Tag Archives: Andrew Rotherham

Andrew Rotherham’s Advice for Obama II

The Devil always knocks on your door with a smile.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece where notable Democrats offered what they would like to see come out of a second Obama Administration.

For education, the WSJ chose our pal Andrew Rotherham. Rotherham leads Bellwether Education Partners and runs the Eduwonk blog.  I love Andy because his writings provide insight as to what the education deformers are thinking and doing.

Rotherham gets right to the point:

President Obama had a pretty good run on education policy in his first term. Even Republican governors frequently cite the issue as one where they can agree with the president. The bad news? Education special interests are pushing back and momentum is slowing.

Rotherham is saying essentially the same thing as Diane Ravitch and many others: there is no difference between the Democratic and Republican vision for education. Rotherham himself is listed as a “Democrat”, yet is one of the most strident apologists for charters, testing, Common Core and the rest of the corporate reform agenda.

What concerns Andy here is the fact that “education special interests are pushing back” against his beloved policies. By “special interests”, does he mean the Chicago Teachers’ Union, who will most likely begin an extremely important strike today? Does he know that the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators won control of the CTU after tireless organizing of not only school staff, but of parents and students as well? Should the parents and students of Chicago be categorized as a “special interest”? What about the hundreds of students, parents and teachers who showed up to Brooklyn Tech this past February to protest another round of Bloomberg’s school closings, a protest that the actual “special interest”, the United Federation of Teachers, failed to support?

Categorizing actual members of the communities that are being destroyed by education reform as “special interests” is a clever sleight of hand on Rotherham’s part. People tend to associate that term with self-interested bigwigs, like our union here in NYC, with no real interest outside of themselves. It is Andy’s self-serving narrative that pits heroes like himself against entrenched mossbacks like the big bad teachers’ unions. The only union pushing back is the CTU, and they have been all but disowned by their national parent, the AFT under Randi Weingarten.

Rotherham flips the narrative here. He lauds Race to the Top which continues to be a boon to “special interests”: testing companies, charter operators and hedge fundies. A “special interest” is an organization that tricks people on the internet into signing a phony pledge so that organization can count your click as actual membership in their organization (StudentsFirst?). A “special interest” is a charter school operator that goes outside of the school district they wish to invade in order to get “parent signatures” (Eva Moskowitz?). Special interests are astroturf organizations, the ones for which Rotherham shills so effectively.

Congress is now five years behind schedule to update the No Child Left Behind law. That impasse led Mr. Obama to provide some flexibility to states struggling with the law’s requirements. But this has created a highly uneven accountability system. Virginia, for instance, was given approval for a plan that held its schools accountable for passing less than 60% of African-American and low-income students by 2017. After a public outcry, the administration is now forcing Virginia to raise its ambitions—but other states are quietly lowering expectations. The president will need to insist upon a rigorous accountability floor for students currently underserved by public schools. Without one, little else in federal policy will matter.

So it seems that not only do Republicans approve of Obama’s education policy, but “Democrats” like Rotherham approve of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. Rotherham admonishes us for being “five years behind schedule” of the goals set for us by the testing companies and textbook publishers about a decade ago. Virginia is failing 60% of its black student body, a statistic that obviously is the fault of the school system. They are being “underserved by public schools.”

Rotherham is able to write in such thick, simplistic terms because he is allowed to do so. To most of the country, this is what the education debate is about: pass rates, test scores and failing schools. It is not the poverty of that 60% of Virginia’s black population, nor the system that spawned such inequality. No, our socioeconomic system is just fine. It is the schools’ fault, and the lazy teachers that are nothing more than a “special interest”.

This is not a policy discussion. This is escapism, a fantasy land where all things are equal except the schools. Pass rates are ripped out of context and placed in a vacuum. It is in this vacuum where reformers like Rotherham excel. There is nothing to see here but the same old “failing schools” tripe that has been fed to us for the past 10 years. I guess the fact the country is “five years behind” is not in any way an indictment of the NCLB law that Rotherham supports. Accountability for everyone except the people who formulate and support the same failed policies year after year.

