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When Intelligent Design is Offered, Thank the Bi-Partisan Passage of ESSA Which Enables the Spread of “Stupid Ideas”

November 20, 2017 Leave a comment

I have long believed that some kind of national standards are required in all curriculum areas, Bill Gates’ unilateral efforts to impose the Common Core via Race to the Top notwithstanding. The pushback to Mr. Gates’ initiative and Arne Duncan’s efforts to impose top-down testing resulted in the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bi-partisan bill that empowered State’s to devise their own curricula, their own assessments, and their own means of accountability.

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an article by Cyde Haberman describing on result of this shift of power back to the States: the re-emergence of the debate on whether to include evolution in the curriculum as “scientific fact” or present it side-by-side with theories like intelligent design. And, no surprise to this blogger, the intelligent design crowd is making headway. Mr. Haberman offers a detailed description of a law passed in Louisiana and tested in courts and concludes that other states are likely to pass similar bills:

Thus far, the Louisiana law is proving to be bulletproof. No court case has been brought against it, even if Dr. Miller says somewhat dismissively that this is only because “the First Amendment protects you against imposition of religious ideas in the public schools — it doesn’t protect you against the introduction of stupid ideas.”

And Louisiana does not stand alone. Tennessee, home of the Scopes trial, passed a comparable law in 2012. Efforts along the same line have been tried in other states, including Mississippi, Alabama, Indiana, South Dakota, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma.

With the passage of ESSA and the abandonment of the common core, expect more states to adopt curricula that abandon science… and at some point, who knows, maybe students will be required to demonstrate an understanding of intelligent design in order to earn a diploma. Nine states down… 41 to go. And for my friends in New Hampshire, please pay attention! It could happen in our state.

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Fordham Institute’s Ratings of the Ratings Underscores One of ESSA’s Biggest Flaws

November 15, 2017 Leave a comment

I read with dismay the Fordham Institute’s recent analysis of each state’s rating systems for public schools written by Brandon Wright and Michael Petrilli. The Fordham Institute’s assessment was a problem for me, but their framework for assessments was drawn from ESSA’s language, which, in turn, is ultimately based on the premise that public schools are a commodity that can be rated like motels, automobiles, and restaurants. Here’s a synopsis of the Wright/Petrilli algorithm used to to assess each State’s accountability plan:

The Every Student Succeeds Act grants states more authority over their accountability systems than did No Child Left Behind, but have they seized the opportunity to develop school ratings that are clearer and fairer than those in the past? Our new analysis examines the plans submitted by all fifty states and the District of Columbia, and whether they are strong or weak (or in-between) in achieving three objectives:

  1. Assigning annual ratings to schools that are clear and intuitive for parents, educators, and the public;
  2. Encouraging schools to focus on all students, not just their low performers; and
  3. Fairly measuring and judging all schools, including those with high rates of poverty.

Their overall findings are summarized in the subsequent paragraph in bullet form (my emphases added):

Key findings include:

  • Thirty-four states—67 percent—received a “strong” grade for using clear and intuitive ratings such as A–F grades, five-star ratings, or user-friendly numerical systems. These labels immediately convey to all observers how well a given school is performing, and is a major improvement over the often Orwellian school ratings of the NCLB era.
  • The country is also doing much better in signaling that every child is important, not just the “bubble kids” near the proficiency cut-off. Twenty-three states earned strong grades on this objective, and another fourteen earned medium marks.
  • There is somewhat less progress when it comes to making accountability systems fair to high-poverty schools. Only eighteen states are strong here. But twenty-four others earn a medium grade, which is still an improvement over NCLB.

The fact that Mr. Wright and Petrilli place a high value on ratings such as A–F grades, five-star ratings, or user-friendly numerical systems means that they are simultaneously placing a high value on anything that can be measured numerically and devaluing any element of schooling that cannot be reduced to a number. This would likely contradict their second finding in any state that places a high value on standardized testing, since the best way for a school to improve their standardized testing is to target the so-called “…”bubble kids” near the proficiency cut-off.

