigh the associated anxiety and trauma. Though I may not be able to prevent a car accident from occurring one hundred percent of the time, I have peace of mind that I’ve done enough to increase our odds of survival if it ever does happen.

She does acknowledge that there is one precaution that every teacher should take in the highly unlikely event of an active shooter stalking the school, and it is a precaution that only involves the adults in the school:

I understand that some administrators, teachers, and even parents believe we must do everything possible — and rehearse every scenario — to get an A+ at active shooter preparedness. But if the number one safety recommendation is a classroom door that can be locked from the inside, and if all adults in the building are knowledgeable of the lockdown protocols, then to what degree do children young and old need to be involved in the process?

In response to the inevitable question of what schools should do, BrennaDemands offers some ideas:

we need to listen to what kids are asking for and what makes them feel safe. We need to flood schools with more mental health professionals, not more armed guards. We need to know the signs to spot future school shooters. We need to break down the social isolation that causes loneliness and anger, which is much more likely to end in teen suicide.

BrennaDemands senses that parents and students are ahead of politicians and voters on this issue. They are tired of pointless and frightening drills that cause students to believe that school shootings are inevitable in the same way duck and cover drills led my generation to believe that nuclear war was imminent. They are tired of yielding to those who insist that everyone must be able to buy any kind of weapon and ammunition they desire. They are beginning to become a force to be reckoned with… albeit a gentle but persistent force. She concludes her essay with this:

It is time for the next generation to stop huddling in darkened classrooms and step out into the light. It’s time to show our country a better way to live.

I hope the parents and children will show us the way forward.

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An Obvious Solution to the Elite NYC High School Dilemma: Add More of Them! The Impediment? $$$$

June 11, 2018 Leave a comment

A recent City and State article by Tom Allon and Rafeal Espinal offers an obvious solution to the problem posed by having 30,000 applicants seeking placement in NYC’s so called “elite high schools”: Open more of them! Mr. Allon and Mr. Espinal open their article describing the problem:

Every year around 30,000 8th graders take the SHSAT, the high-stakes entrance exam for New York City’s eight coveted specialized high schools.

In March, 25,000 ambitious teenagers get the disappointing news that they will not be offered admission to any of those schools.

Recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial plan to increase the paltry number of African-American and Latino students in the specialized schools has been met with much criticism, particularly from the city’s growing Asian-American community. Currently, the majority of students at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech are of Asian descent. At Stuyvesant 73 percent of the student body is Asian-American, compared to 1 percent African-American and 3 percent Latino. The citywide public school mix is much different: 26 percent African-American, 40 percent Latino and only 16 percent Asian-American.

In the zero-sum game of balancing the racial demographics at these schools, a win for one group results in a loss for another.

There solution is an obvious one. Add “…more educational jewels to the crown in the public high school system” by expanding the number of seats available! This solution would have the effect of increasing the buyer of opportunities for bright and motivated students to enroll in academically challenging programs without watering down the content and without compromising the application process.

If every child who took the test and completed the application process was assured admission to a rigorous program who would lose? The obvious answer is those who pay taxes for schools and those who believe that “choice” and “competition” are a pre-requisite for quality. Clearly the cost/pupil would increase for the 25,000 students now left out in the cold, but if the marginal cost/pupil was $1,000 the $25,000,000 increase would be pocket change for a district with a budget of $24,000,000,000 and when that cost is spread over the tax base it would be relatively inconsequential. The benefits, on the other hand, would be huge.

And Mr. Allon and Mr. Espinal offer the experience of the expansion of Bard’s High School Early College program as evidence that such an expansion would not water down the academics if more students were admitted. There are clearly more than 5,000 students who would benefit from an “elite” education…. and it’s clearly time to move forward with an expansion plan instead of perpetuating the zero-sum mentality that adds needless stress to the lives of thousands of NYC households.

