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Arne Duncan Continues Tour, Amassing Evidence of His Obliviousness

August 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Common Dreams included a reprint of a column by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post titled “Arne Duncan Never Learns“. Ms. Strauss, like most reviewers who do not support his brand of “reform”, was appalled at his opening statement in his new book titled “How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.” That sentence? “Education runs on lies.” Ms. Strauss, ever the thorough researcher, offered a long list of times that Mr. Duncan used that phrase while he was Secretary of Education, and as I read through each one it became clearer and clearer that Mr. Duncan was not only lying to the audience when he uttered these epithets about public education, he was lying to himself and using these lies to buttress his narrative about “failing public schools”, a narrative that does not stand up to scrutiny.

Like earlier columns that review his latest book, Ms. Strauss’ includes highlights of an interview Mr. Duncan conducted, this time with  journalist Margaret Brennan on CBS’s “Face the Nation,.”The interview included this exchange, which includes my highlights:

BRENNAN: So, some colors and personal anecdotes but you also really, it’s not so much about how schools work but really an indictment of how schools aren’t working. It’s a very critical take in this book about the education system, and you say, “the education system runs on lies.” What do you mean by that?

DUNCAN: That’s a tough statement to make. But let me just give you a couple of notes. We say we value education, but we never vote on education. We never hold politicians accountable, local, state, or national level, for getting better results, higher graduation rates, more people graduate from college. We say we value teachers, but we don’t pay teachers. We don’t support them.We don’t mentor them the way they need to do their incredibly important, tough, complex work. And then maybe the toughest lie, for me, Margaret, is that we say we value kids and we’ve raised a generation of young people, teens who have been raised on mass shootings and gun violence. And that simply doesn’t happen in other nations. So I don’t look at what people say. I look at their actions. I’d look at their policies. I’d look at their budgets. And our values don’t reflect that we care about education, we care about teachers or that we truly care about keeping our children safe and free and free of fear.

Ms. Strauss, like me and presumably like most readers of this blog, looked at Mr. Duncan’s actions and was appalled at his ignorance and hypocrisy. First, we ALWAYS vote on education in America by adopting budgets at the local and the State level. Second, most parents assess the quality of their local schools by examining the quality of their child’s experience— not test scores or graduation rates. And, as I HOPE Mr. Duncan realizes, those parents who are engaged in the lives of their children are well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the schools their child attends and work with the schools to make them better. Finally, and most appallingly, when he held the seat as Secretary of Education Mr. Duncan never spoke out about the shootings that took place in the same way as he is now, he never enacted policies or budgets that would help schools serving disadvantaged kids get a good start and have an even playing field, and never supported teachers. Worse than his hypocrisy is his obliviousness. He fails to see that his policies damaged the equity in schools by diverting stimulus funds to assessments and the Common Core, crushed the morale of teachers by using standardized tests to measure their “performance”, and diverted attention away from the need to create the kind of nurturing environment in schools that might reduce the loneliness and alienation children feel.

Ms. Strauss does an excellent job of contrasting the failures of Mr. Duncan’s administration, page-by-page and section-by-section… but her best rejoinder dealt with his insistence that VAM would be a “game changer”:

Ample evidence exists that Duncan’s push for annual standardized testing for high-stakes decisions on teachers, students and schools was destructive and in some cases nonsensical. In some places, teachers were evaluated on students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach simply because test scores had to be used as an evaluation metric.

I do not believe Mr. Duncan intentionally undercut public schools. Rather, he had a narrative about education and how to “fix” it that he clung to steadfastly in the face of accumulating evidence that his “fix” was wrongheaded and destructive. It was his obliviousness more than his incompetence or ignorance that troubles me. When the facts on the ground were not matching his beliefs he chose to ignore them and as a result children and teachers across the nation suffered an extension of the test-and-punish regimen imposed by NCLB, a regimen that is now extended even further into the future at the State level by ESSA.

