Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ken-Ton Schools Receive First Official Threat from State

Well, that didn't take long.

The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school board adopted a resolution Tuesday night (two nights ago as I write this) to "seriously consider" boycotting both the state's test for grades 3-8 and the state's teacher evaluation via testing results.

This afternoon, WGRZ (and other Buffalo newmedia) reports that Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner delivered the state's threat to the board members and the district superintendent (who was never a fan of the resolution to begin with).

You can read a full copy of the letter here.  This particular copy is addressed to school board president Bob Dana at the district's central office, but you can see it has been cc'ed to all the important folks. Cause if you're going to make a threat, make sure you get the maximum number of people involved.

Wagner makes the assertion that administering the grade 3-8 tests "is required under federal law" and also by the state's accountability system and I am wondering, hmmm, exactly which federal law might that be. It could be ESEA's original NCLB requirement, or maybe the waiver requirement, which is sort of an end run around ESEA. What's really fun here is to play the game of what penalty, exactly, the federal law carries. What exactly is he threatening the board with? So, interesting assertion there, Senior Deputy Commissioner Wagner, and one sure to mollify people who are already pissed off about the state government pushing them around. Just wait till your Uncle Sam gets home.

Wagner says this "may result" in a loss of funds from the state, to the possible tune of maybe $1.1 million, perhaps. Between all these conditionals and the board's "seriously consider" resolution, we have a real battle of the possible maybe mights going on here.

Wagner also notes that while the board is only now considering becoming a bunch of rogue scofflaws, should they actually choose outlaw status, "the members of the Board responsible will be subject to removal from office by the Commissioner of Education pursuant to Education Law §306 for willful violation of law, the Rules of the Board of Regents and the Regulations of the Commissioner."

The Buffalo News carried a response from Dana.

“I didn’t see anything in there that we haven’t shared with the community in terms of what the ramifications could be,” Dana said Thursday. “He addressed them specifically and he seems to have a good grasp of what’s going on. Obviously, it would seem that they mean business. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

So, no in-boot shaking as yet. The board today scheduled a meeting for April 8 to decide what comes next. Their testing is supposed to begin on April 14.

In the meantime, Dana and the board had intended to send a message to Albany. Clearly, the message was received. We'll see who considers throwing the possibility of what at whom, perhaps, next.

Embrace the Core

You know, perhaps we're looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps we are missing a golden opportunity.

After all-- at this point, very few people know what the hell the Common Core Standards actually are. We've learned that the vast majority of Common Core textbook materials are actually not aligned at all. We know that the Common Core tests are a random crapshoot. We know that what Common Core looks like tends to depend on who's interpreting it for your district.

If the Common Core Standards were supposed to create a common, shared framework that would put students and teachers across this country on the same educational page, then they have failed spectacularly and completely. (I make that point at greater length in an article in the new Education Week, which is available behind a paywall here and in the current print edition.)

Pushers of professional development use the CCSS brand to push their favorite ideas. Teacher-advocates describe their programs, based on nothing more than their own best teacher judgment, and give all the credit to the Core. Opponents of the Core blame it for every dumb homework paper ever created, whether that assignment has anything to do with the Core or not.

Those last groups are the ones we can learn from, really.

It's so simple, I can't believe I didn't see it sooner.

Do whatever the hell you want, and blame it on the Core.

Teaching students to research material before reading it? I'll call that core-aligned. Forbidding students to research material before reading it? Also core-aligned. Want to do writing-based assessments? Why, that's totally core. Drilling reading assignments with bubble question quiz at the end? Also complete core. I have a great new idea for a program that integrates research, literature and video presentations. Pitch it as aligned to the core.

My home ec students have to read recipes, so I'm a core teacher. I'm a band director? Create a new tweak to the program-- web-based video pre-reviews of works as concert advertisement. Declare it aligned to the Core. Increase in the budget? I need it for Core-related stuff. Teaching students to make a souffle? It's a Common Core souffle. 

