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Still Think ESSA is a Good Idea? Three Stories Highlight Efforts to Erode Public Schools in Three Different States

July 7, 2017 Leave a comment

This morning’s in-box featured three stories describing how the erosion of public education is proceeding apace in three different states— MI, IN, and NY.

Two NPR stations offered brief print stories on the latest struggles for public education funding in Michigan, where it seems that the legislature is intent on funneling much needed money to parochial schools while simultaneously penalizing public schools who use funds to sue the state for the misuse of funding. At this juncture, the State’s efforts to fund parochial schools and shortchange public schools have been thwarted by the courts in response to a lawsuit filed by organizations funded by the local school districts. The legislature’s solution to this lawsuit? Use THEIR funds to appeal the lawsuit and pass a law that “…would penalize public schools that use state dollars for lawsuits against the state.”  Since one of the groups suing the legislature is the state-wide organization representing administrators, an organzation funded with dues paid by school districts, their head had a response:

Peter Spadafore is with the Michigan Association of School Administrators.  He said school districts have gone to court and won against the state on important issues.  This would put that ability in jeopardy.

Spadafore said, “You know I can see the spirit of this, but the idea here is really to tell school districts no they shouldn’t be suing the state.”

Or, more accurately, being told to sit down, shut up, and stop complaining. Hopefully elections in MI will turn the tide on this and both the US constitution that calls for a separation of church and state and the state constitution that calls for fair and equitable funding for schools will be honored.

Meanwhile in Indianapolis, Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy writes that the school board members, a majority of whom were supported and underwritten by “reformers” and StudentsFirst, is opening four new “innovative” charter high schools while simultaneously closing three traditional high schools due to low enrollment. If the charter schools were managed by the school district, there might be a way to make a straight faced argument for this shift, but the reality is that these innovation charters are not under the control of the local board… and the reason for this structure is explained in the article:

Advocates tout innovation schools as a tool for dramatically improving IPS. They are controversial, however, because they are a hybrid between charter and traditional public schools. IPS gets credit from the state for the test scores and other data from innovation schools, but they are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators. Because teachers at the schools don’t work directly for the district, they are not part of the IPS union.

So while a greater number of Indianapolis high schoolers will presumably have more choices, it is clear that a greater number of Indianapolis teachers will work for less compensation and have less job security… and fewer “public” schools will be overseen by the elected school board.

And last but not least, StudentsFirst (recognize that name) NY’s Executive Director Jenny Sedlis is beaming in a picture in the NY Daily News with this caption: “Thanks to Albany leaders, productive conversations led to an agreement that’s good for all public school kids.” And why is she so happy? The headline for the story explains: “De Blasio’s extended control of Public Schools comes with a catch – expanding the charter sector and support for its students”. It seems that Governor Cuomo and the NY legislature are not happy with the mayor’s unwillingness to subsidize the charter schools by giving them free space and allowing them to expand into more venues in the city. Here’s the synopsis of the deal:

State charter authorizers will recycle and re-issue 22 licenses for city charter schools that had been revoked or awarded and never used, under the terms of the deal state lawmakers, Gov. Cuomo and education officials negotiated to extend de Blasio’s control of the city schools.

The deal also increases the city’s payments to charter operators for school facilities and provides MetroCards for charter school students whose classes begin before the start of the standard public school year.

So the STATE is diverting LOCAL funds to underwrite for-profit charters and requiring that LOCAL schools make space available FOR FREE to those same for-profit charters…. and both the State and the Mayor are characterizing this as giving the mayor “control” over the local schools. The concluding paragraphs of the story put this deal in context:

Some charter schools also receive significant financial support from billionaires in the hedge fund industry who have financed expensive lobbying and public relations campaigns against the mayor. Charter advocate and StudentsFirstNY executive director Jenny Sedlis called the deal a win for charter operators and their families.

“Charters have been battling with the de Blasio administration for the last four years, but thanks to Albany leaders, productive conversations led to an agreement that’s good for all public school kids,” Sedlis said. “Parents will have access to more school options and charter operators will get significant relief.”

