Posts Tagged ‘Efficiency is the Enemy’

Who Paid to Support Pro-Charter Board Candidates in LA? The Usual Suspects

May 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Two news stories dominate the education blogs today: the fallout of the LA Board election that gave a majority of seats to pro-privatization candidates (covered in this post) and the DeVos-Trump budget (covered in the later post).

Diane Ravitch had two posts yesterday that had links to articles that dealt with the dark money funding “school reform”. Peter Dreier’s Huffpost article, “Big Money Wins in LA” delineates the huge amounts spent on that election which pitted pro-privatization candidate Nick Melvoin and incumbent Steve Zimmer, specifically identifies the donors to the pro-privatization candidate’s campaign, and briefly describes their backgrounds and home towns:

Among the big donors behind Melvoin and the CCSA were members of the Walton family (Alice Walton, Jim Walton, and Carrie Walton Penner) ― heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune from Arkansas, who’ve donated over $2 million to CCSA. Alice Walton (net worth: $36.9 billion), who lives in Texas, was one of the biggest funders behind Melvoin’s campaign. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflicks (net worth: $1.9 billion), who lives in Santa Cruz, donated close to $5 million since last September to the CCSA’s political action committee, including $1 million a week before the election.

Other moguls behind Melvoin and the CCSA include Doris Fisher (net worth: $2.7 billion), co-founder of The Gap, who lives in San Francisco: Texas resident John Arnold (net worth: $2.9 billion), who made a fortune at Enron before the company collapsed, leaving its employees and stockholders in the lurch, then made another fortune as a hedge fund manager; Jeff Yass, who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, and runs the Susquahanna group, a hedge fund; Frank Baxter, former CEO of the global investment bank Jefferies and Company that specialized in “junk” bonds; and Michael Bloomberg (net worth: $48.5 billion), the former New York City mayor and charter champion. Eli Broad (net worth: $7.7 billion), who hatched a plan to put half of all LAUSD students in charter schools by 2023 — an idea that Zimmer fought — donated $400,000 to CCSA last Friday, on top of $50,000 he gave in November. He made his money in real estate and life insurance.

Not surprisingly, most of these billionaires are big backers of conservative Republican candidates and right-wing causes. Several are on the boards of charter school chains.

After providing this rundown, Dreier poses the 6.6 million dollar question and offers an insightful answer, one that makes the distinction between “reform” and “privatization”:

What do the corporate moguls and billionaires want? 

They want to turn public schools into educational Wal-marts run on the same corporate model. They want to expand charter schools that compete with each other and with public schools in an educational “market place.” (LA already has more charter schools than any other district in the country). They want to evaluate teachers and students like they evaluate new products — in this case, using the bottom-line of standardized test scores. Most teachers will tell you that over-emphasis on standardized testing turns the classroom into an assembly line, where teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” and students are taught, robot-like, to define success as answering multiple-choice tests…

The corporate big-wigs are part of an effort that they and the media misleadingly call “school reform.” What they’re really after is not “reform” (improving our schools for the sake of students) but “privatization” (business control of public education). They think public schools should be run like corporations, with teachers as compliant workers, students as products, and the school budget as a source of profitable contracts and subsidies for textbook companies, consultants, and others engaged in the big business of education.

And Dreier emphasizes that one thing the “reformers” did NOT want was someone like Melvin’s opponent, Steve Zimmer, to be on the school board. Why?

Like most reasonable educators and education analysts, Zimmer has questioned the efficacy of charter schools as a panacea. When the billionaires unveiled their secret plan to put half of LAUSD students into charter schools within eight years, Zimmer led the opposition….

Now the billionaires and their charter school operators will have a majority on the school board. LA will become the epicenter of a major experiment in expanding charter schools – with the school children as the guinea pigs.

In the coming weeks it will be interesting to see who turned out to vote for Mr. Melvoin and why the voters decided to put Mr. Zimmer out of office. As noted in a post yesterday, what is most telling is that Arne Duncan came out several weeks ago in support of Mr. Melvoin, advocating a need for a reformer to be elected to the board to allow a change to the status quo. If the likes of Mr. Duncan really sought a change to the status quo they would abandon the reliance on standardized test scores based on groupings of students by age cohorts… the reliance of which results in classrooms that are turned into “…an assembly line, where teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” and students are taught, robot-like, to define success as answering multiple-choice tests.” That is hardly a change to the status quo: it reinforces the factory model that is failing children and creating failure where success might be possible.

