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10/16/14

The Wolf in the Closet


    There’s a wolf in the closet.  He’ll stay there until after the elections, but somebody will open the door for him once the votes are in.  Count on it.  Both candidates for Governor of the state of Georgia have expressed an interest in letting this wolf out, and once out he won’t go back in again.  The lure of $59 billion dollars, regardless of the source of those funds and especially in the ethically challenged Georgia system of politics, is just too much for politicians to ignore.  Both candidates might hem and haw and say they would only use the money “with the backing of teachers and the TRS board of directors,” but that’s Georgia politics at its finest.  Tell the voters what you think they want to hear before the election, and forget you ever said it once you’re in office.  If that doesn’t work, blame someone else for following through on what you really wanted in the first place.

    The Georgia Chamber of Commerce supports the idea.  They say the move to allow TRS to invest up to 5% of it’s total in alternative funds would secure the highest returns possible for public workers, and that Georgia is the only state that does not allow TRS funds to be invested in alternative investments.  One legislator even said he wanted Georgia to follow this plan because we were the “only state in the union” that didn’t allow this.  Remember what your mother said when you wanted to do whatever it was that “everyone else was doing?”  That should apply doubly to adults, but usually doesn’t.
    The NY Times reports that the $26.3 billion Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System has invested about 46% of its assets in these riskier alternatives, and over the last 5 years has paid $1.35 billion in management fees and reported an annualized return over the same period of 3.6%.    The median return for public pension systems is 4.9% and the target return required to meet financing requirements is 8%.  In Georgia, prohibited from alternative investments, TRS has earned 5.3% per year over the same period and paid about $54 million in total fees.  TRS is recognized as one of the public pension funds that every other public pension fund wants to be, and provides  stability and peace of mind for teachers that have retired and those that expect to retire.  The Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System has more than 46 percent of its assets in riskier alternatives, including nearly 400 private equity, venture capital and real estate funds.  A sampling of those pension funds with ⅓ to ½ of their money in hedge funds, real estate and private equity reported returns that were over one percentage point lower than those funds that avoided these riskier, more volatile investments.  Not only were the returns significantly lower, the fees charged for those investments were over 4 times what the others paid.  Lower returns and higher fees is not a good combination unless you are an investment banker.
    The dirty little secret about public pension fund investments is that they are required to be transparent in their investments, and their transactions are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.  Many of the best performing venture capital funds will not take money from public pensions because they do not want their portfolios made public knowledge, and, as a result of this need for obfuscation,  public pensions generally get to choose from lesser performing funds that don’t see transparency as an obstacle to performance.
    In 2012 Governor Deal supported Senate Resolution 782, but later withdrew his support after a backlash from teachers, both working and retired.  The resolution, still in committee at the end of the last legislative session, would allow a study committee of 17 members, all appointed by the Governor, to investigate doing away with the defined benefit system in place for TRS and moving to a contribution system.  Part of the resolution also calls for the committee, without the Governor really being involved, of course, to suggest removal of the restriction that currently prevents up to 5% of TRS funds from being used for investment in venture capital funds.
    Senator Carter also suggested a proposal to give state pension funds, including TRS, the freedom to invest in alternative investments and venture capital.  He later backed away from the idea and said he would never consider such a thing without the approval of the TRS board and teachers.
    The lure of that money just sitting around and not going to somebody that could help a campaign or a relative is anathema to politicians.  The real issue here, given the Georgia legislature’s lack of willingness to engage in meaningful ethics reform, is not really one of providing money for startups and venture capital but protecting it from the deleterious effects of rampant cronyism.  There is no way, as I see it, to keep politics out of investment decisions regardless of the positive or negative financial effects on pension funds.  Allowing politicians to reward donors through the allocation of access to venture capital from state pension funds without regard as to whether the investments made financial sense for contributors to that fund would be the epitome of folly for teachers that depend upon that fund for their current or future retirements.  Yes, I am one of those, and no, I do not trust any politician to ignore large pots of money whether it belongs to them or not.  Especially after the votes are in and they think nobody’s watching. I’m hoping that wolf stays in the closet, but I’m also watching the doorknob closely to see if anybody puts their hand on it later.  After the election.  When the votes are in.  When nobody’s watching. When the door swings open and the Governor - whoever he is - can stand back and say “I didn’t do it, they did!” - the wolf and I will both know better.  Be careful who you vote for.   A politician that needs your vote is one thing; an unscrupulous one that already has it is quite another.

