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

August 9, 2018 Leave a comment

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.

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Palm Beach Florida Exemplifies Disturbing Result of Flat Funding: Mid-Career Teachers Lose

July 28, 2018 Comments off

An article by Andrew Marra in yesterday’s Pal Beach Post describes the impact of a 2003 decision to withhold “automatic raises” on the mid-career teachers today… and it isn’t a pretty picture.

The article doesn’t offer a detailed description of the “automatic raises”, but it is evident that they are the pay increases that result from the traditional unified pay schedule that provides teachers with both a “step” and a “cost-of-living” (COLA) increase in their pay. The article indicates that in 2003 the Superintendent proposed eliminating these raises should a financial crisis warrant such action and the Board at that time concurred by a 4-3 vote. When the Great Recession took place, the step + COLA increases for mid-career teachers were abandoned entirely and eventually replaced with flat across-the-board pay increases. To make matters worse, the State funding for public education was flattened making any compensation increases a zero-sum game, and in that zero-sum environment mid-career teachers experienced diminished compensation so that new hires could get competitive pay. To make matters worse, the Florida State legislature passed a bill that required districts to give teachers rated “highly effective” larger raises than those rated “effective” based on test scores. Consequently, Marra reports that “highly effective” teachers generally receive an extra $350 to $450 when raises are given out. And as district officials note, this combined with flat funding makes it difficult for districts to address the under-compensation.

Mark Mitchell, the school district’s director of compensation, defended the district’s handling of teacher pay over the years, saying that no individual teacher’s pay was ever cut.

He said that what the district spends on employee salaries is largely constrained by the money the state Legislature provides each year.

State lawmakers’ unusually low boosts to education spending since the recession, he said, has made honoring the teachers’ old salary schedule impossible.

“When we started giving increases again, we couldn’t afford what was on the schedule,” he said. “We tried to do everything we could with what the state gave us.”

Years ago when I was in high school, I recall accompanying my mother to the grocery store and seeing my calculus teacher (and Mathematics Department head) working at the cash register. Even though I felt that it was demeaning to see my favorite teacher working at a menial part-time job, it didn’t prevent me from going into teaching. But the experience did make it clear that I would not be able to be a teacher unless I supplemented by income in some way… and did make the path to becoming an administrator more enticing.

I am not an advocate for the unified pay schedule, though I understand it’s appeal to teachers because it is usually fair and predictable. But I AM an advocate for providing enough compensation to teachers so that they can devote all of their time and energy to educating the children in their classrooms. If our country, our States, and our school districts are serious about providing all children with an opportunity for success, we need to provide the resources needed to ensure that they are taught by individuals whose attention is fully focussed on them… and not on the line of customers awaiting them at a grocery store.

Unions Fight Against Two Trends: Cultural AND Political Trends

July 2, 2018 Comments off

Two articles illustrate the uphill battle unions will face in the coming years… a struggle that may well ultimately decide the well-being of workers across the entire country.

Umair Haque’s article “How American Collapse Was a Choice“, published in mid-June, postulated that five myths– myths about our culture— led our country to make bad choices when they formulated their policies. Those myths were:

  1. The myth of anarchy — ”that a society doesn’t need a government or a social contract or anything at all to bind it together, structure it, and connect it.
  2. The myth of self-reliance— Americans belief that they should be able to do it alone or they were worthless.
  3. The myth of competition. As Haque writes: “If it’s every person for themselves, if I cannot rely on you, then what is the only thing left that we can do? Compete. Outdo the next little atom. Grind him into dust. Batter him until he’s defeated.”
  4. The myth of punishment. Hague links competition and punishment, noting that like the Spartans and Romans, Americans believe that by “mercilessly punishing” those who fail to adhere to the standards set by the ruling class, they’d “end up virtuous”.
  5. The myth of the predator. Haque writes: “The great myth Americans are taught today is that human beings are born to be predators — and the biggest predator is the best thing of all to be.”

When these five myths undergird the cultural norms, organizations like unions face an uphill battle because they contradict each. And, as an article by Colleen Wilson of the LoHud.com website notes, the political forces are seizing on this cultural disconnect and the direction of the political winds after the Janus case to promote a flight from the union. The think tanks funded by predators create a death spiral for unions… a death spiral that will not be stopped until our cultural norms change.

