Nation education writer Dana Goldstein wrote a comprehensive and, to my way of thinking, mostly accurate synopsis of public education trends during the Obama presidency. She opened her article with a description of how Mr. Obama began his term of office aligning with the so-called “bi-partisan” reform group but conclude his term of office with a better understanding: he saw that public education’s problems could not be separated from the problem of childhood poverty:
Only since 2014 has there been a détente in what many, myself included, termed the “teacher wars.”Grassroots activism from the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as from tens of thousands of parents who opted their children out of standardized testing, helped shift the terms of the debate. We now talk almost as much about school discipline, unequal school funding, and school segregation as we do about low test scores and teacher tenure. It’s a profound change in rhetoric.
Ms. Goldstein speculated that this change in rhetoric would have continued had Ms. Clinton been elected, but is very pessimistic bout the chances that Mr. Trump will pick up on this line of thinking.
The article then detailed Mr. Obama’s horrific decision to institute Race to the Top, which is described in objective and deservedly critical terms:
Race to the Top told states and school districts that if they wanted a share of the $4 billion in discretionary federal dollars, they would need to evaluate teachers using “evidence of student learning” (generally, test scores). They would also need to weaken tenure protections to remove underperforming teachers; lift caps on the number of independently operated charter schools allowed to open; and “turn around” failing schools, sometimes by removing veteran teachers and principals or handing the schools over to charter operators. There were no new federal incentives for desegregating schools, or for equalizing funding between those that served rich and poor children.
“Given [that Obama] took office at the height of the recession,” says Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University, “the most surprising thing was that he didn’t acknowledge the poverty that schools were dealing with. [His administration] never said schools are overwhelmed by kids who are hungry, whose parents lost their homes, lost their jobs…. Instead, they kind of kept on the same path that Bush had been on, emphasizing standards and accountability and accelerating it by calling for more school closures, replacing teachers and principals. They seized on very simplistic solutions to complex problems.”
Test, punish, repeat. This was the algorithm recommended by the reformers, a group Ms. Goldstein mischaracterizes as “bi-partisan”. From my perspective this group was not partisan in any sense of the word. Instead, they were seeking some means of privatizing public education, creating an “open marketplace” to replace the “monopoly” because “everyone knows” that markets will reward the best and drive out the worst.
Ms. Goldstein then recapped the unintended consequences of Race to the Top, noting that by the time 2014 came around everyone associated with public education was dismayed by the emphasis on test scores (no surprise given that teacher’s employment often depended on test results), and both the right and the left opposed the Common Core that was the basis for the tests. The left hated it because it invariably led to narrow and dumbed-down tests, the right because it was an example of federal intrusion on local schools.
Ms. Goldstein’s biggest errors in reporting appear near the end of the article where she presents ESSA as legislation that will put an end to testing. She writes:
Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind. ESSA continues to require annual testing in reading and math, but removes pressure for all teachers to be evaluated using student test scores. The law asks states to judge school quality in new ways, by considering student-discipline policies and whether all kids have access to advanced courses.
With new research showing that poor children who attend schools with higher per-pupil funding outperform those whose schools have less cash, Obama has also sought to influence how states and municipalities fund schools. This year, he proposed a regulation that would withhold ESSA money from states and school districts that send more local dollars to schools serving affluent children than poor ones. Congressional Republicans and many local education officials from both parties are resisting the regulation, known as “supplement, not supplant.” It is simply impossible to imagine President-elect Trump, who campaigned on the premise of local control of education, continuing Obama’s fight on this front.
As readers of this blog know, I believe ESSA is grossly oversold as a means of eliminating and over-emphasizing testing. It removes pressure for all teachers to be evaluated using test scores based on a Federal mandate, but does not in any way discourage the use of tests to evaluate teachers and, given the preponderance of Republican Governors it is foolish to believe that there will be a wholesale abandonment of Value Added Measure. And without the supplement-vs-supplant” regulations there will be nothing to limit the use of federal funds to displace State and local funds.
I completely agree with Ms. Goldstein’s description of what went wrong with the Obama administration when it came to public education, but I don’t believe Mr. Obama EVER gave full-throated support to the notion that more money was needed to help children raised in poverty… nor did he ever give public educators, administrators, and Board members the credit they richly deserve for their hard work in the face of fiscal and psychological adversity. Mr. Obama offered way to little way too late….
Last month, Elizabeth Harris wrote an article in the NYTimes on a far reaching decision rendered by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher, who issued a 200+ page ruling on that state’s funding formula. Mr. Harris’ article focussed on the primary issue that faced the judge, the fairness of funding, and noted in passing some of the other issues the judge touched on in his lengthy decision.