10/11/14

The Option Game

The Option Game


    Supporters of the accountability movement in public education have had 13 years of test driven “reform” to prove their point.  It should be obvious now that 13 years of accountibalism have produced no positive results. If you believe that test scores accurately reflect teaching and learning in our public schools then you also must accept those scores have not shown a positive effect.  If you believe the SAT is reflective of student achievement then 13 years of test and retest and test again have been an abysmal failure in serving as anything other than a reliable predictor of family income.  In spite of the continued demand for “choice” by the professional accountabullies - those that insist that standardized testing is the only way to hold public education accountable - the only success stories they can point to are the gigantic growth of the educational testing industry and draining millions of tax dollars from public education into privatization efforts.  One of the choices that has not appeared in Georgia is that of parents having the ability to opt their children out of standardized testing.  As it stands now, parents have few legal options if they decide to opt their children out of the standardized testing craze in public schools.
    Public school students are now serving as mass subjects in the “test to distraction” movement.  The over reliance on standardized tests at the Federal, state and district level have managed to narrow the curriculum, take time away from true teaching and learning, push out non-tested subjects like music, art, chorus, band, electives and vocational classes, fuel the push to replace veteran teachers with less expensive and less experienced replacements and allow testing and test prep to dominate class time for students and teachers.
    District testing calendars in Atlanta Public Schools for 2012 indicate 3rd grade students spent 11.8 hours on state tests and 9 hours on district tests.  Students in 7th grade spent 8.5 hours on state tests and 12 hours on district tests.  Teachers in those grades calculate the time actually spent by students on testing, test prep and test review is more than double that amount, and some teachers noted that more than 35% of instruction time each year is spent on test review, test planning, test taking strategies, practice tests, preparation for assessment, re-assessment and actual testing.  
    It’s possible in Georgia to opt your students out of standardized testing, but the lack of legislation to allow this make it difficult in many cases.  In high school, the EOCT may, with a parent’s insistence, be replaced by a student portfolio graded in its stead.  Common Core requirements state that students in special education must be tested on grade level in spite of what their Individualized Education Plan says.  This policy, enacted by Secretary Duncan without congressional approval, appears to violate Federal law as written in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  While it may be possible to write an opt out clause into a students’ IEP,  resistance to this option at the Federal, state and school level may be expected.  While the CRCT will be replaced next year in Georgia by a more difficult test, students in grades 3, 5 and 8 will still be required to pass before being promoted.  Parents deciding to opt their children out of these tests may use current procedures for parental appeal of retention, but these are cumbersome at best and require the formation of a placement committee consisting of the parents, the Principal and each of the child’s teachers to determine whether or not the student is performing at grade level.  The committe reviews student class participation, class work and performance and teacher observations of student learning. The committee decision must be unanimous, and the student may be promoted with the understanding that extra help and support are required for the following year.
    Parents may also opt out for religious reasons, they may refuse to sign the internet agreement at the beginning of the year effectively opting out of on-line assessments, they may withdraw their child from school on testing days and re-enroll them after the tests, or they can present a note to the school Principal stating “my child is not to participate in any test not created by my child’s teacher.” What’s really needed is Georgia legislation that allows parents to opt their children out of standardized testing without having to jump through administrative hoops to do so.
    No figures are available on the number of Georgia students opting out of tests last year, but in New York state last year over 35,000 students took advantage of this opportunity.  The BOE in Colorado Springs passed a ruling allowing parents this option in September of this year.  In Texas, 412 districts representing more than 2 million students have signed on to a resolution calling for an end to standardized testing as a measure of student achievement.  Resistance to over testing is growing nationally, and at a rapid rate.
    I find it disturbing that many of the legislators promoting testing as a requirement for school accountability in Georgia and across the nation have their children enrolled in private schools.   Those promoting more and more testing in the name of reform, including Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and President Obama, have or had their children enrolled in private schools.  If testing were an effective way to improve education, perhaps they should try it on their own children before imposing it on ours.  Department of Defense, private schools and parochial schools are all exempt from the testing mania, and the prevailing mantra for those making decisions about public education seems to be “it’s OK for your kids but not for ours.”  That’s a level of hypocrisy along the same lines as a Congress that voted to impose the Affordable Care Act on the public then voted to exempt themselves from the same law.
    I propose two reforms of my own for immediate action by the Georgia legislature:
  1. Allow an exemption from standardized testing as one of the options for “flexibility” for charter system and IE2 applications;
  2. Pass legislation giving parents the right to opt their students out of standardized testing in public schools.
    If our legislators really believe in “choice” for parents, they can do nothing less than give public school parents the option of opting their kids out of standardized testing.  That would be a reform worth implementing.