Science and Regulations Matter… as Lead, Chlorofluorocarbons, and Chlorpyrifos Illustrates

May 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Decades ago, scientists determined that lead in the atmosphere and in the paints used in houses caused brain damage. Government officials listened to the scientists and, over the objections of corporations, developed and enforced regulations on the use of lead. The well-being of several generations improved as a result.

In the 1980s, scientists determined that chlorofluorocarbons were causing the depletion of the ozone layer around the earth and thereby contributing to climate change and skin cancer. Government officials listened to the scientists and, over the objections of corporations, developed and enforced regulations on the use of chlorofluorocarbons. The hole in the atmosphere stopped growing and is now on the way to closing entirely  as a result….  and the well-being of several generations improved as a result.

As reported in an article by Roni Caryn Rabin in Monday’s NYTimes, a recent study by Columbia University researchers determined that chlorpyrifos, a chemical used to control bugs in homes and fields for decades, caused brain damage in baby rats. Two years into the researchers’ study,  the pesticide was removed from store shelves and banned from home use. Why?

Scientists soon discovered that those with comparatively higher levels (of chlorpyrifos) weighed less at birth and at ages 2 and 3, and were more likely to experience persistent developmental delays, including hyperactivity and cognitive, motor and attention problems. By age 7, they had lower IQ scores.

The Columbia study did not prove definitively that the pesticide had caused the children’s developmental problems, but it did find a dose-response effect: The higher a child’s exposure to the chemical, the stronger the negative effects. 

That study was one of many. Decades of research into the effects of chlorpyrifos strongly suggests that exposure at even low levels may threaten children. A few years ago, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that it should be banned altogether.

So once again we have a situation where a scientific finding informed a government agency who took relatively swift action to address a problem affecting the well-being of citizens. But now a new President, who sees regulations as an impediment to profits, appoints an agency head who intends to do everything possible to roll back those pesky regulations. As Ms. Rabin reports:

In March, the new chief of the E.P.A., Scott Pruitt, denied a 10-year-old petition brought by environmental groups seeking a complete ban on chlorpyrifos. In a statement accompanying his decision, Mr. Pruitt said there “continue to be considerable areas of uncertainty” about the neurodevelopmental effects of early life exposure to the pesticide.

Even though a court last year denied the agency’s request for more time to review the scientific evidence, Mr. Pruitt said the agency would postpone a final determination on the pesticide until 2022. The agency was “returning to using sound science in decision-making — rather than predetermined results,” he added.

Agency officials have declined repeated requests for information detailing the scientific rationale for Mr. Pruitt’s decision.

So after a study by reputable researchers concluded that exposure to chlorpyrifos resulted in “persistent developmental delays, including hyperactivity and cognitive, motor and attention problems” and was linked to lower IQ scores by the time those children were 7 years old, because of “considerable uncertainty about the neurodevelopment effects” of this pesticide, the ban on it will be lifted.

Ms. Rabin provides a comprehensive overview of the research that caused the EPA to reach its conclusion to ban the pesticide, noting that while research on animals exposed to chlorpyrifos is unequivocal and wholly negative:

Scientists have been studying the impact of chlorpyrifos on brain development in young rats under controlled laboratory conditions for decades. These studies have shown that the chemical has devastating effects on the brain.

“Even at exquisitely low doses, this compound would stop cells from dividing and push them instead into programmed cell death,” said Theodore Slotkin, a scientist at Duke University Medical Center, who has published dozens of studies on rats exposed to chlorpyrifos shortly after birth.

In the animal studies, Dr. Slotkin was able to demonstrate a clear cause-and effect relationship. It didn’t matter when the young rats were exposed; their developing brains were vulnerable to its effects throughout gestation and early childhood, and exposure led to structural abnormalities, behavioral problems, impaired cognitive performance and depressive-like symptoms.

But the research on human subjects is less unequivocal, and the manufacturers of chlorpyrifos have seized on that ambiguity…. and in President Trump’s EPA, it appears that corporate interests will outweigh the well-being of those exposed to chlorpyrifos:

Manufacturers say there is no proof low-level exposures to chlorpyrifos causes similar effects in humans. Carol Burns, a consultant to Dow Chemical, said the Columbia study pointed to an association between exposure just before birth and poor outcomes, but did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship…

Dr. Burns argues that other factors may be responsible for cognitive impairment, and that it is impossible to control for the myriad factors in children’s lives that affect health outcomes. “It’s not a criticism of a study — that’s the reality of observational studies in human beings,” she said. “Poverty, inadequate housing, poor social support, maternal depression, not reading to your children — all these kinds of things also ultimately impact the development of the child, and are interrelated.”

