Much Ado About an Enigma – No One Really Knows What Impact the ESSA Will Have on Public Schools

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President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) this week.

The new legislation reauthorizes federal law governing K-12 public education.

In 1965 we called it the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Until today we called it No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And now after a much-hyped signing ceremony, the most definitive thing we can say about it is this: federal education policy has a new name.

Seriously. That’s about it.

Does it reduce the federal role in public schools? Maybe.

Does it destroy Common Core State Standards? Possibly.

Is it an improvement on previous policies? Potentially.

Will it enable an expansion of wretched charter schools and unqualified Teach for America recruits? Likely.

The problem is this – it’s an over 1,000 page document that’s been open to public review for only two weeks. Though it was publicly debated and passed in the House and Senate, it was finalized behind closed doors and altered according to secure hurried Congressional votes. As such, the final version is full of legal jargon, hidden compromise, new definitions and verbiage that is open to multiple meanings.

How one reader interprets the law may be exactly the opposite of how another construes it.

Take the much-touted contention that the ESSA reduces the federal role in public schools. Even under the most positive reading, there are limits to this freedom.

The document continues to mandate testing children each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school. It also mandates academic standards and accountability systems. However, what these look like is apparently open to the states.

For instance:

The Secretary [of Education] shall not have the authority to mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision over any of the challenging State academic standards adopted or implemented by a State.

That seems pretty clear. The federal government will not be able to tell states what academic standards to adopt or how student test scores should be used in teacher evaluations.

But it also says that states will have to submit accountability plans to the Department of Education for approval. It says these accountability plans will have to weigh test scores more than any other factor. It says states will have to use “evidence-based interventions” in the schools where students get the lowest test scores.

That sounds an awful lot like the test-and-punish system we have now.

What if your state decides to take a different road and reject the high stakes bludgeon approach to accountability? In that case, some readers argue schools could lose Title I funds – money set aside to help educational institutions serving impoverished populations.

Will that actually happen? No one knows.

It may depend on who will be President in 2017 and whom that person picks as Secretary of Education. And even if the Feds try to take advantage of these potential loopholes, the matter could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

What about Common Core?

Some readers interpret the new law as destroying forever the possibility of national academic standards. If states are allowed to pick their own standards, it is highly unlikely they’ll all pick the ones found in the deeply unpopular Common Core. However, the law does force each state to have academic standards of some kind, and it defines what those standards must look like. One interpretation of this is that they must look a lot like the Common Core.

They must be “state-developed college- and career-ready standards.” You read that right – “College and career ready.” That’s the Common Core catchphrase. If someone says they want to eat lunch at “the golden arches,” they haven’t said McDonalds, but you know they’re craving a Big Mac.

Will the Fed allow states to choose standards radically different than the Core? Again only time and – possibly – the courts can tell.

This same problem occurs throughout the document. As the public painstakingly combs through it, new legal wiggle room may be found. And I am not so naive as to suppose we’ve found all of the loopholes yet. Some of these may be the result of poorly chosen wording. Others may be purposefully hidden time bombs waiting for opportunists to exploit.

This uncertainty about exactly what the ESSA will eventually mean for our public schools may help explain the range of reactions to the formative law – from ecstasy to despair to shrugs and snores.

I’m not sure what to think of the thing, myself. I started the whole process disgusted but came around to accepting it if the final result was any kind of improvement over previous legislation. And now that it’s the law of the land, I look at this Frankenstein’s monster of a bill – stitched together pieces of mystery meat – and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I still hope it will live up to the limited promise it holds to bring us some relief from NCLB. But I admit this thing could go sour. Anyone’s guess is as good as mine.

Which brings me to perhaps the biggest problem with this law that no one seems to be talking about.

Education needs reformed. We need to repeal the bogus policies that have been championed by the 1% and their lapdog lawmakers. We need to get rid of test-based accountability. We need to trash high stakes testing, Common Core, value added measures, charter schools and a host of other pernicious policies. We need to initiate a real anti-poverty program dedicated to attacking the actual problem with our schools – inequality of resources.

But more than any of that, we need to reform our government.

We need to find a better way to make our laws. The process that shat out this ESSA must go.

Think about it. No Child Left Behind was an abject failure by any metric you want to use. It didn’t close achievement gaps – it increased them. And the major policy of this law – annual standardized testing – remains intact in the reauthorization!

There has been massive public outcry against annual testing. Parents are leading an exponentially growing civil disobedience movement shielding their children from even taking these assessments. Everyone seems to agree that we test kids too much – even President “I’ll-veto-any-bill-that-deletes-testing” Obama.

Yet our legislators did next to nothing to fix this problem.
Instead preference was given to lobbyists and corporatists interested in making a buck off funding set aside to educate children. The focus was on smaller government – not better government. These aren’t mutually exclusive, but they aren’t exactly one-and-the-same, either.

This can’t continue if we are to keep pretending we have a representative Democracy. The voice of lobbyists must not be louder than voters. Money must be barred from the legislative process. Demagoguery must not overshadow the public good. We need transparency and accountability for those making our laws.

Until that happens, we will never have a sound and just education policy, because we don’t have a sound and just government.

Unfortunately, that is the biggest lesson of the ESSA.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive, Badass Teachers Association Blog and quoted extensively on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

 

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A Real Solution to the Infinitesimal Cases of Child Predators in Our Schools

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Pat Toomey is obsessed with child predators in our public schools.

When I came to Washington, D.C., this summer to visit 
the U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, he was lobbying to get his “Passing the Trash” bill included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

His proposed legislation – now part of the Senate version of the ESEA – would ban school districts from helping known pedophiles from finding teaching jobs at different schools. Toomey is hopeful the provision will remain in the final version of the law that eventually will reach President Obama’s desk.

I met with his education aide who cheerily told me her job was to comb through the nation’s newspapers everyday and count the number of teachers accused of acting inappropriately with children. I’d mention issues like inequitable funding, standardized testing and Common Core. She’d solemnly quote back the number she’d found in her research.