Standardized Test Metrics and “Shooter Drills” Support Ethos of “Pure Capitalism”… and that Ethos Diminishes Kindness

June 29, 2018 Comments off

Medium blogger Umar Hague provides consistently thought-provoking posts about the source of our nation’s ill-being… and his post earlier this mont titled “The Origins of America’s Unique and Special Cruelty” was no exception. The picture at the top of the post, seen below, shows a group of school students hiding under bullet proof blankets during an active shooter drill.

In a paragraph near the beginning of the post, Mr. Haque poses this question:

What motivates the kind of spectacular, unique, unimiaginable, and gruesome cruelty that we see in America, which exists nowhere else in the world?

See that pic above? It’s kids huddling under bulletproof blankets, doing “active shooter drills”. That’s what I mean by “unique and spectacular cruelty”. No kid should — ever — have to be traumatized and victimized like that, and indeed, even kids in Pakistan and Iran aren’t.

My answer goes something like this. Americans, you must remember, grew up in the shadow of endless war. With two “sides” who championed atomic individualism, lionized competition and brutality, and despised weakness and fragility. And thus, America forgot — or maybe never evolved — the notion of a public interest. Each man for himself, everyone against everyone himself. So all there is left in America is extreme capitalism now. Few championed a more balanced, saner, healthier way of life, about a common good, about virtue, about a higher purpose. And in that way, America has become something like, ironically enough, a mirror image of its great enemy, the Soviet Union. It is a totalist society, run by and for one end — only a slightly different one: money.

And shooter drills are designed to instill fear and paranoia, two elements that support what Mr. Haque calls “Predatoy Capitalism”:

…because most of America is now managed by and predatory capital — even its healthcare, media, and education — there is little room, space, opportunity, chance to discuss and suggest and educate people about higher ideals, values, and purposes. For example, on the BBC, I can watch endless documentaries by academics on everything from Renaissance art to French literature — but in America, I’m stuck with Ancient Aliens, poverty porn, police-state reality shows. What is that going to teach me, show me, induce in me — except ignorance, paranoia, resentment, and spite?

The result is a kind of impoverishment we don’t often discuss. A lack, or deficit, of civilizing mechanisms. You see, in other countries, things like media, healthcare, and education, do more than just “provide a service”. Because they’re public goods, are also things that bind people together, connect them with history, bring out their better selves — not just their inner predator. Through them, by treating each other with care and respect as we share them, we learn what it is to be gentle, civilized. They educate us, in that way, about what is to be kind.

All spiritual paths talk about the need for us to love our neighbors as ourselves and treat each other the way we want to be treated. The Buddhist teachings take things a step further: they emphasize the need for people to avoid ingesting toxins, which not only include food but also media… for the Buddha realized that when individuals consume toxic news and engage in toxic conversation they are poisoning not only their own well-being, they are poisoning the well-being of the community. These are not the lessons we are teaching in our school… nor are the lessons that are currently available to the general public who perceive everything through the lens of predatory capitalism.

Which brings us to the ultimate reinforcement of the notion of predatory capitalism: standardized tests. Tests used to sort and select students and sort and select schools reinforce the concept that the only the fittest survive and the only way to get ahead is to position yourself so that you can get into the best schools possible and “beat out the competition” on some kind of metric like tests that presumably measure “intelligence”, or “aptitude”… and soon things like “emotional intelligence” and “grit”. Perform well on these assessments and you and/or your school will advance in the world… Perform badly, and you can stay at home and watch “Ancient Aliens, poverty porn, police-state reality shows.”

 

 

Henry Giroux Names the Crisis in Public Education: “…The Precondition for the Rise of an American Version of Fascism”

June 26, 2018 Comments off

An opening sentence in a paragraph in a recent Truthout article by Henry Giroux, a reliably thought provoking writer, provides an accurate synthesis of the consequences of the neoliberal “reform” movement. He describes the last three decades as:

…a neoliberal script for the social abandonment of public goods, the termination of the democratic ethos and the precondition for the rise of an American version of fascism.

This succinct synopsis is presented in the context of the wildcat strikes that emerged during the past school year in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma, wildcat strikes that not only regained some ground for the teachers in those states but also regained some public support for the work teachers do. He concluded that paragraph with this:

What is particularly promising about these widespread protest movements is that they have the potential to move public consciousness toward a wide-ranging recognition in which the assaults on public schooling will be understood as part of a larger war on schools, on youth, and on the very possibility of teaching and learning, and that these struggles cannot be separated.

