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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…

Some Positive Consequences of Covid 19: SATs and State Standardized Tests Cancelled

March 17, 2020 Leave a comment

CNN reported today that the College Board announced it is cancelling the May administration of the SAT and that the ACT, which also administers college placement exams in the US, announced similar measures regarding its April test. This won’t necessarily mean the end of the use of SATs and ACTs as screening for college entry, but if students are unable to take the tests and report their scores to colleges it might accelerate the movement away from their widespread us.

And SATs are not the only standardized tests to go by the boards. Both Texas and Washington State announced that they were cancelling the administration of their standardized tests. And Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post suggests that more cancellations of tests may be in the offing:

At least 33 states and the District have closed schools, many in the middle of spring standardized testing season. States use the results for different purposes, including to meet a federal testing mandate designed to assess how schools are helping students learn. There are other tests, too, including for high school graduation, third-grade retention and school voucher eligibility.

As with the SATs and ACTs, this won’t necessarily mean the end of the use of these tests for “…high school graduation, third-grade retention and school voucher eligibility” forever… but it will allow legislators to pause and MAYBE hit the reset button on their use.

 

Our Emerging National Experiment on On-Line Learning

March 13, 2020 Comments off

If we had a functional United States Department of Education, they would be working feverishly to devise some kind of means of measuring the impact of a national experiment we are about to embark on. As most readers of this blog undoubtedly realize, as of today four states have cancelled classes and scores of colleges– including some the “brand name” universities— are cancelling their spring semesters. All of these educational institutions, from Harvard to rural schools in Michigan, are offering on-line instruction in lieu of the traditional on-campus model. The billion dollar question for schools and colleges is this: will having students take course on-line make any difference in what they learn? The answer is that given our crude means of measuring “what students learn” we will never know.

Because our primary metric for measuring learning is the standardized test, and since on-line instruction can be targeted to the kinds of content that is readily measured on those tests, it is entirely possible that children learning on screens at home will do at least as well on these tests as children who were taught at school. Should that be the result, I can imagine advocates of virtual learning will use it as evidence that on-line learning is as good as traditional learning and advocates of efficiency will see it as evidence that we are spending needlessly.

But offering online courses as an alternative has one major self-evident drawback: high speed internet is not universally available or affordable. I live five miles away from Dartmouth College by car but cannot get broadband and my cell phone gets one bar indoors and two bars in my driveway. I have a dsl connection but need to pay a premium price for it, a price that might not be affordable if I were making even $15/hour. Online learning that consists of more than electronic spreadsheets, then, is not available for all children in same way as traditional brick-and-mortar instruction.

But there is another side to this experiment that cannot be overlooked: public schools do far more than educate children to do well on standardized tests. As Business Insider reports, one result of the closure of schools is that millions of children will no longer have access to the free meals served in public schools. For the 11 million children who come from food insecure homes this will compromise their health as surely as being exposed to classmates with Covid-19. Absent any clear protocols from the federal government, states and/or local school districts are left to fend for themselves in developing a means of providing meals for children who will otherwise go hungry. And schools do more than provide nutritious meals. They provide medical assistance, counseling, and psychological support for children that might otherwise be lacking.

Another practical issue for working parents is that public schools provide childcare. If schools close due to weather cancellations, many working parents scramble to get short-term coverage for their children or take personal leave if it is possible for them. If schools are closed for an extended period of time, how will working parents cope? And if parents are working from home who will get the use of the bandwidth?

And finally, schools an colleges employ thousands. If schools close and on-line instruction is offered, some contest teachers will presumably oversee the online instruction in some fashion. But will ALL the teachers be needed? And what will happen to bus drivers? Cafeteria workers? The custodial and maintenance staff? Will their fate be determined on a district-by-district basis or will state or federal guidelines be developed?

We are embarking on a massive experiment in the way we educate children and we are flying blind as we do so. But we may learn some valuable lessons as a result of this experiment. We may begin to appreciate that standardized tests fail to measure what is important about public schools. We may begin to appreciate the expanded mission of public schools. We may begin to appreciate the social benefits children get from interacting with their peers. And we may appreciate the key role public education plays in the local and national economy. And finally, we may appreciate the need to provide for those children who would not receive three meals a day, a warm room, or encouragement if it were not for their local schools.

 

No Surprise: Chicago Teachers “Game” NWEA Accountability Test

February 25, 2020 Comments off

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The Chicago Tribune article above describes several instances where teachers “gamed” the NWEA tests. The NWEA tests, originally designed as formative assessments to measure individual student growth, were used for different purposes in Chicago:

Students who took more than six hours on the test — which measures growth and in CPS can also factor into high school admissions, school ratings and teacher performance reviews — were nearly seven times as likely as the average student in CPS to show “unusually large gains,” according to Inspector General Nicholas Schuler’s report.

