Sunday, January 29, 2012

Diane Ravitch: who is winning the fight for education reform?

From the Diane Ravitch blog,

Back when I was on the right side of the political fence, I was on the editoarial board at Education Next. It is supported by the Hoover Institution and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, both conservative think tanks with which I was affiliated. The journal, which is based at Harvard and edited mainly by Paul Peterson, was created to counter what was seen as the liberal bias of the mainstream education media.

Education Next is a well-edited journal (I used to write a monthly book review there), but it does have a strong bias in favor of charter schools, vouchers, and testing. It is the journal of the corporate reform movement.

The current issue of Education Next has a fascinating article about the “reformers’ fight club.” I have been writing and speaking about the interconnections among these organizations (and there are many more), and it is good to see confirmation of what I have been saying.

For some reason, these incredibly rich and powerful organizations like to portray themselves as underdogs in contrast to the teachers’ unions.

So, get this picture: On one side are the 3.2 million teachers who belong to the NEA and the AFT. On the other side are the Gates Foundation ($60 billion), the Broad Foundation (billions), the Walton Foundation (billions, and spent $159 million this past year alone on education grants), the Dell Foundation, big corporations, Democrats for Education Reform (Wall Street hedge fund managers who can pump millions into political campaigns at will), and 50CAN (more hedge fund managers). And there are supposedly “liberal” advocacy groups like Education Trust and Ed Sector.

Gosh, that is surely an unequal lineup. No wonder the “fight club” feels like underdogs. Those teachers’ unions are just so doggone powerful and rich. Why, they have the big foundations and Wall Street trembling. Who knew that teachers had so much power?

Florida is open for business, Pearson Spends hundreds of thousands on lobbying efforts

Click below to watch video. -cpg

9 Investigates: Impact of lobbying contracts on children's...

Despite late scores and questions about grading practices, the state pays International Pearson Incorporated hundreds of millions of dollars to administer the FCAT.

Now, investigative reporter George Spencer discovered Pearson has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to legislators.

In her summertime routine, fifth-grader Erin Newman has now gotten over her FCAT writing score, which as for many Florida students, was lower than she expected.

But in Tallahassee, WFTV learned that the private company behind the test deals in numbers that are very high.

Despite scoring problems and student failures, the state is paying Pearson $249 million for five years of tests and grading. WFTV also found that Pearson spend hundreds of thousands to influence those same leaders.

"Public education is open for business. Whoever the best bidder is, you can come in and administer our test for us," said parent Rebecca Newman. "It's ridiculous!"

WFTV studied public records and discovered that since 2007, two years before getting its current contract, the International Pearson Incorporated has spent at least $580,000, and possibly as much as $800,000 on lobbyists in Florida's capital.

But Pearson's quarterly spending often put it in the highest tier of lobbyist spending by firms in any sector.

Lobbyists are paid to advocate their clients' interests in the halls of power, meeting face-to-face with lawmakers. They're known to be persistent, sometimes returning time and again to make their case.

Pearson's money went to Uhlfelder and Associates.

According to the group's website, it was named "one of the top lobbying firms in Florida by Influence magazine."

The group claims to have "extraordinary knowledge of the people, the policies and the processes of Florida government to "get the results our clients demand."

"Should the state cut its ties with this company?" Spencer asked.

"I absolutely think that we should cut out ties," said Representative Geraldine Thompson.

Thompson, a longtime educator, was already troubled by Pearson's late grading debacle in 2010, an avalanche of writing test failures this year and concerns about test questions with more than one right answer.

WFTV learned that other education firms also use lobbyists.

Uhlfelder said he was chosen as lobbyist for his educational expertise and that his lobbying work had no impact on Pearson's FCAT contract. Pearson said its reputation for educational excellence allows them to use lobbyists only to inform and advise elected officials.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jeb Bush's legacy tarnished as High-Stakes Testing Resistance Spreads Across Florida.

