Friday, March 27, 2015

Is the tug of war on education policy between liberal "reform proponents" and the unions, as the NY Times argues, or the 1% and nearly everyone else?

NY Times ran a front page article on Wednesday, focused on the tug of war for Hilary Clinton’s soul, supposedly between the teacher unions and the big donors, mostly hedge fund operators, who want to privatize public schools and ramp up high-stakes testing, weaken teacher tenure and base their evaluations on student test scores. Value-added test based teacher evaluation has proved to be highly unreliable, and many expert groups, including the American Statistical Association and the National Academy of Sciences, have concluded that it could have damaging impact on morale and the quality of education.   

In the article, the hedgefunders make it clear that they will threaten to withhold their contributions if Hillary does not adopt their positions:

“This is an issue that’s important to a lot of Democratic donors,” said John Petry, a hedge fund manager who was a founder of the Harlem Success Academy, a New York charter school. “Donors want to hear where she stands.”

Yet in the process of writing about this ideological battle, the reporter, Maggie Haberman, characterizes Democrats for Education Reform, one of the principle hedge fund-backed lobby groups as a “left of center group,” which is absurd.  For some reason, DFER has managed to persuade reporters that it has any liberal credentials, despite the fact that as Diane Ravitch pointed out, the California Democratic Party has repudiated it.  

Parents Across America wrote an open letter to the NPR ombudsman in 2011, objecting to the fact that Claudio Sanchez, the NPR reporter, had called DFER a “liberal” organization, while quoting their criticism of the progressive participants in the anti-corporate reform Save Our Schools march in DC.   

We also pointed out that DFER’s founder, hedge fund operator Whitney Tilson, admitted that the only reason he put “Democrats” in the organization’s title and focused on convincing Democrats to adopt their pro-privatization agenda was that GOP leaders were already in agreement with most of their positions.  The following is an excerpt from a film made by Tilson called “A Right Denied”:

“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”

In addition, by characterizing the struggle on education policy as being a conflict primarily between the teacher unions and big donors, the reporter misses the boat.  Indeed, the only mention of parents in the piece implies that they are allied with the DFER privateers: Reform proponents include donors, but also a cross section of parents and business advocates.”   

Hopefully NY Times readers and especially Hillary will smart enough to reject this claim, if they merely looked at Governor Cuomo’s plunging popularity.  Cuomo’s poll numbers are dropping like a stone, largely because his positions on education are in thrall to his big donors in the DFER/hedgefund crowd.  He has pushed hard on test-based teacher evaluation and other favorite talking points of the corporate reform contingent.   

According to the latest Quinnipiac poll, Cuomo’s approval ratings on education are at a tepid 28% - while 63% of voters reject his views on school reform.  65% of voters reject the notion that teacher tenure should be based on student test scores; 71% reject the idea that teacher pay should be based on scores, and 55% trust the teacher unions on education, compared to 28% who trust Cuomo. 

And the overwhelming rejection of Cuomo's views is shared among rural, suburban, urban voters, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Interestingly, instead of citing any of the many polls that show voters overwhelmingly reject the corporate reform/hedgefund education agenda,  the NY Times article uncritically links to a leaked “memo” from Joe Williams of DFER, to “Board members and Major Donors,” citing polling results that supposedly show that “voters agree with our policies.”  

But in the memo, Williams fails to reveal the actual questions – or what it might actually mean that 69% of voters feel that education is on the “wrong track”.  After a decade or more of increasingly severe test-based accountability, many voters are indeed weary of the focus on testing and test prep, and the disruption and damaging cycle of closing neighborhood schools, and so reject the DFER agenda that is based on more of the same.

Another recent poll from GBA Strategies, conducted for In the Public Interest and the Center for Popular Democracy went unmentioned by the NY Times. Unlike the DFER survey the full questions and answers were released, revealing that most voters do indeed reject the corporate reform agenda. Voters see lack of parental involvement as their biggest education concern, followed by too much testing, funding cuts and overly large class sizes. School choice came in last on a list of their priorities.

