Monday, April 28, 2014

Invest in schools or invest in prisons

What can be done about the tax burden on the public?

This is another question that was posed to me as I passed around my petition for the BOE. It is understandable that some members of the population are feeling overtaxed. After all, we all pay federal, state, county, school, school library district, etc. Some of the taxes are on income, others on home value, other on sales, etc.

When it comes to the school district, I will say one thing: since the economic crisis in 2008, NYS has taken back millions taxpayer dollars from the PCSD. (It's called the GEA - gap elimination adjustment.)
In point of fact, so many state taxpayer dollars have been withheld, that the PCSD has cut teaching and non-teaching positions. Lost jobs impact the local economy.

The NYS cuts to education  also resulted in the reduction of educational programs which diminishes the quality of the education students are receiving. If a school district is perceived as weak or faltering, it becomes hard to attract businesses and professionals to the region. If this starts occurring, the local economy will be further damaged because the main employers in Potsdam (SUNY Potsdam, Clarkson University, PCS, and CPH) need professionals. If they have recruiting problems, all entities will endure negative economic consequences.

So, to those who are unhappy about school taxes, I would simply say that we all need to consider that a lousy school = a lousy local economy. More importantly, we should do what we can to give the next generation a helpful start in life by providing a good education. Remember the schools-to-prison pipeline? We can either invest in schools or we will end up investing in prisons. And right now, we are not properly funding schools and we have a thriving prison industry - the best in the developed world.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thoughts on the Common Core

 Because I have decided to run for the PCS BOE, I thought I would answer some questions that community members asked of me. Below are some of the questions on just one topic - the Common Core.

1. What do you think of the Common Core State Standards?
   A. First of all, some (possibly many) people think these more rigorous learning standards are from the federal government. Actually, they were spearheaded by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Interestingly, they were initiated by governors across the country as a pushback against the federal 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Law which the governors saw as federal overreach in education (which is the purview of the states).

   B.  Like many, I think more rigorous standards were overdue. In fact, one in three college students needs at least one remedial class in order to do college level work. In addition, the US was and is scoring low on international tests. Finally, business leaders are complaining that graduates were not prepared for the workforce.
 The problem is not the standards, it is the implementation - which was pushed too quickly before teachers were given adequate time to prepare. In addition, the standards have become conflated with the mandated 3-8 testing, the evaluation of teachers based on student performance on those tests, and the curricula used to meet the new standards. The common core standards are distinct from tests, teacher evals, and curricula.

2. What do you think of the 3-8 testing?
There is too much testing. Students are forced to sit for too many hours taking high-stakes tests. Another problem has to do with the reliability and validity of the tests.* NYS and its test designer (Pearson) do not make validation data available to the public that is paying for the tests. Until this data is given to the public, the quality of the tests remains an open question and, thus,  the use of the tests to evaluate teachers is unacceptable.

3. Why are so many states dropping the CCSS (or postponing implementation)?
According to a Wendell Steinhouer (president of the NJ Education Association) one problem is that teachers unions have complained about the botched implementation of the CCSS and about their belief that testing is crowding out teaching.
 Others believe some politicians are dropping support for the CCSS to try to pander to interest groups in the lead up to the Nov. elections. Jim Douglas, former Republican governor of Vermont, who worked on the CCSS, says even the most conservative governors supported the CCSS. He said the US Chamber of Commerce and other business groups will soon engage in efforts to explain their support for the CCSS and the need for these rigorous standards.

      Test reliability refers to the degree to which a test is consistent and stable in measuring what it is intended to measure. Most simply put, a test is reliable if it is consistent within itself and across time. To understand the basics of test reliability, think of a bathroom scale that gave you drastically different readings every time you stepped on it regardless of whether your had gained or lost weight. If such a scale existed, it would be considered not reliable.

      Test validity refers to the degree to which the test actually measures what it claims to measure. Test validity is also the extent to which inferences, conclusions, and decisions made on the basis of test scores are appropriate and meaningful. 
The Relationship of Reliability and Validity
      Test validity is requisite to test reliability. If a test is not valid, then reliability is moot. In other words, if a test is not valid there is no point in discussing reliability because test validity is required before reliability can be considered in any meaningful way. Likewise, if as test is not reliable it is also not valid. Therefore, the two Hoover Studies do not examine reliability.  Source:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

School Boards: Do they matter?

Arnold F. Shober (a St. Lawrence University assistant professor of government) and Michael T. Hartney are authors of a new study, Does School Board Leadership Matter? (March 2014 - Thomas B. Fordham Institute) 

Thought-Provoking Questions Posed by the Study:

~ Are school boards leading school districts effectively?
~ Do board members have accurate information about the condition of their districts?
~ Is there a link between school boards and student achievement?
~ Are voters "choosing candidates with an overriding commitment to student learning?"

School Board Members - Educational Leaders or Petty Politicians? 

According to the study, some believe school boards are vital because local board elections compel district leadership to be responsive to community sentiments. "Others maintain that the notion of a board member as a leading citizen committed to protecting the public good is outdated, replaced by aspiring politicians, single-issue oligarchs, representatives of employee groups, and aggrieved former employees or community members with grudges to settle." Which is it?    

A disinterested public?

The authors point out the voter turnout in school board elections is extremely low. They note that only one in ten voters casts votes in board of education elections. It is my opinion that if board of education members are to be truly representative of their communities, voter turnout must increase.

Does your school board have a "vision"?

