Ed News, Tuesday, March 10, 2015 Edition


“A library is a place where you learn
what teachers were afraid to teach you.” 
―  Alan M. Dershowitz
Exam, Exams, More Exams
The GED (General Education Development) exam has been undergoing a revamping as of late as the testing business tries to “raise the bar” on the test.  An article in THE Nation reports it “is now harder to take–and harder to pass.”   “The standardized-test giant Pearson,” it reports, “seeks to make the GED a more rigorous assessment for job and college ‘readiness.’  But with a pricier, fully computerized format, those higher standards come at a steep cost.”                The New York State Education Department has implemented a new teacher certification exam that is being met with great consternation by applicants.  In addition, the Empire State is requiring the edTPA as part of the credentialing process.  The author of the Alexandra Miletta blog is a “teacher educator” at Mercy College and she describes what the change to the new requirements has wrought in the state.   “Teacher education programs are frantically scrambling,” she notes, “to accommodate students who are in a full-blown panic and understandable confusion over the sudden change in regulations.  Even the Board of Regents is attempting to reduce the disastrous effects of this completely bungled roll out, perhaps making things worse.”                Is it possible that standardized tests are really being used to insure that fewer students are “college and career ready?”  As job markets shrink and college becomes more and more expensive, Anthony Cody wonders if there is a hidden method to the madness of built-in inflated failure rates of many of the assessments.  Not sure what he’s thinking?  Check out his ruminations on his LIVING in DIALOGUE blog and see how he compares all of this to the childrens’ game of musical chairs.               Want an eye-opening view of how ridiculous the high-stakes testing mania has become?  NCLB mandated annual assessment  in grades 3-8 and 11.  Would you believe that some of those exams are now being administered to KINDERGARTNERS?  The author of this item from Slate takes you on a tour of a few districts where tests are being given to kids as young as 5-years-old.  It’s titled “Welcome to Kindergarten.  Take This Test.  And This One.”   Unbelievable!               Marion Brady, teacher, administrator and renowned education columnist, has an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “The Important Things Standardized Tests Don’t Measure.” In it he uses an example from his teaching past to illustrate the types of things the tests don’t check on and then provides a long list of the detrimental things the tests do and don’t do.  The sentiments expressed in this paragraph of the piece are worth quoting in full:  “Arthur Costa, emeritus professor at California State University, summed up the thrust of current test-based ‘reform’ madness: ‘What was educationally significant and hard to measure has been replaced by what is educationally insignificant and easy to measure. So now we measure how well we taught what isn’t worth learning.’”  A HUGE bravo to that!              Several previous editions of the “Ed News” have highlighted research into the readability grade levels of various standardized test items.  Here’s another addition.  An elementary school teacher on Long Island reviewed questions that appeared with several reading passages for the 3rd grade ELA exam and found them with reading levels of between 4.5 and 12.5.  He posted his findings on the LACETOTHETOP [Ed. note: That’s not a misprint] blog.  “In English Language Arts tests, the grade level appropriateness of text used is a gray area. Some would argue that it is perfectly fine for third graders to be assessed using texts with readability levels of 5th and 6th graders,” he maintains.  “But even the champions of rigor must adhere to the golden rule of testing- the questions MUST be written on the grade level you are attempting to assess.  It only makes sense.  Students can’t answer questions that they do not understand.  These tests are constructed for ALL students in a given grade level and therefore it is imperative that the questions are  grade appropriate.”               
Charter Schools
How often does this happen to a public school?  Fresno’s ACEL Charter High School, which opened in 2008,  abruptly shut down last week citing financial difficulties.  The unexpected closure affects the just over 100 students who had no classes to attend this week and particularly the seniors who were left in the dark about graduation.  KFSN-TV, the local ABC affiliate in Fresno, has a short video (2:39 minutes) and a story about the  shuddering of the campus .   “Many of the cash problems are being blamed on the unnamed company the board contracted to monitor its finances,” it describes.  “Recently, the massive funding deficit was revealed.”               Thanks to Randy Traweek for sending along an article from The New York Times that describes a charter school that was part of former governor Jeb Bush’s “Florida Miracle” for reviving education in the Sunshine State. Liberty City Charter in Miami opened in 1996 to great fanfare but closed quietly in 2008 with financial problems and a lackluster academic record.  Gov. Bush played an important role in getting the campus off the ground but his interest seemed to lag in later years.               The Gates and Walton Foundations sponsored a charter school investor conference at the Harvard Club in New York City today.  If you’d like to discover how the financial aspect of charter school management is a key ingredient to the movement [Ed. note: I thought it was about educating kids, but what do I know?] check out this report from Laura Chapman on the gathering.  Her comments appear on the Diane Ravitch blog.