If ALL parents had access to fully funded high quality schools staffed by fully qualified and experienced teachers this deal would be “good for all public school kids”… but when part of the deal is to siphon local funds to pay charter school operators those kids who are unable to make a choice suffer.

Taken together, these stories show what happens when control is devolved to the State and local level: there is a move toward privatization wrapped in the language of the marketplace and a move toward lower wages and less job security for teachers. Those who love the free-market gig economy are elated… but those of us who seek a fair and equitable level playing field for all children and parents are disappointed. Do you still think ESSA is a good idea?

Standardized Tests and Smart Fools Redux

July 2, 2017 Leave a comment

As noted in a post earlier today, I was captivated by a Scientific American interview with eminent psychologist Robert Sternberg. After reading the article and writing my blog post, I left the following comment on her blog, a comment that was largely derived from my earlier blog post:

Great article! Thanks for sharing. My take:

Dr. Sternberg didn’t say so explicitly, but the kind of tribalism that sets todays ethical standards comes from “cultures” that celebrate “outlaws” and anti-establishment behavior. Voters knew that Donald Trump was a misogynist who cheated on his wife, a ruthless businessman who viewed cheating on his taxes as a shrewd business move, and an anti-intellectual who loved “the uneducated” and despised the “intellectual elites”. The tribal cultures that hold Mr. Trump in high esteem, the tribal evangelical culture, and the tribal gun culture ultimately elected a man who opposed the rule of law and the establishment. And Dr. Sternberg sees this tribalism as a by-product of our test culture that places a premium on teaching individual test-taking skills at the expense of “teaching good values and good ethics and good citizenship”.

I concur with Dr. Sternberg. What gets tested gets taught, and we have ignored testing for the complicated and relatively difficult to measure inter-personal and intra-personal skills that lead to “good values and good ethics and good citizenship”. Instead our schools have placed a premium on the relatively inexpensive and easy to measure analytic skills associated with reading and arithmetic. We haven’t taught the important skills and we are witnessing the by-product when those who do not possess the skills needed to thrive in our new economy band together in tribes with like-minded world views.

In a world that increasingly operates in echo chambers and a world where “choice” may result in children focusing even more on test-taking skills and attending schools with fellow tribal members, it may be difficult to encourage the kind of curriculum Dr. Sternberg espouses… a curriculum that values creative, independent thinking that “defies the crowd and defies the Zeitgeist”. We face an uphill battle in getting back to common ground where all of our citizens agree on what constitutes “good values and good ethics and good citizenship”… and “choice” will ultimately make that uphill battle even steeper!

That comment elicited some additional comments from Diane Ravitch’s readers, including this one from “NYC Public School Parent” who wrote:

This sounds good except….

This mis-use of standardized testing and teaching to the test is a more recent phenomenon. It wasn’t the youngest voters who elected Trump.

Trump’s core support was among voters who are older and whose education was before standardized testing became the measure of all.

I agree with critics of the test-taking culture but is Sternberg talking about that culture from 40 years ago or today?

After reading this and reflecting on it, I wrote the following response:

Thank you for providing me some food for thought… and while I can’t speak for Dr. Sternberg, I can share my take on the roots of the “test-taking culture”… I’m 70 years old… and in the OK and PA public schools I attended in the 50s and 60s standardized tests were one of the bases (if not the PRIMARY basis) for assigning students to homogeneously groupings… “Back in the day” they were mostly used for sorting STUDENTS (as opposed to SCHOOLS)… and many of my classmates in JHS who were relegated to the “low sections” weren’t around when I graduated… Moreover, PSATs and SATs were routinely used to determine which non-legacy students got to attend “elite” colleges… I also worked as an administrator in public education from 1975 through 2011 where I witnessed a movement to use tests to identify the “gifted and talented” students, a notion I could not support because it ultimately identified a large segment as “UN-gifted and UN-talented”

My thought: those kids shunted aside in the 1960s and 70s and the so-called “UN-gifted and UN-talented” are the “core support” for Mr. Trump… Mr. Trump’s opposition to “liberal elites” resonates with them because it was the “elites” who designed and administered the tests that made them feel like second class citizens throughout their education.