Teacher core advocates and publishing companies have shown us the way-- there is literally nothing that can't be claimed as a Core-aligned program. Slap "common core" on anything-- there is nobody who can tell you you aren't allowed.

I'm going to have an extra order of fries-- for the Common Core. I am going to get the red Porsche instead of the mini-van because I need it for the Common Core. I did not have sex with that woman-- we were just aligning some Common Core. Please put more frosting on my cupcakes-- it's required by the Core. If anyone tries to question you, just exclaim, "Critical thinking! Alignment! Why are you against higher standards?"

If you happen to be deep in red state Common Core hating territory, just flip the script. Anything you dislike can be blamed on Common Core.

I'm not going to teach Herman Melville because he's part of the Common Core. Don't order that cheap recycled papers-- it's part of the Common Core. Don't you dare put any of that low-fat dressing on my salad-- that's just another way to promote Common Core. I had to punch that guy; he looked like he was going to talk to my kids about Common Core. If anybody questions you on this, just holler, "Communism! Indoctrination! Why do you hate freedom!"

The Common Core, primarily through the efforts of its alleged friends, has been reduced to a meaningless ball of mush. In hindsight, this seems like a completely predictable result-- there is no hard underlying structure of solid sound education ideas based on research and professional experience. Just blobs of personal preferences slapped together by educational amateurs. There is no solid framework, no sturdy skeleton to stay standing when bits and pieces are chipped away. When you dig into CCSS, there's no there there. And so under stress, exploitation, and just being passed along like a nonsense message in a game of telephone, the Core is being reduced to its most basic parts-- nothing at all.

We can take advantage of that by raising the CCSS flag over any and all territory we want to explore (or want to forbid). We were worried that CCSS would be a concrete straightjacket, but as its allies have tweaked and twisted and slanted and squeezed until it's a soggy mess of nothing, a document written on unobtainium with a unicorn horn dipped in invisible ink. And then, with rare exceptions, they've run off so that they don't have to defend the weak sauce they've left behind.

Now, there's no question that on the state and local level, we still have officials doing their best to slavishly enforce their version of the core-- but the vast majority of them aren't enforcing the standards as actually written, either. Andrew Cuomo would be the same size tyrant whether CCSS existed or not. If your district is in the steely grip of Test Prep Mania, the core really doesn't have anything to do with your problems-- the Core can go away, but until the Big Standardized Test goes away, your troubles will remain.

So do whatever you like and use the Common Core as your excuse. Slap the Core justification on every single thing you do in the classroom-- all the cool kids are doing it. Not only will it give you ammunition to defend your teaching choices, but you will help hasten the ongoing disintegration of the standards into a mushy, meaningless, irrelevant mess. The Common Core Standards are over and done. If we do embrace it, perhaps we can embrace it extra hard and help finish it off. I would say to stick a fork in them, but you'll probably need a spoon, and it will be much more fun to use a blender.

Opt In and Think of England

As we enter testing opt-out season with its ever-increasing rising tide of test opposition, the fans of test-driven accountability have had to use every weapon in their arsenal to try to beat back the non-testing hordes who threaten modern educational progress (and corporate revenue streams).
Sometimes the infidels can be combated locally. The head of the Ken-Ton School Board, a district near Buffalo, NY, roused a bunch of local rabble by calling for New York to stop holding money hostage and demanding pointless testing for teacher evaluations and threatening that the district just wouldn't give the tests. The superintendent was able to scare the board into compliance speak reason to the board by suggesting that the state might cut funding, defrock board members, and decertify teachers if such crazy talk led to crazy action. But the motion, which had been tabled till April, just passed!  

Sometimes the big guns must be called out. Chicago Public Schools had threatened to give the Big Standardized Test to only 10% of their students. The feds told the state to tell CPS that they would take a gigantic financial hit, and the district reluctantly gave in, much to the disappointment of many who had backed the testing slowdown.
In recent days, test-o-philes have also unleashed the power of ridicule. Mike Thomas, over at reform-loving FEE, put up a blog post that artfully wrapped the technique known in the sales biz as "assuming the sale" in a carpet of wacky mockery.

