from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

High stakes testing - what is it, and does it work? 

For today’s educational diary, I thought I’d explore the subject of high stakes tests. In this posting I will explain the use of the terminology, and look at applications of such tests historically and more recently. Finally I will post the a press release about the most recent study of the current round of high stakes testing after I discuss the implications of that study.

(cross-posted at dailykos, myleftwing and teacherken)

High stakes testing is a term normally applied to tests created externally from a school which have consequences for not achieving a certain level (a passing or cut score) such as not receiving credit for the course, not being promoted to the next grade or not graduating from high school. Please note the emphasis on the locus of the creation of the test. Such tests are not created by those delivering the instruction. When I crete a test, it will be closely tied to the instruction that has gone on in my room, and will serve as a feedback mechanism not only for my students on how well they heave learned, but also for me in how I have prepared them via my instruction. Further - and this is of critical importance - the students and I receive the results in a timely manner. Except for final examinations that affords me the opportunity to offer remedial instruction either to specific students or to an entire class should I detect any patterns of misunderstandings or gaps in the knowledge that I expect to be present.

Nowadays the term “high-stakes” has been applied to the entire regimen required under NCLB. Those annual tests in reading and math for students grades 3-8 do not fit the normal definition of high stakes -- for the students. Yes, there are some states that will use those tests as a hurdle for promotion to the next grade, but there is no requirement under the Federal law to do so. The consequences are for the schools and school districts, with the punitive actions possible, ranging from being marked as a school failing to make Annual Yearly Progress to possible loss of part of Federal aid and/or having students being able to transfer out. Such punitive actions towards schools pre-date NCLB. In many states the testing regimen imposed upon schools after 1983 potentially could lead to schools being ‘restructured” - administrators would be removed and all teachers would have to reapply for their jobs (even though stability of teaching staff correlates very strongly with academic success of students, but proponents of these punitive approaches rarely consulted the appropriate research). In some stats, test scores would be only part of criteria -- attendance, discipline issues and other factors would also be examined.

Clearly a heavily weighted final examination prepared by a teacher can have consequences such as not being promoted or even not graduating if that test results in an overal failing grade. Here I note that I try never to make any examination or project that is part of a course I teach worth more than about 20% of the grade for a marking period, simply because with adolescents the level of pressure that represents is unfair - what if there is surrounding that one test circumstances that legitimately affect the ability of a student (a serious illness in the family, a pending divorce) or an entire school (the suicide or murder of a popular student or staff member) to perform successfully on that instrument on that day?

Externally composed tests having heavy consequence are not a new phenomenon. Here I will ignore the early entrance examinations, since while the repents a denial of an opportunity it does not represent a a refusal to grant credit for work already done. Even so, high stakes tests are not new. New York State has long had a series of examinations required in certain courses. Created under the supervision of the state’s board of education, known as the Regents, these Regents examinations were a common part of high school for those of us who graduated from high school in the Empire State in the period of the 1950’s and later. I don’t remember how many I took, but I do remember 2nd year Latin and French, a batch of math courses, World History, American History and English. I do not believe that we were required to pass the test to receive credit for the course, but that the score on the exam - which was marked locally at least for those of u in the high school class of 1963 - was included in averaging our final grade. Passing a certain number of Regents examinations resulted if memory serves in the receipt of a high level of diploma, but lack of such examination success was not per se a bar to receiving any diploma.

After the publication of (the badly flawed) A Nation At Risk in 1983, many states began to move in the direction of creating a series of tests that had to be passed in order for students to graduate from high school, or in some cases for promotion to the next grade. This phenomenon was intensified after the release of the Goals 2000 program that I remind readers was largely a production of a National Governors’ Association led by Bill Clinton. Most statewide high stakes tests were thus already in place before the passage of the so-called No Child Left Behind Legislation. It is important to note that one of the arguments for the passage of NCLB was the claim by Bush and those working with him that Texas had by using high stakes testing improved their educational outcomes, something that was clearly disputable at the time as the work of Walt Haney at the Lynch College of Education at Boston College and others demonstrated at the time.

One should not make the mistake of assuming that imposition of such testing regimens was a partisan action. I have already referred to Bill Clinton’s role as head of NGA. There were other prominent Democratic governors supporting such an approach, people such as Jim Hunt of NC> And former TN Governor Lamar Alexander served as Sec Ed under the first President Bush at the time much of this expansion of high stakes testing took place.

Let us now proceed to the question of whether the imposition of testing regimens with serious consequences - whether for the students, the schools, the teachers, and/or any combination of the foregoing - leads to improved educational consequences. If one looks only at the scores on the tests themselves, one might argue that it does. Many states and schools systems will proudly point at their increasing performance on the state tests. But often this is illusory. Let me offer several explanations for such phenomenon.

First, when any testing regimen is introduced, those providing instruction for the courses to be tested had to adjust to how the test operates. Mere familiarity with the test allows for better test preparation, which may not necessarily mean that the higher scores represent better knowledge. here I note that merely retaking the old (1600 point maximum) SAT resulted in an improved score in excess of 40 points, and thus it was pretty easy for a company like Princeton Review [disclosure - I taught and tutored for them for 3 years] to guarantee an improvement of 100 points.

Second, there is far too much evidence of setting the initial passing levels too high, then lowering them , so that comparing the pass rate from one year to the next is not a valid comparison. This has clearly happened among other places in Texas on a broad scale and in Virginia on the American History tests (and as a middle school teacher in Arlington Virginia I was a beneficiary of the latter).

Third, comparing the scores of this year’s 3rd graders to last year’s is not a valid comparison of improvement in learning or teaching, because it is not the same children, and the cohorts can vary significantly in prior knowledge, demographics, etc. Comparisons of 4th grade scores to 3rd grade scores can also be fraught with problems,unless one can demonstrate a clear vertical relationship between the two tests and can isolate how much of the improvement is due to 4th grade instruction (the so called value added component) and not to outside learning experiences that have occurred since the 3rd grade test.

All of these issues are independent of any structural, reliability or validity issues on the tests themselves. As an example of a structural issue, several years ago the Maryland High School Assessment in Government had forms (different versions) of the test that varied significantly in their composition. One form had 2 longer writing pieces and about 6 short ones (Extended Constructive and brief Constructed Responses), while another had no EC R and something like 13 to 16 BCRs. The latter example required so much writing that students who had never done that much writing at one time had their hands cramping up, and it is not certain that one can draw valid inferences across the different forms of the examination.

A test is reliable if it consistently gives the same results. That does not mean it is accurate. I have two scales in my house. One appropriately measured my weight this morning at 179 pounds. The other measured me at 138 - it consistently measures weight 41 pounds low. It is reliable in doing so. But it is not an accurate measurement, and hence using it (without the known correction factor) would lead me to draw the invalid inference that I was far skinnier than I actually am. Without reliability there can be no validity - no ability to draw valid inferences. But reliability is in itself insufficient.

Further, one has to know what the test is measuring. Is it in fact measuring underlying knowledge and/or ability, is it measuring the ability to take the test? Requiring an answer to be constructed a certain way may accurately measure how well the student can construct in that format but may not measure the content that is in theory being assessed. Imagine if you can being given a test which is printed upside down or backwards, and you are not allowed to spin the paper around or use a mirror. The score you achieve on that test will largely be a function of how well you can translate the image into something you can comprehend, and far less a measure of your actual knowledge of the correct answers. Far too many tests -- and here I most acknowledge that these include teacher-created tests - have too much of assessing the ability to interpret the test or to give an answer in a fixed format, and thus are not necessarily really measuring the knowledge and learning in theory the test is supposed to assess.

Okay, enough on all that. Let’s assume that we have accounted for all the issues I have described above. What valid information are we obtaining from high stakes testing? how can we be certain that improved results on statewide tests represent an improvement in learning and/or teaching? Perhaps the best way is to apply over time an independent measure of the same domains. One can, for example, look at SAT scores in a state or NAEP scores. NAEP is a national assessment that samples across the state on a voluntary basis and yet is a random sampling. The state does not have to participate, but those that do test a randomly selected group of schools and students. Thus in a snapshot it gives a standard against which improvements on state tests can be compared. For this comparison purpose it is probably the most effective single way of doing such comparison. SATs have two problems. First, outside of the two coasts, many colleges/universities do not require SATs (often accepting ACTs which are less expensive) so that only the elite students are likely to take the tests. Thus SAT scores might remain static even though learning had improved. Further, as more students are encouraged to consider colleges and take the SAT in communities on the coasts (such as the County in which i teach in Maryland), the overall SAT average could decrease even as the disaggregated scores of all groups increase - this is due to the phenomenon known as Simpson’s Paradox (google it if you want to know more).