There was definitely a disconnect between our priorities. After all, I’m a public school teacher. I work in our school system everyday. She and her boss only know about our schools through what they read in the newspaper. And according to the media every school in American houses child predators. They lurk behind every corner protected by administrators, superintendents and unions.

However, the facts do not back this up.

The Associated Press held a landmark investigation in 2007 to discover the extent of the problem. Reporters sought disciplinary records in all 50 states and the District of Columbia over a 5 year period. The investigation found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned following allegations of sexual misconduct. About 70% of those cases involved children being victimized.

There is no glossing over it. The number is disgusting and startling. However, it is far from the national epidemic the media and Toomey are touting.

There are more than 3 million teachers in this country. This report found that 1 in 800,000 may be a child predator. That’s .00083%.

In other words, your child is more likely to be struck by lightning than be the victim of a child predator at school (1 in 134,906).

Other things more likely to happen include dying in an airplane crash (1 in 7,178), death on the job (1 in 48,000), and being murdered (1 in 18,000).

I don’t mean to be glib. One teacher betraying a young person’s trust in this way is one too many.

I’m glad Toomey is pursuing this legislation. I even support it.

However, I don’t like the slander and libel against the great majority of teachers. I don’t like how we’re all being painted with the same brush – even when it is done in the cause of making it more difficult for child predators.

I’ve been a public school teacher for almost 15 years. In that time, I have never met a single teacher who I would be uncomfortable letting babysit my 6-year-old daughter. Even when I was a student, myself, back in the 1980s and 90s, I never had a teacher who I was afraid would molest me or my classmates.

Compare this to the sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. A review by American Catholic bishops found about 4,400 of 110,000 priests were accused of molesting minors from 1950 through 2002. That’s .04% or 1 in 400. Sure the timescale involved is much longer than the AP study of educators, but the pool of priests is also much smaller. It would seem children are more in danger in houses of worship than houses of learning.

However, none of this helps people like Toomey pass legislation. You can’t say this doesn’t happen much, but we need to stop it. No one would vote for it. There would be no sense of urgency.

It’s just that in dramatizing the situation the Senator and his ilk are defaming the majority of teachers who would never even consider hurting a child.

The truth is not politically expedient. Child predation in schools is not a quantitative issue. It’s a qualitative one.

You don’t need large numbers of children to be hurt in this way for us to take the problem seriously. Even a small number, even a single instance, is enough to require action. No child should ever feel unsafe in school. No child should ever be victimized in these hallowed halls – especially by the very people who have devoted their lives to help them.

So I think Toomey’s right. We should pass his legislation. We should take steps to stop this kind of thing from ever happening in our schools.

And if we’re really serious, I have a solution that no one seems to be talking about: Let’s hire more teachers.

Stay with me here. Child predators almost always act alone. This sort of crime requires the perpetrator to have time undisturbed with the victim. Yet what do we have in our public schools? We’ve slashed and burned school budgets until there are fewer teachers and more students than ever. Class sizes have ballooned. It’s not uncommon for teachers to have upwards of 20, 30 even 40 children in one classroom.

This is the perfect breeding ground for child predators. They are more unsupervised than ever. They can do as they please and no one will catch them until it’s too late. Even principals and other administrators have less time to observe what goes on in the classroom because they’re unduly burdened with ridiculous amounts of paper work required to ensure every teacher gets a junk science value-added evaluation.

But if we hired more teachers, we could reduce this problem. We could even take the majority of these new teachers and put them together in the classroom. We could initiate a nationwide co-teaching initiative.

There would be challenges. You’d have to be careful to pair educators together that are compatible and can work well together. However, it would be worth it.

Few teachers would be alone with a class of students. There would almost always be another adult in the room. If another teacher was doing something fishy, it would be observed and probably reported. Moreover, the mere presence of another educator would be a huge deterrent to even trying something funny.

And this would solve our class size conundrum. You might still have larger classes, but the ratio between teacher and student would be halved. Educational outcomes would increase. Students would get more individual attention. They’d learn more. Teachers would be less stressed having someone else to shoulder the burden. And having an influx of new middle class jobs would boost our flagging economy.

This is a win-win.

Of course, it would cost some major bucks. It would require a lot of work from our nations lawmakers and policy wonks. But how could they really say ‘no’? After all, it’s being done to protect children!

From an economic standpoint, we already spend 54% of our federal budget on wars and the military. Only 6% is spent on education. It seems astoundingly unlikely that we can’t afford adding these jobs, increasing children’s educational outcomes, boosting the economy and protecting children – all in one sweep!

So, Senator Toomey, after your measure gets adopted in the final ESEA, I suggest you spearhead this new mission. After all, your bill will help, but co-teaching will almost eliminate the problem. Even if we had all children take classes exclusively on-line, it wouldn’t stop child predators from getting to them. (Heck! Predators thrive on the Web!) But co-teaching could make a real appreciative difference.

If we really want to stop students from being victimized in school, we need more teachers.


NOTE: This article was also published in the LA Progressive.

 

Bernie Sanders Explains Puzzling Education Vote – It’s Because Accountability

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Photo: Alex Garland

When teachers asked, Bernie Sanders answered.

Why, Bernie? Why did you vote this summer against everything you seem to stand for on education policy?

You stood against President George W. Bush’s disastrous No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001. Why did you vote for almost the same thing in 2015?

The answer is in from the Vermont Senator turned Democratic Presidential Candidate, but it’s not entirely satisfactory.

The short version: Accountability.

In education circles, it’s a buzzword meaning opposite things to opposite people. And determined in opposite ways.

Ask a representative of the standardized testing industry, and more than likely he’ll tell you accountability means making sure public schools actually teach studentsespecially the poor and minorities. And the only way to determine this is through repeated, rigid, standardized assessments. Let’s call that TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY.