Even the senior pastor of a Baptist church in Texas is warning against parochial schools accepting vouchers.  “In the beginning, temptation appeared as a fruit,” he writes in a commentary in the Tyler Morning Telegraph.  “Today, it appears in the shape of a voucher. As tempting as it may be for private, religious schools to pluck the low-hanging fruit of ‘free’ public money, the cost is too great.”
Lab Schools
EDUCATION WEEK has an interesting profile of the role of lab schools in the 21st century.  It reviews some of the history of the experimental programs.  The first one was started back in 1896 by John Dewey at the University of Chicago.  From a high of 200 campuses in the mid-1960s the numbers have dwindled to around 60 today.  “Many laboratory schools have changed in the face of decades of tightening university budgets and more-regimented K-12 accountability,” the item notes.
Mathmatica Policy Research has a new report out that debunks the myth that Teach for America educators help their students make bigger gains on standardized tests than regularly trained teachers.  That’s been one of the selling points of the TFA program for a while now.  This latest research is featured in a story in The Washington Post.  “A new study comparing test scores among elementary school students who had Teach for America instructors and who had other teachers finds it’s a wash,” it begins. . . . “Teach for America was established on the premise that highly qualified young people could do as well or better than experienced educators in the nation’s most disadvantaged schools after only minimal training.”  The piece includes a link to the full report (106 pages) titled “Impacts of the Teach for America Investing in Innovation Scale-Up.”
Some governors and state legislatures can’t wait to destroy their pubic employee unions including teachers’ unions.  Case-in-point:  Illinois.  Newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner issued an executive order to withhold so-called “agency”  or “fair-share” fees collected from nonmembers.  26 public employee unions promptly sued, calling the action “patently illegal.”  A story in the Chicago Tribune includes a short video (27 seconds) previewing the issue.                On the topic of “teachers unions” you may want to check out this newly released short film (1:21 minutes) of the same title from Badass Films.  It appears on YouTube. 
A Math Lesson for Gov. Cuomo
The author of this humorous commentary from the HUFF POST EDUCATION blog offers an interesting “math” lesson to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who has proposed closing any schools that place in the bottom 5% on combined ELA and math scores.  “Clearly we need to improve the education received by all of ‘our’ children. And unlike the Governor,” she concludes in a more serious vein, “I actually have two children in NYS public schools. The way to help my sons and other NYS students is to reduce class size; shift away from high stakes testing; offer a well-rounded curriculum rich in the sciences, technology, physical education, and the arts; and evaluate teachers in a way that takes into consideration the unique challenges of each of their classrooms.”
Retiree Health Benefits
A major, front-page investigative story in Sunday’s L.A. Times outlines how a number of school districts in California are facing serious budgetary issues over future health benefits for retirees.  “California school districts once viewed lifetime healthcare coverage for employees as a cheap alternative to pay raises,” it points out.  “That decision is coming back to haunt school leaders, and districts are scrambling to limit the lucrative benefit promised decades ago.  The price tag for retiree healthcare obligations has reached about $20 billion statewide — an amount systems are not prepared to absorb.  Many districts failed to set aside money to pay for those increasingly expensive benefits for thousands of employees. Now, the financial burden threatens to drag down credit ratings and crowd out other budget priorities.”
School Boards
The author of this commentary in EDUCATION WEEK takes issue with how school boards make decisions and condemns the injection of politics into policy matters.  “Students suffer when politics becomes a priority,” the former school board member himself notes.  “School boards become the target of voters not because of poor platforms, insufficient creativity, or lack of effort, but because of naiveté and unprofessional conduct. Our national conversation on education should include more discussion of effective school system leadership, and not just of increasing test scores and global competitiveness.”
The Network for Public Education issued a formal statement in support of any and all who choose to opt-out of high-stakes testing.  The announcement appeared on the group’s website.  The preamble states: “The Network for Public Education stands in full support of parents, students and educators who choose to teach and learn about the reality of high stakes tests, opt out of high stakes tests, speak out against high stakes tests and who refuse to give those tests to students.”  The notice goes on to give a number of reasons why they have taken this position.  
Pay Teachers $125,000?
And finally, two researchers from UC Santa Barbara and the University of Washington have a very interesting idea for increasing teacher quality and performance in California:  Set up several experimental schools and pay the educators $125,000!  They use the example of The Equity Project Charter Middle School in New York City as an example of how their proposal would work.  Their ideas appear in an op-ed in yesterday’s L.A. Times.    “Educational opportunity is knocking.  California should invest modestly now,” they conclude, “in trying out the high-pay/high-performance teacher model.  If results here match those in the New York experiment, California will have a path forward to achieve big student gains for a fairly small taxpayer investment.”

Dave Alpert

(Occidental College, ’71)

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