"I Wish I Could Opt-Out of Writing This" makes the same old point-- some things in life are unpleasant but necessary, and whiners should just suck it up and do what they have to. In fact, oddly enough, Thomas suggests that he would rather not write this blog post in favor of testing, but he's being paid to do it, so he must. Way to show your deep support of testing, Mike.
Thomas presents (and borrows from a Twitter thread that Amanda Ripley started in a similar vein) a list of unpleasant things that people have to do even though they don't want to. The list includes colonoscopies, teeth cleanings, lice checks, braces, lockdown drills, and watching romantic comedies with your wife, and it's a swell list. It's just that the list has nothing to do with the Big Standardized Test.

The items on the list only occur when there is a particular reason for them. You get a colonoscopy when your doctor, a trained medical professional, says it's time. You get braces when a trained professional says they're needed. You go see a movie with your wife when she asks you to (though if that's a chore for you, you have other problems). And like all the other items on the wacky list, these are annoyances you endure because you know there is some good reason to endure them.

The "well, you just have to suck it up and do some unpleasant but necessary things in life" argument assumes the sale. It focuses on the "unpleasant" rap on testing so that it can pretend that the "necessary" part is not in doubt. But of course it's the notion that the Big Standardized Test is necessary that is at the heart of the opt-out movement.

Why are Big Standardized Tests necessary? BS Test fans have lost some of their classic arguments. For instance, they can no longer say that test results are needed to do national comparisons that run across state lines because the dream of a single national test is dead, dead, dead. VAM has been debunked far and wide. From the test quality to test validity to every justification given for testing-- as ESEA has heated up, they've all been subject to responsible, data-based, professional attack.
Writers like Thomas have been reduced to justifications like this:

And that's why I'm an opt-in on testing. I want to know how well my kid is doing in algebra. I want to know how smart she is compared to all the other kids in the state. The same goes for reading, writing and science...This information will let me know if she is on track for being first in line when the University of Florida opens its doors to incoming freshman.

Is Thomas suggesting that all students everywhere should be tested so that he can brag about his own daughter? Or is he suggesting that his daughter's teachers keep all her grades, school work and achievements a secret from him? And does he really mean to suggest that he's an opt-in, because if that's what he wants, I'm sure we can find support for a system where people can opt-in to testing if they wish, but would otherwise be in a no-testing default.

That system would have great support, but it's not what Thomas and FEE and other reformsters and testing corporations want-- they want a system in which all students are compelled to test, not one where they have a choice (though oddly enough, they are huge fans of choice when it comes to charter schools).

Here's the other thing about colonoscopies and braces-- the government doesn't compel you to have them, whether your professional expert thinks you need one or not. You opt-in, voluntarily, weighing the advice of trained experts and the advantages of the procedure. You don't need to come up with a justification for not having a root canal today-- you only have one if someone (or your tooth) presents a reason to opt in.

Reformsters would like us to skip all of that. Just take their word for it that tests are a necessary unpleasantry, like vaccination shots for babies or sex for Victorian ladies. Don't ask why. Don't question the necessity. Just lie back and think of England.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats
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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ken-Ton Schools Take Stand

You may recall that earlier this month the president of the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school board raised the possibility of passing a motion to threaten withdrawing from New York's testing program. Then the superintendent hollered, "Hold on there, Tex!" and the board put the issue off until later.

Well, last night, later arrived, and the board voted to stand up, sort of, to the state.

The district is north of Buffalo, and it has been small but cranky on the subject of things like Cuomo's holding financial support hostage as well as the continued ignoring of the decade-old court ruling that New York needs to get its financial support for schools straightened out.

WGRZ quoted board president Bob Dana:

We have stepped forward and decided that enough is enough. We're sending a message to Albany that we are going to consider boycotting standardized testing and not using test scores to evaluate our students and teachers. If they don't turn around and give us and every other school district across the state what we have coming.