Last weekend, Wendy Lecker, a Hearst Connecticut Media Group columnist and senior attorney at the Education Law Center, wrote an op ed piece decrying some of the remedies embedded in the judge’s decision, remedies that are based on the popular misconception that exit examinations will ensure uniform success for all learners and VAM will ensure quality teaching. When groups filing lawsuits seeking equitable funding get a decision that affirms their assertion that the existing funding mechanisms are inherently inequitable, they don’t expect to receive decisions that call for practices that are destructive to the students who are raised in poverty or to the teachers who are willing to devote their careers to working with those students. But, as Ms. Lecker notes, that is exactly what Mr. Moukawsher did in his rambling decision.
On the issue of exit examinations, where the judge cited Massachusetts’ successes, Ms. Lecker writes:
The judge decided that because Connecticut does not have “rational” and “verifiable” high school standards, meaning standards measured by a high school exit exam, Connecticut diplomas for students in poor districts are “patronizing and illusory.” He concluded that the cure for this problem is standardized, “objective” exams that students must pass to graduate…
(H)ad the judge examined the evidence, he would have also learned that the actual major factor in Massachusetts’ improvement was the very measure he refused to order Connecticut to implement: school finance reform that dramatically increased the amount of school funding statewide. No fewer than three studies have shown that increasing school funding significantly improved student achievement in Massachusetts. Recent major studies confirmed those findings nationwide, demonstrating that school finance reform has the most profound positive impact among poor students.
When it came to teacher evaluations, which fall well outside the purview of a ruling on funding equity, the judge advocated VAM as a method. In response to that decision Ms. Lecker writes:
Courts that have actually examined the evidence on systems that rate teachers on student test scores have rejected these systems. Last year, a court in New Mexico issued a temporary injunction barring the use of test scores in that state’s teacher evaluation system. And in April, a court in New York ruled that a teacher’s rating based on her students’ “growth” scores — the foundation of New York’s teacher evaluation system — was “arbitrary and capricious;” the opposite of “rational” and “verifiable.”
Yet despite the reams of evidence debunking the use of student growth scores in evaluating teachers, and despite these two court rulings, Judge Moukawsher insisted that rating teachers on student “growth” scores would satisfy his demand that Connecticut’s system for hiring, firing, evaluating and compensating teachers be “rational” and “verifiable.” His ruling defies the evidence and logic.
A month ago when I wrote a post on the Connecticut ruling I surmised that, based on what’s happened in other states where the courts fond the funding inequitable, nothing would happen as a result the judges decision. I was wrong. In this case, as a result of the judge’s overreach, both sides on this issue are appealing the decision to a higher court… and as the case goes forward I share Ms. Lecker’s hopes:
One can only hope that that our highest court will steer this case back on course, away from these ill-advised educational policy rulings and toward a proper finding that the state is failing to provide our poorest schools with adequate funding and is consequently failing to safeguard the educational rights of our most vulnerable children.
Stay tuned… it will be another school year at best before anything happens… and likely another generation before change occurs in Connecticut… if it happens at all.
In a victory for common sense over spreadsheets, Justice Roger D. McDonough of State Supreme Court in Albany vacated the value-added calculations that were the basis of NY teacher Sheri Lederman’s unfavorable rating “…in part because of the difficulty in measuring growth for students who already perform above grade level on state tests.” The NYTimes article explaining the court decision described the basis for Ms. Lederman’s “unfavorable” rating as follows:
For the 2012-13 school year, Sheri G. Lederman, a longtime teacher in the high-performing Great Neck public school district, on Long Island, received what was known as a growth score of 14 points out of a possible 20; the score was meant to calculate student progress over time. Her students scored substantially higher than the state average on annual standardized tests in English and math, and her score put her in the “effective” range.
The next year, her students scored a bit better on the math test than they had the year before, and slightly lower on the English exam. But her growth score plummeted to one out of 20, or “ineffective.”
This phenomenon results when a standardized test based on a bell curve is used since it is mathematically impossible for high performing students to “grow” on such a test due to the lack of “head room”. If one teacher’s class gets 48 out of 50 correct on a test in the baseline year and another teacher’s class gets 25 out of fifty correct that same year, in the subsequent year it is impossible for the high performing students to get 3 or more questions correct and, thus, impossible for them to show as much “growth” as the low performing students. Despite this inherent flaw, NYS, goaded on by Race-to-the-Top, decided to use “growth” as the primary metric for determining teacher performance. After all, test scores are an “objective” and “quantifiable” means of measuring the effectiveness of teachers. Fortunately for Ms. Lederman, the judge who heard her case— unlike the Board of Regents who adopted the evaluation system— understood basic statistics ad saw the flaw in the methodology.
