Tag Archives: educational reform

Mind the Achievement Gap

The New York Times picked up on the MDRC report I had written about here. This was the report that credited Bloomberg’s small schools with higher graduation rates in New York City. Despite the fatal flaws in the report, the NY Times (as is the case with the media in general), parroted its pro-Bloomberg findings.

And yet, in the same issue, the NY Times also ran a story about the achievement gap. The studies they cite find that the racial achievement gap has been narrowing while the income achievement gap has been expanding. As it says in the article: “One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.”

Interesting, since the small schools that the Times so highly touts have fewer of these activities than the large schools they replaced. Does this mean the small schools only serve to perpetuate the achievement gap between rich and poor? I suppose this contradiction is lost on the editorial board of the NY Times.

It is high time that the media stops equating improved graduation rates with success. All they are doing is worshipping at the altar of data that has defined the Bloomberg regime from the start.

Graduation rates are up because standards are down. Replacing one large school with four small ones requires a massive shake up of the staff. The veteran teachers are fired or reassigned, then replaced with pliable youngsters from Teach for America and the Teaching Fellows. At the same time, four new schools mean four new principals and a boatload more assistant principals. There is a higher administrator-to-teacher ratio, allowing administrators more time to meddle in the affairs of the teachers in their charge.

Anybody who has worked in a small school knows what all of this adds up to. The reduced teacher load for administrators means they can have one-on-one conferences with their teachers to question them about the grades of their students. Each teacher’s passing rates are compared to the passing rates of every other teacher in the school, and then the passing rates of the system at large. The message is clear: this percentage of students must pass, no matter what. If not, expect more meetings, more observations, more nitpicking and more harassment.

So teachers pass kids who really have not learned anything. They find nonsense extra credit assignments so their struggling students can make up the points required to pass. The only students who end up failing are the truants that make their appearance a couple of times a month. For the select few that actually fail, they now are able to take online credit recovery classes, many times on subjects that have no relation to those that they failed.

Then these students get turned loose into the real world. Whether they go to college or into the workforce, they have been trained to believe that they are entitled to rewards for shoddy work. If they struggle, they have been trained to expect second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth chances. This is a major reason why those graduates that the NY Times and the MDRC so mindlessly applaud end up dropping out of college by their second year.

But our graduates have little to fear. President Obama is on a mission to ensure that what standards are left in college go right out the window. He wants more online classes, lower-salaried professors and, ultimately, a college teaching staff with no autonomy at all. That way, professors will be too scared to fail anybody and our illustrious high school graduates can continue to get unlimited chances for another four years.

This is all as it should be in the corporate takeover of our schools and our country. The truth is that the reformers do want our graduates to have any capacity for independent thought at all. It is not as if the jobs that they intend to provide in the future will require any skill outside of punching a few buttons or reading from a script. Giving the gift of critical thinking to the low-wage functionaries of the future would just put ideas in their head that are too big for their station in life. We saw what happened when the slaves of the American south got a taste of book learning: revolts, uprisings and a rejection of subservience.

Publications of record like the NY Times are complicit in the destruction of the American mind. Do not be fooled with their apparent concern for the socioeconomic achievement gap. The policies they laud are only designed to perpetuate and widen that gap.

Let Students Evaluate Teachers?

That is the contention of a recent piece in the Village Voice. It seems like a fair suggestion for Governor Andy, who claims to be a lobbyist for students. Of course, students cannot pour billions of dollars into his campaign coffers like Rupert Murdoch can, so there is little chance that he will take this proposal seriously.

As teachers, we are likely to reject such a harebrained scheme out of hand. But there might be something to be said for students having some say in teacher evaluations.

I was a dean for several years. As such, I always heard student critiques of their teachers. The vast majority of these critiques would be negative, mostly because these were the most disengaged students from school. That means that those rare occasions on which these students said something positive about a teacher’s teaching were that more meaningful. There would be two types of positive feedback. The first, easily disregarded, was complimenting Ms. Smith because she was a pushover. “Oh, but she allows us to eat in class and have parties every day, she is mad cool.” Of course, I considered this more of an insult to Ms. Smith than anything else. The other type of compliment, which one could usually bank on, would be that Ms. Johnson was strict but a good teacher. Usually, they would say something like “But you actually learn in Ms. Johnson’s class.” I always considered this the highest praise a teacher can get.

