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

June 9, 2018 Leave a comment

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.

 

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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.

 

Is “Reform” on the Ropes… or Getting Doctored in the Corner Before Coming Out For the KO?

May 10, 2018 Comments off

In the Rocky movies, Sly Stallone inevitably finds himself teetering on the brink of defeat after surprisingly setting his heavy-hitting opponent on his heels. When he wobbles back to the corner at the end of the 14th round, his “corner men” work to stem the bleeding in his facial cuts and encourage him to not give up. As he rises unsteadily on his feet, he looks at his faithful and beloved wife, Adrian, in the first row and is determined to finish the fight with a flourish.

In one of yesterday’s posts, Diane Ravitch draws on a post from Oklahoma teacher John Thompson to support her conclusion (and his) that reform is on its last legs. She opens the post with this:

In case you hadn’t noticed, corporate reform has failed. It is dying. Only money keeps it going. Its true believers know it is dead but they are paid handsomely to pretend there is still a pulse. If they flat out admitted that test-and-punish reform had failed, that privatization was a flop, the money train would go away.

John Thompson, teacher and historian in Oklahoma, reviews what reformers say to keep their spirits alive and their coffers overflowing.

And John Thompson’s post DOES illustrate the fact that many “reformers” acknowledge that despite their belief in the test-and-punish method of school improvement the test scores they insist on using as a metric have not moved at all. But are the reformers going to lose this fight… or will their corner men encourage them to get on their feet and win one for Adrian?

A Washington Post op ed article by Margaret Spelllings and Arne Duncan, two of the corner men for NCLB and RTTT, suggest that “reform” hasn’t failed! All schools need is more “vision… will… and political support”. This conclusion is not surprising given that these two “corner men” believe that children raised in poverty don’t suffer in school because they lack food, clothing or shelter…. they lack grit— the  determination to push ahead despite adversity. And in this op ed piece they call for the creation of a new national coalition to address the “failing” education system:

After decades of momentum across different administrations (sic), all of us believe we’re headed toward another round of unilateral disarmament. Federal education policy is rudderless and adrift.

What, today, is the national priority for K-12 schools? For higher education? What policy proposal exists today that can plausibly achieve the progress we need?

At a moment when students are marching in the streets for their right to a safe, quality education; when teachers across the country are demanding attention and investment from their political leaders; when every economic indicator confirms the growing importance of a sound education in forging a full, productive life, what is our shared national vision for our children?

From what I’ve seen, politicians prefer spending money to protect children from gun owners exercising their rights to acquire weapons designed for warfare to spending money on health care for those same children. They prefer giving tax cuts and tax incentives to corporations to giving living wages to the teachers or decent housing to those who cannot afford a roof over their heads.

But Ms. Spellings and Mr. Duncan don’t want to acknowledge that we have the money we need to improve our schools and we are spending that money on the wrong things. They would rather insist that our vision is warped, our will is weak, and our efforts are lacking… because their “Adrian”, the corporate sponsors of the political leadership, wants things to stay just the way they are in terms of “reform”.

Here’s hoping Apollo Creed wins this fight…

 

In an Era Where Education Policy is Nationalized and Board Races are Funded by Outsiders, Politics and Education are Intertwined

December 29, 2017 Comments off

In a post she wrote yesterday, Diane Ravitch explained why she finds it necessary to be “political” in her blog on public education. She wrote this in response to her being named the most “overtly political thought leader” in public education in 2017:

If you don’t like bad policies, you have to become political.

If you want change, you have to become political.

If you don’t like decisions made by the U.S. Department of Education or your state legislature, you have to be political.

If you don’t like the idea of turning Title 1 and special education funding into a honey pot for vouchers, charters, and home schooling, you must be political.

If your governor and legislature want to privatize education and destroy the teaching profession, you must be political.

If you want to protect children, teachers, and public schools from profiteering predators, you must be political.

I confess.

I am overtly political.

It is a strange role for a scholar and a historian. I am supposed to observe.

But when you observe malfeasance, fraud, lies, propaganda, corruption, and error, you can’t stand by as a detached observer. You just can’t.

You have to get political, get up, act, raise your voice, fight for what you believe in.

That’s why I am political.

When I launched this blog six years ago, I intended to make it apolitical. My career as a public school Superintendent led me to be apolitical, largely because school board races in the states where I worked were non-partisan and political discourse was counterproductive to achieving the goals of the districts where I worked. Though I served on the legislative committees of my State professional organizations during my first 17 years (1981-1997), I seldom felt that out group was fighting against a national movement that opposed public schools. Indeed, the only “national” bills we opposed in that time frame tended to be ones that national Christian organizations attempted to introduce that would limit the ability of counselors to provide services to children, loosen home schooling regulations, and forbid the instruction of “secular humanism”. We tended to weigh in on financial issues, mandates that would expand our curricula without providing additional funds (i.e. teaching animal husbandry to elementary children; requiring all children to receive first aid training; mandating RNs in each school; etc.), and “local bills” that had potential State-wide ramifications. There was no dark money funding local board elections and no billionaires funding national initiatives like the Common Core… and no one in the White House who sought to nationalize assessments. In effect, despite President Reagan’s effort to politicize public education, despite President George H.W. Bush’s efforts to mobilize volunteers to help public schools perform more effectively, and despite Bill Clinton’s efforts to engage the nation in “reform” by passing Goals 2000, public education remained a local and State level issue.

