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Who Paid to Support Pro-Charter Board Candidates in LA? The Usual Suspects

May 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Two news stories dominate the education blogs today: the fallout of the LA Board election that gave a majority of seats to pro-privatization candidates (covered in this post) and the DeVos-Trump budget (covered in the later post).

Diane Ravitch had two posts yesterday that had links to articles that dealt with the dark money funding “school reform”. Peter Dreier’s Huffpost article, “Big Money Wins in LA” delineates the huge amounts spent on that election which pitted pro-privatization candidate Nick Melvoin and incumbent Steve Zimmer, specifically identifies the donors to the pro-privatization candidate’s campaign, and briefly describes their backgrounds and home towns:

Among the big donors behind Melvoin and the CCSA were members of the Walton family (Alice Walton, Jim Walton, and Carrie Walton Penner) ― heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune from Arkansas, who’ve donated over $2 million to CCSA. Alice Walton (net worth: $36.9 billion), who lives in Texas, was one of the biggest funders behind Melvoin’s campaign. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflicks (net worth: $1.9 billion), who lives in Santa Cruz, donated close to $5 million since last September to the CCSA’s political action committee, including $1 million a week before the election.

Other moguls behind Melvoin and the CCSA include Doris Fisher (net worth: $2.7 billion), co-founder of The Gap, who lives in San Francisco: Texas resident John Arnold (net worth: $2.9 billion), who made a fortune at Enron before the company collapsed, leaving its employees and stockholders in the lurch, then made another fortune as a hedge fund manager; Jeff Yass, who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, and runs the Susquahanna group, a hedge fund; Frank Baxter, former CEO of the global investment bank Jefferies and Company that specialized in “junk” bonds; and Michael Bloomberg (net worth: $48.5 billion), the former New York City mayor and charter champion. Eli Broad (net worth: $7.7 billion), who hatched a plan to put half of all LAUSD students in charter schools by 2023 — an idea that Zimmer fought — donated $400,000 to CCSA last Friday, on top of $50,000 he gave in November. He made his money in real estate and life insurance.

Not surprisingly, most of these billionaires are big backers of conservative Republican candidates and right-wing causes. Several are on the boards of charter school chains.

After providing this rundown, Dreier poses the 6.6 million dollar question and offers an insightful answer, one that makes the distinction between “reform” and “privatization”:

What do the corporate moguls and billionaires want? 

They want to turn public schools into educational Wal-marts run on the same corporate model. They want to expand charter schools that compete with each other and with public schools in an educational “market place.” (LA already has more charter schools than any other district in the country). They want to evaluate teachers and students like they evaluate new products — in this case, using the bottom-line of standardized test scores. Most teachers will tell you that over-emphasis on standardized testing turns the classroom into an assembly line, where teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” and students are taught, robot-like, to define success as answering multiple-choice tests…

The corporate big-wigs are part of an effort that they and the media misleadingly call “school reform.” What they’re really after is not “reform” (improving our schools for the sake of students) but “privatization” (business control of public education). They think public schools should be run like corporations, with teachers as compliant workers, students as products, and the school budget as a source of profitable contracts and subsidies for textbook companies, consultants, and others engaged in the big business of education.

And Dreier emphasizes that one thing the “reformers” did NOT want was someone like Melvin’s opponent, Steve Zimmer, to be on the school board. Why?

Like most reasonable educators and education analysts, Zimmer has questioned the efficacy of charter schools as a panacea. When the billionaires unveiled their secret plan to put half of LAUSD students into charter schools within eight years, Zimmer led the opposition….

Now the billionaires and their charter school operators will have a majority on the school board. LA will become the epicenter of a major experiment in expanding charter schools – with the school children as the guinea pigs.

In the coming weeks it will be interesting to see who turned out to vote for Mr. Melvoin and why the voters decided to put Mr. Zimmer out of office. As noted in a post yesterday, what is most telling is that Arne Duncan came out several weeks ago in support of Mr. Melvoin, advocating a need for a reformer to be elected to the board to allow a change to the status quo. If the likes of Mr. Duncan really sought a change to the status quo they would abandon the reliance on standardized test scores based on groupings of students by age cohorts… the reliance of which results in classrooms that are turned into “…an assembly line, where teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” and students are taught, robot-like, to define success as answering multiple-choice tests.” That is hardly a change to the status quo: it reinforces the factory model that is failing children and creating failure where success might be possible.

VAM: The Mathbabe Declares The Death of a Bad Idea… But I’m Not So Sure!