Ask a real live educator, and more than likely she’ll tell you it means making sure local, state and federal governments actually provide the funding and resources necessary to teach studentsespecially the poor and minorities. And the best way to determine this is simple math. Let’s call that LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY.

These seem to be the central disagreements: Are lawmakers providing equitable resources to all our public schools or are teachers just not doing their jobs? Are student test scores the best way to measure accountability or should we rely on something as rock solid as elementary math?

TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY is hard to determine. You have to spend billions of taxpayer dollars buying tests, scoring tests and on test prep materials. And then you have to ignore all the evidence that this proves nothing. You could instead just poke your head into any public school across the nation and actually see teachers working their butts off. Heck! You could stop in after school hours and count the numbers of teachers still at work and tabulate the amount of their own cash they spend on class materials. But that won’t work – there isn’t an industry profiting off you using your own eyes and brain.

On the other hand, determining LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY is easy. Just compare school budgets. Greater than and less than. You’ll find that none of our lawmakers provide equitable funding. Rich kids in wealthy districts get Cadillac funding while poor and minority kids in impoverished districts get bicycle funding. Strangely, this is never discussed.

Moreover, none of this relies on opinion. All it takes is empirical evidence to see the truth. Lawmakers are not accountable at all. Teachers are accountable for too much and judged by unscientific and untrustworthy methods.

Unfortunately, few politicians have fully figured this out yet. Even you, Bernie.

This summer it’s all come down to a series of votes on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The law the governs K-12 public schools was written in 1965 to ensure all schools received the proper resourcesLAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY.

However, under President George W. Bush and throughout the Obama years, it’s become about punishing teachers and schools for low standardized test scores – TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY.

And the champions of TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY this summer have been primarily Democrats including liberal lions like Elizabeth Warren and Sanders.

LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY? No one’s talking that.

Most troubling is the Murphy Amendment – an attempt to double down on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY. Keep testing and punishing because it’s working soooo well. Thankfully, the move was defeated by Senate Republicans. But Sanders and Warren both voted for it. Warren even co-sponsored it!

That’s why a group of respected education professionals and union leaders (including myself) wrote an open letter to Sanders asking him to please explain, himself.

We aren’t exactly a hostile crowd. We like a bunch of things that Sanders represents in his presidential campaign. We want to support him, but we need to know why he voted to keep the worst aspects of the current law.

And Bernie answered! Or his staff did.

I’ll reproduce the entire letter we received from staffer Phil Fiermonte below this blog. But first I want to focus on Bernie’s specific reasons for voting in favor of the Murphy Amendment:

As you mentioned, Senator Murphy introduced an amendment on the Senate floor that would have required states to hold schools accountable for the academic performance of low-income, minority and disabled students. Senator Sanders voted for this amendment because he believes states must do more to protect every student’s right to a quality education, and that from a civil right’s perspective, the federal government has an important role to play in protecting low-income, minority and disabled children. As you pointed out, the mechanism this amendment would have used to identify struggling schools resembles the failed policies of No Child Left Behind. This was a significant concern to the Senator, and one that he shared with the sponsors of the amendment.

Senator Sanders cast his vote on this amendment to express his disapproval with aspects of the bill that were insisted upon by Chairman Alexander and Senate Republicans and that do not reflect the best interests of vulnerable populations, or a progressive view on the distribution of education resources. He has made clear to Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, and Senate Leadership that his vote was not an endorsement of the accountability mechanism included in the amendment, but rather as a statement of his intent that other measures must be put in place to protect low-income, minority and disabled students.

So Sanders voted for the Murphy Amendment for these reasons:

  1. He was mad that there is nothing about LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY in the ESEA.
  2. He believes in TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY – at least in part. He thinks the federal government needs to make sure teachers and schools are actually educating kids, BUT he doesn’t believe standardized tests are the best way of determining this.

Okay. First of all, he has a point. There is next to nothing in the whole ESEA rewrite about LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY. When I was on Capitol Hill earlier this summer lobbying my lawmakers on this very issue, in general the Democrats blamed the Republicans and the Republicans changed the subject.

However, I don’t see how voting for an amendment you don’t believe in is going to make a point about something entirely unrelated. How would voting for the Murphy Amendment get us LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY? The Amendment had nothing to do with that. There are places for it in the ESEA but this amendment was focused almost entirely on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY.

Was Sanders trying to convince Republicans to add LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY elsewhere in the bill by voting against them on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY here? That seems a stretch. Both parties appear to love TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY, but during this ESEA process the Republicans have been more concerned with stripping the federal government of its power over education. It’s not that they don’t like TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY, they just want to leave it up to the states.

Then we come to Sander’s position on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY. He’s certainly right that schools need to teach students. However, as a public school teacher, I find it ludicrous to think that there are any schools out there that don’t.

Are there really schools in our country that don’t even TRY to educate their students? Really!? Are there hospitals that don’t try to heal their patients? Are there defense attorneys who don’t try to defend their clients? Are their airlines that don’t even try to get passengers to their destinations?

It’s absurd. Certainly if there were such places, we should do something about them, but the fact that our education policies are obsessed with something that almost never happens is asinine. It’s like going to Ireland and spending the majority of your vacation budget looking for a leprechaun! (At least, this doesn’t happen in non-cyber, non-charter, not-for-profit traditional public schools. But I digress…)

Then we get to Bernie’s suggestion that he’s against using standardized tests to measure if schools are functioning properly. At least here he is justified. But how will voting for the exact thing you’re against get you what you want? It boggles the mind. I want Pizza, that’s why I’m voting for chicken. Huh!?

However, Sanders is responsible for an innovation in the ESEA along just these lines. He proposed a 7-state pilot program that would allow TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY to be determined on more holistic methods than test scores. Schools could use multiple measures such as student portfolios, classroom projects, or other means to be determined by the states.

