Ed News, Tuesday, February 3, 2015 Edition


 “[T]eaching has been for me an education
(Lord knows what it has been for my students).”
Howard Nemerov
If the idea that America’s public schools are “failing” gets repeated enough times it begins to be believed.  The myth of our failing public schools is the topic of the TULTICAN blog, written by a former research scientist who worked in the recording industry and quit that job to teach high school math and physics beginning in 1999.  He discovered that schools have been labelled as “failing” since at least the 1940s and he sites a number of works that reported that “fact.”  He titles his article “Illusion Motivates Education Reform.”
How much better are charter schools doing than their public school counterparts?  That point could be debatable if one looks at the charters in Milwaukee.  Of the 10 campuses in that Wisconsin city, 4 would be considered “failing”  based on the system used to grade the public schools.  Those findings were published in an item on Larry Miller’s Blog:  Educate All Students!  
This one at first appeared to be an April Fools joke but it wasn’t written on April 1.  Here’s the headline from a story in the Houston Chronicle:  “Bill Would Allow Texas Teachers to Use Deadly Force Against Students.”  You read that right.  It’s not a misprint.  A bill was recently introduced in the Texas (!) legislature that would authorize teachers to use deadly force to protect themselves, school personnel, students or property.  In addition, it states that those resorting to deadly force would be immune from prosecution.  You need to read this one to believe it’s really true!
Paul Karrer, a veteran elementary school teacher in California, was incensed recently by an op-ed by nationally syndicated columnist David Brooks titled “Union Future.”  What most drew Karrer’s wrath was this comment by Brooks: “Teachers’ unions have become the single biggest impediment to school reform.”  Karrer goes on to explain in a story in The Californian why the suggested “reforms” of public education are short sighted and how privatization, charters, NCLB, testing and accountability are not the answer.  “So friend David Brooks,” he concludes, “I invite you to spend a few hours with me at my poorest of the poor schools.  Run a lap with my fifth-graders and me in the morning, see what it’s like in the mucky trenches of gang-infested poverty.  Then just sit and watch, no principal, no superintendent present, observe 30 fifth-graders and their old teacher.  We’ll talk, later, about the subtractive brutality and injustices of ed reform.  Your words carry great weight.  Please be careful how you use them.”
The United Opt Out “Standing Up For Action” National conference was held last month in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  A group of highly motivated, parents, educators, union leaders and activists got together to discuss strategies for promoting the movement to get more and more people to exercise their right to opt-out of taking state mandated tests.  EDUCATION WEEK has an extended review of the conference that includes several short videos (ranging from 20 seconds to 1:41 minutes) from people talking about the harms of standardized tests and why they are taking a pass on the assessments.  “The convening offered a small window on an anti-testing movement that is heating up at both the grassroots and national levels,” it explained.  As Congress works to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—better known in its current version as No Child Left Behind—many lawmakers have expressed interest in cutting back the number of tests required by the law.”  [Ed. note:  ALOED’s own Larry Lawrence attended the conference.  The next time you see him, ask him to share his experiences.]               In fact, thanks to Larry for sending along this item from the EDUCATIONALCHEMY blog titled “Why Is This So Hard?” about the growing movement against high stakes testing and the corporate “reform” agenda.  “Why is this so hard?” the author asks rhetorically.   “It’s hard because our political, schooling and media institutions continue to attack parents and educators who have the courage to defend children from harm.  Parents refusing these harmful policies are painted as ‘disgruntled White soccer mommies’ while resistance from and within communities of color get ignored. Teachers refusing to comply with harmful policies are ‘agitators’ and ‘out of compliance.’ Our collective obsession that standardized tests are anything but junk science goes unchallenged by the media despite real research that has resoundly disproved it’s so called merits.”               In the same vein, a poll of 1,000 people in New Jersey, including 400 parents, found large majorities to have very negative reactions to standardized testing in the Garden State.  A short article, also in ED WEEK featured the survey.  “Echoing a common refrain from parents nationwide,” it reported, “the poll found that most parents (71 percent) believe that too much emphasis is placed on standardized tests. It also found 77 percent of parents polled are concerned that testing ‘takes time and money from other educational priorities.'”               Several teachers offered “Professional Statements of Conscience” in opposition to standardized testing before the Renton, Washington, School District Board of Education last week.  They can be found, along with other posts on the topic on the LIVING in DIALOGUE blog.  “When I imagine myself administering the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA),” one teacher wrote, “I picture my students struggling and failing. And not because they are academically weak – but because test designers have created a test meant to yield this failure. This failure will undo the confidence I have strived to build in them.”  She proceeds to list a number of things she “objects to” in conjunction with NCLB and the testing regimen.  Links to the other statements, which are just as powerful, and related items can be found at the bottom of the piece.               A review of the entire proceedings, from one of the teachers involved, including several videos of the statements, can be found on the same website by clicking here.
