2 Good Reasons Not to Endorse Senate’s ECAA: Standardized Tests and Charter Expansion

First, there is no language whatsoever that softens the blow of standardized testing for children.  None.  For children, all standardized tests are high stakes and, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter whether these tests are foisted on them by their state government or the federal government.  It still detracts from their education.  Standardized tests merely measure, sort, and label — they don’t educate.

Second, nearly 10% of the bill is devoted to the expansion of charter schools.  The entire bill is 601 pages.  The first 11 + pages consist of a table of contents.  That leaves 590 pages of text.  Fifty-five of those pages — nearly 10% — outline a plan to expand charter schools.  I think the record is clear that charter schools are problematic.  Remember — the charter school movement emerged from the voucher and choice movement.   Milton Friedman’s own foundation — The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice — claims the charter school movement as a boon to the free market, competition driven ideology of neoliberals.  Charter schools = privatization.

Question:  So, what further provides impetus in the move to privatization?

Answer:  A steady stream of standardized tests to support the faulty logic promoted by A Nation at Risk — and barely challenged — that our entire public school system (which Friedman labeled a monopoly and socialistic) is a failure and in need of constant systemic reform.

How can anyone who supports public schools and the children they serve support this legislation?  And I anticipate the final bill that emerges from the House and Senate conference committee will be worse.


Test is a test is a test is a test

Subtitle:  You can put lipstick on a pig, but that doesn’t mean it ceases to be a pig.

For those clamoring to declare isolated successes amongst the political wranglings going on in Congress over ESEA/ECAA, I think it’s important to remember a couple of things.  First, whatever the Senate votes to approve, with whatever amendments are tacked on to the legislation, we still don’t know what the legislation will look like when it emerges from the conference committee established by the House and Senate.  Amendments get removed, House and Senate legislation is merged and — well, it’s sort of like making sausage.  So, as I’ve said before, it’s a little disconcerting when organizations endorse legislation before it’s been finalized.  It’s okay to point out the strengths of proposed legislation or the weaknesses, but an endorsement, qualified or not, of half-baked legislation is troubling.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, I think we should remember, as Gertrude Stein was fond of asserting, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”  It’s an existential concept.  There isn’t a point in which the rose ceases to be a rose — even after your memory of a rose fades or it has been described countless times and in different ways.  Many years ago now, in the years leading up to our current state of education reform, we were cautioned about the rise in standardized testing of our nation’s school children and the detrimental impact it would have on education (and our children).  Too few listened.  And the steady creep of standardized tests continued until it has now become the zeitgeist driving our curriculum and test prep dominates our daily lives in school.

So — as we’re on the eve of an ESEA reauthorization, we find policymakers parsing the language of tests.  We talk about  grade span testing versus annual testing and standardized tests vs. “high stakes” standardized tests.  And the big “win” is presented as the federal government sending the responsibility for governance over of education policy back to the states and local districts.

It may sound good on the surface.  But all the parsing of the language associated with ECAA/ESEA and killing the beast of NCLB doesn’t change the reality that we, as a nation, have waved the white flag of defeat when it comes to standardized tests.  Instead of saying, “Please, sir, I want some more,” while plaintively holding forth an empty bowl, we say, “Please, sir, I want a little less.”

Our current iteration of ESEA holds no promise of breaking the stranglehold that standardized testing has over education in the U.S.  To say that it is needed to equalize educational opportunity and educational outcomes is simply not the case.   To say limiting the number of hours children are required to sit for standardized tests will end the amount of energy expended on test prep is a simplistic notion.  And merely giving this authority back to states will not stop the abuses associated with standardized tests.

It’s time to say no.  Measuring is not teaching.  Standardized tests have no real purpose in education except to sort and label children.  They are constructed purposefully to create a system in which half of our children are deemed below average.  We do not live in Garrison Keillor’s mythical  Lake Wobegon, “where all the men are good looking, all the women are strong, and all the children are above average.”  That place doesn’t exist.

Test is a test is a test is a test.  How is it that we simply accept the assumption that we need standardized testing in order to educate our children?

I cannot support legislation that continues to make standardized testing the law of the land.