 

GreatSchools” Not So Great Premise: Standardized Test Mirror “Greatness”

June 11, 2018 Leave a comment

I have often blogged about the absurdity of rating schools based on easy to collect data, especially when that data is standardized test scores. A recent Medium post by Ali McKay, The Problem with “GreatSchools”, describes the flaws with the rating algorithm that “service” uses. Ms. McKay, who describes herself as “A white lady with kids digging into the practices of equity and anti-racism”, decries the Great Schools ratings. After describing the warmth and inclusiveness of her low rated racially and socio-economically integrated school, (by GreatSchools scheme), she offers this insight:

So what, exactly, is GreatSchools measuring? Mostly socioeconomic status, it turns out. In fact, Jack Schneider, an historian and researcher who studies schools, has written that factors the schools can control usually explain only about 20% of test scores. That means at least sixty percent of test scores is determined by socioeconomic status. Low income students will tend to score lower and high income students will score higher — and this is regardless of where they go to school. Much has been written about why, but, as just one example, researchers have found that poverty affects kids’ language environments. And, middle and upper class parents are, from day one, cultivating their kids’ language and other skills, setting them up to stay in the middle or upper class.

Ms. McKay, in the spirit of fairness, does note that GreatSchools is aware of the problem and attempting to address it:

GreatSchools seems to be aware that there may be a problem, and changed their ratings late in 2017 to include an equity component. This component accounts for 28% of a school’s rating… Their website says:“We believe that every parent — regardless of where they live or how much money they make — needs reliable information in order to ensure their child is being served by their school.” They have many pictures of Black and Brown families on their site.

Ms. McKay doesn’t “do the math”, but clearly the 28% factor is mathematically unlikely to identify a “low performing school” that effectively differentiates instruction into a higher classification. It DOES provide a fig leaf to indicate they are open to data beyond standardized test. But, as Ms. McKay notes elsewhere in her essay, it is a very small fig leaf given that:

…(standardized test) scores… account for 47% of GreatSchool’s school rating for elementary schools (and a whopping 72% if you add in their ‘Student Progress’ on tests factor). This means that (their ratings) are mostly telling you to find high socioeconomic students and avoid lower socioeconomic students (and English language learners, kids who qualify for special education services, and so on . . .).

So if these scores are only a proxy for affluence, what is a parent to do if they are seeking a school that includes a mixed demographic? Ms. McKay offers a common sense approach:

Take the two tour pledge: set foot inside two schools. You wouldn’t buy a house without going in it, so why do so with your child’s education? When we were deciding on our current school, we toured and we talked to teachers and parents. It didn’t take that much time, and walking around and seeing the actual people in the building was the most important factor for us.

Second, remember that parents tend to pass along the dominant narratives, whether they are actually true or not.They will tell you a school is “good” or “bad”, even though they might not have ever been in the school they are talking about… Researchers like Jennifer Jellison Holme and others have found this to be true(i.e. that families listen to and value a school based on what other privileged parents say about it).

And then, investigate your values and your goals for your kids. I am guessing your goals for your kids when they are 50 is not that they had high test scores. Like me, you probably want a lot more than that for them. Like me, you might be anxious about academics or anxious that not being around high achieving peers or watching screen time at school sometimes (gasp!) will hurt their prospects as adults in a competitive world. Anxiety is a small price to pay for seeking justice and dismantling systems of segregation and racism. And, it makes me feel icky but it bears repeating: socioeconomically advantaged kids will get high test scores wherever they are, because of the luck of their birth.

From my perspective we need more parents to take on that icky feeling and acknowledge that where their kids go to high school will have less bearing on the household they come from and the friends they make when they are in school… and that friendships with children of different races and socio-economic status are only possible if their children attend schools that are not economically and racially homogenous.

And here’s the challenge for GreatSchools and the education reformers who help underwrite it: choices about schools would vanish IF public education was funded adequately and affluent parents acknowledged that their children would not suffer if they attended school with those of other races and economic backgrounds. That was the vision of our founders, who hoped that democracy and upward mobility would be maintained through a public school system that served ALL children equally.

North Carolina HS Principal Shows How to Combat Negativity and Overcome Fear

June 10, 2018 Leave a comment

My brother, who retired to the NC coast, sent me a link to this story about the North Brunswick HS graduation ceremony. The ceremony concludes with two of the class leaders pointing to the control booth at the back of the auditorium and shouting: “Cue the music!” At that point several of the graduates in the audience begin dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”. When the song reaches the chorus, all the graduates begin dancing and chanting the words:

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
(Ooh!)
I’m asking him to change his ways
(Ooh!)
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
(If you want to make the world a better place)
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
(Take a look at yourself, and then make a change)

At the conclusion the Principal offers an explanation as to why this song was selected:

“To the crowd, this is what this song means to us:” the principal said. “This year has been really traumatic and after every event in the country, we would play that through our speaker and we would promise to each other that that wouldn’t happen at North.”