Did Chicago’s strategy of closing large numbers of under-performing schools prove to be beneficial?  Not exactly, according to the Mike Klonsky’s SmallTalk Blog.  He briefly looked at a report from the University of Chicago that analyzed the closures and that elicited some different interpretations.
Here’s another “charter school scandal of the day:”  It seems that charters in Ohio are funded by the number of students they report as enrolled.  SOOOO, if you want to receive more money from the state simply report phantom students who are not really enrolled.  Voila, simple!  Only problem is, that type of behavior is ILLEGAL.  That doesn’t keep some charters in the Buckeye State from engaging in just such fraud. The Columbus Dispatch features a report from the State Auditor on some “unusually high” headcounts at a number of charter schools in Ohio.  The whole thing sounds like a good pretty good deal if you don’t get caught.  “The report raises questions,” the story explains, “about whether the schools receive more tax money than they are entitled because the state relies on student enrollment — reported by the schools — to calculate aid. The privately operated, publicly funded schools get nearly $6,000 per student each year.”
A previous edition of the “Ed News” described a new organization called “Deans for Impact” that hopes to reform teacher prep programs through greater use of data and the possible use of value-added models.  A couple of bloggers were quickly skeptical of the group’s goals and intentions.  Paul L. Thomas of Furman University, writing on his THE BECOMING RADICAL blog raised some important issues about accountability which you can read by clicking here.                Mercedes Schneider, on her “EduBlog” at deutsch29 looks into the backround of the founder of the group Benjamin Riley including his undisclosed connection to a “’nonprofit’ that specializes in privatizing public education.”  [Ed. note: N.B. the link to the group and former Oxy president Ted Mitchell.]  Schneider goes on to detail where much of the Deans for Impact funding comes from which should raise some serious alarms about what its true motives and objectives are.
Are charter schools more popular than their public school counterparts solely because they do a better job at public relations and highlighting certain talking points?  That’s the gist of a new study by researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Rochester who reported that “the language used by pro-charter school advocates is more effective in advancing their cause than the language used by groups who discourage support of these schools.”  The survey was featured in a story in the Huffington Post.
What if they gave a candidates debate and two of the three invitees failed to show?  That’s what happened at an District 5 LAUSD school board forum on Wednesday evening.  The election will take place on March 3.  Steve Lopez, writing in the L.A. Times, was rather incensed by what went down at the gathering in Northeast L.A.  He explains who was there and who was not and tries to make some sense of the whole thing.  He offers some interesting reactions from several of the disappointed community members who were in the audience in anticipation of a healthy discussion of the issues.                 In a follow-up column Lopez wrote a day later for the same publication he describes the nasty turn the campaign has taken as some of the candidates level some pretty negative charges against each other.  He quotes from some campaign items that he says should end up in a landfill  as they are not even worthy of being placed in the recycling bin.  He’s so disgusted by the whole business that he titles this piece “L.A. School Board Election Politics Equal Gutter Politics.”               An editorial in Sunday’s Times blasted Bennet Kayser, the incumbent in the school board race who happens to be closely aligned with UTLA, and one of his other challengers for failing to attend the debate (see above).  
