Friday, April 17, 2015

Testing To Show Off

As pro-test forces scramble to come up with some good reason for New York's students to take the Big Standardized Test, we get this gem of a quote from DFER in USA Today:

Yet collecting educational data is important for the future of education and can help define the the character of a town, said Nicole Brisbane, state director at Democrats for Education Reform.

"Schools are one of the biggest differentiators of value in the suburbs," she said. "How valuable will a house be in Scarsdale when it isn't clear that Scarsdale schools are doing any better than the rest of Westchester or even the state? Opting out of tests only robs parents of that crucial data."

Man, is that flop sweat I smell?

So what are we to make of this, DFER? That testing is meant to be another way to cement the elite stamp of elite awesomeness on elite housing in elite communities with elite schools?

Or should we conclude that previously, nobody anywhere ever had any idea whether the schools in Scarsdale were any good or not?

The second question is my favorite, as it is just one more implication of the bizarre notion that not only can Common Core BS Tests tell us how well a school is doing, but ONLY Common Core BS Tests can tell us how a school is doing. Yessiree-- folks in Scarsdale had no idea whether their schools were any good or not, ever, until the BS Tests came to town.

But at least we have a great new reason that all students need to take those tests-- without them, the Betters would have one less badge of their Betterness. Testing will help us put Those People in their place. Don't let your class down! Don't let the property values drop! Get in there and take a test for the team. Of course, this would also be an excellent reason for everyone in the less wealthy neighborhoods to avoid taking the tests under any circumstances...

Opt Outers Face Confusing Summer

Given the heightened alarm of some New York official, this, I imagine, is what the news from this coming summer will look like.

“Those who call for opting out really want New York to opt out of information that can help parents and teachers understand how well their students are doing,” said Jeanne Beattie, a state Education Department spokeswoman.

Summer vacation is supposed to be a time of camps, family vacations, and growth experiences for students and their families. But the massive opt out movement of last April has led to a confusing collapse of summer traditions.

Back in April, Jeanne Beattie, a state education department spokeswoman said “Those who call for opting out really want New York to opt out of information that can help parents and teachers understand how well their students are doing." Now in July, she has reportedly issued another statement-- "I told you so."

Evelyn Topdraggle of East Bestwig, NY, explains how opting out turned into a vacation nightmare.

"My daughter did not take the Common Core tests in April," said the working mom. "Consequently, when the year ended, I had no idea how she had done. Usually we reward our children with some fun outings to the City in July, but I suddenly realized that I have no idea whether my daughter deserves a reward or not."

Bob Wobble of Upper Wangdoodle, NY, echoes her sentiments. "Since my son didn't take the test, I have no information about how he is doing in his education. I have no idea how well he is doing. I have not been able to decide whether to ground him or to raise his allowance."

Some opt outers report family stress because of the lack of information from the tests whose results will not be reported for another two months. Said Keisha Tripsocket of Dumonde, NY, "I do not know whether to be angry or loving with my daughter. Did she do great, or terrible? Without the information from the tests, I don't know whether I should be affectionate or stern with her."

999 families report having made some serious mistakes with these summer months. Says Flerd Wadley of Boughgidie, NY, "We played it safe and enrolled our son in a summer remedial reading program. It cost us a bunch of extra money and we gave up some extras for the summer. One day I come home and find out he's read an entire stack of Charles Dickens and Toni Morrison. Damn kid could read all along! I sure wish I'd had him take that test so I had known."

Summer camps report declined enrollment as 999 families across the state are paralyzed, lacking even the most fundamental knowledge of how their students are growing and achieving educationally.

Not all families have been stumped. Said Tessa McNoodle of Vistaville, NY, "I was really confused at first since we opted out. But then I just talked to my child's teachers, paid attention to her homework and tests, looked at her report card, spent time with her, paid attention to her, and used my brain and common sense and was able to figure it out. I'm pretty sure that when those Common Core test scores eventually come out, they won't tell me anything I don't already know."