This past week an important study was released jointly by the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University and the Great Lakes Center for Educational Research. I have enclosed the entire press release below. To summarize, there is no evidence to support the theory behind high stakes testing, that the increased pressure will lead to increased student achievement.

I suggest that you take the time to read the press release. You may even decide to use the imbedded link to read the report. I will look forward to any comments.

note I have removed from the press release the phone numbers that were listed, although I have kept in the names and emails that were provided

Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU)



Contact: Teri Moblo (email) tmoblo@mea.org or
Alex Molnar (email) epsl@asu.edu

TEMPE, Ariz. (Tuesday, September 20, 2005) - The pressure associated with high-stakes testing has no real impact on student achievement, according to "High-Stakes Testing and Student Achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act," a study released by the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University and the Great Lakes Center for Education Research
and Practice.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), high-stakes test scores are the indicators used to measure school and student success on a statewide basis. Low test scores can result in severe consequences for schools under this law. The underlying theory behind this type of accountability program is that the pressure of high-stakes testing will increase student achievement. But according to this study, there is no convincing evidence that this kind of pressure leads to increased student achievement.

The authors, Sharon L. Nichols, University of Texas at San Antonio, and Gene V Glass and David C. Berliner, Arizona State University, studied the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test data from 25 states. The results suggest that increases in testing pressure are related to increased retention in grade and drop-out rates. The authors found that states with the highest proportions of minority students implemented accountability systems that exerted the greatest pressure. Thus, the negative impacts of high-stakes testing will disproportionately affect America's minority students.

"This most recent research demonstrates that the pressure to produce high test scores as a result of No Child Left Behind hasn't helped students to achieve more, and has served to limit the depth and breadth of what students are being taught in schools around the country," said Teri Moblo, director of the Great Lakes Center.

Four key findings emerged from the study:

*States with greater proportions of minority students tend to implement accountability systems that exert greater pressure. An unintended consequence of this patterning is that problems associated with high-stakes testing risk disproportionately affecting America's minority students.

*Increased testing pressure is related to increased retention and drop-out rates. High-stakes testing pressure is negatively associated with the likelihood that eighth and 10th graders will move into 12th grade.

*NAEP reading scores at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels were not improved as a result of increased testing pressure. This finding was consistent across African American, Hispanic, and White student subgroups.

*Weak correlations between pressure and NAEP performance for fourth-grade mathematics and the unclear relationship for eighth-grade mathematics are unlikely linked to increased testing pressure. While a weak relationship emerged at the fourth-grade level, a systematic link between pressure and achievement was not established. For eighth-grade performance, the lack of clarity in the relationship may arise from the interplay of other indirect factors. Inconsistent performance gains in these cases are far more likely the result of indirect factors such as teaching to the test, drill and practice, or the exclusion of lower-achieving students than pressure.

What the researchers could not find is also of great importance. Many different analyses were unable to establish any consistent link between the pressure to score high in a particular state and that state's student performance on the NAEP. That means that claims of a clear-cut link between pressure and performance cannot be considered credible.

"A rapidly growing body of research evidence on the harmful effects of high-stakes testing, along with no reliable evidence of improved performance by students on NAEP tests of achievement, suggests that we need a moratorium in public education on the use of high-stakes testing," said Nichols, the study's lead author.

Find this document on the web at:

Saturday, September 24, 2005

A Teacher's life - four weeks 

Since I last wrote about the school year (see here for the versions posted at dailykos) it has been a struggle to find time to reflect or to post further. Perhaps this diary will give some sense to what the school year can be like for a teacher. While I would not expect my experiences to be universal, much of what I write will not be unique to me.

After two weeks one would hope that the patterns of the day would settle down, but such has not been the case. First, I start with the following proposition. Until soccer season ends I will leave arrive at school at or before 7 AM every morning and not depart back until sometime after 6, more often not until well after 7. Soccer practice will go until 5:45 or 6, and since I coach the JV we play after the varsity our games usually do not start until 5:30. After home games we have to break down the field and put away the equipment - i must check they we have 14 spikes, 14 straps, two next, four corner flags, a midfield flag, and assorted things to cover rain drains so that no players catches his spikes therein. At way games there is the bus ride back to our school (which can b e 45 minutes even within County) and then wait for all the players to be picked up. And I have not even begun to describe my teaching responsibilities.

Not everyone is a coach. In our building almost everyone is a sponsor of some kind of activity. About half of these offer no pay for service (unlike coaching, wherein my pay comes out to something like 7/hour by the end of the season). We do what we do not for the extra money, but because we may love the sport or the theater, but even more so because we want to enrich the lives of our students.

I teach 6 periods a day. I started the year with one class having only 11 students (now up to 16 as we get additional students and begin to level the size of our classes). And by the third week I was no longer having to call parents to introduce myself. But as students begin to turn in work, the days lengthen as I take the time to correct it (almost always overnight), to modify the plans made over the weekend as a result of what I see when I correct papers, or what I ascertain from what occurs in the class. There are tests to be made up and corrected. There are meetings and more meetings that chew up time before school and during planning periods. There are even meetings that require my absence from school, which means I have to do plans that are far more detailed for my substitute to do then the outlines that are, after 10+ years, sufficient to guide my own actions. In the past two weeks I have had meetings on students with Individual Education Plans (special education) for any modifications that might be necessary, based on what I have perceived about the students. I have had to prepare and present a workshop session that was presented to the high school government teachers. I am only one of four teacher in-county who has been formally trained for the AP Government course that is now giving in all 21 high schools. I was asked to present to all the government teachers - even those who do not teach AP - about how the AP exam is scored, and thus what is different in preparing students for that exam versus what they need for the state’s mandatory exam.

And by now there are many other tasks as well - phone calls with parents, emails with parents, emails with students, conferences before or after school with students, extra help sessions (at this point limited to before school), requests from students for college recommendations ...

This week was typical. Monday I arrived at school a bit before 7 to do copying, at 7:15 I was writing assignments on the board, at 7:30 I had 3 students for extra help. My lunch during 4th period is cut short by the requirement for 10 minutes of hall duty, which became 20 because a student misbehaved and had to be walked to her administrator and an immediate conference held. During the day I confiscated 3 cell phones improperly on during the day, which had to be labeled and locked in my room until the end of the day, with my making a record of who the students were (on a 2nd offense the phone is turned over to the appropriate administrator). During my planning I was able to set up the room for the next day. We had an away game, but the bus was 30 minutes late, which meant checking on its status and keeping my 9th and 10th graders together. We finished our game shortly after 7, got back to school at about 7:40, and I had to wait almost 20 minutes until all remaining students were picked up by parents. I then had to do some paperwork, set my room for the next day, answer several emails - from parents, from administrators. I also had to write a long email to our athletic director because the team we played had illegal used a player from the varsity game in our JV game. I had to give a detailed explanation of what had occurred (and that game will probably go into the books as a forfeit as a result of the cheating). I left for home at 8:30.

Tuesday is one of the longest days of the year, for that evening was back to school night. I got to school at 6:45, did some tutoring before school. Practice at the end of the day was cut short to give me time to clean up and change. My planning period (which because of coaching is the final period) had been used to clean up the room and set up the handouts for the first group of classes. Officially my last group of parents left my room just after 9, but I had several others who came back for individual conversations. Normally we try to avoid these at back to School night, but in both cases it is almost impossible for parents to come to school during the day, and there were issues that they needed addressed. I also had another teacher arrive with the parents of a boy who had just joined school and wanted to know if it was too late to come out for soccer (in general yes, but in this case we will make an exception if he is able to report by Monday). Then I had to check for emails and phone messages and set my room for the next morning. I left for home at 9:45 PM, having been on the grounds for 15 hours.

Wednesday was somewhat better. I actually left school by 6:10 pm, enabling to be home in time for the 7 PM conference call with Gov. Tom Vilsack and another educational blogger about which I posted here (that’s the dailykos version - similar versions at several other sites). I then had papers from 3 classes that had to be read an corrected, and I got to bed around 11:30 PM. I did manage to squeeze in one brief meeting before practice with the newly elected freshman class officers (I am one of two cosponsors).

