Thursday, February 25, 2021

Why Biden should focus on vaccinating all school staff ASAP instead of making students take pointless stressful tests

On Monday, Ian Rosenblum, appointed as Deputy Asst. Sec. of the US Dept. of Education announce
d that states would NOT be given a waiver from administering standardized exams this year – though ten states had already requested them, including New York. 

His letter is here; articles in Chalkbeat  and in Diane Ravitch’s blog here.  Rosenblum’s letter does say that the tests could be shortened, given over the summer (!) or even next fall. 

It is somewhat surprising and quite depressing that a relatively junior staffer would make this announcement before Biden’s choice for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has even taken office – and in the midst of a pandemic no less.  Check out the video here where Biden promised at an AFT forum last year that he would eliminate all federally-mandated standardized testing.   Makes you wonder who is really running the show! at the Dept of Education.

Or perhaps not.  Ian Rosenblum, who signed the official letter, came to the US Department of Education from running the NY branch of the pro-testing outfit Education Trust, now headed by our former and highly controversial pro-testing NY State Education Commissioner John B. King.   

Before that, Rosenblum was the top education advisor to the formerly pro-testing Gov. Cuomo, until Cuomo decided that this was not a popular political stance i, given vocal parent protests against the lengthy and highly flawed Common Core-aligned exams, leading to a 20% opt out rate. 

Interestingly, Ed Trust spearheaded a letter just a few weeks ago, urging the US Dept of Education to reject state requests for waivers.  The letter was signed onto by many inside-the-Beltway groups that have received a minimum of $200M in Gates funding over the last ten years or so:

National Urban League [$18M since 2011]
National Action Network [not listed]
UnidosUS [$11.5M since 2011]
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) [not listed on Gates Foundation site but cited on LULAC site as “partner” and cited here and here]
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) [$3.9M since 2011]
National Center for Learning Disabilities [$5M since 2014]
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) [not listed]
National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools [$1.9M since 2019]
The Education Trust [$49.1M since 2012]
Education Reform Now [$1M since 2016]
Alliance for Excellent Education [$22.8M since 2010]
Data Quality Campaign [$26 M since 2009]
Teach Plus [$23M since 2012]
Educators for Excellence [$12.4M since 2011]
Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) [not listed]
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools [$21.5M since 2009]
National PTA [$5M since 2009]
KIPP [$18.4M since 2019]
Collaborative for Student Success [not listed but funded by Gates according to its website]

The push back from teachers and parents to the waiver rejection letter has been immediate and intense, saying how unfair it is to make students take these tests at this time.  Said one New Jersey teacher & mom: "Parents don't want this. Educators don't want this & scientifically impossible that these tests will yield reliable, valid, usable data. Who is being served by this?" 

If states have to give these exams remotely, watch out for the unreliable and highly biased surveillance spyware schools will ask to install on your children’s devices.  Best advice is to refuse and opt out of these exams altogether.

Even our DOE Chancellor this morning said the following:

Instead of mandating standardized testing, the Biden administration should focus on getting all teachers vaccinated as soon as possible, as this oped convincingly argues.  Biden has said that teachers should be prioritized for the vaccine, but he has left this up to states to decide on how this would be achieved and over what time frame. This is a mistake.

The evidence over whether it is safe for all teachers and students to attend schools in person at this time is contradictory and confusing, and different people have understandably different estimations of the benefits and risks involved.  

But two polls have come out in the past week, one from Morning Consult and the other from Pew, showing that the majority of voters believe that teachers should be vaccinated before schools are re-opened in full.  Morning Consult found that 55% of voters held this view:

Pew’s results were even more resounding, showing that 59% of voters say that reopening schools should wait until all teachers who want the vaccine have received it:

Here in NYC, though teachers are on the huge priority list to be vaccinated,  thousands of teachers and other school staff are still on waiting lists, according to a statement put out yesterday by the UFT :

“The UFT represents more than 120,000 teachers, guidance counselors, paraprofessionals and other school-based members. Even putting the most positive spin on the city's numbers, there are tens of thousands of staff who have not yet had access to the vaccine," said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers.

As of this week, the UFT vaccination program has matched 23,000 UFT members who want the vaccine with health care providers. Based on the number of doses the providers have had available, roughly 8,000 have already been vaccinated. We do not receive names, only total tallies, of those who received an appointment through the UFT program.

We have encouraged our members to also apply for vaccines through other city and state sources.  We have no way of knowing how many have been successful in getting vaccinated through these sources.

The Mayor claimed yesterday that about 30,000 of the DOE’s 120,000 total school staffers have now received the COVID-19 vaccine via the city program.  Even assuming this figure is accurate, it clearly isn’t enough.