In assessing the states who got low marks on their grading system Mr. Wright and Petrilli show their true colors, and their true intent is for states to use some form of rank ordering despite the fact that ESSA does not mandate such an approach:

On the flip side, three states received weak grades in each of the three areas: California, Idaho, and North Dakota. They rely on proficiency rates, don’t emphasize student growth, and propose using a dashboard-like approach with myriad data points and no bottom line for reporting school quality to parents, beyond identifying their very worst schools, as required by federal law.

So the three states that used a nuanced and detailed approach to rating schools and identified only the lowest performing schools got low ratings in the Wright/Petrilli algorithm but states that came up with a simplistic means of rating got higher marks. One thing we’ve learned in education is that the aphorism “what gets measured gets done” is absolutely true. That aphorism created the “bubble kids” and it created the endless gaming of the US News and World Report’s ratings that ultimately reward colleges, universities, and public schools that spend the most and punish the schools who serve first time enrollees and/or children raised in poverty.

KISS— Keep It Simple Stupid— is a great marketing strategy if your plan is to rank order schools and thereby identify the “fact” that 50% of the schools are “failing”. If you want to improve schools for all children, you might seek a system that flags only the worst schools and use a dashboard approach. My advice in examining the Wright/Petrilli algorithm: think of it as upside down.

 

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Technology’s Promise, OBE, CBE Thwarted by the Factory Model Which is Reinforced by Standardized Testing

November 8, 2017 1 comment

Blogger Tom Ultican, described by Diane Ravitch as a California physics and math teacher who formerly worked in technology, wrote a post in early October that excoriates the role of technology in public education and decries the failed attempts to introduce various forms of mastery learning into public schools. In doing so, Mr. Ultican, like many technology critics, overlooks the fact that technology’s advantages are undercut by our current factory school model and the standardized tests that reinforce it. Moreover, some of Mr. Ultican’s assertions regarding the outflowing of new money for technology do not appear to be substantiated.

Mr. Ultican opens his post lamenting ESSA’s inclusion of billions of dollars for “blended learning”, which is defined in the law as:

…a formal education program that leverages both technology-based and face-to-face instructional approaches—(A) that include an element of online or digital learning, combined with supervised learning time, and student- led learning, in which the elements are connected to provide an integrated learning experience; and (B) in which students are provided some control over time, path, or pace.”

He then delineates the funding provided for ESSA and, absent any evidence, purports that “…it is clear that Title-I authorizes spending tens of billions of tax payer dollars on education technology.” What is clear to me is that Title I allows districts to use these funds for technology, but since this money is already being spent for existing Title One programs and is only a .6% increase over the baseline it is highly unlikely that funds currently being spent for Title One personnel will be redirected to technology. Similarly his assertion that Title IV is 100% for technology is inaccurate. As the Center for Digital Education notes in an April blog post:

ESSA is authorized to spend up to $1.6 billion on Title IV, which includes provisions of use for access to well-rounded education, school counseling, school health and safety, and education technology. By placing those important areas under the same umbrella for funding, the amounts left to use on education transformation through the use of technology are lower than the funds initially received from Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT), which at it’s peak was allocated $700 million. Based off of initial Congressional proposals, the $1.6 billion authorized seems highly unlikely to come to fruition.

So… where Mr. Ultican sees a treasure trove for technology, the technology industry itself sees a diminishment of funding… and as the closing sentence in this paragraph indicates, the authorization of funding is different from the allocation of funding

Mr. Ultican’s distaste for technology appears to be rooted in his distaste for what he calls “behaviorist education”, which includes some concepts that I fully support:

The behaviorist ideology of B.F. Skinner informs “competency based education.” CBE is the computer based approach that replaces the failed 1990’s behaviorist learning method called Outcome Based Education. Outcome Based Education is a renamed attempt to promote the 1970’s “mastery education” theory. Mastery education’s failure was so complete that it had to be renamed. It was quickly derided by educators as “seats and sheets.” These schemes all posit that drilling small skills and mastering them is the best way to teach. It has not worked yet.

