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“Opt-In”: NYS School Districts’ Brilliant Workaround to USDOE Testing Mandate

April 7, 2021 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch posted about a brilliant solution several NYS school districts came up with to counter the ill-starred decision by USDOE mandating testing during the 2020-21 school year. Here is is in it’s entirety:

In New York, several school districts announced an “opt in” policy for state testing, led by the Ossining School District. The deal: If parents want their children to take the tests, they must write a letter asking for them to “opt in.”Other districts followed. Now the entire state of New York will allow districts to have an “opt in” policy. If parents want their child tested, it will be done. If they don’t, they don’t have to “opt out” or do anything. Some districts may prefer to stick with the old way of requiring everyone to take the tests.

This is a remarkable turn of events!

The U.S. Department of Education has denied waivers to states that don’t want to administer the tests. This was an incredibly tone-deaf decision that brought an outcry from educators and parents, who know it is unfair to administer standardized tests in the midst of a pandemic. During the campaign, candidate Joe Biden promised to get rid of the annual standardized tests. But his test-happy minions in the Department of Education issued a decision breaking his promise, even before Secretary Cardona was confirmed. He has had to explain and try to justify an very bad decision.

May New York’s Opt-In strategy travel far and wide!

Here’s hoping the State Department of Education doesn’t intervene… which, based on my experience and given the Governor’s antipathy toward public schools, is a possibility.

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Here’s a Tough Question for the Biden Administration: Why Not Get Behind the Community Schools Model?

April 1, 2021 Leave a comment

In a recent post I let Joe Biden off the hook for breaking his promise to teachers that he would abandon the use of standardized tests despite the lack of any evidence that they measure anything worthwhile. It struck me that taking up the battle over testing, which seems to have bi-partisan support, was a losing proposition. But here’s a better way forward, instead of staking out a position of being AGAINST tests, why not aggressively stake out a position of being FOR community schools. There are two reasons for doing so: they work and their local community building ethos mirrors the philosophy of local governance that should be the Democratic party’s brand.

As this YES article by Florinda Rodov indicates, community schools are demonstrably effective:

The idea behind community schools is that poverty, housing instability, trauma, and subpar health care impede students’ ability to learn, so schools must mindfully address these challenges. While about 5000 community schools exist nationwide, they’re most prevalent in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the $200 million Community Schools Initiative in 2014 with the goal of creating 100 community schools. Over time, they’ve grown to 267 schools serving 135,000 students in low-income areas. According to a three-year study by the Rand Corporation released in January, they’re working…

Encouragingly, math and English scores are up at P.S. 67, as are attendance rates. Meanwhile, discipline incidents are down. Across the 113 (out of 267) community schools Rand studied over three years, it found improvements in attendance, math scores, and graduation and promotion rates. Among elementary and middle community schools, disciplinary incidents were down compared to non-community schools. Furthermore, behavioral incidents declined among Black students and students with disabilities. But disciplinary incidents among high school students didn’t decline. And while math scores improved, English scores did not. Still, the results are promising enough for Treyger to declare, “Every school should be a community school.”

By integrating services for children in one place it makes it possible to break down the inter-agency silos and address the whole child more effectively. And that whole child approach is what children at risk need the most:

This whole child approach tackles physical, socio-emotional, and academic needs equally. While benefiting individual students, it also addresses systemic concerns. For example, restorative discipline practices such as positive reinforcement, talking circles, and community building instead of zero-tolerance policies including suspensions and expulsions create a supportive school culture, according to Derek Anello, PWC’s VP of Programs. They also mitigate the chance that students will end up in the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to the punitive discipline that starts in pre-K and pushes kids out of school, onto the street, and into the criminal justice system. Boys of color and those with special needs are disproportionately affected, but girls of color also face biased disciplinary action.

The notion of viewing schools as part of a system makes sense politically for Democrats, who acknowledge that problems like racism, sexism, and “othering” are systemic and not the fault of individuals… and undoing a culture that reinforces racism, sexism and “othering” requires a systemic approach where everyone works together to define inclusivity and harmony.

Of course one problem with community schools is that what they offer to a community eludes measurement that can readily be converted to spreadsheets the way test scores can be used. And because the needle on test scores didn’t move significantly across the board the appetite for expanding the programs in NYC diminished. But test scores are NOT the be all and end all of education nor are they the be all and end all of “success”. If the Biden administration wants to improve schools he could do so by maintaining the standardized tests beloved of the green-eye-share crowd but placing those tests in their proper context: as a fraction of what is important in schools and an even smaller fraction of what schools should be providing in the way of learning.