May 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Cathy O’Neill, a.k.a the Mathbabe, is now writing a column on the use and misuse of statistics for Bloomberg News. Her latest piece for Bloomberg titled “Don’t Grade Teachers with a Bad Algorithm” opens with this heartening paragraph:

For more than a decade, a glitchy and unaccountable algorithm has been making life difficult for America’s teachers. The good news is that its reign of terror might finally be drawing to a close.

Ms. O’Neill then provides a concise history and analysis of VAM— an acronym for Value Added Model– one that has been offered in earlier posts on this blog but one that bears recounting:

The VAM — actually a family of algorithms — purports to determine how much “value” an individual teacher adds to a classroom. It goes by standardized test scores, and holds teachers accountable for what’s called student growth, which comes down to the difference between how well students performed on a test and how well a predictive model “expected” them to do.

Derived in the 1980s from agricultural crop models, VAM got a big boost from the education reform movements of presidents Bush and Obama. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act called for federal standards, and Obama’s Race To The Top Act offered states some $350 billion in federal funds in exchange for instituting formal teacher assessments. Many states went for VAM, sometimes with bonuses and firings attached to the results.

Ms. O’Neill describes the flaws in VAM, the major one of which was it’s opacity. One of her friends, who was Principal of a school in Brooklyn asked to get a copy of the algorithm when VAM was instituted in NYC and was dismissively told it was unavailable and, anyway, “it’s math, you wouldn’t understand it.” So a building administrator, who was held accountable for the VAM results in her school, was not let in on the way VAM was calculated.

She concluded her article by offering two pieces of evidence supporting her contention that VAM is dead:

Happily, the tide appears to be turning. In 2015, a revamp of No Child Left Behind, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, removed the federal funding incentives that had supported the algorithm. In May 2016, a Long Island teacher named Sheri Lederman won a lawsuit against New York State in which a judge deemed the state’s VAM-based rating system “arbitrary and capricious.” And earlier this month, a group of teachers in Houston, where VAM had been used for firings and bonuseswon a lawsuit in which they successfully argued that the algorithm’s secretive and complex nature had effectively denied them due process.

VAM expert Audrey Amrein-Beardsley told me that the Houston decision, pertaining to the country’s seventh-largest school district, might have a “snowball effect,” influencing the outcome of other lawsuits across the country. Let’s hope so, because teachers deserve better.

While I sincerely hope Ms. Amrein-Beardsley is correct in her forecast of a “snowball effect”, given the inability of politicians to drive a stake through the heart of the Gaffer Curve myth (see my next post), I’m not at all certain this bad idea is dead just yet. Yes, ESSA DOES eliminate the federal funding incentives that supported the VAM algorithm… but there are several states (including NH, the State I reside in) that are led by Governors and legislators who believe in “hard data” provided by standardized tests and love the idea that these tests can prove that public education is “failing”…. and those Governors and legislators will be loathe to abandon simplistic ideas like VAM that demonstrate that “failing teachers” are the ultimate cause of “failing schools”. VAM won’t die until the public is willing to face the facts on public schools… that more money is needed to help the schools that serve the children raised in poverty.

 

Joe Nathan’s Rebuttal to CHARTER School Metrics Should Apply to ALL Public Schools

May 10, 2017 1 comment

A few weeks ago the Fordham Institute issued a report identifying “Three Signs That a Proposed Charter School is at Risk of Failing”. The report found three “risk factors” in approved applications that were significant predictors of a school’s future weak performance in its first years of operation. They were:

  1. Lack of identified leadership: Charter applications that propose a self-managed school without naming a school leader.
  2. High risk, low dose: Charter applications that propose to serve at-risk pupils but plan to employ “low dose” academic programs that do not include sufficient academic supports, such as intensive small-group instruction or extensive individual tutoring.
  3. A child-centered curriculum: Charter applications that propose to deploy child-centered, inquiry-based pedagogies, such as Montessori, Waldorf, Paideia, or experiential programs.

Further, when an application displayed two or more of these risk factors, the likelihood of low performance rose to 80 percent.

In a rebuttal to this report that was printed in the Fordham Institutes blog, Joe Nathan, one of the authors of Minnesota’s charter school laws and a longstanding advocate of charter schools disputed the Institute’s findings based on the fact that their sole metric for determining “success” was standardized test results. Mr. Nathan wants to see a wider range of factors taken into consideration, factors that he presents as “Four Key Questions”:

First, and most importantly, shouldn’t (the Fordham Institute) recognize that the public wisely cares about much more than a school’s “value added” on standardized tests? The short answer is: they should!