When President Obama was elected I hoped that NCLB would be replaced. When it was evident that the USDOE would be the beneficiary of stimulus funds, I hoped to see an upgrade to technology infrastructure or a redoubling of the redistribution of funds that was implicit in Title One. Instead, we got Arne Duncan’s RTTT: more tests linked to adverse consequences and less respect for the hard work being done by teachers. Hope vanished… and fear was increased. John McCain would have been happy with Mr. Duncan’s work.

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Arne Duncan Still True Believer in VAM, “Failure” of Public Schools, Standardized Testing

August 9, 2018 Leave a comment

Arne Duncan has written a new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, and he is getting lots of publicity as he tours the country selling his book and the tired ideas in it. Here’s the opening paragraph from a review of his book by Atlantic reporter Alia Wong:

Arne Duncan, the former education secretary under President Barack Obama, has always been more candid than others who’ve served in that role. He’s often used his platform to talk about what he sees as the persistent socioeconomic and racial disparities in access to quality schools. His new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, further cements that reputation. How Schools Work’s first chapter is titled “Lies, Lies Everywhere.” The first sentence: “Education runs on lies.” If one were to create a word cloud of the book, lies would probably pop out as one of the most frequently used words. Duncan writes that even the countless fantastic schools across the country “haven’t managed to defeat the lies that undermine our system so much as they’ve been able to circumvent them.” These lies, according to Duncan, include a culture of setting low expectations for high schoolers who later discover they’re not prepared for the real world, and poorly designed accountability systems that allow teachers to fudge their students’ test-score results.

This paragraph itself is full of canards about public education that only someone who never set foot in a public school could believe. I worked in an urban middle school, a blue collar suburban high school, and a rural high school that served many poor families. The teachers in these schools, even the weakest, had high expectations for their children.

As for the “accountability systems that allow teachers to fudge their test-score results”, I presume he must be referring to the grading systems that allow students to pass a course with a “C” or a “D”, grades that typically require a student to get grades that do not require mastery of ALL the information presented. And the norm-referenced tests that were the backbone of the RTTT “accountability systems” Mr. Duncan imposed on schools that were presumably designed to avoid the “fudging” did nothing to help students. They only reinforced the notion that students were poorly prepared because teachers were lazy and incompetent and did so by providing a sheen of precision.

In the interview with Ms. Wong that accompanied this overview of his book Mr. Duncan DID reveal an understanding of the root cause of “failing” schools… and it isn’t the teachers… it’s parents who are disengaged from the lives of their students, parent’s whose disengagement is often the result of working multiple jobs or, in the worst case, drug and alcohol abuse. Here’s Mr. Duncan’s take:

It’s the parents who aren’t present whose kids you have to worry about even more because those parents just have too much going on in their own lives to be engaged in their children’s education. Those kids are the ones I actually worry about the most.

But, as written frequently in this blog, actions speak louder than words. IF Mr. Duncan believed this as the head of public education in Chicago and then the nation, why did he not take action to provide support for the children of disengaged parents, the children whose performance pulls down the test scores he values so highly and whose ultimate withdrawal from schools increases the drop out rates he blames on “the system”?

Mr. Duncan’s perspective on gun violence was also on point. But like his views on the problems presented by disengaged parents, it’s a perspective he failed to share when he led the nation’s schools:

I talk a lot about gun violence—it’s what I’m dealing with in Chicago all the time; it unfortunately shaped me as a kid; we saw it in the Sandy Hook massacre, which happened when I was education secretary. There’s no political leader who says they don’t value kids, but the truth is: we value guns more than we value the lives of our children .And that is irrefutable if you look at the rates of gun deaths in the U.S. compared to other nations that make other policy choices.

