Sunday, November 29, 2015

The "Demonstrable Improvement" Racket

Andrew J. Smitherman (1921 Tulsa Race Riot survivor) was a student of government, especially when the forces of government, e.g.  Its laws are used to restrict and/or confound the rights of the people.   At the turn of the last century, he fought the Oklahoma government, where “guardianship laws” were passed to “protect” native and black inheritors of oil rich land.  Even when these children had nurturing, knowledgeable parents the courts were enabled to appoint a “guardian” to oversee their affairs.  Too often these same guardians ultimately ended up stealing the assets of the very wards they pledged to protect.  An argument could be made that there is no comparison between the historical unethical legal maneuver to divest minority children of their rightful inheritance (Smitherman called it the Guardianship Racket) and the Receivership law.  However, in my estimation, Receivership comes close as the latest in a long line of “rackets” to undermine public education.

While there are 25 Buffalo Schools that have been identified as in one or two year receivership,  five “persistently struggling”  schools are targeted as the first to be required to show “demonstrable improvement” this year or face take-over by an outside receiver.  So, what constitutes “demonstrable improvement”?  It takes a score card and maybe an attorney to understand the bureaucratic strategies, which define “demonstrable improvement.”   Since the law went into effect in July 2015 the State Education Department has issued publications, held a number of workshops, webinars, and conducted phone conferences with impacted Districts to explain this hastily constructed assessment.   SED identifies “demonstrable improvement” as being comprised of three elements: a) “Performance Indicators b) Years of Identification (as a persistently struggling or struggling school) c) the superintendent (receiver’s) successful use of receivership powers to implement the school’s plan.”

The Performance Indicators are comprised of a series of data  points or measures, such as scores on the ELA and Math tests (the percentage of students whose scores improve, to be more precise); number of serious incidents that occur at the school, attendance/suspension rates; test scores of specific subgroups in the school population.  There are also measures of teacher attendance/absenteeism or teachers teaching out of their certification area.  These are only a few examples, however some of these indicators are grouped under the heading of Level 1 and some are deemed Level 2.  Level 1 indicators are those that are selected by the State, which the schools must accept.  Level 2 indicators can be selected by the schools, although it does become a bit confusing when the State acknowledges that there are some schools for which they cannot identify a requisite number of Level 1 indicators. In the case of that scenario, the District must identify enough Level 2 indicators to make up for the discrepancy.

In any event, the indicators must be ones that the schools have not been successful in attaining.   The State has set baseline measures for each of these indicators.  If the school has obtained proficiency for any specific indicator, attendance as an example, attendance cannot be chosen as a Level 2 indicator.  The final number of indicators to be met is ten; 5 determined by the State and 5 by the Superintendent Receiver and the school’s Community Engagement Team.  Each indicator has a weight of 10% leading to the sum total of 100 percentage points.  A school will achieve demonstrable progress if they score 67% or higher at the end of year one (2015-2016).  Of course, if they don’t achieve the minimum percentage, they have not demonstrated improvement; UNLESS, there are extenuating circumstances which prevented this achievement.  The Commissioner will have the power to determine the next steps in this case.  Which brings me back to one of the other components the State identified as indicative of “demonstrable improvement”;   the “superintendent’s use of receivership powers to implement the school’s plan”.

I haven’t seen the criteria that the Commissioner will use to evaluate this “measure”.  How will the State determine that the Superintendent used his receivership powers to implement the plan?  Are the actions of our Superintendent, e.g. to request that the Commissioner impose changes to the union contract ample and sufficient reasons to judge this criteria?  Or is the State looking for something more dramatic or confrontational?  Or perhaps, more collegial and collaborative?  Since I have not been able to find a definition for this particular “measure” of “demonstrable improvement”, we’ll have to wait and see. 

I must come back to the analogy of “building the plane, while flying it” as it has never been more apropos.  The “persistently struggling” schools have one year - THIS YEAR - to show “demonstrable improvement”.  Take special note that this is the same year that the State is defining and refining while implementing the foregoing, untested plan.   This convoluted plan sets the stage for outside receivership.   I urge the readers to go to   and download the PowerPoint presentation that explains “demonstrable improvement” and how the State plans to get there.  I can’t fully detail it in this short article.  A local news broadcast boasts of “holding people in power accountable.”   Major decisions will be made, based on the outcomes of “demonstrable improvement” gains in the schools, but who will evaluate and hold the State Education Department accountable for its actions?