Usually, the critiques of the most disengaged students had grains of truth in it, even if the rest of their opinions were delusional. Students have a sense of when their teachers work hard or care for them or know their subject. That is why I think student feedback should count for no more than 15% of teacher evaluations.

But, would not students rate teachers based upon personal animus? If Ms. Johnson fails or disciplines a student, does she not put herself at risk of being a victim of sour grapes? Furthermore, do students not already have an inordinate amount of power over the lives of their teachers as it is? Cannot one false accusation of a jaded student ruin the career of an excellent teacher?

I believe these arguments destroy the proposition of the Village Voice. Students already wield too much power over teachers and they know it. Student evaluations would only mean something if teachers are protected against frivolous accusations. That would include no automatic removal of teachers from the classroom, having the right to know the charges against you, being able to face your accuser and an entitlement to a fair, independent investigation. Until these things happen, which is unlikely, the idea of student evaluations has to stay on the shelf.

More importantly, the other 85% of teacher evaluations should come from colleagues and administrators. Teachers should be able to rate their colleagues based upon how collaborative they are with the rest of the staff and how hard they work at perfecting their craft. Administrators should be able to rate teachers based upon how rigorous they are in the classroom and how they do at classroom management. Of course, this would mean that administrators should be able to recognize good teaching and content mastery when they see it. This requires the further step of setting the bar way higher to becoming an administrator. Today, all one needs to be an administrator in NYC is three years in the classroom and a dime store administrator’s degree. It should be increased to 10 years in the classroom, while administrator programs should be more academically rigorous and require future administrators to recognize good teaching. Because of the proliferation of small schools under Bloomberg, there has been a mad rush to pump out administrators and that has meant a huge devaluation of what it takes call oneself principal or assistant principal. As it is now, the barrier of entry into administration is so low, and the stories of petty or incompetent administrators so pervasive, that even the best principals in the city are cheapened.

In short, the Village Voice proposal sounds nice, but it misses the point. Only until both teaching and school administration are held in higher regard by the powers that be can the profession be secure enough to allow student evaluations.

The Values of NYC’s Department of Education

Parents, students and community leaders protest for the ouster of the sexual harasser principal John Chase, Jr. at Bronxdale High.

Lisa Cruz Diaz was removed from her position as principal of P.S. 31 in the Bronx for falsifying overtime sheets to the tune of nearly $5,000. The real amount stolen would be much more if this was something Ms. Cruz did over the long haul.

I wish I could get worked up into a self-righteous lather about Ms. Cruz betraying tax-payer trust. The truth is, what Ms. Cruz did is nothing compared to the systemic corruption that occurs inside and outside Bloomberg’s Department of Education. Eva Moskowitz gets paid over $300,000 a year for destroying inner-city public schools. Trillions in tax dollars bailed out sleazy CEOs who led the economy off of a cliff. Pardon me for being desensitized to the type of petty malfeasance committed by Ms. Cruz.

Yet, there is something in this story to get worked up over. It seems principals in New York City can sexually harass their staffs, fudge student transcripts and try to destroy teachers based on personal vendettas with no repercussion at all. Their leadership can be so odious that hundreds of people from the school and community, especially students, show up to protest. They can do things that endanger the well-being and futures of children and face no consequences.-

The message is clear: the way a principal treats people does not matter. The way a principal treats money does.

This is the lesson children in NYC schools are learning. Principals are objects of mystery and fear to children. They may not see their principals every day but they know he/she runs the building and gets paid a hefty salary to do it. The principal’s voice may occasionally crackle over their school’s public address system, a disembodied voice of authority and power. In short, principals occupy a very important place in the lives of children. They are the first leaders children know.

The DOE’s principal policy sends the message that leadership is not about treating people fairly. In fact, it does not matter how you treat people at all. Creating a healthy environment where everyone can flourish is not even part of the job description. No, just take care of the money. Violating the public’s trust over their money is the worst thing you can do.

At the same time, the DOE can spend millions on charters run by politically connected people like Eva Moskowitz. They can bring in “consultants” who pull enormous salaries just because their uncles or sisters work at Tweed (The DOE’s central building which has always been, and continues to be, a bastion of old-fashioned New York City political cronyism). Ms. Cruz lost her position not because she was corrupt, but because she was the wrong type of corrupt.

These are the lessons children in New York City are learning. Money over people. The job of the leader is to ensure that the corruption in the system works in only one way. Not everyone can profit from the gravy train; only those with the right connections. Outside of that, people in power can do what they want.

