Friday, August 3, 2012

Calls for common sense when it comes to testing coming from all directions

As of Friday morning, 610 Texas school districts have notified TASA that they've passed the Resolution Concerning High Stakes, Standardized Testing, representing more than 3.6 million students and nearly 60 percent of all districts in the state.

Superintendents and school board members are calling for an end to the over-reliance on standardized testing and say it's doing nothing less than strangling efforts to create a world-class education system for our children. Accountability is important, but educators have been saying for years that the methods currently used to rate schools is at best unreliable.

Now  a new study from the University of Texas of the new STAAR tests "suggests that they are virtually useless at measuring the effects of classroom instruction" according to an article in the Texas Tribune.

Even Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans, someone who is known to be at odds with superintendents on some issues, is saying it's time to re-think what we mean by accountability in public education.

In a blog post titled "Half-Billion For 'Virtually Useless' Test", Sullivan writes: 

Let’s be clear: accountability is important, but standardized tests don’t necessarily equate to anyone being held accountable — let alone educated. If the choice is between a classroom educator and a test developed by bureaucrats… go with the classroom educator. Every time.

That's exactly the point of the testing resolution. Public school leaders in Texas are attempting to transform public education from a traditional system of schooling into a broad range of learning experiences that better prepare students to be competitive on a global stage. A test-driven education results in superficial learning, but a student-centered approach that encourage innovation, creativity and collaboration promotes deep and meaningful learning.

If your district hasn't passed the resolution yet, please consider doing so and let us know at TASA by emailing Denise Burns. Also, encourage your chambers, city councils and PTA/PTO's to do the same, as many across the state already have.

On a personal note, this will be my last blog post for EduSlate. I'm moving on to a new position as assistant director for public affairs for The University of Texas System. There will be a new voice on EduSlate in the coming weeks. You can still reach me on Twitter @jennycaputo.

It has been an honor to serve as spokesperson for TASA and our incredible members over the past two years. The school superintendents across our state work tirelessly every day to improve the lives of Texas children and give them the best opportunities in life and it's been a privilege to help support them in that effort.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Are U.S. schools too easy?

Diane Ravitch takes on a report released earlier this week by the Center for American Progress that claims U.S. schools are too easy. She devotes ample space to Ed Fuller, a researcher at Penn State University who formerly worked at the University of Texas-Austin.

Fuller found the Center for American Progress review did not provide evidence to support its conclusions. Fuller's fascinating analysis is outlined in Ravitch's blog. It's a must read!

Florida governor voices concern over testing overload

In her blog for the Washington Post, The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss wrote Wednesday about Florida Gov. Rick Scott who recently said publicly it's time to see if Florida students are spending too much time on standardized tests.

Speaking at a conference of newspaper editors, Scott said he'd received an unprecedented number of complaints from parents about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT. He said it's time to take a look at the testing load on students - including FCAT and end of course tests.

"In the end, I think it's going to change a lot," Scott said, according to the Associated Press.

Strauss highlights recently passed resolutions by Florida school boards calling for the state to cut back on testing, and says those, as well as a national resolution, have their roots in Texas with the Resolution Concerning High Stakes, Standardized Testing of Texas Public School Students. At least 566 Texas school districts, representing more than 3.4 million students, have passed the resolution.

Scott's comments dovetailed nicely with the Texas Resolution message.

"We have to have a good measurement system but we have to make sure we don't have too much of it," he said.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Superintendents are listening to parents

College Station Superintendent Eddie Coulson had a great blog post recently in response to the accusation that school superintendents are scaring parents about the effect of standardized testing. I'm a public school parent myself and believe me when I say no one had to tell parents that a standardized test doesn't tell the whole story about our children, what they're worth and what they know. 

Parents have never put much stock in the results of standardized tests and rely much more on what their child can tell them about their school day, the grades and teacher comments on daily assignments and on quarterly report cards. For parents, test day mostly means anxiety for their children because the state and national movement for years has been to put way too much emphasis on the results.

