Thursday, January 30, 2014

Did Obama blame parents for education low-performance in his State of the Union? And why I said he should send Duncan to Mars

On Tuesday night, Obama gave a brilliant State of the Union address. But I can't say I appreciated what he said about education.

He seems to have pivoted in his approach. Though I'm glad he is no longer assigning responsibility for low educational performance on ineffective teachers, he is now appearing to blame parents for not having high enough standards for their children or their schools.

In this, he seems to be taking his cue from Arne Duncan, who famously critiqued parents  protesting the flawed Common core standards, describing them as “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”  

More recently, Duncan spoke before the National PTA , and praised South Koreans as “parents [who] were relentless and had the highest of expectations – insisting their children receive an excellent education….I wished our biggest challenge here in the US was too many parents demanding excellent schools.” 

Duncan went on to exhort parents:  As you think about how to use your voice, your time, and your energy, I want to pose one simple question to you: Does a child in South Korea deserve a better education than your child? If your answer is no — that no child in America deserves any less than a world-class education — then your work is cut out for you.

Because right now, South Korea – and quite a few other countries – are offering students more, and demanding more, than many American districts and schools do. And the results are showing, in our kids’ learning and in their opportunities to succeed, and in staggeringly large achievement gaps in this country.

Doing something about our underperformance will mean raising your voice—and encouraging parents who aren’t as engaged as you to speak up.  Parents have the power to challenge educational complacency here at home. Parents have the power to ask more of their leaders – and to ask more of their kids, and themselves.”

No matter that according to OECD data, South Korean kids are the unhappiest in the world, and according to many studies, have high suicide rates.  US parents should be just as demanding more of their kids, even if their happiness and mental health be damned.

I’ve written before about Duncan’s misplaced envy of the South Korea, where 20% of the average family’s disposable income is spent on private tutoring, and even the Prime Minster has warned us against emulating their educational system. Many Korean families in fact move to the United States in order to  save their children from the horrible pressures of their system.  But now Duncan and the President appear to have taken this fixation even further.

Graciously, Obama started his State of the Union praising teachers: “today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it and did her part to lift America's graduation rate to its highest levels in more than three decades.”  But then he went on to say:

 Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance. Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with the skills for the new economy -- problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, math.  Now, some of this change is hard. It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think…”

Good he and Arne have changed their line – at least temporarily – by saying that teachers need more support.  But now they are accusing parents of not having high enough expectations.  Can't we get over this blame game?  Or am I being too sensitive?

Below is what I wrote for Salon on what I hoped Obama would say in his speech, which sadly he did not.  Please add your comments below on what you wished he’d said.

Send Arne Duncan to Mars:President Obama should start by apologizing for the recent comments of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that parents who oppose the harsh over-testing regime that has afflicted our schools are just upset that their children aren’t smart enough. He will say he is withdrawing all federal support for the Common Core standards, exams and curriculum until they have been reassessed in a transparent manner by an independent task force of teachers, parents, early childhood experts and special education professionals, with full public input, as opposed to the secretive and incestuous way the standards were developed.

“At the same time, he will eliminate any federal mandates to require high-stakes testing or invalid teacher evaluation systems linked to test scores, and cancel all funding for programs targeted at closing public schools or turning them over to private corporate hands.  He will pledge that the FERPA regulations be immediately revised to protect privacy once again, rather than the way they have been rewritten by the U.S. Department of Education to encourage the tracking and sharing of personal student data without parental consent. He will announce the resumption of manned space flight, starting with a trip to Mars by Arne Duncan and Bill Gates, where they will try out their education experiments on any inhabitants they find there. The president will conclude by announcing that during Duncan’s absence, Diane Ravitch will serve as secretary of education.” 

Leonie Haimson, executive director, Class Size Matters

Monday, January 27, 2014

Today is Data Privacy Day: Sign the petition & then call the Governor!

Today is National Data Privacy Day.   Please take a moment to sign this petition and call Governor Cuomo at (518) 474-8390 with the following message:

The Governor needs to publicly oppose the state’s plan to share student data with inBloom Inc. and other vendors. NY is now the worst state in the country when it comes to student privacy.

Cuomo has not yet said a word about this egregious plan. 

At the same time, you can let him know that his proposal to add only $603M in state education aid is too low – especially as the NY Education Conference Board says we need at least $1.6 billion just to maintain current class sizes and services.  More than 60% of school districts get less aid now than in 2008!

How you can help ensure we get new and better Regents members now!

Commissioner King and most of the members of the Board of Regents have been totally unresponsive to parents and the elected leaders of both parties.  They have refused to pull back from inBloom, data-sharing and the high-stakes testing linked to the Common Core, despite huge opposition.   

Commissioner King is appointed by the Regents, who are appointed by Speaker Silver and the members of the NYS Assembly.  Four of the sitting Regents have their terms up in March; these individuals have not said a word against King’s agenda,  and all of them have refused to fill out our survey, asking for their positions on these issues, despite repeated requests.

Class Size Matters and New York State Allies for Public Education have endorsed three new candidates for these seats, who are either parent activists or long-time educators:  
District XIII (Staten Island)- Michael Reilly (click here for survey results and resume
District III (Albany, Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Schoharie, Sullivan, Ulster)  - Regina Rose (click here for survey results and resume)  
At-Large - Audrey Marie Baker (click here for survey results and resume)
Michael Reilly is a highly respected parent leader from Staten Island, a current CEC member, and would be the only member of the Regents with a child currently in the public schools.  Audrey Baker and Regina Rose are both highly respected educators with years of on-the-ground experience, especially in the area of special education.  All of them agree that the current policies of State Education Department are severely damaging our schools and our kids.

Please call Speaker Silver’s office, and your own Assembly member and urge them to support these three candidates for the Regents.