Brenda Eskenazi, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California, Berkeley, believes the marketplace will sort this all out… but not in a way that can assure the well-being of citizens who are, in effect, serving as lab rats:

In California, the nation’s breadbasket, use of chlorpyrifos has been declining, Dr. Eskenazi said. Farmers have responded to rising demand for organic produce and to concerns about organophosphate pesticides.

She is already concerned about what chemicals will replace it. While organophosphates and chlorpyrifos in particular have been scrutinized, newer pesticides have not been studied so closely, she said.

“We know more about chlorpyrifos than any other organophosphate; that doesn’t mean it’s the most toxic;” she said, adding, “There may be others that are worse offenders.”

The demand for organic produce is undoubtedly coming from well-heeled and well educated consumers. The consumers who cannot afford the organic produce will be the ones subjected to chlorpyrifos and the newer pesticides. In the meantime, Dow chemical shareholders will be pleased.

School Lunch De-Regulation: Eliminating “Waste” in the Name of Efficiency Rewards Manufactured Meals

May 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Weston Williams’ Christian Science Monitor article on the recent announcement that the USDA is scaling back regulations on school lunch provides further evidence that we are valuing efficiency at the expense of common sense and willing to subsidize business at the expense of the well being of the poor.

After noting that school lunch is often the only healthy meal children raised in poverty get during the day, Mr. Williams explains the real reason for the recommended change: saving money!

Despite the importance of the school food for many students, proponents of the change argue that it’s sometimes challenging for budget-strapped schools to create meals from fresh ingredients. With current funding levels, many schools may find it easier to rely on cheaper, mass-produced meals. While government subsidies do exist for the purpose of providing healthier meals to students, some school districts have found themselves coming up short.

Unfortunately, say some experts, it’s often the schools whose students most need nutritious lunches that have the hardest time serving them. “The only advantage to offering less healthy options is a balanced school budget,” says Kristen Linton, a professor of Health Science at California State University, Channel Islands.

When the new standards for school lunch were put in place, school districts howled that they would be challenged to put them in place. But when the rubber hit the road, 97% of them met the challenge and as a result millions of children benefitted.

“The standards that were enacted during the past eight years have helped to improve the quality of food so that there is less sugar, less saturated fat, less sodium, but more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains – with many new and tasty recipes being used,” Miriam Nelson, nutritionist and director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire, tells the Monitor in an email. “Our children matter, so society should care about what our children are fed.”

But here’s the sad truth: our pocketbooks matter more than our children… especially if “our children are the children of those people who use EBT cards to buy their food. Because if they are the children in our community, we DO care about them. That’s why children in affluent communities or in schools that do not have a high free-and-reduced lunch count often participate in food-to-farm programs designed to ensure that children receive food that has “less sugar, less saturated fat, less sodium, but more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains”, in some cases paying a premium price for their meals to ensure that they are healthy and nutritious. And to be fair, many of those same families would gladly pay higher taxes if they knew their money would be earmarked for better meals.

But as a whole, our society wants efficiency more than they want health, which is why we seem to be willing to punish those who make “bad choices” about smoking, eating poorly, and failing to take care of oneself. At the same time, though, we seem unwilling to teach children how to eat well, or how to make good choices when it comes to eating. And we certainly don’t want to pay a premium to do that. Why pay for fresh home-made food that will go into the dumpster when we can pay less for processed food full of salt and sugar that will be eaten?


“Choice” Undercuts Education as a “Common Good”… and We WILL Pay the Price

May 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Wendy Lecker, a Connecticut Attorney and columnist for the Stamford Advocate wrote a short but powerful essay,  describing how “choice” undercuts the notion of public education as a public good. She opened the essay with this description of education as a “public good”:

Political theorist Benjamin Barber, who died April 24, wrote about the importance of education as a public good. “Education not only speaks to the public, it is the means by which a public is forged.”

As he noted, education transforms individuals into responsible community members, first in their classrooms and ultimately in our democracy. Local school districts are also the basic units of democratic government.

Michigan professor Marina Whitman recently noted that the essence of a public good is that it is non-excludable; i.e. all can partake, and non-rivalrous; i.e. giving one person the good does not diminish its availability to another. 

