Archives for the month of: November, 2013

Dienne Anum, a regular commenter on this blog, reviewed “Reign of Error.”

She is a parent of two. As I have often said and written, parents are the sleeping giants. Once they become informed and energized, we are unstoppable in reclaiming our schools and improving education.

Dienne writes:

Reform or Deform?
Diane Ravitch has done it again. Starting where DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM left off, REIGN OF ERROR documents the hoax that is being perpetrated against the American people by corporate privatizers looking to profit off education by convincing Americans that public schools are “failing” and that the only solution is to turn education over to private providers through charter “public” schools, government-paid vouchers for private schools, and/or virtual on-line academies.
But as Diane thoroughly documents, these methods don’t improve education, they only eliminate oversight over public funds. Furthermore – and worse – the privatization of public education is creating a multi-tiered educational system in which those who have the resources are able to choose the best education for their children, while poor children, children with disabilities and those learning English are left behind in schools stripped of resources.
Diane opens her book with a brilliant introduction warning that our schools are at risk, reminiscent of “A Nation at Risk”,, the paper that kicked off the meme of “failing schools” and American students “falling behind” on international measures. But Diane turns this meme on its head. Our schools are indeed at risk – but the threat comes from the very sources which are promoting the failure meme. While there are certainly areas for improvement, American public education itself is in fact doing a fine job of educating America’s future citizens, as it has since the beginning of publically provided schools.
The first three chapters address the who, what, why and how of the corporate reformers and the next several after that refute the “failure” claims of the reformers. Armed with plenty of data, Diane explores the reality behind test scores, international test scores, graduation rates and the so-called “achievement gap”.
She next dives into the real reason for so-called “failing schools” and the so-called “achievement gap”: poverty. She explores the physical, mental and social effects of poverty and how those effects impact academic achievement, as reflected in test scores and other measurements.
The next several chapters explore many of the specifics of reform, from looking at Michelle Rhee and Teach for America to exploring some of the bugaboos of the corporatists and their favorite “solutions” – merit pay, tenure, charters, online schools, the so-called “Parent Trigger”, vouchers and school closures. Diane is really at her best in several of these sections as she explores and exposes the rampant corruption and trampling of our democratic rights and voices found in charter schools, voucher schools and online schools. The sections detailing charter schools and real estate deals alone would make the entire book worthwhile (if, of course, the entire book weren’t already worthwhile, which it most definitely is).
Finally, Diane ends with what really should be a redundant and superfluous section offering her own solutions to the “problem” of public education, supported by data. You might think that simply exposing the true problems of public education would be enough – the solution should be to reverse the problematic “solutions” that have been inflicted so far. If someone is hitting you on over the head with a hammer and you’re having trouble concentrating, the obvious solution would be for that person to stop hitting you, not for you to spend lots of money on new and “innovative” programs to improve your concentration.
But rather than be accused of offering no solutions, Diane, in very patient teacher fashion, lays out the real (and, frankly, obvious, at least to any thinking, caring person) steps we need to take to improve American education. Many of her solutions focus on reducing the biggest obstacle to academic achievement – again, poverty. Pregnant mothers and children need medical and nutritional support. We need to create universal access to high-quality pre-school education. Students of all ages and their families need wraparound services. We need to work to eliminate segregation. She also addresses class sizes, broadening the curriculum, strengthening the teaching profession and the proper use of charters and testing (since we probably can’t get rid of them altogether).
She concludes with a rather hopeful vision that as Americans wake up to the realities of privatization and the loss of democratic control of the Commons, people will more and more begin to stand up and take back their schools. I hope that she is right. There is evidence – from the explosion of education blogs like hers to the Chicago Teachers Union strike last year to the growing Opt Out (of testing) movement – that she may be correct. But at the same time, newspapers and other sources continue to crank out anti-teacher, anti-union and anti-public school propaganda, and the comment sections are very often filled with more of the same, only more vicious. They say that people get the government they deserve. I both hope and fear that may be true.
Disclaimer: I have been an active participant in Diane’s blog for well over a year now, almost from its inception. Although I’ve never met her personally, I feel like Diane is almost a personal friend (which is why I took the liberty of referring to her by first name, which I almost never do in reviews). I don’t know that I learned anything from this book that I haven’t learned in the hundreds of articles that Diane has lovingly and passionately posted over the months, but it is nice to have a well-organized, condensed compendium of all the arguments and the evidence that Diane has presented. I shared this book with a friend who’s been a teacher for 20+ years now who has not been a participant of Diane’s blog and she feels much the same way I do about the book. She commented, “I don’t know whether to be happy that someone gets it, or sad that so many politicians don’t.”

In a recent article about the decision by the Los Angeles Board of Education to extend John Deasy’s contract, there was an interesting section:

“Until Tuesday, the district had withheld the Oct. 29 vote total, refusing to release it in response to public-records requests. Officials changed their position, apparently in response to a letter from a lawyer representing The Los Angeles Times. The demand from the newspaper was listed as an agenda item for a closed-door meeting that began at 10 a.m. and lasted about 4.5 hours.

