San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial: A Spurious Attack on Teachers and Public Education

by on September 7, 2017 · 1 comment

in Education, San Diego

Banner on ground reading "WE ARE STUDENTS NOT CUSTOMERS"

Photo by Michael Fleshman, Creative Commons license

By Thomas Ultican / Tultican

An editorial in The San Diego Union Tribune says that Democrats in the Trump era see themselves as protecting the disadvantaged but that’s not true when it comes to schools. The editorial claims, “When it comes to public education, however, there’s fresh evidence that state Democratic leaders are the ones siding with the powerful forces over the disadvantaged.”

Those powerful forces – in an era when billionaires like Carrie Walton Penner, Reed Hastings and Eli Broad flex their financial muscle to privatize schools – are teachers and their unions. The evidence presented is bogus and the conclusions reached are based on willful ignorance.

The Issue – California’s ESSA Evaluation Plan

The new Federal Education Law dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is an abomination. Diane Ravitch — education historian and former US Assistant Secretary of Education under Lamar Alexander — described on August 30 a speech given by Professor Nicolas Tampio at Fordham University. She noted:

“‘ESSA requires states to remain within the standards, testing, and accountability paradigm . . . if they want Title I funds.’ That means that if a state wants to follow a more original model of educating, such as the John Dewey model, they forfeit federal funding. ‘“John Dewey said standardized tests can only be useful to help us figure out how to help a particular child, but they shouldn’t be used to rank children, because children have all sorts of special gifts, talents, and interests.’”

However, ESSA is the federal education law. It’s touted as allowing states more flexibility in how to assess schools but requires each state to deliver a plan to the US Department of Education by September. Testing and standards are still mandated. EdWeek detailed some of the federal requirements for school assessments:

“Specifically, the new law requires states to use at least one ‘indicator of school quality or student success’ that ‘allows for meaningful differentiation in school performance’ and ‘is valid, reliable, comparable, and statewide,’ alongside academic data in their accountability systems. Schools must also be able to disaggregate data related to that indicator to show how it affects students in different subpopulations: those from all racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, children from low-income families, and English-language learners.”

It’s California’s plan for meeting this requirement being bashed and in particular the California School Dashboard. The dashboard creates reports on demand built from mandated data reporting. It uses six state-indicators:

(1) High School Graduation Rate;

(2) Academic Performance;

(3) Suspension Rate;

(4) English Learner Progress;

(5) Preparation for College/Career;

(6) Chronic Absenteeism.

As well as four local-indicators to create reports:

(1) Basic Conditions (Teacher qualifications, Safe and clean buildings, Textbooks for all students);

(2) Implementation of Academic Standards;

(3) School Climate Surveys;

(4) Parent Involvement and Engagement.

The dashboard is easy to use and the information is easy to understand. I used the dashboard to access a report on San Diego Unified School district for spring 2017.

Screenshot of an example SDUSD Dashboard report

Example of SDUSD Dashboard report (Click for larger image)

It seems like the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board would like to return to the destructive ‘test and punish’ No Child Left Behind methods of assessing schools. That law was based on the false premise that standardized testing provides reliable information about the quality of both schools and educators. It doesn’t.

In fact, many excellent institutions were destroyed by this misguided education policy. The one reliable inference that can be made from standardized testing is relative family wealth from one school to the next. That explains why no schools were closed in wealthy communities and many schools were closed in poor communities. Unfortunately, that’s the benighted policy the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune is advocating.

In 1998 a scholar in New Zealand, Noel Wilson, wrote a thesis called “Education Standards and the Problem of Error.” The paper has never been refuted but it has been ignored. Basically, Wilson tells us that standards and standardized testing are so fraught with error that they are only useful as a mechanism of control. He ended his paper saying:

“We live in a world of complexity and uncertainty, a fuzzy multi-dimensional world of immense variety and diverse interpretations. What is challenged in this work is the myth that this complexity can be reduced to simple linear dimension by some sort of examination, as a preliminary to comparing with some standard of adequacy somewhere defined.”

The “Fresh Evidence”

We are told that there is “fresh evidence” supporting the claim that the ESSA plan developed by the Democrat-led State Department of Education harms the disadvantaged. The editorial presented this evidence:

“Thursday, Bellwether Education Partners — a national nonprofit think tank — released its evaluation of California’s proposal. While praising the plan’s vision of a first-rate education of all, the analysis is sharply critical of the plan’s most crucial components. The biggest complaints:

“The plan wouldn’t even manage to ‘capture individual students’ improvement over time.’”

This “fresh evidence” is provided by Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit consulting group from Boston Massachusetts. It’s co-founder, Andrew J. Rotherham, worked in the Clinton administration and has enthusiastically associated himself with efforts to privatize public education since. A profile in The Progressive gives details:

“He serves on advisory boards and committees for a variety of organizations including Education Pioneers, The Broad Foundation, and the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. (CALDER). Rotherham is on the board of directors for the Indianapolis Mind Trust, is Vice Chair of the Curry School of Education Foundation at the University of Virginia, and serves on the Visiting Committee for the Harvard Graduate School of Education. [He is a] Board member for Democrats for Education Reform.”