All that changed with NCLB, which created a de facto national assessment for public schools and a de facto national rating system for public schools. As I came to the end of my career, I was appalled when the Obama administration reinforced the test-driven policies that were embedded in NCLB when he used millions in federal funds to launch RTTT, which required the use of tests as the primary metric for measuring school and teacher performance. As Superintendent in NH, wrote a White Paper on the issue that then Commissioner Ginny Barry shared with my colleagues as a basis for determining a response. After lengthy deliberations, NH decided to opt out of the original applications. Ultimately, NH was one of the last states to sign to RTTT, in large measure because school boards and administrators in our state place a high value on local control and are generally suspicious of any top-down mandates— particularly those that do not come with funding.

After retiring in 2011 I launched this blog intending to refrain from interjecting national political issues. But after reading Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch’s book on the movement to privatize public education, and reading extensively about the trends toward privatization, I found politics creeping into my writing. When Mr. Trump was elected, though, all bets were off… particularly when our current Governor, Chris Sununu, replaced the widely respected Ginny Barry with Frank Edelblut, a businessman-turned-politician with no experience overseeing public schools, no children who attended public schools, and a public record that expressed nothing but disdain for teachers and public education.

I DO find political activism to be frustrating, however. My local State legislators, local House member, and both local Senators are wholly supportive of the letters I write and the positions I take… but they are now foreclosed from having any voice as the GOP drafts legislation behind closed doors. I will persist in being political, though, because to do otherwise is to accept the direction our country is headed… and democracy depends on forcing the doors open when legislation is being written, depends on having one’s voice be heard, and depends on engagement when doors are slammed, ears are closed, and dissent is unwelcome.

Alternet Article Reports Confirms This Blogger’s Belief: “Ed Reform” is a Bipartisan Affair

December 16, 2017 Comments off

I read Jake Jacobs December 2 Alternet article on leaks from the Clinton campaign with disgust, dismay… and affirmation. Titled “Leaks Show How Super-Wealthy School Privatizers Sought to Influence Hillary in Lead up to Campaign”, Mr. Jacobs’ article describes how the billionaire donors affected not only the Clinton campaign, but also the Obama administration and the DNC policy. Many who supported Ms. Clinton, including the two major teachers unions, did so on the belief that she would be open to moving away from the test-centric policies put forth by President Bush in NCLB and reinforced by President Obama in Race to the Top. But had they taken their direction from the mantra of Woodward and Bernstein and followed the money, they could have seen that their donations paled in comparison to the hundreds of thousands that the billionaire “reformers” might contribute. And had Ms Clinton not accepted the donations of the billionaire privatizers on the principle that it eroded democracy and efforts to provide equal opportunities for all children she might have created a distinct difference in philosophy between her party and the Republicans.

I am disgusted and dismayed that both major political parties have merged their thinking on public education, using “talking points” thoughtfully provided by “thought leaders” who advise both parties and provide large campaign contributions to ensure that their ideas are incorporated in the party platforms. As Mr. Jacobs writes:

“Donors want to hear where she stands” John Petry, a founder of both Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Success Academy, New York’s largest network of charter schools, told the New York Times.  Petry was explicit, declaring that he and his billionaire associates would instead put money into congressional, state and local races, behind candidates who favored a “more businesslike approach” to education, and tying teacher tenure to standardized test scores.

Clinton’s advisors warned her that wealthy donors like Petry, Whitney Tilson, or Eli Broad could walk if she didn’t support charter schools. Broad would indeed threaten to withhold funding from Clinton when she criticized charter schools for excluding difficult students. John Podesta and Ann O’Leary would publicly correct Clinton, reaffirming her commitment to charters.

The revolving door was also in full swing, with top Clinton and Obama administration officials working for “non-profits” run by Powell Jobs and Tom Steyer. In the end, the influence of the various well-connected “experts” advising Clinton could be felt in an official education platform that endorsed a test-centric approach that was becoming unpopular with parents, students and educators.

And in the end, the notion of running schools in a business-like fashion is a dominant idea in both parties, and the billionaires who advised Ms. Clinton to stay the course on “ed reform” are on their feet and providing “thought leadership” to the Trump administration:

The same cadre of billionaires that tried to steer Clinton towards unpopular pro-testing policies and controversial school privatization schemes are hard at work today. Powell Jobs, for example, has sought greater influence, funding a lavish and high-profile effort to “rethink high school” and acquiring a majority stake in The Atlantic. In July, Powell Jobs was reportedly contacted by Ivanka Trump on behalf of the administration, seeking “advice on shaping funding approaches” for STEM education in public schools.