Let’s hope for more accurate and less biased education reporting from the mainstream media in the future.  The tug of war on education is not primarily between liberal reformers and the teachers union – but between the 1% and nearly everyone else.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Update from Albany: call your Senators now! No delay in education funding linked to high-stakes testing

Update from Albany on the budget negotiations: According to Speaker Carl Heastie, there will be no deal in the budget on a voucher-like private school tax credit giveaway that could yield huge financial benefits to billionaires and corporations but drain state revenue of $100 million.
Raising the charter cap will likely not be included in budget deal but may be addressed later in the year linked to extension of mayoral control in NYC.
Biggest threat right now: an agreement cooked up by Gov. Cuomo and the GOP-led Senate to create a Commission to determine how much teacher evaluation and tenure should be linked to test scores—and to hold up any increase in education funding till then.
You should call your Senator today but especially if s/he is a Republican – and if not, call the leaders of the Senate, Senators Skelos and Jeff Klein, to tell them you will hold them responsible if education funding is delayed and linked to an undemocratic Commission with the unilateral power to double-down on high-stakes testing by increasing the link between test scores and teacher evaluation.
Message: Do NOT delay an increase in education funding by creating a Commission with the power to increase high-stakes testing. We do NOT want teacher ratings determined by test scores, period.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Send a letter to your legislators and the Governor: fund our schools, don't dismantle or privatize them!

Please help us protect our public schools by send a letter here to your legislators and then signing a petition to Gov. Cuomo, Speaker Heastie, and Majority Leader Skelos Now!

Throughout NY state, parents, students, and teachers have rallied to protect our public schools from Governor’s Cuomo’s attempt to hold school aid hostage to his damaging policies to double-down on high-stakes testing, and divert funding to private schools and charters. Yet the Governor has called these peaceful protests “a tantrum of special interests,” adding: “Frankly, the louder special interests scream … the more we know we’re right.”

We need to send a message to the Legislature and the Governor that parents are NOT a special interest. We cannot allow our precious resources to be siphoned off to allow Cuomo and his billionaire donors attain their goal of privatizing our public schools.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

How Cuomo's idea to expand state receivership is based on a false narrative of failing schools

Below is the testimony I gave today in front of the NYC Council Education Committee, in favor of the resolution opposing the Governor’s proposal on receivership -- the state taking over our struggling schools.

I am here to testify in support of the resolution against the Governor’s proposal to expand state receivership of allegedly low-performing public schools.  The state has no track record of improving schools in receivership.  When the State Education Department took control of the Roosevelt school district in 2002, and ran it for over a decade, there was little or no improvement, as reported in a Newsday 2013 article:
Albany's intervention ends Monday, after 11 years and more than $300 million in extra state spending. The period -- marked by limited scholastic progress and memorable mistakes by state officials and their appointees -- was the first and only time the state ever managed a local school system.
"I can tell you right off the bat that the state Education Department has no capabilities to run a school district," said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who is Long Island's representative to the state Board of Regents. "We need other alternatives, if we're ever going to turn around other districts that are really not succeeding."[1]

Moreover, the narrative of a “crisis” in failing schools that is being used to justify the expansion of state receivership is manufactured -- to encourage the hostile takeover of public schools.
As Michael Petrilli of the Thomas Fordham Institute, a big supporter of the Common Core standards just wrote:

Some education reformers and media outlets are already using the results of the new, tougher tests to brand schools as “failing” if most of their students don’t meet the higher standards. Note, for instance, the Daily News’s special report, “Fight for their Future,” which leads with the provocative headline “New York City is rife with underperforming schools, including nearly two-thirds of students missing state standards.” This line of attack closely resembles the talking points of Eva Moskowitz and Jeremiah Kettridge of Families for Excellent Schools, who both promote the notion that in New York, “800,000 kids can’t read or do math at grade level” and “143,000 kids are trapped in persistently failing schools.”

These statements are out of bounds, and reformers should say so. They validate the concerns some educators voiced all along: that we would use the results of the tougher tests to unfairly label more schools as failures.[2]

The results of the new Common Core exams are essentially unreliable.  They were designed to find two thirds of students failing, and did so, not just in New York City but in the rest of the state as well. The reports by Families for Excellent Schools claiming a “crisis” of failing schools were put out by an organization that has received considerable funding from hedge funders and Wall Street financiers, as well as more than $700,000 over the past two years from the Walton Foundation, an organization that has an aggressive privatization agenda.[3]  The unreliable figures and claims of an education crisis cited by this organization were echoed in a report from the Governor’s office that has been described as “sometimes indistinguishable from the eight reports on struggling schools F.E.S. has sent reporters since the summer.”[4]  Not surprisingly, Cuomo himself has received huge sums from some of the same pro-privatization hedge funders and financiers. [5]

Yet Carol Burris, award-winning principal in the Rockville Centre School District, has shown how unreliable these figures are, based on cut scores imposed by the state that purport to show which students will be college and career ready.[6]  For example, while only half of the students in her district were said to be proficient in ELA and Math based upon their state test scores in grades 3-8, 100% of them graduate with a Regents diploma and 85% with an advanced designation.  Over 92% of the these students not only go to college, but persist and are still there two years after their high school graduation.