From Coulson's blog:

I happen to agree with the moms and dads in Texas who believe that state testing has become a ‘perversion’ of its original intent.  Superintendents, moms, dads and business owners want schools to be held accountable; however, unlike Bill Hammond and the Texas Association of Business, they can see that testing all students every year in multiple subjects is an absolutely absurd way to assess whether students are successful or not.  

Who can tell if a school is any good?  School moms, dads and local businesses.  They know whether the schools their children attend are worth their salt, and, my experience is that they’re not afraid to tell school superintendents exactly what they think.  

Read the entire blog post here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The trouble with 'Groupthink' in school reform

The Washington Post's Valerie Straus shared a great piece recently written by Anthony Cody, a veteran teacher who worked for 24 years in Oakland schools. A version of this ran in his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue. Considering the push-back to high stakes, standardized testing that began in Texas and has sparked similar movements across the nation from Florida to Washington state, Anthony's insights are especially timely.

As of today, 539 Texas school districts representing more than 3.2 million students have signed the Resolution Concerning High Stakes, Standardized Testing. In Florida, 20 percent of school boards have signed a similar resolution and more have it on their agendas.

Here's Anthony's column, as published on Straus' blog, The Answer Sheet, in its entirety to save you an extra click of the mouse:

By Anthony Cody
A disturbing thought came to mind as I was looking at the latest report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, which criticizes schools of education for failing to jump on the “obsessed with data” bandwagon. You can just feel the irritation in the words of NCTQ president Kate Walsh when she says:
A lot of schools of education continue to become quite oppositional to the notion of standardized tests, even though they have very much become a reality in K-12 schools. The ideological resistance is critical
This reminds me of a phenomenon called “Groupthink.” What we are experiencing in education is actually a virulent and coercive strain of Groupthink, and it is harming our students.
The value of test data has been inflated way beyond its true worth, in a manner similar to real estate prices during the bubble of the past decade. Once this bubble is launched, many people begin to depend on it for their livelihoods.
There’s been a flood of tax-exempt corporate money for advocacy, think tank “research,” and lobbying to direct public education policy into a “public-private partnership” under corporate — not public — control. This has in turn produced a network of consultants, paid strategists, leveraged public administrators and legislators, media pundits, and academic grantees. They now owe their positions and their livelihoods to an insular and self-affirming pattern of Groupthink.
First, let’s take a look at how Groupthink is defined. The Psychologists for Social Responsibility offer this description, drawing on the work of Irving Janis:
Janis has documented eight symptoms of Groupthink:
1. Illusion of invulnerability — Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
2. Collective rationalization — Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
3. Belief in inherent morality — Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
4. Stereotyped views of out-groups — Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
5. Direct pressure on dissenters — Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
6. Self-censorship — Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
7. Illusion of unanimity — The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ — Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
For the past decade, educators have been under intense pressure to join the “Groupthink” ideas of No Child Left Behind and the whole standards/accountability movement.
Let’s look at this list of traits and see how they fit today’s education “reform” movement.
1. Illusion of invulnerability — Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
Remember how No Child Left Behind was launched? We had the “Texas Miracle,” the high school dropout rates of zero reported by George W. Bush, which evaporated when it was revealed that the glowing stats were simply the result of administrative maneuvers and falsified data. And the whole NCLB project projected that schools must reach 100% proficiency by 2014.
Promoters of charter schools have been claiming for years to have “figured out” how to overcome the effects of poverty. Only now that we are several years into the experiment we hear that we must “calibrate our expectations” as they fail to deliver. We hear similar confident claims for the new tests being designed to align with the Common Core State standards, exams thatwill somehow magically wipe away the damaging effects of the previous ones.. Not to mention the wonders of the Khan Academy and other computer-based delivery systems, which will allow us to simultaneously increase class sizes and “personalize” learning.
