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Bernie Sanders’ Blunt and Accurate Assessment of Public Education Gets My Vote

January 8, 2020 Leave a comment

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This USA Today op ed article by Bernie Sanders nails the real problem with public schools and, in my opinion, separates him from others who are running for President.

Bad News Betsy Blistered by Guardian

December 30, 2019 Comments off

Guardian writer David Smith wrote a blistering essay outlining the many ways Betsy DeVos has undermined public schools in her short tenure as Secretary of Education. Here are some highlights, beginning with Randi Weingarten’s assessment:

“We’ve had plenty of Republican as well as Democratic secretaries of education but none of them, even those who believed in alternatives to public education, actually tried to eviscerate public education,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Here is someone who in her first budget tried to eliminate every single summer school programme, every single after-school programme, and who has done everything in her power to try to make it harder for us to strengthen public [sector] schools.”

Then there’s the federal court’s assessment:

DeVos is currently attacking a programme, known as “borrower defense to repayment”, intended to forgive federal loans for students whose colleges misrepresent the quality of their education or otherwise commit fraud. The programme was expanded under Barack Obama but DeVos has been accused of stalling it for more than a year while she altered the rules and made it harder for students to get loan relief, resulting in a large backlog.

Last month, a federal judge held DeVos in contempt for violating an order to stop collecting loan payments from former Corinthian Colleges students, a for-profit college chain that collapsed in 2015 amid allegations that it lied about the success of its graduates in order to get students to enroll.

And centrist MD legislator John Delaney’s take:

“If we were grading her on a report card, I would give her very low grades if not a failing grade,” he said by phone from Iowa. “The reason I think she has not been a successful secretary of educationwas obvious from the day she was given the job, which is she doesn’t believe in the public education system in this country. She would voucherise the whole system if she could.”

But the most chilling quote from Mr. Delaney was this one:

Delaney warned: “We have to be careful not to be so preoccupied with every single ridiculous thing the president does because, to some extent, it might be a strategy to distract us from the bad policy that’s actually getting done.Obviously the things he did with Ukraine deserve this attention they’re getting. But in some ways he’s the bright, shiny light and every little tweet causes people to just be incredibly preoccupied.

“Meanwhile, environmental regulations are getting rolled back. Ethanol waivers are being granted. There are proposals to spin off the entire student loan portfolio of the Department of Education. The list goes on and on and on of real policies that are happening that deserve much more attention. She has largely kept her head down and gone about her business, which I think is ideologically driven and hasn’t attracted that much attention.”

John Delaney is onto something insidious: while the President issues ridiculous tweets that occupy bandwidth on the evening news his appointees and the anti-government wing of the GOP are doing horrific damage to our country… damage that will cost billions of dollars and, in all probability, decades to repair.

Mr. Smith’s article concludes with this prediction from Neil Sroka, an activist from Michigan:

“(Betsy DeVos)… scion of wealth and privilege has never had a real job but made it her life’s work to attack public schools, teachers and students. She only escapes scrutiny because so much incompetence, grief and evil comes out of this administration that she’s been able to ride out the storm. But she’s made it much more likely we’ll get a Democratic education secretary who’s a real champion for teachers.

Sroka’s prediction will only come true if we elect a Democrat who opposes the neoliberal agenda. If the Democrats choose someone in the mold of Barak Obama or Bill Clinton they will likely get a secretary of education in the mold of Arne Duncan, someone who will never be held up as “…a real champion for teachers”.

The GDP and Standardized Tests

December 16, 2019 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes features an op ed article by David Leonard titled Why You Shouldn’t Believe Those GDP Numbers. In the article Mr. Leonard questioning the validity of the GDP as a metric for the well-being of workers and the quality of our economy. He writes:

Americans are dissatisfied, and have been for years, largely because the economy as most people experience it has not been booming. G.D.P. — or gross domestic product, the economy’s total output — keeps on rising, but it no longer tracks the well-being of most Americans. Instead, an outsize share of economic growth flows to the wealthy. And yet G.D.P. is treated as a totemic measure of the country’s prosperity.

The economy is not the only area that is mis-measured. For years we have decried our “failing public schools” using standardized test scores as the primary metric. Since the advent of “high stakes testing” schools have increased their time and energy to boosting test scores. As a result more and more schools have eliminated the arts in favor of “academics”, which is really test-preparation. The result: public schools whose soulless rote study of “academics” mirrors the menial low wage jobs.

What gets measured gets done… and if the total spending is measured without regard for who is doing the spending, it does more reflect the well-being of all citizens any more than test scores measure the well-being of all students.

Vermont Story on Delayed Test Results Illustrates Everything Wrong with Testing

July 29, 2019 Comments off

Our local paper, the Valley News, reprinted an article by Lola Duffort titled “School Test Score Data Nine Months Overdue“. This is unsurprising given the ambitious scope of the State’s new Annual Snapshot “dashboard” and the fact that the current State Department of Education is woefully understaffed. And this problem of ambitious analytics combined with understaffed state departments is not limited to Vermont. This toxic combination is a systemic problem brought about by federal legislators allowing and encouraging states to include more and more data on their “report cards” on the heels of states deciding to cut back staffs following the 2008 economic collapse, often making those cuts on data collection departments where much of the work was outsourced.