Thursday was a test day for 2 classes. That meant that during my 4th period lunch I had to rearrange the room so that it was properly set for test conditions. I was fortunately able to correct 6th period’s exams while 7th period was taking their test, and 7th period is the small class, and they were easily corrected during my 8th period planning. My JV was playing (our arch-rival) at home at 4 PM (the varsity was away) so I had to use some of 8th period to ensure that the field was properly set up, get the game balls and check the pressure. I did not have time to enter grades into the computer nor to check on emails. After we won the game, it was time to break down the field. I talked with parents of several of my players. I put all equipment in the varsity coach’s room. I then returned to my room to enter grades and check emails. I left for home a bit after 8. When I got home I had about 2 hours to spend on correcting papers from my other classes, and to make some notes about adjustments I needed to make.

Yesterday, Friday, was my shortest day this year. I didn’t get to school until 7:15, and I cut practice short by 5 PM. For one thing, a number of my players were banged up from the game, an since it hasn’t rained in over a week our practice field has the give (or lack therefor) of concrete, and I did not wish to risk further injuries. Besides, I really wanted to get to DC to spend time with the various Kossacks who were coming into town for the events this weekend (and I finally got to meet people like Maryscott, Booman, and others). I did NO schoolwork last night, and will not again begin school work until mid afternoon.

So there it is - a glance at one week of my life as a teacher, not including all I will do this weekend. Back to School night was extreme. The other days were not. After soccer is over shortly before Thanksgiving, while it might seem that things will get easier, they do not. I will begin to take more of the responsibility as freshman class cosponsor. I will be helping to mentor several of the teachers new to our building. I will assume responsibilities for teacher interns who will be in our building on occasion, as preparation for when they arrive full time in January - one I will share with another teacher. And after soccer I will be meeting probably 2 days a week after school with those juniors and seniors who also want to sit for the AP Comparative government exam in May, helping to prepare them without a formal course. The amount of extra help that my other students will need will go up. And by then I may have another dozen or so letters of recommendation to write for seniors. In some cases I have to create multiple versions for the same students, because I have connections with one or more of the institutions to which they are applying, so I want the letter to such colleges to be appropriately customized. Were I regularly teaching seniors (most of my students this year are in 10th grade) I am sure I would have many more letters to write.

So in case readers were wondering why I do not post more in the blogosphere, you will hopefully have a better understanding after reading this drivel. I allow NOTHING to undercut helping my students - that is my greatest priority. Blogging, talking with governors, writing op eds -- all these have the importance, but the single most important thing in my life is working with young people. How I spend my waking hours is one illustration of this. And the picture I present should also serve as a window into the lives of other teachers. Their hours may be spent differently, but the time expenditures and level of commitment is probably similar. I try to keep some time for myself, for being with my wife (we make sure to spend at least 30-45 minutes together in the evening sharing, and when possible I touch base by phone several times a day).

If you have read this far, perhaps my choice of screen identity will now be more comprehensible.

Everyone have a nice weekend.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A conversation on education 

A conversation on education

NOTE: This is being crossposted at dailykos, myleftwing, boomantribune,heartlandpac.org, and teacherken.blogspot.com

On Wednesday Sept. 21 I participated in a conference call about education. This was because I was invited as an blogger on education. Tom Vilsack, Governor of Iowa, has established HeartlandPac to help those Democrats running for governor. Among his ideas is to develop a portfolio (hope you like that image, Tom) of points on issues that Democratic candidates for governors can use in their pursuit of elective office. The first topic on which he has focused has been education.

A couple of points. First, Gov. Vilsack was considered to be on Kerry’s short list for VP. Second, many observers consider him a possible candidate for national office in 2008. although he insists that the purpose of this PAC is to help elect Democrats to gubernatorial positions in 2005 (VA and NJ) and 2006/ Third, his wife Christie is herself a long-time teacher. Fourth, Iowa is the only state of which I am aware that has not moved towards high stakes tests for high school graduation. Fifth, in this conversation it is clear that Gov. Vilsack has real awareness in some depth of the nature of the issue about public education: he talked about his criticisms of NCLB - he opposes the kind of high stakes testing, it was not funded as was promised, and he thinks the punitive nature of sanctions, taking money way from schools in trouble, is counterproductive.

There were two bloggers participating, yours truly, and Joe Thomas of Shut Up and Teach. The two of us had an extended conversation privately after the 30 minutes of the conference call, a phone conversation that went for about an hour, despite the fact that it is Joe's wedding anniversary and for me and my wife the 31st anniversary of when our relationship began when we encountered one another at the Bryn Mawr PA railroad station.

Gov. Vilsack believes that education is, after basic public safety, the most important issues governors confront. he has reached out to education bloggers because he is seeking ammunition - what do Democratic candidates say when at Rotary Clubs or chambers of commerce and people raise issues about accountability? HOw do we address the fact that the Republicans have been systematically undercutting public support for public schools

I cannot say that either Joe or came up with any magic bullets in either the conference call or in our later private conversation. Both Joe and I believe that to answer in terms of accountability is to lose before one begins, that - in the terms George Lakoff would use - the frame is wrong.

I will not hear rehearse all that each party said. I did not announce that I was live blogging, and it would be unfair therefore to disclose the entirety of either conversation. Gov. Vilsack listened well, and processed and responded to points both Joe and I raised. And he encouraged us to continue the discussion by posting at www.heartlandpac.org, which is one site at which this will be posted.

What I want to do is share some of my (very preliminary)thinking on this subject. I think the focus has to be on each individual child. And rather than respond by using statistics, follow Reagan’s example and tell stories. Remember, that for many people, when you resort to statistics, their reaction is MEGO (my eyes glaze over) - they cannot connect. Tell a story that has a hook for them, and you have their attention, and you may get their agreement.

So if someone starts talking about the importance of accountability (= high stakes testing and punitive measures for teachers, schools and student) describe a student who the day before the mandatory test found out his grandfather had cancer. Suppose that was your child, and suppose it was your father who had cancer. How important is that test score to you right now?

Respond to the question with another question -- what is the purpose of public schools? The Governor said to produce productive citizens. I might reframe that as citizens who can be productive, but I still have trouble with the adjective -- it is too much framed in what appear to economic terms, and I do not believe that economics are the sole measure of a human being (heck, with what I am paid as a teacher, how could I and still remain sane -- that is, if I am sane, a point on which many of my students might raise a question or two).

I put this out for consideration, and with a request for a wordsmith or two to find a way to phrase this in a more felicitous manner than my meager rhetorical gifts allow.

The purpose of our public schools is to enable every student to become who or what she or he want to be. That is, our measure is not the test scores achieved, the number of AP classes completed. It may not even be what college is attended, or even if college is attended. If we truly value every American, as we should, then the man who fixes my car is as valuable as the lawyer who drafts my will or the doctor who treats my influenza. If our educational system does not understand that, then there is something perverse about it.

And if our purpose is to produce citizens in a democracy, then why are our schools such undemocratic places, wherein neither teachers nor students have that much say in how their lives are run.

I asked the Governor how he evaluated those personnel who reported directly to whom. He rightly and proudly discussed how there is a negotiation of the terms of performance, with the employee even having some ability to specify the kind of reward for exceeding the expectation agreed to (money is not the highest value for everyone). I then asked him why we cannot take a similar approach to how we evaluate both our teachers and our students.

I have said previously that I believe education is the ground zero in the battle for the future of this nation. If you want to read those words, try reading A teacher’s view - the Real Battlegournd a diary I posted (at dailykos among other places) back in March. I agree with Gov. Vilsack that this is an issue on which we must help our Democratic candidates for Governor (and other offices) find a way of communicating a vision that is something far better than the endless and debilitating cycle of testing and the follow-on recriminations about ”failure” which NCLB represents.

I look forward to responses of any kind, and hope that others will choose to participate in this dialog, in whatever forum you happen to encounter this post.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

In education as in FEMA? The pattern continues 

It seems as if the only purpose for many Republicans to serve in the Federal government is to get the additional line on the resume for the purpose of later capitalizing on that experience. After Katrina we all know that Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s first choice to run FEMA, has been running an for-profit entity which provides consulting in the area over which FEMA is supposed to have jurisdiction, with a client list that includes among others KBR Halliburton. Now in a news piece published in Seattle we learn that a similar pattern exist with Rod Paige, former Secretary of Education.

The piece appeared in the (reasonably conservative) Seattle Times. Entitled ”Paige, top aides, now education consultants” it begins as follows”

WASHINGTON — Rod Paige and his former top aides at the Education Department have organized a consulting group to offer high-dollar advice on policies they helped create and later enforced, including the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

Paige, who resigned as education secretary 10 months ago, has agreed to be chairman of Chartwell Education Group.

The firm, which has begun soliciting business, is seeking clients ranging from state school chiefs to foreign leaders.

It is not unusual for Washington, D.C., officials to become consultants after leaving government. But this venture involves virtually an entire leadership team from President Bush's first term.