Dana told the crowd at the meeting that he'd been told that the state might remove the board of education and that financial penalties would also be leveled. But he told the Buffalo News, "We're not playing games anymore."

Superintendent Dawn Mirand repeated her opposition to the move, and the administrators union came out against it while the teachers union supported it. A straw poll was held by written ballot, and the crowd attending the meeting voted 281-22 in support of the move. One citizen told WIVB that he was willing to pay more in taxes if it would mean the state let teachers do their jobs.

It should be noted that the protest vote is in the mildest possible terms-- at this point the board has simply voted to "seriously consider" refusing to give the test to elementary students and to use test results to evaluate teachers. It remains to be seen what will happen once that serious consideration actually leads to action.

So this is not so much a bold assault on the state as it is inching up slowly and carefully to the Line and seeing how far across it they can go before the state decides to drop the hammer. So it's measured defiance, but defiance none-the-less. How far will the district go in telling the state to shove their tests up their big fat Niagara Falls? How far will the state go to punish those who dare to question their wisdom and power? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Duncan Looks for Spare Children

Arne Duncan teams up with Marc C. Morial and Janet Murguia in a blog post on The Hill, trying once again to get some attention for his vision of the new ESEA.

His choice of new catch phrase is extraordinarily unfortunate. He rolls it out in the headline and uses it again in the post:

America has no kids to spare.

Let's think about that for a second.

When you don't have any more of something to spare, that means you're already using all that you've got. "I don't have time to spare" means "I need every second I've got for some piece of business." Our spare tire is the one that we keep to use for tire-related business if one of the regulars gives up. Buddy, if I can't spare a dime, it's because I need to spend my dimes on something for myself.

So if we have no children to spare, that must mean that we (whoever "we" are) cannot give up any children because we intend to use them for something. It evokes a century ago when families might say, "We can't spare this child for school because we need him to work in the field" or the urban poor saying "We can't spare this child for school because we need him to earn some money in the factory."

If we can't "spare" any children, it must be that "we" have some other pressing use for them. What, I wonder, does Duncan imagine we need to use all these children for. What kind of coggitious widgetry is their destined use? We can't spare one child from our plans for a drone workforce? We can't spare one child from helping us create revenue streams for corporate interests? "I have no children to spare," is what the witch in the gingerbread house says, not somebody who is concerned about allowing children to grow and develop and stand up strong as the best persons they can be.

This particular construction reveals, once again, the notion that children are the toasters on the assembly line that is the reformsters' ideal education system.

Duncan et al get into some specifics from their ESEA wish list. 

For instance, they want to be sure that districts are getting resources, including various subgroups, and I think that's a great idea except that maybe, if that's our goal, we'd want a program other than Race to the Top or other signature "competitive" programs that say, "Hey, children in struggling subgroups-- we will get resources to you IF you are fortunate enough to be in a school system run by people who are good at filling out federal Give Me Money, Please paperwork. But if the heads of your state and local system do not meet our federal standards, we will teach them a lesson by giving fewer resources to you, struggling student."

Getting resources to students who need them and making many systems compete for limited resources are not compatible goals. Duncan needs to figure out which he stands for.

Duncan says parents should know that students who are found to be in non-goal-meeting schools, the feds will be on the way with resources and supports and interventions. Of course, by that last word, we mean "handing the school over to a charter operator," an intervention technique that doesn't seem to have saved many students at all, and has certainly stripped resources and support away from other students in those same communities.

Also, he wants preschool.

He also wants feedback about individual student achievement, support and autonomy for teachers, and money to go to high poverty schools, as well as support for "innovation" with a proven track record. These are great things; these are also things that the administration has not tried at all in the last seven years. Maybe this is the part of the article that Duncan did not write.

One more spare

Of course, there's another way to understand the word "spare." It can refer to a show of mercy, a relenting of damaging and destructive force, as in "I will spare your life."

If Arne is announcing his intention to spare no child the oppression of reformster education programs, then I will give him points, at least, for accuracy and honesty. If he is saying "America has no kids to spare the indignity, timesuck and waste of pointless standardized testing," then we have here one of those rare occasiona in which Duncan's words and his actions actually match up.