So kids, if you have a personal vendetta with someone in the cafeteria, try to get some power when you grow up. You will be able to use it to destroy anyone you want. Nobody will ever cross you again. If you like the opposite sex, you can use your power to harass as many of them as you want. Nothing is out of bounds when dealing with the people you lead; just watch what you do with the money.

This is corporate school reform.

The Anatomy of Education Deform

It starts with a study like this one as reported by the New York Times. A bunch of Ivy League economists get together to study the impact of teachers on students.  “Better” teachers were those whose students had improving standardized exam scores. They then track 2.5 million students over the course of several years. Their findings show students who had at least one “good” teacher between the 4th and 8th grades go on to make $4, 600 more than those who only had one “average” teacher. Furthermore, “students with top teachers are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, more likely to enroll in college, and more likely to earn more money as adults.” The implication is that we need to evaluate teachers by their students’ exam scores and fire the ones that are “bad”. According to one of the economists who conducted the study, John Friedman, “the message is to fire people (teachers) sooner rather than later.”

This is the embryonic stage of an education deformation. By reading its DNA, we discover everything education deform is and what it is capable of doing.

Scientists deal in the world of inanimate facts. They can use laboratories to create controlled environments, allowing them to eliminate variables to discover true cause and effect relationships. While real scientists in all fields have their hot button debates, those debates take place within a wider tradition of consensus on fundamental ideas. Economists and Educationists, on the other hand, are social scientists who generally have no such consensus. They are divided into ideological camps.Economists can be Keynesians or Neoliberals, Salt Water or Fresh Water. Education “experts” are whole language or phonics, constructivists or traditionalists. Their research has no lab and instead has to take place in the wild, so to speak. That means they cannot control for variables, which means they have no way of knowing if that tax cut was really the thing that boosted the economy or that teacher was the thing that boosted test scores. They observe human interactions as literally millions of factors act upon those interactions and then choose one of those factors as the sole “cause”. Despite the pretense of using data, their conclusions are generally shaped by the ideology they wish to support. After all, in the grand scheme of things, all ideologies in the social sciences have been “proven” at some point with data.

Let us assume for now that their contention is true, that you can assess a “good” teacher by their students’ test scores and that bad teachers adversely impact the futures of their students. Why, then, is “the message …to fire people sooner rather than later”? There is nothing in their research that proves firing bad teachers sooner rather than later is a benefit. First, with whom do you replace those bad teachers? First year teachers would be unknown quantities since they cannot be judged by student exam scores. Would it be beneficial to use them over bad teachers? Why fire anyone at all? The message of their research could just as easily be to mentor or support bad teachers so they can become good teachers. Or maybe the message is we need to do another study on what makes the “good” teachers so good and teach that to all the bad ones. There are literally hundreds of conclusions that can be drawn from this research. Out of all of those conclusions, it is curious that Friedman would choose to spout this one. Logically speaking, it does not necessarily follow from his research.

And the research does not necessarily follow any logic of its own. According the manuscript (which you can read here), they looked at 2.5 million students in the same state. They looked at their enrollment histories, previous test scores and household wealth. If their exam scores went down at the end of a school year with a given teacher, they can tell that the teacher had a negative effect size. In the words of the study, “the jump in the teacher’s impact at the end of the grade taught by that teacher suggests that the observed impact on test scores is most likely due to a causal effect of the teacher rather than systematic differences in student characteristics, as such characteristics would have to be uncorrelated with past test scores and only affect the current test score.”

Really?

I teach U.S. History which has a Regents Exam by the end of the school year. The previous year the students take Global History with other teachers, which also culminates in a Regents Exam. Due to scoring rubrics and content, the Global History exam is way tougher than the U.S. History exam. Students who take U.S. History with me generally get higher grades on that exam than they did on the Global exam. Does this mean I am a better teacher than all the teachers of Global? According to this study, the answer is yes. They assume that every test is an equally objective barometer of student achievement. There is no way for the study to control for the varying difficulties of each exam, whether it is the difficulty of the rubric or vocabulary or content. The Global exam also requires kids to remember concepts over a two-year period (Global History is a two-year course), while U.S. History is only one year. Not to mention, students take Global History in their 9th and 10th grades. Everyone knows that 9th and 10th graders are way different than 11th graders. 9th and 10th graders are less mature, less focused and generally in greater danger of dropping out or falling behind. 11th graders are over the hump of their high school years, many of them focusing on getting into college or starting life in the real world. They are young adults, more mature and, yes, generally smarter than kids in previous grades. The economists who did the study, however, believe humans do not change over time. They have fixed “characteristics” as they say, so any change in exam scores must be the result of the teacher. From the top to bottom, the study is wrought with issues like these that fail to take in every single factor that contributes to any given exam score. This makes the study less scientific and more like guesswork.