9/26/14

No Governor Left Behind

Governor Deal’s suggestion that Georgia “look at” a recovery school district modeled after the one in New Orleans has raised more than a few eyebrows in our state.  Louisiana, where Advanced Placement exam results for 2013 are ahead of only Mississippi, is known more for LSU football and Duck Dynasty than public education..  Higher National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in 2013 still leave the state at the bottom of the national scorecard, and the US Chamber of Commerce report in 2014 graded the state educational system with an A for choice but a D or F in academic achievement, international competitiveness and workforce preparation.  Less than 20% of Louisiana students met Programme for International Student Assessment requirements for reading and math standards, and recent gains in LEAP (Louisiana Educational Assessment Program) and iLEAP (integrated Louisiana Educational Assessment Program) state tests were due to Louisiana Department of Education manipulation of cut scores and not actual academic achievement.  The number of correct answers on those tests required for a level of “basic” proficiency was reduced in 3 of 4 categories in LEAP testing.  The LDOE said the grading scale was “equated.”  This means the grading scale was adjusted to make it appear that student performance held steady with Common Core aligned tests instead of the dramatic reduction that would have shown up without “equating.”  The vast majority of charters in LA, except for those with a selective admission process, are rated D or F by their own state.  The New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) that Nathan suggested we emulate was rated as one of the lowest performing districts in the state.


This plan was part of the “bait and switch” campaign in Louisiana to increase the number of charter schools in that state after Hurricane Katrina.  Their method was simple: if evidence for the success of charters is required, simply lower test scores, apply charters wherever possible then raise the scores back through whatever test manipulation is needed to “prove” the case. The RSD efforts in Louisiana are a miserable failure by any measure.  In spite of the promise to return schools to the public after the initial takeover in 2006, not one school  in the RSD has been returned to local control after 8 years.


The Governor’s suggestion of studying the implementation of such a model in Georgia speaks more to his lack of a coherent educational policy than to his ideas for educational progress.  The Governor stated “I am willing to listen to anybody’s idea.”  OK, Governor, here it goes.


  1. Believe in and support teachers.  Poverty is the cause of achievement gaps and the number one obstacle to educational success.  Stop the culture of blaming teachers for poverty.  Teachers don’t cause poverty any more than law enforcement causes crime or doctors create disease.
  2. Invest in teachers.  Restore professional development funds.  Professional development should be experienced teachers working with less experienced teachers.  Pay great teachers to share their knowledge and ideas in ways that allow them to stay in the classroom.  One great teacher working with 3 or 4 others is a powerful tool.  Large groups of teachers listening to one “expert” in an auditorium is not.
  3. Pay great teachers more to work in high poverty schools.  Working in these schools is difficult.  Make it worth the effort for teachers that want to increase their salaries and stay in the classroom.  Want to attract great teachers to high poverty areas?  Pay them to travel and teach there.  Want to identify high poverty schools?  Simply look at standardized test scores.  They don’t tell you anything about teaching and learning but do serve wonderfully to point out through the zip code effect the level of poverty in a given area.
  4. Eliminate standardized testing for other than diagnostic purposes.  The money saved would be more beneficial invested in teaching and learning than in the autopsy reports generated at the insistence of accountabullies in the name of accountabalism.  Allow teachers the opportunity to teach without having to teach to the test.
  5. Don’t believe in magic bullets.  The answer is not in canned programs guaranteed to produce higher test scores.  The answer is in the power of great teachers.  Invest in people and not in programs.  Success through standardization is a myth.  Every student needs and deserves individualized learning at all levels.  Educational achievement, like excellence, cannot be legislated.
  6. Technology is a tool for teachers and not an answer unto itself.  For every child that learns through technology alone there are more that fail miserably without the intervention and guidance of a teacher.  Lower class sizes, eliminate furlough days and give teachers the time and tools to teach.
  7. Help prevent legislative meddling in teaching and learning.  Unfunded mandates and  legislative attempts at applying statewide solutions to local educational issues have done more to hurt public education than to help.  Standardization is not a solution unless your goal is to help Bill Gates sell a lot of technology.  Georgia teachers can also find a better way than age level to determine educational placement.  Children learn at different rates and in different ways.  If a child cannot jump a bar 4 feet high raising the bar to 6 feet does not encourage continued learning and effort.  Expecting every child to achieve at the same rate at the same level ignores fundamental differences in human development...sort of like Arnie’s plan to test special education students out of special education through higher expectations.  
  8. Top down implementation does not work in education any more than it does in government.  Issuing a decree that all children will succeed does not automatically mean that all children will succeed.
My Dad told me you can always see what people believe in by observing how they spend their money and how they spend their time.  The same is true for politicians.  Talking about the importance of education is useless unless you actually  do something that positively affects teaching and learning.  Reducing the size of the cuts to public education is not an increase any more than than the $100 gift cards to teachers were anything but a political ploy to give the appearance of support to teachers.  Talk to teachers, listen to teachers and allow teachers to tell you what really counts in education.  If you truly want to help students in Georgia, there are no shortcuts and no magic bullets.  Teachers are not the problem but the answer.  Have the courage to ask them and follow their advice.