Another such district is Oceanside, Long Island where 96 percent of students graduate with a Regents diploma, 58 percent with advanced distinction, and 92 percent go onto college (70 percent to four year colleges and 22 percent to a two year colleges). Yet more than two thirds of the district’s 8th graders were labelled as not making the standards in math, according to the state’s Common Core exams.[7]

When Michael Bloomberg was running for re-election in 2009, the state test scores purported to show that two-third of the city’s students had achieved grade standards in English, and 82 percent in math.[8]  Now the state says only about one third of them do.  Clearly the cut scores were set for political reasons then and are just as politically motivated now. They were pre-ordained to fit the ideological goals of those who are intent on dismantling and privatizing our schools.  
A few years ago, Rick Hess, a conservative commentator at the American Enterprise Institute, revealed the motives behind the Common Core exams in an eerily prescient column called the Common Core Kool-aid:

First, politicians will actually embrace the Common Core assessments and then will use them to set cut scores that suggest huge numbers of suburban schools are failing. Then, parents and community members who previously liked their schools are going to believe the assessment results rather than their own lying eyes… Finally, newly convinced that their schools stink, parents and voters will embrace "reform." However, most of today's proffered remedies--including test-based teacher evaluation, efforts to move "effective" teachers to low-income schools, charter schooling, and school turnarounds--don't have a lot of fans in the suburbs or speak to the things that suburban parents are most concerned about….Common Core advocates now evince an eerie confidence that they can scare these voters into embracing the "reform" agenda. [9]

When Gov. Cuomo was running for re-election, he acknowledged that the state test scores that children received were not fair, and thus he promised that they should not be put on their transcripts. He ran a campaign ad, in which he promised "not to use Common Core scores for at least five years, and then only if our children are ready."[10]

If these scores aren’t ready to be used to judge students, they aren’t adequate to judge our schools or deem them “failing” either.   They are certainly not reliable enough to ask the State Education Department to take over our public schools – which has had NO record of success in doing so.

[1] John Hildebrand, “NYS takeover of Roosevelt schools failed, some say,” Newsday, June 29, 2013.

[2] Michael Petrilli, “Eva et al. flunk the fairness test, “March 17, 2015,

[3] Robert Lewis, “Who Is Behind the Pro-Charter Schools Group Fighting de Blasio?” WNYC, Thursday, March 06, 2014.

[4] Eliza Shapiro, “Charter, union messaging creates New York echo chamber, “ Mar. 3, 2015.  For example, “Cuomo's report, sent Feb. 26, cited 178 failing schools across the state, the same number F.E.S. used in a report sent Feb. 25.”

[5] Juan Gonzalez, “Hedge fund executives give 'til it hurts to politicians, especially Cuomo, to get more charter schools,” NY Daily News, March 11, 2015.

[6] Valerie Strauss, “The scary way Common Core test ‘cut scores’ are selected,” Washington Post Answer Sheet, April 29, 2014.

[8] Jennifer Medina, “Standards Raised, More Students Fail Tests,” NY Times, July 28, 2010.

[9] Rick Hess, “The Common Core Kool-Aid,” Education Week, November 30, 2012.

[10] Josefa Velasquez and Jessica Bakeman,, ‘”In ad, Cuomo cites 5-year delay on using Common Core scores,” Capital NY, Oct. 20, 2014

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Books to read while refusing the state tests?

Another reason to opt out of the tests; read a good book instead! 

A bookstore display in Oneonta NY with a sign and a suggested reading list provided by our statewide coalition,  NYS Allies for Public Education.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Surveillance, free speech, student privacy and the Pineapple: Pearson gives parents more reasons to opt out

On Saturday night the news exploded through the Twittersphere via Bob Braun’s blog that Pearson was monitoring student social media.  Pearson had sent a warning to the NJ State Education Department, who in turn had contacted the Superintendent of Warren, saying that a student enrolled in the district had posted a picture of one of the PARCC questions on Twitter during the exam.   

