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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Perfect Storm

"Dickensian" is defined in the Oxford dictionary as follows:
  • of or reminiscent of the novels of Charles Dickens, especially in suggesting the poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters that they portray:
This is a "Dickensian" themed posting. This Blog entry begins with a famous quote crafted by one of my favorite authors, Charles Dickens. It is the opening paragraph of his classic, Tale of Two Cities. It supports the preparation of this posting from a vantage point of thirty-eight years in the field of public school education.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

There are times, albeit rare, that several different social, political, technological and economic factors converge to produce educational chaos in support of Aristotle's contention, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." The points I will present in this Blog entry do not, in and of themselves, pose an insurmountable obstacle to success or progress. In my opinion, other than the discourse and disagreement on a coherent direction, we have the means at our disposal (data, practice, systems and commitment) in our society to attain the outcomes we desire in education, once we arrive at a shared destination. However, when these same factors are combined in time and conflict in resources they form a potentially toxic and excruciating mix with results that will not be known for quite some time and doubtlessly be subject to partisan interpretation.

The tremendous capacity we enjoy in terms of electronic storage, retrieval, and analysis is an incredible tool for any organization. However, like anything else, there is a flip side that poses challenges and consequences. Renown statistician and forecaster Nate Silver (who famously predicted the outcome of 49 of 50 state voting outcomes in the recent presidential election) appeared in an interview in the current edition of Fast Company magazine. During the interview he referred to the overwhelming flow of data as follows: "The flood of data means more 'noise' (i.e. useless information) but not necessarily more 'signal' (i.e. truth). Substitute the word information for truth and you have a challenge school districts face. All of the mountains of data that can be disaggregated does not magically reassemble as leverage points for successful informed decision making. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once likened his experience sorting through the mass of data to "drinking water through a fire hose."

A case can be made that New York State prostituted itself to secure $700,000,000 in competitive federal grants through Race To The Top money to bail its Department of Education out during a time of suffocating financial stress. It now appears that much of the infrastructure of the department has been sub-contracted to educational giant Pearson (the company behind the expanded and imposing state assessments and related materials that support the test). Now under pressure from many sides attacking the testing program and the Common Core Learning Standards, the commissioner of education is traveling around the state soliciting moral and political support for these programs from big business.

Part of the agreement that netted the federal funds included lifting the ceiling on Charter Schools within the state. Few people realize that the cost of tuition for learners attending Charter schools is borne by the public school district in which the learner resides. In our case, each Green Island resident who enrolls in a Charter school costs our district $12,666 plus the cost of transportation.

Just prior to the annual school district budget vote in Albany in May of 2012, residents of Albany received a flashy, professionally prepared mailing listing reasons to defeat the public school budget. The local newspaper, The Times Union, tracked down the origin of the mailing (which they estimated cost $10,000) and discovered a connection to an individual with significant interests in the company that manages the handful of Charter schools operating within Albany under the auspices of Brighter Choice. If the public school budget was defeated it would prompt even deeper cuts in staffing and programs. Such losses would thereby make Charter schools more appealing to parents tired of rising class sizes and lost programs and, as a result attract more money to Brighter Choice. Needless to say, it is illegal for public schools in New York to use public funds to attempt to persuade the public how to vote. Fortunately, the newspaper broke the story in time and reflected light on an otherwise hidden subject and that may have helped the district receive an affirmative vote supporting their budget.

Is it any wonder, with the substantial challenges facing public schools, that there are a growing number of school districts across the state who were unable to attract enough candidates for membership on the local Board of Education to fill the vacancies they had available?

Schools nearly everywhere have been strangled by a distressed economy at the state and national levels. Even the most optimistic and resourceful among school leaders has grown weary of the mantra thrust upon it by politicians and businesses, "Do more with less" or "Work smarter, not harder." In New York State, the governor, staring at a significant budget deficit in 2008, closed the gap by initiating a "one time only" reach in the cookie jar reallocation of state aid to education. The cuts were called "Gap Elimination." Schools took a hit for the team and suffered miserably with huge decreases to staff and programs. However, years later, the Gap Elimination remains in use. Our district has realized an accumulative loss in state aid of approximately $2,200,000 since 2008. Our total annual operating budget is just shy of $7,000,000. That's significant!

I could list examples of stressed out children and teachers featured in countless articles chronicling the pressure of newly imposed state tests that are directly related to teacher evaluation, but instead I will offer reprint of a commentary that appeared a few days ago in The Times Union. The author, Ed Sullivan, presents an interesting perspective on the potential impact of administering tests based on the Common Core Learning Standards before the CCLS curriculum has been introduced and supported with accessible materials sufficient to prepare learners for the exams:

The Board of Regents, which oversees education in New York, has authorized tests to be given to elementary school students based on what's known as the "Core Curriculum." The Core has been adopted nationwide, by 45 of the 50 states, plus the federal Education Department and President Barack Obama.
Only two states have authorized the tests to begin immediately, however. New York is one.
Despite considerable controversy over the value of the Core-based tests, Meryl Tisch, Chancellor of the Board of Regents, has said: "We believe that this is the right thing for students and teachers right now."
The Core Curriculum contains subject matter and problems which, for all the Regents know, have never been presented to many of the students taking the tests. The Regents might have taken steps to implement the Core Curriculum in the classroom first. They might have required each district and therefore each school, to teach the Core subject matter that would eventually be confronted by the students in the tests. Then, once the material had been presented to the students, the Regents could have tested them to find out how well the material had been learned.
But the Regents didn't do that. They have required many students to take the tests before being prepared to pass the tests. The material that they have never seen will befuddle those students, and, regrettably, they will blame themselves for not doing well.
Of course, some students will do well. Students from upper middle class families, whose parents have the leisure time to keep their children ahead of the wave in their school work, will do better. And parents who have the money to hire tutors or send their kids to prep classes will do best of all.
But students whose parents never went to college, or even finished high school, and students whose parents would like to help their kids through school but simply don't know how to go about it, will be blind sided. And they will blame themselves for being confused. Why wouldn't they. They couldn't imagine their teachers setting a trap for them like this.
And why indeed did their teachers, and the school district superintendents, and the Board of Regents set the students up, set many of them up for certain failure?
There is a notion afloat that this nation is falling behind in the global race to produce the best educated citizens. That there even is such a race is dubious thinking, but that drum is beat so constant that it creates the reality of an educational race to the top.
The resources devoted to education, many argue, have to be focused on winning that race, and assisting those students who have the best chance of moving ahead toward educational and economic success.
Who are those students?
They are the very students who will do well in these examinations, for which the general school population was inadequately prepared. If you have the kind of parents who will help you up the ladder to success, you will be welcomed on board the education express. And if your parents are not able to do that, for whatever reason, we would just be wasting our limited educational resources bringing you up to speed.
You did badly on the test that you weren't prepared for, we are effectively saying. That's a bad omen for your future studies. Better start thinking community college. Get to the back of the line.
The whole notion of education being a stepladder to success in American society is being abandoned. We don't seem to have time to deal with the wretched refuse of our own teeming shores, let alone immigrants. Let's move on.
There is certainly no evidence that the Board of Regents intentionally wants to skew the test results in favor of students whose parents are better able to help them succeed. But that will be the inevitable result.
That will be bad for social mobility in New York, the state that invented social mobility through education. In the long run, it will be to everyone's disadvantage.
Ed Sullivan is a former college professor and former chairman of the state Assembly's Higher Education Committee.

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