The Trump administration sent separate shipments of vaccines to pharmacies that were supposed to be used  in an expedited fashion exclusively for nursing home residents, to ensure that they would be vaccinated as soon as possible; why couldn't President Biden do the same for schools?  

For the sake of our teachers, our students and schools, not to mention his own popularity, Biden should make this his mission, instead of requiring that students take stressful and pointless exams that will yield highly unreliable and inequitable results, especially during the current crisis.

Monday, February 22, 2021

More wasteful DOE spending on busing, devices, and possibly School Safety Agents to come

The Panel for Educational Policy will vote on a new batch of DOE contracts this Wed. on February 24. As an elected official wrote me over the weekend, “Am looking at PEP Contracts – some are questionable.”  I replied, “Always! Which ones now?”

Here are some:  There are retroactive contracts totaling more than $58 million for school busing, mostly for the month of January, except for a Reliant bus contract for Jan. 15 through Feb. 14 for $14.6M. 

This is despite the fact that DOE created a separate non-profit company (with less transparency) that would acquire Reliant and operate its 835 routes from January to June of this year, for a total of $59 million, according to  the contracts approved at the Dec. 4, 2020 PEP meeting. 

This new proposed contract document explains:

This emergency has risen as a result of the need to provide pupil transportation during the 2020-2021 school-year, while the DOE completes individual negotiations with Reliant for their pupil transportation services. These transportation services are necessary for the preservation of the health, safety, and general welfare of students and the school system as a whole. As such, declarations of Emergency Procurement and Emergency Implementation of contracts by the Senior Executive Director for the Division of Contracts and Purchasing and the Chancellor, respectively, were made (see attached).

Unexplained is what has caused the unanticipated extension of these negotiations with Reliant, and whether they relate to the  $142M in unpaid pension costs that the DOE insisted to the PEP and reporters they wouldn’t have to cover, but the union insisted they would. 

The proposed contract list also includes paying IBM another $5.12M to “stage” and send 55,000 new iPads, similar to the process from last year, when they paid IBM a total of $40.5 million for this purpose  $478 for each of 300,000 new iPads.  The document says DOE actually purchased 404,000 iPads last year – they must have added even more since last spring, for a total of 459,000 altogether, including these new purchases.

The document doesn’t include what DOE is paying for this new round of iPads, but as many previously pointed out, iPad are far less useful than laptops especially for middle and high school students who have to do a lot of writing and editing.  The excuse DOE used last year for purchasing only iPads at a total cost of $270 million was that there was a backlog and shortage of laptops nationally, with all the sudden school shutdowns and move towards remote learning.  Yet that didn’t stop other school districts like Chicago from ordering a mixture of laptops and iPads.  I don’t know what the excuse is this year for solely purchasing relatively expensive and less practical iPads again.

Apparently, for each shipment of iPads, IBM has charged a different price for staging and shipping, according to the document:

While IBM’s price of $93.55 per device to stage an additional 55K iPads is 11.6% higher than the previous price of $83.81 for 104K iPads, the increase is attributable to an expanded scope of services to be provided by IBM. For the 55K iPads under the expanded scope, IBM will receive, coordinate inventory, and distribute iPads to multiple IBM sites for staging, as well as provide boxes and packing materials to the vendor responsible for final distribution of the iPads to end users. [How this is different from what they did last time is not explained.] Moreover, IBM’s price of $93.55 per device is 30.7% lower than its price of $135.08 to stage 300K iPads under the prior emergency contract. Accordingly, pricing is determined to be fair and reasonable.

Moreover, it would probably save money for DOE to send these devices via school buses rather than pay IBM $800,000. Why?  Because Gov. Cuomo said last year and again this year that he will only reimburse busing expenses if buses are used to deliver either students, devices, other instructional materials or food.  [see the Governor’s Exec. Budget briefing book, p. 55 and p.56.]  This is what other NY districts used their school buses for during the school shutdowns, but not NYC.

Last year, DOE was prepared to pay 85% of the full price (about $700 million) for busing during the five and a half months when schools were shut (including summer school months) – despite the fact that no buses were being used.  After advocates made a fuss and Comptroller Scott Stringer wrote a letter in protest, the city renegotiated the busing contract, saving at least 40% or $167 million during the months of May and June. Yet as the NY Post reported, though the city usually receives 50% reimbursement for school busing costs from the state, for the 5 ½ months there was no busing, the city will not be reimbursed at all – potentially making busing even more costly to the city than during a normal year.  

The same refusal to pay any reimbursing for DOE’s busing costs may re-occur this year, as the DOE agreed that they would pay the full price for busing as long as ANY schools are open and there was no system-wide shutdown.  I don’t know how many buses are sitting idle this year, but there are likely quite a few.