This could be a step forward. But even under the best of circumstances, it is limited to a maximum of 7 states. It’s not a long term solution. The majority of the country could still be stuck with test and punish.

So we’re left with some good news and bad news.

GOOD NEWS: Bernie actually took teachers open letter seriously enough to have a staffer answer it. That’s something. I’m sure there are plenty of presidential candidates who wouldn’t even do that much.

GOOD NEWS: Bernie has some thoughtful ideas on education. His pilot program holds – limited – promise. He understands that the measures usually prescribed to determine TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY are bogus.

GOOD NEWS: Bernie acknowledges that LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY is important and says he’d like to address it.

BAD NEWS: He doesn’t mind focusing on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY when there is very little need for it. Moreover, TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY without LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY is actually harmful. Imagine if NASCAR fired a driver because the Pit Crew didn’t gas up the car. If schools have inadequate money and resources, putting a gun to all the teachers heads isn’t going to help.

BAD NEWS: Some of his answers don’t make sense.

BAD NEWS: He isn’t addressing us personally. Will it take teachers storming his campaign speeches and swiping the microphone before he does more than limited reforms and pays us lip service? It’s one thing to say #BlackLivesMatter. It’s another to make sure our black and brown kids get an equitable education.


The following letter was sent to Arthur Goldstein, one of the teachers who signed the original open letter to Bernie Sanders:

Sen. Sanders views on the Every Child Achieves Act, standardized testing, and school accountability 
Rand Wilson Add to contacts 4:59 PM Keep this message at the top of your inbox 
To: Arthur Goldstein Cc: Philip Fiermonte, Cwa Cohen 
laborforbernie2016@gmail.com

Dear Brother Goldstein:

Senator Sanders has asked me to respond to your email, and share his views on the Every Child Achieves Act, standardized testing, and school accountability.

As you know, Senator Sanders has long opposed the blame-and-shame approach to school accountability embodied in No Child Left Behind. He voted against No Child Left Behind in 2001 because he believed then, as he does now, that the legislation’s narrow focus on standardized test scores ignores a broad range of factors that determine how well a school is meeting the needs of its students. Since the passage of this legislation, we have seen the devastating impact that high stakes standardized testing has had on schools all over the country. In the Senator’s home state of Vermont, nearly every school is identified as “failing,” and is threatened with increasingly proscriptive federally-determined interventions.

No Child Left Behind’s narrow focus on standardized test scores has tragically led to a significant culture shift in our nation’s schools. An obsession with testing and test preparation has taken over in countless school districts in America, and educators are being forced to dedicate hours of class time getting students ready for exams rather than teaching them new material, or strengthening essential skills and qualities like critical thinking, teamwork, and problem solving. And the worst thing is that students from low-income, urban school districts spend more time in test preparation than students from the suburbs. These hours and hours of test preparation have no educational value, and the fact that poor and minority students are disproportionately subjected to test prep at the expense of lesson time is a huge problem that must be addressed.

Last month, the senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act, which would fundamentally reform No Child Left Behind, and end its system of high stakes testing and draconian interventions. Senator Sanders supports this legislation, and believes it represents a very important step forward.

As a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the Senator had an opportunity to shape this legislation at every stage of its development. For example, he was one of the leading advocates on committee for the inclusion of a “multiple measure” accountability system that allowed states to include factors other than test scores when determining a school’s effectiveness.

In addition, he worked to provide states with significant flexibility when it comes to assessment. This legislation includes a provision written by Senator Sanders that would create a groundbreaking alternative assessment pilot program which would allow states to implement alternatives to standardized testing. If the legislation passes, these new assessments would eventually reduce the number of statewide tests children are forced to take, while providing educators with timely information on student performance.

However, this legislation is far from perfect, and there are several aspects of the Every Child Achieves Act that have caused the Senator great concern. For example, there is no requirement that states focus resources or attention on schools that are meeting the needs of middle class children, but not meeting the needs of minority, low-income and disabled children. In addition, the Senator is concerned that the bill does nothing to address resource equity, and was deeply disappointed when an amendment offered by Senators Kirk, Baldwin, Reed and Brown to address resource equity failed on the Senate floor.

As you mentioned, Senator Murphy introduced an amendment on the Senate floor that would have required states to hold schools accountable for the academic performance of low-income, minority and disabled students. Senator Sanders voted for this amendment because he believes states must do more to protect every student’s right to a quality education, and that from a civil right’s perspective, the federal government has an important role to play in protecting low-income, minority and disabled children. As you pointed out, the mechanism this amendment would have used to identify struggling schools resembles the failed policies of No Child Left Behind. This was a significant concern to the Senator, and one that he shared with the sponsors of the amendment.

Senator Sanders cast his vote on this amendment to express his disapproval with aspects of the bill that were insisted upon by Chairman Alexander and Senate Republicans and that do not reflect the best interests of vulnerable populations, or a progressive view on the distribution of education resources. He has made clear to Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, and Senate Leadership that his vote was not an endorsement of the accountability mechanism included in the amendment, but rather as a statement of his intent that other measures must be put in place to protect low-income, minority and disabled students.

As congressional leaders move toward the next step in consideration of this bill – negotiating differences with the House – Senator Sanders has urged the future leaders of the conference committee to include protections for low-income, minority and disabled students, and to do so in a way that addresses the needs of the whole child. We must ensure low-income, minority and disabled children have the same access to educational resources that their wealthy suburban peers have. In addition, we must ensure that struggling students have access to adequate supports including health, mental health and nutrition services and after school programs that help level the playing field.

For many years, educators across the country have been the loudest, strongest voices against the corporatization of our nation’s education system and for the increased funding and wraparound services that will make a difference for our children. This is a fight that Senator Sanders has been waging at the national level for 25 years, and one that he will continue to pursue.

Sincerely.
Phil Fiermonte
Bernie 2016


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive.