Ms. Lecker then illustrates that “choice”, where public education is treated like a commodity that consumers can acquire, is completely contrary to this notion. She writes:

In operation, choice makes education rivalrous. As a New York appellate court observed, diverting funds from public schools to charters ‘benefit a select few at the expense of the ‘common schools, wherein all the children of this State may be educated.’”

She then describes how “choice” resulted in increasingly segregated schools in New Orleans and allowed profiteers to flourish in other cities across the country. Her conclusion, based on the evidence she presents:

Across this country, public money is diverted from public schools to charters with no consideration of need, quality or the impact on the majority of public school students. The result is invariably the creation of exclusive schools, out of the reach of voter oversight, at the expense of public schools that serve everyone. 

Ms. Lecker notes that despite claims of charter advocates to the contrary, after being in place for more than 20 years there is no evidence that charters better than public schools. Moreover, the funds diverted to charters that are taken away from the revenues for public schools leave those schools “…without resources to serve the most vulnerable and communities disenfranchised by unelected school boards.”

She concludes her essay with this:

As Barber predicted, “What begins as an assault on bureaucratic rigidity becomes an assault on government and all things public … (destroying) a people’s right to govern themselves publicly … (and) to establish the conditions for the development of public citizens.” Reforms that gut public education attack democracy.

Privatization in the name of efficiency or based on the premise that “government is the problem” is corroding our democracy. We need to reverse this trend before we all serve corporate oligarchs who have no accountability.

Here Comes the Chocolate Milk, Salt… and the Profits!

May 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I read with dismay that the latest budget under review in Congress includes a rollback in the school lunch standards set by President Obama in 2012… a rollback in the name of  de-regulation. As reported by McClatchy writer Lindsay Wise:

Chocolate milk is coming back on the school lunch menu.

So are white bread and saltier food.

Several paragraphs tucked into a massive 1,665-page government spending bill released Monday would relax Obama-era nutrition standards for school lunches.

On page 101 of the bill, due for congressional votes later this week, the secretary of agriculture is directed to allow states to grant schools exemptions so they can serve flavored low-fat milk and bread products that are not rich in whole grains.

The bill, which keeps the federal government funded through Sept. 30, also would push back deadlines for schools to meet lower sodium levels. It would bar federal funds from paying the salaries of any government officials to implement the nutrition standards.

The problem, according to legislators, was that the regulations were creating a problem for cafeterias who couldn’t make ends meet and the fact that children weren’t eating the foods the cafeterias offered. According to the GOP legislator who oversees the lunch program as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee the government has been using the wrong standards to measure school lunch. Nutrition is less important than consumption!

Some school districts and cafeteria workers complained the rules are too costly and restrictive. Without more flexibility, they warned, they’d keep throwing away whole grains, fruits and vegetables that kids refuse to eat.

“All the way through this, the yardstick on the school lunch program was whether or not the kids were eating,” said Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.

Given that guideline, I’m surprised the GOP wants to restrict the grocery items people on food stamps purchase. Shouldn’t the yardstick for that program be “whether or not the merchandise is consumed” and if that is the yardstick why shouldn’t those receiving government benefits for food be allowed to purchase snack foods and beer? The real reason behind this shift was identified in the article:

Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House domestic policy council under Obama, said that the language in the omnibus is a legislative attempt to dismantle rules that can be hard to undo once they’re in place.

This looks like something that’s being done for the sake of industry at the expense of kids. It’s much harder to revoke a rule, and it’s especially hard to revoke a rule when you’re fighting the science here. It just opens your rule-making up to litigation, because you have to prove there’s a rational basis. … It’s going to be interesting what the rationale is going to be for adding more salt to foods or moving away from whole grains to more refined grains.”

It’s clear what the rationale will be: schools should yield to the marketplace and allow profiteers to flourish at the expense of the well-being of children. That trade-off is important for children learn… more important than learning how to eat a tasty and well-balanced meal.


Un-Grading Schools to Make Performance Constant, Time Variable

May 1, 2017 Leave a comment

I read Diane Ravitch’s column today and was dismayed because in her opposition to standardized testing she is posing the wrong question, which is: “Why do we need standardized testing in every grade for every child.” The better question is this: “Why do we test students based on age cohorts at all?” The answer to this question is that it is “more efficient” (i.e. easier to administer and “interpret”) and implicitly promotes competition between students and among schools (i.e. it yields “precise” comparative data). The “standards” that the tests yield are statistical constructs: a particular cut score becomes the “standard” for proficiency even though the cut score is unrelated to the mastery of any particular information. The cut score only tells a teacher whether their students exceeded or fell short of a cut score that is defined as a “standard”.  But the standardized test scores DO yield a seemingly precise aggregate score that politicians and journalists can use to “measure quality” and statisticians can use to draw conclusions about “teacher performance”.