Explaining Success Academy

In the summer edition of Education Next, Charles Sahm attempts a response to the recent New York Times look at Success Academy. His article, "What Explains Success at Success Academy," is long and thoughtful, but it ultimately fails to answer its own titular question.

Sahm has taken the time to visit actual Success Academies, and he manages to cheerlead for them without calling their critics a big bunch of staus-quo loving doodyheads, so if nothing else, the article proves that reform apologists can peddle their wares while remaining thoughtful, respectful and reasonable. But his explanations for SA aren't really explanations.

To what does Sahm credit Eva Moscowitz's success?

The What: Content Is King

Moscowitz brags of "balanced literacy on steroids" when she talks about their in-house reading program, and as someone who is not directly familiar with either her program or the programs used by New York public schools, I can't judge. But when Sahm credits her with ideas such as "the choice between content and skills is false," I can't help but see Moscowitz as one more educational amateur who thinks she's a genius because she just "discovered" something that working teachers have known since the dawn of time.

SA middle school students have a required reading list of seven texts, supported by a literature class and independent reading time, and while these are fine ideas, I'm waiting for the part where Moscowitz announces a revolutionary writing program where students use "words" arranged in what she likes to call "sentences." And as we'll see, when it comes to middle school reading, SA does have a secret weapon that they are more reluctant to brag about.

Sahm says that his tours revealed a rich and varied learning environment, not a test prep factory, and Moscowitz swears its true--"You cannot ace these Common Core tests with test prep" he quotes her as saying, which is one of the few times in the article that he captures her in a bald-faced lie. Of course you can; any and all standardized tests can be conquered by test prep.

The How: Quality Conversations

Moscowitz credits her teachers, who are now required to go through in-house training. Once again, we are told about innovations that aren't innovations.

T-school is intense. Instructors place teachers on the hot seat, asking them, for example, to precisely identify the main idea in a college-level text. In Mission Possible, Moskowitz notes that a big part of T-school is “understanding the why”—the purpose behind what’s taught and the way Success handles instruction:“You can’t ask people to do something and take it seriously if they don’t know why they are doing it.” In T-school, teachers learn that “a good lesson flows like a quality conversation.”

Seriously? Do I live in a magical land of awesome innovation and I just don't know it, or does Success Academy owe its success to insights on the order of "When breathing, it is best to draw air in and then exhale before inhaling again."

Sahm goes on to note that SA requires large amounts of work from its teachers. 10-12 hour days are a norm (though when I was a beginning teacher, that was my norm as well). Sahm tackles the churn numbers, and after reading on the subject, I'm prepared to say that although the numbers clearly not low, nobody really knows what they are. He also acknowledges that SA has "teacher-proofed" instruction, requiring teachers to work in lockstep across the system. He suggests this is offset with individual time; I would suggest that simply implementing someone else's lesson plan script is not actually teaching, and anybody who actually needs that script to teach does not belong in a classroom.

It is clear that SA puts plenty of money and resources where its mouth is, and that their content delivery specialists are given tools, equipment, and support.


Sahm does acknowledge some of the other standard criticisms of SA. For instance, SA serves a smaller percentage of English language learners and students with special needs than the city's public system.

Sahm also notes the backfill issue. From 3rd through 8th grade, SA loses over half of their students, and it does not fill their seats. You can see a breakdown of the numbers at this report from Democracy Builders, which shows us two things-- that attrition helps keep proficient-score percentages up even when raw numbers are plummeting, and that Success Academy is New York's Queen of off-loading students and filling schools with empty seats. (You can get an overview of the report here and here.)

Sahm also raises some objections in order to dismiss them. He notes that "many say" SA is overly secretive and dismisses that by referencing the many tours given of the school. I don't know who the "many" are, but perhaps they are referencing that time Success Academy went to court in order to block the state from auditing their books.

