Wednesday, August 26, 2009

California Senate testimony on Race to the Top

Testimony before the California State Senate on California’s response to the demands of the Duncan Administration Race to the Top.
The Senators asked excellent questions. They probed the real issues.
California Secretary Glenn Thomas made important comments that no teacher was going to be measured by a single test nor a single test score. He asserted that the Race to the Top provided the basic architecture for the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He argued for a growth model , a value added approach to measurement. A major demand is “effective support for struggling teachers.” and a second measure is that the state has a process for restructuring of low performing schools.
An argument was made by Jennie Oropeza of the state Department of Finance that funding under Race to the Top will be used to improve the gathering better data. She argued that providing a robust data system will allow policy makers information to make better decisions. Well, perhaps, but developing further data gathering will not improve teaching one step.

If the state wishes to improve schools – as they should- there is a need to assist and support teachers. Developing a “more robust” testing system does not do this.

Lets take an example. If a person has the flu, a nurse takes the person’s temperature. ( Like taking a test.) Taking the students’ temperature does not treat the disease, it does not even treat the symptoms. It only measures the temperature. That is what we are doing with test scores. We are investing in testing, not in treating the problems.

Marty Hittleman of California Federation of Teachers gave testimony on the limits of current testing. The views are well developed here:

There is yet no evidence that the official policy makers understand the problems of testing, of assessment, or with teaching support.

Clear testimony from the Vice President of United Teachers of Los Angeles. And Pat Rucker representative of Calif Teachers Association called for slowing down and developing good schools, not in responding to Race to the Top.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

NEA Slams Obama's School Reform Plan

From Class Struggle: by Jay Mahews. Here's a dispatch from my colleague Nick Anderson on the national education beat:

The nation's largest teachers union sharply attacked President Obama's most significant school improvement initiative on Friday evening, saying that it puts too much emphasis on a "narrow agenda" centered on charter schools and echoes the Bush administration's "top-down approach" to reform.
The National Education Association's criticism of Obama's $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" initiative came nearly a month after the president unveiled the competitive grant program, meant to spur states to move toward teacher performance pay; lift caps on independently operated, publicly funded charter schools; and take other steps to shake up school systems.

Excerpts selected by James Crawford. ELL Advocates.{ See post below}

"Achievement is much more than a test score, but if test scores are still the primary means of assessing student learning, they will continue to get undue weight. ...

"[T]he most prominent research organizations in the United States have confirmed that test-based measures of teacher “effects” are too unstable and too dependent on a range of factors that cannot be adequately disentangled to be used for teacher evaluation, much less for teacher preparation program evaluation. ...

"The use of these measures can also create disincentives for teachers to work with the neediest students—such as special education students and English language learners—whose learning might not validly be assessed on traditional grade-level tests. ...

"We need to offer incentives so that our best teachers teach the students most in need of assistance, not necessarily teach the students most likely to score highest on a standardized test."

To download the 26-page document, go to:

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Race to the top- A failure in Education

The Honorable Arne Duncan
U.S. Secretary of Education
Washington, DC

Dear Secretary Duncan,

The $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund presents you with a unique opportunity. By using this program to reward boldness and creativity, you could support a wide range of projects to expand the knowledge base about teaching and learning, fostering valuable innovations in our nation’s schools.

Unfortunately, your proposed priorities for Race to the Top would squander that opportunity by restricting federal funding to a set of preconceived notions about “reform,” which may be ideologically fashionable but are largely unsupported by scientific research.

Our organization is especially concerned by your insistence that standardized test scores be used as part of teacher-compensation systems. In the absence of evidence that such a change would be beneficial, it would be irresponsible – not to mention undemocratic – to force states to bring their laws into conformance with your plan.

As evidence for this mandate, your proposal cites only a handful of economists, far removed from actual classrooms, who were unable to isolate the observable characteristics of effective teachers – “effective” as determined by their students’ test scores. So, the logic goes, why not just evaluate and pay teachers on the basis of those scores rather than on their years of teaching experience or academic credentials?

Perhaps, lacking any background in education, the economists were “observing” in the wrong places and failed to consider the myriad of talents and skills that inspire children to learn. Or maybe their study designs were slanted, consciously or otherwise, to bolster a hypothesis that monetary incentives based on test data are key to improving teacher quality. (Several of the authors are members of the Future of American Education working group at the American Enterprise Institute, which is associated with that position.) Whatever the case, your proposal is based on research that is admittedly inconclusive and on a theory of teacher motivation that remains unproven.

The grant criteria would also place an undue reliance on standardized tests that offer, at best, a blurry snapshot of student progress. For English language learners (ELLs) in particular, such tests are rarely valid or reliable. Because these students cannot fully show what they have learned when assessed in a language they have yet to master, their scores typically lag far behind those of English-proficient peers. If teachers are to be penalized for an “achievement gap” over which they have no control, how many will want to teach ELLs? It is also well established that these children’s progress in speaking, comprehending, reading, and writing English is never a straight-line trajectory.[1] How could any “growth model” fairly accommodate that reality?

