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Three Posts by Diane Ravitch Illustrate How Three State Legislatures Enable Profiteers to Test, Pillage, and Escape Punishment

August 15, 2018 Leave a comment

Three of yesterday’s posts by Diane Ravitch illustrated how charter school profiteers operate: they get legislators to pass bills that close schools that are failing based on standardized test scores, deregulate those schools, and allow them to escape with no adverse consequences if they fail to provide an education to the students.

In Arkansas, Diane describes how the Waltons “...used their billions to leverage control of the State Education Department, the Legislature, and the State Education Board” by getting legislation passed that enabled them to get a former lobbyist appointed to Commissioner of Education and passing a law that required

“…Arkansas school districts to turn over buildings constructed with local property taxes to be turned over to any charter school that wants them, no matter how unproven the charter operator, no matter how damaging the charter might be to existing — and successful — true public schools.”

That’s not Diane Ravitch’s interpretation of the language: that IS the language! Then, when six of Little Rock’s 48 public schools were labeled “failing,” the state to took control of the entire district, ending local control. This is Ms. Ravitch’s reaction:

Read that again. The low test scores of 6 of 48 schools were grounds for the dissolution of democratic control in the entire district.The goal, of course, was to enable the Walton puppets to introduce private charter schools, which are controlled by private boards.

In another post Diane drew from a post by Mercedes Schneider describing how the Louisiana legislature passed laws that assign letter grades to schools and then use “low grades” as the basis for school closures and takeovers by profiteers. Ms. Schnieder describes the gambit underway at their State Department of Education where a recalibration of grades will result a decline of 38% in the number of A rated schools and a 57% increase in the number of F rated schools, which will broaden the pool of schools that coulee be privatized. But wait! Who are those F rated schools?

“Of course, the great irony here is that most charter schools in Louisiana are concentrated in New Orleans, and 40 percent of those scored D or F in 2017— prior to the anticipated, 57 percent increase in F-graded schools. But in the view of market-based ed reform, it is okay for charter schools have Fs because theoretically, these can be replaced by new charter schools ad infinitum with charter-closure churn being branded as a success.”

Churn might happen in Louisiana… but based on another post of Diane’s it is extremely difficult to create churn in Florida, where it is seemingly impossible of the school board to close a failing charter school. Eagle Arts Academy owes the Palm Springs School District $700,000, has declining enrollments, has shifted many of its revenues into the business of it’s head administrator, and has poor test scores. In the “free market” of charter schools, Eagle Arts Academy should be out of business… but the legislature has made it extraordinarily difficult to close a “failing charter” even though it makes it extraordinarily easy to close a “failing public school”.  As Diane Ravitch laments:

Okay, so the director puts the school’s money into his personal business. Is that a problem? So it hasn’t paid rent? No problem. The director explained that the test scores are low because the students are visual learners, you know, artistic types.

Taken together these three posts describe the life cycle of profiteers: pass legislation that makes it easy to close failing public schools; require the cash-strapped public schools to open their buildings to profiteers; and allow the profiteers to stay in business even if they fail to meet the expectations set for public schools. Oh… and last but not least make it impossible for democratically elected boards to close the profit centers. Test, plunder, and escape punishment…. all in the name of “reform”.

 

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Can Economists and Reformers Ever Be Friends? Based on John Lancaster’s New Yorker Article, Absolutely YES!

August 13, 2018 Leave a comment

I just finished reading John Lancaster’s New Yorker article titled “Can Economists and Humanists Ever Be Friends” and was struck by the similarities between the thought patterns of the economists described in the article and the “reformers” who seek to improve public education. The article, which appeared under the “Critic at Large” heading, was essentially Mr. Lancaster’s reaction to several books written by economists who attempt to quantify and codify “laws” of human behavior and use these codes to determine the economic efficacy of various decisions. In the process of doing so, however, these economists tend to overlook the humanistic consequences that flow from their decision making models. The hard core economists who use these decision models assert that once human interaction is reduced to a mathematical algorithm based on the assumption that the economic concept of “utility” is the ultimate “good”, the humanistic consequences are immaterial. The problem from Mr. Lancaster’s perspective is that “utility” is an amoral metric.

