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Washington Post’s Narrative of School Reform Movement is Flawed, But It’s Conclusion is Accurate: Reform Failed

March 19, 2020 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Washington Post featured an extended article by Kevin Carey on public education titled “The Demise of the Great Education Saviors“. It’s subtitle explains who the saviors were support to be:

Charter schools and testing were supposed to right historic wrongs.                                                                 Now they’ve run out of political steam. What happened?

Having lived through all of the history in the article and served as a public school administrator during the period of history Mr. Carey described, I found his narrative flawed. He oversold the virtues of testing asserting that Robert Kennedy saw testing as a means of achieving equitable outcomes in the face of districts who were fighting against school segregation, downplaying the GOP’s privatization agenda, dissociating the Common Core from Bill Gates misguided philanthropy, and insinuating that the virtues of competition could still save the day. Despite these flaws, his story ends with a clear and accurate conclusion: the reform movement failed.

And I also think Mr. Carey did a decent job of answering his question about “what happened?” in two key sections of the story he weaves. The first section offered an anecdote about Shannon Carey, an Oakland CA teacher who worked in a segregated and struggling elementary school beginning in 1992. After describing how Ms. Carey’s elementary school eliminated after school enrichment programs in favor of an extended school day and doubled the amount of math instruction, he offers this insight:

“For the record,” Carey says, “my teacher friends and I knew it was terrible from the start. These carrots and sticks with adults who were working in underfunded schools with 32 students per classroom? Really? You’re going to punish us for our migrant students who learned English two years ago, their test scores? It was very clear that it was setting us up to restructure. For privatization.”

…Teachers like Shannon Carey and her friends and millions like them sensed mistrust in how NCLB spoke to them. They felt infantilized and disrespected. Because the law did so little to fix the financial and social inequality baked into the education system and the larger society, they felt set up to fail. So they rejected it, in ways large and small.

Mr. Carey countered Ms. Carey’s contention that NCLB’s intent was to restructure and privatize by offering statistics on how few schools were actually closed— a misleading data point since the restructuring more frequently took the form of offering students the “choice” to attend a charter school. It is noteworthy that Mr. Carey offered no rejoinder to the sense teachers had that they “felt infantilized and disrespected”. Nor did he offer a rejoinder to their sense that they were “set up to fail” because “the law failed to fix the financial and social inequality baked into the education system and the larger society“. I suppose being of a quantitive mind Mr. Carey diminished these “feelings”… but in the case of the feelings they had of being set up, the facts are that neither NCLB or RTTT did anything to redress the “financial and social inequality baked into the education system and the larger society” and because of this oversight (or, less charitably, negligence) on the part of lawmakers, teachers in schools like the one where Ms. Carey taught WERE in fact punished for the low test scores their migrant students achieved… and likewise NYC teachers in schools serving a large population of homeless children whose absentee rates were high were punished… and teachers in underfunded schools in property poor districts were punished… In the meantime, teachers in affluent districts like the one I led from 2004-2011 paid no attention to minimum competency tests whatsoever because there was never any danger that they would be placed on a “watch list” for an extended time period. The result? While districts proximate to mine were struggling to maintain reasonable pupil-teacher ratios we were debating whether to offer swimming and rowing as interscholastic sports.

The second telling section of Mr. Carey’s article came at the end, where he described the status of the Education Trust, the school reform think tank he worked for from 2002-2005… and whose credo he still seems to believe— with some notable caveats, which I highlighted in bold red italics!

The Education Trust is now run by Obama’s second education secretary, John B. King Jr., a former schoolteacher, charter-school leader and New York state commissioner of education. “I’m more optimistic than many about the future of school reform,” he told me. For all the political controversy around the Common Core, he notes, 41 states and the District of Columbia remain on board.

King believes that accountability can succeed if it works alongside other critical changes, including more-equitable funding, higher-quality curriculums and better training for teachers. He points to a recent bipartisan deal in Massachusetts to boost school funding alongside accountability for student learning. States including Texas and California have taken advantage of the decade-long economic expansion to send large sums to high-poverty schools. Others may follow suit. King’s is a more pragmatic and incremental approach to improving education, one that recognizes, and pays, the price of democracy that confronted Robert Kennedy in 1965.

Of course with the Dow declining precipitously and unemployment forecast to rise to 20% it appears the “decade-long economic expansion” is over… and with it the other critical changes Mr. Kind calls for are likely to disappear as well… Here’s hoping the reform movement disappears with it…

Diane Ravitch Accurately Eviscerated Test-Based “Reformers”

February 1, 2020 Comments off

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Nearly 20 years after NCLB, RTT, and now Betsy DeVos there’s been no progress made in the improvement of public schools as measured by test results… and this is the case even though the schools directed all their time and energy and instruction toward the tests! This comes as no surprise since the correlation between poverty and test scores has been well established for over 50 years and the low spending on those schools has persisted.

Will anything change in the future? Doubtful given our obsession with spreadsheets and low taxes.

Good News in Massachusetts: A Commitment to Funding Equity Paid Off

January 29, 2020 Comments off

Earlier this month, Bloomberg News reporter Andrea Gabor wrote an article describing the recent implementation of Massachusetts’ financing bill  titled:

School Wars Are Over in Massachusetts. Everybody Won.