For these reasons, the conclusion the report makes about the long-term impacts of teachers on students’ live is even more problematic. They say students with good teachers in the younger years go on to have lower rates of teenage pregnancy and higher rates of college admissions and adult earnings. This type of thinking holds teachers responsible for not only the education, but the lifestyle choices of their students, choices made well after the student is out of that teacher’s classroom. Despite the fact that there is no way to account for all the potential causal factors in teenage pregnancy, college admissions and earnings, the economists conclude that teachers have a sizeable impact on these things. There is no accounting for cultural reasons why teenagers might have kids or go to college. The economists assume that just because the students in the study come from the same socioeconomic background, they have controlled for the cultural factor in life decisions. What about a poor kid from a family that sets college as an expectation from a young age? How about a poor kid born to a teenage mother or who lives in a neighborhood where teenage motherhood is common? How can a teacher have an “effect size” over personal decisions made years later? What is the role of the teachers the student has at the time kids make these decisions, teachers who were not part of the study?

Despite all of the problems with studies like this, it will surely become a weapon for the education deformers. They will cite the findings of these three Ivy League economists who conducted the largest and longest study of effect size to date. The reports conclude that we should fire “bad” teachers. The defomers will use this conclusion to ram all types of teacher evaluations into the system, evaluations that are designed to fire not bad teachers, but older teachers that make too much money. The economists and the deformers speak the same language. Instead of talking about kids in the context of their cultures, communities, families and schools, they want to tie kids to teachers and teachers only. It is the problem with all of the social sciences. They take what is essentially an art, whether it is life choices, business or teaching and try to contort it into a scientific study. They create studies that are later used as justification for major policy decisions. Unlike scientists in the physical sciences, the ultimate goal of many social scientists is to have their research politicized by people in power. Each supposedly objective study is really a contestant in the game show of “pick a policy”. The true worth of a study is measured not in the scientific rigor of its findings, but whether or not it shapes policy later on.

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine describes the role economists have played in privatization schemes around the world. They have been the vanguard of a Neoliberal movement that seeks to privatize every part of the state. Privatization is the favorite policy of Neoliberals everywhere. Public schools are the latest battleground of the Neoliberal push to privatize. The three economists are taking their study on the road, presenting it to journals in hopes it will become a weapon in the policy debate over public schools. Policy makers will point to this “scientific” study as a justification to get rid of tenure and job security in teaching. The general public will unquestioningly embrace it, as they do every fad study that is reported on in the news. There will be more calls for charter schools that do not have things like teacher tenure. In the words of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz, economics tends to have its fair share of “free market fundamentalists”, people who believe that there should be no public institutions whatsoever.

The three young economists who conducted this study may or not be free market fundamentalists, but they certainly have given the free market fundamentalists in the public school debate a powerful weapon with which to bludgeon public schooling. They are certainly testing fundamentalists and their research assumes the infallible objectivity of standardized exams. In this regard, they are identical to the education deformers.

These economists from this study are education deform ideologues.

Just like deformers, they assume the infallibility of standardized exams. Their research does not even speak to the differences between exams or consider that the exams themselves can be fallible.

Just like deformers, they use that assumption to help conclude that poverty is not destiny. Instead, they all conclude that the teacher is destiny.

Just like education deformers, they say “bad” teachers need to get fired soon, despite the fact that their own research does not necessarily come to this conclusion.

This is not science, it is dogma. What is worse, they use one dogma to prove other dogmas. We will see this study sold as scientific research. What it is really is just another school reform mantra by people with no connection to public school at all. It is just another arrogant set of education deformers who believe their thick assumptions about schools should apply to the education of everyone else’s children.

Governor Cuomo and New Democrats

Andrew Cuomo set to catch a big wad of Wall Street money.