Here’s the case of a study conducted by the World Bank’s economists that Mr. Lancaster describes how “utility” ignores a major benefit to a group of human beings suffering from a crippling disease:

In the nineteen-eighties, Schapiro—who today is the president of Northwestern University, as well as a professor of economics—was part of a team that put together publications for the World Bank. One of their books had a chapter on onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness. It is a parasitic disease that has cost millions of people their eyesight, and is endemic in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In 1974, seven West African nations got together, contacted donors, and set out to create the Onchocerciasis Control Program, overseen by the World Health Organization. The program was a huge success, in that it prevented hundreds of thousands of people from going blind, but there was a problem: the economists involved couldn’t show that the venture was worth it. A cost-benefit analysis was “inconclusive”: the people who were being helped were so poor that the benefit of saving their eyesight didn’t have much monetary impact.“There are humanitarian benefits associated with reducing the blindness and suffering caused by onchocerciasis,” the World Bank report allowed. But “these benefits are inherently unmeasurable, and we will not account for them here.” In other words, the very thing that made the project so admirable—that it was improving the lives of the poorest people in the world—also made it, from an economic point of view, not really worth doing.

This conclusion immediately brought to mind the consequences of using standardized tests as the sole metric for “quality” in schools, a metric beloved of the economic quants who advocate their use for rating schools and teachers. Another metric the Obama administration advocated for measuring the value of post-secondary education, earnings, is equally useless. Both test scores and earnings are “utility” metrics that, like the World Bank’s metric, overlook benefits accrued by schooling that “don’t have much monetary impact”. They also overlook the fact that most of the benefits children get from public education and undergraduates get from college are inherently unmeasurable… but “reformers”, like economists, would contend that since they are “unmeasurable” there is no need to account for them… and the legislators and general public at this point seem to agree that anything that can’t be measured isn’t work considering when determining the efficacy of schooling.

As long as the public agrees that the only things worth teaching in public schools is content that can be measured in norm-referenced standardized tests and the only reason to attend post-secondary school is to earn more money than, say, a truck driver or construction worker, we will be stuck in the rut we are living in today.

Mr. Lancaster concludes his article with this observation:

The project of reducing behavior to laws and the project of attending to human beings in all their complexity and specifics are diametrically opposed.

To paraphrase this to public education, I conclude that

“The project of reducing the measurement of the worth of public education to tests and earnings and the need  of attending to the humanity of students in all their complexity and specifics are diametrically opposed.”

Anything schools can do to improve the emotional and psychological well-being of students is a huge benefit, even if it is inherently unmeasurable.

Christensen Institute’s Michael Horn is Right: It’s Time to Abandon “Gifted and Talented” Label

August 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Let’s Retire the “Gifted and Talented” Label“, Michael Horn’s recent post in the Christensen Institute Newsletter, had a special resonance with me. Mr. Horn argues against the label because it is inextricably linked to the tests used to identify students who are “gifted and talented” and those tests, in turn, are inextricably linked to the grouping of students in age-based cohorts that fail to take the differences in rates of intellectual maturity. But my personal experience tells me there are at least two more reasons to abandon the label.

In 1957 I was in 4th grade at the Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, having moved to that city when my father was transferred by DuPont. I recall being amazed that the math topics offered that year were identical to the math topics I covered a year earlier in Pennsylvania. I also recall one news event that fall that captured the imagination of the nation: the USSR’s launching of Sputnik. One of the immediate responses to the launch was passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958, an act that included millions of dollars for science education and an act that sought to identify the best and brightest students to help the US win the Space Race that was launched when Sputnik orbited the earth.

