Some Positive Consequences of Covid 19: SATs and State Standardized Tests Cancelled

March 17, 2020 Leave a comment

CNN reported today that the College Board announced it is cancelling the May administration of the SAT and that the ACT, which also administers college placement exams in the US, announced similar measures regarding its April test. This won’t necessarily mean the end of the use of SATs and ACTs as screening for college entry, but if students are unable to take the tests and report their scores to colleges it might accelerate the movement away from their widespread us.

And SATs are not the only standardized tests to go by the boards. Both Texas and Washington State announced that they were cancelling the administration of their standardized tests. And Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post suggests that more cancellations of tests may be in the offing:

At least 33 states and the District have closed schools, many in the middle of spring standardized testing season. States use the results for different purposes, including to meet a federal testing mandate designed to assess how schools are helping students learn. There are other tests, too, including for high school graduation, third-grade retention and school voucher eligibility.

As with the SATs and ACTs, this won’t necessarily mean the end of the use of these tests for “…high school graduation, third-grade retention and school voucher eligibility” forever… but it will allow legislators to pause and MAYBE hit the reset button on their use.

 

The Lack of Sick Leave One Consequence of the Demise of Unions

March 15, 2020 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes includes an editorial titled “The Companies Putting Profits Ahead of Public Health”. Disgustingly and disgracefully fast food companies are the biggest culprits when it comes to insisting that its employees come to work even if their ill, a phenomenon that led to this finding:

Most American restaurants do not offer paid sick leave. Workers who fall sick face a simple choice: Work and get paid or stay home and get stiffed. Not surprisingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2014 that fully 20 percent of food service workers had come to work at least once in the previous year “while sick with vomiting or diarrhea.”

…Companies have long sought to obscure the details of their sick leave policies, but The Times has obtained new data from The Shift Project, a nationwide survey of tens of thousands of retail workers conducted by the sociologists Daniel Schneider of the University of California, Berkeley; and Kristen Harknett of the University of California, San Francisco. While the federal government reports aggregate data on benefits, the Shift Project data — from its most recent surveys in 2018 and 2019 — provides a look at the benefits offered by individual corporations, published here for the first time. This makes it possible to name names.

The vast majority of workers at large restaurant chains report they do not get paid sick leave, except in the minority of states and cities where it is required by law. The list of malefactors includes the giants of fast food, like McDonald’s, Subway and Chick-fil-A, as well as sit-down restaurants like Cracker Barrel, Outback Steakhouse and the Cheesecake Factory.

And it’s not just restaurants. The data also shows most workers at the supermarket chains Wegmans, Kroger, Meijer and Giant Eagle reported that they did not get paid sick leave.

The lack of sick leave is not only a strain on the workers who need to show up when they are not feeling well, it exacerbates the spread of epidemics.

…Companies that do not pay sick workers to stay home are endangering their workers, their customers and the health of the broader public. Studies show that paying for sick employees to stay home significantly reduces the spread of the seasonal flu. There’s every reason to think it would help to check the new coronavirus, too.

How did it get this way? The NYTimes editorial doesn’t mention it explicitly, but I know from personal experience as a part-time worker and a former school Superintendent that the lack of unions representing employees plays a major role in this change-for-the worse.

Back in the late 1960s I worked as a part-time cashier at Dale’s Supermarket in Philadelphia. At the time I initially bemoaned the union dues deducted from my paycheck but came to understand that the contract provided sick leave, insurance (if I opted for it), and assurances that scheduling would be done a week in advance using a seniority-based algorithm. Dales eventually went out of business, in part because competitors paid lower wages to non-union at-will employees who got none of those benefits. The government has made it increasingly difficult for employees to organize and has done nothing to guarantee voters a living wage, health insurance, sick leave, or predictable work schedules. The result is a boatload of folks who are one paycheck away from disaster and a small number of plutocrats who wrote the rulebooks to put them there. Those who fall off the precipice when their part-time hours are cut will be wanting a safety net. Here’s hoping the libertarian legislators who wrote the rules since the Reagan administration repair the ones they took away in the name of the magic of the free market.

As a public school administrator for 35 years, 32 of which I headed or participated in negotiations with labor unions, I witnessed the erosion of the influence of unions– especially in the non-certified staff areas. While teachers unions maintained their foothold in collective bargaining, school districts increasingly outsourced things like food services, custodial services, and transportation to the private sector. This lowered the operating budgets of school districts, making the “shareholder-taxpayers” happy, but diminished the wages and eroded the working conditions of those who formerly worked for the school district. With every successive recession that occurred from 1980, when I began my career as a Superintendent, through 2011 when I retired, more and more services were “outsourced” which meant fewer and fewer “public” employees were governed by the union contracts.