9/11/14

Truth and Consequences

Truth and Consequences


     There were 1,615,066 students in Georgia public schools k-12 and 120,660 teachers to teach them in 2009.  In 2013 the GADOE reported 1,657,506 students and 111,401 public school teachers k-12.  Anyway you count it, public education has lost 9,000 teachers and class sizes have increased in Georgia public schools.  Add to that issue six years with no raises, layoffs or RIF's in many systems, furloughs that actually take money out of teachers’ pockets to help systems cope with decreased state funds, higher property taxes, loss of planning time, the elimination of professional development funds, the lack of instructional funds, the elimination of band, chorus, orchestra, art and elective classes, the destruction of motivation and creativity through the institution of phony reforms, a continuation of the “blame the teacher” mindset, an insistence on teaching to the test, by the test and for the test, the growing numbers of children in poverty, the proliferation of standardized testing at the state and local levels, the junk science of value added models of teacher evaluation, unrealistic expectations for students and teachers, the dearth of resources for students with special needs or remediation, the “everyone is college material” insanity, the inanity of student learning objectives for non-tested subjects, the implementation of Common Core standards by decree with no instructional support, books that are older than the kids they are issued to and it’s no wonder teacher morale is in the dumps.
    The Met Life Survey of the American Teacher noted that teacher job satisfaction fell from 62% “very satisfied” with their jobs in 2008 to a 20 year low of 39% “very satisfied” in 2013.  Principals surveyed indicated 75% were frustrated with their jobs and almost one third of those said they will go to a different occupation within the next 5 years.  Add to that the findings of the NCTAF 2010 report “Who Will Teach” that between 2004 and 2008 over 300,000 veteran teachers retired nationally, that 30% of new teachers leave the profession within 5 years and the average age of the teaching force nationally has risen from 36 in 1976 to 55 in 2008.  The number of teachers over the age of 50 in 2008 was 1.3 million, and the most common age of retirement for teachers was 59.  What we are seeing is the beginnings of a teacher shortage at the state and national levels.
    Age and a rampant bureaucracy created by Federal and state regulations toward a data-driven accountability system that over-tests and micro-manages educational policies only add to the already high frustrations of teachers and administrators.  While every parent wants their child to have an individualized educational experience, governors, legislators and Federal policies insist that all children be subjected to the same inane standards and testing.  It would seem their intent is to drive away as many teachers as possible and make the profession even more unattractive than it currently is.  Enrollments in education programs are dropping nationwide, due in large part to the attacks on the profession through opposition to due process, denigration of the profession, low pay and increasing expectations.  Doing more with less has ceased to become a temporary circumstance and now is a way of life for teachers.  
    It would seem that 12 years of a failed test and punish system would be enough for anyone to recognize it simply doesn’t work.  The answer, as it has always been, is in the power of teaching.  Providing resources for teachers, using standardized tests at the beginning of the year (if at all) for diagnostic purposes, recognizing the dignity and importance of the teaching profession, dismissing the junk science of value added models of evaluation, giving teachers the time for collaborative planning, instituting a system of mentoring for teachers that need improvement and removing the constraints of scripted national “standards” that, in the absence of books and materials become a de facto curriculum.
    The key to effective education is effective teachers.  Our politicians have done everything they can to demonize teachers and take away what little authority and classroom autonomy they had to begin with.  Teachers really don’t come out of the college training box ready to teach and inspire students, but rather than spending more money on professional development our legislators eliminate professional development funds, cut their salaries and increase testing.  Rather than finding ways to run off more teachers – we have ways to remove poor teachers now if we have administrators with the courage to do so – our focus must be on training the teachers we have to be more effective, to use cooperation and collaboration as a basis for daily operation, to improve student engagement in every classroom on a daily basis and to teach administrators that the key to effective administration is not attempting to browbeat, chastise or shame teachers into working harder but in having the courage to involve them in the school operations and decision making and empower them to create teacher leaders.  Teachers have never been the problem; teachers are the solution that will save children from themselves and from society one kid at a time.   Public education serves 93% of the students in our state.  We cannot afford to abandon the many to provide more opportunities for a select few.  It’s not about race, it’s about poverty; it’s not about a test score, it’s about student achievement; it’s not about a standardized curriculum, it’s about good teaching; it’s not about the business model, it’s about personalization; it’s not about compliance, it’s about individualization, it’s not about competition, it’s about cooperation.  Until we restore the power of teachers to teach, publicize our daily successes and vote for representatives that believe the US and Georgia Constitutions are more than legal suggestions, we will continue to hear the nonsense about the failure of public education and be subjected to the continued denigration of the teachers that, in spite of the system and not because of it, still make a positive difference for kids every day.  The more we allow politicians to demonize teachers and teaching the further we get from the goals to educate every child, and the harder it becomes to keep good teachers and attract their replacements.