Mr. Duncan purports to be one who perceives education as a great equalizer and one who attempts to use data to help him see what works and what doesn’t work. I wish that as Secretary of Education emeritus he would take a dispassion look at the true impact of RTTT and acknowledge that it was a doubling down on NCLB, a program he viewed as “horribly constructed.” I wish he would acknowledge that the standardized tests he advocated were not constructed to perform the VAM he mandated and resulted in the discrediting of the teaching profession. I wish that he would trumpet the need for programs to support parents who “…just have too much going on in their own lives to be engaged in their children’s education” and speak out against the politicians who value guns more than we value the lives of our children. Finally, I wish he would acknowledge that the programs he advocates, the expansion of choice and charters, reward those parents who are engaged in the lives of their children, sidestep the need for a larger investment in the safety net, and divert needed funds away from public schools.

Tennessee’s Faith in Testing is Based on the Flawed Premise that More Money is Unnecessary

August 2, 2018 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday decrying the “colossal failure” of the school district comprised of the “failing schools” taken over by the state, a district that received millions of dollars from Race to the Top to replace “failing” public schools with charters. There’s only one problem, as noted in the Chalkbeat article that was the basis for Ms. Ravitch’s post: low-performing schools operated by Shelby County Schools, where most of the “failing schools” taken over by the state are located, have outpaced progress of those run by the state! 

The agreeable fantasy that a “state takeover” of “failing schools” or the outsourcing of those same schools to deregulated charter schools would lead to their “improvement” underpins virtually all federal and state legislation. It also underpins the reform movement and leads to other agreeable fantasies promoted by reformers. These agreeable fantasies enable politicians to dodge the need for legislation that would either require them to raise more money for public education or divert the money already allocated to less affluent districts. It also enabled them to adopt other ideas based on magical thinking, ideas that don’t require more money but result in “improvement”. Ideas like: firing “bad teachers” would improve “failing schools”; or, “adopting a uniform curriculum” would improve the teaching and learning in “failing schools”; or “eliminating frills” would direct more resources “to the classroom”; or implementing merit pay plans that would reward the “best and brightest teachers” and withhold raises from “weak teachers” thereby “improving failing schools”; or implementing programs that “increase the grit” of students raised in poverty to help them overcome the adversity they face. None of these ideas require more money and all of them directly or indirectly scapegoat the teachers who work tirelessly to improve their “failing” schools.

But the biggest agreeable fantasy is that statewide standardized norm referenced tests are the best means of measuring the “quality of education”… and, as we are witnessing, the state that gave us value added testing has tremendous faith in that fantasy… and. alas, so do most voters across the country despite the accumulating evidence to the contrary.

Atlantic Article Advises Against Aggregating Nation’s Schools

July 31, 2018 Comments off

Earlier this month, Atlantic writer Jack Schneider wrote an article urging our nation to stop thinking of “America’s Schools” as a monolith, arguing that in doing so we are doing more harm than good. At the outset of his essay. Mr. Schneider identified A Nation at Risk as the the point when we established “…a new way of talking about public education in the United States, a master narrative that has endured — and even subtly changed American education policy for the worse — over the past several decades.” That “master narrative” is that public education is a monolith and that it is “failing”. But Mr. Schneider asserts that this is not the case at all:

The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. Consider the issue of funding. On average, federal money accounts for less than 10 percent of education budgets across the country, and the rest of the financial responsibility falls to states and local schools. If local schools are unable to raise what they need, the state is usually well positioned to make up the difference, but states differ dramatically in their approaches. On average, states spend roughly $13,000 per student on public education — but looking at the average alone is misleading. Only about half of states spend anything close to that figure: A dozen spend 25 percent more than the national average, and 10 states spend 25 percent less. The result is significant disparities, and some striking incongruities. New York’s schools, for instance, spend roughly three times as much per student as Utah’s schools — a huge difference, even after accounting for New York’s higher cost of living.

And once the “collective conscience” of the politicians was roused by A Nation at Risk, both political parties bought into the “failing schools” narrative and began imposing one-size-fits-all solutions to the monolith, ignoring the reality that funding was hugely disparate and the policies governing schools resided in state and local governments. But Mr. Schneider does see a value in looking at public education as a national issue.