While Eli Broad may have stepped down from his foundation, his post-disaster playbook of taking advantage of local government paralysis remains alive and well. Efforts to replicate New Orleans’ “amazing story” appear to be thriving in Puerto Rico, where schools were devastated by Hurricane Maria.

The 2014 policy book reveals some essential lessons about how education policy is crafted: in secret, with the input and influence of billionaire donors seeking more school privatization and testing—regardless of what party is in power. Even as the backlash against testing and the Common Core grew, Clinton’s advisors pushed her to embrace them. Clinton vacillated, then fell silent on K-12 policy, and as a result, education issues were largely left out of the election debate. Today, under Trump, privatization marches on worse than ever.

Until and unless the Democratic Party abandons the “businesslike approach” to public education we will perpetuate the poverty that is passed from generation-to-generation and the economic divide will continue to grow.

The Mass Firing of Teachers After Hurricane Katrina Demonstrates TFA’s Achilles Heel… But a Recent USDOE Grant Demonstrates Their Connections

November 17, 2017 Comments off

Following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2004, President Bush and the GOP leadership in Louisiana seized a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-make the public education system in one urban area. As Mercedes Schneider describes in her blog post from earlier this week, following the hurricane the political leaders at the local level fired all the teachers in the city, allowed the collective bargaining agreement for the teachers to expire, and as a consequence, their public schools today have a:

  • Decrease in NOLA teachers with local roots;
  • Increase in teachers with 5 or fewer years of teaching experience;
  • Decrease in teachers with 20 or more years of teaching experience, and
  • Annual rate of teachers exiting Louisiana’s public school classrooms doubling in the decade post-Katrina, with teachers from alternative teacher prep programs and less experience demonstrating higher turnover rates.

And why does NOLA have so many inexperienced teachers? Teach For America (TFA)! As Ms. Schneider explains in her post, after the politicians fired the NOLA teachers, TFA filled their vacancies with their signature short-term staff, and that model increases turnover by design:

TFA promotes teacher attrition.

It asks its recruits to remain in the classroom for two years.

TFA sells its alumni as *educators,* but it does not dare call them “career teachers.” TFA plays a shell game with the American public by making it seem that those who receive temporary training and agree to temporary classroom service are actually benefiting students and their communities. But all that TFA does is guarantee that teacher churn becomes a never-ending reality for the districts that utilize TFA year after year.

So when the USDOE acknowledged there was a problem in NOLA, they decided to offer the school district a $13.1 million dollar grant to solve it. And who received a large chunk of the grant funds? A nola.com article about the $13 million USDOE grant has the answer:

Approximately $3 million of the grant will be used by Teach For America to bring “300 teachers or more” to the city over three years. Teach For America members are required to teach for two years, but (TFA’s interim regional executive director Joy) Okoro said they will “hopefully commit to a lifetime of educational advocacy” in the region.

An organization that requires a two year commitment from teachers and can offer ONLY hope for a commitment to a career in teaching does not seem like a good choice to address turnover, to address the lack of teachers with local roots, or to address the lack of qualified African American teachers. But TFA does assure that the new hires will be unlikely to unionize, will be more likely to follow whatever teach-to-the-test curriculum TFA provides, and will be far less costly in the long run because— well, they’ll leave before they gain seniority or require legacy costs like retirement and health costs.

While TFA is getting $3 million, Relay Graduate School of Education– an TFA spin-off organization designed to provide alternative certification for inexperienced teachers– is getting another $2 million of the grant. As Ms. Schneider explains in her post, Relay barely qualifies as a bona fide graduate program and has a reputation for turning out high-turnover “graduates”. The result of this USDOE decision to give $5 million to TFA and Relay is summarized in Ms. Schneider’s closing paragraphs:

So, one might think of TFA getting a $3 million USDOE teacher-training grant and TFA cousin, Relay, garnering another $2 million.

According to the New Orleans Advocate, “Relay Graduate School will use $2 million of the grant to recruit and develop novice teachers through a teaching residency. Residents serve as apprentice teachers in the first year and transition into lead teachers in the second.”

ERA notes that higher teacher attrition in New Orleans is associated with alt-cert training and less teaching experience. And here we have a teacher temp agency pretending to address teacher retention and a related graduate school that is not a graduate school offering alt-cert.

Add to that the fact that neither TFA nor Relay originate with New Orleans. Both are ed reform transplants that must work to make themselves appear local.

It’s just too good, like paying Chinet to replace heirloom china.

And many of the heirloom teachers with deep roots in NOLA remain out of work…

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

November 15, 2017 Comments off

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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