As for the analogy to Andrew J. Smitherman’s fight against the Guardianship Racket?  There is much to learn from the battles he waged against an unjust system:  educate the public, identify the harm suffered by specific people and the population in general; plan and execute the resistance.  And finally, Persist. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

It's Time to Refuse the Test

We have a problem.  And have had this problem for some time.  Politicians, Businessmen, news reporters and some educational leaders would have us believe that using standardized testing to hold children and schools accountable is fair, equitable, good educational pedagogy and sound psychometric practice.

We’ve allowed our children to be victimized by high-stakes testing that labels them as “failures”, “struggling”, or “persistently struggling” (the latest in a long list of discriminatory terms).  I’ve written a number of columns about the standardized English Language Arts and Math tests that the State uses to determine “accountability” for students, schools and school districts.  But the significance of these tests bears repeating as the focus of the new Receivership law is to impose receivership, aka the take-over of schools identified as “persistently struggling” or “struggling”.   The legitimacy of instituting this system is tied to the standardized tests, which are aligned with the dubious Common Core Learning Standards.

There are numerous reasons why we should question the validity of using these tests as a principal measure of our children’s capability and a determinant of the future of our schools.  The tests 1) are not developmentally appropriate – reading levels are far above the grade level being tested 2) are not diagnostic; they don’t provide information that helps the teacher target individual student learning needs 3) are not differentiated by student need as almost all children take the same test, regardless of their cognitive ability or their English language proficiency; it’s a one size fits all approach  4) encourage teaching to the test at the expense of time for other subjects  5) demoralize and frustrate children.  In addition test results are being used to grade schools and to evaluate educators, even though statistics experts dispute the validity of this methodology.

In 2015 thousands of New York State parents were alarmed by these problems and refused to have their children take the tests. Their movement has ignited a resistance that sent a message, loud and clear about the harm that these tests are doing, especially to children.  In fact over 220,000 students opted out of taking the tests this past Spring.  Most of those parents were in suburban and rural schools, which are not targeted for State takeover.  Yet, these parents are and should be concerned that the enormous precedent of the Receivership law will have a deleterious impact on all public schools throughout the State.  However, New York State parents are not alone in opposing the subjection of students to senseless testing.

This is a national movement, which is increasingly supported by professional educators; teachers, principals, superintendents, other educational professionals and Boards of Education.  The Vermont State Board of Education recently issued a statement to caution parents about the over-reliance on a standardized test in judging student achievement.  In a November 4th memo, which was sent to all parents in the State, the Board said:

“You have received, or will receive in the near future, a report of your child’s standardized “Smarter Balanced” test results from the Vermont Comprehensive Assessment Program. This report is provided in the national assessment consortium’s format. We are working on a friendlier and more appropriate presentation for next year.

Tests are useful if used within the limits of their design, but they cannot provide you with a comprehensive picture by themselves. The State Board and Agency of Education support using a broad range of tools, measures and methods to help you and educators understand and improve your child’s learning.
We call your attention to the box labeled “scale score and overall performance.” These levels give too simplistic and too negative a message to students and parents. The tests are at a very high level. In fact, no nation has ever achieved at such a level. Do not let the results wrongly discourage your child from pursuing his or her talents, ambitions, hopes or dreams.

These tests are based on a narrow definition of “college and career ready.” In truth, there are many different careers and colleges, and there are just as many different definitions of essential skills. In fact, many (if not most) successful adults fail to score well on standardized tests. If your child’s scores show that they are not yet proficient, this does not mean that they are not doing well or will not do well in the future. 