The former Chief of Staff ot Paige, John Danielson, the new firm’s CEO, was pretty blunt about it when he confirmed the details about the firm in a phone conversation”

"We're pretty confident that we're heading into a place where there's a void. . . . You have lobbying firms out there, you have smaller consultancies on specific issues, but you don't have a comprehensive firm in education like this one"

Besides Paige and his former Chief of Staff, 3 other top officials of the DOE are involved with the firm. William Hansen had been #2 at the department, and is a specialist in higher education. Susan Clafani was Paige's top advisor on vocational and adult education. Ron Tomalis had a major role in enforcing NCLB.

While Federal law will prevent Paige and Sclafani from dealing with the DOE until one year after they departed, that may not seem to be a barrier, since they claim they will not be doing any lobbying, although the line between lobbying and consulting is often not particularly clear.

The article particularly caught my attention because I teach in Maryland. Note the following:
Last week, Ron Peiffer, a Maryland Education Department official, met with company leaders to discuss their services.

"It seemed like a powerful group, very impressive in terms of what they could bring to the table," said Peiffer, deputy superintendent for academic policy in Maryland. "Having the secretary there, and many of these other folks that we've dealt with in various other capacities, it was interesting."

It is worth reminding people that although Maryland is a fairly blue state, it has former Republican Congressman Bob Erlich as governor, and that his Lt. Gov., Michael Steele, is the putative Republican candidate for the Senate seta that is open with the forthcoming retirement of Paul Sarbanes. Of greater importance, while the current State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick, was appointed by a Democrat, that Democrat Don Schaeffer (now Comptroller) is personally very close to Erlich. Also, Erlich had approached Grasmick about being his running mate in 2002, and there are a lot of signs that she may take the number 2 slot replacing Steele this time around.

Returning to the main reason I posted this. For this administration and its supporters, the only purpose of government service is profit, either by steering contracts to favored companies of supporters while in office (sweetheart and no-bid contracts to Republican firms like Halliburton and Bechtel in Iraq), drafting legislation that favors Republican firms (such as the way NCLB aids companies like McGraw-Hill and Harcourt Educational measurement), or direct personal profiting after one’s service, either by being hired by companies one use to supervise or by “consulting” - offering one’s expertise in how to abide by the law one helped write (although in the case of Paige personally, it is doubtful he really understands the details of NCLB).

Just another pleasant read for your Sunday.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Should teachers (and others) receive merit pay? 

One of the more controversial proposals to improve education has been the idea of giving teachers merit pay. There is an article in today’s Arizona Republic which discusses the use of such a program in one small (6,300 students) district in that state. You can read the article [Rewarding best teachers: In Casa Grande, they earn more if they get good grades http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/0911teacherpay11.html] if you think it necessary. In this post I will address the issue of merit pay with respect to the compensation of teachers but also explore the issue with respect to other professions covered by civil service regulations at local, state, and national levels.

Traditionally teachers are compensated according to educational background and numbers of years of service. Most school districts will have multiple salary “ladders”, such as bachelor’s degree, BA + 30 credits, MA, MA + 30 credits. Some will add additional ladders, such as MA + 60 credits and/or doctoral degree. For each ladder, the level of compensation depends on number of years of service, with higher compensation paid for longer service. This model of compensation is very similar to how most governmental employees are paid, the difference being that education is not the determinant of which salary ladder is applied, but rather the classification of the job. Thus in my previous career as a data processing professional for local government (Arlington County Virginia) a computer programmer was compensated at a lower scale than a systems analyst, who received less than a supervisory systems analyst, and so on. While within fields the job requirements could easily be differentiated, such an approach sometimes caused problems when jobs in different fields were compared -- how does one compare the job requirements of a librarian against those of a sanitation worker, for example. Those jobs which were traditionally staffed by females - such as librarians - usually were compensated at a lower level than those that were traditionally male, regardless of things such as educational requirements, responsibilities of the job, etc. While I was at Arlington, we went through a complete reclassification of all civil service jobs which attempted to address this issues (and to a large degree did), but then, Arlington is politically a very liberal community (in my 23 years hear the only Republicans to carry the County have been one incumbent Congressman, two County Board members, on incumbent Commonwealth's attorney, and two members of the school board. Even Reagan in ‘84 did not carry the County. We have never had a Republican statewide candidate win, nor state legislator .. those Republicans who did win were well-known local figures. Currently, with 6 in the state legislature (at least in part from the County), 5 each on County Board and School Board, and 5 Constitutional offices, there is exactly one Republican on the school board).

One may note that this model of compensation is exactly paralleled by the Federal GSA schedules, and also the military pay schedules. In the latter, one gets a promotion in rank, through which one is paid on a higher pay ladder. Additional compensation for the military can be achieved for specific items such as flight pay or combat pay. For some job on Civil service scales there is additional pay for working 2nd or 3rd shift (although this usually does not apply in managerial and supervisory positions, as these are considered exempt).

Many of these compensation systems have some measure of financial reward because of performance, as well as the possibility of financial punishment. In the military, the way this occurs is through promotions and demotions. There is no merit increment to the pay, nor in most circumstances are there bonuses for specific action - here the recognition is usually through the awarding of medals and citations. One will note that some citations recognize that the individual does not work alone, and hence are group or unit citations.

In some civil service environments one can e paid bonuses based on performance - so-called performance awards. These are one-time awards which do not affect the base compensation (unlike promotions). My wife, who is a Federal employee, has received several of these. In all of these systems (not yet talking about teachers), the method of evaluation may be in part against the standards for the job, but in most cases (excepting in general the military) there will be a specific individual performance plan against which the employee will be measured.

No let’s look at teacher compensation. In recent years there have been explorations of changing the method of compensation to recognize some difference in performance or job requirements. Thus there are districts which offer a higher level of compensation for working in harder to staff schools, or schools in greater need of improvement. This additional emolument applies only while one works in such an environment, and as such is roughly equivalent to combat or flight pay in the military. Some districts have gone to school-wide or school applicable bonuses for improvements in test scores (I will address test scores anon), the difference being that school-wide applies equally to all members of the school while school-applicable are distributed within the school with the principal having some level of discretion as to the distribution of the awards. These have been controversial in both applications, among other reasons for the dependence on test scores, but also because of the issue that some principals who have discretion have been known to abuse that discretion. Of course, in the latter regard one can find similar complaints in the military and elsewhere in the civilian sectors at all levels of government.

The use of test scores is controversial for many reasons. If compensation in anyway is solely or largely dependent upon test scores, the pressure to manipulate and/or teach to the test seems to increase monumentally. Thus increased scores may or may not indicate an improvement in student learning. We have seen cases in places like Texas where he improvement on state test scores was more an artifact of manipulating who took the tests rather than any increase in student learning. Even in good schools in good districts, there have been cases of principals and teachers whose compensation depended upon improved test scores (in already high-performing schools) who felt the pressure to show improvement was so great that they cheated.

Okay that’s the background. Clearly a merit approach can be done without exclusive reliance upon test scores. The Casa Grande system for example is far more complex. As the article notes
Traditionally, teachers are paid based on years of experience and educational degrees. But Casa Grande teachers also can earn an extra $2,300 a year by meeting 67 goals based on what they know and show they can do.
And despite the traditional objection to such plans among teachers,
But Casa Grande believes it developed a model that works: Involve teachers in the planning, set reasonable and clear goals, offer lots of staff training and tweak the system when needed.

Note the differences -- this is not a plan imposed from the top, but includes teachers in its planning and design. The goals set are clear and reasonable, staff training is offered, and the system is not locked in but capable of modification. Also note that the additional increment is not permanent, but contingent on continued meeting of the goals. BTW, I would contrast that last point with the 4,500 per year (from state and local district) that those in my system receive for having completed National Board Certification -- once one achieves it, it is an ongoing (so long as the funding exists) additional increment. I will discuss this more anon.

Let me offer a few more snippets from the article

Teachers are measured on such things as establishing rules in the classroom, stimulating interest and involving students in the learning process, and building relationships with parents.

New this year, experienced teachers can opt to design their own projects instead of being evaluated on the 67 goals. The idea is to encourage teachers to test new methods that could boost student achievement. If the data show positive results, they get the bonus money. Starting teachers with no previous experience and a bachelor's degree could earn $35,175 at the end of this year in Casa Grande if they earn all the performance pay available, said Brenda Tijerina, personnel director in the district. Without any kind of bonus, that teacher would earn $31,800. Statewide, beginning teachers last school year on average made $28,100.