And he seems to like Moscowitz, calling her salary a bargain from a  ROI standpoint. "But her hands-on style, along with the fundraising juggernaut she has built (last year, Success raised $22 million in private support), does raise questions about replication and equity." Well, yes.

Why Success Academy Sure Doesn't Look Like an Education Bargain To Me

There really aren't any questions about replicating SA's success. It is neither possible nor desirable.

First, SA has defined "success" as "high test scores." This is not how great schools define success. Head up to Philips Exeter Academy and ask them to explain what makes them a great school. They will not tout test scores. We have no reason to believe that high tests scores mean squat, and certainly not educational success-- particularly when so much attention is spent on doing test prep rather than actually educating.

Furthermore, SA's "success" is based on a special blend of Things Every Decent School Already Knows and Things No Decent School Can or Would Do.

In the first category we find the idea of giving teachers support and resources to use long-known and proven educational techniques. This is not even re-inventing the wheel. This is walking out to the street, pointing at a parked car, and declaring, "Look what I invented! I'm a freaking genius!!"

The other Captain Obvious innovation is money. I imagine teachers who struggle away in schools without books, heat, light, cleaning and a host of other facilities watching someone like Moscowitz explain that having a clean, well-supplied, well-financed school really helps and thinking, "No shit, Sherlock." It's all the more galling because the bright shiny halls of SA come at the cost of those dim-lit under-funded under-resourced public schools. Moscowitz is like the bully who comes and steals the food off your plate at lunch every day and then on Friday makes fun of you-- "What's wrong with you. You look hungry and weak."

The No Backfills Allowed rule is not so much an innovation as a complete redefining of what a school is and does. It can't be replicated (would we just tell any family that moved with a child older than third grade that their children will never be able to go to school again?) and there's no reason it should be.

In fact, that 56% attrition rate is really just a 56% failure rate; those are students that SA failed to serve, failed to grow, failed to educate-- both the ones who left and the ones who were never allowed to come bask in the shiny glory of SA. There is nothing successful or spectacular about a 56% failure rate.

The SA model is unreplicable, though I'm sure all of us in public ed agree that if we had large resources, constant support, and the power to admit only the students we chose to our classroom, we would all look pretty freakin' awesome-- we just wouldn't be honoring the mission of US public education.

But the SA model is also unsustainable. It has to eat through teachers at a steady rate, adding to the background buzz that teaching is a dull, punishing field that nobody needs enter. It eats through children, creating an ever-enlarging pool of unsatisfied former customers who slowly erode the chirpy PR. And it eats through resources, resources that have to be taken from the public system (both buildings and money) and from well-heeled backers who have to be cozied up to. But a system like SA that has to feed off the public system also slowly destroys the public system. A vampire can only drain the same poor victim so many times before it destroys its own food supply.

One of my measures of a charter school's worth is whether or not it has anything to teach us in public schools. Success Academy offers no educational lessons to anybody; there's nothing new to learn there, nothing that can be replicated, nothing that will still be standing in twenty years.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

NY: Shut Up, Parents

The reports keep rolling in. New York families are opting out of the Big Standardized Test in unprecedented numbers, massive numbers, numbers that will make virtually all of the "data" about school performance "gleaned" from the BS Test suspect.

The state has responded by, well, trying to get the problem to shut up and go away. On Tuesday's All In with Chris Hayes, Chancellor Merryl Tisch tried valiantly to make the problem go away. "We didn't explain the purpose of the test well enough," said Tisch, who proceeded to botch her gazzillionth attempt in at least three years to explain the purpose of the test. Then she shifted over to explaining the opt out movement as a byproduct of a "labor dispute," the result of teachers leading poor parents and children astray.

That would be exactly backwards.

Teachers are, by nature, good little soldiers. We are regular apologists for bad national, state and local policies. We are on the front lines where students and their parents say, "So why do we have to do this? It seems like a stupid waste of time." That's when, time after time, use our reassuring teacher voice and bring our charges to peaceful coexistence with policies and procedures that we might not even love, but they are the rules, and as teachers, we're generally fans of the rules.