“The district had argued that a personnel evaluation could only be released with the approval of a board majority and the evaluated employee. That had been the case in 2012, when the district announced a positive evaluation by a vote of 6-0.”

If it is or was district policy to release employee evaluations only with the mutual consent of the board “and the evaluated employee,” why does LAUSD release the evaluations of teachers without the consent of the evaluated employee?

Or does the policy apply only to the #1 employee?

A much ballyhooed California-based charter chain school called Citizens of the World opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in New York City despite community opposition. It hoped to attract white and middle-clsss families in the gentrified neighborhood.

It was supposed to open with 107 kindergarten and first grade students.

The Wall Street Journal reported that only 56 appeared.

The school may be closed due to low enrollment.

It probably didn’t spend enough to market its promise as a direct pipeline to college.

“The school’s experience demonstrates that charter schools, which often say parents need more choices, can be stung when parents’ decisions don’t fall their way. It also bolsters opponents who say that, despite claims of long wait lists and tales of parents craving alternatives, there isn’t as much demand for charter schools as supporters say.

“The school was put on probation because of low enrollment in October by State University of New York trustees, who oversee some New York charter schools. If Citizens of the World 1 doesn’t reach 100 students by Dec. 6, it could be shut down. Alternately, the trustees could accept a slimmed-down version of the school with about 80 students.

“That is because when it comes to a school’s operations, students equal money. Schools receive funding from the city and the state based on how many students they teach—about $13,500 per head at Citizens of the World 1.”

According to a local report, almost half the students enrolled in Louisiana’s voucher program are attending failing schools. Most voucher schools, however, did not release accountability data. This runs contrary to Governor Bobby Jindal’s claims that vouchers would allow students to escape failing public schools and choose better schools.

The story says,

“At least 45 percent of students in Louisiana’s controversial voucher program last year attended schools with performance scores in the D to F range of the state’s grading scale, according to data the state released Wednesday.

“The full impact of the program cannot be assessed, however, because the state released scores only for one-fifth of the 118 schools in the program. The schools for which data was provided served 2,888 of the nearly 5,000 students who used vouchers last year.

“The limited data raises questions about how the high-profile program can be held accountable to taxpayers. Voucher schools are only lightly vetted on the front end, with state Superintendent John White promising in 2012 that he would hold schools accountable based on academic results. The average voucher costs $5,245, meaning possibly $11 million in state dollars went to schools with no publicly released accountability score.

“The state released the scores in a report Wednesday, several days after a federal judge ruled the U.S. Department of Justice had the right to monitor the program to ensure it does not worsen racial segregation. In the political fight over the case, Gov. Bobby Jindal has said vouchers gave underprivileged children a shot at a better education.”

R.J. Eskow describes the views of one Tyler Cowen, seeing him as the aspirant to Thomas Friedman’s role as the chronicler of the new age to come, an age when globalization and technology will produce a “hyper-meritocracy,” leaving the rest of us far, far behind. I was not familiar with the thinking of Cowen, but apparently he is big as a futurologist.

Eskow summarizes Cowen’s philosophy thus: “Markets are merit. Wealth is worth. Call it ‘Tom Swift and His Amazing Digital Darwinism.'”

You see where this is going. The richest are the best and brightest, because they are the richest. And they deserve to rule because they are the best. Like it or not, he implies, their global dominance is inevitable.

Eskow writes:

Cowen is infatuated with technology, as are many of us. But he seems comfortable with the future in which we are “uploaded beings” with a “largely mental existence.” I imagine an eternity being perpetually bombarded with spam.

Cowen concludes “Infovore” by saying, “When I look up at the sky and gaze at the stars, I am joyful. I see a happy ending. I see infovores.”

Good for him. But closer to home, other people see a hell of a lot of misery. I wish Tyler Cowen did too. His future isn’t inevitable, but people like him and Thomas Friedman are working to make their vision of hyper-misery for the many a reality.


Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, has some concrete suggestions to improve higher education. His most prominent suggestion is that Ph.D. Candidates should be trained to teach, not just to compete their dissertation.

But the most interesting comment occurs near the end of the article when he writes:

“A more plausible reason for the sluggish pace of reform is the scanty preparation given to graduate students for their role as educators. Lacking such training, newly minted Ph.D.’s naturally begin their teaching by trying to emulate the professors they respected most during their student days. While there is something to be said for this practice, it hardly encourages innovation in the classroom. Rather, it tends to produce an uncritical, conservative attitude toward teaching, quite at variance with the way most faculty members go about their research.

“Continuing this approach is likely to prove even more costly in the future than it has been in the past. President Obama has called for a significant increase in the number of Americans graduating from college by enrolling hundreds of thousands of new students every year. Many of these young people will be less prepared for college work than the average student today and, hence, more difficult to teach.