From Scathing Purple Musings, by Bob Sykes

The Bradenton Times has a comprehensive story this morning titled, “High-Stakes Testing Resistance Spreads Across Florida.” Highlighting Manatee county’s decision, the Times has this:

In Florida, more than a dozen countywide school committees serving three-quarters of a million students endorsed the National Resolution, according to FairTest. Early supporters included Broward County, the nation’s sixth biggest district, and Palm Beach County, the 11th largest. Then, the state association of school boards annual convention voted to endorse a state-specific version. Dozens of newspaper editorials, opinion columns, and letters to the editor have called for a reduction in testing and an overhaul of the state’s assessment system.

Members of the Manatee School District feel an unjustified overemphasis is placed on high stakes testing. They voted to adopt the resolution at Monday night’s meeting.

“We are in favor of accountability – not against it,” Chairman Harry Kinnan said at Monday’s meeting. “Accountability is a fact of life. We are advocating change to the current demands of the legislation because we have seen no evidence that the legislative pipeline will bring relief to this issue.”

My emphasis on Chairman Kinnan’s statement illustrates how far apart the realities are. In Tallahassee legislators have been affecting education policy in Jeb Bush’s echo chamber where voices like Kinnan’s aren’t heard. Nor are they wanted.

The wave of resolutions against high-stakes testing is an emerging threat to Bush’s legacy as a transformative figure in education. He’s can’t demonize teacher unions or trot out favorable data this time as a legitimate counter. The resolutions are driven by real grassroot efforts that unlike faux charter school movements like Parent Revolution, aren’t funded by corporate and hedge fund dollars. Real opposition to his test-based regime is coming from parents – or consumers if you like – for whom Bush purports to be championing “choice.”

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Testing mandates flunk cost-benefit analysis

From the Washinton Post's Answer Sheet, By Peter Smagorinsky

According to Wikipedia, cost–benefit analysis “is a systematic process for calculating and comparing benefits and costs of a project, decision or government policy (hereafter, ‘project’). CBA has two purposes:

1.To determine if it is a sound investment/decision (justification/feasibility),

2.To provide a basis for comparing projects. It involves comparing the total expected cost of each option against the total expected benefits, to see whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and by how much.”

I believe that it would be prudent to apply this process to the current accountability movement now being administered in public education, primarily in the form of testing mandates such as No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top. Although I am not an economist — I’m an old high school English teacher now engaged in teacher education at the university level — I believe that I understand the issues at stake as well as anyone currently employed in the U.S. Department of Education.

First, let’s consider the costs. In Texas, taxpayers will pay about $93 million this year to administer standardized tests to Texas students . . . or nearly ten times the cost of just nine years earlier. The Georgia state Department of Education pays McGraw-Hill about $11 million a year to produce the CRCT, and more than $5.4 million to NCS Pearson for the EOCT; and as listed here, these are just two of the many tests administered in my home state. The annual cost of standardized testing in the United States has been estimated at somewhere between $20 billion and $50 billion.

Some defenders of standardized testing maintain that critics exaggerate the costs in order to overstate the case against the accountability movement. Upon further consideration, I must wonder exactly what is computed to determine the costs of test administration and scoring: Teacher salaries during test preparation? The cost of #2 pencils? Operating a school building on Saturdays to accommodate testing? And so on. With that caution, I’ll accept only the lowest estimate, a mere $20 billion price tag, and proceed from that assumption. Now, what are we getting for our $20 billion?

* Some of the lowest teacher morale survey responses ever recorded.

* Massive, pervasive cheating on tests by administrators, and by the teachers bullied into enforcing their pressure for high scores.

* Six-figure bonuses for school superintendents whose scores meet a minimum standard, no matter what it takes to achieve them.

* Federal penalties for schools caught cheating, denying them essential operating budgets.

* Students who see their role models on the faculty and in the administration behave in unethical ways in order to artificially raise test scores by cheating.

* Curriculum and instruction that focus on fragmented knowledge bits and avoid time-consuming, process-oriented, insight-driven teaching and learning.

* Immense profits for textbook publishers who have entered the competition for designing and administering the tests and writing the curriculum materials that are aligned with the tested content.

* An institutionalized assumption that poverty is not a factor in student achievement, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary.