Several school districts in California are balking at the projected high cost of administering Common Core-aligned assessments this year and are asking the state to pick up the tab.  They are predicting that the total cost of the tests including hardware, software, bandwidth and other infrastructure, training and ancillary materials could easily top $1 billion!  The ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER describes the situation and some possible remedies. 
The Friday edition of the “Ed News” reported on the takeover of the Little Rock School District by the State of Arkansas.  No sooner did the news become public than the vultures began to descend in the form of the Walton Family and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundations in conjunction with the Boston Consulting Group.  The latter is a well-known advocate for the privatization of public schools and the two foundations are deep pocketed organizations that support charters.  The ARKANSAS TIMES continues its reporting on this rapidly developing story.  “An open question about the push to take over the Little Rock district,” it maintains, “was whether the corporate supporters of the plan were pushing a hidden Walton-financed agenda to privatize the schools.  Such an experiment is underway in New Orleans, with, at best, mixed results.”               Never heard of the Boston Consulting Group?  Not sure how they relate to education?  You’re not alone in answer to question #1 and be VERY worried in response to the second question.  Peter Greene does his due diligence, as always, on his CURMUDGUCATION blog to dig out the back story of who BCG is and what are they up to.  “Read up on BCG and you find they have mainly three big claims to fame,” he notes, “and all of them are deeply bad news for public education. . . .  Bottom line? Say a little prayer for the formerly public schools of Little Rock, because BCG is in town and they’re sharpening their axe.”                Students in Little Rock must have read Greene’s piece (see above) as they quickly formed the Little Rock School District Student Association to protest the takeover of their schools.  They promptly issued a statement about the action that was published on the Fred Klonsky blog.  “The students founding the new association feel that their collective voices have gone unheard by the Arkansas State Department of Education,” it states.  Over the past several weeks, these students spoke out at LRSD Board of Directors meetings, community forums, and a special meeting of the State Board of Education to plead for the continuation of the LRSD Board of Directors. The LRSDSA believes that those in charge of a school district must possess an intimate knowledge of the communities surrounding struggling schools and be willing to recognize student voices as equal to those of administrators and teachers. This intimate connection is easily lost in bureaucracy, as demonstrated by the decision of five members of State Board of Education to vote for a State takeover, thereby disregarding the voices of students who spoke out and implored the members of the Arkansas State Board of Education to allow students from each high school to work with the LRSD Board of Directors, community members, teachers, and administrators to to improve education across the district.”
Put this one in the “a case of unintended consequences” file:  In a couple of months the state of California will roll-out its Common Core-aligned assessments that must be taken on a desktop, laptop or tablet.  No more pen and paper administrations.  One problem: more and more schools and districts are discovering they have lots of students who lack the necessary keyboard skills to properly take the tests.  A big push is on to teach those skills but if students lack the proper technical knowledge and ability it could impact their scores.  A piece in Saturday’s L.A. Times uses students in La Canada as a case study.
A possible U.S. Supreme Court case could have major implications for teachers and other public employee unions.  Here’s how a story in Sunday’s L.A. Times introduced the litigation:“Seeing an opening to weaken public-sector unions, a conservative group is asking the Supreme Court to strike down laws in California, Illinois and about 20 other states that require teachers and other government employees to pay union fees, even if they are personally opposed. . . . [The] case could pose a major threat to public-sector unions,” it continues, “whose clout grew in the 1970s after the high court upheld laws requiring all employees who benefit from collective bargaining to contribute to the union.  Although teachers and other public workers may refuse to pay dues used to support a union’s political activities, they can still be forced to pay a so-called ‘fair share’ fee that covers operation costs.”