While I sincerely wish the mis-use of standardized tests was a recent phenomenon, my experience as a student and a public school administrator tell me otherwise… Here’s hoping we can free ourselves from this paradigm in the near future.

The Collateral Damage of Obamacare Repeal: Public Schools Lose Their 3rd Largest Federal Revenue Stream… and Stand to Lose Even More!

June 29, 2017 Leave a comment

One fact that has been lost in the reporting on Obamacare is the devastating impact it would have on public school budgets across the country. As reported by Emma Brown in yesterday’s Washington Post, the current bill repealing Obamacare would eliminate the Medicaid funding earmarked for public schools and include it in a block grant that would be given directly to States… a block grant that would be considerably smaller than the amount currently provided for ALL Medicare services. Unsurprisingly, school superintendents and school boards are alarmed at this prospect. Here’s the background on how Medicaid funds have helped public education:

For the past three decades, Medicaid has helped pay for services and equipment that schools provide to special-education students, as well as school-based health screening and treatment for children from low-income families. Now, educators from rural red states to the blue coasts are warning that the GOP push to shrink Medicaid spending will strip schools of what a national superintendents association estimates at up to $4 billion per year.

That money pays for nurses, social workers, physical, occupational and speech therapists and medical equipment like walkers and wheelchairs. It also pays for preventive and comprehensive health services for poor children, including immunizations, screening for hearing and vision problems and management of chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes…

Schools have been able to register as Medicaid providers and seek reimbursement, as doctors and hospitals do, since 1988. Two-thirds of districts that bill Medicaid use the money to pay the salaries of employees who work directly with children, such as school nurses and therapists, according to a January survey by AASA, the superintendents’ association.

And here’s the problem that will face public schools: many of the personnel currently funded by Medicaid provide mandated services to special needs children who are raised in poverty. That is, the physical and occupational therapy services, screening services, and medical services funded by Medicaid are required by IEPs or required to ensure that children are screened for special education services. Those needs, along with the requirements for “…medical equipment like walkers and wheelchairs” will need to be funded first when school districts put their budgets together, budgets that are likely to be tighter than ever since public education funds will be competing against medical costs at the State level. An AASA policy director described the “trickle down” effect of the Obamacare repeal:

The Republican plan for Medicaid is likely to hurt schools in several ways, said Sasha Pudelski, who tracks healthcare policy for AASA. Most directly, states may decide to prohibit schools from receiving Medicaid dollars because of what is likely to be stiff competition against doctors and hospitals for limited resources, she said.

Less directly, states struggling to cover healthcare costs now covered by the federal government would have to seek cuts elsewhere in their budgets, including in education, which accounts for a large share of many states’ spending.

“The kids who will be hurt first and foremost are special ed kids and kids in poverty, but then everybody will be hurt, because we’ll have to shift dollars from the general education budget,” she said.

But the GOP’s desire to limit spending knows no boundaries and is predicated on magical thinking that “…controlling federal spending would force the healthcare system to become more efficient in providing services” and the punitive notion that bending “…the cost curve on federal entitlement programs (would) encourage states that tend to spend beyond their means to actually stay within their budget.” 

And making matters even worse for school districts is the fact that even though their share of the Medicaid budget is small, their needs for those funds are high and consequential:

Schools receive less than 1 percent of federal Medicaid spending, according to the National Alliance for Medicaid in Schools. But federal Medicaid reimbursements constitute the third-largest federal funding stream to public schools, behind $15 billion they receive each year for educating poor children and $13 billion they receive to educate students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).