Bellwether is a typical “non-profit” in the school reform business. Their 2015 form 990 tax filing shows that in 2014 the 10 listed Bellwether principals took in more than $2 million in salaries. None of them made less than $150,000. Since their founding in 2012, they have received more than $1 million per year from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a total of $7.4 million. The tax form also showed that in 2014 they took in almost $11 million, of which half came from foundation grants and half came from different government agencies for services rendered.

On the Bellwether webpage is a listing of the entities with whom they claim to work. The list below is showing a few of the hundreds of groups cited:

Achieve.org, ACT, Inc, The American Center for School Choice, American Enterprise Institute, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Charter School Growth Fund, Chiefs for Change, The College Board, Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, Education Reform Now, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, Harmony Public Schools [aka Gülen schools], J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, The Joyce Foundation, K12 Inc., KIPP Foundation, The Mind Trust, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, National Association of Charter School Authorizers, Nellie Mae Education Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, Rocketship Education, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Teach for America, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, The Walton Family Foundation, WestEd, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

This is basically a who’s who list of advocates for the privatization of public schools and the selling of computer delivered education, euphemistically called “personalized education.”

Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, sits on the board of the California Charter Schools Association. He also founded Rocketship schools, which are charter schools that put their students in cubicles learning from computers. A few years ago, he purchased a small software company in Bremerton, Washington called DreamBox Learning and is well on his way to making DreamBox the top provider of software for computer-based learning. One of the six board of director members for Bellwether is Jessie Woolley-Wilson, president and CEO of DreamBox Learning.

The editorial’s author did not get his “fresh evidence” from the graduate school of education at San Diego State University or the University of California San Diego. Nor was the evidence obtained from education researchers at UCLA, Berkeley or Stanford. It came from a “think tank” that is often referred to as a propaganda arm for “corporate education reform.” That’s weak!

Teachers and Unions; Perennial Targets of Abuse

The editorial’s author says, “the State Board of Education has come up with an anti-accountability – accountability plan.”

The editorial’s author then emulated Chicken Little:

“This is scandalous. It is the latest confirmation that the interests of the powerful California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers — which oppose meaningful attempts to evaluate the performance of teachers, schools and districts — are paramount in Sacramento.”

This is a lie!

Teachers’ unions and their members are resources for getting school improvement right. No group cares more about good education than California’s teachers. Sure, they oppose bad education policy, but they do not oppose accountability, as do the editorial author’s friends in the charter school industry.

The California plan is required because of federal law. It’s not a good approach to assessing schools. Taxpayers are already supporting a superior approach provided by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), one of the six regional accrediting agencies in the United States. They send in teams of trained educators to spend a week or more observing and evaluating. Their final report is both an evaluation and a set of recommendations that must be addressed before a subsequent review.

Teachers have been through WASC reviews and know what authentic school evaluation looks like. Teachers also know how much damage the “test and punish” philosophy of school reform has caused.

This is Ignorance

The editorial alleges,

“The state board’s junk standards feel like the culmination of a plan that began in 2011, when Gov. Jerry Brown trashed the “siren song” of data-based education reform — even as schools in Massachusetts continue to lead the nation thanks to such reform and schools in Florida make dramatic improvements with this approach. In 2013, the state moved to scrap its STAR school accountability testing program, drawing a sharp rebuke from the Obama administration. In 2016, Brown vetoed a bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, to make it easy to determine school progress.”

Yes, Governor Brown trashed the “siren song” of data-based education reform. When vetoing a bill that reduced testing data percentages for school evaluation, he said:

“It does allude to student excitement and creativity, but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream. Lost in the bill’s turgid mandates is any recognition that quality is fundamentally different from quantity.”

It’s true that Massachusetts went to a standards-based education model and testing regime in 1993. It also doubled its spending on education between 1993 and 2001. Their average test scores are excellent, however, they also are third in the nation for largest achievement gaps.

The 2012 Florida data cited above as evidence of dramatic improvement is probably the last positive evidence from Florida. Today, Florida is an abject example of how bad test based education and privatization policies can be. The National Education Association reported about the spring 2017 testing fiasco in Florida:

“The already diminished reputation of high-stakes testing took another hit this week with the startling news out of Florida that only 27 percent of fourth graders passed the state’s comprehensive assessment test (FCAT) for writing. That’s a drop from 81 percent the previous year. The scores for eight and tenth graders yielded similarly abysmal results.”

It’s true that the CTA opposed Shirley Webber’s education bill that Brown vetoed. A CTA website report says:

“CTA urged lawmakers to defeat Assembly Member Weber’s AB 2548 because it would impose new accountability restrictions on local schools before the State Board of Education and local districts have had a chance to implement fully the accountability provisions of the new Local Control Funding Formula.”

CTA was not promoting anti-accountability. It was promoting workable accountability.

The editorial ends with, “So please come to the rescue, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Stick up for school accountability by standing up to a state which rejects it. Stick up for needy kids. Stick up for, yes, social justice.”

That’s sick. Although extremely wealthy, Betsy DeVos is completely unqualified for her position. She’s anything but a social justice advocate. Is she really a champion to the San Diego Union-Tribune? Sadly, it seems the answer is yes.

 


Thomas Ultican taught high school physics and mathematics in a school with more the 50 percent English Language and 75 percent Title 1 students. He said, “In 1999, I got tired of doing research in Silicon Valley and decided to teach. It is the hardest job I ever had and I liked it!”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

avatar Tech September 7, 2017 at 11:40 am

Thanks for great post, keep up doing great work.

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