We also recommend that you not place a great deal of emphasis on the “claims” or sub-scores. There are just not enough test items to give you reliable information.
Essentially, these test scores best serve to show the progress that our schools are making, and to help teachers adapt their curriculum to fit the needs of their students.
As a parent, encourage your child to reach as high as he or she can. Let her or him know that they are worthy and capable. Keep track of how well your child is doing over time and use that information to help your child grow as a learner. Meet with your child’s teachers so that they understand your child and so you can work as a team.
We must give every student a thorough and comprehensive education, and provide the nurturing and support each child needs to grow into an effective, productive, and self-directed citizen. In turn, these young people must be the strong parents for the generations of Vermonters yet to come.”
Kudos, Vermont State Board of Education for providing this enlightened statement about the place of standardized testing in children’s education.   As my colleague, Dr. Harris-Tigg observed, a standardized test is not a measure of real life.  We should ask the pertinent questions about the value of the current ELA and Math tests and how or if they are valid measures for all the children who are required to take them. Until those answers address how the tests benefit children, we should refuse the tests.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Receivership in Action

Receivership (Education Law 211-F (8) I know, it’s the law of the land – that is the State of New York.  But that does not make it a good law.  Nor is it a given that its tenets can be translated into a feasible strategy for school improvement. Yet as of July 2015, it is the law and thanks to the powers that be, Buffalo and its School District are at the epicenter of educational controversy once again.  As of November 10th, the Buffalo School District and its students have been thrust into the position of becoming the test case of the State’s new Receivership law.  The failure of the Superintendent and the Buffalo Teachers Federation to sign a Memorandum of Understanding has provided Commissioner MaryEllen Elia the impetus to flex her statutory powers to enforce the agreement without the Union’s consent.  The Commissioner’s action has given Buffalo’s Superintendent Receiver extraordinarily authority to dictate changes he deems necessary “to make demonstrable improvement in student performance” in 5 “persistently struggling schools”.  

The Commissioner’s decision should come as no surprise to anyone who has been watching her interactions with the District.  During her first visit to Buffalo, after just a week on the job, she delivered an ultimatum to the Board.  Couching her concerns in the reform cliché of “urgency” she signaled her intention to force the District into compliance with this new mandate.   This ruling makes good on that promise/threat (depending on your point of view).  However, the issuance of a 107 page opinion, accompanied by a 10 point executive summary, raises more questions about the implementation and the efficacy of the Receivership model than it answers.  It has also set the stage for serious examination of and opposition to this law.

Since the passage of the Receivership legislation and the frantic rush of the State Education Department to create regulations to implement the law, I have raised questions about the law and its ultimate impact on urban schools and students.    My concerns are elevated by the complacency and blind acceptance of, assumption that, and ignorance of……..  a law which was created to influence educational reform, but developed by politicians to be imposed by bureaucrats.  And although its scope, for now, is confined to a small number of schools, Receivership and its implementation bear an eerie similarity to that of the Common Core.  The timeframe for implementation of the Receivership model is evocative of the infamous claim by former SED Commissioner John King, regarding Common Core, that he was building the plane while flying it.  Buffalo’s Superintendent Receiver has to pilot a jet because he has one year (the clock started before State Ed fully developed regulations for Receivership) to show “demonstrable progress” in the “persistently struggling” schools.  Failure will allow the Commissioner to order the Board to hire an outside receiver, who will be given three years to accomplish the impossible.

Receivership, like the Common Core has not been field tested.  Oh, but that’s what we’ll be doing in Buffalo!  Other districts will have the opportunity to learn from our experiences.  And we will have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.  But at what cost to our students?

Questions about Common Core’s development, validity and impact on student achievement are also relevant to Receivership. The Receivership law is not based on educational research:   Where are the models that demonstrate successful receivership?  Oh wait; there is a model of receivership right here in New York.  In 2002, the New York State Ed Department took over Long Island’s Roosevelt School District and held it in receivership for over a decade.  The District was returned to local control in 2013.  And where is Roosevelt School District today?  On the list with one of its five schools designated as a “struggling school” slated for receivership.

So, I repeat.  Where are the models that demonstrate successful receivership? What does a receiver do that positively impacts student achievement?  Buffalo’s Superintendent Receiver identified ten specific changes he wants to make at the schools.  For example, he will now be able to move “effective” teachers without their agreement to “persistently struggling” schools.  But how will he determine who the “effective” teachers are?  Are they the teachers whose students have scored at the proficient level on the ELA and Math exams?  Since 40% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student assessments that seems like a plausible criterion.  Yet from our own experience, as students, we know there are many intangibles that contribute to making good, effective teachers.  Another question; Will “effective” teachers be moved from current schools in good standing?   The Receiver’s plans must spell out and provide verified data to answer these and other questions.  The State has tied this plan to “accountability” and we should demand that transparency and openness also anchor it.