Gary Rubinstein (a member of the 1991 Teach for America cohort), on his Gary Rubinstein’s Blog, has written a series of 13 open letters to various education reformers he knew over the past 3 years.  Now he’s started a new series of notes to reformers he doesn’t know.  The first one went to former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein.  His latest effort was directed to Bill Gates.  He writes, by way of introduction: “Will I be able to use my analytic skills and my wit to win over the richest person in the world and convince him to redirect his ed ‘reform’ monster thus saving public education in this nation?  You never know until you try …”  Check out his letter and see if you think will succeed. 
The California Dept. of Education is telling charters in the state that they cannot require parents to volunteer their time because it would be illegal.  EDUCATION WEEK has the story.  “The department’s advisory,” it points out, “is a reaction to a report released in November that found many California charter schools had parent work quotas.  Specifically, 30 percent of 500 schools analyzed by the nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization Public Advocates required parents to do service work for the school or face penalties.”
George Skelton, in his “Capitol Journal” column in yesterday’s L.A. Times, responded to to a previous item he’d written (highlighted in the “Ed News”) about Gov. Brown not abandoning funding for schools through his support for bond issues.  Skelton reports that many of his readers blame the LAUSD and its misadventures with the Belmont Learning Center, the iPads-for-all program and other fiascoes as the reasons why they refuse to vote for any new bonds to pay for education needs.  He titles this latest piece “Don’t Punish Other Districts for L.A. Unified’s Problems.”
Raising the education achievement gap would have all kinds of positive ramifications.  Did you ever think one of them might lead to a boost in the U.S. economy?  A group of economists at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a non-partisan think-tank, drew that conclusion in a new study.  An article in The New York Times features the research along with a link to the full report (58 pages) titled “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Improving U.S. Educational Outcomes”  which you can also find by clicking here.   You can view a one page “Fast Facts” graphic if you don’t wish to read the entire report.
“Do U.S. Teachers Really Teach More Hours?”  The answer is still “yes” but not by as much as was previously believed according to a new study featured in EDUCATION WEEK.  The report was produced by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education out of Columbia University.  Previous surveys had found American teachers spending anywhere from 50% to 73% more time in front of their classrooms than the average around the world.  “That striking statistic,” the article maintains, “has become common wisdom as part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s regular Education at a Glance reports, but a new study suggests it’s significantly overblown.”  The latest research shows that U.S. educators spend from 11% to 14% more time on instruction than their peers in other nations.
You may have been following the measles outbreak that originated with some visitors to Disneyland in December.  How does it relate to schools?  California law requires enrolling kindergartners to be protected against 9 different diseases including measles.  An “Explainer” column in yesterday’s L.A. Times describes some of the legal requirements and why schools fail to follow up on them.  
Pres. Obama formally unveiled his fiscal year 2016 budget on Monday.  It included a 5.4% increase in discretionary spending for the Department of Education over the previous year’s outlays.  EDUCATION WEEK takes a look at the administration’s specific proposals in the area of education including early childhood ed., teacher quality, technology and boosts for schools at the high school level among other initiatives. 
It seems like everyone else is doing it, so why not the schools?  What are we referring to?  Selling naming rights to donors.  It seems like a pretty innocuous activity and an easy way to raise money but, like a lot of things related to education, it’s not without its critics.  The Beverly Hills Unified School District is featured in a story in today’s L.A. Times which describes that “a gift of $2,500 will get your name on a seat in the theater. For $50,000, the teachers lounge can be named after you.  And, for $10 million, a campus street can bear your name.”  Criticisms revolve around things like funding equity and possible unfair advertising advantages among others, according to the article.
Bellwhether Education Partners, an education consulting group, has put out a new report on Teach for America that’s highlighted in a story in EDUCATION WEEK.  “Teach For America is struggling.” the article begins, “with the fallout of recent growing pains—including recruitment challenges apparently partly caused by a barrage of negative press it wasn’t truly prepared for.”  The piece reviews some of the bumps in the road TFA has experienced over the past decade or so.  The full report (97 pages) is titled “Exponential Growth, Unexpected Challenges–How Teach for America Grew in Scale and Impact.”