During his campaign, President Obama raised hopes that his administration would limit the uses (and abuses) of high-stakes testing. But paying teachers on the basis of test scores can only raise those stakes, at considerable cost to kids.

Surely, Mr. Duncan, you must be aware of the growing body of evidence about the perverse effects of high-stakes testing: narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, stressing basic skills over critical thinking, limiting bilingual instruction, unfairly labeling and sanctioning schools, demoralizing dedicated educators, fostering corrupt practices, encouraging educational triage, and – worst of all – creating incentives to push low-scoring students out of school before test day.[2]

Or perhaps you, like the economists you cite, are unfamiliar with what takes place in actual classrooms after your ceremonial visits are over. So here’s a basketball analogy that you and the President should be able to appreciate.

Suppose that NBA team owners woke up one day and decided they no longer trusted scouts and coaches to rate players. There were just too many unobservable traits that required human judgments to assess: motivation, leadership, flexibility, ability to work as a team, court smarts, and so forth. It wasn’t clear how those characteristics correlated with player effectiveness, as measured by objective performance data. How could the owners tell whether they were getting their money’s worth? So they decided it would be simpler to pay the players based on a single measure: points scored per game.

You can imagine how that would work out. The long jump-shot would be highly valued, while skills like ball-handling, rebounding, and assists would be expendable. Nobody would pass the ball or worry about playing defense. In fact, the players would all be competing against their own teammates in an individual “race to the top.” Winning wouldn’t matter anymore – only point totals. Basketball would be an entirely new game, drudgery to play or watch. But whoever said it had to be fun?

Can you now envision how schooling, a far more complex endeavor than basketball, might be harmed by a pay system that gives significant weight to one crude performance indicator? You yourself have complained about the quality of standardized tests. So how can you propose a central role for such tests in making major decisions about teachers, which, in turn, could have cascading, negative effects on their students?

We encourage you to rethink this approach and consider not only the potential waste of federal funds but, more importantly, the potential damage likely to be done by Race to the Top as presently conceived.

You might also consider the need for a kind of Hippocratic Oath among self-styled school reformers: First, do no harm. Or to put it another way: Until you have solid evidence to support your policies, don’t try to impose them on our schools.


James Crawford, President
Institute for Language and Education Policy

[1] See, e.g., De Avila, E. (1997), Setting Expected Gains for Non and Limited English Proficient Students, NCBE Resource Collection Series, No. 8, Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

[2] Nichols, S.L., and Berliner, D.C. (2007), Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press; McNeil, L.M., Coppola, E., Radigan, J., and Heilig, J.V., (2008), “Avoidable Losses: High-Stakes Testing and the Dropout Crisis,” Education Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 16, No. 3; Menken, K., (2008), English Language Learners Left Behind: Standardized Testing as Language Policy, Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Listen to the Teachers, not the corporate shills

I was giving a speech on the political control of public schooling to a forum here in Sacramento. A teacher in the conference asked, “ I understand your points on NCLB, on multicultural education, and on testing, but what can we do about these things?”
What a great question.

Money buys power in Washington. We need to propose alternatives. There are numerous clear voices to explain the education crisis, the economic collapse and the health crisis. We need to magnify and extend these voices.
The appointment of Arne Duncan was symptomatic of the problems. He represents the kind of corporate/media approach to reform that I feared. The earlier post on history in Chicago was insightful and helpful. Just as corporate money distorts the health care debate and prevents reform, corporate influence distorts the discussion of school realities and school reform.

A major problem with our campaigns for a democratic approach to schooling is that most of the media has been sold a mindset or framework of accountability. Corporate sponsored networks and “ think tanks” such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Bradley Foundation, the Olin Foundation and their access to the media is not likely to change. The domination of the accountability frame within the media and political circles must be opposed. Certainly in the current battle with Arne Duncan he has ceased the high ground with a claim of accountability – it’s a false claim- but it works. Education and explaining will be a constant struggle.
There are many strategies. However, the most important is to share and magnify teacher voices. Politicians make bad decisions – such as the current budget cuts- because they are not listening to teachers voices. Instead they are listening to paid consultants, and “experts” from the corporate establishment.
Newspaper writers and other media writers make the same mistake. They call their favorite “source” which just happens to be a corporate promoter like Arne Duncan, Michele Rhee, or one of the “experts” at elite universities. Note: the elite universities work with few teachers. They are several steps removed from the classroom. You can read more about this on this blog by searching for PACT. Or here:
More strategies to come in future days, but the most basic is insist on teacher participation in the development of policies. Get the politicians and the corporate shills out of the classroom. – they have failed our children.
Of course there is much more on this in my book, Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education, (2010) Allyn and Bacon.
Duane Campbell