The federal government initially promised far more financial support for IDEA, the four-decade-old law that outlines schools’ obligations to educate students with disabilities. Congress pledged to pick up 40 percent of the cost of special-education services under the law, yet has never come close. It now pays only about 15 percent.

Medicaid payments have helped fill that gap. Without those dollars — and facing a recent Supreme Court decision that raised the bar for the services school districts owe students with disabilities — many districts wonder how they will pay for services they now provide.

And here’s the budget reality for school districts: by the time schools begin developing their 2018-19 budgets, most taxpayers will not realize how much Medicaid funding their districts received in previous years and many will buy into the notion that school districts can trim “fat” from their budgets to offset the lost funds… an example of magical thinking that permeates the electorate. And when they learn that such cuts are impossible due to teacher contracts, the punitive thinking will kick in and be fueled by the resentment stirred up by politicians of both parties who will rail against the “fat paychecks” and “Cadillac health plans” the “greedy” teachers receive. Meanwhile, the .1% who receive a tax break as part of this repeal will remain silent on the sidelines… or invest in for-profit charter schools who can operate much more “efficiently” by employing teachers who receive less compensation. Welcome to the plutocracy.

 

Is Trade School a Good Trade Off for College

June 23, 2017 Leave a comment

One frequent criticism of those who support public education is their implicit (and sometime EXplicit) notion that every child should leave high school prepared for college. Over the past several years there is an emerging consensus that college might not be the best route to economic success for everyone and that trade school might be sufficient for many. In a recent post in the Anova blog, written by education researcher Fredrik deBoer, he describes the emerging thinking on this thusly:

…the idea that we need to be sending more people to trade and tech schools has broad bipartisan, cross-ideological appeal. This argument has a lot of different flavors, but it tends to come down to the claim that we shouldn’t be sending everyone to college (I agree!) and that instead we should be pushing more people into skilled trades. Oftentimes this is encouraged as an apprenticeship model over a schooling model.

But in examining data on whether this intuitively appealing idea can work, Mr. deBoer found the the  recent study conducted by Eric A. Hanushek, Guido Schwerdt, Ludger Woessmann, and Lei Zhang, were discouraging. The study by Hanushek et al compared how workers who attend vocational schools perform relative to those who attend general education schools. Titled “Trade Schools are No Panacea”, deBoer summarized the findings of Hanushek et al in chairs and graphs and concludes that “…In broad strokes, vocational/tech training helps you get a job right out of school, but hurts you as you go along later in life

That conclusion seemed right to Mr. deBoer as it does to me as a liberal arts advocate. He writes:

…vocational training is likely more specific and job-focused than general ed, which means that its students are more ready to jump right into work. But over time, technological and economic changes change which skills and competencies are valued by employers, and the general education students have been “taught to learn,” meaning that they are more adaptable and can acquire new and valuable skills.

As he concludes his post, deBoer notes that because predicting the future is impossible and some jobs require years and years of training, it is far more beneficial to avoid specific training altogether. Instead, de Boer finds it

….far more useful… to try and train students into being nimble, adaptable learners than to train them for particular jobs. That has the bonus advantage of restoring the “practical” value of the humanities and arts, which have always been key aspects of learning to be well-rounded intellects.

His closing sentences provide a sound economic and moral basis for creating a guaranteed minimum wage:

What’s needed is not to try and read the tea leaves and guess which fields might reward some slice of our workforce now, but to redefine our attitude towards work and material security through the institution of some sort of guaranteed minimum income. Then, we can train students in the fields in which they have interest and talent, contribute to their human flourishing in doing so, and help shelter them from the fickleness of the economy. The labor market is not a morality play.

I find the last sentence particularly revealing, because many people view humanities arts with disdain. Those who place a premium on efficiency view liberal arts as “impractical” or— even worse— a “waste of time”. By assigning a higher value on courses that “prepare students for the REAL world” education policy makers imply that the humanities and arts have no value when, in fact, those trained in the arts are often the kind of nimble, adaptable learners who will likely weather any economic storms that brew in the future.