The Race to the Top competition led states to compete for federal education money by designing ambitious improvement plans. The first and second rounds were genuine, but the third round was little more than a guaranteed consolation prize for the also-rans. Meanwhile, a Race to the Top competition for early-childhood education was so small that no state made dramatic policy changes to win it. But a competitive model can encourage policy innovation. A second-term Obama administration can apply it elsewhere in education—for special education or English-language learners, for instance—but only if the competitions are real and the dollars large enough to give states an incentive to change.

The sterile words that Rotherham uses masks the fact that he is pushing educational poison in this paragraph. First, why should schools compete for federal funding in the first place? Is there any nation on earth with a successful school system that does this? (The answer is no, by the way.)

And the Race to the Top, the competition that Rotherham wants to ramp up, is competition based on test scores. It is funny how nowhere in this entire piece does Rotherham use the term “standardized test”, even though this is exactly what he is pushing. This I take as a minor victory. The advocates of real public education have successfully branded that term with the negative connotation it deserves. Notice how Rotherham does not get anywhere close to using it.

If he did, then people would be able to realize that he is advocating standardized exams for kindergarten. That is what he means when he says the “a Race to the Top competition for early-childhood ed was so small that no state made dramatic policy changes to win it.” He is encouraging Obama to force schools to get to testing as soon as children fall out of the womb.

He does not stop there. At the end of the paragraphs, Rotherham advocates for using standardized exam scores to determine funding for English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities. He wants every last federal dollar slotted for our neediest students to be based on a nationwide competition for the highest exam score. What if a group of special needs students fail the test? They get no funding, obviously.

Finally, Rotherham wants to tackle public universities head-on:

The president rightly began to regulate for-profit colleges in his first term because the data are starkly clear that many students are ill-served by these schools. In a second term, Mr. Obama should seek to apply similar accountability to all colleges and universities. Too many for-profit colleges are bad actors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t the same problems among traditional public and private colleges and universities.

Forget about the for-profit colleges, the ones who run TV ads in the middle of the day offering viewers the world. Forget about charging the poorest people in the nation upwards of $60,000 for fake internships, online classes and minimum-wage school staff without the standing to call themselves “professors”. Rotherham believes Obama has regulated them. The real problem are those other universities with the tenured faculty. They need to be “regulated”. I suppose that means more laws from the Obama administration making online courses for universities more widely available, qualified professors less available and tuition even more expensive than it is now. After all, that is exactly what “regulation” brought us in the for-profit college sector.

Or, maybe like David Brooks, he wants all college students to take standardized exams and all professors to be judged on a “value-added” metric. For Rotherham, it is about cradle-to-grave testing. The next step is to force senior citizens to take an exam before they can collect their first Social Security check.

This is why I love Andrew Rotherham. Nobody advocates such extreme and evil policies with such innocuous language. You would think he actually cares for education in America if you did not know the layer of meaning contained just below the surface of those words.

Despite his benign delivery, Rotherham is an extremist, an educational Jihadist with a one-track mind. Unfortunately, he reflects the educational policy for the Democratic Party. A Republican could not have such a forked tongue without being called out on it.

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My Take on the Pineapple Passage (More Pineapplegate)

Personal life has prevented me from chiming in on Pearson’s pineapple passage debacle, otherwise known as Pineapplegate, up until now. As I read the questions associated with the passage, I was horrified that the likes of Andrew Rotherham actually defended this pile of garbage. Horrified but not surprised, of course.

Diane Ravitch is right: the questions on this passage are tantamount to child abuse.

The passage itself is not bad. It is a play on Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare fable, a cute variation that ventures into the nonsensical. The passage’s author, Daniel Pinkwater, has said as much and has let it be known that he was not happy with multiple choice questions that tried to make sense out of nonsense.

The students had to answer 6 questions about the passage. Only the first one made any sense. Questions 7 through 11, however, were just cruel and unusual punishment for eighth graders. All of them, every single one, were subjective. They are a great snapshot of the underlying problems with testing in general, not to mention judging students and teachers based off the results of these tests.

Question 7

The animals ate the pineapple most likely because they were:

a) hungry b) excited c) annoyed d) amused

Essentially, a pineapple challenged a hare to a race. Other animals were looking on, speculating as to who would win. The animals concluded that the pineapple, an inanimate object, must have some trick up its sleeve in order to be confident enough to challenge the hare. They guessed that the pineapple would win. Yet, the pineapple did not do anything, remaining in its original position well after the hare had crossed the finish line. The story ends with the sentence “the animals ate the pineapple”.