Who needs armed guards when you have a leader who helps students look out for each other and look in the mirror every day and be the change you want to see.

Whatever Donors Want… Donors Get… Especially if the Donors are the Waltons

June 9, 2018 Leave a comment

The Republican candidate for Governor is wiling to see his votes on de facto vouchers to the Waltons. This story from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution illustrates everything that is wrong with politics in general and the influence of donors on education policy at the state level.  Here’s a synopsis: one GOP candidate for governor, Lt. Governor Cagle, who controlled the items to be considered in the legislature, was told by the Walton family that if he failed to bring a badly written bill to a vote they would make a $3,000,000 donation to his opponent. He caved in and advanced the bill.

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Bad Metrics Not Limited to Education: Employment Rates Mis-measure Our Economy Too

June 9, 2018 Leave a comment

Earlier this week, President Trump effectively released the employment figures before the official announcement and, in so doing, reinforced the notion that low unemployment rates are a sign of economic well-being. But, as Paul Constant wrote in Civic Skunk Works immediately after the release of the employment figures, that is not necessarily the case and, of late, has increasingly NOT been the case. Here’s the nub of his argument:

…if you just report on numbers, it’s very easy to fall into a Trump-friendly video-game mindset, in which larger numbers are an unalloyed good to be accrued at all costs…all these… journalists didn’t ask the most important question of all: we know the quantity of jobs. But what about the quality of those jobs?

Mr. Constant then produces reams of evidence that the quality of jobs in the “new economy” is awful:

As Derek Thompson argued at The Atlantic back in 2012, America’s postwar economy has shifted dramatically. Since the 1950s, he reports, “The manufacturing/agriculture economy shrunk from 33% to 12%, and the services economy grew from 24% to 50%.” And as most anyone who’s worked in the service economy knows, there are an awful lot of awful jobs—low-wage, part-time, no-benefit kinds of jobs—in service.

But this is not just about Walmart. Service jobs don’t have to suck—and many don’t. But I could sit here and list stats all weekend long proving that quality jobs in America are disappearing:

And on and on and on.

The fact is, sometimes in the 1970s America made the switch from high-quality, high-wage employment to low-quality, low-wage employment—and the shift is getting progressively worse.It’s gotten so bad that Axios recently revealed that CEOs openly admitted that the American worker isn’t getting a cut of the economic prosperity anytime soon: “executives of big U.S. companies suggest that the days of most people getting a pay raise are over, and that they also plan to reduce their work forces further.”

The report that Donald Trump touted today only counted the number of jobs created, not the quality of those jobs.

The truth is, this isn’t a jobs story at all. It’s an inequality story.

Mr. Constant concludes his essay with this compelling insight:

By blindly promoting economics numbers as though the highest score is all that matters, we as Americans are agreeing that the most important thing, above all else, is being employed. Never mind if you have to work two or three part-time gigs to pay the rent. Never mind if none of your employers provide health insurance. Never mind that workers are too tired and stretched too thin to find a new job, or to get training that might improve their conditions. Never mind that jobs which were once considered good careers are now paid a pittance.

When we blare the news of a great new jobs report—no matter which party is in power—we are advancing the narrative that as long as we hit our marks, nothing else matters. A job is a job is a job is a job.

Except that’s not true. Gradually, over the last half-decade, and without our consent, the deal has changed. Eventually, no amount of deft media manipulation will be able to hide that fact.

What does this have to do with public education policy? A paraphrase of that first paragraph answers that question:

By blindly promoting standardized test scores as though the highest score is all that matters, we as Americans are agreeing that the most important thing, above all else, is doing well on those tests. Never mind if you forfeit art, music, PE, and play for test preparation. Never mind if none of your school excludes students who score poorly on tests. Never mind that students are taught only what can be tested and fail to learn the soft skills that are needed in a well functioning democracy. Never mind that in the quest for high test scores we sacrifice childhood completely. 

Gradually, over the last decade-and-a-half we have made a decision to conflate good schools with high test scores and no amount to deft media manipulation can hide that fact.