Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Getting With the "Times" - Take 2 (or Rigor Mortis)

In my prior post I responded to an L.A. Times article lamenting the loss of creativity in schools due to the culture of high-stakes testing that is burdening our public school system.  In that article, the author states,
It's not easy to figure out how schools can balance creativity with academic rigor, productive thinking with knowledge. The nations that do so will have the competitive edge in the future.
On first read, this made sense to me as a proponent of creativity and productive or critical thinking.  Then I realized I am not an opponent of rigor and knowledge, and neither is the author.  But, the author's statement does suggest there is a trade-off between these approaches that must be balanced.

On second read, I realized the folly of this fabricated trade-off.  It shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how creativity and innovation work and what rigor means.

Proponents and explainers of creativity, such as Ken Robinson in "Out of Our Minds," would likely argue that creativity and innovation are most productive when pursued through a rigorous structure.  Examples of this abound in industry, with the working structure of Pixar being a favorite.  It is clear that innovation happens when people are mixed in purposeful ways and made to think both critically and in modes that expand their knowledge base.

There is also a misconception of the definition of rigor.  Rigor is a concept that is not easily defined and one that may have a variety of meanings depending where it is employed (something at odds with "standardized" testing).  In "Change Leadership,"   Tony Wagner and Robert Kegan state that rigor is not more work or harder work - probably what most people think it is.  They suggest rigor is more about a measurable, quality product.  They write,
Rigor is about what students are able to do as a result of a lesson.  Rigor implies holding students accountable for meeting certain objective, qualitative standards and measuring progress regularly...  In our view, however, test performance does not often measure students' ability to demonstrate their reasoning and apply their knowledge.
 Here, it is clear that reasoning and knowledge are two sides of the same coin and are not at odds with each other or goals that require a trade-off.  Indeed, creativity and innovation (applying knowledge in new ways) can come from a rigorous (measured accountability) system.

In conclusion, I would restate the initial premise that, "It's not easy to figure out how schools can balance creativity with academic rigor, productive thinking with knowledge."  The statement should read: Those countries that can acknowledge that creativity and innovation, though not easily measured on standardized tests, should be pursued with rigor will be the ultimate winners.

End the rigor-mortis of standardized tests that do not respect creativity and innovation, and Reclaim Public Education!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Getting with the "Times"

The Los Angeles Times is infamous in the education reform world for publishing a list of LAUSD teacher performance scores that are based on questionable and controversial value-added metrics derived from standardized testing data.

Value-added requires comparing test scores across grade levels, something that has always flummoxed me as the California Department of Education website specifically says these test may not be compared across grade levels:
When comparing results for the CSTs, you are limited to comparisons within the same subject and grade; that is, grade two English–language arts (ELA) in 2010 compared to grade two ELA in 2011 or grade six mathematics in 2010 compared to grade six mathematics in 2011. No direct comparisons should be made between grades or between content areas.
The publication of value-added scores caused outrage amongst teachers who rightfully felt unfairly and inaccurately represented. Thus, it came as a surprise to some readers when the L.A. Times published an editorial questioning the merits of standardized testing and the impact it has on creativity and innovation in schools. 

The editorial, "Education's pendulum: Thinkers or test takers?", suggests that the nations able to balance academic rigor with creativity will come out ahead:
It's not easy to figure out how schools can balance creativity with academic rigor, productive thinking with knowledge. The nations that do so will have the competitive edge in the future.
That Obama continues to force high-stakes testing and other punitive systems on our schools through Race To The Top while the rest of the world is waking up to the perils of the testing-factory system of education is a sign of just how unaware politicians are of the current state of education.

Value-added might sound good politically and high-stakes tests might seem like a strong stance on education, but I too am going with the nations that teach thinking and creativity as the ultimate winners.

So, rather than value-added, add value to your society and reclaim public education!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Think Long, But Not Too Hard. Part 2: Corporate America's Hostile Takeover of Public Education

In this two-part posting, I explore the mindset of billionaires through the lens of the Nicolas Berggruen Institute's report, A Blueprint to Renew California: Report and Recommendations Presented by the Think Long Committee for California.  This Think Long committee was comprised of a select group of politicians and corporate leaders, including billionaire pseudo-reformer Eli Broad and "don't be evil" Google's Eric Schmidt.  On education issues, the committee was informed by none other than Michelle Rhee.  While this report may have no real legislative impact in the long-run, it provides insight to the minds of the 1% and their questionable concern for the well-being of American public education.

In the first part of this two-part posting, I explored the threat that China poses to our economy and our education system.  If you listen to corporate and political leaders, you would think China is about to eat us for lunch, and yet it turns out they want to eat lunch with us.  This rhetoric thrives off the failures of the American public school system and perpetuates the myth that public schools are somehow single-handedly responsible for our country's competitive ills.