Parent Power Can Crush the Testocracy – and the Government is Scared Witless

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“We need to change accountability for schools to be more holistic. My greatest frustration is that I can’t do it fast enough.”
Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s Education Secretary

Parents, you can.

It doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter what laws are on the books. It doesn’t matter if your state is controlled by Democrats, Republicans or some combination thereof.

No government – not federal, state or local – can trample your parental rights. If you don’t want your child to be evaluated based on standardized tests, your child doesn’t have to be. And if a majority of parents nationwide make this decision, the era of standardized testing comes to an end. Period.

It has already begun.

Across the nation last school year, parents decided to opt their children out of standardized testing in historic numbers. The government noticed and functionaries from New York to California and all places in between are scrambling to deal with it.

In the Empire State one in five students didn’t take federally mandated standardized tests. State education commissioner Mary Ellen Elia responded yesterday by threatening sanctions against schools this year with high opt out numbers. In short, if in the coming year too many kids don’t take the test in a given school, the state will withhold funding.

It’s a desperate move. If the public doesn’t like what its duly elected officials and their functionaries are doing, those same officials and functionaries are vowing to punish the public. But wait. Don’t those people work for the public? Isn’t it their job to do our will? It’s not our job to do theirs.

The message was received a bit better in U.S. Congress where the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is being reauthorized. Two drafts of the law that governs K-12 public schools were approved – one in the House and one in the Senate. And both specifically allow parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. But can schools be punished for it?

The House version says no. The Senate version says it’s up to each state legislature.

These bills are being combined before being presented to President Obama for his signature. If he doesn’t veto the result, one might assume that at worst the issue will become each state’s prerogative.

But you’d be wrong. The state has as much business deciding this matter as does the fed – which is none. This is a parental rights issue. No one has the right to blackmail parents to fall in line with any government education policy. It’s the other way around.

In my own state of Pennsylvania, opt out numbers this year were not as dramatic as in New York, but they still sent a message to state government.

The number of students opted out of state tests tripled in 2015, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. PSSA math opt-outs rose to 3,270 students from 1,064 in 2014. PSSA English language arts opt-outs rose to 3,245 from 1,068. Those are the largest jumps in the nine years of available data.

And it’s not only parents who are concerned. Teachers continue to speak out against high stakes standardized tests.

Thousands of teachers have told State Education Secretary Pedro Rivera that school accountability needs to be less about test scores and more about reading levels, attendance, school climate, and other measures, he said. They have concerns about graduation requirements and the state’s current system of evaluating schools.

It’s not like these criticism are new. Education experts have been voicing them since at least 1906 when the New York State Department of Education advised the legislature as follows:

“It is a very great and more serious evil to sacrifice systematic instruction and a comprehensive view of the subject for the scrappy and unrelated knowledge gained by students who are persistently drilled in the mere answering of questions issued by the Education Department or other governing bodies.”
-Sharon L. Nichols and David Berliner, Collateral Damage: How High Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools, 2007

Corporate education reformers complain that testing is necessary to hold schools accountable. However, the results are not trustworthy, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, itself! In 2011 and now again in 2015, officials are cautioning against using test scores to compare student achievement from year-to-year.

“The 2015 assessment should not and cannot be compared to the 2014 and 2013 assessment,” Rivera said. “It’s apples and oranges. Schools are still working on aligning curriculum to standards. They’re still catching up to teaching what we’re assessing.”

Each year students and teachers are told to hit a moving target, which was the reason also cited for caution four years ago.

While Rivera laments the issue and his inability to change anything soon within the government bureaucracy, parents are not thus encumbered.

All you have to do to save your child from being part of this outdated and destructive system is opt out.

But don’t stop there. Talk to other parents. Talk to classroom teachers. Organize informational get-togethers. Go to the PTA and school board meetings. Get others to join you.

And if the government threatens to withhold funding, lawyers are waiting in the wings to start the class action suits. Withholding taxpayer money expressly put aside to educate children because those same taxpayers disagree with government education policy!? Just try us!

Governments are tools but we hold the handles. If enough of us act this year, there will be no testing next year. Functionaries can threaten and foam at the mouth, but we are their collective boss. If they won’t do what we want them to do, we have the power to boot them out.

A multi-billion dollar industry has sprung up around high stakes standardized testing. Lobbying dollars flow from their profit margins into the pockets of our politicians. But we are more powerful.

Because you can’t serve your corporate masters if you are voted out of office.

Down and Out and Lobbying for Public Education

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Let’s get one thing straight right from the start.

I’m no lobbyist.

I’m just a private citizen who’s sick of seeing his tax dollars swallowed up by big corporations under the guise of educational accountability.

I’m just a public school teacher who’s tired of his profession being demonized by policymakers and media talking heads alike.

And I’m just a father who’s worried that his daughter won’t get the same comprehensive public education he received as a child.

No one paid me. In fact, I bankrolled myself.

So like more than 300 members of the Badass Teachers Association (BATS), I came to Washington, D.C., to speak with my Congresspeople.

And what a day it was!

I met with Senators Pat Toomey (R-PA), Bob Casey (D-PA) and Corey Booker (D-NJ). I met with U.S. Reps Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ).

Well, actually I met with their legislative aides.

None of the actual lawmakers made time to sit down with a flesh and blood teacher.

In one case, a legislator seemingly went out of his way to avoid me.

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While sitting on the couch in Doyle’s office, he came out of a room to the left of me, asked his secretary for packing tape and then told her he was leaving for the day. It was 2:47 p.m. on Friday.

And they say teachers have easy hours!

I can’t say whether he was actively avoiding me. I made an appointment to see him, but it was never specified if I’d be meeting with him in person or if I’d be with his aide.

For all I know his staff never let him know I was a constituent sitting there on his couch in a suit and tie with a folder perched on my lap. But it didn’t feel good.

Maybe I should have said something. “Congressman Doyle! May I have a moment?”