This is not to say that taking the national perspective can’t be valuable. Troubling patterns do exist across the U.S., and discussions about them can play an important role in shaping both public understanding and education policy. Achievement gaps across race and class, for instance, are an important reminder of broader social and economic inequalities, and advocates have used evidence about those patterns to make the case for universal early-childhood education. Similarly, a national dialogue about the disproportionate punishment of black and brown children in schools has drawn attention to an issue that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. These kinds of broad conversations can generate both political will and policy responses.

But, alas, while these kinds of broad conversations CAN generate political will and policy responses, they have not done so thus far. Instead, they’ve generated policy responses like NCLB, Race to the Top, and ESSA, all of which use standardized testing to reinforce the notion that public education is a monolith and it is failing. Mr. Schneider concludes his essay with this question:

The authors of “A Nation at Risk” concluded their report with a simple claim: “Education should be at the top of the Nation’s agenda.” And in creating a new kind of school-reform rhetoric, they seem to have achieved their aim. The question is, has it done more harm than good?

The answer is clear: it has done far more harm than good.

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Open mindedness Essential for Democracy and Capitalism but Under-emphasized in test-driven schools

June 30, 2018 1 comment

Bad Metrics Not Limited to Education: Employment Rates Mis-measure Our Economy Too

June 9, 2018 Comments off

Earlier this week, President Trump effectively released the employment figures before the official announcement and, in so doing, reinforced the notion that low unemployment rates are a sign of economic well-being. But, as Paul Constant wrote in Civic Skunk Works immediately after the release of the employment figures, that is not necessarily the case and, of late, has increasingly NOT been the case. Here’s the nub of his argument:

…if you just report on numbers, it’s very easy to fall into a Trump-friendly video-game mindset, in which larger numbers are an unalloyed good to be accrued at all costs…all these… journalists didn’t ask the most important question of all: we know the quantity of jobs. But what about the quality of those jobs?

Mr. Constant then produces reams of evidence that the quality of jobs in the “new economy” is awful:

As Derek Thompson argued at The Atlantic back in 2012, America’s postwar economy has shifted dramatically. Since the 1950s, he reports, “The manufacturing/agriculture economy shrunk from 33% to 12%, and the services economy grew from 24% to 50%.” And as most anyone who’s worked in the service economy knows, there are an awful lot of awful jobs—low-wage, part-time, no-benefit kinds of jobs—in service.

But this is not just about Walmart. Service jobs don’t have to suck—and many don’t. But I could sit here and list stats all weekend long proving that quality jobs in America are disappearing:

And on and on and on.

The fact is, sometimes in the 1970s America made the switch from high-quality, high-wage employment to low-quality, low-wage employment—and the shift is getting progressively worse.It’s gotten so bad that Axios recently revealed that CEOs openly admitted that the American worker isn’t getting a cut of the economic prosperity anytime soon: “executives of big U.S. companies suggest that the days of most people getting a pay raise are over, and that they also plan to reduce their work forces further.”

The report that Donald Trump touted today only counted the number of jobs created, not the quality of those jobs.

The truth is, this isn’t a jobs story at all. It’s an inequality story.

Mr. Constant concludes his essay with this compelling insight:

By blindly promoting economics numbers as though the highest score is all that matters, we as Americans are agreeing that the most important thing, above all else, is being employed. Never mind if you have to work two or three part-time gigs to pay the rent. Never mind if none of your employers provide health insurance. Never mind that workers are too tired and stretched too thin to find a new job, or to get training that might improve their conditions. Never mind that jobs which were once considered good careers are now paid a pittance.

When we blare the news of a great new jobs report—no matter which party is in power—we are advancing the narrative that as long as we hit our marks, nothing else matters. A job is a job is a job is a job.

Except that’s not true. Gradually, over the last half-decade, and without our consent, the deal has changed. Eventually, no amount of deft media manipulation will be able to hide that fact.