In an earlier article Ms. Duffort described the new expanded “dashboard” as follows:

The Vermont Agency of Education has released its first Annual Snapshot, a new online dashboard that will allow anyone to take a look at how each of the state’s public K-12 schools are doing, using a variety of new indicators.

The Snapshot is an intentional pivot away from the standardized-testing focused era of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which was widely criticized by educators — particularly in Vermont — for emphasizing too narrow a measure of school performance. The successor law to NCLB, the Every Student Succeeds Act, still requires testing, but it also allows states to name several new standards for appraising schools…

…the Snapshot aims to allow the public to see not just traditional measures of school performance – like test scores and graduation rates – but also information about school climate, staffing quality, spending priorities, and personalization.

As one who has written frequently about the inanity of rating schools based solely on test scores, I fully support this new direction by Vermont. But, as one who worked with state departments for 29 years and witnessed their de-staffing over that time period, I also understand that delivering on this promised expansive data will be difficult… and it will be especially so in Vermont where it appears the new commissioner is loathe to add staff:

The agency is “seriously understaffed,” said Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

“It’s resulted in delays and errors and a general inability to do their jobs. I’ve been trying to light a fire under Secretary French and this administration for a year now, to pick up the pace of hiring, but they seem content to continue running the agency well below full strength,” he said.

Staffing capacity at the agency worried House lawmakers enough last session that House Education chair Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, and Government Operations chair Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, held a joint hearing on the subject. The agency has lost about a fourth of its staff to budget cuts since the Great Recession.

But Webb said that, as for the test scores, she was “not concerned at this time,” since students, teachers, and districts have access to their individual results.

Sorry, Ms. Webb… but the whole point of providing the Snapshot was to provide MORE information than test results and providing those results nine months after the tests were administered is, to be blunt, ridiculous and useless. If a teacher failed to return a high-stakes test to a student nine months after the test was administered they would be looking for a new career. For the Annual Snapshot to serve ANY valid educational purpose it needs to be in the hands of teachers, administrators, and Board members within weeks— not nine months later. Moreover, between October 2018 and August 2019 it is likely that 1/4 of the school board members and a similar percentage of principals and teachers will change, especially in the small rural schools that constitute much of Vermont. Complicating matters even more, there are several new Boards in place now as a result of Act 46, making the late delivery of data even more problematic.

The solution, as always, is more resources— in this case for State Departments of Education. But finding support to pay for “bureaucrats” whose primary purpose is enforcement of regulations adopted by the legislature and State Board and the delivery of reports on a wide array of issues is not easy. It’s far easier to outsource data gathering, skimp on regulatory enforcement, and complain about the inefficiency of the State Department of Education…. because, well, “government is the problem”.

Tennessee’s ESA Shenanigans Illustrate Why Delegating Education Policy to States is a BAD Idea

April 25, 2019 Comments off

A friend on Facebook shared a blog post from Momma Bear, a group of concerned Tennessee parents, grandparents, citizens, and– in a ll probability— teachers who are appalled at what is taking place in Tennessee. It seems that the Governor wants to get a voucher bill passed and in order to secure the votes he needed to do so was offering enticements to legislators if they voted in favor of his plan and threatening funding shortfalls for those who didn’t. The post describes how the House went from a 49-49 deadlock to a tie-breaking 50-48 vote on the voucher bill… and it seems that very few of the votes were cast in favor of the voucher policy itself… rather they were cast to secure funding for better roads and avoiding vengeance.

This is Lamar Alexander’s legacy for weakening the Federal policy guidelines and handing them off to the states…. and I rest my case for the flaws in the ESA legislation.

A Debate Over the word “Democracy” in Michigan’s Social Studies Curriculum Lays Bare Conservatives’ Opposition to the Term… and the Concept

April 8, 2019 Comments off

A front page article by Dana Goldstein in today’s NYTimes should give everyone in the nation pause. Titled “Is the US a Democracy? A Social Studies Battle Turns on the Nation’s Values“, the article describes a five-year battle over the definition of the government of our country. In a country where it is seemingly impossible to achieve consensus on the teaching of subjects like reading and mathematics— let alone evolution, climate change, and reproduction— it is not surprising that reaching a consensus on social studies is difficult. But unlike the debates where the facts are clear, social studies content focuses on shared values, and as one who worked in public education for four decades I would have thought that politicians, parents, teachers, and voters would readily agree that we live in a democracy. I write this knowing that I do not believe it is the case— but believing that no organized group would want to argue the fact. As Ms. Goldstein writes, though, I am off-base with that presumption: a proposed revision of Michigan’s standards drops the word “democratic” from “core democratic values,” and reduces the use of the word “democracy”. Why?

The changes were made after a group of prominent conservatives helped revise the standards. They drew attention to a long-simmering debate over whether “republic” is a better term than “democracy” to describe the American form of government.