I met Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York State, a few weeks ago. Sidling up to him at a cash register in a Wall Street lunch hour joint, I said, “we miss you and we need you back.” He smiled and said, “they always find a way to get you, don’t they?” Spitzer became New York’s Governor after cultivating the image of a granite-jawed Attorney General who prosecuted Wall Street crimes. He was destroyed early in his Governorship after it was found that he frequently sought the services of prostitutes. The “they” to which he was referring was “Wall Street”, that amorphous shadow of financiers who own our politicians. Governor Spitzer was a threat to “them”, so he had to be destroyed. I usually don’t approach famous people but Eliot Spitzer, in my mind, symbolized a whole lot. Spitzer was what could have been. His story was the start of a long free fall of New York State politics that landed squarely in the lap of the horror show we now have for governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Andrew Cuomo ended 2011 one of the most popular governors in the country. His approval ratings are through the roof. Since becoming governor, he has successfully distanced himself from all of the flotsam and jetsam that usually defines New York State politics. He has kept his distance from the hopelessly dysfunctional New York State legislature, always seen as a den of corruption. He has publicly battled with New York City’s increasingly unpopular Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. He has a last name that inspires confidence and nostalgia in New Yorkers. The Cuomo name is refreshing to New Yorkers after years of the bumbling leadership of David Patterson, who only became governor as a result of Spitzer’s disgrace. No doubt Andrew is getting pointers in political maneuvering from his father, who always tested which way the wind was blowing before spitting. More than anything else, Cuomo has benefitted from having the right name at the right time. He promised hope in a hopeless era of New York politics. Cuomo is New York State’s very own Obama.

Just like Obama, Andrew ran for executive office at a point when the sitting executive was none-too-popular. Obama promised hope and change through words. Andrew promised it with his last name. Both men ran as Democrats, leading Democratic voters to think that “change” meant fighting Democratic battles lying dormant for decades. Obama did this through fiery speeches vague on specifics. Andrew did this by reminding New York of his father, who used to fight some of those battles. Yet, both men have proven that their brand of change is more of the same. Rather than turning back the conservative gains of the past few decades, both executives have solidified and extended those gains. Obama’s work in this field is legendary: more undeclared wars, more surveillance and more handouts to corporations (including Obamacare). They have a Democratic face but, at the core, are identical to Republican policies that benefit corporations. It is the New Democratic Party, same as the Old but totally different from the Original.

And now Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address, to be given this Wednesday, will be a Roman Triumph for the way of the New Democratic Party. In this speech, he will bring refreshing change by reciting a 20-year-old cant accusing schools and teachers of being unaccountable. Of course, he is talking about New York City’s failure to strike a deal with the teachers’ union (UFT) on evaluating teachers. He will appoint a commission (most likely with zero teachers) to come up with a proper evaluation process for teachers. Nothing will stop Andrew from Obama’s Race to the Top money. Here is the New Democratic Party, declaring war on public workers and public schooling in favor of pro-corporate reform. It is just like the Old and the same as the Republicans.

Andrew will also speak about a “foreclosure relief unit” which, according to the Daily News article, “will serve as an advocate to struggling homeowners.” It will “provide counseling and mediation services designed to help resolve mortgage issues and keep people in their homes.” Translation: instead of going after the corrupt foreclosure system that is stacked in favor of the banks to the point where they can intentionally lie and fudge paperwork to foreclose on people, we will make people feel better about being made homeless by pretending to be their advocate throughout the sham process.

Governor Cuomo’s State of the State speech this Wednesday will be a paean to the New Democratic way. He is a fresh governor with great popularity and the right pedigree. There is no doubt that he has designs on the White House. Andrew is striking out on a new road in American politics that he believes will get him to the Presidency, the office that always eluded his father. It is the Obama juke move, one fake left and then a zip to the right. It represents the acceptance of corporate power and the reduction of all workers to peons.

I wonder if Eliot Spitzer was juking as well. Until the day I met him I imagined him as an imposing man with a Bill Cowher chin. But standing next to him I saw that he was much shorter and more frail-looking than he looked on television. He had a five o’clock shadow of grayish hair that obscured the famous jaw, making him look less steely and vigorous. Perhaps this represents the values of the Democratic Party as well. At one time it loomed large and just. Then Wall Street got its hands on it and it became a husk. I still miss Eliot Spitzer and he may have a future in politics yet. If so, it remains to be seen if he learned his lesson that only pro-Wall Street, pro-corporate politicians remain successful.