So when teacher leaders in NY threw their weight behind opting out, what happened was not a state-wide brainwashing by teachers. I don't believe for a moment that NY teachers started poking holes in the dike that was holding back the opt out floodwaters. The floodwaters were already high, near to bursting at places like tiny Ken-Ton school district where the board wanted to lead a face-on charge against the state and the voters showed up to egg them on. I'll bet you anything that in school after school it was teachers who had been standing there with their fingers in the dike. All Karen McGee had to say was, "We're done. Just step back."

Meanwhile, GOP Senator Jack Martins is trying to put another of Tisch's bright ideas into play. She suggested that top NYC schools could be exempted from teacher evaluation rules; Martins would like to make that law for the whole state. Under his proposal, the schools in the top 20% of test results would be exempt from using the tests to evaluate their teachers. This is only a good idea if

1) You believe that the only purpose of the test is to find and fire "bad" teachers, and all the rest of that baloney about the benefits of the test was actually baloney.

2) You are hoping that this will somehow make the teachers union happy enough to go back to being good little dike-plugging soldiers.

3) You are hoping that this will shut up the parents for those top schools.

I'm willing to bet that the top 20% schools are also the schools which serve the more affluent, better-connected, most knowledgeable-about-how-to-give-the-system-a-headache parents. In other words, the parents that Tisch most wishes would shut up.

It remains to be seen what the fallout of from Optoutmageddon is going to be, but it's a sure bet that continued attempts to dismiss, marginalize, and silence opt-outers will not be enough to make Tisch and Cuomo happy campers again. When people want to say something important, they keep raising their voices until they feel they are heard. Albany had better start listening soon.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Paying Your Bills & The Corinthian 100

The slow-motion train wreck that is the unspooling of the Corinthian for-profit college chain has just dumped one more car off the tracks. Students have announced that they will not repay the debt they incurred attending the nation's top contender for the Predatory College gold medal. While the group launched as a collective fifteen, they have now rounded themselves off at an even 100.

This is not an easy issue to parse. Most of us in the adult world understand a few basic financial principles, including "If you don't want to pay back a huge loan, don't take out the huge loan." But there are other factors at play here.

Corinthian's history is less than exemplary. Founded in 1995, they have since glommed up twenty other post-secondary institutions. They have been called "the nation's worst private college chain" and have been sued many, many, many times; California's attorney general charged them with false and predatory advertising as well as securities fraud. Huffington Post caught them using the practice of hiring their own graduates to help keep their post-grad employment numbers inflated.

One would think that when the USED announced that they were going to shut down predatory colleges that used students as conduit for borrowed money, leaving those students with crushing debt and no marketable job skills-- one would think that just such a pronouncement would leave Corinthian shaking in its boots. That crackdown was announced in March of 2014. By June of 2014, the USED was announcing a plan to keep Corinthian in business. Undersecretary Ted Mitchell (who came to the department carrying strong ties to Pearson, NewSchools Venture Fund, and other investor ties to the private education biz) announced that Corinthian would receive an influx of cash, permission to keep admitting students, and a government overseer to keep an eye on them (powered, I supposed, by the threat of-- I don't know. Stern looks? More cash?). This, apparently, is what Too Big To Fail looks like in the college world.

Next up was selling off parts of the chain-- to Educational Credit Management Corporation, a group specializing in shaking down college students for their loan debts. They have been the subject of more than a few horror stories about overzealous collecting, but they did immediately (as in, December of 2014) set up a new subsidiary named Zenith Education Group to run the schools. Putting a debt collection agency in charge of a college doesn't make a lot of sense, unless you understand that the purpose of the "college" is to recruit "students" to use as carriers for transporting loan dollars from lenders to the "college." The students shoulder all the interest and fees associated with the loans, while everyone else makes the profit. Or as Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn) put it in the Washington Post:

"To prop up a school whose main purpose seems to be to get federal money is a misguided use of federal funds," Cohen said. "When a school like [Corinthian] that has a checkered history is on the mat, throw in the towel. It's over."