The key to dramatically changing a pay plan is getting teachers involved, education experts say.
In Casa Grande, administrators worked with teachers and other employees to develop the pay system.
The eight-person team consulted other districts and an educational consultant to create a plan they believed everyone would accept.
They've changed it over time. This year performance goals were expanded from 17 to 67 to make expectations clearer to teachers.

In the early 1990s, schools around the United States faced increased scrutiny from the public, and "a number of publications talked about the sad state of American education," said Lisa Gross of the Kentucky Department of Education.
"People started really paying attention to what was happening in their local schools," said Gross, whose state schools also offer incentives for teachers, but they're not tied to evaluations as in Casa Grande.

While the public wants results, some teachers are skeptical.
Performance pay might work in small districts like Casa Grande, but it can present more challenges in a large district, as it did in Cincinnati where teachers voted to reject a performance pay plan.
"It could be that they have developed a sense of community and mutual trust," said Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, commenting on Casa Grande's pay plan. "It wouldn't work in our district maybe because we're so much larger. Also, we have this absolute belief that whoever evaluates us must have expertise in our area."

The question of the evaluation and compensation of teachers has been ongoing. Here I might note that the Denver schools started a process of merit pay a number of years ago on an experimental basis. Their plan was set up with the cooperation of the local teachers’ union. Rochester a few years ago set up a procedure by which there was parent input into the the evaluation of teachers -- it was a part, but not in itself the determinant of the evaluation of that teachers. The use of test scores as ONE (among many) factors in the evaluation of teachers is far less objectionable than exclusive or predominant reliance upon test scores as has been proposed by some (who usually lack real understanding of what occurs within classrooms).

One reason for the emphasis on evaluation and merit pay is the perception / belief that (1) there are a high number of less than fully qualified teachers in the classroom, and (2) there is a difficulty recruiting and retaining more qualified teachers, especially in certain fields (eg math and science) where pay outside of teaching is so much higher. One can question the accuracy of both perceptions as less than fully accurate, but the concerns that arise even from partially distorted perceptions is nevertheless real. And clearly if teachers are to be paid more - a position for which there is some general acceptance - the people as a whole want to know that they are getting something in return for the additional taxes that must be collected.

I will not in this piece offer a definitive answer to this issue. I have done some serious research on the issue of teacher evaluation - it was the underlying topic of my now abandoned dissertation. And there may be some justification for varying somewhat the compensation teachers receive so that it is not exclusively based on education and years of service.

let me first note several things about myself, and then raise a couple of questions I think need to be addressed. First, by most approaches to evaluation and/or that are used for so-called merit pay I would come out very well indeed. My students do quite well on standardized tests, even though I do not teach to the test. I have a high level of student involvement. My track record on communication with parents is outstanding. I often have parents ask to have their children assigned to my classes because of older siblings and/or neighbor children who have had me (we do NOT do that kind of class assignment), and my evaluations from observations - both by administrators from within my building and from people from outside - have consistently been outstanding. I have a track record of professional involvement: attendance at seminars to improve my knowledge and skill, including several to which admission is by competitive process, presentations at professional conferences including at a state-wide level, helping train student teachers and mentoring new teachers, serving as a leader on some school-wide efforts at improving and/or maintaining our excellence. I have two masters degrees and most of a doctorate, and will either this November or the following year obtain my national board certification.

And yet, in general I oppose such differential compensation on a merit basis, even though I would financially benefit. Why?

First, teaching is a collaborative process. One might argue that the performance of elementary students is largely the responsibility of the primary teacher. While I have never taught elementary, I would question that, as often the most significant teacher is the art, music or phys ed teacher who is able to connect with the student when the primary teacher cannot. Without pursuing this further, I note that the secondary situation is quite different. In Middle school, where I taught for 4 years, a team of teachers shares students. If I am one of 4 core subject teachers for those students, there is no way I can be solely responsible - positively or negatively - for the performance of those students, even within my core subject area. At a large high school (2,900+) such as that where I now teach, there is far less of such a sharing approach. And yet, within our department there is a fair amount of cooperation and division of labor without which none of us would succeed. Thus we are teaching AP government to 10th graders for the first time. I he three sections, another teacher has one. We are doing joint planning, dividing up the responsibilities, etc. Neither one of us could do all of it on our own. How much of our success will be individual and how much will be as a result of our joint efforts? And if you argue that we should share any additional compensation, does that mean I should get 3/4 of the additional because of the difference of student load, or should it be 1/2 because we are equally sharing the planning? But what then about the support we receive from others in our department? There are 9 other teachers who already teach AP social studies courses, who have been generous in helping us get organized and learn from their experience. There is a school-wide support system for AP. We have an administration that is terrific at supporting teachers in using their best judgment on academic matters. Our school system paid for a one-week AP training session for both of us, and our PTSA has paid for a one-day session for me, and for supplemental materials for both of us. Are not these part of the compensation and support we have already received?

I am concerned that to reward teachers based on specific performance criteria will undercut any attempts at our acting like and being viewed as professionals. In general, lawyers and doctors are not compensated based on such specific criteria. They are expected to act like responsible professionals in their fields. My own approach towards teaching is similar. Thus I have a bias against such differential compensation.

That bias is not overwhelming. That is, I can be convinced that some measure of merit compensation is justifiable. I would expect it to depend upon multiple measures, and I would demand that it be designed and administered at least in part by teachers, so that it not undercut what should be our sense of professionalism. It should include teachers having ongoing professional development plans, and should require support and training to achieve those professional goals. Test scores could be a part of the evaluation, but here there should be some measure of improved learning - if not strictly value added, before/after test scores. There is no way I should benefit from performance on the state test on government when 95% of my AP students could pass that test before taking my course, and that is unfair to the teacher who has special ed students who have little chance of passing the first time they encounter the state test.

Experiments such as Casa Grande will occur. I am enough of a realist to accept that. I hope that there are a variety of approaches that can then be fairly evaluated. And if schools and systems decide to follow such examples, I hope they are wise enough to make the necessary local adaptations and not merely buy and/or insert a system from elsewhere which might not be appropriate to local conditions.

This bloviation has gone on long enough. I strongly encourage others to comment on this subject, whether or not you are an educational professional. This is an important issue, and it deserves our attention.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

America's Educational Apartheid 

Okay, the title of this posting is a bit deceptive, since it is only the beginning of the title of an important piece on education by Jonathan Kozol, that appeared recently in the September issue of Harper’s. The complete title is “Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid” and it is now available in its entirety [here http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/2005/American-Apartheid-Education1sep05.htm]. To whet your appetite for reading, here is the opening paragraph:
Many Americans who live far from our major cities and who have no firsthand knowledge of the realities to be found in urban public schools seem to have the rather vague and general impression that the great extremes of racial isolation that were matters of grave national significance some thirty-five or forty years ago have gradually but steadily diminished in more recent years. The truth, unhappily, is that the trend, for well over a decade now, has been precisely the reverse. Schools that were already deeply segregated twenty-five or thirty years ago are no less segregated now, while thousands of other schools around the country that had been

Kozol has the credibility to write on this subject.  For those who do not know his work, he has been writing about inequality, including in schools, for many years.   To give a sense of his background to write the piece this diary features, let me offer the first few paragraphs on Kozol from Wikipedia

Jonathan Kozol (born 1936 in Boston ) is a nonfiction writer, educator, and activist, best known for his books on public education in the United States . In the passion of the civil rights campaigns of 1964 and 1965, Kozol moved from Harvard Square to a poor black neighborhood of Boston ( Roxbury, MA ) and became a fourth grade teacher in the Boston Public Schools . It was after he was fired from the Boston Public Schools for reading Langston Hughes poetry to his class that he was thrust into the limelight and became a more prominent figure on the Boston civil rights scene. After being fired from BPS he was offered a job to teach for Newton Public Schools, the school district that he had attended as a child, and did so for several years before becoming more deeply involved in social justice work and dedicating more time to writing.

Death at an Early Age , his first nonfiction book is a description of his first year as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools. It was published in 1967 and received the 1968 National Book Award in Science, Philosophy, and Religion. It has sold more than two million copies in the United States and Europe .

Among the other books by Kozol are Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America , which received the Robert F. Kennedy Book award for 1989 and the Conscience in Media Award of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and Savage Inequalities , which won the New England Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992.

His 1995 book, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation , described his visits to the South Bronx of New York , the poorest congressional district in the United States. It received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1996, an honor previously granted to the works of Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, Jr.

He has also written Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope which Wikipedia describes as
A vivid narrative that steers away from fevered ideologies and partisan debate. . . .a book about the little miracles of stubbornly persistent innocence in children who are still unsoiled by the world and can view their place in it without cynicism or despair.