2. Collective rationalization — Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
We have had report after report documenting the failures of NCLB and high-stakes tests. Not a single experiment in pay for high test scores has worked. Every time it fails a reason is found that allows the idea to survive.
3. Belief in inherent morality — Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
What is the mantra of the phony reform movement — now repeated by Mitt Romney? “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.” As if discrimination, housing, poverty and voting rights no longer trouble us! Our schools are now even more racially and economically segregated than any time since the 1960s, and this is given not a thought by these crusaders.
Neighborhood schools are closed, entire staffs are fired, and dedicated teachers are subjected to humiliation by the press, all justified by this moral crusade for the children.
4. Stereotyped views of out-groups — Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
Public education is defined as the “status quo,” and anyone who defends it is defending a failed, moribund system. There have been some interesting windows into the thinking of education “reformers.” A recent report on what members call the “Fight Club” reveals national coordination among various “Education Reform Advocacy Organizations,” such as Stand For Children, the Education Trust, and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. They see as their enemy “the collection of teachers unions and other school employee associations derisively called the ‘blob’....” The unions are the chief villains in this morality play, acting to defend “bad teachers,” who morph into child molesters who cannot be fired, or simply lazy individuals responsible for the economic decline of America.
5. Direct pressure on dissenters — Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
This is most damaging within public schools, when teacher evaluations are increasingly based on whether the teacher succeeds at embracing data-driven practices mandated from above. Administrators’ careers advance or not, depending on their willingness to distort and juggle data to support disastrous assessment-driven classroom practices.
In the public arena, education historian Diane Ravitch is an archetypal heretic, who was attacked when she left the conservative “reform” fold. Columnist Jonathan Alter called her the “Whittaker Chambers of school reform.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said she was “in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day.”
The current effort by NCTQ to silence criticism of standardized testing from schools of education is a frightening expansion of this campaign. When NCTQ’s ratings of these schools are released, it will not be surprising to see schools of education that actively question the obsession over test score data receive low scores, and preparation programs affiliated with alternative certification, such as Teach For America, receive high scores, because of their devotion to “data-driven” instruction. And we will hear Secretary Duncan launch a program that removes funding from programs that produce graduates with lower test scores, as he has already indicated is planned. This is ideological and fiscal coercion, tying funding to data to punish those who deviate from the correct thinking.
6. Self-censorship — Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
Within schools, there is pressure to join in the obsession over data, and this has intensified with recent “reforms” that require test scores to be used as a significant part of teacher and principal evaluations. Teachers who may have been willing to voice dissent in public in the past are now in fear of poor evaluations and possible termination. If one expresses a lack of faith in the latest curriculum or testing package, one might be accused of poor implementation, or worst of all, of the cardinal sin -- “not believing all students can learn.”
A Teach for America corps member named James offered this advice in response to a post by Teach for America critic Gary Rubinstein: “Corps members who choose to question TFA-doxy, ... should be prepared for an escalating series — in length — of ‘mindset chats.’”
I have not been privy to such a conversation, but clearly there is some heavy pressure at work to keep the corps members thinking a certain way.
7. Illusion of unanimity — The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