This shedding of union employees in the public sector mirrored what was taking place in the economy at large: it benefitted those who could afford homes and pay property taxes and hurt those who earned the least and were most likely to live in rental properties or in “affordable” homes.

MAYBE one positive effect of the Covid-19 outbreak will be a collective dawning that our system as it is set up now benefits fewer and fewer individuals and those who are benefitting do so at the expense of everyone else. My fear is that the survival-of-the-fittest mentality that undergirds our current system will prevail and the current stratified arrangement we have in place today will become even more baked into our economic system than ever.

Expansion of On-Line Work, On-Line Schooling and the Need for Economic Stimulus Is Golden Opportunity for Universal Broadband

March 14, 2020 Comments off

As noted in yesterday’s post, more and more schools are being cancelled and more and more employers are asking their staff members to work from home. The consequence of this will undoubtedly be extreme stress on our existing internet systems and more evidence of the existing inequities in the provision of services.

I read in today’s NYTimes that the House passed a de facto economic stimulus bill in response to the Covid 19 pandemic.The bill provides “…two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of family and medical leave for those affected by the crisis” and a slew of small bore items that will serve as a bandage for the work missed and revenues lost due to the pandemic. I fear that neither party saw the golden opportunity that lay before them: the chance to use this crisis as an opportunity to provide broadband to every citizen in the nation so that every citizen could access work and learning from their home.

But, as Common Cause noted in a press release yesterday, the FCC could take some immediate actions that would help… especially for those children who lack broadband access!

“Despite its limited authority, the FCC can and should do more to fully address broadband connectivity needs during this pandemic. The FCC can use its universal service authority to ensure existing programs designed to connect communities to broadband are fully utilized. For example, the Lifeline program connects eligible low-income households to affordable communications services. However, millions of eligible low-income households remain unenrolled. The FCC can take action to ensure all eligible low-income households are enrolled in the program. Further, millions of students lack a broadband connection at home. As Commissioner Rosenworcel has repeatedly stated, the ‘homework gap’ puts students without home broadband at a significant disadvantage. The FCC could address this by expanding its E-rate program to families with students that don’t have a broadband connection at home. The FCC must also address telehealth services so Americans can adequately connect to hospitals and other medical services.

The President touted on-line health services in his address and governors who have mandated school closures across the country all claim that on-line programs will offset the time lost in school. As readers of this blog know, that is only the case in homes with broadband… and those who cannot afford groceries are unlikely to have broadband… and those who live in remote rural outposts will be similarly challenged. We all have access to electricity and (as of now) clean water and indoor plumbing… The Covid 19 outbreak is helping us see that we should all have the same level of access to telecommunications.

Our Emerging National Experiment on On-Line Learning

March 13, 2020 Comments off

If we had a functional United States Department of Education, they would be working feverishly to devise some kind of means of measuring the impact of a national experiment we are about to embark on. As most readers of this blog undoubtedly realize, as of today four states have cancelled classes and scores of colleges– including some the “brand name” universities— are cancelling their spring semesters. All of these educational institutions, from Harvard to rural schools in Michigan, are offering on-line instruction in lieu of the traditional on-campus model. The billion dollar question for schools and colleges is this: will having students take course on-line make any difference in what they learn? The answer is that given our crude means of measuring “what students learn” we will never know.

Because our primary metric for measuring learning is the standardized test, and since on-line instruction can be targeted to the kinds of content that is readily measured on those tests, it is entirely possible that children learning on screens at home will do at least as well on these tests as children who were taught at school. Should that be the result, I can imagine advocates of virtual learning will use it as evidence that on-line learning is as good as traditional learning and advocates of efficiency will see it as evidence that we are spending needlessly.

But offering online courses as an alternative has one major self-evident drawback: high speed internet is not universally available or affordable. I live five miles away from Dartmouth College by car but cannot get broadband and my cell phone gets one bar indoors and two bars in my driveway. I have a dsl connection but need to pay a premium price for it, a price that might not be affordable if I were making even $15/hour. Online learning that consists of more than electronic spreadsheets, then, is not available for all children in same way as traditional brick-and-mortar instruction.