To Endorse or Not Endorse — That is the Question

This has been an interesting few days in education reform.  First the Network for Public Education (NPE) published their qualified endorsement for the ESEA/NCLB reauthorization package entitled the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA).  Then, the AFT announced their endorsement of Hillary Cllinton for president.

I will comment briefly on these two endorsements.  First, while NPE understandably seeks to provide leadership and guidance for public school supporters, I believe it is problematic to endorse a bill that does little if anything to limit the expansive role of corporations and entrepreneurs intent on, as Chester Finn once said, making a dime in the education sector.  An organization’s choice to endorse, or not endorse, or stay silent says a great deal about the organization’s leadership.  So, on one hand, I am thankful to know how NPE feels about the current rewrite of ESEA.  On the other hand, it makes me question their ability to compromise on so many important issues.  This is not an era in which compromise will benefit our nation’s children and public school system.  We should not be willing to accept crumbs at the policy table — hoping for something more in the future.  That day will never come as long as we elect corporate sponsored neoliberals.

Which leads me to another organization’s statement regarding ECAA: The United Opt Out Movement’s statement:  “Why UOO Opposes ESEA(ECAA) and Supports the Necessity of Revolution.   There is nothing tepid in UOO’s statement and no compromise.  And the Opt Out Movement is making a difference in the policy arena.  They are forcing politicians and policy makers to listen through their actions.  Corporations and privatizers understand one thing — the bottom line — money.  Pearson is feeling the pinch as states reject their tests.  I agree with UOO.  I will not support a bill that only offers the old adage — “education is  a states rights issue.”  A lot of damage has been done to children over the decades in the name of states rights.  That is not progress.  The federal government’s role has, in fact, been to protect our nation’s children from abuses in the name of states rights.

As far as AFT’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton is concerned — well, there should be no surprise there.  Randi Weingarten is on the board of Clinton’s PAC —  Priorities USA Action.  Facebook has been on fire since the announcement of AFT’s endorsement.  AFT members are outraged and, although I am not a member of the AFT, I also find it difficult to understand the need for such a premature endorsement of a candidate — except that Weingarten is loyal to one candidate for obvious reasons.

There is a Need for Real School Reports Cards: Data that Counts in the Life of a Child

If the federal, state, and local governments continue to place so much weight on standardized test scores as indicators of education progress and success at the national, state, and local levels, then they should be forced to publish any data associated with academic outcomes alongside other indicators of a child’s wellbeing.  We know, and have known for a long time, that academic achievement is highly dependent on other indicators of well-being, such as socioeconomic status.  There are other indicators as well.  The OECD, the organization that brought us PISA scores which for critics of public schools act as the bellwether for school success, recognizes that the well being of children encompasses more than test scores and, therefore, publishes rankings on material well-being, housing and environment, health and safety, risk behavior, educational well-being, and quality of school life.  Of course, systemic educational reformers in the U.S. only want to focus on data from standardized test scores.

We know the ramifications of poverty on the well-being of children.  However, we’ve adopted a “no excuses” mentality for teachers, and like to assert that teachers can overcome any and all of the challenges a child brings with him/her to the classroom.  But teachers cannot.  Teachers can make a noble effort, but they simply cannot overcome poverty and the structural challenges that impede the academic growth of so many children.  Any amount of disaggregating data for student subgroups does not tell the whole story and does not provide a complete picture of a teacher’s worth.

The publication of school, district, and state education report cards may be well intentioned as a means of providing data and information about how well schools and teachers are doing.  However, we need to ensure that report cards about a school district, individual school, or individual teacher include all relevant information that truly reflects the lives of their students in order to meet the needs of those students  Therefore, I suggest that we expand the report card to include the following dimensions on the well-being of the children served by schools and teachers.  In many cases, this data already exists and is used by businesses to make decisions about where to build factories, relocate offices, or open stores. Let’s use this data meaningfully to affect real change in the lives of our children:

  1. What is the average income of the families living in the community served by the school?
  2. What is the employment rate for the families living in the community served by the school? Are there jobs available that pay a living wage?
  3. What are the crime statistics for the community?  I’ve worked in high crime neighborhoods. I know how impactful it can be for children who witness or experience crime and are traumatized. Is it safe for children to play outside in the community? Do they have to navigate drug dealers, gangs, and criminal activity once they leave the front door of their homes?
  4. What is the availability of high-quality affordable healthcare for children and families in the community?
  5. What types of high quality affordable childcare are available for working families in the community?
  6. What types of preschools are available and what percentage of families send their children to preschool?
  7. Is there a public library in the community, is it open on weekends, and how many books do they have available?
  8. What kind of programs are available for children on weekends and after school?
  9. How many parents attend functions at the school, in particular, parent-teacher conferences?  This is information teachers could make available and is highly relevant in light of teacher accountability.  For each class, what percentage of parents attend parent-teacher conferences?  This is a fair point if you’re intent on holding teachers accountable for student performance on test scores.
  10. What types of grocery stores are available within the community? Are fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh meats readily available at a price families in the community can afford?
  11. Are the homes children live in safe?  If their families rent homes and apartments, are they well-maintained?
  12. How do children get to school? If they walk to school, what does the community look like through their eyes? Do they feel safe? Do they have to navigate through crime ridden streets, afraid of being assaulted or bullied? Do they have to cross busy streets on their own?  If they ride buses, how long is the ride?  Are they already tired by the time they get to school? Do they feel safe at the bus stop while waiting for the bus?
  13. What is the governance structure of the school/school district? Are school board members elected by the community to reflect the needs and wishes of the community? Or is the school board appointed to reflect the needs and wishes of people in positions of power far removed from the community — like governors, mayors, or private for-profit or nonprofit charter school organizations?

That’s my list.  Maybe you have other suggestions.  I watched the ESEA reauthorization hearings last week.  I am unconvinced that we’re going to be released from the hyper-focus on standardized test scores.  Lawmakers are intent on making them the mainstay of education policy and we may have to live with that for at least the next generation of school children.  However, we should insist that test score data is balanced with data that reflects the lives of children and the communities in which they live.  Systemic education reformers love data; but let’s make the data meaningful.  Let’s acknowledge that the life of a child doesn’t begin on the first day they enter school, nor does it end the minute the bell rings at the end of the school day.



Lamar Alexander: And the Beat Goes On ….

It seems that July 1991 was an important month for education reformers.  Lamar Alexander as Secretary of Education under President H. W. Bush was very busy on two fronts: 1) laying the groundwork for a national system of assessment (that would require the eventual development of a set of national standards); and 2) facilitating the corporate world’s entre’ into the education arena in full force.

Thanks to C-Span, we have a front row seat to some of the events and pronouncements of Lamar Alexander in which his education reform agenda is laid on the table – in full view of the American public – and we’re feeling the repercussions in full force today.

At a July 1, 1991,  National Education Goals Panel meeting the groundwork for a national system of assessment was laid.  Democrat Governor Roy Romer of Colorado, with Secretary Lamar Alexander at his side, explained the formation and purposes of the Council for Standards and Testing that was the result of a newly enacted law.  As you will note, beginning at approximately 1:19 on the video counter, Romer provides a graphic of the development process for the national assessment, explaining that NAEP testing was inadequate in that it only provided a national picture of educational progress and comparisons between states.  What was needed was a national assessment or set of assessments based on individual student achievement.  NAEP would remain in place; however, a newly developed national assessment would be administered to every child.

Lamar Alexander follows Romer with these insightful words:

“ Sometimes things that look big don’t amount to anything.  Things that seem small amount to a lot.  This is one of those small steps that amounts to a lot — because it represents a beginning to taking the first concrete steps forward to how to exactly develop a national system of examination.  That’s one part and the second part is it includes within that discussion, without committing themselves to a particular way to do it, members of Congress — and I think it’s important to say the Republican and Democratic members of Congress took an issue about which they could have played a game or two with — because there were competing versions of an idea and they put it together.  Dale Kildee [Democrat from Michigan] especially in the House of Representatives took a leadership role in doing that and I think took a very constructive step and it is moving swiftly — but the country needs to [act] as swifty as it accurately and responsibly can in this area because people want some progress.  It is an important step and I thank you [Romer] and Governor Campbell [Republican Governor of South Carolina] deserve a great deal of credit for your leadership in it and that the Congress, both the Democratic and Republican members deserve a lot of credit for putting their partisanship to one side and getting on with this in very rapid order and there are very few things that move through Congress that swiftly and I think it is a very encouraging step.”