Based on this cost-benefit analysis, I conclude that the accountability is making education very profitable for a limited number of publishing companies who, it turns out, have invested heavily in political connections (e.g., McGraw-Hill and the Bush family). It also is quite lucrative for school superintendents who don’t get caught cheating, although it can cost them their jobs if they do get caught. Apparently, their own cost-benefit analysis of cheating typically leads to high-risk behaviors with high-stakes consequences.

Other groups pay for the accountability, and not just through the taxes they pay to raise that $20 billion annually to support the testing apparatus. Teachers increasingly dislike their jobs and consider their work environments to be hostile and depressing. According to Richard Ingersoll, 40 percent of new teachers nationwide bolt the profession within five years because of the terrible working conditions; and a new report by the Education Trust identifies the “culture” of school—the work conditions — to be the top priority in a satisfying teaching career, particularly in high-poverty schools. The primary motive for entering a teaching career and staying in it, then, has been sacrificed to the accountability movement.

Students as well do not benefit from this approach. Rather, their education is reduced to an endless series of assessments of their ability to fill in bubble sheets, at the expense of more extended thinking such as writing or composing other sorts of texts that they find useful and meaningful.

I can only conclude that the $20 billion annually spent on testing as a means of educational accountability is a poor expenditure of our tax dollars. I would now like to propose a different means of assessment that I believe has greater validity as an educational measurement, and will produce a more satisfying teaching environment that is more likely to keep the best teachers in the profession. Unfortunately, it has the downside of failing to enrich superintendents and publishing companies, but I am willing to live with that unfortunate consequence.

But first, let’s keep that $20 billion budget available. Here’s how I would reinvest it, beginning with some suggestions for addressing the needs of children more than the needs of publishing companies and other wealthy entities cashing in on the new accountability mandates:

* Provide a good nursing staff, particularly in impoverished areas, so that kids who live in poverty can undertake their studies with a reasonable degree of health and balance. Sick, dizzy, aching, itching, wounded, and distracted children with limited access to health care or guidance in navigating the health system would benefit from the immediate care of a qualified health professional.

* Expand free and reduced-price meals for children from homes where fresh food is not available, and work to improve the healthiness of the food offerings under these services. Kids who haven’t eaten are very difficult to teach effectively.

* Staff school libraries with knowledgeable, helpful media specialists who can direct students to books that benefit their reading and educational development.

In general, invest in school infrastructures so that they are in good operating order, rather than falling apart at the seams.

Note that I am not calling for increased teacher salaries, although that would sure be nice. I am proceeding according to the assumption that for many teachers, good work conditions matter more than a high salary. So I am starting there, assuming that my $20 billion can only go so far.

My last suggestion concerns assessment. To be blunt: Standardized tests are a really stupid way to measure learning. Hardly anyone involved with education finds them to be valid; they are mostly believed to be worthwhile expenditures of time and money by people who have never taught. People like Arne Duncan and Bill & Melinda Gates.

I recommend instead that assessment proceed more authentically. Linda Darling-Hammond, Jacqueline Ancess, and Beverly Falk described this approach in the mid-1990s, and their ideas still resonate today — perhaps now more than ever. In their view, schools could institute such assessments as comprehensive, interdisciplinary projects through which students embody what they have learned during their studies. A boy might build a set of cabinets, for example, incorporating mathematics, physics, chemistry, kinesthetics, drawing, writing, speaking, and other knowledge and skills in order to design, build, polish, and then explain the project and what it involves. This proposal for project-based learning and assessment is taken up in some schools, such as Simon Hauger’s “Sustainability Workshop” in Philadelphia, where kids build solar charging stations, full-sized electric vehicles, and other machines to demonstrate their knowledge. Hauger, I should note, accomplishes these remarkable feats with kids from West Philly, not from The Main Line.

Now, some might wonder, how can this plan work, when it relies on such complicated projects and means of assessment? What about the elegant simplicity of a nice, firm test score? Doesn’t a quantitative test score tell more about a kid’s mathematical knowledge than his ability to measure a cabinet door so that it fits the frame? And what about the broader community? How will they know how this kid stacks up against another cabinet builder from Milwaukee? What if their cabinets both work equally well, albeit for different purposes—perhaps one to store DVDs, the other to display china? How will we know who won the Race To The Top under this approach?