“Even if colleges manage to meet the president’s goal (and that will be a tall order indeed), America will never regain the huge lead in educational attainment that helped to make it the world’s most prosperous nation from 1870 to 1970. Now that a dozen or more countries have made the transition from an elite to a mass or nearly universal system of higher education, it will be all that we can do simply to keep up.

“If the United States is ever to regain a significant economic advantage from the education of its people, it will have to come through the quality of instruction that our undergraduates receive and not just from the quantity of college degrees being offered. Such instruction will surely be slow to arrive without a faculty trained to bring to its teaching the same ample store of background knowledge, the same respect for relevant data, and the same questioning, innovative spirit that professors have long displayed in carrying out their research.”

The Columbus Dispatch reported new charter school troubles. Ohio is known for its lack of oversight for charter schools, especially if they are owned or managed by donors to Republican campaigns.

The state department of education asked authorizers to provide better oversight, so certain charters are at risk of losing their charter (none belong to the two men who have made millions from their charter and online operations in Ohio).

One charter never opened, so it may be closed. The other serves students learning English, and it received a stern warning from its authorizer. Among its problems: a lack of licensed teachers; a failure to pay its bills; dirty bathrooms and classrooms.

It is heartening to see some effort to impose accountability on this sector, which has drained more than a billion dollars from the public sector, which gets better academic results than the charter sector.

EduShyster has a great idea for a splendid holiday meal; she calls it “reform turducken.” What, you may ask, is that?

Here is her definition:

“Oe reformy idea stuffed into another and into another, all clad in an innocuously glistening exterior.”

In this case, the meal starts with the acknowledgement that great teachers matter; that teachers are underpaid; and that great teachers should be paid more.

How to pay great teachers more when the size of the pie is the same?

Ah, here is the secret:

“In fact the hater at the table (OK, it’s me) might point out that the entire thrust of our years-long-reform-a-thon is to figure out how to pay the majority of teachers less so as to free up dough for extra *stuffing*: the ever-expanding schmorgasboard of gizmos, test-preppery and achievement gap closure devices that our students so fiercely and urgently need. And don’t forget the gravy. A reformer can’t live by stuffing alone!”

Now that public officials demand that teachers produce higher test scores or get fired, this reader named Dienne has a great idea. She was inspired by the efforts in Missouri to revise the state Constitution to require that teachers be evaluated by the standardized test scores of their students. She writes:

“I think value added evaluations should be put in the U.S. Constitution.

“For elected officials, that is. If your VAM score isn’t up to par, that’s it, you’re out no matter what the election results say. This would also apply to positions directly appointed by elected officials, BTW.”

Think of the possibilities!

If the economy doesn’t grow, you are fired!

If unemployment goes up, you are fired!

If poverty increases, you are fired!

If crime increases, you are fired!

Why should teachers be the only ones judged by results?

Last January, Richard Rothstein and Martin Carnoy released a report on international test scores, arguing that American students perform better than is generally believes. Since many people are deeply invested in the conventional claim that American students lag the world on international tests, their report led to a flurry of controversy. This post by Rothstein and Carnoy responds to Tucker’s criticism of their report.

On the other hand, Marc Tucker wrote an excellent article on his blog in which he made some important points.

First, he reviewed Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessman’s book Endangering Prosperity. He agrees with them that American performance on international tests is terrible, even among our best students. But he disagrees with their solutions: reliance on market forces via charters and vouchers, smashing teachers’ unions, test-based evaluation of teachers. He sees no evidence that these strategies have worked anywhere in the world.

Tucker writes:

My objection to these strategies has nothing to do with ideology. It is pragmatic. First, after years of implementation, as I have written elsewhere, there is still no evidence that market solutions will produce results superior to the results that we have been getting, certainly not the kind of results we would have to have to overcome the gigantic deficiencies that Hanushek, Peterson and Woessmann document in this book. The authors are correct in saying that teacher quality is the most important factor in improving the performance of our schools, but, as far as I know, they can point to no country in the world that has used the strategies they advocate to get decisive improvements in teacher quality. There is, in short, no evidence that the strategies they want the United States to bet on will work.

He points to Shanghai, visited recently by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, as a high-performing nation that uses none of these strategies. What works in Shanghai?

Shanghai did not get to where it is by creating charter schools or issuing vouchers. It did not get there by sorting out teachers by the scores their students get on standardized tests and then weeding out the worst. They have been more successful than any other country in the world at developing the teachers they already have, focusing relentlessly on teacher training, embracing the system and its teachers, rather than driving the best away with punitive accountability systems.

I find this an admirable statement.

My only disagreement with the debate about our international performance is that I am not persuaded that test scores on TIMSS or PISA predict what will happen to our economy 10 or 20 or 30 years from now. I recall that in 1983 “A Nation at Risk” said we were doomed because of our international test scores. Didn’t happen. The international tests show which nations have students who get the most right answers on multiple-choice tests. I fail to understand why that is a leading economic indicator. The Chinese-American scholar Yong Zhao has argued that the test-based education systems are least likely to promote creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. I am inclined to agree with him.