7/9/14

Reformulating Reform Based on Reality

It’s Time to Reform the Reformers
Jim Arnold & Peter Smagorinsky


Jim Arnold recently retired from the superintendent’s position of the Pelham City, GA Schools and blogs at http://www.drjamesarnold.com/. Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia whose public essays are archived at http://smago.coe.uga.edu/vita/vitaweb.htm#OpEd


“The failure of public education” has become a de rigueur assumption in the public forum on public education, particularly among those who claim to possess the silver bullet for “reform.” The definition of reform signals the need to improve something for the better by removing faults, abuses, and evil ways. For there to be a need for reformers, then, those they wish to reform must be found to be as defective as possible. When the target of reform lacks sufficient dereliction, and a reformer still needs to advance his or her agenda, ideally with consulting fees, then the flaws must be manufactured and propagated as if they are real.


Arne Duncan, for instance, often cites such statistics as the need for 40% of college students to require remedial coursework.  Carol Burris has shown, however, this canard has no basis in fact, but is a manufactured statistic coming from a think tank, repeated by other think tanks until it became accepted in public opinion. As part of this process of fabricating a crisis, our Secretary of Education has repeatedly promulgated this bogus claim to advance his reforms, even if the evil of shoddy education in public schools requiring remediation by colleges at the taxpayers’ expense does not exist.


As part of this perceived need for reform, many people hearken back to the good old days, back before schools began circling the drain. For instance, a Rasmussen poll found that 69% of respondents doubted whether today’s public schools provide our kids with the world class education that the rest of the world is getting. As market-based reforms are offered as our only means of salvation, the schools of socialistic Finland are provided as a model of excellence.


Perhaps this irony is not the only one at work in the public debate about our purportedly failing schools.


We went to Southern schools back in those halcyon days. Nostalgia buffs might recall scenes such as this one from those misty times of yore on the occasion of efforts to integrate The Varsity restaurant in Athens, Georgia:




Given that opposition to school integration often was more violent and virulent than were responses to allowing Black people to each a hot dog at The Varsity, perhaps those great old schools from those good old days might benefit from a closer look. Let’s consider the public perception of US public education over time.


In 1996 E. D. Hirsch called for a return to a traditional approach to public education in “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them.” In 1983 “A Nation at Risk” told us of the apparent failure of our system of public education. The Educational Testing Service discovered in 1976 that college freshmen could correctly answer only half of forty or so multiple choice questions. In 1969 the Chancellor of NY schools, Harvey Scribner, said that for every student schools educated there was another that was “scarred as a result of his school experience.”


Admiral Rickover published “American Education, a National Failure” in 1963, and in 1959 LIFE magazine published “Crisis in Education” that noted the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik because “the standards of education are shockingly low.”  In 1955 Why Johnny Can’t Read became a best seller, and in 1942 the NY Times noted only 6% of college freshmen could name the 13 original colonies and 75% did not know who was President during the Civil War. The US Navy in 1940 tested new pilots on their mastery of 4th grade math and found that 60% of the HS graduates failed. In 1889 the top 3% of US high school students went to college, and 84% of all American colleges reported remedial courses in core subjects were required for incoming freshmen.


And in the years before the American Revolution, “Undereducated, overworked, short-tempered male schoolmasters often presided over the schools. Corporal punishment was a euphemism for outright brutality against children.” Women were not allowed an education until the Industrial Revolution took hold, a century before they could vote.


So much for the good old days.