The thing is, the sentence about the animals eating the pineapple was a throwaway ending, a slapsticky image that highlighted the absurd nature of the entire passage. In other words, there was no point or motivation behind the animals eating the pineapple.

Now, one might conclude that they did so because they were “annoyed”. After all, the pineapple had made liars out of all of them. However, nothing anywhere in this passage suggests that the animals were so emotionally invested in this race that they would literally consume the loser.

A holistic reading of the passage suggests that this was a nonsense ending to a nonsense scene. Any of the choices could have literally been a correct answer, especially since there were several animals who probably each had their own motivation for eating the pineapple, or no motivation.

To make this question the basis of a score that a kid will receive on a high-stakes exam is the height of cruelty. They must choose a flimsy, one-word emotion that explains why these animals ate the pineapple. It is a simplification of the idea of an inner life, not to mention highly subjective.

Question 8

Which animals spoke the wisest words?

a) The hare b) The moose c) The crow d) The owl

I literally do not know what the answer to this question is. There is absolutely zero basis to decide which animal said the wisest words.

In my opinion, the owl uttered the dumbest words in the entire passage: “pineapples don’t have sleeves.” This was said in response to the moose who said the pineapple must have a trick up its sleeve. First off, no fruit or animal “has” sleeves, not even humans. Humans might, from time to time, wear sleeves, but sleeves are not part of our anatomy and, therefore, we do not strictly “have” them. Furthermore, as the moose says, we know what he was getting at with the whole “trick up his sleeve” phrase. It was a saying, a metaphor, and not meant to be taken literally. The owl demonstrates the type of know-it-allish stupidity that passes for intelligence in this day and age, the type that passes for intelligence according to Pearson as well.

The moose and the crow each speculated that the pineapple’s confidence meant that it had some grand scheme planned. An obvious nod to the original Aesop fable, they banked their proverbial dollars on the pineapple because they might have heard how these situations have turned out before. In that case, they demonstrated a healthier dose of critical thought than the owl, albeit based on faulty deductive reasoning.

The wisest words were probably uttered by the hare. Not only did he discount the idea that a pineapple can beat him in a race, he proved it by soundly beating the pineapple to the finish line. The philosopher William James said that truth is discovered through living. The hare proved the truth of his words by living them out.

It all depends on what one considers wisdom to be. Philosophers have not even agreed on this matter, yet Pearson is arrogant enough to ask a multiple choice question about it. Heavens forbid if the 8th grader ever read William James’ Pragmatism, he might bubble in choice “a” and get left back. There is no room for dissent or original thought in the corporate world that education deformers hope to build.

Question 9

Before the race, how did the animals feel towards the pineapple?

a) Suspicious b) Kindly c) Sympathetic d) Envious  

I think the answer they are looking for is “a”, although I do not know. Is this to say all of the animals, even the hare, felt the same way towards the pineapple? The hare certainly took on the challenge with gusto. The owl, captain obvious, also did not betray any suspicion of the pineapple.

Is it fair to assume that the moose and the crow were “suspicious” of the pineapple? Maybe they were, but does this mean that they were suspicious to the exclusion of the other emotions on here? That is the key. Again, does anybody ever have one emotion that can be boiled down into one word, or are we swirling galaxies of emotions in a constant state of balance or imbalance? To assume that the animals felt suspicious of the pineapple, yet not envious that they had not thought of a scheme to embarrass the arrogant hare themselves, is just too much. Pearson, however, believes that emotions are one-word things that are felt one at a time. If it was up to them, the children who are reared on their exams certainly will turn out this way.

Question 9 is proof positive that the aim of testing in the United States is to turn the workers and consumers of tomorrow into intellectually dull and emotionally barren robots.

Question 10

What would have happened if the animals decided to have cheered for the hare?

a) The pineapple would have won the race

b) They would have been mad at the hare for winning

c) The hare would have just sat there and not moved

d) They would have been happy to have cheered for a winner

The answer is: who the hell knows? I assume the answer is “d”. Does this mean they would have been happy even if the hare cheated to win? After all, the fact that the animals would be cheering for him might cause him to get an edge, like tripping or kicking the pineapple as the race starts. In that case, it is unclear whether the animals would have been happy. The answer could very well end up being “b”.