Take a look at the 2010 multimedia extravaganza that accompanied the release of “Waiting For Superman.” For Education Nation, the news division of NBC prepared a week-long parade of education “reform” superstars like education activist Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. There was a driving narrative that was almost unquestioned, with the exception of a hastily arranged “Teacher Townhall.” This was the projection of a consensus where none exists. Anyone who disagreed with the main storyline was marginalized. Similarly propagandistic programming was aired on Oprah that week.
8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ — Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
When President Obama accidentally spoke the truth a little more than a year ago, and described how he felt we were overemphasizing test scores, and “using them to punish schools and students,” the mindguards at the Department of Education leapt to the breach. They insisted that “The President and Secretary Duncan are on the same page,” though clearly the president’s remarks were far different from his minion’s policies. And when President Obama assembled a roundtable of advisers on education, not a single actual educator was present.
But in a bigger way, all of the organizations now being funded by the Gates, Broad and kindred foundations are functioning as mindguards for the American public. We have Astroturf groups ready to bring teachers to testify against their own due process protections, and groups like StudentsFirst willing to pour millions of dollars into lobbying policy makers to ensure they get the message about where their votes should go.
The Gates Foundation now funds the Media Bullpen, which has as its slogan, “Bringing accountability to the media.”
The Bullpen reporters — the umpires — react and respond in real time to the press as it rolls out its coverage in print, online or broadcast, at the local, state or national levels. They score the coverage using the metaphors of that favorite American pastime, baseball. Articles are given strike outs, pop flies, singles, doubles, triples, and home runs, reflecting a particular story’s objectivity, proper context, its exploration of data, and search for accuracy.
While they claim to be “diverse” in their ideology, a review of the Bullpen’s ratings reveals a strong bias in favor of standard education “reform” ideology. But like NCTQ, and Bill Gates himself, they attempt to position themselves above the fray, as umpires who set the rules of the game and determine who is in and out of bounds. They pretend to be beyond any particular ideology. “We are technocrats,” Bill Gates recently said.
But technocracy, and the set of solutions Gates and his experts have arrived at are deeply ideological, rooted in the mindset of the market, using test scores as the driving force in their quest to transform teaching. With the vast wealth of some of the world’s most well-endowed foundations, they are purchasing the space where dialogue regarding education occurs.
The trouble with Groupthink, as Janis points out, is that it can be disastrously wrong. Once we get swept up into this momentum, and more and more of our values and livelihoods hinge on this set of beliefs, it becomes harder and harder to break away. And with this particular set of ideas, we are, as a nation, building a huge technological infrastructure of curriculum, instructional tools, assessments and data systems, based on this absolute diehard belief that test performance will drive learning to new heights. Those of us who have voiced skepticism are called Luddites or worse.
What eventually happens in cases like this is that the systems collapse, because reality will not support the endless optimism of the believers. The bubble always bursts, sooner or later. The NCLB testing bubble should have burst several years ago, and probably would have done so had not the billionaire technocrats intervened with the Common Core testing bailout. Now it looks like we are in for a few more years of glorious predictions of the wonderful equitable outcomes the latest and greatest testing technology will deliver, until it doesn’t. But in the meantime, our public schools continue to be undermined, and resources continue to be diverted away from classrooms and into the testing/data infrastructure.
The sooner this Groupthink bubble bursts, the better off we will be. In our classrooms, we must do our best to give our students meaningful opportunities to learn, in spite of the intense pressure to raise test scores. In the public arena, we can help burst the bubble by focusing on the big-picture data that shows that in spite of a decade of obsessing over data, there is no evidence that better learning results. We can help burst the bubble by calling out the self-appointed umpires like NCTQ, the Media Bullpen, and dozens of other test-obsessed advocacy groups that are attempting to overwhelm critical discussion of these issues. And we can support efforts to give voice to other points of view, through organizations that allow parents, teachers and students to raise their voices, without the filtering effect of foundation funding.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Combs pens op-ed defending education cuts