And so much for the perception that education is perpetually in decline, if actual statistics inform the conversation. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that educational attainment is continually on the rise. Here’s their table providing decade-by-decade figures for high school graduate rates.


         HS Graduates (total %)         Whites     Blacks
1940          38.1                         41.2         12.3
1950          52.8                         56.3           23.6
1960          60.7                          63.7         38.6
1970          75.4                          77.8         58.4
1980          85.4                          89.2         76.7
1990          85.7                          90.1         81.7
2000          88.1                         94            86.8
2010          88.8                          94.5         89.6
2013          89.9                          94.1         90.3


Georgia lags behind these national averages, as the following table shows, yet still continually graduates increasing numbers of people at the high school and college levels:


            HS grad     Bachelor’s     Advanced degree
    or more       or more      or more
1990    70.9                   19.3                 6.4
2000     78.6                  24.3                  8.3
2006     82.2                  26.6                  9.2
2009     83.9                  27.5                  9.9


Going back a bit farther in time, in 1940 17% of adults in Georgia had completed high school; in 1946 5% of Georgians attended college. We’re doing quite a bit better these days, even as public rhetoric and perception suggest the opposite.


But you can’t frame our current situation as a crisis in need of reform if all trends are positive. So, the Georgia Department of Education claims that state graduation rates are below 70%, in spite of statistical evidence to the contrary. We cannot ascertain their motives, but they do seem to feel that charter schools and Teach for American are the answers, even if the question remains opaque. Like Arne Duncan, they appear to require a manufactured crisis of the sort revealed by David Berliner, Gene Glass and colleagues in order to come to our rescue.


Long ago Darrell Huff exposed how people lie with statistics, helping to explain the sort of smoke-and-mirrors statistical manipulation at work in much of the educational policy world. For example, in determining graduation rates, states are allowed to count only those HS graduates each year who are awarded a diploma within a 4-year course of study. GED’s don’t count, but special education students do, and count against graduation rates, as do students who graduate by persisting through difficulties such that they take more than four years to complete their degrees.


Schools, like any complex social institutions, require continual maintenance and rethinking; we hope that in our careers as teachers and school administrators we contributed to that challenging project. But the current “reform” movement, we believe, is not solving actual problems, and in contrast is manufacturing new ones with each dedication of funds to corporations instead of schools. Reforming the ways of the reformers would make better sense to us.