Of course, if Pearson and the reptilian ed deformers like Andrew Rotherham really wanted to foster creativity and independent thought in children, they would have opened it up and asked kids to write an alternative scenario of the story, one where a slight adaptation in one area might cause changes in another area. It would have allowed children to work out concepts of causality and possibilities. It would be an exercise that engages both the left and right brains.

But that is not their goal. This question exercises no part of the brain. The message here is that corporate masters know everything. Shut up and give the answer we want to hear. You are the workers of tomorrow. We are merely training you for all of the shutting up and obsequiousness that will be required of you as an underpaid corporate functionary.

Question 11   

When the moose said that the pineapple has some trick up its sleeve, he means that the pineapple

a) is wearing a disguise

b) wants to show the animals a trick

c) has a plan to fool the animals

d) is going to pull something out of its sleeve

Huh? Where is the choice that says “has a plan to win the race”? Is that not what the moose meant?

Did the moose ever infer that the pineapple was going to try to fool him? It seems that he and the crow wanted to see the trick the pineapple surely had to win the race. They did not want to be fooled and they did not count on being fooled either. They wanted to see the pineapple’s master plan unfold before their eyes. In that case, the answer could very well be “b”.

Yet, if a kid thinks along these lines, they will probably be marked wrong. It does not matter if they had a good reason to think along these lines, so good that they might even be able to defend their line of thinking. All that matters is bubbling in the right choice as deemed by Pearson.

Andrew Rotherham derided Pearson and NY State as cowards for retreating in the face of widespread criticism of these questions. Apparently, these questions will not be counted towards the test grades and Andrew Rotherham thinks that is a tragedy.

The real tragedy is the fact that we allow Pearson and Andrew Rotherham anywhere near our education system. In a country that actually values a child’s education, the likes of these people would be considered child abusers.

The Age of the Wonk

That's right, wonk is the opposite of know.

David Brooks at the New York Times is not that bright. Like Andrew Rotherham, he comes from the world of Neoconservative wonks that willfully ignore the messy truths of history for the neat world of theory. Brooks proved it in his recent article recommending value-added assessments for universities. He proved it again yesterday with some more wonkish drivel. In regards to deciding on proper government policy, Brooks advocates the following:

What you really need to achieve sustained learning, Manzi argues, is controlled experiments. Try something out. Compare the results against a control group. Build up an information feedback loop. This is how businesses learn. By 2000, the credit card company Capital One was running 60,000 randomized tests a year — trying out different innovations and strategies. Google ran about 12,000 randomized experiments in 2009 alone.

These randomized tests actually do vindicate or disprove theories. For example, a few years ago, one experiment suggested that if you give people too many choices they get overwhelmed and experience less satisfaction. But researchers conducted dozens more experiments, trying to replicate the phenomenon. They couldn’t.

Businesses conduct hundreds of thousands of randomized trials each year. Pharmaceutical companies conduct thousands more. But government? Hardly any. Government agencies conduct only a smattering of controlled experiments to test policies in the justice system, education, welfare and so on.

We see the typical Neocon celebration of the wisdom of the private sector. More importantly, we see the cold, bloodless language of “models” and controlled social experiments. We see people being reduced to automatons: “if you give people too many choices they get overwhelmed and experience less satisfaction”. No wonder Brooks also supports value-added model of education. Human beings, to people like Brooks and Rotherham, are nothing more than pegs on a Chinese checkerboard to be moved around and manipulated at will by wonks such as themselves.

What prompted Brooks to mention this approach was his observation that President Obama’s stimulus package failed to bring us out of the Great Recession. Never mind that an $800 billion stimulus over the course of 10 years, a third of which came in the form of tax cuts, is a spitball in the context of a $13 trillion economy. Never mind the fact that Obama’s flaccid stimulus was not comparable to the massive and bold programs of the New Deal. He goes ahead and works the New Deal into his discussion anyway.

His revisionist analysis of the Great Depression shows the type of selective memory necessary to be a Neocon:

… Nearly 80 years later, it’s hard to know if the New Deal did much to end the Great Depression. Still, it would be nice if we could learn from experience. To avoid national catastrophe, we’re going to have to figure out how to control health care costs, improve schools and do other things.