That the two sides in that tussle tend to fall along party lines, each preferring the term that resembles their party name, plays no small part in the debate. But members of the conservative group also brought to the table the argument that K-12 social studies should be based on a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents.

They contended that the curriculum ought to focus more on the nation’s triumphs than its sins.And they pushed for revisions that eliminated “climate change,” “Roe v. Wade” and references to gay and lesbian civil rights.

Given a desire to base social studies on “a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents”  the elimination of the terms “…”climate change,” “Roe v. Wade” and references to gay and lesbian civil rights” makes perfect sense! After all, the founders didn’t want to allow anyone but white, male landowners to vote. And those who penned the original documents could not foresee the impact that industrialization, advances in medical science, and changing morays might have nearly 250 years in the future.  Indeed, the founders realized that they were not writing a set of commandments since they provided a means of amending their original document, probably because they realized that 250 years prior to the writing of the Constitution literacy was barely in place and the notion of democracy was fanciful given the monarchies and feudal economic systems in place.

The article describes the protracted process that carefully expanded the number of participants in the writing process as it attempted to draft a set of standards that would allow every student in the state to “see themselves” in the instruction. But despite all of the efforts to be inclusive, at this juncture the definition of our government remains elusive. Ms. Goldstein writes:

But in the days before the document was to be sent to the State Board of Education, fundamental questions about how to describe American government and citizenship had not been resolved.

It was not just that some Democratic-leaning committee members liked the term “democracy” while some Republican-leaning members preferred “republic.” The debate was really about bigger disagreements that transcended party lines: about how to deal with populism and protest, and about whether the United States is a unified entity of citizens or a conglomeration of groups divided by race, class, language and other identities.

On March 7, the heads of all the subcommittees gathered at the Historical Society of Michigan in Lansing to go through the draft one last time. The laptop screen of the head writer, a district social studies consultant named Dave Johnson, was projected onto the wall as he made last-minute revisions in a Google document.

It strikes me that process of developing the standards, something I called “management by rough draft” when I was leading schools and school districts, is an apt description of our governing model at it’s best. And when the process was complete, here’s how it ended up:

The list of core values that the standards writers eventually agreed on was “equality; liberty; justice and fairness; unalienable individual rights (including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness); consent of governed; truth; common good.”

And after months of sometimes bitter debate, the group decided these values could still be called “democratic.” As part of a compromise, the nation’s political system would be referred to primarily as “American government,” but also, in some instances, “constitutional government” and — yes — “democracy.”

But the conservative lawmaker who protested initially and whose protests led to the lengthy and contentious debate, was not pleased.

Mr. Colbeck, the former state senator who had helped write the previous draft, was displeased. Calling the nation a democracy was not “politically neutral and accurate,” he said.

As one who leans left, I agree. I believe we are now living in a plutocracy…. and I would have to believe that Mr. Colbeck and his anti-democratic colleagues who support an originalist interpretation of the Constitution would be OK with that. After all, Mr. Colbeck is a white male who owns land… HE would be able to participate in making decisions about the direction our country is headed.

In the end, Ms. Goldstein final sentence concludes that our debate about who we are will continue…. and implicitly agrees that the management-by-rough-draft will persist:

The process of retelling the nation’s history — deciding what gets left out and who is heard from — never ends.

I hope she is right… and that the pendulum that is now swung in the direction of the plutocrats who want to change the core values of our nation swings to the left.

ESSA and the “Death of the Compassionate Democracy”

March 18, 2019 Comments off

NYTimes columnist Margaret Renkyl offers a scary and scathing insight into the synergistic efforts of the religious right and pro-business libertarians to undermine democracy in Tennessee in the name of God and mammon. In so doing she describes how the notorious Koch brothers use the causes of the religious right to help advance their goals, which are described in Nancy Maclean’s book “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America”as follows:

According to Dr. MacLean, the Koch network’s goal — and the goal of all legislators in thrall to the Kochs’ PACs — is to weaken unions, suppress voter turnout, privatize public education, undercut climate science, roll back existing environmental protections, dismantle the social safety net and, of course, stack the courts with sympathetic judges.To enact that unpopular agenda, they’ve had to make common cause with the religious right.

And so we have a world where religious zealots who presumably believe in the teachings of Jesus are stripping poor people of medical coverage, relegating their children to substandard schools, and subjecting all of their fellow citizens to polluted air and water… all in the name increasing the bottom line of corporations.

Ms. Renkyl’s column is full of excellent insights, but it’s closing paragraph overlooks one reality that is most unsettling:

For all its often-empty swagger, the Tennessee General Assembly has made one thing very clear: If Americans don’t start paying closer attention to what’s happening in statehouses across the country, the republic may never recover.

The one reality that Ms. Renkyl overlooks is that Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, the champion of the bi-partisan disaster known as ESSA, has enabled states like Tennessee to set their own standards for education and, in so doing, effectively support the notion that STATES should be able to define curriculum standards… and if Ms. Renkyl doesn’t think that the Koch brothers are willing to throw science education standards, reading lists, and literacy under the bus in the name of free enterprise she is not paying attention herself.

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