A recent opinion piece in the San Antonio Express-News by State Comptroller Susan Combs aimed to set the record straight when it comes to the admittedly complex topic of school finance and what happened in last year’s legislative sessions.

“Partisan political rhetoric can always muddy the waters further,” Combs, who maintains that Texas will spend more on public education in 2012-13 than in the previous biennium, wrote. “One person’s ‘reduction in the rate of growth’ is always another’s ‘savage cut.’”

How can a reduction in the rate of growth be termed anything but a cut, when Texas public schools add about 80,000 children to its rolls each year? Those children are entitled to the same education as the ones who came before them. And those children increasingly fall into categories considered at-risk, which makes them more expensive to educate. By law, they’re entitled to services and programs that school districts must provide, and those services and programs cost money.

The op-ed goes on to explain the situation this way: "Texas will spend more state funds for public education in fiscal 2012 and 2013 than in the previous biennium. This will be offset, however, by the loss of federal stimulus funding, which is winding down across the nation."
What the piece leaves out is that when the Legislature in 2009 learned of the impending $3 billion windfall of stimulus funding from the federal government, they promptly cut state public education funding by that same amount, then replaced it with the stimulus funding – which they knew was not permanent. 

Combs also emphasized that spending on public education has risen more than three times as fast as enrollment over the past decade. Here are the facts, according to research by Moak, Casey & Associates, and explanation as to where that money is going.

Between 1997-98 and 2007-08, operating funds increased by 59 percent per student. Some of this increase is attributable to increases in federal funds associated with things like IDEA, Title I and the free breakfast and lunch programs. General fund operating expenditures have grown by 54 percent during this time (unadjusted for inflation). Much of this growth was due to legislative decisions to invest in particular areas, like improving teacher wages. For example:

  • In 1999, the legislature passed a required teacher pay increase of $3,000 per teacher. It also put the pre-kindergarten grants in place and a 9
  • th grade initiative aimed at improving graduation rates; In 2001, the legislature passed new requirements for school districts to offer health care benefits, including a $1,000 pay supplement for school staff that could be used for the purchase of health insurance.
  • In 2003, the legislature passed a $110 per WADA supplement to school districts that could be used for any necessary educational expenses. In 2005, the legislature bought down property tax rates and established the target revenue system. At the same time, it required a $2,500 teacher salary increase and provided for a new high school allotment that was to be used to improve graduation rates and prepare students for a college readiness curriculum,
  • In 2007, the legislature provided $23.63 per student to be used for staff salaries and provide for a substantial number of new grant programs aimed at improving high school effectiveness; and In 2009, the legislature passed a required pay increase of $800 or half of any new dollars associated with formula changes designed to improve equity.
  • In all of these years, the legislature provided equalized funding for tax rate increases.

In addition, school districts have been busy responding to a changed student-population as well as changed educational expectations. The percentage of students who are from low-income families has increased from 48.5 percent in 1997-98 to 56.7 percent in 2008-09. However, this has not kept Texas from increasing academic expectations. Districts have worked hard to implement additional requirements for mathematics education, train teachers to instruct to higher-level college readiness standards, and provide student support as more challenging assessments are administered.
School district leaders – as well as educators at every level and parents and community members who support public schools – need to be armed with the facts to combat the spin regarding education funding. TASA staff is available to help with research, facts and talking points so if the issue comes up in your community, don’t hesitate to call.

Monday, May 7, 2012

College Station superintendent sets the record straight on school district debt

Just because something is in the public record as testimony at a legislative hearing doesn't make it true.

College Station ISD Superintendent Eddie Coulson listened last week to an interim meeting of the Texas House Ways and Means committee where Peggy Venable, Texas Director for Americans for Prosperity, warned lawmakers that school district debt for capital projects is a "sleeping giant" and insinuated that the debt would be a huge burden for the next generation of Texans.

Coulson took on the charge in his blog, making several excellent points, including:
  • The school district debt Ms. Venable referenced has all been approved by the voters in the respective communities;
  • There is a debt service tax cap already in place for Texas school districts; and
  • The state of Texas is not on the hook for one penny of the debt.  
From Coulson's blog:

Ms. Venable is turning a local issue into a state political issue.  In every community, local voters determine if the capital projects identified by school districts are appropriate for the district.  Often times, Political Action Committees comprised of local residents form to support or to work against such bond elections.  In the end, voters get to decide.  To suggest that voters are not capable of determining their own needs is absolutely ridiculous, especially for a group called AMERICANS for Prosperity.

With spin and misinformation at every turn, it's imperative for school district leaders to find ways to set the record straight and defend public education, like Coulson does in his blog.

Read the entire post here.