Even the most conservative of conservatives would be forced to concede that it was our involvement in World War II that ended the Great Depression. That involvement entailed massive government spending on war material to the point where the American industrial machine was working at full capacity for the first and only time in history. In other words, it entailed the philosophy of the New Deal on steroids. One would have to ignore this obvious point to say something as intellectually barren as “it’s hard to know if the New Deal did much to end the Great Depression.”

The historical lessons do not stop there. One of Franklin Roosevelt’s goals during the New Deal was to prevent another Great Depression from ever happening again. That is not to say that he wanted to do away with business cycles. It means that he wanted to cushion the downswings of those cycles. Americans of his era were catching on to the idea that the engine of the economy was consumerism. It seems obvious to us living in 2012, but it was not so obvious to an America still caught between the urban and agrarian worlds. John Maynard Keynes had accurately explained that the crisis of the Depression was a crisis of demand. FDR set out to build institutions that would guarantee some sort of minimal demand in the future. This meant ensuring people would always have some sort of cash in their pockets. The minimum wage, Social Security, public works, the Wagner Act and the GI Bill all reflected this goal.

Once the war was over, there was a real fear throughout the country that the Great Depression would return. People who had lived through the scarcity of the 1930s grew accustomed to believing that economic depression was going to be a permanent state of affairs. Yet, despite the conversion back to a peacetime economy, not only did the Depression not return, but the United States embarked on the longest and most equitable economic boom of its history. It was what historian James Patterson dubs “The Biggest Boom Yet”.

One can argue that New Deal institutions and the embrace of Keynesian economics (as Nixon said, “we are all Keynesians”) did not cause the Biggest Boom Yet. Proximity does not imply causality. There were certainly other factors at play, like America having a larger share of the global economic pie than it does now, less immigration and technological barriers that made it harder for corporations to move jobs and capital overseas. Yet, one would have to have ideological blinders on to not see the connection between the relative prosperity that took place during the heyday of New Deal institutions and the economic polarization that has coincided with the undoing of those institutions over the past 35 years. The proof is most certainly in the pudding.

Yet, here is David Brooks advocating for the government to experiment with public policy, as if human institutions operate in a laboratory. Instead of a simple historical truth that was revealed decades ago, namely that a consumer-driven economy needs people who are able to consume, he wishes to reinvent the wheel. It is this supposed search for truth on his part that keeps people like him in business. A country that knows its history has no need for someone like David Brooks.

David Brooks, Andrew Rotherham and the entire class of Neocon policy wonks have such esteemed public platforms for a reason. Their analyses of our very human problems are markedly inhuman. They speak in sterile, pseudo-scientific terms. People are statistics. Policy is a matter of calibrating a machine. They deliver dogmatic answers by talking as if they are disinterested observers. Their search for truth is a straight line that pounds flat the flesh and blood contours of flesh and blood issues.

Is it any wonder why these two men are consistent cheerleaders of this travesty we call “education reform”? Their unquestioning faith in standardized exams reduces students to data. The pseudo-objective manner in which they approach schooling reflects a worship of science, or pseudo-science as it were, that discounts humanistic education. Since they cannot quantify things like historical understanding, music appreciation or literary analysis with data, then they believe it does not count. Is it any wonder that one of the crimes of education reform has been the steady elimination of art, music and history from schools across the country? The New York State Board of Regents might very well make a decision next week that puts Global History on the road to extinction. Only in the age of education reform can something like this happen.

And why should we have humanistic education? The employers of tomorrow do not demand workers who can analyze the world around them or think abstractly in any way. They want number crunchers and formula followers. This is what the push for STEM subjects is all about. Only that the high-paying jobs will not require any advanced knowledge of STEM, since any mathematician would tell you that an advanced understanding of math requires stepping into the world of abstraction. Instead, public schooling is to be the training ground of tomorrow’s low-level, low-paid functionaries who press the proper buttons.

Our schools and our economic system are too important to be left in the care of mere wonks. They want to create the world in their own image. Specifically, they want to turn tomorrow’s citizens into people as one-dimensional and ahistorical as the policies for which they advocate.

Another simple historical truth that bears repeating is that no civilization anywhere ever achieved anything great by taking heed of the words of numerically-minded policy wonks.