Here’s where some of my $20 billion budget comes in handy. As part of a broader effort to increase internet capacity, some amount — let’s ballpark it at $2 billion annually, 10% of my budget, although I could be off by a few billion dollars — could be dedicated to expanding each school’s server space, or perhaps link each to a national database, so that each student’s work could be displayed. What would you rather be able to do: (1) learn that Freddi got a 79 on the CRT (and see if you can figure out what these scores even mean) or (2) go online and see a web demonstration of the new wardrobe that Freddi has designed, cut, sewn, and tailored along with a verbal account of the process she went through and the academic knowledge that she incorporated into the project?

So, there you have it, one person’s view of a cost-effective way to invest $20 billion in the necessity of educational assessment. It’s a bit more complicated that what we’ve presently got, just like learning and life in general. It puts money into classrooms and school infrastructures, instead of in the bank accounts of book publishers and the politicians they influence with contributions. It requires more work of the taxpayer in seeing and understanding educational outcomes, but the products are multidimensional and real, rather than paper-thin and abstract. And that new technological infrastructure could probably serve a few additional beneficial purposes for school districts beyond the immediate and designated purpose of publishing assessment results. I’m thinking here of one of my neighboring counties, where the computers available to teachers still use Windows 3.0 for their operating system.

I offer this proposal entirely for free, unlike the situation in states like Colorado where 35% of their federal education money is paid to consultants. You are free to take it or leave it. But whatever you do, you can’t say that it cost you too much.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Diane Ravitch: Does experience matter?

From the Diane Ravitch blog,

One of the axioms of corporate reform in education is that experience doesn’t matter. Also, they say, degrees don’t matter. Certification doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except “performance” or “results,” and these are defined as the “measurables,” the test scores. If a teacher can get students to produce higher test scores, he or she is a good teacher. If they can do it year after year, they are “great” teachers.

Reformers say that you can’t know in advance who the great teachers are. You have to collect the test scores for three or four years, and then you know who they are, and you give them a bonus. You also know who the “bad” teachers are, and you fire them.

But is it true that experience doesn’t matter? The reformers’ claim that teachers reach their peak performance by their third or fourth year, and they never get any better.

This could be taken in different ways. It might mean that teachers hit their stride in the third or fourth year, and districts should hold on to those who have reached that level. It also might mean that districts should avoid TFA, because most of them will leave after two years, and never hit their stride.

But reformers think it means experience doesn’t count, because teachers don’t continue to improve after that magical third or fourth year.

Of course, this is based on economists’ analysis of test scores, not interaction with teachers or deep study and observation of teacher performance.

This teacher disagrees:

After 26 years, I am still tryng to perfect my craft and get better every day. Building my own classroom library of close to 1,700 YAL books takes years. Reading most of them, or at least the first in a series, and keeping up with the interests of 12 and 13 year olds is constant, time-consuming and ever changing. There is so much that can’t be measured by a Gates selected “researcher” who has no clue how to relate to, motivate and respect children.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Rick Scott wants to double down on high stakes testing

From Scathing Purple Musings, by Bob Sykes

The Tampa Bay Times Jeff Solochek reports on Rick Scott’s speech to Pasco County republicans. Knowing he was in the room with like-minded supporters, Scott let loose with predictable drivel on education:

Scott opened his remarks by praising Pasco Republicans for helping to elect conservatives like Will Weatherford, the incoming speaker of the Florida House. He urged them to continue their grassroots efforts to put more conservatives in office to help enact laws that families care about.

“What do you think families care about?” he said. “They want their children to get a great education. … They want to make sure they can get a job. And they don’t want government to raise the cost of living.”

He segued into the issue of teacher tenure.

“We love our teachers,” Scott said. “But no one should be guaranteed a job. Our principals should be able to … pick the best teachers.”

Republicans like Scott and some of those in the room probably bristled when Democrats would condemn the war in Iraq all the while maintaining that they supported the troops. A similar disconnect exists in Scott’s rhetoric. You can’t love teachers while mocking them.