Kozol was a Harvard Summa who turned down a Rhodes Scholarship to go to Paris to write a novel.  In his body of nonfiction work he has in his work returned again and again to the subject of inequality.  The article to which this posting refers is derived from his forthcoming book The Shame of the Nation : The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America   which has a publication date of September 13.

Kozol is a difficult writer from which to extract.  I strongly encourage you to take the time to read the entire article from Harper's to which I have offered the link.  In the rest of this posting I will first make a very few comments of my own, and then offer just a few selected paragraphs that I hope will serve as sufficient enticement to (a) read the entire article, and (b) follow my example in obtaining the book when it is released next week and then devoting the time to reading it and pondering its contents.

First my remarks.  I teach in a predominantly Black school in a heavily Black district.   Our jurisdiction, Prince George's County Maryland, is perhaps the wealthiest majority black civil jurisdiction in the US.  Located just east (and north) of the nation's Capital, the average household income is over 50,000.  The County is about 55% Black, but the school system is well over 70% Black, with the percentage of white students now down in the mid-teens.  There are a few neighborhood schools at the elementary level that are still overwhelmingly white, but by middle school such patterns begin to disappear.  Of our 21 high schools, we have some that are overwhelming black, with few white students.  My school has a substantial number, in part part because about 1/3 of our students are admitted by competitive examination to our science and tech program and because we offer languages like Latin, Italian, Russian and Japanese.  Do not misinterpret what I have just written --  we have many black students in those programs.   But we also draw into our school many white students who have not been part of the public schools below the 9th grade level, but who choose to come to our high school.  

Kozol's writings about segregated living and schools are also dealing with the questions of economic apartheid.  That is something not really reflected in our school.   We have a wide range of SES among our students.  I know students who drive their own Lexis or BMW to school, and I know others who carefully manage their two or three sets of appropriate school clothing so that they appear neat (only one seat of jeans) but not repetitive.  Official statistics on free and reduced lunch are meaningless when students don't take a lunch period (to take an extra course) or brown bag because they do not like the school food.  Because I call the homes of all of my students I encounter more than a few where the phone has been "temporarily" disconnected because the parents cannot afford to pay the bill.

I am a firm believer that all students can learn.   Too often by high school the eagerness for learning is gone.  Some of the students who pass through my room may have inculcated beliefs that they cannot succeed in social studies, that they cannot write, that it really doesn't matter how they do in school.  Sometimes this can be blamed in part on their school experience before they come to us.  In other cases there is a lack of family support for the importance of schooling.  I have had 15 year old students living on their own, in one case a young lady who deliberately got herself pregnant so she could apply for (and to my surprise obtain) status as an emancipated minor.  That said, even those students who may have been beaten down still retain enough of a spark that with patience and persistence those of us who teach in our school often find that we are able to reawaken an interest in learning.  Our faculty and administration are quite diverse, and we take pride in caring about all of our students, and about the whole student.

How does this relate to what you will read from Kozol?  Many of us have made a deliberate decision to teach in a racially and economically diverse high school.  Our level of pay is less than what we would make in most of the surrounding jurisdictions, our classes are more crowded, and most of us teach 6 classes instead of the 4, 5 (or even only 2 or 3 for those schools which are block scheduled).  Right now I have 157 students on my rolls (one class has only 13, but each day as more students enroll that size is beginning to increase), and in the past I have had more than 190 at a time.   Our system spends only a bit over 8,000/student per year.   Now that is above the national average.  But I can compare it to nearby jurisdiction such as Arlington VA where I live, where the rate is well over 14,000/student and note (as I can from one year teaching there) class sizes that averaged under 24 as compared to the 30+ I have had some years.  This is somewhat related to Kozol:  our voters have placed severe restrictions on property taxes and an analysis of the voting patterns showed a higher support for such limitations in precincts with older white voters (who no longer had children in the heavily black public school system) than in the inner suburbs that were heavily black and working class.  In fairness, some of the wealthier majority black communities - also showed strong support for such tax limitation, so it was not purely racial, but it may have had elements of economic apartheid.

Let me limit my remarks to one more topic.  I grew up at a time when there were two institutions that meant at least males were required to mix to some degree with people not like themselves.  These were the public schools of the 1950's and early 1960's, and the military in which so many of u had to participate because of the draft and in many public universities ROTC.   Yes, schools were somewhat segregated by race and class because of economics, restricted access to housing, and a history of de facto as well as de jure segregation.   But the percentage of students in public schools was significantly higher than it is today.  We have seen the growth of schools which maintain a religious focus -- here I do not mean just so-called Christian academies, but also the blossoming of things like the Jewish Day School movement.  Home schooling has also increased substantially, in part because laws have been modified to make it easier to withdraw from public schools in favor of home schooling.  We have also seen an increased polarization of public attitudes on schools, as politicians have chosen to make public schools an issue of convenience.  The weight of mandates imposed on schools tends to fall far more heavily on those schools serving minorities and the economically disfavored, precisely because their test scores (which again usually correlate heavily with SES) are much lower and because the community and parents lack the resources to supplement what can be spent from the taxes dedicated to public schools.   it is the schools that serve our minorities and economically disadvantage that are in greatest danger of losing music, art, recreation, and becoming little more than test-preparation centers.  In the process we lose meaningful educational contact with an increasing number of the students in these schools.  While I have neither time and space to discuss it in this piece, the future implications of such an approach to schooling are staggering -  Kozol's use of the inflammatory term "apartheid" is thus totally appropriate.

And now to selections from Kozol.  I assure you that I have quoted far less than half of the article, so there is no copyright violation.  Read these, go read the entire magazine, then get the book.

In Chicago, by the academic year 2002-2003, 87 percent of public-school enrollment was black or Hispanic; less than 10 percent of children in the schools were white. In Washington, D.C., 94 percent of children were black or Hispanic; less than 5 percent were white. In St. Louis, 82 percent of the student population were black or Hispanic; in Philadelphia and Cleveland, 79 percent; in Los Angeles, 84 percent, in Detroit, 96 percent; in Baltimore, 89 percent. In New York City, nearly three quarters of the students were black or Hispanic.

A teacher at P.S. 65 in the South Bronx once pointed out to me one of the two white children I had ever seen there. His presence in her class was something of a wonderment to the teacher and to the other pupils. I asked how many white kids she had taught in the South Bronx in her career. "I've been at this school for eighteen years," she said. "This is the first white student I have ever taught."

It is even more disheartening when schools like these are not in deeply segregated inner-city neighborhoods but in racially mixed areas where the integration of a public school would seem to be most natural, and where, indeed, it takes a conscious effort on the part of parents or school officials in these districts to avoid the integration option that is often right at their front door.

In a Seattle neighborhood that I visited in 2002, for instance, where approximately half the families were Caucasian, 95 percent of students at the Thurgood Marshall Elementary School were black, Hispanic, Native American, or of Asian origin. An African-American teacher at the school told me--not with bitterness but wistfully--of seeing clusters of white parents and their children each morning on the corner of a street close to the school, waiting for a bus that took the children to a predominantly white school.  

There is a well-known high school named for Martin Luther King Jr. in New York City too. This school, which I've visited repeatedly in recent years, is located in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood, where it was built in the belief--or hope--that it would draw large numbers of white students by permitting them to walk to school, while only their black and Hispanic classmates would be asked to ride the bus or come by train. When the school was opened in 1975, less than a block from Lincoln Center in Manhattan, "it was seen," according to the New York Times, "as a promising effort to integrate white, black and Hispanic students in a thriving neighborhood that held one of the city's cultural gems." Even from the start, however, parents in the neighborhood showed great reluctance to permit their children to enroll at Martin Luther King, and, despite "its prime location and its name, which itself creates the highest of expectations," notes the Times, the school before long came to be a destination for black and Hispanic students who could not obtain admission into more successful schools. It stands today as one of the nation's most visible and problematic symbols of an expectation rapidly receding and a legacy substantially betrayed.


Perhaps most damaging to any serious effort to address racial segregation openly is the refusal of most of the major arbiters of culture in our northern cities to confront or even clearly name an obvious reality they would have castigated with a passionate determination in another section of the nation fifty years before--and which, moreover, they still castigate today in retrospective writings that assign it to a comfortably distant and allegedly concluded era of the past. There is, indeed, a seemingly agreed-upon convention in much of the media today not even to use an accurate descriptor like "racial segregation" in a narrative description of a segregated school. Linguistic sweeteners, semantic somersaults, and surrogate vocabularies are repeatedly employed. Schools in which as few as 3 or 4 percent of students may be white or Southeast Asian or of Middle Eastern origin, for instance--and where every other child in the building is black or Hispanic--are referred to as "diverse." Visitors to schools like these discover quickly the eviscerated meaning of the word, which is no longer a proper adjective but a euphemism for a plainer word that has apparently become unspeakable.