At the end of 5th grade, I was identified as one of the “best and brightest” students in Oklahoma and placed in a special program with several of my peers. I am certain my “excellence” in math classes helped in my identification as one of the “best and brightest”, an “excellence” that had more to do with Oklahoma’s lagging curriculum standards than my aptitude. I also am certain that my test scores helped as well, for I have always done well on the tests that stand as a proxy for “intelligence”.  For my 6th grade year in Oklahoma, our group was assigned what would come to be called “inter-disciplinary units” instead of traditional subject-matter classes, working on projects instead of worksheets. It was by far the best year I experienced in my entire K-12 schooling. The teachers and interns worked with us closely and provided individual tutoring and counseling and my classmates were all engaged and committed to learning. We were taunted by others in school on occasion, but once we got on the athletic fields at recess our status as “gifted and talented” students didn’t matter, only our ability to kick a soccer ball (incredibly we couldn’t play football at recess!) and pitch, catch, and hit a baseball.

A year later, my father was transferred back to Pennsylvania and because of the timing of our arrival and the fact that I was “from Oklahoma”, I was placed in the second highest cohort of 60-70 students in the homogeneous groupings in junior high school. I was no longer “gifted and talented”. Instead, I was among the 80% of students at South Junior High Schoo who were identified as UN-gifted and UN-talented. From that day forward I understood the preposterousness of classifying students based on test scores or “academic performance”, for despite the fact that I earned high grades and scored high on tests in 7th grade, there was no room for me in the classrooms in the highest performing cohort and so I was relegated to the second tier for the balance of my secondary education… that is until I qualified to take calculus in 12th grade making it impossible for me to “fit” into second tier classes elsewhere.

I tell this anecdote because it reinforces two adverse elements of identifying “gifted and talented” students. First, when a small group of students is segregated as being “gifted and talented” it simultaneously identifies those NOT identified as “UN-gifted and UN-talented” as my experience with “second tier” students in Pennsylvania demonstrated to me. The teachers who worked with our group in Junior High School constantly told us explicitly and implicitly that most of us in the class “were not college material” and that we needed to work hard if we ever hoped to go on for more education. I know my friends in the top division heard a different and far more positive message from their teachers. Secondly, any isolation of “gifted and talented” students necessarily excludes students who are moving from school-to-school or region-to-region. How many students are affected by this? According to an Education Week article by Sarah Sparks from 2016, 6.5 million students per year! And that same article included this finding:

High churn in schools not only can hurt the students who leave, but also those who remain enrolled. A 2014 report by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement in Georgia found schools with higher concentrations of mobile students had higher percentages of students with disabilities and fewer students in gifted education programs.

In a report on student mobility by the National Academy of Sciences, Chester Hartman, the research director for the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington, noted that high-poverty urban schools can have more than half of their students turn over within a single school year.

“It’s chaos,” he said in the 2010 report. “It makes all the reforms—smaller classes, better-trained teachers, better facilities—irrelevant.

Not only does the identification of “gifted and talented” students penalize “late bloomers”, it also penalizes students attending schools with high levels of transience and stigmatizes all the UN-gifted and UN-talented students who are NOT identified. Michael Horn is right: it is time to retire the “gifted and talented” label for once and for all and begin to identify the unique gifts and talents of all the children.

Just Because a Statistic Seems “Real” Doesn’t Mean it is True

August 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Late last month Forbes education writer Derek Newton posted an essay titled “What Mark Twain Didn’t Really Tell Us About Technology Disruption, Jobs And Education“. The essay could just have easily drawn it’s title from a recent talk I heard given by Tara Brach whose overarching theme was “just because something is real doesn’t mean it’s true”… a phrase that resonated with me having read endless articles about “failing public education” based on statistics drawn from norm referenced tests that necessarily result in 50% of students scoring below average. Mr. Newton cited three “facts” that “everyone” accepts as reality that are not true:

A fairly loud chorus knows for sure that three things are true – that technology is going to deeply and massively change the nature of work, that our schools, and colleges and universities in particular, aren’t preparing future workers for those future jobs and that a failure to quickly adopt massive changes in the way we teach will result in certain doom for future workers, businesses and the global economy.