Today’s proponents of behaviorist education hope that technology including artificial intelligence backed by micro-credentials and badges will finally make behaviorism a winner. It will not because little humans are not linear learners. Non-alignment with human nature is a fundamental flaw in this approach. In addition, behaviorism is not known as a path to creativity or original thinking. Those paths are created between teachers and students through human contact; paths undermined by “digital education.”

Earlier in his post, Mr. Ultican writes about the uselessness of standardized testing, yet he bases his conclusion on the failure of OBE on test results. Standardized tests, unlike the “micro-credentials and badges” he derides, assume that all children learn at the same rate. He also fils to see that technology could be used to enable students to progress at their own rate without the “sheets” that made mastery learning cumbersome in the 70s and led to the failure in South Africa where teachers were compelled to develop their own self-paced learning materials for children.

My bottom line is this: technology will not make any difference in public education as long as public education is organized based on the premise that all children learn at the same rate and that, consequently, they should be grouped by age cohorts to facilitate learning. Standardized testing reinforces this notion and the “compensatory” funding that is the ultimate root of ESSA is designed to improve standardized test scores.

And here’s what surprises me the most: the technology industry seeking ever increasing amounts of money has not caught onto this and explicitly advocated a change to the factory model.

States Tinker With Grading System… But WHY???… The Results Will Always Be the Same

November 6, 2017 Leave a comment

This morning several articles on my Google Public News Feed deal with changes in the grading systems states will use as part of their implementation of ESSA. One of the articles, “No More Curve” by Will Sentel of The Advocate, a Louisiana publication, describes how the State Board of Education in that state will be abandoning the bell curve they used following the implementation of the Common Core in favor of a grading system that would ensure that an “A” in Louisiana was the same as an “A” in other states… an decision that will result in roughly 57% of the LA schools receiving an “F”.

The Decatur Daily reporter John Godbey wrote about the new grading system to be imposed by the Alabama legislature that will be based mainly on growth as measured by the ACT’s standardized tests for K-12 students. He wrote as best he could, but it is difficult to write about a grading process that is nclear to even the Superintendents in the region. As he reported:

Decatur-area superintendents said they remain baffled by the process.

“We have not been informed about what our grade will be,” Decatur City Superintendent Michael Douglas said. “We got a formula last year, and I know enrichment growth is a component, but it’s so complicated I can’t tell you what we’ll get.”

And in Michigan, they are rolling out a new grading system as well, replacing a system in place for several years based primarily on test scores with one that has a host of easy-to-measure data. As reported by Louise Wrege in the Benton Harbor Herald Palladium who spoke with State Superintendent Brian Whitson:

Under a new benchmark system, he said student performance on the state’s standardized test will only count for 29 percent of the school district’s score. He said the rest of a district’s score will be based 34 percent on student growth, 10 percent on the graduation rate, 10 percent on the success of English language learners, 3 percent on parent participation and 14 percent on additional factors, such as do the students have chronic absenteeism or access to art, music and gym classes

In the end, all of the grading systems will have the same result: schools that serve children raised in affluence will drastically outscore schools that serve children in poverty… and the correlate finding: schools in districts that spend the most will “outperform” schools that spend the least. And, fortunately for the “reformers” who love these rankings, there will be outliers. There will be a district or two from the high-poverty-low-spending demographic that get good grades and a district or two in the high-spending-low-poverty demographic who do poorly… and they will serve as the posted children for two mantras: “The failing schools should learn from the successful ones” and “Throwing money at the problem won’t solve it”.