What does this have to do with public education policy? A paraphrase of that first paragraph answers that question:

By blindly promoting standardized test scores as though the highest score is all that matters, we as Americans are agreeing that the most important thing, above all else, is doing well on those tests. Never mind if you forfeit art, music, PE, and play for test preparation. Never mind if none of your school excludes students who score poorly on tests. Never mind that students are taught only what can be tested and fail to learn the soft skills that are needed in a well functioning democracy. Never mind that in the quest for high test scores we sacrifice childhood completely. 

Gradually, over the last decade-and-a-half we have made a decision to conflate good schools with high test scores and no amount to deft media manipulation can hide that fact.

 

HS Music a Victim of Small HS Movement, Charters, NCLB… and $$$

May 14, 2018 Comments off

As one who enjoys performing in community musicals, singing in choral gross, and playing guitar in ad hoc pick up groups, I was disheartened to read about the decline of high school bands in yesterday’s NYTimes. Times writers Sam Bloch and Kate Taylor’s article on the state of music programs in NYC schools attributes the decline to three factors: the decision to break large comprehensive HSs into smaller schools; an emphasis on charters, and NCLB.

The article doesn’t say so, but the Bloomberg administration’s decision to break large HSs into smaller units was part of a Gates initiative that has had mixed results. After advocating smaller high schools for nearly a decade, the Gates Foundation has backed away from that recommended course of action because it did not achieve the expected results. And while the Times writers report that the five small high schools that are now housed in a former comprehensive high school have better graduation rates, they note that the fragmentation caused the demise of three large bands and the de facto elimination of music altogether:

But one downside of the new, small schools is that it is much harder for them to offer specialized programs, whether advanced classes, sports teams, or art or music classes, than it was for the large schools that they replaced. In the case of music, a robust program requires a large student body, and the money that comes with it, to offer a sequence of classes that allows students to progress from level to level, ultimately playing in a large ensemble where they will learn a challenging repertoire and get a taste of what it would be like to play in college or professionally.

But there is no reason a “small” high school needs to sacrifice a music program…. unless the emphasis of the smaller school precludes music, which seems to be the case in NYC. Mr. Bloch and Ms. Taylor describe the forces that combined to undercut music programs in NYC:

In the early 2000s, federal pressure from No Child Left Behind legislation led urban school districts to focus more heavily on math and reading instruction, to the detriment of arts classes. In New York City, Project Arts was dissolved, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg began breaking up the city’s dropout factories.

The new, smaller schools have a hard time offering specialized programs, whether music or sports. Some principals say that, while they would like to be able to offer music programs, they have to prioritize core academic subjects.

Sandra Burgos, the principal of Astor Collegiate Academy, a school of 481 students on the second floor of the Columbus campus, said that she would love to hire a music teacher, but with limited resources — only 28 teachers and 17 classrooms — she feels it’s more important to offer science, technology, engineering and math courses.

The article incorporates a national perspective on music participation, an analysis fails to look deeply at the underlying problem:

Nationwide, high school music participation has “stayed relatively stable over the last 20 years or so,” said Mike Blakeslee, executive director of the National Association for Music Education. But there are significant variations between districts, with districts with more small schools and charter schools falling behind in music participation.

The smaller schools have a hard time fielding concert bands that can perform classical compositions with parts for dozens of instruments. Those arrangements, educators agree, improve individual musicianship, challenge students and prepare them for continued study. In many cases, students who audition for conservatories must perform from a classical repertoire.

What the executive director for music fails to emphasize is this: many schools that would be “small” by NYC standards DO offer comprehensive music programs because parents can afford private music lessons… but “small” schools serving disadvantaged students cannot provide access to bands and orchestras because the students do not have the opportunity to get lessons and, in all probability, do not reside in communities where choral singing groups are available for youngsters. In music as in all academic disciplines, equal opportunities will not be a reality until funding equity is a reality.