He debunks the first premise by examining the ultimate source of an oft cited statistic (most recently cited in an ad by IBM) that “…sixty-five percent of children now in primary school will work in job types that don’t exist today.” When he examined the source of that “fact” here’s what Mr. Newton found:

Not only is this 65% statistic something we know for sure that just ain’t so, the stat itself is fake – simply, it appears, made up.

The footnote in the IBM report leads to this 2016 article in Fortune Magazine by John Chambers who was then the executive chairman of Cisco. In it, Chambers wrote, “ … it is estimated that 65% of children entering primary school today will work in job types that don’t even exist yet.”

It is estimated. That’s it. No footnote. No source.

A similar stat appears in a report by the World Economic Forum called “The Future of Jobs and Skills,” also in 2016. It says, “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.” And that statement footnotes to “McLeod, Scott and Karl Fisch, “Shift Happens.””

ShiftHappens is a series of viral YouTube videos from 2007. The videos are great but so dated at this point that it seems other-worldly to see references to the growth in MySpace as evidence of our technology future. But the problem isn’t the date, it’s the fundamental accuracy.

Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D. and associate professor, Educational Leadership, University of Colorado Denver, one of the creators of the videos, told me that the 65% stat, “ … indeed, is not a statistic we ever used! .. Not sure where it came from.”

McLeod isn’t the first or only person to have expressed bewilderment with this statistic. In 2017, the BBC did an entire segment debunking the “65% of primary school” idea. Also in 2017, Benjamin Doxtdator did some great research on the stat and found, “ …  the claim is not true.” According to Doxtdator, “ … versions of it date from at least to 1957.”

A meme repeated is a meme remembered and, eventually, it is a meme unquestioned. Like the meme that started in 1983 when A Nation at Risk declared that America’s public schools were failing.

Larry Cuban Explains Why Efficiency is the Enemy in Measuring Learning

August 1, 2018 Comments off

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday with a link to a post written by Larry Cuban describing the new “Cult of Efficiency” that reformers embrace when they measure school performance. Both posts implicitly decry the potential for technology and testing to enhance classroom teaching and student learning, a denunciation that is ultimately based on the premise that the ultimate metric for teaching effectiveness will be norm-referenced state tests. Mr. Cuban, for example, writes:

What exists now is a re-emergence of the efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” from a century ago who now, as modern-day entrepreneurs and practical reformers, using the vocabulary of pedagogical Progressives want public schools to be more market-like where supply and demand reign, and more realistic in preparing students for a competitive workplace.

These reformers are of two types. Some want individual students to master the content and skills found in district and state curriculum standards in less time than usual while spending the least amount of money to achieve mastery. Examples would be current versions of competency-based learning aligned to, say, Common Core standards or programs such as Teach To One.

Other entrepreneurs and technology advocates see schools as places to create whole  human beings capable of entering and succeeding in a world far different than their parents faced. To these reformers, efficient ways that reduce waste while integrating student interests and passions into daily activities with the help of teachers. Students make decisions about what to learn and take as long as they can to demonstrate mastery while meeting curriculum standards and posting high scores on state tests.

I would argue that there is a third kind of efficiency-minded “administrative progressive”: one who values the use of business practices in overseeing the business functions of school districts while rejecting the notion that those practices can be used in the classroom, particularly if state tests are the only metric used to determine “success”.

Any school leader who rejects the need for efficiency in non-instructional areas like transportation, maintenance, purchasing, and food services is squandering resources that could be used for instruction.

On the other hand, any school leader who embraces the use of state standardized tests as the sole and ultimate metric for student learning is simultaneously embracing the notion the all students of a certain age learn at the same rate, a notion that is preposterous. State tests are normative and, as such, assume that learning time is a constant and individual student learning is variable.

Efficiency is the enemy to improvement of schools when it is based on normative test scores that are linked to age-based cohorts. But efficiency-mindedness has the possibility of improving instruction when it is driven by formative test scores that are untethered to the construct of “grade levels” and driven by a wider array of metrics that attempt to capture elusive but important aspects of schooling like “student well-being”. A district that values only test scores will relentlessly drill students on test preparation and deny opportunities for physical and arts education. A district that seeks to improve the well-being of students will form partnerships with social services, health care providers, and care-givers before and after school and offer an expansive array of programs outside of content that can be readily measured by standardized tests.