But I'm guessing that's not what he meant to say. In which case, we can just dismiss this as more pointless word salad from USED.

See "Defies Measurement"

Let me cut to the chase-- I cannot recommend enough that you watch Defies Measurement, a new film by Shannon Puckett.

The film is a clear-eyed, well-sourced look at the business of test-driven corporate-managed profiteer-promoted education reform, and it has several strengths that make it excellent viewing both for those of us who have been staring at these issues for a while and for teachers and civilians who are just now starting to understand that something is going wrong.

The film is anchored by the story of Chipman Middle School in Alemeda, a school that up until ten years ago was an educational pioneer, using the solid research about brains and learning (and where Shannon Puckett once taught). They were a vibrant, exciting, hands-on school that defied expectations about what could be done with middle schools students in a poor urban setting. And then came No Child Left Behind, and we see a focus on test scores and canned programs replace programs centered on creating strong independent thinkers, even as Laura Bush comes to visit to draw attention to the school's embrace of testing culture. It is heartbreaking to watch some of the teachers from the school reflect on their experience a decade later; one sadly admits that she sold out, while another says she still feels remorse, but that she didn't sell out-- she was duped, making the mistaken assumption that the important people making edicts from on high knew something that she did not. She no longer thinks so.

The story of Chipman is a backdrop for considering the various elements that have played out in the reformosphere over the last decade. The film looks at the flow of reform-pushing money, the smoke-and-mirrors rise of charters and how that has failed in the Charter Dreamland of New Orleans, the misunderstanding of how kids learn (if you're not a Howard Gardner fan you'll have to grit your teeth for a minute), the history of standardized testing, the false narrative of US testing failure, the rise of resegregation, the corrosive effects of reform on the teaching profession, the destructiveness of Race to the Top, and how teaching the whole child in a safe and nurturing environment is great for humans, even if it doesn't help with testing.

The array of people heard from is awesome-- Puckett has tapped into an amazing group of educational experts. I'm going to give you the list as an enticement to watch: Alan Stoskopf, Alfie Kohn, Anthony Cody, David Berliner, David Kirp, Diane Ravitch, Fred Abrams, Howard Gardner, Jason France, Joan Duvall-Flynn, Jordyn Schwartz, Julian Vasquez-Heilig, Karen Klein, Karran Harper-Royal, Ken Wesson, Linda Darling-Hammond, Mark Naison, Martin Malstron, Mercedes Scneider, Robert Crease, Susan Kovalik, and Tony Wagner.

I won't tell you the ultimate fate of Chipman School, but the story of Chipman really is a sad microcosm of the disastrous arc of reformster policy. It is a perfect hook on which to hang this tale.

Puckett has done a superb job of creating a clear, comprehensible picture of the complex forces that are crushing public education. If you get frustrated with trying to explain the complex and crushing forces arrayed against what we know works in education, this film is a great resource. It is not sensationalized, it's not super-slick and it's not hyperbolized. It is a calm but relentless and clear raising of the alarm and showing what we know to do well, and how we are being taken down a failed and fruitless road. Watch this film. Share this film. Spread the word about this film.

And that's easy to do-- because in one more sign of the difference between the reformsters and the advocates for public education, the film will not cost you a cent to watch. Puckett will even let you download it for free, as long as you agree to leave the film as is and spread the word.

This is a powerful work, a powerful voice quilting together a whole group of powerful voices. Watch this film. Watch this film. Watch. This. Film. It will take only a little more than an hour of your time. You need to see this, and you need to share this.

Monday, March 23, 2015

How Reformers Win in PA

Over the past few months I have attended two public hearings in two separate school districts about the closing of two separate rural elementary schools, and they show pretty clearly the giant disconnect that allows the assault on public education to continue unchecked.

The closing of schools is rampant in my part of PA, and we aren't alone. We're a region of not-very-wealthy rural districts, but not-very-wealthy urban districts like Philly and York have also cut schools like a machete in a bamboo forest.