6/30/14

An Alternative Universe

 I grew up reading Superman comics, and especially enjoyed those that featured stories of an alternative universe.  Bizarro World was one such universe, where the planet and its inhabitants were diametrically opposite to everything on earth.  Even the name of the planet, Htrae, was “earth” spelled backwards, and the planet was a cube shape rather than spherical.  
    Education seems to have entered it’s own Bizarro world with Arne Duncan’s policies and beliefs.  It would seem President Obama’s appointee to head the US Department of Education, second only to Bill Gates as the most powerful force in US educational policy, believes strongly in the Bizarro theory of educational improvement; whatever research says, do the opposite.  For the first example, we need look no further than Common Core, the Federal standards that aren’t Federal standards because Arnie says they’re not.  Used as a carrot in the RTTT program, acceptance of CC was inferred for states to receive money.  Not the only carrot, but  large enough to attract the most timid of state DOE bunnies to implement the standards before they had been tested on a smaller scale and, even more unbelievably, before they had been written.  Like the publishing company that paid Mrs. Clinton millions before her new book was written, many states now wonder at just what they could have been thinking when that particular deal was made and are re-thinking their participation in CC and the accompanying testing.  Perhaps the Bizarro mentality was momentarily contagious, or perhaps the teachers, students and parents left out of the initial decision have expressed their displeasure at CC adoption through such an asinine process with an unknown product.
    Another Bizarro idea is VAM, as in vam-boozled.  The development of teacher evaluations using student test scores as a percentage of the evaluation is also another prerequisite for RTTT money and an exemption from NCLB regulations for states, and the process has wound its tortuous way through several state legislatures in spite of it’s mind-numbing inanity.  A doctor, policeman and lawyer must all take into consideration the history and past performance of their clients, but through the VAM process teachers are not allowed to do so.  Parental input and student motivation are conveniently omitted from the equation and there is no current research that says incorporating VAM into the teacher evaluation process is a good idea.  Even Bill Gates, whose word is usually tantamount to command, says that perhaps a moratorium on teacher evaluations using VAM would be a good idea.  Arne and his minions, however, continue to insist on the process being a part of RTTT because “its better than the evaluation system we had.”  For someone responsible for formulating national educational policy, that doesn’t really seem to be a well thought out, reasoned, insightful response, does it?  http://dianeravitch.net/2014/05/19/strauss-what-does-arne-think-of-new-vam-studies/
    In the category of “you can’t make this stuff up,” Mr. Duncan recently noted that the performance of special education students in several states were not meeting his lofty expectations.  His solution, again meeting Bizarro requirements, was to raise expectations and subject SPED students to more standardized testing by using NAEP as an indicator of the progress of special education students.  Even though the test was not designed to measure this, Bizarro reasoning says it’s OK to use it because “it’s the best we have.”  Parents of students with a learning disability will be happy to know their concerns, fears and worries over their child’s learning disability can be erased with the amazing combination of higher expectations and more testing.  Who knew?
    The Bureau of Indian Affairs will be happy to note that the President and Mr. Duncan have proposed that Race to the Top methodology, including increased standardized testing, evaluation of teachers using VAM and implementation of the CC standards, that have been so wildly successful in transforming public education across America that the Bureau of Indian Education will be “reformed” using a similar model.  As if we hadn’t already done enough to “help” indigenous Americans - http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/06/27/obama-expands-use-of-standardized-tests-for-special-needs-and-american-indian-students/
             Just like kids in other American public schools, they will be subjected to myriad standardized testing administered in a post-mortem fashion in the belief that such testing accurately measures both student learning and the effects of individual teaching upon student learning without evidence that supports either contention.  Recent research indicates that the best predictor of student success in college is high school grades and not the ACT, SAT or standardized test scores (http://articles.courant.com/2014-02-18/news/hc-sat-research-0219-20140218_1_fair-open-testing-s
      Consistent with his stance on other research that contradicts what he knows about educational reform, Mr. Duncan will, of course, ignore this too.  I would also venture that if standardized testing were an effective measure of teacher performance and student academic achievement that private and parochial schools and post -secondary institutions would have already jumped upon the testing bandwagon so their students would not, so to speak, be left behind and deprived of the benefits of that testing.  That there is no such groundswell seems to indicate the benefits of standardized testing presented by accountabullies in the name of accountabalism seem to believe the only students that could possibly benefit from more and harder testing are public school students.  Isn’t it a shame that the children of those making the rules are almost always students in schools exempt from those policies?  
       I believe I see a pattern in Mr. Duncan’s ideas.  Surely no educational leader could implement so many Bizarro-like strategies in the face of contrary research and common sense...unless the intention was not educational reform but distraction. Perhaps standardized testing, VAM, RTTT and Common Core are simply distractors for public outrage while the true enemies of public education continue their efforts to expand the opportunities in public education for market based solutions.  You remember market based solutions, don’t you?  That’s the euphemism for using public money in ways that benefit investors and not students.  Perhaps the real issue here is that Mr. Duncan is a high level Bizarro #1 lightning rod for the outrage of teachers and parents, and bases his decisions about processes and policies on which will be the most controversial without calling attention to the real problem...the privatization of public education through vouchers and for-profit charters.  The alternative is too terrible to contemplate...unless, of course, you are Bizarro #1.
    


6/19/14

Testing the Alternatives

Testing the Alternatives
 
 
Jim Arnold recently retired from the superintendent's position of the Pelham City, GA Schools and blogs at http://www.drjamesarnold.com/.  Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professwor of English Education at the University of Georgia whose public essays are archived at http://smago.coe.uga.edu/vita/vitaweb.htm#OpEd
 
Last fall journalists exposed the wretched conditions at Trenton (NJ) High School.  Brown water oozed from drinking fountains, rodents roamed freely, teachers and students became physically ill from being in the building, mold covered the walls, roofs were leaking, ceilings were crumbling onto the students and teachers below, streams of water ran down the hallways, and morale throughout the building was, not surprisingly, well below sea level.  Conditions reached the point where the met the state criterion of being "so potentially hazardous that it causes an imminent peril to the health and safety of students and staff."
 
Governor Christie, however, issued a stop work order that ended an initiative to make essential repairs on this school and over 50 others that were dangerously unsanitary and just plain dangerous, not because of the menace of free ranging, gun -toting ruffians and thugs but because the decrepit buildings themselves required so much maintenance.
 
While halting repairs on schools, what the state did invest in was accountability for teachers.  No one was accountable for the conditions of the schools until a citizen uprising and news coverage forced a building initiative that fortunately will provide the people of Trenton with a modern facility.  But while dodging chunks of falling ceilings, treading cautiously around scurrying rats, and attempting to teach through building-induced illnesses, teachers remained accountable to the standards that Arne Duncan believes can determine their fitness for the classroom.
 