Mr. Giroux senses that when States like AZ, WV, and OK ravage the wages, benefits and working conditions of teachers it resonates with those voters who have been similarly treated by the corporations that cast them aside in the name of profits:

Protests against the gutting of teacher salaries, pensions and health care benefits are not simply about school budgets. They are also about a larger politics in which big corporations and the financial elite have waged a war on democracy and instituted polices that produce a massive redistribution of wealth upward into the hands of the ruling elite. Energized young people and teachers are creating a new optics for both change and the future.

Mr. Giroux concludes his compelling essay with this call to arms that is at once radical and optimistic. His heading for the concluding paragraphs, which is the source of the excerpts provided below, is “A Mass Movement to Resist Neoliberalism”:

The teacher strikes and walkouts point to a grassroots movement that will no longer allow the apostles of neoliberalism, the Republican and Democratic parties, and the financial elite to ruthlessly take apart public education. Implicit in the current walkouts and strikes is the necessity of such groups to learn from each other, share power and work to create a mass-based social movement. This type of social formation is all the more crucial given that no one movement or group organized around singular issues can defeat the prevailing concentrated economic and political forces of casino capitalism. Given the public support the striking teachers have received, it is crucial that such a struggle connect the struggle over schools to a broader struggle that appeals to parents who still view public schooling as one of the few avenues their children have for economic and social mobility. At the same time, it is crucial for the striking teachers to make the case to a larger public that without a quality and accessible public education system, the protective and crucial public spaces provided by a real democracy are endangered and could be lost.

…If American society is to offset the deeply anti-democratic populist revolt that has put a fascist government in power in the United States, progressives and others need a new language that connects the crisis of schooling to the crisis of democracy while at the same time rejecting the equation of capitalism and democracy. The attack on public schooling is symptomatic of a more profound crisis that involves the extension of market principles to every facet of power, culture and everyday life. Public schooling is under siege along with the values and social relations that give viable meaning to the common good, economic justice and democracy itself.

Striking teachers have recognized that any radical call for educational reform demands more than a call for salary increases, adequate pensions and school resources. Demands for radical educational reforms also necessitate what Martin Luther King Jr. once called a “revolution of values.”

This would suggest a radical reworking of the language of freedom, autonomy, equality and justice that refused to be articulated with the neoliberal spheres of privatization, consumer culture, deregulation, and a politics of terminal exclusion, disposability and the acceleration of the unwanted. Schools can no longer be viewed as zones of political, economic and social abandonment.The striking teachers across the nation are making clear that everyone has the right to live in both an educated society and a democracy, and that you cannot have one without the other. Hopefully, they can learn from past historical battles while leading the struggle to merge a number of different movements for a radical democracy….

The striking teachers hopefully will turn a moment into a movement, and in doing so, make clear that there is no contradiction between the struggle for quality public schools and fighting other injustices such as poverty, mass incarceration, unchecked inequality, massive student debt, systemic violence, escalating militarization of society and the war on the planet…  The brutal neoliberal fascism of the moment can only be defeated if teachers, young people and grassroots activists develop alliances and develop new topographies for addressing the root causes of the current brutal despotism and loss of faith in democratic institutions — that means a strong anti-capitalist movement.

The struggle over public education has ignited new modes of criticism that contain the potential to build a mass movement from the bottom up and translate single-issue demands into wider expectations for social change and alternative visions for a democratically socialist United States. Hopefully, this movement will continue to be guided by the kind of energy and insight that Ursula K. Le Guin once articulated: “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.

If we do not foster an environment of justice and freedom in our public schools, we will lost the ability of students to imagine such a world. We are already creating an environment in schools where teachers are expected to read from scripts to prepare students for standardized tests that are used to sort them into social classes. Can such an environment coexist with an environment where justice and freedom are taught?

 

NYTimes Columnist David Leonardt’s Analysis: Big Business is Winning… My Analysis: It WILL Win in the Public Sector if Voters Don’t Stop It

June 21, 2018 Comments off

David Leonardt writes compelling op ed columns on the economy and I tend to agree with almost all of his findings… with one notable exception. Mr. Leonardt is among the many NYTimes editorialists who unwittingly (I hope) buy into the notion that education is not a public good but a commodity. Mr. Leonardt, like many of his colleagues on the Times, is a school choice advocate and, as part of that advocacy, wants schools to compete in a lightly regulated marketplace. What he and his colleagues fail to recognize is that public schools, unlike private corporations, are governed by locally elected officials who will tend to make decisions that favor local needs and concerns over the needs and concerns of shareholders who reside in distant cities and make their decisions based on spreadsheets.

