Ed News, Friday, February 13, 2015 Edition


 Monday is the President’s Day Holiday
 And Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day
“Problems may be solved in the study which have baffled all those who have sought a solution by the aid of their senses. To carry the art, however, to its highest pitch, it is necessary that the reasoner should be able to use all the facts which have come to his knowledge; and this in itself implies, as you will readily see, a possession of all knowledge, which, even in these days of free education and encyclopaedias, is a somewhat rare accomplishment.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Value-added models (VAMs) have been put forward by the so-called education “reformers” as the best way to evaluate and compare teachers, schools and even teacher preparation programs.  Most experts maintain they are unreliable at best and dangerous at worst and that student test scores were never intended for evaluative purposes.  Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, a well-known authority on teacher evaluations, on her VAMboozled blog, reviews a recently published study on VAMs from 3 university researchers.  The authors “investigate whether commonly used value-added estimation strategies produce accurate estimates of teacher effects under a variety of scenarios,” she quotes from the abstract of the report. “[They] estimate teacher effects [using] simulated student achievement data sets that mimic plausible types of student grouping and teacher assignment scenarios. [They] find that no one method accurately captures true teacher effects in all scenarios, and the potential for misclassifying teachers as high- or low-performing can be substantial.”  Based on that last comment I don’t see how anyone can advocate for using VAMs for evaluating individual teachers/schools, salary purposes, retaining/firing teachers, rating  teacher preparation programs or any of the other uses being suggested. 
Has the American public lost respect for teachers and teaching?  Is that what the so-called education “reformers” have accomplished with their constant harping on “failed” schools, ineffective teachers, tenure, powerful teachers unions and other “bogeymen?”  That’s the gist of comments made by David Greene on his DCGEducator: Doing the Right Thing blog.  He gave a brief talk “to a group of concerned teachers, parents and ‘civilians'” last month about education at a bookstore in Oneonta, New York.  During the extended discussion that followed that was the conclusion he came to.  Greene goes on to describe how this state of affairs has come about and offers some ideas on how to combat it.
More and more parents are choosing to opt their children out of standardized tests around the nation.  You’d think that would be a pretty easy task.  However, as the “Ed News” has noted before, principals and superintendents are beginning to push back with threats against teachers and even veiled hints of nasty consequences against students and their parents.  The author of the EduShyster blog was able to obtain some emails and other correspondence between school administrators.  She describes a much more convoluted process than just signing and returning a form, based on what took place in Salem (of witchcraft trials fame), Massachusetts.  You’ll have to read the entire piece to find out who won.  You can probably guess but the road to get their is quite informative.               A parent from New Jersey writes about how the “test rebellion [against the PARCC is] brewing in her state.”  Her comments appear on Diane Ravitch’s Blog.  ““We have the power — now we have to convince our neighbors and friends,” she concludes, “to stop assuming that we can’t change things, and to instead buckle down to make sure we can.”
The New York Times has an article titled, in all seriousness, “Is Your First Grader College Ready?”  It describes how a group of first graders (identified as the class of 2030) in rural North Carolina are already preparing for college.  Is this what we’ve come to with Common Core?  “Credit President Obama and the Common Core Standards for putting the ‘college and career ready’ mantra on the lips of K-12 educators across the country,” it explains.  “Or blame a competitive culture that has turned wide-open years of childhood into a checklist of readiness skills. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that college prep has hit the playground set.”  Unbelievable!              Daniel Katz, on his Daniel Katz, Ph.D. blog, at first thought this was a work of satire or something reprinted from “The Onion” but upon further reading realized it was totally serious.  He identifies the piece as a prime example of “Poe’s Law” (you’ll have to read it to get a definition/explanation) but he seems to nail just what is going on.  “Meanwhile I have a suggestion,” he offers, “that would do a lot more for the first graders described in the Times article than a ‘cut and paste worksheet’ describing the steps to get into college.  Give every kid in that class a good set of plain Legos, some dolls, and other  toys that promote unstructured, creative PLAY — let them negotiate and explore their SIX YEAR OLD MINDS.  There will be plenty of time to stress them out and confuse them in only two more years when they take their third grade PARCC or SBAC examinations.”  Right on!
The power of teachers unions has been a target of the so-called “reform” movement for years.  Bob Peterson, the president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, takes a look at the attacks and how the union movement can counter them and transform themselves into 21st century organizations for positive change.  The author’s extensive ruminations can be found on the rethinking schools blog.  “Fortunately, teacher union activists across the country are revitalizing their unions and standing up to these relentless attacks,” he suggests.  “And this growing transformation of the teachers’ union movement may well be the most important force in our nation to defend and improve public schools and, in so doing, defend and improve our communities and what’s left of our democratic institutions.”
There are already predictions that most students (up to 70%) will not reach the “proficient” level when taking the new Common Core aligned assessments.  A number of reasons have been put forward for that outcome.  One that hasn’t been mentioned very often has to do with the readability levels of the exams.  The author of the Russ on Reading blog used several readability indexes to measure the scores of each grade level test of the PARCC exam.  “Since readability formulas are notably unreliable,” he explains, “I first decided to use several different readability measures to see if I could get a closer approximation of level. The measures I use are all commonly used in assessing readability. All of them use two variables, with slight variations, to determine readability: word length and sentence length. They vary slightly in the weights they give these variables and in how these variables are determined.”               Could more urban school districts face state takeovers like what took place recently in Little Rock, Arkansas?  As the results become available from the new Common Core aligned exams, amid predictions that those results will not be encouraging, the answer to that question could be a discouraging “yes.”  A piece from USA TODAY carefully surveys that possibility.  “In many cases,” it notes, “state boards take over school districts to bring in experts on finance. . . . The jury is still out on whether takeovers improve academics.”
Teach for America has been in the spotlight lately for the difficulties it has been having regarding attracting candidates to apply to its program.  For the past two years those numbers have actually declined.  Jeff Bryant, writing in SALON, believes that TFA has a credibility problem related to its perception of what constitutes education “reform” and issues with “their own agenda.”
The standardized test cheating scandal trial in Atlanta reached a milestone after 6-months of prosecution testimony concluded on Wednesday according to a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  12 educators from the city school system are on trial for racketeering and “conspiring to tamper with standardized tests to ensure higher test scores.  The racketeering charge,” it continues, “carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. The defendants also have been charged with other felonies.”  The case began in mid-August and is scheduled to continue for several more weeks. 
The San Diego Unified School District board voted 5-0 on Wednesday to suggest that Congress end the yearly testing mandate.  The full resolution they approved was published on Diane Ravitch’s Blog.
Anthony Cody, on his LIVING in DIALOGUE blog, describes a group of new teachers who formed the “Learning to Teach Collaborative” back in 1988 when he and the others were new to the profession.  They met monthly for about a dozen years “over dinner, and with a bit of wine, we learned to teach together.”  They got together again this week after not meeting for about a year.  He titles the item “Me and My Pals: How We Learned to Teach.”   It’s guaranteed to bring a lump to your throat.  Be sure to check out the then and now photos included in it. 