But I frankly couldn’t believe this was happening. Moreover, he looks a lot different in a purple Hawaiian shirt than he does in all his press photos wearing a suit. I had to check his picture on my phone to make sure I was really seeing this correctly.

I was.

Still the meetings I had with these kids helping my legislators decide public policy were actually quite productive.

Without exception these youngsters were friendly, polite and knowledgeable. They seemed receptive to new ideas, were eager to hear my point of view, asked intelligent questions and were honest about where their bosses sometimes disagreed with me.

In Sen. Toomey’s office his assistants even asked if I was THAT Steven Singer.

“Who?” I said.

And they told me about a famous advertising campaign in eastern PA where a jeweler’s competitors are seen to complain “I HATE STEVEN SINGER.”

I laughed and told them it wasn’t me, but inside I wondered if that might explain the difficulty I had in some circumstances making these appointments. Maybe congressional staff thought I was pranking them. “Steven Singer wants an appointment!? Yeah! I’ll schedule it right after we see Mickey Mouse!”

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I first met with Devorah Goldman, Toomey’s legislative correspondent on education and other issues. She’d only been on the job for about a year, but her qualifications included a degree in social work and she had worked in a public school resource center.

She was a very good listener. She heard me out as I spoke about a homeless student in my classes this year. She listened as I explained why Common Core is bad policy, why we need equitable school funding, an end to high stakes standardized tests, reigning in charter schools and voucher systems, and an end to judging teachers based on their students’ test scores.

Her boss isn’t exactly known as an education advocate. But she said he would agree with most of what I had said.

The main area of dispute would be charter schools. Toomey is in favor of expanding them so students can escape “failing schools.”

I explained that it was bad policy to try to save some students and let others fall behind. We need to make sure ALL our schools do an excellent job. Moreover, the Senator’s metric for determining which schools are failing is faulty at best.

I explained that traditional public schools often outperformed charter schools, which lack transparency and accountability and are wasting taxpayers dollars.

“We’ll just have to disagree on that point,” she said without explanation.

But she agreed to continue to take input from me and the BATS in the future.

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At Doyle’s office, I eventually sat down with Hannah Malvin, a political science major who, at least, is from the Pittsburgh area – her boss’ legislative district.

She listened intently to my tales of education woe, even asking follow up questions. But she was surprised I supported the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Even the strongest supporters of the rewrite of the federal law that governs K-12 schools would admit it isn’t perfect. However, I would contend that the new version being cobbled together by the House and the Senate appears to be a slight improvement over what we have now – No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Some educators think even this rewrite doesn’t go far enough to scale back standardized testing (and I sympathize but do not agree with that position). However, Malvin said Doyle had issues with it because it scaled back too much.

This was the issue I heard from Democrats all day. There isn’t enough accountability in the ESEA rewrite. How will we know which schools need extra help, they asked again-and-again.

I tried to explain that all they had to do was look at per-pupil spending. It’s no mystery which kids aren’t getting enough resources. It’s all right there on a ledger.

To her credit she heard me out and agreed to continue to dialogue with me on this subject in the future.

Next, I met up with some fellow teacher lobbyists from New Jersey and we dropped in unannounced on Booker’s office.

It’s not that we didn’t try to make an appointment. His staff never returned our calls and emails.

In fact, last week a fellow teacher not with us on Capitol Hill, Michele Miller,  even got into a scuffle with Booker on Twitter about elementary school funding. He told her to call his office and he would talk to her in detail.

To my knowledge, he never did. However, she was connected by phone to one of his aides. I’m told this is just modus operandi for Booker – strong talk in a public forum but shying away when the cameras aren’t rolling.

In any case, Booker’s senior education and health policy adviser Ashley Eden agreed to talk with us when we showed up to the office. Though her background isn’t in education, I can’t recall exactly what it is in. I do remember she has been doing this sort of legislative work for lawmakers for about 4 years – longer than any other aide we met.

She immediately made us feel welcome and found many areas of agreement. Bookers’ major point of contention – like fellow Democrat Doyle – was accountability.

How do we know which kids need help without giving them standardized tests?

Groan. But at least I had reinforcements: BATS Assistant Manager Melissa Tomlinson and retired NJ teacher extraordinaire Elizabeth DeMarco.

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Perhaps the most telling moment of the entire conversation was when Eden said Booker just had to back standardized testing because every Civil Rights organization wanted it. She even criticized the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) for not supporting black and brown students.

We stopped her right there. No. Every Civil Rights organization does NOT support testing. Journey for Justice – a coalition of 38 such organizations, in conjunction with 175 additional likeminded groups wrote to both the House and Senate asking to eliminate testing. Didn’t Sen. Booker see the letter?

Suddenly she remembered it.

She said she read it real quickly and didn’t like one sentence in it so she ignored it.

Which sentence?

Something about expecting poor and minority students to do badly on tests.

I explained that it has nothing to do with thinking these children can’t achieve at the same level as other children. It’s a matter of resources. If Sen. Booker was in a foot race against someone in a Monster Truck, I’d vote on the truck. Doesn’t mean Booker can’t run or that he might not even win. But the smart money is on Big Foot.

I joined the two ladies for their meeting with Smith as well.

His legislative assistant, Katherine Talalas, was perhaps the most knowledgeable aide with whom we talked. Her mother is a special education teacher, her brother is a paraprofessional working in a public school and she went to law school focusing on education issues.

She also took more written notes than any other assistant. With her nothing seemed canned. It was a real conversation about what her boss had done to help special education students and how he might continue to help in the future.

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I was on my own again to meet with Sen. Casey’s aide, Jared Solomon.

This was one of the most fascinating and perplexing conversations I had all day.

He was warm, friendly, and had a depth of knowledge that was a bit more political than school-centered.

He agreed with almost everything I said. Casey supports 95% of the things that are important to me in education.