That turned out to be incorrect, according to the Superintendent.  Apparently, the student had just commented on the question after taking the test, and deleted his tweet after being contacted by the district.  The most disturbing aspect of the incident was not merely Pearson’s error in reporting this to the State Education Department,  (how did they get this wrong?) but also their suggestion that the student should be disciplined for this behavior – when it’s not at all clear  that he did anything wrong.  But parents and others were understandably alarmed that Pearson is monitoring student social media at all.

I don’t mean to minimize the creepiness of this, but I am not surprised.  Clearly, Pearson has good reason  to defend  against its test items being disclosed in advance of students elsewhere taking the PARCC exams, and will use whatever tools at its disposal to do so.  But it is somewhat implausible that anyone could imagine that they will be able to achieve this. Given the widespread use of social media and the speed and ease of communication, it is near crazy to imagine that questions given to over five million students in 11 states over the period of several weeks will remain secret for any length of time – or even just during the testing window. According to the PARCC website, since February 16, over two million students have now taken these exams  in Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and New Mexico, with Louisiana, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to start testing soon.

The PARCC/Pearson consortium has also said they refuse to release all of the questions on these exams, a position that is difficult to justify for any assessments in which the stakes for students, teachers and schools are so high.   But then those in power always want to maintain maximum secrecy for themselves, and protect what they see is their own privacy rights, whether personal or commercial – while having little or no respect for the privacy of others.  Witness how technology CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg maximize their own privacy by asking all their employees and  household contractors to sign non-disclosure agreements, while making billions from exploiting the personal information of their customers.  

See how Hillary Clinton has kept her State Department emails on a private server, and NYS officials have apparently been in in the habit of destroying their official emails after three months.  The NSA has refused to disclose how they have been sweeping up the public’s private emails and conversations for years. What should be public is kept private, and vice versa, because information is power – and the less information corporations and governmental officials provide about their own behavior, and the more they gather up about the actions of ordinary people, the more power they can maintain over the rest of us. 

For many years, Pearson has had good reason to try to protect the contents of its exams that transcend security.  The corporation has a terrible record of producing highly flawed exams– and by refusing to release them they have not only saved money by being able to recycle faulty questions over again, but they have also been able to shield the shoddy quality of their product. By closely monitoring social media and chatter they can attempt to suppress any discussion or debate of these questions – which may have occurred in this instance – they are also likely protecting not just the actual content of their exams, but their reputation as well.

In 2012, we first found out about the ridiculously flawed Pineapple items from a comment on our blog on the same afternoon the ELA exams were given in NY State.  A commenter wrote: “Apparently the New York State 8th Graders thought the story about "The Hare and the Pineapple" was so ridiculous that they have started a Facebook page about it.  (I later found out the FB page was started in 2010.) 8th Graders from across NY State are weighing in with comments.”  Someone else posted the link to a website from 2007 (now defunct) that had a facsimile of the passage and the questions, while questioning the rationality of anyone who would put these questions on an important exam. 

I was lucky enough to have an 8th grader living in my home who could confirm that a very confusing passage about a race between a Pineapple and a Hare was on his exam. You can see the actual text and the questions here. Then in a manner of minutes, I discovered not only found a facsimile of the passage and the questions, but that the same items  had been included in Pearson exams in
numerous other states over seven years, causing huge confusion each time.   

Literally, hundreds of thousands of students had been subjected to this reading passage and questions, and many had become understandably upset.  Yet that hadn’t stopped Pearson from re-using the questions over and over.  It was only because reporters read my blog and the Daily News carried the story the next day that the story became viral and broke into the national media – and the NYS Education Commissioner was finally forced to pull the Pineapple questions out of the exam once and for all.  

At that point, Pearson was prevented from reusing these defective passages and subjecting thousands more students to having their achievement scores and transcripts affected by the results.  
Even then, however, Pearson refused to accept what was obvious and claimed in an even more absurd memo addressed to the NY State Education Department and “leaked” to Time magazine via its (possibly lone)  defender Andrew Rotherham, explaining in technobabble jargon how the Pineapple passage and questions were  just fine, including that “the owl declares that “Pineapples don’t have sleeves,” …is a factually accurate statement. This statement is also presented as the moral of the story, allowing a careful reader to infer that the owl is the wisest animal.”  