To the so-called education “reformers” the public schools are “in crisis” and they use this meme to push their agenda of privatization and choice.  The author of this commentary in the Charlotte Observer is a high school English teacher in South Carolina.  She believes that the schools are not failing but our policymakers are.  She sites one study that show students from the wealthiest households are actually doing very well compared to the rest of the world and a second one that reports our society faces some very daunting problems related to poverty,  social stress, and economic inequality.  “If policy makers were to listen to educators – and to students and parents – they would hear that the real crisis in public education is the loss of our collective commitment to the common good,” she concludes.  “If we continue to make the kinds of choices that steer resources away from our neediest students, the false narrative of failing public schools will become a sad reality.”
Could the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known in its most recent iteration as NCLB) steer clear of mandating teacher evaluations?  That’s one of the predictions as the legislation continues its trip through the U.S. Congress.  EDUCATION WEEK notes that both parties, for different reasons, would prefer to remove the requirement.  “Teacher evaluations,” it points out, “are one of the many education policy issues that cross party lines. In this case, Republicans want to steer clear of anything that smacks of federal control. Democrats, who have historically represented the concerns of teachers’ unions, are wary of the increasing impact of student test scores on evaluations and how those evaluations are used in new compensation systems.”  When both political parties agree on something (a rarity these days) it usual means it can get done.
Ellie Herman, a former writer/producer for some well-known hit television shows, decided to change careers a while back and become a teacher.  She did that for a couple of years and then decided to take some time off to find out “What  Makes a Great Teacher.”  That’s the title of her piece, printed on Valerie Stauss’ “Answer Sheet” blog for The Washington Post.   “How do we nurture and encourage the qualities teachers need,” Herman asks, “in order to use all these techniques in the first place, the faith, the compassion, the patience, the passion for a subject?  Can we start by valuing those qualities—by which I do not mean putting a dollar value on them?  Can we acknowledge and respect the individual lives and experiences that teachers are bringing to the classroom every day, without which none of what they’re teaching would be of any use to anyone?  Can we balance our need for accountability with our equal need for inspiration?”
Isn’t it interesting that our society stresses individuality and “individualized learning” is a key concept in our schools yet we give the same standardized tests to every student.  That dichotomy is analyzed in this item from the Badass Teachers Association.  It’s titled “One-Size-Fits-All Testing” and looks at how we too often try to fit round pegs into square holes.  “What are the skill sets,” the author wants to know, “that we as a society see as necessary for the future success of our children? What kind of future do we want to be shaping? Do we want well-rounded children who grow up with exposure to the arts, culture, and music? Or do we want over-tested, over-stressed children who see only the importance of achieving academic growth? Are we looking to provide our children with the skills that are necessary to instill a sense of morals, coping skills, and human compassion? Or do we continue to narrow down the focus of academics to what can be measured on a standardized test, and use that as a predictor for future success?”
Recent ALOED book club author Alfie Kohn has a piece reprinted in Valerie Strauss’  column for The Washington Post that suggests that certain education terms have been co-opted by the so-called “reform” movement.  “A number of labels that originally signified progressive ideas,” Kohn writes, “continue to be (mis)appropriated, their radical potential drained away, with the result that they’re now invoked by supporters of  ‘bunch o’ facts’ teaching or a corporate-styled, standards-and-testing model of school reform.”  He offers, by way of example, words like “developmental,” “differentiated” and “formative assessment.”
And finally, it’s getting close to Valentine’s Day and if you’re feeling a little burned out by your profession maybe it’s time to “Fall Back in Love With Teaching.”  That’s the title of a piece from EDUCATION WEEK that offers 4 concrete suggestions for getting your groove back.  It’s written by a National Board-certified teacher from North Carolina.  If the topic doesn’t 
apply to you maybe you could pass it on to someone who needs it.  Consider it an act of love.

Dave Alpert
(Occidental College, ’71)



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