It is not a matter of declining student population, and it is not a matter of districts falling on tough times. It's a widespread financial crisis, and it's manufactured.

How to manufacture a statewide financial crisis.

Cut state funding. This puts the making-up-the-difference pressure on local taxpayers.

Take a ton of money away from public schools and give it to charters.

Create a huge pension funding crisis. This is its own kind of challenge, but the quick explanation is this-- pre-2008, invest in really awesome stuff, and when that all tanks and districts suddenly have huge payments to make up, tell the districts they can just wait till later and hope for magic financial fairies to fix it. It is now later, there are no fairies, and a small district with an $18 million budget is looking at pension payments that go up $500K every year.

Oh, and pass a law that says districts can't raise taxes more than a smidge in any given year.

Add political gamesmanship.

Governor Tom Wolf announced his budget proposal, including increased funding for schools and an end to the charter leeching. The GOP legislators at the state capitol sent out a letter saying, "Don't start counting on that. We'll make sure it never happens." The new secretary of education sent superintendents a letter saying, "By mid-May, I want a list of all the things you're going to spend your new money on." The legislators sent the secretary a letter and cc'ed superintendents saying, "What are you talking about! How dare you make them account for imaginary money we'll never let them have."

The end result

School districts are looking down the barrel of million-plus-dollar deficits. The two deficits for which I have now been a power point audience can both be entirely explained by the formula:

Charter Payments + Pension Payments + Other Tiny Obscure Cuts = District Deficit

In other words, a district that had a fiscally responsible year last year, that didn't do anything crazy or odd or unusual and just left everything alone when planning for this year-- that district is still facing huge deficits in their current budgeting cycle, unrelated to any choices that they made in managing their own local district.

But here comes the twist ending

In PA, districts have to have public hearings before they can close a school. The board is not really supposed to respond-- just listen. So the superintendent starts with a power point presentation, and then taxpayers line up to speak their minds, offer suggestion, and comment on what they think is wrong with the proposal.

Can you guess how many people step up to blame the lobbyists and legislators in Harrisburg?

They tell the board it's a bad board for putting finances ahead of education. They complain about the tax increases they imagine the board is going to vote for next. They suggest that teacher wages should be frozen and the superintendent should work for $1.98. They make emotional, tearful, sometimes child-delivered pleas for the board not to hurt their beloved community school. They hint that the school board has some dark, secret motive.

But nobody steps up to the mic and says, "People! We all need to go home and make phone calls and send e-mails to our representatives and senators and demand that they stop ripping the financial guts out of our school district. We need to hit them with all the emotional heavy artillery that we brought to this meeting and make them really feel our pain, because they are the ones who caused this crisis. They are the ones that create the policies that take our tax dollars away from our district. They are the ones who put our school board in the position of either cutting services or trying to plant a magical money tree in the back yard. They are the ones who are closing our schools."

It is some sort of amazing Jedi mind trick-- citizens and taxpayers are looking right past the causes of schools' financial problems and decided to blame it all on local school boards. This is like when your Dad gets a pay cut and has to sell one of the cars, so you yell at him. This is like complaining to a shooting victim for getting blood all over your coat. This is like having someone pick your pocket and demanding that the police arrest your pants.

I feel their pain. I really feel their pain. But I also know that school boards can't spend money they don't have just because they want to spend it on really important things. And I also know that closing a community school is a terrible thing that is bad for education, the community, and the students. And I also know that some districts have are led by creative problem solvers and some are led by hapless problem creators. But Pennsylvania's leaders have created an environment that requires either A) a miracle worker or B) a district full of wealthy people.

As educators, we have a big educating task in front of us. People have got to apply political leverage where it matters-- on the legislators and policymakers who create these ugly messes. Public education is being starved, and somehow we've got people blaming the bowl, the spoon, the table, the starving person herself-- everyone except the real culprits. If we can't change that, the forces arrayed against public education will win.