In Mr. Leonardt’s column earlier this week, The Charts Show How Big Business is Winning, Mr. Leonardt offers this overview of how the “big fish” have gobbled up the “small fish” in the national economy:

The changes over the past quarter-century are pretty remarkable.

In the late 1980s, small companies were still a lot bigger, combined, than big companies. In 1989, firms with fewer than 50 workers employed about one-third of American workers — accounting for millions more jobs than companies with at least 10,000 employees.

Since then, though, many small businesses have struggled to keep up with the new corporate giants and with foreign competition. You can probably see a version of the story in your community. The hardware store has given way to The Home Depot. The local hospital and bank are owned by a chain. The supermarket is Whole Foods, which is now owned by Amazon. The family-owned manufacturer may simply be out of business.

The share of Americans working for small companies fell to 27.4 percent in 2014, the most recent year for which data exists, down from 32.4 in 1989. And big companies have grown by almost an identical amount. Today, companies with at least 10,000 workers employ more people than companies with fewer than 50 workers.

After reading the column, I left the following comment:

For Mr. Leonardt and his colleagues at the NYTimes who believe that the way to improve public education is to commodify it so that it competes in the marketplace, here’s what to expect in the decades ahead: Amazon.com (or Walmart) Public Schools that employ thousands of teachers and answer to shareholders and executives in a faraway city will soon supplant your local public schools that employ 50 or fewer teachers and are beholden lo local voters who elect school boards from citizens in their community. If you don’t see this happening, you aren’t learning from the trends Mr. Leonardt describes in this column.

 

Full Court Press on Illegal Immigrants Has Schools, Children Living in Fear

June 19, 2018 Comments off

There is a large group of students who are very happy and relieved that school is ending… and a large number of school officials who are equally happy and relieved. According to a recent NYTimes article by Erica Green, immigrant students in many parts of the country have lived in a state of constant fear and vigilance for the past year. Why? Because in those states a referral to ICE by the SROs in the school could mean immediate arrest, imprisonment, and deportation. And in the uncertain political climate today, federal policy could put even more public schools in the crosshairs of this issue. As Ms. Green explains in her article that used the case of Dennis Rivera-Sarmiento as an example of how public schools with SROs and ICE can “team up”, an infraction by a student who is in the country illegally can result in imprisonment and potentially deportation:

The agency (ICE) still classifies schools as “sensitive locations” where enforcement actions are generally prohibited. But immigrant rights groups point out that the designation has not stopped ICE agents from picking up parents as they drop their children off at school, nor has it prevented school disciplinarians from helping to build ICE cases.

And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seemed to open the door to more such referrals (in mid-May) when she initially told members of Congress that ICE enforcement decisions should be left to local officials, not established federal policy that prohibits it.

Though Ms. DeVos later corrected herself, assuring children that she “...expected schools to comply with a 1982 Supreme Court decision that held that schools cannot deny undocumented students an education“, her assurance rang hollow because her actions betrayed her words. Ms. Green writes:

But as she offered that reassurance, Ms. DeVos moved toward rescinding an Obama-era policy document on student discipline that could make undocumented students vulnerable. That 2014 policy encouraged schools to revise discipline policies that disproportionately kicked students of color out of school.

Data shows that students of color are disproportionately arrested at school, and advocates and educators contend that schools will increasingly rely on law enforcement to manage disciplinary issues if the guidance is rescinded.

And in some states where SROs are present and the laws mandate that arrested immigrant students get referred to ICE, a small infraction could conceivably lead to deportation.

School officials do not want to be tied to ICE because if they do so the immigrant students entering our country seeking political asylum or a better life will not attend… and if they are not in school their opportunities will be more limited setting up a vicious circle where a virtuous one might be in place.

From my perspective, legislators have this summer to figure out how they are going to deal with the immigration issue going forward. If the status quo is maintained, it appears that the current administration and the majority of GOP legislators will use the crackdown on “illegal immigrants”, many of whom are children, as political leverage to show their base that they mean business when it comes to sealing the borders. If that is the case, teachers, counselors, and administrators will be in a quandary when schools open in September.