It should come as no surprise that the teachers would intervene when a misused test is the basis for their continued employment AND their students’ future. But the tests are cheap, fast and easy!

Civics Education Destroyed by Tests and Partisan Politics

February 22, 2020 Comments off

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This Forbes article laments the failure of today’s students to understand basic civics facts and lays the blame on schools… but if schools are ultimately measured by standardized tests that neglect civics and policy makers can’t achieve consensus on what facts students should know and the purpose of government please don’t hold teachers accountable. Like most in my generation I learned a lot of misinformation about government… but I did learn some fundamental facts that have not changed no matter how the Constitution is interpreted.

Conservatives Discover Mastery Learning, the Flaws in the Carnegie Unit… Can Their Abandonment of Standardized Tests be Far Behind?

February 18, 2020 Comments off

I make every effort to read every perspective possible in my education feed, and as a result I received an article from The Hill by Margaret “Macke” Raymond titled “The Diploma Dilemma”. Ms. Raymond, who is the founder and director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University recently authored a policy briefing of the same name as part of the Hoover Education Success Initiative. And what is the dilemma as Ms. Raymond sees it?

Despite evidence that our students’ performance is flat or declining on many levels, our high school graduation rates have continued to rise significantly over the past six years. This paradox may not be widely known or understood, as politicians and policymakers have consistently trumpeted the steady rise of graduation rates. The casual observer would be led to believe that public education is improving because more students are being granted a diploma.

The truth is, in most states, there is a critical chasm between the rising graduation rate and the underlying knowledge and skills of large shares of degree holders. Many students, especially low-income students and students of color, are inadequately prepared to take the first step of college, training, military service or employment, let alone have the foundational knowledge needed to improve their lives in the future.

The truth is that US public schools are not as bad as standardized tests make the out to be or as good as graduation rates make them out to be… except for those underfunded schools serving low income students and students of color. The data on this truth have been evident for generations and yet nothing has been done to address it. After decrying softer grading standards, seat time as a metric, and “low expectations”, Ms. Raymond offers this idea to close the gaps at the high school level:

So what’s needed? States and school districts need mastery-based approaches to capturing and rewarding high school learning to ensure that students earn a high school diploma that provides a fair and clear signal of its value. Better and more frequent measures of high school students and courses would illuminate the pathways that students follow, and the benefits gained from them.  Linking course passing with known requirements for post-high school options will improve the success that holders of a U.S. high school diploma can achieve. In order to realize these things for our students, school systems leaders will invariably be placed in a diploma dilemma —strengthening requirements will almost certainly mean falling graduation rates in the short-term. 

Ms. Raymond’s prescription sounds very familiar to this blogger. In the early 1990s I attempted to launch a district-wide initiative called “Teaching for Mastery” based on the premise that TIME needed to be the variable and LEARNING needed to be the constant. Here’s what I learned from that experience: changing the dominant paradigm as a Superintendent was beyond my reach. Indeed, Ms. Raymond seems to miss the entire point of mastery learning, which is that TIME must be a variable if LEARNING is constant and so time-driven metrics like standardized testing and graduation rates tied to a student’s age are meaningless.

Our current system was implemented in the 1920s and it was designed to sort and select students with no regard or expectation that ALL students would master the K-12 curriculum. There was an expectation that many of not most students would fall short of the standards and find work in the fields or factories. And thanks to labor unions many of those jobs paid well and enabled workers to have good life. That economic paradigm disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s and it isn’t coming back any tie soon. When oh when will our education paradigm change? When will TIME be a variable and LEARNING constant?

The Reading Wars AGAIN??? When Will We Look at the Metrics Instead of the Results?

February 17, 2020 Comments off

Here we go again… according to a recent NYTimes article by Dana Goldstein the reading wars are beginning anew! As a retired school Superintendent I’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends… lotos of pointless debates about The One Best Way to teach reading despite the reality that all children learn differently AND at different rates.

Alas, too many policy makers overlook the real issue, which is the metric we use. We define “failure” based on standardized tests, tests based on the assumption that students within an age cohort all learn at the same rate. Tests explicitly designed to sort those students based on their rate of learning on a predetermined set of reading “skills” that can be readily measured by a multiple choice test.

This just in: students develop at different rates physically and intellectually. Schools began grouping students by age in the name of efficiency in the 1920s and began testing them in these cohorts in earnest after World War II. In the name of “efficiency” we also instruct students in the same content in large groups— the chanting of “Tuh! Ah! Puh!” as descried in Ms. Goldstein’s article is a classic example.

In the 1920s we did not have the capability to provide tailored instruction to students when they were ready to learn it. Technology gives us the tools to do this now…. why are we arguing over test scores based on the assumption that all children learn the same way at the same rate?