For more on this campaign, see the NYSAPE press release here, and our action alert here.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

What privacy protections are there when states share data with the testing consortia or with the feds?

This year, the issue of student privacy and data sharing has become a huge issue throughout the nation, partly because of the uproar over inBloom Inc., but also as the US Department of Education has pushed states into adopting the Common Core standards and aligned exams, facilitated the widespread disclosure of children’s personal data to third parties without their parents’ consent through weakening FERPA, and required that states track kids from preK onwards via longitudinal data systems.

(Please check out this important story today – about questions surrounding NY state’s longitudinal data tracking system called P20.)

The danger that the federal government may be interested in collecting this data itself has aroused additional concern among parents and privacy advocates.  We noted in an earlier blog post how the agreement between the US Department of Education and the Common Core testing consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, has the same exact clause: 

The Grantee [the testing consortium] must provide timely and complete access to any and all data collected at the State level to ED [the US Dept. of Ed] or its designated program monitors, technical assistance providers, or researcher partners, and to GAO, and the auditors conducting the audit required by 34 CFR section 60.26.

After Joy Pullman of the Heartland Institute and others drew attention to this clause, many parents became even more opposed to their state’s participation in the Common Core testing programs. In order to allay their fears, the Data Quality Campaign, which is funded primarily by the Gates Foundation, undertook a public campaign to convince parents that the feds have no intention of collecting personal student data. 

More recently, an EWA webinar featured Jim Shelton, among others, Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Education and formerly of the Gates Foundation, who appeared to pooh-pooh parent privacy concerns. In the article noted above about NY’s longitudinal student tracking system, Shelton re-affirmed how “valuable” this data is and implied that the risk to privacy is a “small price to pay for progress.” 

The PARCC consortium also produced a privacy policy for the first time, and last week, the education chiefs of 38 states wrote their own letter to Arne Duncan, pledging not to share personally identifiable student data with the feds.  (Why they would write to Duncan rather than their own stakeholders, can’t say.)

Why do I remain skeptical?  Many of these State Ed heads may be here today and gone tomorrow.  We’ve seen a lot of turnover in these jobs; in part because of their highly controversial policies, and many of them, including NY Commissioner John King, have little credibility with parents because of their refusal to disclose how they intend to use student data and their evident lack of respect for parental rights to have input into these decisions.

What the public should be demanding instead is strict controls in federal and state law and in their state’s agreements with these consortia to restrict the amount and type of personal data that they will collect, as well as controls on the access, disclosure and use of this data.

Instead, a careful look at the new PARCC privacy policy merely arouses more concerns than it allays. It appears to have contradictions in whether the organization will ever share its data with the feds. 

First it says: “PII will never be provided by PARCC to the federal government without written authority from a State, or unless legally required to do so by subpoena or court order.”

This seems to suggest that if the state so chooses, it may allow PARCC to provide personal student data to the feds. 

Yet in another section, it says: “These data shall not be used for commercial purposes, nor shall PARCC or PARCC contractors share personally identifiable information with the federal government, unless legally required to do so by subpoena or court order.

Which is it? The second statement leaves out the possibility of federal access of the data if the state permits. 

The mention of prohibiting “commercial purposes” also provides a convenient loophole.  Sharing personal student data for commercial purposes without consent already violates FERPA, but many districts and schools share this data with for-profit vendors, by simply claiming that this is for “instructional” purposes or for more efficient operation.  Clearly the definition of “commercial purposes” depends on the eye of the beholder.

At the same time that the PARCC policy says the data will not be used for commercial purposes, it does say that personal student data may be shared by states to PARCC and contractors for a variety of reasons, including “to validate, pilot and field test, and improve the assessments.” 

 We know that one of PARCC’s prime contractors is Pearson, which is of course a huge multi-national for-profit company; there are also many unnamed sub-contractors. Wireless Generation, a for-profit subsidiary of News Corporation and the prime subcontractor for inBloom, is one of the contractors of Smarter Balanced, the other testing consortium.
The PARCC privacy policy says personally identifiable information (PII) may be accessed and shared with them and their contractors for many other reasons: 

  •   to report assessment results back to states and their local education agencies in a form that is useful to them; 
  • to prepare reports on student performance for participating states, their LEAs and the public  (PII may not be included in public reports or in reports to states or local education agencies that were not the source of the PII): 
  •  to analyze test results to assist member states and their local education agencies for purposes of accountability, including promotion and graduation decisions for individual students; teacher and school leader evaluations; school accountability determinations; determinations of principal and teacher professional development and support needs; and teaching, learning, and program improvement; and 
  •  to carry out studies designed to improve instruction on behalf of participating states and their local education agencies, pursuant to separate agreements with the member states and/or their local education agencies. 

Only the last bullet point even seems to require a separate written agreement with states or districts, and none of them require parental notification or consent.  The clause highlighted is particularly open-ended and could lead to abuses in many ways.  Do we really want Pearson or other private corporations gaining access to personal student data to decide which students should be held back or denied graduation from high school; or to make assessments as to which teachers should be dismissed and which should keep their jobs? 

Smarter Balanced, the other testing consortium, does not even have a privacy policy as of yet, though it seems to have been working on a draft that its members could revise according to their individual preferences.

In short, none of this should provide much comfort to parents. In fact, these consortia may end up acting as surrogate inBloom’s, aggregating a huge amount of personal student data and handing it off to subcontractors and vendors for a variety of unregulated purposes, without notification to the public or parental consent. 

All parents should demand to see their state’s individual agreement with these testing organizations as soon as possible, to find out what additional personal student data is being provided to them and what are the restrictions concerning its further disclosure or use. If there is no agreement pertaining to these issues, there needs to be one before field testing begins this spring.