If we replaced standardized summative tests with individualized formative tests and batched students based on performance cohorts instead of age we could move out of the factory model of schooling that, in the name of efficiency, batches students by age cohorts and require them to advance through predetermined curricula at the same rate as their age peers in all content areas. Instead of a factory model, we could have a system that groups children based on their skill proficiency as measured by formative assessments designed for that purpose. Mastery tests require a different kind of question than standardized tests. We use mastery tests in other arenas. Drivers license tests, citizenship tests, bar exams, and medical school exams are not graded on a curve. They ascertain the baseline skills needed in each domain they measure and design assessments that  assure a demonstration of sufficient knowledge in a particular field. Moreover, many credentials, like drivers licenses and medical degrees, require performance assessments. We don’t want drivers who cannot operate a vehicle or surgeons who’ve only passed content examinations.

Our insistence on using standardized tests as the primary metric for “schooling” assumes that time is constant and learning is variable. Any standard that begins with the phrase “by the end of grade X…” assumes that students will be batched in age-based cohorts and tested at a set time. The common core was based on this assumption, which meant that the debate over it was not about whether the sequence of math skills was accurate but rather about timing of the tests to assess mastery of the skills: whether the tests on the sequence of skills matched the age cohort to be tested.

And when the stakes on the passage of standardized tests linked to age-based cohorts increased, the focus on “schooling” narrowed and the urgency to cram more content into groups of children who were not developmentally prepared to absorb the information led to the expansion of the school day, a reduction in arts, music, and hands on learning, and a diminishment of joy for teachers and students alike.

We need to test students in some fashion to ensure that they have mastered the skills we teach them and we should accept the fact that students will learn at different rates and in different ways. Anyone who is the parent of more than one child knows this is true. If we used our collective time and energy to design and use the results of formative assessments to help students progress through skill sequences at their own rate and in a fashion that matches their learning modality we could re-form education…. and with the technology available today we could readily accomplish this. But as long as we insist that all children move at the same speed through our curricula, as long as we insist on having time be constant, we can be certain that performance will vary and some children will be “left behind” for no good reason.

OCR’s Investigation Into Richmond VA Suspensions Could Indicate Future Direction

April 18, 2017 Leave a comment

After blogging yesterday about the appointment of Candace Jackson– an inexperienced anti-feminist and anti-affirmative action attorney– as de facto head of OCR, I read with interest K.Burnell Evans’ article that appeared in yesterday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch. Titled “US Department of Education Launches Investigation into Richmond Public Schools”, Evans’ article opens with these paragraphs:

The U.S. Department of Education has launched a civil rights investigation of Richmond Public Schools at the request of advocacy groups that say the district’s disciplinary policies discriminate against black students and students with disabilities.

The decision was announced Monday by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which received word last week that the federal agency’s Office for Civil Rights would investigate concerns the organizations submitted in August.

Among them: Black students with disabilities were nearly 13 times more likely than white students without disabilities to receive short-term suspensions, Virginia Department of Education data from the 2014-15 academic year show.

The article details the basis for the complaint, noting that “…at least 1 in 4 students were suspended from eight Richmond Public Schools in the 2014-15 school year, including at two elementary schools”. The article also noted that State had taken action in two other counties with lower suspension rates. But reading on, it seemed less clear that the State would take any action in Richmond’s case.

Although the Virginia Department of Education does collect self-reported student discipline data from school districts, it was unclear Monday whether Richmond Public Schools had been cited for issues of discipline inequity in recent years.

Public school systems for Chesterfield and Henrico counties have.

State Education Department spokeswoman Julie Grimes said the agency does not conduct investigations based on the data. The information is reported to the federal government for funding purposes.

If the State is not using data to take action, why does it bother to collect the data at all? And if it is “…reported to the federal government for funding purposes” are there any consequences at that level if there are marked disparities in suspension rates?

Based on the closing paragraphs, I think I know the answer:

The federal Education Department did not immediately provide information Monday about the percentage of complaints the Office for Civil Rights agrees to investigate. It was unclear when the probe might conclude.

With Candace Jackson at the helm, I doubt that OCR will display much zeal in their investigation… and frankly doubt that any meaningful investigation will take place. Indeed, given the review of rules taking place, I would not be surprised to read that disaggregated data on suspensions will cease in the name of “efficiency”…