In other budget news, a Council hearing last week revealed that the NYPD is considering hiring 475 more School Safety Agents this year at a cost of $20 million; even as all high school buildings remain closed, and elementary and middle schools have far fewer students attending in-person (that is, when middle schools reopen next week on Feb. 25.)  

Kenyatte Reid, executive director of the DOE's Office of Safety and Youth Development said his office was recently informed that the NYPD is bringing in the two new classes. He argued the money could be used for restorative justice programs, social workers, guidance counselors, culturally responsive curriculum development, literacy programs and community schools — all badly needed resources at the best of times, made more so by a pandemic that has upended the lives of hundreds of thousands of students.

This is really unconscionable, given the ongoing shortage of teachers and school counselors instead; and despite a promise made by the Mayor to the Council to eventually cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget and transfer School Safety Agents to DOE control.  Clearly that hasn’t happened.

Just to be clear: even though  NYPD hires & trains School Safety Agents, their costs comes straight out of the DOE budget, as the DOE forced to pay NYPD for their services whether they want them or not, at a price last year of $300M. From the testimony of the DOE official quoted above, it pretty evident that DOE does not want these new Safety agents that the NYPD wants to force on them. 

Contrast this to what's happened in Los Angeles, as well as Minneapolis, Seattle, Oakland, Denver and Portland, Ore., which according to today's NY Times, have begun to "sever or suspend their relationships with local police departments or reduce their own policing ranks. Some districts have said they are reallocating the funds to hire more social workers and mental health professionals to handle problems instead."

If the DOE had remained a truly independent agency, rather than under the sole control of the Mayor, they wouldn’t have to pay another $20 million for 475 more School Safety Agents that they neither need nor apparently want.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Mitt Romney, time to educate yourself on class size!

President Biden’s Covid relief program includes $60 billion to prevent teacher layoffs and close budget gaps, and $50 billion to implement smaller classes, exactly what kids will need after the various losses and deprivations they’ve suffered over the last year. 

Yet during the Senate hearings for Education Secretary designee Miguel Cardona, Mitt Romney took his allotted time to attack the entire goal of lowering class size.  As the Salt Lake Tribune noted, he “did not mention state he now represents. Utah has the largest average elementary school class sizes in the country & has for years. Some studies have shown a correlation between class size and learning, particularly among younger students.

In some Utah schools, in an ordinary year, class sizes can be as large as forty kids per class.

Nor did Romney mention the fact that he attended the elite Cranbrook Academy in Michigan , which has average class sizes of 14 , or that he sent his sons to Belmont Hill School in Massachusetts, with average class sizes of 12.

Instead, in his comments, he referred to a  McKinsey study from 2007  that pointed out that some high-performing nations like South Korea and Singapore have large classes.  But these sorts of studies, including those from the OECD, too often omit two key factors:

Families in these nations spend a huge amount  of their annual income on private tutoring programs. In 2010, South Korean families spent 10.7%  of average household income on private tutoring, and amount has risen since then. South Korean students spend so much time in these private evening programs that they take pillows to help them sleep at their desks.  Moreover, many of these nations like South Korea are making an effort to lower the class size in their schools.

There are several other Mckinsey reports that cite the value of smaller classes.   See this 2010 McKinsey report which points out that “Research suggests, for example, that poor children who enter school behind their more affluent counterparts benefit from smaller class sizes that help them catch up.”  

Or this 2012 report:  “Students often better understand and apply concepts in discussion with peer classmates. Traditional classroom environments often do not allow this, especially with large class sizes or when students live far from one another.”

In his comments, Romney claimed that there was no relationship between students’ class size and their Naep scores.  To the contrary, several peer-reviewed stuies show that smaller classes are correlated with higher NAEP scores after controlling for student background.  Here is a selection: 

 Many other studies demonstrate the benefits of smaller classes, particularly among disadvantaged students, showing their positive impact on state test scores, graduation rates, disciplinary issues,  the likelihood of attending college and even graduating with a STEM degree.  Nearly all these effects are twice as high for low-income students and students of color, showing how class size is a key driver of equity.

In 2012, Romney got in trouble for expressing the same erroneous views during his Presidential campaign. He should be praised for being one of the few Republican officials to call out  the lies of Donald Trump.  Isn’t it time that you stopped spreading misinformation and educate yourself on class size, Mitt?  

Thursday, February 4, 2021

NeQuan McLean on how DOE's "gifted" program is the fruit of a poisonous tree

See the eloquent letter below by NeQuan McLean, President of CEC 16 to Hazel Dukes, President of the NAACP NYS Conference and Christine L. Waters, Education Chair about the DOE "gifted" program.

 [One correction to this excellent letter: NYC DOE is not "the most well-funded public school system in the country."  There are other districts in the state and the nation that spend more.]