Second, what are the best measures to predict success as an adult? Mr. Nathan cites the findings ACT researchers who sought to determine which of four factors best predicted success as an adult: high grades in high school, high grades in college, high scores on their test, and participation in debate, speech, drama, and student government. They found that participation in those extracurriculars best predicted success in adulthood, as they defined it. Given those findings, Mr. Nathan rightfully suggests that this participation rate should be an important factor.

Third, given that schools in a democratic society are not just places to prepare students for work, don’t we want young people to graduate schools with the tools and attitudes needed to be active citizens? The short answer, again, is YES!

Finally, fourth, policymakers, educators, and authorizers should ask: “Do strong assessments exist beyond standardized tests that could help assess what’s happening with students in a school?” In responding to this question Mr. Nathan offers five examples of research-based metrics that are far superior to standardized testing.

Mr. Nathan asserts that Fordham Institute does a disservice to charter schools by limiting their metrics to standardized tests and suggests they broaden their scope of measurement to include other factors. He writes:

Strong reading, writing, and math skills are vital. But Americans wisely want more from their schools. Students, the charter movement, and the broader society will gain if we:

  • Recognize the importance of assessing a broad array of skills and knowledge, not just those that are measured by standardized tests.
  • Refine and encourage use by states and authorizers of valid assessments that measure a broader array of skills and knowledge.
  • Support and encourage development of schools, chartered and otherwise, that help students develop many strong skills and broad knowledge.

Chartering has grown in part because it builds on the fundamental American values of choice within some limits, and the belief that those creating new products and services should expect to be judged on results. 

I tend to begrudgingly acknowledge that the kinds of charters Mr. Nathan supports are needed in order to get US schools out of the rut they are in— away from the factory model and into one that emphasizes the “soft” skills needed to function in the emerging new economy and in a democracy. But I do not think that the drive for charters should be based on the consumerist values of “choice within limits”. Rather, we should drive for better schools based on the egalitarian values that our forefathers envisioned when they founded our government: that all citizens no matter what station they were born into would have an equal opportunity to achieve well being. By basing the charter movement on economic principals instead of egalitarian ideals we are playing into the hands of those who see schooling as job preparation and not a means of developing self-motivated lifelong learners,

Small Michigan District Sees the Light, Ends “Merit Pay”

April 18, 2017 Leave a comment

As readers of this blog realize, I oppose “merit pay” for teachers on a number of grounds, several of which were exemplified in the decision of Whitmore Lake Public Schools decision to end what they called “merit pay”— a laughable bonus of $100 for each teacher who was rated effective and $500 for teachers rated very effective. Based on an article by Lauren Slagter in Michigan Live, Whoitmore Public School Superintendent Tom DeKeyser announced to the Board that he was suspending the merit pay plan because “…while people are happy to receive it – has become negative” adding that “We’ll find another way to reward our highly effective teachers through collective bargaining.”

The article went on to note another problem DeKeyser encountered with his version of “merit pay”: it was linked to test scores and when the State changed their tests it became “…difficult to draw conclusions about teaching quality from students’ scores.” 

Patti Kobeck, president of the Whitmore Lake Education Association, offered her insights on merit pay:

“By taking the merit pay away and rewarding teachers in other ways, I think it will change the atmosphere. We’re here for the kids. Without merit pay, teachers can stop worrying about what another teacher is getting and worry about what they’re giving the kids.

In general, merit pay isn’t an effective way to motivate teachers to perform their jobs better. Small gestures of appreciation can be more meaningful, she said, because of the lack of respect for their profession many teachers feel.

After reading the closing paragraph of this article it is abundantly clear that an increase in base pay would go a long way to improving morale in Whitmore Lake:

Whitmore Lake teachers currently are under a one-year contract that granted them 1-percent raises, following a 4.9-percent pay cut they took under a 2014 to 2016 contract. The current contract expires June 30, 2017.

Hopefully other small districts will learn from Whitmore Lake’s misguided effort to offer bonuses based on test scores and restore the compensation levels before offering bonuses.

The Obama Legacy in Public Education: WAY Too Little… WAY Too Late

December 13, 2016 Leave a comment

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….

 

A “Reformer” in Connecticut’s Superior Court

October 10, 2016 Leave a comment

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.

 

NY Court Slams “Arbitrary and Capricious” VAM…

May 11, 2016 Leave a comment

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.