School systems themselves repeatedly employ this euphemism in describing the composition of their student populations. In a school I visited in the fall of 2004 in Kansas City, Missouri, for example, a document distributed to visitors reports that the school's curriculum "addresses the needs of children from diverse backgrounds." But as I went from class to class, I did not encounter any children who were white or Asian--or Hispanic, for that matter--and when I was later provided with precise statistics for the demographics of the school, I learned that 99.6 percent of students there were African American. In a similar document, the school board of another district, this one in New York State, referred to "the diversity" of its student population and "the rich variations of ethnic backgrounds." But when I looked at the racial numbers that the district had reported to the state, I learned that there were 2,800 black and Hispanic children in the system, 1 Asian child, and 3 whites. Words, in these cases, cease to have real meaning; or, rather, they mean the opposite of what they say.

High school students whom I talk with in deeply segregated neighborhoods and public schools seem far less circumspect than their elders and far more open in their willingness to confront these issues. "It's more like being hidden," said a fifteen-year-old girl named Isabel* I met some years ago in Harlem, in attempting to explain to me the ways in which she and her classmates understood the racial segregation of their neighborhoods and schools. "It's as if you have been put in a garage where, if they don't have room for something but aren't sure if they should throw it out, they put it there where they don't need to think of it again."

* The names of children mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.

I asked her if she thought America truly did not "have room" for her or other children of her race. "Think of it this way," said a sixteen-year-old girl sitting beside her. "If people in New York woke up one day and learned that we were gone, that we had simply died or left for somewhere else, how would they feel?"

"How do you think they'd feel?" I asked.

"I think they'd he relieved," this very solemn girl replied.


Libraries, once one of the glories of the New York City school system, were either nonexistent or, at best, vestigial in large numbers of the elementary schools. Art and music programs had  also for the most part disappeared. "When I began to teach in 1969," the principal of an elementary school in the South Bronx reported to me, "every school had a full-time licensed art and music teacher and librarian." During the subsequent decades, he recalled, "I saw all of that destroyed."

School physicians also were removed from elementary schools during these years. In 1970, when substantial numbers of white children still attended New York City's public schools, 400 doctors had been present to address the health needs of the children. By 1993 the number of doctors had been cut to 23, most of them part-time--a cutback that affected most severely children in the city's poorest neighborhoods, where medical facilities were most deficient and health problems faced by children most extreme. Teachers told me of asthmatic children who came into class with chronic wheezing and who at any moment of the day might undergo more serious attacks, but in the schools I visited there were no doctors to attend to them.


"If you close your eyes to the changing racial composition of the schools and look only at budget actions and political events," says Noreen Connell, the director of the nonprofit Educational Priorities Panel in New York, "you're missing the assumptions that are underlying these decisions." When minority parents ask for something better for their kids, she says, "the assumption is that these are parents who can be discounted. These are kids who just don't count--children we don't value."  

There are expensive children and there are cheap children," writes Marina Warner, an essayist and novelist who has written many books for children, "just as there are expensive women and cheap women." The governmentally administered diminishment in value of the children of the poor begins even before the age of five or six, when they begin their years of formal education in the public schools. It starts during

their infant and toddler years, when hundreds of thousands of children of the very poor in much of the United States are locked out of the opportunity for preschool education for no reason but the accident of birth and budgetary choices of the government, while children of the privileged are often given veritable feasts of rich developmental early education.

In New York City, for example, affluent parents pay surprisingly large sums of money to enroll their youngsters, beginning at the age of two or three, in extraordinary early-education programs that give them social competence and rudimentary pedagogic skills unknown to children of the same age in the city's poorer neighborhoods. The most exclusive of the private preschools in New York, which are known to those who can afford them as "Baby Ivies," cost as much as $24,000 for a full-day program. Competition for admission to these pre-K schools is so extreme that private counselors are frequently retained, at fees as high as $300 an hour, to guide the parents through the application process.

At the opposite extreme along the economic spectrum in New York are thousands of children who receive no preschool opportunity at all. Exactly how many thousands are denied this opportunity in New York City and in other major cities is almost impossible to know. Numbers that originate in governmental agencies in many states are incomplete and imprecise and do not always differentiate with clarity between authentic pre-K programs that have educative and developmental substance and those less expensive child-care arrangements that do not. But even where states do compile numbers that refer specifically to educative preschool programs, it is difficult to know how many of the children who are served are of low income, since admissions to some of the state-supported programs aren't determined by low income or they are determined by a complicated set of factors of which poverty is only one.

Is the answer really to throw money into these dysfunctional and failing schools?" I'm often asked. "Don't we have some better ways to make them `work'?" The question is posed in a variety of forms. "Yes, of course, it's not a perfectly fair system as it stands. But money alone is surely not the sole response. The values of the parents and the kids themselves must have a role in this as well you know, housing, health conditions, social factors." "Other factors"--a term of overall reprieve one often hears--"have got to be considered, too." These latter points are obviously true but always seem to have the odd effect of substituting things we know we cannot change in the short run for obvious solutions like cutting class size and constructing new school buildings or providing universal preschool that we actually could put in place right now if we were so inclined.

Frequently these arguments are posed as questions that do not invite an answer because the answer seems to be decided in advance. "Can you really buy your way to better education for these children?" "Do we know enough to be quite sure that we will see an actual return on the investment that we make?" "Is it even clear that this is the right starting point to get to where we'd like to go? It doesn't always seem to work, as I am sure that you already know," or similar questions that somehow assume I will agree with those who ask them.

Some people who ask these questions, although they live in wealthy districts where the schools are funded at high levels, don't even send their children to these public schools but choose instead to send them to expensive private day schools. At some of the well-known private prep schools in the New York City area, tuition and associated costs are typically more than $20,000 a year. During their children's teenage years, they sometimes send them off to very fine New England schools like Andover or Exeter or Groton, where tuition, boarding, and additional expenses rise to more than $30,000. Often a family has two teenage children in these schools at the same time, so they may be spending more than $60,000 on their children's education every year. Yet here I am one night, a guest within their home, and dinner has been served and we are having coffee now; and this entirely likable, and generally sensible, and beautifully refined and thoughtful person looks me in the eyes and asks me whether you can really buy your way to better education for the children of the poor.  

One last selection, even though there is so much more of value in the article.  Perhaps this is as on point as anything else in the article.

There is no misery index for the children of apartheid education. There ought to be; we measure almost everything else that happens to them in their schools. Do kids who go to schools like these enjoy the days they spend in them? Is school, for most of them, a happy place to be? You do not find the answers to these questions in reports about achievement levels, scientific methods of accountability, or structural revisions in the modes of governance. Documents like these don't speak of happiness. You have to go back to the schools themselves to find an answer to these questions. You have to sit down in the little chairs in first and second grade, or on the reading rug with kindergarten kids, and listen to the things they actually say to one another and the dialogue between them and their teachers. You have to go down to the basement with the children when it's time for lunch and to the playground with them, if they have a playground, when it's time for recess, if they still have recess at their school. You have to walk into the children's bathrooms in these buildings. You have to do what children do and breathe the air the children breathe. I don't think that there is any other way to find out what the lives that children lead in school are really like.

Take the time.   Read and ponder.  

Monday, September 05, 2005

This administration really blows it 

n case you haven’t noticed, I have not been posting much, because my area of expertise is education, and there have been many more immediate issues as a result of Katrina. But thanks to Secretary of Education Spelling, I now feel forced to post. This is a critically important issue, so pay attention.

Hurricane Katrina is being used to make schools “fail.” That is the only conclusion one can draw from the decision of Secretary Spellings that the children dislocated by Hurricane Katrina will still have to sit for the tests required under No Child Left Behind.

Below the fold I will offer some clips from an article at HuffingtonPost, a copy of which via Yahoo I just received on an educational list. I will then offer some comments of my own.


The article by Deborah Rappaport is entitled [Leaving behind the children of Katrina http://news.yahoo.com/s/huffpost/20050905/cm_huffpost/006801] and what is interesting is that it has been posted on Yahoo, giving it far more distribution and visibility than it would get were it to remain merely on Huffington. What immediately caught my eye was the following
In an interview on NPR this morning, Margaret Spellings, head of the Department of Education, said that she "did not want to write off this school year for these children."