The subtitle of the article elaborates on the heading with even MORE good news from this blogger’s perspective:

A bipartisan agreement to boost financing, especially for poor districts,                                                                    marks a retreat from top-down reforms and the spread of charter schools.

From my perspective, the two headlines and the accompanying article underscore the reality that bipartisanship is the only avenue for accomplishing the kinds of funding equity every State constitution aspires to. In her essay, Ms. Gabor describes how a bi-partisan 1993 bill established rigorous standards for all schools and provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund an equity formula. It goes on to describe how a tax cut in the early 2000s undercut the funding required to maintain the equity elements of the formula and the Obama stimulus compelled the state to replace it’s holistic standards for ones based almost solely on standardized tests. Once the recent ESSA legislation gave the states some degree of flexibility in setting standards, the Democratic Massachusetts legislature passed a bill the Republican Governor signed that effectively replicated the accountability and funding put in place in 1993. Ms. Gabor concludes her article with this synopsis of the legislation passed last years, with the especially heartening information about the bill highlighted:

After two decades of reforms that focused on expanding standardized tests and charter schools with disappointing results — scores mostly declined on the latest NAEP test — a few states, including Michigan and Rhode Island, are looking to Massachusetts as a model. Unfortunately, they are trying to achieve improvement via tests and state intervention in underperforming districts without the extra funding that made Massachusetts successful.

Ultimately, it is voters who will have to press legislators to spend more on schools and to distribute the money to communities with the fewest resources. Just months before passage of the Massachusetts law, 58 percent of the state’s voters said they were willing to pay higher taxes to reduce education disparities and a majority said they would give up some funding in their own districts if it meant more money for the most disadvantaged communities.

I find it hard to believe that a majority of any state’s voters would be so cold hearted that they would not be willing to share their wealth with those less fortunate. I hope that those running for office in 2020 will address this need in the forthcoming elections at all levels of government.

Diane Ravitch Savages “Reformers” and “Disruptors” in her New Book

January 18, 2020 Comments off

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Forbes writer and public education resistance fighter Peter Greene’s paean to Diane Ravitch provides a good overview of her clear-headed thinking and the muddled thinking of what she calls this disruption movement. And what is that movement?

The disruption movement has given us charter schools, high stakes testing, and the de-professionalization of teaching. It has used the real problems of inequity and underserved communities to justify false solutions.

In his review of her forthcoming book Mr. Greene contrasts the “reformers” embrace of Taylor’s standardization with Deming’s Total Quality Management and laments the victory of Taylor in this war of ideas. Like Diane Ravitch, Peter Greene seems to think the tide is turning. I hope they are right….

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

January 8, 2020 Comments off

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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.

If It’s Booker vs. Trump? I May Seriously Consider “None of the Above”

March 11, 2019 Comments off

A number of friends I know who do not follow the privatization movement closely see Cory Booker as a viable alternative to Donald Trump. An eloquent African-American who embodies racial justice and has ascended the political ladder from Mayor of Newark to U.S. Senator, Mr. Booker is the heir apparent to the Clinton-Gore-Obama legacy of centrism in the Democratic Party— a level headed moderate. But, as Jacobin writer Eric Blanc reports in his bluntly titled article “Cory Booker Hates Public Schools” Mr. Booker is really the embodiment of neoliberalism, a candidate who fully embraced every element of the so-called “school reform movement”, and— therefore— is a candidate who would attract both Wall Street and Silicon Valley backing.

I am among many voters who begrudgingly cast a vote for Hillary Clinton knowing that such a vote effectively endorsed the Obama-Duncan legacy but fearing (rightly as it turned out) that Donald Trump’s direction for public education would be even worse. If Mr. Booker is the nominee for the Democrats, who can public educators– or for that matter any public employees– turn to?

Over the past two decades I’ve witnessed NCLB, RTTT, and now ESSA, take instructional decisions out of the hands of teachers and put them in the hands of those who design standardized tests. At the same time, governance decisions about public education moved from local school boards to the State Houses who favor test-and-punish methods and free market solutions to public schools. Ultimately vouchers will enable all but the neediest parents to abandon public education in favor of sectarian and/or high-priced private schools… and while those schools will be free from the constraints of teaching-to-the-test the public schools will continue to be “measured” by standardized tests linked to age-based grade-level cohorts.

Given the devolution of public schools under GOP and neoliberal leaders, I may well cast a vote for none-of-the-above if I am faced with Booker vs. Trump. I await some kind of word from the other Democratic candidates on their positions on public education… but do so in dread for I fear that the “reform” movement has captured the imagination of voters.

Cory Booker Has Background, Talent to be President. Too Bad He Opposes Public Education

February 6, 2019 Comments off

For those who follow politics but do not appreciate the devastating impact of privatization, Cory Booker seems like a candidate for President in the mold of Barack Obama: an articulate African American with his roots in urban reform and a steady ascent up the political ladder. But there is one other area where Cory Booker has an unsettling resemblance to Barack Obama: his desire to privatize public education and, consequently, his embrace of ideas akin to those of Betsy DeVos and— yes— Arne Duncan.

For those readers who believe that a Cory Booker candidacy would improve the state of public schools, I urge you to read and bookmark this article by Jacobin’s Eric Blanc. The title, “Cory Booker Hates Pulic Schools” gives you some idea of the contents.