Charged by the Nicolas Berggruen Institute with solving California's economic crisis, the Think Long committee tackled tax reform, offered legislative reform, and funded public education - sort of.  You see, the section on public education clearly states that schools will only get the money if they institute certain reforms, which just so happen to be the corporate reform platform of school choice, test-based teacher evaluations, and union bashing.  This is the reform platform of Michelle Rhee, who consulted with the group, and of philanthropist Eli Broad who funds these reform efforts and is a signer on the report.

"We believe such new funding should not be automatically given to a system that is failing to educate millions of Californians. It instead should be tied to improving performance of K-12 schools, as a result of rigorous evaluation of teachers, as well as curbs on automatic teacher tenure and seniority. We further believe that new financing for education should be designed in such a way as to provide parents, especially the working poor, with the maximum choice over how and where their children are educated."
This is a shocking statement to be found in a report that sets out to "reboot" California from its current crisis, which is largely economic and not so different from every other state, not to mention every other country in the world.  That money for education be tied to these reforms, is not only a slap in the face to teachers, but an ignorant and misguided reform solution.  Of course, these billionaires do not want to see public education survive (the proposed reform platform is unproven and not based on evidence or research) as much as they want to see unions bashed and the private sector take over the large pie piece that is the education budget. 

The Think Long (but not too hard...) Committee had no problem lowering corporate tax rates and making California more business friendly with no strings attached.  There was no, "We will lower your tax rate if you don't pollute and hire more workers."  The proposal is one of tax reform, not corporate reform.  Yet when it comes to schools, it is not budget reform, but education reform.  Considering the huge failure of corporate America before and after 2008, this is ridiculous.  Where is the corporate oversight built into this proposal?  Ironically, the committee did not tackle health care and pension reform as it was "beyond the scope" of the committee.  Education, on the other hand, must be an easy target.

Holding back money to force (blackmail) education reform is nothing new.  President Obama and his basketball buddy Arne Duncan do the same thing with federal Race to the Top (RTTT) funds.  States must enact the federal reform agenda, which looks similar to the reform agenda described above, in order to win RTTT funds.  The end result of all this is that education remains a top down system, much like a corporate model.

Following is an analysis of the proposals in the Blueprint and those who signed the report.  It is an insightful and scary premonition of where public education is heading, unless we manage to reclaim it.  As mentioned in Part I of this two-part posting, the rhetoric of fear of international competition drives the corporate/billionaire pseudo-reformers, who perhaps have the most to lose or gain from this scenario.

"...students in other countries from Singapore to South Korea to China outperform California’s students. To ensure the state’s long-term competitiveness, California schools must be brought up to global standards."
The irony of this is that Finland, which has some of the highest international test scores, did not set out to dominate the world.  They set out to be the dreaded "S" word - Socialist.  Finland set out to make a public school system that was equitable (provide services for all children) and teacher driven (empower the teacher, don't punish them).  Along the way, Finland started to do very well on these international exams.  It was an unintended consequence of making a truly public education system.

The Blueprint proposes a three-tiered education reform that is exactly opposite that of Finland. The proposal seeks to address 1. Teacher and principal effectiveness 2. Promote equality and opportunity and 3. Provide strong and useful state, district, and school data systems.  Sounds good, right?  Not at all.

Teacher and Principal Effectiveness
This is code for union bashing through the dismantling of tenure and collective bargaining and for high-stakes test-based teacher evaluations.  "Non-seniority based layoffs" and "meaningful evaluations" are all strategies that have been shown to not make a difference in student achievement.  They do however weaken unions and place the power at the top instead of in the classroom.

Promoting Equality and Opportunity
Sounds like Finland's socialist system of providing health care and food for needy children, doesn't it?  Not at all.  Equality here refers to the equal funding of charter school programs.  Charter schools, despite their initial purpose, have become a favorite of the corporate reform model because they can be run by private companies.  Charters are a good way to get in on a slice of the pie.  Another good way to make money off a public system is through the digital realm.  The committee realized this as well and proposed to, "remove barriers to the expansion of digital learning opportunities."  There is a lot of money to be made in online education and in education software.  Jeb Bush knows this, as he is deeply involved in digital learning.  It is much more lucrative than being a politician.

Providing Strong and Useful Data Systems
To track and punish teachers and schools will require data.  The very countries we are trying to beat in Asia, do not use this type of system.  Finland uses its resources to train and support its teachers, not to measure and punish them.  Not only is this an additional expense, it puts the money as far from the classroom as possible.

Who besides the usual culprits (Eli Broad and Michelle Rhee in this case) would sign on to such an ill-fated and ineffective education reform platform?  Of the cast of characters whose names appear on the cover page of the report, one in particular jumps out at me, Eric Schmidt of Google fame.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has an obvious corporate and personal interest in the future of California, but why would someone who works for the "don't be evil" company support such an evil education reform platform?  A quick search on none other than Google reveals some interesting information.  Eric Schmidt sits on the board of the Menlo School, a private Silicon Valley school that costs $34,000 a year to attend - the beginning salary of a California teacher.