But there is another side to this experiment that cannot be overlooked: public schools do far more than educate children to do well on standardized tests. As Business Insider reports, one result of the closure of schools is that millions of children will no longer have access to the free meals served in public schools. For the 11 million children who come from food insecure homes this will compromise their health as surely as being exposed to classmates with Covid-19. Absent any clear protocols from the federal government, states and/or local school districts are left to fend for themselves in developing a means of providing meals for children who will otherwise go hungry. And schools do more than provide nutritious meals. They provide medical assistance, counseling, and psychological support for children that might otherwise be lacking.

Another practical issue for working parents is that public schools provide childcare. If schools close due to weather cancellations, many working parents scramble to get short-term coverage for their children or take personal leave if it is possible for them. If schools are closed for an extended period of time, how will working parents cope? And if parents are working from home who will get the use of the bandwidth?

And finally, schools an colleges employ thousands. If schools close and on-line instruction is offered, some contest teachers will presumably oversee the online instruction in some fashion. But will ALL the teachers be needed? And what will happen to bus drivers? Cafeteria workers? The custodial and maintenance staff? Will their fate be determined on a district-by-district basis or will state or federal guidelines be developed?

We are embarking on a massive experiment in the way we educate children and we are flying blind as we do so. But we may learn some valuable lessons as a result of this experiment. We may begin to appreciate that standardized tests fail to measure what is important about public schools. We may begin to appreciate the expanded mission of public schools. We may begin to appreciate the social benefits children get from interacting with their peers. And we may appreciate the key role public education plays in the local and national economy. And finally, we may appreciate the need to provide for those children who would not receive three meals a day, a warm room, or encouragement if it were not for their local schools.

 

Science Doesn’t Take Sides… But Politicians DO… and the GOP is Taking the Side Against Science

March 11, 2020 Comments off

I read a recent summary of a CBS Report suggesting that legislators across the country have declared a “War on Science”. As the term “War” suggests, the legislators are viewing science as something that requires one can take sides on, the same way it is possible to take sides on, say, welfare policy. Here are the paragraphs that outline the issue CBS news is tackling:

According to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), in 2019 over a dozen bills were introduced in 10 states. One proposed bill in Connecticut, introduced by Republican John Piscopo, has the specific goal of eliminating climate change teaching entirely from the science standards the state adopted in 2015. Most of the other bills cast a wider net, aiming to require teaching “both sides” of an argument with equal weight, even if one does not have the support of the scientific community behind it.

“The bills vary, but they generally have something to the effect of teachers should be encouraged to teach both sides of controversial areas of science, or teachers should be encouraged to teach critical thinking around controversial areas of science,” said Ann Reid, executive director of NCSE. “Lately, the most recent iteration of this kind of bill, is teachers should have academic freedom to teach topics as they see fit.

“So, these bills very rarely pass. But I do think the fact that they’re introduced at all, that they end up in the newspapers, that that people get interviewed about them, and then it’s presented as a ‘both sides’ kind of issue,that can be hard for teachers. That can make it more challenging for them to teach these topics.”

We’ve witnessed this issue before in an area of science that is very clear cut and settled: evolution. But the widespread politicization of science has run rampant thanks in large measure to lobbyists who stand to lose billions if scientific finds are applied to their corporations. The easiest example is the tobacco industry, who for decades tried to promote the idea that smoking was not a health hazard. In a more subtle and insidious fashion the petroleum industry has promoted the idea that scientific conclusions regarding global warming are open to question. The difference between global warming and tobacco, though, is huge. Tobacco use only impacts those who choose to buy tobacco products. Global warming, as the name indicates, will have a universal, global impact.

Ms. Reid is accurate in her assessment of the impact of the media’s coverage, which reinforces the notion that climate science is UN-settled. And who writes these bills that are proposed in various State legislatures? Two guesses— and the first one doesn’t count.

 

Ontario E-Learning Mandate is Step Backwards for High Schools, Not a Path to Modernity

March 10, 2020 Comments off

This morning as I scrolled through the Education newsfeed on my I-Phone I came across an article in The Conversation by Windsor College education professor Lana Parker describing Ontario’s mandatory e-learning courses for high school students and a bell went off in head. It seems that I accurately recalled that Ontario’s Premier was Doug Ford, a populist conservative who, like our POTUS, is no fan of government and, after reading Ms. Parker’s article that made no mention of Mr. Ford, came upon another Conversation article from October 2019 by Beyhan Farhadi that not only named him but called him out for the plan.

Ms. Fahradi’s article described the idea behind the plan offered by their equivalent of the Commissioner of Education:

Questioned in the legislature about the plan, Lisa Thompson, then the minister of education, asked:

What is wrong with making sure that our students, at minimum, once a year, embrace technology for good?