We live in Georgia, another state in which schools are grossly underfunded yet consultants and testing corporations are living large off the investment of state funds in holding teachers accountable, regardless of their work conditions or the life conditions of their students.  Most schools cannot afford to run a full year, with roughly two-thirds cancelling 10-30 days every year and requiring teachers to take "furlough" days to make budget.  Further, schools in our state have 20th century connectivity infrastructures and technology affordances, limiting the degree to which kids can learn what they'll need to know to navigate and thrive in our emerging, digitally-driven society.
 
What we need, however, according to the people making educational policy these days, is not money dedicated to provide a full school year - and many people, evidently unaware that most Georgia schools cannot afford 180 days of school, are pushing for longer school days and years - but a more rigorous curriculum and more tests, preferably more rigorous tests.  We use the term "rigorous" ironically given that the rigor of curriculum and assessment are claimed again and again but never established in any clear or responsible way.
 
Last year the state of Georgia DOE spent a little over $18 million on End of Courses Tests in high school and Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) in lower grades.  Plans to replace the CRCT with yet a newer testing regime, Georgia Milestones, are underway to the tune of $108 million.  Georgia BOE minutes for the May 2014 meeting report that "the State School Superintendent {has been authorized} to enter into a contract with TBD at a cost not to exceed TBD in State/Federal funds for the development, administration, scoring and reporting of a new student assessment system."  TBD seems guaranteed to add significantly to the millions already spent on standardized testing in Georgia.
 
Regardless of expense, the Georgia Measure of Achievement and Progress will still be administered at the end of the school year and student scores will be returned to schools far too late to have any positive effect on teaching and learning.  Since the tests are administered near the end of each school year rather than at the beginning, it's safe to assume their purpose is political rather than diagnostic.
 
Just assuming that Georgia will spend nearly $140 million on testing and test development next year - and we are only including End of Course Test, CRCT, and GMAP expenditures which are only a few of the tests administered in Georgia - what else might the GADOE do with the money?
 
For starters, let's say the money be equitably distributed to districts for the express purpose of hiring more teachers and reducing class sizes for required classes, or even to re-staff faculties with teachers of music, art, drama and vocational electives that have been eliminated by austerity cuts.  The state salary schedule for first year teachers with no experience is about $31,600.  Assuming benefits for those teachers equals about 1/3 of that figure, salary and benefits for a first year teacher with no experience would be around $41,000.  Given the reduction in the number of teachers employed statewide over the last several years and the availability of teachers with experiences, let's put that figure at an even $50K.  That's $20 million dollars which would hire an additional 400 teachers statewide - admittedly not much in a state with roughly 2300 schools, but a step in the right direction.
 
Funding for school nurses has also been reduced in recent years.  Stephen Krashen argues that school nurses are among the best investments that communities can make to improve education, given that kids are better students when they are healthier.  There are about 2300 public schools in Georgia and the 2014 budget for nursing services is $32,741,000.  That averages around $13K per school for nursing services.  Even adding $20 million to that figure raises the amount per school to $13,900 for nurses.  Certainly not a large increase, but significant in reducing the amount of local funds used to pay for essential nursing services.
 
There are other places where the money currently spent on standardized testing could be better invested:  mental health services for students, remedial instruction, building repair and replacement, instructional supplies, and countless more where a few millions of dollars would help replace programs and services cut over the last 10 years of underfunding and neglect in the name of educational reform that is neither educational nor reformative.
 
The point is that millions spent in Georgia on testing could be spent in ways that could have an ameliorative effect on the causes of poverty and this a beneficial effect on schooling.  Standardized testing in all its forms merely serves to point out the effects of that poverty again and again with no solutions presented except to blame teachers for the consequences.  How many tests does it take to learn that middle class and affluent children tend to do well on standardized tests and poor kids tend not to?
 
In this brief essay we have not provided a complete portrait of the funds spent on curriculum and assessment developed by corporate providers, or the costs involved in funding schools properly to do their jobs.  A more detailed examination of the labyrinthine state budgets might identify even greater amounts currently being diverted to testing, testing, testing and far more alternative investment possibilities than we have outlined here.  Putting so much in the dubious testing enterprise has not only provided misleading information about the achievement of student sand impact of teachers, but done so at great expense to far greater needs.  We find this misplacement of priorities to serve as a sad illustration of the grotesque values and beliefs that drive the current accountability policies governing education.