States can grade schools and grade districts from now until eternity, but until there are equitable funding formulas in every state and education funding has the same priority as funding for our endless wars we will continue to wring our hands over the low achievement of children raised in poverty… or rub our hands together in hopes of making a fortune in managing the schools serving those children to no good effect.

In the Battle Between Market Economists and Democracy, the Market is Winning

October 8, 2017 Leave a comment

As I type this post, I am listening to a 12 minute interview between WBUR reporter Meghna Chakrabarti and Debra Meier and Emily Gasoi, whose recent book, “These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools. 12 minutes is hardly enough time to do justice to this topic, but at least their ideas were receiving some air time, which is increasingly difficult even in an era of 24/7 news coverage.

At the outset of the interview, Ms. Meier contends that those who advocate for school reform promote the notion that the marketplace is a “form of democracy where consumers are free to choose what they want,” a concept she believes is contrary to the true democratic principles that govern our country. And this warped perception equating “consumer choice” with “democracy” is warped even more because the primary metric for consumers to base their decision on is standardized test scores.

Ms. Chakrabarti pushed Ms. Meier on the distinction between “decision making vs. choice” as described in their book in an effort to help listeners understand the somewhat nuanced difference between the two. Ms. Meier indicated that “choice” is based on limited universe of options, and those options are defined by someone else. In the case of education “reformers”, the “someone else” would ultimately be corporations determined to make a profit. Decision making is procedural, it’s the means by which decisions are made and enables a governing board to “shape the future”. Ms. Meier emphasized that deciding what to buy at a store is not a “democratic act”, it’s an exercise of individual choice. She didn’t say so, but it’s clear that the team of store owners who decide how to operate their store and what to sell in the store are making decisions… and if the owners are elected by the general public they are engaging in a democratic act. Ms. Meier concluded her answer by emphasizing that democracy depends on everyone having relatively equal power, and in our current economy there are gross inequalities of wealth AND power.

In the final 2 minutes, Ms. Chakrabarti asked Ms. Gasoi what could be done in the short run to stem the erosion of democracy in schools today. Ms. Gasoi’s answer resonated with me. She suggested that schools and school boards should spend less time worrying about standardized tests… and she suggested that ESSA provided states with an opportunity to do just that. In her words, ESSA provides a chance for states to “dial back on standardized tests as a means of measuring school quality”. 

Debra Meier and Emily Gasoi are right. Our public education system is becoming less and less democratic and the marketplace is contributing to the inequality that ungirds the erosion of democracy in public education. The “school store” in affluent communities has many more choices than the “school store” in a poor community, and as states hand over the operation of “low performing” schools to deregulated for profit charters instead of having them governed by local school boards forced to operate with limited funds and to comply with state guidelines democracy is increasingly eroded.

When it comes to ESSA, though, as noted in several other posts on this blog, “…the promise of states dialing back on standardized tests as a means of measuring school quality” is not materializing… and as long as standardized test scores drive State decision making and state legislatures conflate market-driven “choice” with democracy our true democracy will lose out to the marketplace and public education as it was envisioned by those in the 19th century will disappear… and with its disappearance the notion of upward mobility will disappear as well.

Paul Buchheit Shows How Privatization Divides Us… and Keeps Us Divided

September 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Paul Buchheit, a college teacher, and founder and developer of social justice and educational websites, posts frequently about inequality in Common Dreams and his most recent post, “How Privatization Cuts Us in Two While Public Institutions Make Us Better People” leads with these paragraphs:

Most people looking to make big money are eager to disparage public systems as inefficient, wasteful, inferior. Many of those people are in a position to starve the public systems of funding, thereby making them less functional, and making the private options look more appealing.

But privatization is not the solution, it is the problem. Properly supported public systems serve more people in a more efficient and less costly way. We might begin by looking at FEMA, the underfunded disaster relief program much maligned for its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But today it’s a lifesaver for many people. And the alternative is an onslaught of businesses that seek profit among the hurricane victims desperate for water and food and supplies.