Exactly one week later, on July 8, 1991, President H. W. Bush and Lamar Alexander announced the “New American Schools Development Corporation” as the new vanguard approach to reforming public education. This “private” venture was lead by both political leaders and corporate CEOs from companies such as R.J.R. Nabisco, Boeing, AT&T, and Rand.

Several things to note:

  1. …. the declaration that charter school legislation is as an important factor in implementing privatization efforts;
  2. …. Lamar Alexander’s comment that the New American Schools project was “moving rapidly;”
  3. …. the response to a reporter about the possible need for congressional oversight in this new private venture into public education.  This question drew an almost terse response: “There is absolutely no need for that. As a matter of fact, this is an entirely private corporation.  There’s no reason for Congress to be involved in this wholly private venture…”; and
  4. … last, but certainly not least, the mention of Chris Whittle’s private venture foray into the education arena.

Chris Whittle was an important player in the private sector’s incursion in education reform:

In a New York Times article in 1989, Bill Carter reported the names of the luminaries who would serve on Whittle’s Channel One’s board.  These names would include former Department of Education Secretary Terrel Bell (who brought us “A Nation at Risk” under President Ronald Reagan) and Lamar Alexander (then serving as President of the University of Tennessee).  Later in July, 1991, Lamar Alexander’s official position regarding Channel One was, “There’s room for everybody on the reform bandwagon.”

Lamar Alexander’s agenda for education reform has been clear for many years now — national assessment, national standards, and privatization.  I’m detecting a pattern in Alexander’s leadership style.  He likes to move rapidly.  He’s pushing ESEA reauthorization through in the same rapid manner he promoted over two decades ago.  So, does anyone really think he is going to eliminate standardized testing?  And, to be sure, he is moving full steam ahead in the privatization of America’s public schools.

School Choice, Vouchers, and Charter Schools are OFF THE CHAIN!!!

This coming week will see the “Nation’s Largest-Ever School Choice Celebration.” With the ESEA reauthorization process firmly underway and charter school funding largely undebated and undiscussed as a failed experiment by federal policy makers, clearly a celebration is in order for free market devotees and corporate/entrepreneur ed reformers.  Sure, Lamar Alexander is hailed as a hero for holding congressional hearings to discuss the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, but he and his cronies are are very pleased to divert attention away from the big grab for the privatization of public schools.

January 23-31 is now officially, albeit self-proclaimed by school choice/charter advocates, National School Choice Week:

“The largest celebration of school choice in US history will officially start on Friday, January 23, 2015 at a special event in Jacksonville, Florida.

National School Choice Week 2015 will kick off at the Florida Theatre at 12:30 pm on January 23. The event is the first event of an unprecedented 11,082 independently planned and independently funded special events taking place across all 50 states during the Week, which runs until January 31, 2015.

The goal of the Week is to shine a positive spotlight on effective education options for children, and to raise awareness of the importance of, and benefits of, school choice in a variety of forms.”

Headliners for the School Choice Week kickoff celebration include Senator John McCain and Vice President Joe Biden’s brother, Frank, along with other notables from well-funded charter school organizations and we can look forward to a dizzying 11,000 events across the country.

Milton Friedman would be so proud.  What an absolute testament to the economic policies of Ronald Reagan. This is the fruition of all they hoped for in education policy for the U.S.  We can thank Reagan for making Friedman’s voucher concept politically palatable in our country when he substituted the term “school vouchers” to the more benign term “school choice.”  H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama, would continue to promote school choice through charter schools — attaching all the accoutrements of equity, civil rights, and education excellence to the p.r. campaign to the American public — while stripping away the democratic intentions of local school governance.  The free market of education policy is the clear winner.  The private sector is celebrating and planning their next strategy for grabbing the tax dollars that students carry with them into the schoolhouse door and the federal grants that will help create more and more charter schools.  And now they’ve claimed a national week of celebration.  Presidents get a day to honor them; Martin Luther King gets a day; labor gets a day; there’s one 4th of July; but — school choice advocates have proclaimed an entire week.  The dog is off the chain!