The memo really has to be read to be believed – full of gobbledegook that sounds as though it comes from a Monty Python skit or an Ionesco play.   The author of the memo, Jon S. Twing, (who is still amazingly Executive Vice President & Chief Measurement Officer at Pearson) confirmed that these items had been used since 2004 in six other states and three large districts, and then made the most indefensible claim of all, given the ubiquity online of complaints from students, parents and teachers: “Until the events of this past week, we did not have any prior knowledge that the passage entitled “The Hare and the Pineapple” had any controversy associated with it from any prior use.”

In reality, Pearson has been continuously plagued with scandal through faulty tests, scoring errors and the like for over a decade.  If there were any accountability for corporations – instead of for the students and teachers who are judged on the results – the company would have lost all its contracts in recent years rather than awarded the biggest one ever – the PARCC contract, worth billions.
Which is a rather long-winded way to explain that Pearson has good reasons to monitor social media, to suppress not just the specific content of PARCC exams but also any discussion of their substandard quality. 

What has also been ignored in the commentary about Pearson’s monitoring of students so far are the extremely porous privacy policies of PARCC/Pearson, including how they claim their right to collect, share and use student data for many purposes:
  • 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. 
In essence, PARCC and its major subcontractor, Pearson, can hand off the personally identifiable information it has gathered directly from students or  that schools have provided them to an unlimited number of third parties, or use it themselves for a wide variety of purposes, as long as the state or district allows.  This includes decisions about whether a student should be held back, how a teacher should be evaluated, or a school should be rated.  Huge amounts of personal student data can also be handed off to researchers or think tanks or anyone doing a “study,” with no security or privacy restrictions, and without parental notification or consent required – as long it is for the vaguely defined purpose of “improving instruction.”  

The other major testing consortium, Smarter Balanced, has no publicly available privacy policy at all – though parents in several states have asked for it without success. 

What information do these companies have about your child through PARCC or its other exams?  This may differ from state to state, but concerned parents and privacy advocates in Colorado asked their state this specific question, as their students started taking the PARCC last week and will again later in the year.

According to the briefing given by the Colorado State Education department last week,  Pearson/PARCC has been supplied with a wealth of personal data, including students’ race/ethnicity, economic status, 504 plan (health conditions that can impact student performance, like allergies or epilepsy), whether they have migrant or immigrant status, disabilities, homelessness, language proficiency, how long they have lived in the state or attended school in the district,  and whether they have ever been expelled.  All of this is quite disturbing and is similar to what we discovered about inBloom. 

 In addition, Pearson/PARCC has access to if a student is using testing modifications, along with their names, unique identifier numbers, etc. Beyond sensitive student information, Pearson also collects everything a student types into the keyboard during the test including words or sentences that were typed and then deleted. Pearson knows whether or not the student views a test item, how long it takes him/her to answer a specific question, and it tracks the student's clicks as he/she navigates the test. This seemingly harmless data, when paired with sensitive information about an individual student, creates a very complex learning and behavioral profile of the child.  

So this is yet another reason to opt your child out of these standardized exams – which every parent should seriously consider. Both Utah and California specifically give parents to opt out of standardized tests if they so choose. So does the NYC Department of Education, writing:If, after
consulting with the principal, the parents still want to opt their child out of the exams, the principal should respect the parents' decision and let them know that the school will work to the best of their ability to provide the child.”
Also contrary to what you may have read or heard, schools cannot have their funding cut, even if large numbers of students opt out – there is simply no provision in state or federal law for this to happen.  The “worst” that can happen is the federal government might restrict a school’s flexibility with use of Title One funds, including requiring more  tutoring, which many parents might actually prefer.  (For more on this, see FairTest).

As a matter of fact, more than 60,000 students opted out of the NY state exams last year, and nothing happened to these schools. In a statewide survey of NY districts, more than 35 percent of superintendents estimated test refusals last year at 5 percent of students or more, and 23 percent reported student refusals at 10 percent or more.  Fully eight percent of superintendents estimated that more than 20 percent of their students in grades 3-8 refused to participate in at least one of the state Common Core exams. Not a single NY school or district has faced ANY consequences as a result.
It would be great to see those numbers grow yet larger again this year. 

Opt out and deny them your child’s personal and test score data. Opt out and save your child from the stress of what are unpiloted, and likely flawed exams. Opt out and deny the authorities the ability to use your children’s data in unfair and punitive way, to hurt them, their teachers or their schools.  Opt out to fight for an end to the mechanistic depersonalized insanity that is devouring public education.  Opt out to fight back against the privateers’ attempt to prove that public schools are failing, in order to benefit the interests of the hedge funders, the ed tech companies and the testing companies. Opt out!