But most telling about his appearance before this friendly audience is what Scott ignored: the growing number of school boards and parent groups who are passing resolutions on high-stakes testing. Writes Solochek:

Scott also mocked universities that are seeking to increase tuition by 15 percent each year, and spoke enthusiastically about continuing the state’s testing and accountability system. There has to be a way to measure results in the schools, he said. He related that he called a teacher who complained about the over-reliance on FCAT, a big issue these days. But when he asked the teacher for an alternative, the teacher had nothing to offer, Scott said with a smirk, as the audience tittered.

Scott – and Jeb Bush’s PR machine - are trying to spin that opposition to their test-dominated regime is coming from teachers. Not only are their efforts disingenuous, they are no longer intellectually defensible. Republican politicians are among the school boards who signed onto the resolutions which opposed their high-stake tests. Local school boards don’t really care what their teachers think anymore in large part due to demonization from Bush over the last decade.

Scott still feels that republicans are drinking the “choice” kool-aid:

Choice in the form of charters, vouchers and other options also help to improve education, the governor continued.

“Parents want choice,” he said. “All parents should have a choice. … Choice makes everyone better.”

With the Florida PTA joining other parent groups in the resolution on high-stakes tests, Scott and Bush can no longer claim to speak for parents. For them, choice means charter schools and vouchers. Not tests, you see. They build their choice arguments around the idea that parents know best, but outrageously deny their choice on testing.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

More high stakes tests coming for Florida's students

From the Tampa Bay Times, by Cara Fitzpatrick

A third of Americans can't name any of the three branches of government. Fewer than half understand what separation of powers is, and twice as many can name a judge on American Idol than the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Survey after survey has shown that Americans lack basic knowledge about how their government works. That's something Florida lawmakers hope to change.

The state is introducing a new end-of-course exam in civics for middle school students, the first high-stakes test required for middle school promotion. Students now have to take a civics class in middle school. By the 2014-15 school year, they'll have to pass the end-of-course exam to attend high school.

High-stakes tests aren't new to Florida. Third-graders must pass the reading Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to move to the fourth grade, while high school students must pass the FCAT to graduate. The civics exam affects this year's incoming sixth-graders.

Leslie Christenson, a Hillsborough County mother of a rising sixth-grader, said she thinks the state should teach civics. But she thinks a high-stakes exam is overkill.

"I think it's good for them to know it, but not to be held back because of it," she said.

State education officials plan to field test the new civics exam this year. In the 2013-14 school year, 30 percent of a student's civics grade will depend on the test score.

The state also has developed other end-of-course exams, which affect high school graduation. This year's incoming ninth-graders will have to pass tests in algebra, biology and geometry to graduate. Students also will take an end-of-course exam in U.S. history, but it won't affect graduation.

The new civics exam represents a big change for Florida, which only recently began to require students to take a separate civics class. For years, the subject often was included in a government class, usually taken at the end of high school.

Of Florida school districts surveyed between 2003 and 2005, fewer than 10 percent offered a stand-alone civics course, according to the Florida Law Related Education Association.

Lawmakers changed that in 2010, requiring students to take the end-of-course exam and one semester of civics in middle school. It passed without any opposition in either the state House or Senate.

Christenson said she fears that students won't be interested in civics and it might make it tough for them to pass the end-of-course exam.

"They're not going to want to study it," she said.

Some teachers in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties already are using a virtual program, iCivics, to try to engage students.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor created the iCivics program after leaving the bench to address the lack of government knowledge among Americans. It offers virtual civics lessons and interactive gaming modules, alongside lectures and homework assignments.

Eric Leopold, a civics teacher at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo, said that the favorite games of his students are "Counties Work," "Do I Have a Right," and "Immigration Nation." He credits the games with improving students' knowledge of political issues.

Angela Zollo, social studies department chair at Palm Harbor Middle School, said that the iCivics programs "reinforce the civics standards that we are required to teach."

"It is a great visual and hands-on activity for students," she said.

Nicholas Fox, 13, used iCivics when he was a student in Leopold's class. He said he enjoyed the games and "learning about the law."

"Coming into it from sixth grade, I did know about the very basics — like that there are three branches of government — but I didn't know a lot," he said. "After I took the class, I learned."

Correspondent Alexander Heffner contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at, (727)-893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.