While the judge limited his decision to only Ms. Lederman, as Carol Burris notes in Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post blog the decision was based on the evidence presented by academics who pointed out flaws in the system, evidence that could undermine the basis for all evaluations based on VAM. Here’s hoping other teachers in other States will follow Ms. Lederman’s lead and challenge their unfavorable ratings based on VAM and help drive a stake through the “testocracy” that drives public education today.
An article by Elizabeth Harris earlier this week drove another nail into the Value Added coffin. The article uses lots of obfuscatory verbiage to paper over the blunt headline, “Over 200 Educators in New York Receive Erroneous Scores Linked to Student Scores”. Using language from a letter sent by the NYSED, Harris writes that the errors in calculations effected “less than 1 percent of the more than 40,000 educators who received such feedback” and to further diminish the impact quoted Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for the Education Department, who noted that “…that while about 250 principals and teachers received incorrect scores, the error was large enough only to change the growth ratings for 30 educators, all of whom were principals.” The NYSED insinuation seems to be that just because “only” 30 principals got bad scores the system is just fine…. but their actions speak louder than their words:
Nonetheless, (Tompkins) said scores for the more than 40,000 educators would be recalculated at the contractor’s expense; the higher score would be the one that counts.
Sorry, reformers, the recalculation will not restore credibility to VAM….
My favorite blogger, Yves Smith, wrote a post today describing how the oligarchs use their power to indoctrinate the public and advance their own agendas. Using a New York Review of Books article and a blog post by Inside Philanthropy blogger Mike Massey as a springboard for her post, Smith offers several examples of the “cognitive capture initiatives” launched by the philanthro-capitalists. Because she omitted one of the hugest “cognitive capture initiatives” I offered the following comment to her post:
No public enterprise has been “rescued” by seemingly well-intentioned philanthropists more than public education. The philanthropists’ have successfully convinced the public that public schools would be better off if they were subjected to market forces, run like businesses who are answerable to shareholders, and measured by standardized achievement tests that assume the one-size-fits-all industrial model of schooling established in the 1920s is inviolable. Philanthropists have underwritten studies and pilot programs that use the cold analytics of data analysis combined with test scores to impose “value added” measures to reward good teachers. And, as we’ve just witnessed for 7 years, this “run schools like a business” mental model has captured the imaginations of both parties. When you child cannot experience art, music or PE because they need to boost their test scores, send your thank you notes to the philanthropists.
On Wednesday of this week the NYTimes ran an op ed essay by Shael Polakow-Suransky, currently the President of Bank Street School who formerly held the position of chief accountability officer of the New York City Department of Education— the second highest ranking position in the NYC Education Department— under the Bloomberg administration.
I was astonished and pleased to see that Mr. Polakow-Suransky has been disabused of the notion that test scores should play a role in determining teacher effectiveness because in his earlier life as second in command in NYC he sung a different song. In an article profiling him in 2010, the Times wrote:
…if he has his way, there will be better tests, and more of them.
“Until we start seeing assessments that ask kids to write research papers, ask them to solve unfamiliar problems, ask them to defend their ideas, ask them to engage with both fiction and nonfiction texts; until those kinds of assessments are our state assessments, all we’re measuring are basic skills,” Mr. Polakow-Suransky said in an interview.
In his evolution from an idealist teacher to a data-mining administrator, Mr. Polakow-Suransky, 38, personified the seismic changes in education that were beginning to take shape just as he was drawing up his first lesson plans. He came of age as the school system was moving to replace large high schools with small ones, and making testing both a means and an end. He jumped aboard both movements, mentored along much of the way by an educator who, next month, will be working under him.
But Mr. Polakow-Suransky has changed his tune! Now he decries the NYS evaluation system because it “…relies on tests designed for one task (measuring student learning) and uses them for another (measuring each teacher’s impact). Good data is important but we have to use it for what it can actually tell us, not for what we wish it could tell us.”
Now… if he can just persuade the Governor that his evaluation system is relying on flawed data he might fully atone for his advocacy. After all, Diane Ravitch once worked for Lamar Alexander and promoted many of the bad ideas promoted by the business wing of he Republican party before she saw the flaws in the ideas of “running schools like a business”. It is that concept that led to the testing regimen that strangles the creativity of teachers and makes schools more like factories. Maybe Mr. Polakow-Suransky can join her efforts to eliminate the reliance on the seemingly exact standardized test scores as the primary means of evaluating teachers.