Schmidt, like many of the others on the Think Long Committee and like many of the others pushing for a corporate model of education reform, is a member of the 1%.  He is not part of the 99% that public education ultimately must serve.  These elites see public education as a source of profit, not as a place to send their children.  Google, like Microsoft before it, is well positioned to get a slice of that pie.  Never mind the quality of education if a buck is to be made.  Corporate America is staging a hostile takeover of public education.

I suggest the economic and political leaders of California and our nation think harder, not longer.  In the meantime, don't be evil and reclaim public education!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

In his February 22 op-ed New York Times piece titled "Shame is not the Solution", Bill Gates attempts to speak out against the publishing of teacher rankings as an effective practice of education reform.  The irony is that Gates himself is a large proponent and financial supporter of value-added teacher evaluations, and the publishing of such lists in New York and Los Angeles are merely extensions of this movement.  It is the pot calling the kettle black.

It just so happens that the pot here is quite a large one and filled with money, but while his message seems to be in the defense of teachers, the policies pushed by Gates and his foundation are exactly what is wrong with education in America today - a data-driven corporate model that gives power to the few and strips teachers of their autonomy.  It is a system that makes teachers accountable to a higher power, state and federal administration, instead of to themselves, their communities and their students.

The second sentence of the article is an expose of the entitlement felt by the billionaire pseudo-reformers such as Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family:

 "I have no opinion on the ruling as a matter of law, but as a harbinger of education policy in the United States, it is a big mistake."
Gates does not feel competent enough to comment on the law, or at least does not care about that, but for some reason this college drop-out is qualified to comment on the implication the ruling has on educational policy.  Where does this expertise come from?  It is like the immaculate conception - all of a sudden these guys are education reformers without ever actually doing it.  Gates should stick to computer code, Broad should stick to real estate, and the Waltons should stick it to their employees - in other words, why can't these billionaires just stick to doing what they do best? (Read this for some insight as to why these players are in the game in the first place...)

If you can get past the second sentence, the article sounds like a reasonable defense of teachers and offers some concrete examples of successful teacher evaluation systems.  Gates even admits that "teaching is multifaceted, complex work."  Don't forget though, that this is the same Gates who proposed firing bad teachers and putting more students in front of the good teachers.  We must ask why Gates wants an effective system of teacher evaluations.  Don't publicly shame the teachers, just determine the cut-off line and fire them.  The good teachers can handle more students...

In the end, Gates does not even attempt to disguise what is a thinly veiled piece on promoting the corporatization of public education.  It is the, "Hey, if it made me a billionaire it will work for you too!" attitude.  (This is where we say forget about Wall Street, corporate banks and 2008, forget about iPhones and Foxconn, forget about government bailouts, the corporate system really does work!)

Gates writes,
"At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper. A good personnel system encourages employees and managers to work together to set clear, achievable goals. Annual reviews are a diagnostic tool to help employees reflect on their performance, get honest feedback and create a plan for improvement. Many other businesses and public sector employers embrace this approach, and that’s where the focus should be in education: school leaders and teachers working together to get better."
This sounds right on.  It is a plan for improvement and not for penalization.  Never mind that if a Microsoft employee achieves their goals they get a bonus worth more than most teacher salaries.  The assumption, though, that this model transfers to education is fundamentally flawed.  But, rather than make that case here, I will let the private sector make the case for me.

Value-added accountability models work well in the private sector for sales and other easily measured jobs that are goal oriented.  It is easy to assess if sales goals are reached.  It is also fairly straightforward to measure the success of engineers, say at Microsoft, based on the code they create and the product value based on usership etc.  But move away from sales and product development, and the evaluations become more difficult and less and less relevent. 

How do you evaluate a member of the public relations department?  A friend of mine who works at Google says they do it, but it is more difficult.  I interpret "more difficult" as "less meaningful".  That is where the evaluation of teachers falls.  Value-added evaluation is less meaningful in education.

What is the solution?  The solution is out there, as Gates himself observes in his article, but for meaningful and multifaceted evaluations that reflect the nature of the profession to take root, the punitive corporate model of accountability needs to be removed.  In an environment where the focus is not on software or electronics products, but on living breathing children full of emotions and dreams, we need a system that reflects what we do - we need a system that nurtures, grows and supports our teachers.  This will happen with local accountability, strong and supportive leadership, and a state and federal system that support success through a non-punitive model.

This might sound "soft" to the corporate world, but I haven't forgotten about Wall Street, corporate banks and 2008, or about iPhones and Foxconn, or about government bailouts for mega-corporations, and I say the corporate model is not successful.  Metrics will only get you so far, and in education where success is measured through the lives of real living beings, we should demand a better system.

To Billy G, teachers don't need your sympathy, they need you to stick to what you do.  Abandon the corporate model, and Reclaim Public Education!

Monday, February 6, 2012

This is a must read!

Sometimes an article hits the nail on the head.  This one pounds the point home.

Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, "White Boy: A Memoir," was published in the spring of 2002.