I could have smiled and walked away happy, but Solomon was so gregarious he kept talking. We shared our backgrounds.

He proudly admitted that he had been a Teach for America (TFA) recruit. He worked two years in a Baltimore public school and then left. He knew it wasn’t going to be his permanent job. He was emulating his parents who had joined the Peace Corps. He did TFA because he wanted the experience.

Then he moved to the administrative offices of Michelle Rhee’s Washington, D.C., Public Schools.

He only worked there two years – only one of which was under Rhee’s administration – but he respected what they had done. He said he disagreed with 80% of their policies and even quit because he was tired of being blamed for practices with which he didn’t agree. But, he added, the people in Rhee’s administration worked harder than anyone he knew, and he thought they really had the best interests of the kids at heart.

I’m tempted to chalk it up to the same feeling the incredible blogger Jennifer Berkshire (a.k.a. Edushyster) says she gets when she interviews many corporate school reformers. We may disagree with them, but they really do believe this stuff.

But something happened that doesn’t sit well with me. In an unguarded moment of a more than hour-long conversation, Solomon pulled the same stunt Eden did for Sen. Booker. He said all the Civil Rights groups were crying out for testing. But when I called him out on it, he immediately took it back. It was like he, too, knew this was untrue. It was a talking point, quickly to be conceded if called out and then move on to another argument.

I frankly don’t know what to make of it. The arguments are too similar among Democrats and Republicans to shrug off. Each is speaking from a party line script. That can’t just be a coincidence.

And why would Casey, a legislator who supposedly agrees with me 95% of the time on education, hire as his education expert someone who was actively involved in many of the practices that go directly against his beliefs? Why would someone like Solomon, who was part of the corporate education reform movement, really be on my side against these policies?

It’s befuddling to say the least.

Now that it’s all over, I’m so glad I did this.

Will this change the nation’s education policies? Probably not.

But I am only one of hundreds of people who climbed Capitol Hill in the last two days and met with more than 52 federal legislators to fight against the standardization and privatization of education.

And tomorrow we, BATS, will hold a Teachers Congress to further solidify our goals and decide where the great ship of real positive school change should go.

I am so looking forward to it.

But this teacher, soon-to-be BAT Congressman, needs to go to bed.

Here’s to a brilliant tomorrow for our children.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

We Shall Overcome… Our Lack of Standardized Tests!?

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Civil Rights groups have long championed the needs of people of color, women and minorities.

Segregated schools, voting rights, police brutality – all of these have been the subject of long and brutal fights for equality.

Perhaps the strangest turn in 2015 has been the fight for standardized testing.

That’s right. Organizations that you’d expect to see fighting against racism have been clamoring for access to multiple choice bubble exams.

In fact, the Democrats have used this as an excuse for their failed attempts to keep the much maligned Test and Punish policies of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The law – currently called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – is a testing corporation’s dream filled with policies that have been failing our children for 13 years. Unsurprisingly, teachers, parents and students are demanding relief.

But do Civil Rights groups who fought against unfair testing as a prerequisite to vote now really demand unfair testing as a prerequisite for a high school diploma?

The answer is yes and no.

SOME Civil Rights groups have demanded more testing, and others have demanded LESS.

The Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, wrote Congress an open letter in July asking for an end to high stakes testing. And the JJA wasn’t alone. The alliance was joined by 175 other national and local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations who signed on to the letter to “…call on the U.S. Congress to pass an ESEA reauthorization without requiring the regime of oppressive, high stakes, standardized testing and sanctions that have recently been promoted as civil rights provisions within ESEA.”

However, the JJA’s call has been largely ignored by lawmakers and the media. A much smaller coalition of Civil Rights organizations in favor of testing, on the other hand, has been given so much press you’d be excused if you thought they represented the entire activist community.

Yes, 19 Civil Rights organizations wrote to Congress in January, 2015, asking lawmakers to preserve annual testing.

However, 11 Civil Rights groups – many of them the exact same groups – wrote to Obama in October, 2014, asking him to reduce standardized testing.

What happened in less than 3 months, to change their minds?

It’s hard to say, but in October the prospect of rewriting the ESEA – the federal law that governs K-12 schools – seemed impossible. Neither Democrats nor Republicans could find any common ground. It looked like the law – which was last reauthorized in 2007 – would be pushed aside until at least the next president was sworn in.

But then like magic when the political situation changed and reauthorization seemed like it might actually happen, suddenly a coalition of Civil Rights organizations found their love for standardized testing.

It seems highly unlikely that these two events are unrelated.

But why would these organizations change their tune so quickly?

One very real possibility is money.

Most of the groups now backing standardized assessments accept huge sums of money from one of the richest men in the world – Bill Gates. And Bill loves standardized tests.

In many ways, his business profits from them. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) wouldn’t exist without his backing, and they depend on standardized tests. Moreover, most states give these assessments on computers – many of which have Microsoft emblazoned on the hard drive. And this doesn’t even count the test preparation software sold to help students get higher test scores.

The sad fact is that standardized testing is big business in this country. Everyone from book publishers to software manufacturers to professional development providers to for-profit prisons depend on the continuation of the testocracy.

And many of these Civil Rights groups would be crippled without that Gates funding. Others seem more like think tanks that really have nothing to do with Civil Rights.

Take Education Trust – an advocacy group that helped create NCLB and CCSS. It should be no surprise the organization took $49 million from Gates and thinks bubble tests are just wonderful.

However, even laudable groups like the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) owe Gates a debt.

UNCF took more than $1.5 billion from Gates. Ostensibly that money is supposed to go to scholarships. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But how could the organization go against the wishes of perhaps its biggest donor? The consequences could be disastrous for UNCF’s entirely worthy mission.

One can imagine administrators stuck between a rock and a hard place having to compromise their stance against testing in order to continue helping people of color fulfill their dreams of going to college.

Other suddenly pro-test organizations taking money from Gates include: La Raza, The Leadership Conference, National Urban League, and Children Defense Fund.