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Counterpunch’s Compelling Protest Notwithstanding, I Stand By Biden’s Decision on Tests Given the ESSA Consensus

March 30, 2021 Comments off

A few days a go i wrote a post on Biden’s broken promises that offered a tepid defense of his team’s decision to break the promise on standardized testing. After reading today’s compelling Counterpunch post by Gael Greene I felt my blood pressure rise and my bile start to circulate until I re-read a revision and expansion of that post that I recently submitted as an op ed piece to our local newspaper… a revision that appears below. I am sharing it as what I believe to be a reasoned rejoinder. Alas, as much as I agree with Ms. Greene, I believe that there is much more at stake in the early months of the Biden administration than standardized testing… and given the huge margins ESSA passed by in December 2015 (a 359-64 vote in th house and an 85-12 vote in the Senate), picking a righteous fight on testing seems foolhardy given the higher stakes in play with SB 1, the infrastructure bill, and the need to address climate change. As noted at the conclusion of this op ed essay, I think the time to pick this battle and fight it tooth and nail is when ESSA is up for reauthorization. Here’s the op ed submission:

I started this op ed essay in late February when I learned that Joe Biden broke his promise to end standardized testing in public schools. As one who has long decried the misuse of these tests, I was dismayed that he reneged on his pledge to end the use of standardized tests and perplexed at the logic his staff used when they issued an edict disallowing States from issuing blanket waivers for the tests, something even Betsy DeVos permitted.  The reasons for suspending tests during this year are particularly compelling. We didn’t need to give standardized tests to know that students who had high speed internet and computers would outperform the students who lacked either. We didn’t need to give tests to know that in-person instruction is superior to remote instruction. We don’t need another round of tests to prove what we already know: students from well-resourced schools in affluent communities with a good tax base will outperform students from under-resourced schools in poverty stricken communities with a weak tax base. 35 years of lawsuits in New Hampshire are based on that fact. Will taking yet another round of standardized tests in 2021 change the thinking of the NH legislature? What, exactly, will another round of tests tell us that we don’t already know?

But the battle over the American Rescue Plan (ARP) changed my perspective. A bill that was widely popular among voters in both parties, the ARP passed without a single GOP vote in early March. As a result of this purely partisan pushback, I began to appreciate the strong headwinds Joe Biden faced as he tackled a long list of daunting challenges and contentious issues, challenges and issues that include:

  • Unity: In the toxic environment in Washington, even Biden’s call for unity in his inauguration speech was seen as “partisan”. GOP heard “unity” as a call for the country to fall in line under the Democrat’s “socialist agenda”. Unity is impossible without bipartisanship, and bipartisanship cannot be achieved as long one party pledges to reject any legislation proposed by the other.
  • Resetting and reforming the economy: The pandemic exposed the deep flaws of our nation’s economy. Economic inequality, the lack of full-time jobs that pay a living wage, the lack of affordable childcare, and the lack of affordable health care all predated the pandemic and all undercut the strength of the economy.
  • COVID-19: The previous administration’s decision to politicize and federalize the response to the pandemic divided our country at a time when a unified and consistent approach was needed. Instead of following a coherent national policy based on medical science, each state issued varying guidelines on issues like mask wearing, social distancing, and the reopening of schools and businesses. Too often, these guidelines were driven by politics instead of medical advice. In addition to dealing with this disjointed framework, the Biden administration faces challenges in achieving herd immunity since recent polls show that 41% of the GOP voters do not intend to get vaccinated.
  • Racism: Racism existed before the pandemic. It is a complicated systemic problem, one that can only be addressed through earnest and honest debates and compromises. Branding COVID-19 as “the Asian Flu”, conflating BLM protests with the July 6 riots, and passing laws making voter registration more difficult for minorities make honest discourse about race more difficult.
  • Rebuilding International Alliances to solve International Problems: Joe Biden needs to mend fences with our allies in order for his administration administration to address the many complicated interdependent problems that affect everyone in the world. Problems like global climate change, endless wars, refiugee crises, and authoritarian rule and the erosion of democracy require international solutions and international consensus. America cannot solve any of these problems unilaterally.
  • Restoring faith in government and elections: For more than 40 years we’ve heard that government is the problem. Since the middle of last year we’ve heard that elections are rigged. Without faith in the government’s ability to help solve problems and without trust in the results of elections democracy cannot survive.
  • Fallout from the January 6 storming of the Capitol: The investigation of the riots of January 6 is fraught with political peril. The gathering of evidence for the trials of those who participated in the riots and the trials themselves will keep the July 6 riots in the news cycle and those in the House and Senate who believe the election was stolen will fan any flames of doubt and discontent.
  • Immigration: When Central American refugees sensed that new leadership in Washington might lead to less restrictive entry into the US, refugees seeking asylum began moving north. Biden’s early Executive Orders reinforced that notion. As a reult, immigration is an urgent—and divisive– crisis.
  • Guns: In the wake of two horrific shootings, the highly contentious issue of gun control requires immediate attention.

Given this list of tough challenges and highly partisan issues, I understand why Joe Biden decided to break his promise on standardized testing. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the law that requires States to administer standardized tests, was the last piece of truly bipartisan legislation. In December 2015 it passed in the House with a 359-64 vote and the Senate with an 85-12 vote. It is not surprising that an experienced politician like Joe Biden decided to break his promise on an issue that both parties supported, especially since the American Rescue Act provides a huge influx of cash for public schools.

ESSA is up for reauthorization shortly, though, and when it is considered in Congress I will finish my op ed article urging his administration to offer a new means of accountability. We need to use something other than pencil and paper tests as the primary metric of “success” for students and schools. The issues on the list above are, I must admit, far more urgent and important at this point. For now, I forgive Joe Biden for breaking his promise.

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