Buffalo is a fragile District.  We have new leadership in the Superintendent Receiver, appointed two months ago; numerous vacancies in key administrative positions; a teacher’s contract that needs to be resolved; and more.  The Board is fractionalized, to put it politely. In addition, we are still required to address previous State Education mandates, “out of time schools”; creation of new schools; and the Office of Civil Rights complaint related to our criterion schools that has yet to be resolved.  As we are now forced to add Receivership to this list, the ultimate question is:  Will receivership help us to positively increase student achievement or is this yet another “quick fix” mandate impacting our most vulnerable students but offering little to change their educational landscape?   

Monday, November 2, 2015

Has Arne Duncan had an Epiphany about High Stakes Testing?

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed signature legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act, establishing educational policy that has defined many educational reform issues challenging public education today.  The intended goal of NCLB was to “close student achievement gaps by providing all children with a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.  By the year 2014, all children were expected to be proficient or exceed proficiency, at grade level, in reading and math.  NCLB established a regime of annual standardized testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school to monitor this achievement.

Evidence of progress in the attainment of the NCLB goals is determined by an accountability system called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  Applicable to states, individual schools and school districts the data collected from these standardized assessments to use to measure the academic performance (AYP)of all students, including subgroups such as students with disabilities and students who are English Language Learners.  A consequence of a school or school district not meeting AYP for two, three, four or more consecutive years leads to enforced reform plans, e.g. School Improvement or Turn Around Plans; charter conversion or outside school takeover in the most severe cases.

We are a year beyond the 2014 target date of the No Child Left Behind legislation, which has not achieved its goal.  More and more schools, especially in urban districts like Buffalo are sinking further and further in the quicksand for not meeting AYP.  As a result they are labeled as failures and headed for Receivership.  At the same time, there is a growing movement that challenges the validity of the standardized testing, which provides the foundation for AYP.  Over the last year I have written several articles about the push to limit or eliminate high stakes testing.  The principal arguments are:
1) they are not developmentally appropriate – reading levels are far above the grade level being tested 2) the tests are not diagnostic; they don’t provide information that helps the teacher target student learning needs 3) almost all children take the same test, regardless of their ability or their English language proficiency; it’s a one size fits all approach  4) the emphasis on the tests encourages teaching to the test at the expense of time for other subjects  5) children are being demoralized and frustrated by long hours of testing 6) tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores is a mis-use of these measures.  Additionally, questions have been raised about over-testing.

A newly released study by the Council of Great City Schools found that the average “student in the 66 districts (responding to the study) were required to take an average of 112.3 tests between pre-K and grade 12. (This number does not include optional tests, diagnostic tests for students with disabilities or English learners, school-developed or required tests, or teacher designed or developed tests.)”

This astounding finding, confirming the overuse of testing, is cited as contributing to the October 24th announcement, by outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, of a new Federal initiative entitled, Testing Action Plan.  Supported by President Obama, the Testing Action Plan, seemingly agrees with many of the arguments against high stakes testing and offers an admission that : “In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students. The Administration bears some of the responsibility for this, and we are committed to being part of the solution.”
Further, Duncan asserts that tests:  “Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creative approaches from our classrooms.  In the vital effort to ensure that all students in America are achieving at high levels, it is essential to ensure that tests are fair, are of high quality, take up the minimum necessary time, and reflect the expectation that students will be prepared for success in college and careers.”

While this acknowledgement appears to confirm the position of many of us who oppose high stakes testing, the Plan does not call for a total revamping of the standardized testing machine that is undermining public education but rather seeks to manage it in a kinder, gentler manner.  Not unlike the creation by Governor Cuomo of Common Core Task Force to review and make “recommendations to overhaul the current Common Core system and the way we test our students” in New York State, this federal “Plan” requires scrutiny and skepticism.  I encourage readers to read Daniel Katz , as well as others, for an in depth analysis of the Duncan Plan.  It is essential for the future education of our children that we continue the fight to eliminate the reliance on and inappropriate use of standardized testing.