And that’s only the half of it.

To make matters worse, standardized tests don’t enhance students’ Civil Rights. They violate them.

Test scores are used as an excuse to continue spending less money on poor schools who serve mostly minority populations.

Proponents say these assessments hold schools accountable for providing children with a quality education. But how can you provide an education of equal quality with a rich school when you don’t receive even close to the same amount of funding to begin with?

Moreover, test scores have been shown countless times to be poor indicators of academic success. They are, however, excellent predictors of parental income. Poor kids score low. Rich kids score high. So when we take away funding based on low test scores and increase it based on high test scores, we only reinforce the status quo and compound the hurt against people of color.

But this sudden public mea culpa from some Civil Rights organizations is being used by political pundits to justify continuing the practices that would make Martin Luther King, Jr., turn in his grave.

And it’s not over. As Congress continues to hobble together a new version of the ESEA, politicians – mostly Democrats – are bound to lobby for as much federally mandated testing as possible. Even Obama has promised to veto the bill if it doesn’t contain enough love for the testing industry.

It’s up to education voters to educate themselves on the subject and demand real Civil Rights reforms.

End the system of Test and Punish.

Remove or reduce standardized testing from our schools.

Provide equitable funding for schools serving impoverished children.

And give our students of color a fighting chance to achieve the American Dream.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

The Democrats May Have Just Aligned Themselves With Test and Punish – We Are Doomed

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Almost every Democrat in the US Senate just voted to keep Test and Punish.

But Republicans defeated them.

I know. I feel like I just entered a parallel universe, too. But that’s what happened.

Some facts:

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a disaster.

It took the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a federal law designed to ensure all schools get equitable resources and funding – and turned it into a law about standardized testing and punishing schools that don’t measure up.

This was a Republican policy proposed by President George W. Bush.

But now that the ESEA is being rewritten, those pushing to keep the same horrendous Bush era policies are the Democrats.

Almost all of the Democrats!

That includes so-called far left Dems like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren!

It comes down to the Murphy Amendment, a Democratically sponsored change to the ESEA.

This provision was an attempt to keep as many Test and Punish policies as possible in the Senate rewrite.

The amendment, “reads more like NCLB, with its detailed prescription for reporting on student test results, for ‘meaningfully differentiating among all public schools’ (i.e., grading schools), including publicly identifying the lowest five percent, and, among interventions, potentially firing staff and offering students the option to transfer to other schools and using part of the budget to pay for the transportation,” according to blogger Mercedes Schneider.

Education historian Diane Ravich adds, “This amendment would have enacted tough, federal-mandated accountability, akin to setting up an ‘achievement school district’ in every state.”

Thankfully it was voted down. The ESEA will probably not be affected. The rewrite was passed by both the House and Senate without these provisions. Once the two versions of the bill are combined, it is quite possible – maybe even probable – that we’ll have a slight improvement on NCLB. Sure there is plenty of crap in it and plenty of lost opportunities, but the ESEA rewrite looks to be a baby step in the right direction.

The problem is this: the failed Murphy Amendment shows the Democrats’ education vision. Almost all of them voted for it. Warren even co-sponsored it!

When it was defeated and the Senate approved the ESEA rewrite, Warren released a statement expressing her disapproval. But if you didn’t know about the Murphy Amendment, you could have read her criticisms quite differently.

She says the (ESEA rewrite) “eliminates basic, fundamental safeguards to ensure that federal dollars are actually used to improve both schools and educational outcomes for those students who are often ignored.”

That sounds good until you realize what she means. “Educational outcomes” mean test scores. She’s talking about test-based accountability. She is against the ESEA rewrite because it doesn’t necessarily put strings on schools’ funding based on standardized test scores like NCLB.

She continues, “Republicans have blocked every attempt to establish even minimum safeguards to ensure that money would be used effectively. I am deeply concerned that billions in taxpayer dollars will not actually reach those schools and students who need them the most…”

She is upset because Republicans repeatedly stripped away federal power to Test and Punish schools. The GOP gave that power to the states. So Warren is concerned that somewhere in this great nation there may be a state or two that decides NOT to take away funding if some of their schools have bad test scores! God forbid!

And Warren’s about as far left as they come!

What about liberal lion Bernie Sanders? I’d sure like an explanation for his vote.

It makes me wonder if when he promised to “end No Child Left Behind,” did he mean the policies in the bill or just the name!?

The Democrats seem to be committed to the notion that the only way to tell if a school is doing a good job is by reference to its test scores. High test scores – good school. Bad test scores – bad school.

This is baloney! Test scores show parental income, not academic achievement. Virtually every school with low test scores serves a majority of poor children. Virtually every school with high test scores serves rich kids.

Real school accountability would be something more akin to the original vision of the ESEA – making sure each district had what it needs to give kids the best education possible. This means at least equalizing funding to poverty schools so they have the same resources as wealthy ones. Even better would be ending our strange reliance on local property taxes to provide the majority of district monies.

But the Dems won’t hear it. The Murphy Amendment seems to show that they’re committed to punishing poor schools and rewarding rich ones.

I really hope I’m wrong about this. Please, anyone out there, talk me down!

Up until now I’ve always been with the Democrats because they had better – though still bad – education policies than the Republicans. I’m not sure I can say that anymore. In fact, it may be just the opposite.

Which party is most committed to ending Common Core? The Republicans!

Which party has championed reducing federal power over our schools and giving us a fighting chance at real education reforms? Republicans!

Which party more often champion’s parental rights over the state? Republicans!

Sure, most of them still love vouchers and charter schools. But increasingly so do the Democrats.

This vote has me rethinking everything.

Our country’s education voters may have just been abandoned by their longest ally.

Where do we go from here?


NOTE: This article also was published on Commondreams.org and on the Badass Teachers Association blog. It was also mentioned in the Washington Post.