In other words, she is going to insist on the tests being applied, in the schools of relocation. As Rappaport notes:
These are children who have endured things that no one -- not a child, not an adult, no one -- should have to have seen or lived through. These are children who have seen everything they know, everything they have ever had or known, washed away by a combination of nature and neglect. These are children whose parents and communities are traumatized beyond our imagining. And now, the one safe haven children have when everything else is gone, the school house, is guaranteeing that many if not most of them will be labeled as failures.

I want to offer one more clip from Rappaport that makes clear the implications, then I will offer my own comments. First from Rappaport:
If a school receives refugee children who are not exempt, even if the school would otherwise have been able to jump through the hoops that Washington has set for it, they will almost certainly be deemed failing for this school year. If that school continues to educate these students next year, they will again be guilty of not "improving" sufficiently. If a school does not "improve" for two years, federal sanctions can be imposed, including reductions in funding. So where does that leave the school districts who have opened their school doors to these children and families? Districts will have to make the impossible choice of doing what is right for some of the most vulnerable victims of Katrina, or of doing what is right for the children already enrolled in their schools. As a school board member, a mother, an American, and a human being, I know that I would hate to be forced by my federal government to have to make that choice.

Now my thoughts. First, we do not know for sure how the scores of the children taking in by receiving districts will be treated, but all the evidence is that the receiving schools will be required to count them, if those students are still there at the time of the test. After all, Spellings has been notoriously loathe to offer any flexibility to date. The one thing that could change that is the fact that the state receiving the largest number is Texas, whose scores are already a disaster, and the city receiving the most displaced people for now is Houston, which already has severe problems with how it has handled scores in the past.

Somehow this seems to demonstrate the kind of bureaucratic mindset about which Republicans so often complained in the past. It becomes a following of the letter of regulations which may be inappropriate in a crisis, and also seems to parallel some of the responses by FEMA and elsewhere in the Federal government when it came to humanitarian relief efforts.

Rappaport rightly worries about being forced to make the choice of what is best for the children of her school and her strong desire to act in ah humanitarian fashion. No one should be confronted with such a choice, or anything equivalent. Any government regulation or law that could potentially impede getting the fullest measure of assistance to those whose lives have been disrupted by the hurricane -- and by the criminally negligent response of many governmental officials - should immediately be suspended.

I doubt that Spellings will be able to insist upon the inclusion of test scores for such children. But in fact given the crisis one can well argue that the money that would be spend on testing any children would be far better spent in the necessary expenditures for accommodating those children who have between displaced and traumatized by the storm. Should the administration insist on maintaining the regulations about testing, as seems indicated by the remarks made today by Spellings, it is likely to have the effect of undercutting what support remains for the testing regimen of NCLB.

As a teacher I don’t give a damn about the possible political implications. I do care passionately ab out ensuring that every displaced child immediately have access to free and adequate public schooling. If they requires commandeering space so that classrooms are not overcrowded, surely that is a higher priority than obtaining test scores. If it means that the receiving districts and schools waive the normal certification requirements so that they can employ the teachers who have also been dislocated and relocated, is not having trained teachers, even if they may not meet that state’s requirements for being highly qualified, a higher priority than fulfilling the letter of the regulations?

We have seen many people who have chosen to ignore FEMA and other agencies in order to do what it is right. That includes “stealing” a bus to drive escapees out, contacting the Governor’s office instead of FEMA so that one could be “authorized” to help. Or, as I saw last night on Scarborough’s show, the ballet teacher from Alabama who organized her own rescue and triage units and took them into Mississippi, among other places to a center which was a horrible situation and to which the only prior relief had been that Scarborough and his people had brought from Pensacola several days earlier -- to the point of the filming, there had been NO federal relief.

Yes, I am passionate about education. It is the way out for so many, but only if it is more than merely preparation for low level tests. But I will fight that battle on principle another time. In this posting I want to make people aware of the implications of the statements of an important federal official, one who seems totally deaf and blind to the reality of what these children have undergone, and through which they may have to endure for months, if not the rest of the school year.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Katrina and education - can you help? 

Let me offer a few thoughts on a subject about which few have reflected, as far as I can tell.  There has been some news coverage of this, but not much.

The educational system has, along with the rest of the communiy services along the Gulf Coast, been totally devastated.   And the implications of this, especially for poor people, is very frightening.   But it affects people of all eceonomic classes and af all racial backgrounds.

Below the jump I will describe some implications, and then suggest a few ways we all can help.


School buildings have, along with other structures, either been totally destroyed, as they have in Gulfport, Biloxi, Bay St Louis and other communities, flooded to the point where either they will be condemned or will take months before they can be reoccupied, or even if extant and usuable had access and necessary services totally disrupted.

In the latter category is Tulane University.   According to tis president, who has relocated to Houston, while some of their buildings had some flooding, even could they clean and make those buildings usable within a few weeks, they are totally dependent upon the city of New Orleans for infrastructure --  water, electricity, sewer, and the like.  And it will be months before the public services and utilities are likely to be available, and that is if the City can in fact be reconstructed.

In other cases, it may be years before buildings can be reconstructed.  If the buildings are salvageable, the furniture , books, computers and supplies are not.  School records, whether in individual buildings or central offices, are likely totally gone.  It is not clear how much of this has off-site backups that were not themselves destroyed by wind, water and the like.  While I am aware that the same problem exists for legal (the building of the 5th Circuit suffered some flooding and nearby law offices were often destroyed), medical and business records, I will keep my focus only on the educational issues.

We are confronted with a massive and extended relocation of several hundred thousand students (and faculty) of all ages, pre-K through graduate and professional school.  This represents a disruption to our country's present and future on a scale not seen since the Civil War and things such as the burning of Atlanta and the siege of Petersburg.  

The Federal government has apparently agreed to some flexibility in NCLB requirements for the areas directly impacted by Katrina.  While that is a start, it will be insufficient, especially if the recommendations I offer are acted upon.

We have seen some universities and graduate/professional schools been to offer aid.  Thus the Univeristy of Virginia has said that they will take any Virginia residents who would have attended colleges now forced to close as guest students for this year (although I do not know what financial accomodations are included in this offer).  If you stop and think, in New Orleans alone among the institutions now closed are Tulane, Dillard, Xavier (which may ahve lost its president of 40 years who decided to ride out the storm), and the University of New Orleans.  The city was a cetner of historic black higher education exceeded perhaps only by the comlex around Atlanta.  

I am suggesting that somehow we begin a national project of relocation of school and college age students and disperse them throughout the nation - not just in nearby states which may soon be overwhelmed.  If people are willing to open up their homes to those who have been displaced, concentrate on the children.   Local districts should allow such children who are temporarily relocated to attend public school for free, with the Federal government providing impact funds for those distircts to help cover the costs of absorbing the additional students.  These costs may inlude the purchase of additional desks, even the rental of trailers, the purchase of needed additional books, computers,  and supplies.  These materials and supplies could then be transferred to the schools in the impacted area as they are able to reconstruct and reopen.

Those who take children in should be offered some tax benefits for so doing if they do not need the additional funds to help, and there should be some funds to help with the clothing and feeding for those who have space and the open hearts, but lack sufficient additional funds to be ab le to sustain those they wold take in.

Rules on certification of teachers should be waived  -  if the state of origin can ascertain that a teacher is certified there (Louisiana, Missippi, Alabama) then such certification should be sufficient for the receiving state to allow such teachers to work at least temporarily to help wiht the influx of additional students.

Finally, NCLB -  it seems to me that funds currently dedicated to testing and recorrd keeping in that regard would be far better spent on meeting basic educational needs of students who otherwise could go without schooling for months if not ofr the entire school year.

Oh, and for colelges and graduate schools  --  some of our ntiona's institutions are quite wealthy  -  it seems to me that they should be offering of their largesse to benefit those students who now do not have institutions to attend.   Generoisty of admission sucha s that offered by U VA will be insufficient if there are not funds to subsidize such efforts.  Places like Harvard, Yalke, Swarthmore, Pomona and other richly endowed institutions should be asking themselves how they can assist in this time of crisis.

This disaster occurred in one part of the nation.  Yet it is a disaster of national import, one that affects us all, and not only because the cost of the gasoline and other energy suplies on which we depend has begun to skyrocket.  I will let the lawyers and economists argue about how that can be addressed.  As a teacher I know the longterm impact of a severe disruption of education, especially for young children.  As I write this, I ahve to rush off to teach my 155 students.  Our overcrowded classrooms to me now seem like a minor inconvenience.  So I offer this diary in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will begin to address the critical educational needs of those who have been dislocated.

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