Of course, when I say "everyone makes a profit," that's a longer list than you expect. Jump back to November of 2013 with me to read this report about the $41.3 billion dollars in profits on student loans made by the US government. Even if there's a decimal point misplaced, that's an obscene profit to make on the backs of students. If the feds are worried about the cost of college, they need only look in the mirror. Arne Duncan had a sort of non-response response to the report at the time, but the botom line here is that the feds are among the folks with incentive to keep the college debt machine grinding away.

Which brings us back to the issue of the Corinthian 100 and their resolution not to pay back the debt (some of which hits the six-figure range).

On the one hand, I fully sympathize with folks who say, "When you borrow money, you pay it back. Doesn't get any simpler than that. If you borrow more money than you can pay back, that's just dumb. If you don't pay back your debts, somebody else pays the price. Other people should not pay for your dumb."

On the other hand, it's easy to make dumb choices people are lying to you.

Folks who find themselves in debt for Corinthian educations, but without any marketable skills that would allow them to make money-- those folks got in this mess by driving past a dozen corners where there should have been big bright neon red flags. But there were no flags there, because the gatekeepers had taken the flags down and stuffed them in their back pockets.

Corinthian has a repeatedly gotten in trouble for lying, false advertising, misrepresenting itself, and promising what it could not deliver. But the feds did not shut them down, did not demand they put a warning label on their applications, did not publicly chastise them in a manner that might have given applicants pause. And when Corinthian actually started to suffer the free-market consequences of bad behavior, the feds stepped in to protect not the students, but the investors and operators. They actually crafted a plan to allow Corinthian to draw in more students!

And the loans? If I go to buy a house, and I visit the bank for a mortgage loan, generally speaking the bank (excepting the years between, say, 2002-2008) will make sure that they don't lend me more than I can pay, and they will also demand an assessment of the house so that they know I'm getting their money's worth in my purchase. Who was exercising such oversight of these college loans? Apparently, nobody.

Corinthian students have racked up over a half billion dollars in federal loans. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has already asked the courts to grant relief, and the Department of Justice has reportedly said that the Department of Education has "complete discretion" to make the loans evaporate. Back in February, a $480 million relief package was announced which would help (about 40%) with the private loans that students took out, but those are separate from the half billion in federal loans. Yesterday the USED released a "heightened cash alert" list of institutions that are under extra scrutiny, but given the department's history, it's not clear what the "extra scrutiny" could lead to, since the scrutinizing that has gone on so far has been pretty unimpressive.

Since I originally posted this piece, Corinthian has been slapped with a $30 million fine by the USED, for the same old shenanigans including lying about job placement (counting in some cases two day jobs at the school itself). Corinthian remains unbowed and claims this is just unfair and unfounded. If I were a cynical man, I might read into the article that the feds finally got fed up with fakery on the principle that it's okay to lie to students, but not to us. Or maybe the relentless coverage finally got to them. At any rate, Corinthian did finally get spanked a bit.

I suppose we could argue that young adults should know better than to trust colleges, loan companies and the federal government, and that grown-ups in the US should know not to trust anybody at all ever. But it's hard for me to look at this mess and not conclude we could do better. Certainly we can do better than to get to the point where 100 young Americans decide that only by publicly trashing their own credit ratings can they hope to get somebody's attention.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats

This Is How Congress Annoys the Rest of Us

That tweet came over at 4:30, after a long day of Congressional wrangling over the new ESEA. It's a perfectly harmless sort of thing to say after a bunch of work, and it's a perfect example of how government types see things differently than those of us who work for a living.

Let's look at that for a second, and then think about other peoples' work.