The study contains the following statement: " board members should possess a particular vision for the schools that they oversee. Here, we include their support for improving student learning - what we call an academic focus... After all, it is critical that board members prioritize educating students over the needs of adults and other political considerations if they are to fulfill their responsibility to provide students with a high-quality education."
During my two stints on the PCS Board of Education, I recall long-time member Judith Rich repeatedly pressing for the board to discuss and develop a vision for the education of students. Her efforts (and mine) were met with ridicule and disdain. She only half-jokingly said to me that every time she brings up the the vision thing, they decide, instead, to build something. (In other words, bury the Board in minutiae about drainage, heating problems, and co-axial cables so they could avoid the vision discussion. So they could avoid discussing how to improve learning.)

One of the study's conclusions is that "boards with members who have an academic focus and exhibit certain work practices are associated with better student achievement than expected, given their district conditions. They beat the odds."

There is much more to read in this important study. Read it at:

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Do Charter Schools Pose a Risk to Public Education?

Should the public be worried about the expansion of charter schools? Until recently, I wasn't. I thought most of these schools were handling students who were not having success in the public school setting. However, I recently saw a PBS show (Moyers and Company) with a segment called "Public Schools for Sale." The guest, Diane Ravitch, was interviewed by Bill Moyers about charter schools. See: 

Ravitch addressed the issue of how public education monies are being targeted by those who see dollar signs in the privatization of America's public schools.
"As Rupert Murdoch put it after purchasing an education technology company, 'When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone.”' Given Murdoch's  run-ins with the British government due to the predatory invasion of people's privacy by employees of his newspaper, News of the World, and given his vast wealth and media empire, he is not someone I like to see targeting education monies in the US.  Other wealthy businessmen are also looking at this emerging market and Bill Moyers described it as a gold rush [to privatize pubic schools].

I was taken aback when I learned that Netflix's CEO, Reed Hasting, had given a speech in which he stated that within the next 20-30 years he hoped charter schools would have 90% of American (K-12) students. See:

Education historian Diane Ravitch made some interesting points. She has written, "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools." 

  • Entrepreneurs are trying to profit from the public education "industry." (Ms. Ravitch said she does not look at education as an industry.)
  • Business interests want to takeover pubic schools.
  • She has changed her mind about charter schools because they started out as entities to help and work collaboratively with public schools to try different approaches with students who were not succeeding in public schools. Now she believes they have become competitors with a goal to take over.
  • Charters gained power when the federal government offered over $4 billion in competitive grants to the states. One proviso was that the states had to lift their caps on charter schools. (This drove the increase in the numbers of charter schools.)
  • Other drivers of the expansion of charter schools were the political forces of wealthy hedge fund managers who saw there was money to be made. In addition, charter money is going to political contributions so those elected  may view charter expansion in a positive light.
  • Ravitch said she believes the charter schools will take the successful students and leave public schools as a dumping ground for problem students.
  • While some claim charter schools are public schools, Ravitch pointed out that when they go to court they declare they are private corporations that have contracts with the government. In NYS, a recent court decision stated that charter schools could not be audited by the NYC Comptroller because charter schools are not a unit of the government. Thus, charter schools cannot be held accountable by the public. 
  • Charter schools are not doing a better job educating students.
  • Ravitch said education leaders should aim for equity and excellence will follow. In other words, all public schools should provide an equally strong education. 
  • The societal problems associated with poverty must be addressed in order for schools to prosper. 
  • Finally, Ravitch does not defend the status quo. She stated that there are many problems in public schools that must be addressed but said privatizing public schools will be a detriment to our democracy. She said "The public is not yet ready to relinquish its public schools to:
          ~ speculators
          ~ entrepreneurs
          ~ ideologues
          ~ snake oil salesmen
          ~ profit making businesses and
          ~ Wall Street hedge fund managers."

Maybe it's time for all of us to learn more about the potential impact of the growth of charter schools.

"Charter School Refugees," The New York Times

"Protections for Charter Schools Threaten DeBlasio's Education Goals," The New York Times

Today's ELA Test: Parents Beware!

Today is the last day for testing students in English Language Arts (ELA) - one of the required 3-8 NYS tests to determine...
1. Student improvement/growth
2. Teacher performance
3. Impact of Common Core State Standards

Here is one of the three essay questions for grade 3:

"...the passage is organized by an introduction of a central problem and then its solution. How do paragraphs 8 through 10 contribute to this organization?"  

Does that seem like age-appropriate language for a 3rd grader? A friend said to me, "A large percentage of Americans cannot name the vice-president but Pearson (the test makers) thinks third graders should understand that question."

If Pearson had given an age-appropriate version of the passage above, they could have presented the following:

What is the central problem in the story and how was it solved? 

A central problem with these tests (tied to the Common Core Standards) is not the content but the multi-leveled questioning. If the question is not understood by students, how can they give their best answers?

In addition, in one story (in today's 3rd grade ELA), there was an essay question about why a "chronometer" is helpful. Throughout the story there were repeated references to "time," "clocks,"to being in a "sailboat," and to "sailors." In the last sentence of the story, the word "chronometer" was introduced. It read: "We now call marine timekeepers chronometers." Students were exposed to the words "timekeeper" (instead of clock) and "marine" (instead of sailing) both without a single context clue.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that many (maybe most) students are stressed and frustrated with such questions. Some teachers may be wondering if the test maker is purposely aiming to confuse students. Just who is charged with determining if these tests are valid? If the tests are not valid (as many believe), how can they be used to evaluate teacher performance and student learning?

The only winner here is Pearson. It is time to stop diverting extraordinary sums of taxpayer money (intended for education) to private companies only to have Pearson craft tests that many would characterize as invalid and unreliable. Opting out  of these tests sounds more and more appealing and one of the few ways parents' voices can be heard.