Choice In Detroit: Spending Less and Getting Same Results = “Better Productivity”

June 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s links yesterday included one to a Detroit Free Press article written by Nancy Kaffer titled “The Broken Promises of School Choice”. In the article, Ms. Kaffer describes the problems charter schools encounter in that city, problems that mirror those faced by public schools, and problems that stem from the same source: underfunding. In her article, Ms. Kaffer describes the scene in a charter school classroom  comprised of 37 first-graders who were “doubled up” due to the lack of substitutes, something that happens, “…three or four times a month” according to the teacher interviewed for this article:

At storytime, (the teacher) had to lean against the wall, warning the kids they wouldn’t all be able to see the pictures. Kids don’t get time in the school’s computer lab, necessary to learn how to use the machines they’ll take standardized tests on — the high-stakes assessments that determine whether their school will remain open — and the math workbooks teachers were required to use in a school year that started in September, didn’t arrive until March.

As Ms. Kaffer notes, these conditions would presumably disappear once the magic of the marketplace was put into effect. But in Detroit, even charter schools are drastically underfunded:

The state delivers a per-pupil allowance to each school district; when students leave for a charter, the traditional public school loses those funds. Because student departures are spread out across the district — it’s not like an entire third-grade class decamps — those enrollment losses don’t allow the district to make big cuts that would lead to operational savings. Instead, the money dwindles away in dribs and drabs, forcing traditional public school districts to do more with less.

The city’s charter schools educate as many children as its traditional public school district, with nearly identical results — another departure from the rhetoric of charter advocates. Michigan taxpayers hand over $1 billion a year to charter school operators on the premise they’d deliver superior results.

But wait! Before we declare this initiative as a failure, we should look at the operation of schools through the eyes of business. In the business world getting similar results for less money equates to higher productivity and greater profits! Therefore, if we want schools to “operate like a business” we should not be characterizing these newly created for-profit enterprises as “Failures”. We should be hailing them as “Successful” for their improved productivity! For those voters who believe that government is the problem and that “starving the beast” will reduce their taxes without compromising “quality”, Detroit’s charter are not a problem at all. Particularly if those voters reside in the leafy suburbs outside of the city.

“Assembly Line Justice”: an Apt Metaphor for a Department of Education Driven by Efficiency

June 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Late yesterday I read an article by Erica Green of the NYTimes titled “Education Department Says It Will Scale Back Civil Rights Legislation”. The overarching purpose of  the “scaling back” is to reduce the backlog of cases in the department that are primarily the result of former President Obama’s directive to perform thorough and comprehensive investigations where they were warranted.

The office’s processing times have “skyrocketed,” the Education Department spokeswoman, Liz Hill, said, adding that its backlog of cases has “exploded.” The new guidelines were to ensure that “every individual complainant gets the care and attention they deserve,” she said.

In the memo, which was first published by ProPublica, (the acting head of the department’s office for civil rights, Candace) Jackson emphasized that the new protocols were aimed at resolving cases quickly.

“Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complainants has been denied for too long,” Ms. Hill said in a statement.

But to civil rights activists, the real problem isn’t that justice will be denied to complainants. It’s that justice will not be rendered at all.

But civil rights leaders believe that the new directives will have the opposite effect. They say that Education Department staff members would be discouraged from opening cases and that investigations could be weakened because efficiency would take priority over thoroughness.

If we want to have assembly-line justice, and I say ‘justice’ in quotes, then that’s the direction that we should go,” said Catherine Lhamon, who was the assistant secretary of the Education Department’s civil rights office under Mr. Obama, and who now heads the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Ms. Green’s article explores the difference between the approaches Ms. Lhamon took in her civil rights investigations and those advocated by the incoming staff, describing how one particular case in a public school district required the district to dig into it’s disciplinary records for past years, an exercise that resulted in the district gaining a better understanding of its practices that resulted in a disproportionate number of harsh actions taken against minority students. This kind of in depth analysis requires staff time at the USDOE level as well, and as cases like these accumulated the backlog accumulated as well. In the name of efficiency, though, these kinds of thorough investigations will be a thing of the past.