Two letters in yesterday’s L.A. Times commented on the paper’s Monday “Explainer” column about Eli Broad’s decision to suspend his foundation’s coveted prize for exemplary urban school districts (highlighted in Tuesday’s “Ed News.”)              An op-ed in today’s Times revisits the decision by Broad and thinks those urban districts would benefit from integrating more charter schools into their systems.  It mentions that troubled districts in St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore and others “need fresh approaches, usually involving successful charter schools. Denver, which integrates high-performing charter schools directly into its system, is a great example of that promising new way.”

Valerie Strauss has the latest state-by-state high school graduation rates for 2012-13 in her “Answer Sheet” column for The Washington Post.  The figures come from the National Center for Education Statistics and show the national rate has climbed to 81%, up one percentage point from the previous year.  The lowest STATE was Oregon at 69% (the District of Columbia checked in with 62%).  The highest? Iowa at 90%.  California? 80%.

The Indiana State Senate approved a bill this week that allows private schools that receive public voucher money to be exempt from the state testing program.  They will be allowed to administer tests of their own choosing.  The sordid details can be found on the Indiana Coalition for Public Schools website.  “If anyone doubts,” the author complains, “that Governor Pence and the leaders of the General Assembly and State Board are favoring private schools over public schools in Indiana’s intense competitive marketplace of school choice, this bill should remove all doubts.  The voucher program was sold in 2011 by promising that private schools would take ISTEP (Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress) and would be measured like all public schools using the A-F system.  Now just four years later the voucher schools want to change the rules but keep the money.”  Gee, what a sweetheart deal!

The Obama administration was highly critical of the Republican bill reauthorizing NCLB that passed the House Education Committee last week.  A brief item on EDUCATION WEEK (via the AP) described the White House’s objections to the legislation.

The February 16, edition of TIME magazine has a short item in their regular “Wellness” column about how mindfulness training can help students in the classroom.  It’s titled “Mindfulness Exercises Improve Kids’ Math Scores.”  “In adults,” it begins, “mindfulness has been shown to have all kinds of amazing effects throughout the body: it can combat stress, protect your heart, shorten migraines and possibly even extend life. But a new trial published in the journal Developmental Psychology suggests that the effects are also powerful in kids as young as 9—so much so that improving mindfulness showed to improve everything from social skills to math scores.” 

Thanks to ALOED member Larry Lawrence who sent along a policy memo (13 pages) from the director and managing director of the National Education Policy Center who make a very strong argument as to why the entire testing regimen under NCLB has failed and who also wonder why Congress would ever entertain retaining any part of it as they debate the reauthorization of that law.  The document is titled “Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Time to Move Beyond Test-Focused Policies.”  Larry described this as “one of the clearest, most convincing arguments against the use of standardized testing.”

And finally, California has been having unseasonably warm weather while Boston and the rest of the Northeast have been hit by snowstorm after snowstorm.  So what, you say?  An article from THE HECHINGER REPORT raises a little-known concern for folks who live on this coast.  It’s titled “Can Too Many Snow Days Widen the Achievement Gap?”  “These seemingly never-ending snow days,” it notes, “are taking away valuable time from all students.  But in excess they are most harmful to low-income students and their families, who education experts say are already more likely to be behind academically and rely more on the social services public schools provide.  Chief among these services and supports: Free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, for which nearly 80 percent of Boston students qualify.”

Dave Alpert

(Occidental College, ’71)




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