 

America Loves Rankings and Lists… And WalletHub Delivers One of the Worst

July 31, 2018 Comments off

This morning’s Google feed on public education was full of articles from newspapers across the country reporting on their state’s ranking based on WalletHub’s analysis. This immediately led me to ask the following question: Who did the rankings and how were they determined?

I clicked on the WalletHub report link and found this synopsis, which, as my highlights indicate, if full of flawed thinking that immediately led me to the accurate conclusion that this was developed by conservative “reformers” who value the market place over “government schools”:

Securing a child’s academic success begins with choosing the right schools.But how can parents decide where to enroll their kids? Because children develop and learn at different rates, the ideal answer to that question varies based on each student’s needs. Unfortunately, most parents can’t afford to place their children in exclusive, private or preparatory schools that give their students greater individual attention.

For the majority of U.S. families, public education is the only option. But the quality of public school systems varies widely from state to state and is often a question of funding. Public elementary and secondary education money usually flows from three sources: the federal, state and local governments. According to the U.S. Department of Education, states contribute nearly as much as local governments, while the federal government supplies the smallest share. Some researchers have found that more resources — or taxes paid by residents — typically result in better school-system performance.

In the first sentence the writers state that “choice of schools” is readily available to parents, a notion supported by the second sentence. In the last sentence of the first paragraph the writers repeat the erroneous claim that “exclusive private or preparatory schools” offer students better outcomes than public schools. And the last sentence of the second paragraph cherry picks an unsubstantiated research finding that reliance on property taxes results in superior performance. These are all bullet points that conservative researchers love… and sure enough the team of experts who prepared this report come from think tanks and colleges and universities underwritten by “reform minded” billionaires.

So… how DID WalletHub generate their rankings? Here’s the overview:

Unlike other research that focuses primarily on academic outcomes or school finance, WalletHub’s analysis takes a more comprehensive approach. It accounts for performance, funding, safety, class size and instructor credentials. To determine the top-performing school systems in America, WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across 25 key metrics. Read on for our findings, expert insight from a panel of researchers and a full description of our methodology.

This sounds eminently reasonable… but in fact it relies mostly on test scores (roughly 50%), dropout rates (15%), and other external rankings (7%). Pupil-teacher ratio’s account for 3.64% of the rankings as does “share of licensed teachers”. 20% of the rankings are based on a list of ten variables that include “Number of School Shootings” and “Presence of Adopted and Enacted Laws Regulating Mandatory School Resource Officers”, the presumption being that there is some correlation between the two.

When all is said and done, the top ranked states are predictable: Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont. And here’s what is interesting: had the researchers used union membership, per pupil spending, and parent education levels as their primary metrics they would have come up with a similar ranking…. But those variables would undercut their baseline premises.

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Deregulation’s Inevitable Conclusion: Test Scores Don’t Matter

July 24, 2018 Comments off

Diane Ravtich wrote a short post yesterday decrying this “analysis” by the Cato Institute’s Cory DeAngelis decrying the use of test scores to measure the effectiveness of test scores. Here’s Ms. Ravitch’s post in it’s entirety:

For years, for decades, we have been told that the answer to low-scoring public schools was School Choice.

That was until we learned that most charters don’t get higher scores than public schools, and voucher schools actually lead to lower scores.

So school choice advocates now claim that test scores don’t matter, at least not for non-public schools. They are still absolutely essential for public schools, and can be used to stigmatize them and close them down.

But for schools of choice, they just are not all that important. They don’t matter. They only matter for public schools.

Given the libertarian perspective on regulations I am unsurprised at the conclusion that test scores are unimportant. Libertarians don’t believe the government should do anything to interfere with “the market” and that consumers are on their own when they make purchasing decisions. Given their compete faith in “the market”, ANY government regulations are an anathema and any effort to hep consumers make a rational decision are “unfair”. Until faith in government is restored we will continue to witness an erosion of standards.