In the concluding paragraph of the article, Ms. Green describes the budgetary gambit Betsy DeVos is using to facilitate the “judicious approach” the department will implement.

In the administration’s budget request for the fiscal year that begins in October, the Education Department has proposed cutting more than 40 staff positions from the office for civil rights, which would require the office to “make difficult choices, including cutting back on initiating proactive investigations,” the department wrote.

In effect, Ms. DeVos is submitting a budget that will ensure the necessity for limiting the thorough investigations… a budget that will require “assembly-line justice”. For a department that is enamored of algorithmic on-line learning it seems fitting that they would adopt algorithmic justice. Students, after all, are widgets that require periodic quality control via standardized tests and periodic attention from teachers who make sure the robots are providing sufficient knowledge. Who needs a thorough education when an efficient one is sufficient?

A Billionaire Can Easily Afford to Spend $200,000 on a School Board Election or a Think Tank or a Technology Initiative

June 14, 2017 2 comments

As a former mathematics teacher, I am often astonished and dismayed at the lack of understanding the average voter has in grasping the difference between a million and a billion. That lack of mathematical acuity came to mind when I read two recent items relative to the influence of billionaires on public education policy. One, a post by Diane Ravitch, described the impact billionaires had on the recent election in Los Angeles. The other was an article in the NYTimes that described the influence billionaires are having on public school curricula across the country.

In a post titled “96 Billionaires Who Decided to Buy School Board Elections“, Ms. Ravitch offers an excerpt from a podcast by Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider who interviewed researcher Rebecca Jacobsen on the influence a cadre of billionaires are having on elections in local school districts. The podcast uses the recent election in Los Angeles, where outside donors contributed over $17,000,000 to pro-choice candidates, as a case in point. But here’s the mathematical reality: From a billionaire’s perspective, a $200,000 contribution is chump change. 

Get your calculator out a you’ll see that 200,000/1,000,000,000 is .0002, or .02%. If you make exactly $1,000,000,000, .02% of your income is $200,000. If you get 95 of your friends who make exactly a billion dollars to contribute .02% of their income you’ve got $19,200,000 to donate to a political campaign… and if you’re making exactly a billion dollars you aren’t even on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans!

On the other hand, if you are making $50,000 per year, .02% of your income is $10.00. If you get 95 of your friends to contribute .02% of their income you’ve got $960 to donate to a campaign. But if you’re making $50,000 per year you might need that $10.00 to help pay down your debt on a student loan…

Natasha Singer’s NYTimes article, “Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools“, describes the massive investments tech entrepreneurs are making in public education… investments that are massive in terms of average wage earners but, again, are chump change to a billionaire. In her article Ms. Singer describes how the contributions of silicon valley billionaires are “…influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental approaches to learning.” She then lists several examples of the donations, which include a $60,000,000 non-profit think tank, $100,000 grants to middle school principals, and donations to “hundreds of schools”. She profiles three major initiatives by Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and Marc Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO. In each case these donations are seemingly high… but when 1,000,000,000 is the denominator it becomes evident that from Benioff’s, Hastings’ and Zuckerman’s perspective the money spent is inconsequential.

It is scary to consider the outsized influence these hobbyists are having on the direction of public education, but here’s what I find to be most annoying: if you’re making a billion dollars a year you’re probably spending a lot of that money to make certain you aren’t paying your fair share of income and property taxes… and you are like the Koch Brothers you just might be spending some of your money to persuade $50,000 wage earners that taxes are an unfair burden on them, that government is evil, and that private businesses can operate public enterprises more effectively than democratically elected boards.

The innumeracy of the electorate results in a gross underestimation of the force that billionaires can bring to bear on public education without really having any impact on their gross wealth… a force that can be used for good and for ill. It also enables those billionaires to exercise their force with relative impunity.