The fantasy of progress reflected in this statement — that technology can determine educational outcomes — suggests that technology offers simple solutions to complex problems.

In her article, Ms. Fahradi offers research-based rebuttal to the efficacy of on-line instruction as a means of offering equitable opportunities, noting that the students who succeeded in e-learning before the mandate were predominantly high-achieving white students.

Ms. Farrell’s article, though, presents the real reasoning behind mandatory e-courses… and… surprise: it’s not about modernization of education… it’s about money!

E-learning isn’t about modernization. E-learning may instead be a trojan horse for cost-cutting and privatization. Teacher and staff wages make up the bulk of the education budget and the government likely recognises that costs can be cut if fewer teachers are employed to teach students. Ontario has been seeking to do this in two ways.

The first is to increase class sizes. The second is related to the first: it’s to introduce mandatory e-learning as a way of potentially grouping larger cohorts of students in a virtual classroom, centralizing course preparations and reducing the scope of personalized learning. This contradicts the OECD’s recommendation for 21st century learning that curriculum should be shifting from “predetermined and static” to “adaptable and dynamic.”

In addition to cost-cutting, the move to centralized e-learning also reveals that the government may be planning to develop private revenue streams. Canadian courses and curriculum are already being sold internationally. It’s quite possible that the government hopes that there will be a future market for an online curriculum.

Mandatory e-learning will not mean more choice for students and parents. In Ontario, fewer teachers and increased class sizes have already resulted in less course choice. The loss of face-to-face togetherness in a student’s formative years should not be the benchmark for what modernization looks like in schools today.

Five states in our country and two provinces in Canada have mandated at least one course in the name of “modernization” or, in some cases”, equity. E-learning in and of itself does not afford either. As both writers assert e-learning DOES have a place IN the classroom… but it should not BE the classroom. In the end, there is only one reason e-learning is politically popular: it is a cheap, fast and easy solution to a whole series of complicated problems that cost money and take a long time to solve.

Jennifer Berkshire Poses Question: Why Aren’t Democrats Running Against DeVos-Trump Agenda? Because They Helped Create It!

March 9, 2020 Comments off

Jennifer Berkshire, a public school advocate who abhors the profiteering that results from deregulation, wrote an article for The Nation describing how running against the Trump-DeVos agenda for public schools has been a winning theme in House elections and COULD be a winning theme nationally. The article describes several campaigns in Texas, Michigan and Wisconsin where the winning candidate was the one who advocated for public schools and suggests that public schools are highly valued in rural sections of the country as well as in affluent suburbs. At the end of the article she outlines the reasons the Democrats are NOT running against the Trump-DeVos platform for privatization and “choice”:

Yet if Democrats are aware that the roiling politics of education offer the party a potential opening in crucial 2020 states, they are keeping it awfully quiet. On the campaign trail and the debate stage, when education surfaces as an issue at all, the presidential contenders stick to bumper-sticker stuff: higher-pay for teachers, more funding for high-poverty schools, fewer high-stakes tests. Nor do the Democrats have much to say about the rural schools attended by one-quarter of American kids. Public education, as the would-be presidents define it, seems to be a city thing. And other than Betsy DeVos’ reliable role as party punching bag, the Democrats have directed relatively little energy towards distinguishing their vision from Trump’s. Indeed far more ink has been spilled over the party’s internecine dispute over charter schools, an issue that barely affects rural and suburban voters, than on the existential threats to public education in must-win states.

In order to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with GOP education policies, Democrats will have to do more than malign Betsy DeVos. They will also have to draw a sharp distinction from recent Democratic party orthodoxy on public education. For the past three decades, Democrats have embraced the market-oriented thinking that is now reaching its logical conclusion in the form of “education freedom.” By making the rhetoric of individual choice and competition their own, Democrats have inadvertently eroded the idea of education as a public good, making its defense, and the case for higher spending on schools, that much more difficult. And yet, as voters from Texas to Wisconsin to Michigan have demonstrated, public education remains at the very core of Americans’ hopes for their children and their communities. Democrats would do well to listen to them.

In short, Betsy DeVos’ voucher plans are the direct result of Arne Duncan’s Race-to-the-Top ethos of voice and competition and the bipartisanship exemplified by NCLB and ESSA. It appears the Democrats are unwilling to change the narrative they helped create in order to support the argument that public schools need more funding. I hope the party will begin listening to the parents and voters in communities where public schools remain the bastion of hope for the future.