Mr. Buchheit then describes the impact of privatization on four elements of the economy: health care; housing; the environment: and, public education. Here’s his analysis of how privatization is a force for divisiveness in public schools:

Betsy DeVos’ state of Michigan is a painful example of the perils of privatization. Michigan’s K-12 system is largely unregulated, with charter schools competing for the same pot of money like so many profit-seeking corporations. The results have been miserable, according to recent nationwide assessments. Student proficiency has faltered, inequality between rich and poor districts has grown, and in places like Holland, MI (Betsy’s hometown) white families have ‘chosen’ their way out of traditional public schools, leaving behind the children of low-income Hispanic migrant workers. Says Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron about the charter experiment: “These are the most vulnerable students we have. Why do we experiment on them?”

But all is well for the banks and hedge funds, and for the Education Maintenance Organizations (EMOs) that buy up properties, lease them to schools for a little while, then sell them to the same schools for millions of dollars in profits.

Public schools, on the other hand, can work very well when the emphasis is on the student-teacher relationship rather than on business models.Jeff Bryant describes some of the attributes of the successful Long Beach, California school system: “respect for teachers…internal accountability…intense devotion to the well-being of students.” This is similar to the much-praised educational system in Finland, where teachers are well-trained, well-paid, highly respected, and trusted to actually teach the kids rather than test them.

Parents want well-supported local schools much more than they want the choice of private options. A 2017 poll conducted for the American Federation of Teachers by Hart Research Associates found that 71% of parents chose “a good quality neighborhood public school” over “more choices of which schools I can send my children to.”

While one might dispute the findings of a survey underwritten by the American Federation of Teachers, the recent findings of the Phi Delta Kappa survey mirror these findings, with 62% of public school parents giving their child’s school an A or B grade and a majority of members of the public opposing the use of public funds for private schools.

But the formula for creating “failing public schools” seems intractable even as it moves from the Federal level to the state level. State governments underfund public schools, affluent communities augment the limited state funding with local property taxes that are relatively easy to raise given their tax base and wealth, and underfunded schools serving children raised in poverty “fail” and are then turned over to profiteers. The rich are getting a better education than the poor, and the stratification that led to these disparate opportunities is reinforced and perpetuated. Privatization DOES cut us in two, and unless those who benefit from the current state of affairs, namely the affluent parents, speak out in favor of economic justice the division will widen and will be increasingly difficult to close.

This Just In: ESSA Makes No Difference in Yet Another State

September 23, 2017 Leave a comment

When ESSA was passed in Congress, it was marketed as an opportunity for states to establish their own accountability standards, thus giving them a chance to break away from the standardized test scores as the primary metric as “imposed on them” by the federal government. In state after state, though, the results have not borne out that promise. Here’s a portion of a report from Megan Raposa of the Argus Leader, a regional newspaper that’s part of the USA Today chain, that was presented in a Q and A format (my emphases added):

What’s different now? Monday’s rule change was only one piece of ESSA’s implementation. It changes the way schools are ranked by the state, and it gives schools a new way to look at how students are performing. 

What criteria will the state use to assess schools? The state will look at test scores, student attendance, graduation rates, college and career readiness, and how well English learners perform on standardized tests. 

How will this affect students? Largely, it won’t. Students will still take the same standardized tests as they did under No Child Left Behind. Also, they may see their teachers putting more emphasis on “college and career readiness,” a key theme in South Dakota’s education goals.

So while ESSA “gives schools a new way to look at how students are performing” the “new” method for measuring student performance will not make any difference to students since they will be taking the same standardized tests as they did under No Child Left Behind!

If South Dakota was an outlier, this would be no big deal… but to date I am unfamiliar with any states who are making a substantial break from their reliance on standardized tests. One the final tally is in on ESSA submissions, I’ll write a post on the “new way” states are assessing student performance… and I will be astonished if ANY of them are diminishing their reliance on tests.

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