I mean, teaching is pretty tough, and the work that goes with it is a challenge to deal with. But I don't remember any of my colleagues ever looking at a new batch of students and saying, "Damn, this looks like a tough bunch to deal with. Let's put it off for seven or eight years."

In fact, you know what has made my job extra tough? All the fallout from a law that set unattainable standards that not a single human being thought could actually be met but, because Congress couldn't do its job, stayed in place and created leverage for even more terrible education pseudo-law.

And it's not just teachers.

Surgeons don't walk into an operating room, look at an injury or illness and say, "Damn, this is going to be hard to deal with. Let's just set it aside for seven or eight years."

Pastors don't look at parishioners who are dealing with extremely tough issues and say, "Wow, this will be hard to deal with. I'll just put it off for seven or eight years."

In fact, pretty much nobody gets up in the morning and says, "My job is going to be really hard to do today. I think I'll just put it off for seven or eight years."

No, for most folks, the rule is , when you have a job to do, you do it, and you do it when it needs to be done. People do hard things every day in this country. Every. Day. Do not give yourselves a ribbon for this.

Look, Congressing is hard. Senatoring is extremely difficult. I couldn't do it (regular readers can confirm that my diplomatic skills are lacking). But you folks signed up for it. You paid good money to be elected. Senators Alexander and Murray should be proud that their committee came closer to accomplishing something that eight years worth of previous Congressy folks.

And I do appreciate-- hugely appreciate-- the attempt to turn ESEA into something less trainwrecky and destructive than NCLB. It's important work, valuable work, work that I'm glad the Senate is doing (even if I disagree with plenty of the substance, I believe they're by and large trying to help).

But the correct thing to say at 4:30 today was, "Thank you for doing the job that we've been failing to do for seven years. On behalf of the several Congresses, we'd like to apologize for failing so long to do this necessary work. We are pleased that we are moving forward, but we are also ashamed that it took us so long to get the job done, while the old bad law continued to wreak havoc on the entire American education system. We are pleased to announce progress, and ashamed that we failed for so long to do so while teachers and students showed up every day to make the best of a bad law that we failed to address. You have done your jobs; now we are going to finally try to do ours."

He might even have added, "Boy, we can be so oblivious to what goes on out in the rest of the country, sometimes!"

That's what Senator Alexander should have had to say at 4:30 today.

KY: Opt Out Not an Option

While some states have a complex process for opting out of the test or require very precise language, the state of Kentucky has made its position pretty clear. The AP earlier this month quoted the Kentucky Education Commissioner, Terry Holliday:

No student may opt out of the standardized assessments conducted under this system.

A report in the Lexington Herald-Leader makes the Kentucky position even clearer. Laura Arrasmith has been trying to round up some opt-out action in Kentucky-- she doesn't think her kids should have to take the states Big Standardized Test-- but the state has been pretty clear on its position. She had won some accommodations from her local administrators-- but then Holliday issued some pointed communications about testing to all superintendents.

Holliday has told superintendents that students who don't take the test will be counted and they will be given a score of 0. It gets even worse:

Todd Allen, an assistant general counsel for the state education department, said in a statement that "the student also may be subject to discipline under school or district policies including the code of conduct or behavior."

Arrasmith has started a Facebook page for the movement, which sadly has under 300 likes as I'm typing this. 

The United Opt Out page for Kentucky is likewise rather bleak. The state allows for a handful of exceptions due to extraordinary circumstances that would allow a child to skip the test. And when I say extraordinary, I mean that the circumstances include if the child has been placed in protective custody and the FBI won't reveal his location, if the child is the only caregiver for a terminally ill parent, or if the child dies during the testing window.

Allen did elaborate that Kentucky parents can opt out-- opt all the way out of public education. But if your child is enrolled in Kentucky public education, the state expects to do everything the state tells him to. It would be interesting to see how this plays out the next time a Kentuckian demands that his child be excused from hearing about evolution in school. In the meantime, Kentucky parents and teachers can definitely use some support from the rest of the country.

Read more here: