Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Romney Education Plan: ‘Get the teacher unions out’

by Christopher Paslay

Mitt Romney’s school reform plan calls for confronting unions, ignoring class size, and discounting teacher experience.    

Mitt Romney’s new message on the education front is his pledge to take on teachers unions in an effort to—cue the Michelle Rhee drum roll—put students first!  “We have got to put the kids first and put these teachers unions behind,” Romney said recently on Fox News Sunday.  “. . . I want there to be action taken to get the teacher unions out and to get the kids once again receiving the education they need.” 

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Romney had just finished watching Waiting for Superman.  His belief that teachers unions are stopping public school children from receiving proper educations scores a “10” on the cliché meter and shows just how lazy he’s been when it comes to rolling up his sleeves and doing some real, evidence-based research into the many challenges facing America’s public schools. 

Teachers Unions: The Root of All Evil?

Since Romney deals in clichés (and fails to acknowledge all the good things teachers unions have done over the past 150 years, like improve conditions in schools, upgrade curriculum and teacher credentials, and make it so every child can learn to read and write, regardless of race, social class, and gender) let’s analyze the three most fashionable criticisms of teachers unions: that they give bad teachers a lifetime appointment in the classroom; that they receive cushy contracts from politicians in exchange for political support; and that they stand in the way of progress.               

As I’ve written about before (see “Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers,” 3/20/12), public schools are self-regulating: teacher turnover is costing America over $7 billion annually; 17 percent of all of public school teachers quit every year; 56 percent of America’s new teachers quit within five years; and over one-quarter of America’s public school teachers have five years experience or less.  Where is the “lifetime appointment”?      

Here are the numbers behind the “cushy contracts” garnered by unions: the median salary of kindergarten teachers in 2011 was $31,500; for elementary school teachers it was $49,200; and for high school teachers it was $52,700.  As for benefits, most public school employees contribute to their pensions and medical insurance (teachers in Pennsylvania contribute 7.5 percent of every check to their pension).  This can hardly be considered “cushy”.               

As for standing in the way of progress, teachers unions opposed No Child Left Behind (but this didn’t stop it from being passed), a school reform bill that has been criticized by educational policy experts across the political spectrum for it’s over reliance on flawed test data and the narrowing of school curriculum; Romney himself said it needs to be significantly changed and reauthorized.  NCLB has been in place since 2002—over a decade—and the racial achievement gap hasn’t changed, nor has the achievement gap between the rich and the poor; the wealth gap has gotten bigger.

Teachers unions also oppose taking public tax dollars and putting them into privately operated charter schools (but this hasn’t stopped every state in America from doing it), a practice that has gotten mixed results at best. Charter schools perform no better academically than traditional schools, yet have the luxury of removing failing or disruptive students.  Financial mismanagement and lack of oversight are recurring problems for charters, and growing research is showing they are not equitable—English language learners, special needs students, and minorities are being weeded out.

Is this the “progress” critics of unions are talking about?   

 Teacher Pay: Old vs. New

Romney wants to pay new teachers more.  “We should pay our beginning teachers more,” Romney said at a recent campaign stop in Illinois. “The national unions are too interested in benefits for the older teachers.”

By “older teachers” does Romney mean the ones with the most skills and experience?  The ones that have dedicated their entire careers to their students and survived the poorest neighborhoods with the least amount of resources?  The ones that have for years paid out of their own pocket for classroom materials, endured the insanity of misguided school reform, forged lasting relationships with their students, and saved the lives of some of America’s most troubled youth?  Those “older teachers”?             

By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones with less than five years experience?  The ones that studies show are still learning their craft and struggle with instruction and classroom management?  By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones who enter the profession through Teach for America, over half of which quit in two years?  Or those who enter the field via the traditional route, over half of which quit in five years?    

 Class Size

Romney doesn’t think class size matters.  In other words, he doesn’t feel the need to increase educational funding, or worry about per pupil spending.  “I studied [class size],” Romney said in Illinois.  “There was no relationship between classroom size and how the kids did.” 

Really?  So there’s no difference between teaching a class of 33 or 23?  No difference in classroom management?  No difference in the amount of time for individualized instruction?  No difference in time for grading papers and contacting parents?  Or the money needed for resources and supplies?  Money for paper?  Books?  Laptops?  Field trips?  No difference between 23 and 33, huh?             

There is, of course, plenty of research that says class size does matter, like the U.S. Department of Education’s report analyzing the multitude of benefits achieved via Bill Clinton’s National Class Size Reduction Program.  And then there’s the State of Tennessee’s STAR report.    

From his recent remarks on the campaign trail it’s become obvious that Mitt Romney has limited knowledge of public education in America, and is simply using talking points to pander to his base.  Either way, he’s alienating millions of hard working school teachers across the country, and putting politics ahead of the educational interest of our nation’s children.

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Secretary Duncan Changes His Stance on ‘Shaming’ Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

After backlash from the education community, Arne Duncan rethinks his position on making teacher evaluations public.      

In August 1862, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Horace Greeley, an editor of the New York Tribune, stating, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” 

Although I can’t read the mind of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and find out how he truly feels about publishing the evaluations of public school teachers in newspapers, I’d be willing to bet his thinking is similar to Lincoln’s: If he could save his credibility without shaming any teachers, he would do it; and if he could save it by shaming all the teachers, he would do it; and if he could do it by shaming some and leaving others alone, he would also do that.     

At least that’s how it appears.  In August of 2010, when the Los Angeles Times made public the ratings of all of the teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Secretary Duncan supported the idea.  The Los Angeles Times covered the story:      

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday that parents have a right to know if their children’s teachers are effective, endorsing the public release of information about how well individual teachers fare at raising their students’ test scores.

“What’s there to hide?” Duncan said in an interview one day after The Times published an analysis of teacher effectiveness in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest school system. “In education, we’ve been scared to talk about success.”

Duncan’s comments mark the first time the Obama administration has expressed support for a public airing of information about teacher performance—a move that is sure to fan the already fierce debate over how to better evaluate teachers.

Last week, in an interview with Education Week writer Stephen Sawchuk, Secretary Duncan did a complete about-face and said newspapers shouldn’t publish teacher ratings.  Sawchuk wrote about his interview with Duncan on his blog:

Publishing teachers’ ratings in the newspaper in the way The New York Times and other outlets have done recently is not a good use of performance data, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview yesterday.

“Do you need to publish every single teacher’s rating in the paper? I don’t think you do,” he said. “There’s not much of an upside there, and there’s a tremendous downside for teachers. We’re at a time where morale is at a record low. … We need to be sort of strengthening teachers, and elevating and supporting them.”

Why the sudden change of heart?  Perhaps Duncan is just now realizing how pointless it is to make teacher ratings public.  Other than exploiting the public’s urge to see teachers pilloried, what good can it do; it’s counterproductive to think you can humiliate educators into becoming better instructors.  Plus, the “value-added” ratings are flawed and based too heavily on standardized test scores, which policy experts argue is harming education by narrowing curriculum and overlooking the intangible benefits of good teaching.     

Of course, Duncan could be changing his tune for political purposes, because he’s suddenly realized shaming teachers isn’t going to score the kind of points he thought it once would.  Surprisingly, his attempt to fan the flames of the public’s anti-teacher mentality has backfired.  When powerful education philanthropists such as Bill Gates write opinion pieces in the New York Times titled “Shame is not the solution,” explaining that embarrassing teachers “doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback,” and that such methods are a “cheap” way to fix real problems, people like Duncan start to listen. 

Duncan did attempt to address the reason for his sudden flip-flop in the Sawchuk interview, however.  Basically, he suggested that the whole debacle was the fault of the Los Angeles public schools.       

“What I was reacting to in L.A. was this mind-boggling situation where teachers were denied access to this data. The only way they could get it was through the newspaper,” he said. “There was clearly some level of dysfunction [in the district], that this was the only way they could get it.”

The only way teachers could get their own personal evaluation data was through the newspaper?  Did I hear this correctly?    

It’s clear there’s some egg on the Secretary’s face, and on President Obama’s by association.  But only time will tell if Duncan’s attempt to save his credibility will be as successful as Honest Abe’s strategy was to save the Union from succession.

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Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

High teacher attrition rates show that tenure is not preventing the bad apples from being weeded out.        

There’s a very real belief in the United States that tenure and collective bargaining are keeping large numbers of burned-out, incompetent teachers in classrooms where they rob students of their right to learn.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial “Firing bad teachers” is a case in point:

“One way to improve public education is to speed up the process to remove bad teachers from the classroom.

Unfortunately, getting rid of bad apples has become nearly impossible under union tenure rules that were crafted to protect teachers’ rights but too often deny children a decent education.

The antiquated system fails to hold teachers with a bad performance record accountable. They should not be allowed to wear tenure like a badge of honor that entitles them to a lifetime appointment in the classroom.”

Does tenure provide lousy teachers with a lifetime appointment in the classroom? 

Hardly. 

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for an incompetent teacher to remain in the classroom for an extended period of time in the 21st century.  The idea that American public schools are housing a significant population of burned-out educators milking the system just isn’t true. 

A closer look at teacher attrition rates—as well as the profiles of America’s teachers—yields interesting results.  Here are some statistics from the 2007 policy brief “The High Cost of Teacher Turnover” and the report “Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011”:

  • Teacher turnover is costing America $7.3 billion annually
  • 17% of all of public school teachers quit every year
  • 20 percent of urban teachers quit yearly
  • Over half of America’s new teachers (56%) quit within five years
  • In Philadelphia from 1999 to 2005, the teacher turnover rate (70%) was higher than the student dropout rate (42%)
  • In 2011, over a quarter of America’s public school teachers (26%) had five years experience or less 
  • 21% of America’s public school teachers are 29 years old or younger

Teacher attrition is similar when it comes to alternative certification programs and charter schools.  Over 50% of Teach for America educators leave their assignments after two years.  A study tracking teachers working for KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) in the Bay Area revealed annual turnover rates which ranged from 18 percent to 49 percent from 2003-04 to 2007-08.      

The truth is, despite teacher tenure and collective bargaining by unions, public schools are not overpopulated with long term educational louses hiding in the cracks.  In fact, the notion that tenure creates a lifetime appointment for teacher incompetence is greatly exaggerated.            

America’s public school system is self-regulating.  In other words, incompetent teachers don’t last very long, as the above data shows.  The biggest factor driving bad teachers from the classroom are the kids themselves.  If teachers can’t connect with their students, if they argue, butt heads, and create a toxic learning environment, the odds are they won’t survive.  It’s too draining a situation—physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

The same is true for parents and school administrators.  Incompetent teachers are in constant disharmony with the mothers and fathers of their pupils and spend the majority of their energy battling principals.  Couple this with more rigorous classroom observations and school overhauls at the hands of No Child Left Behind, and most so-called “lousy” teachers are at the breaking point; it is all but impossible for them to hang on to their jobs for “life”.     

Bad teachers do exist, of course, but in no greater quantity than in any other profession.  You can argue test scores prove the existence of bad teachers—that an unacceptable percentage of students aren’t reading or doing math at grade-level—but does this prove teachers are lousy or incompetent?  Does the fact that homicide rates in big cities are unacceptable prove our police force is rife with deadwood?  Is our country’s unacceptable obesity rate an indictment of American nutritionists?   

Interestingly, school teachers and their unions remain society’s whipping boy.  Dom Giordano’s recent commentary, “To help Philadelphia students learn better, let’s start grading teachers,” is a prime example:     

“Unfortunately, that is why you have schools in which an all-star teacher is helping children learn and excel; next door, an incompetent teacher is protected by collective bargaining and is allowed to give kids an inferior education. We are told by their union that no difference exists. Tell that to the parents of kids stuck with the inferior teachers.”

Incompetent teacher right next door, protected by union tenure?  Sounds like someone needs to call the cliché police on Mr. Giordano, and quick.  The chances are the teacher in Giordano’s example doesn’t even exist, and if he does, the odds are that he’ll eventually be run out of his classroom by displeased parents, an angry principal, or the draining effects of disruptive students.    

Scrapping tenure isn’t going to improve the quality of America’s teachers, although it may do irreparable harm to our nation’s best educators.  Collective bargaining is simply no match for the Darwinian principle of Natural Selection.

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Bullets In a Philadelphia Classroom

from The Village Proposal

by Christopher Paslay

A student shows up to journalism class with bullets—but the good kind.

In the spring semester of 2002, I was given the opportunity to teach Journalism.  A primary function of the class, which was open to all Swenson students interested in news writing and current events, was to produce the school newspaper.  This was one of the first orders of business when the class began.  The first week I broke students into groups of three and asked them to brainstorm for possible names for the paper.  Students began writing titles down on slips of paper, at which time I collected and read them aloud to the class and asked for feedback.

“Okay,” I said.  “How about the ‘Swenson Voice’?”

“Man, that’s corny.”

“How about ‘The Pulse’?”

Boo,” someone shouted.

Finally, after three days of discussion, an African American student named Lawrence came up with The Swenson Scroll, a title that struck a chord in me immediately.  Interestingly, when I read the title to the class, there was only a lukewarm reception.  Some students still thought it was “corny”.  As the teacher of the class I eventually overruled them: The Swenson Scroll it was.

My next objective for the class was to give the students a crash course on news.  What was news, exactly?  What were its elements?  Where did you find it and how did you report it?  Being that it was a beginner’s course, I explained to students that news had to be three basic things: interesting, accurate, and important

We spent a week learning these principles, dissecting newspaper articles and watching news broadcasts.  We talked about sex and violence in news, and whether it was the media’s job to inform or to entertain.  We talked about the difference between subjectivity and objectivity, or put another way, the difference between opinion and fact.  We had lengthy discussions on whether total objectivity in journalism was even possible—could news really be “fair and balanced?”—being that an editor’s decision on what news to cover and how to cover it could have serious consequences on the public’s perception of the world around them. . . .

. . . Once the students began writing their stories, it usually took the entire 96 minute class period to finish.  Most students needed to rewrite their articles at least once before they produced anything worth publishing.  It took some students even longer to get it right.

Lawrence, the most enthused student in the class, often rewrote his articles several times before he perfected what he was trying to say.  At one point during the semester, Lawrence had come to me with a story he’d written about Swenson’s teen pregnancy program.  Excited, he showed me his article so I could approve it and put it in the current issue of The Scroll.

I read his article with a poker face, but Lawrence saw through it; he knew there was a problem.

“What’s wrong with it?” he asked.

“It’s too wordy,” I told him.  “You have this big long introduction, but you don’t say much.  This is a good start, but where are the facts?  Where are the five W’s?”

Lawrence reread his opening paragraph.  Then he explained to me that he was trying to grab the reader by telling a mini-story in the opening.  I told him that it was good effort and a good idea, but that it wasn’t working.  His personal anecdote was just confusing things and delaying the real facts of the story.

“Should I rewrite it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I told him.  “Get right to the facts.  Remember, the most important information comes first.”

Lawrence nodded, took his paper and went back to work.

The next day, at the end of class, Lawrence came back up to my desk with his rewritten article and asked me to give it another look.  I did.  However, it was still too wordy, and I told him so.

“Bullets,” I said to him.  “You have to write in bullets.”

“What’s that?”

“It means your sentences need to be short and powerful.  Bang!  Right to the point.  One after the other: bang, bang, bang.  Like bullets.  What’s with all these words, Lawrence?  I’ve read your writing before, and I know you can write much tighter than this.  You’re thinking too much.  You’re trying to sound too sophisticated, and you’re not saying what you mean.  Just say what you mean, real simple.  Just say it.  Don’t worry about how it sounds.  If you do that, your style will come naturally, so will your voice.  Does this make sense?”

Lawrence stood thinking for a minute.

“Bullets,” I told him.  “Go back and rewrite it.  Keep it tight, and get to the facts.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

The next day Lawrence came back with his article after a third rewrite.  I took it from him and read it, quite pleased by his progress.

“Bullets?” he asked me.

“Bullets,” I told him.  “Congratulations, Lawrence.  You made it into the school paper.  Nice job, buddy.”

“Thanks!”

A week later, when the paper was published, Lawrence was all smiles.  So were the 16 other students whose articles had made it into the Swenson Scroll.  That April, during Swenson’s spring parent-teacher conferences, Lawrence’s mother came by my classroom to meet me and discuss Lawrence’s progress.

“Lawrence really enjoys your class,” she told me, proud of her son.  “He really respects you as a teacher, too.  He talks about your class all the time.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “That’s good to hear.  Lawrence is a great kid.  Excellent student.  He always puts in one-hundred-and-ten-percent.”

Lawrence’s mother smiled.  “He was just so proud of his article in the school newspaper, let me tell you.  He carried it around with him for a week.  Showed everybody in the entire family.  It’s now hanging up on the refrigerator for all to see.”

“That’s really great to hear,” I said.  “Good for Lawrence.”

I shook hands with Lawrence’s mother and she left.  Lawrence would go on to publish two more articles in the paper, and finish the class was a 95 average.

The following year, when Lawrence was a senior, I kept-up my relationship with him, occasionally seeing him around school and chatting with him in the halls.  He looked different his senior year, however.  He was thinner by at least 15 pounds.  He was also wearing a new hairstyle, keeping his head completely bald.  Later, of course, I’d learn that it wasn’t a new hairstyle at all, but the aftereffects of chemotherapy.  Lawrence had brain cancer, and was slowly losing his health.  He would fight the good fight and make it to graduation, but shortly after commencement, he passed-away.

It happened during the summer, so I didn’t find out until the new school year.  It was a tough summer for Swenson students.  Two other students had died, one in a traffic accident and another by committing suicide.  But Lawrence was the hardest to take.  I’ll never forget his articles in the school newspaper, or his passion for writing and his enthusiasm for my class.

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Clearing the Record: Abington School District was Not Named in 2009 PSSA Audit

In my 3/14/12 Philadelphia Inquirer commentary, “Is city a scapegoat in cheating probe?” I mistakenly named Abington as one of 39 districts cited on the forensic audit of the 2009 PSSA exam for possible cheating.  The correct school district should have been Abington Heights in Lackawanna County.  This same mistake was made in my 3/3/12 blog post titled, “State Has Double Standard When It Comes to PSSA Cheating.”  Again, the school district should have been Abington Heights, not Abington in Montgomery County.  The post has been updated to reflect the correct district.  The Inquirer article has also been corrected and updated.          

I apologize to the Abington School District and its community for the misunderstanding.

Christopher Paslay

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Is city a scapegoat in cheating probe?

“The word is out: Philadelphia’s teachers and school administrators are cheaters. Or so state Department of Education officials believe, which is why their investigation into suspicious results on state standardized tests has been expanded to include 56 city schools.

But is the state treating all school districts equally? Or is it shining a spotlight on Philadelphia in an effort to downplay the hanky-panky taking place elsewhere in the state? . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Is city a scapegoat in cheating probe?”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

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Let’s Flunk School Testing and Save Our Kids’ Futures

THE RUBRIC for the very first standardized test that Todd Farley scored seemed simple: one or zero. If the fourth-grade student provided just one example of bicycle safety in a drawing—wearing a helmet, both hands on the handlebars or stopping at a red light—he’d get a one. No examples—zero.

But for Farley, author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry, it wasn’t that simple. The student had indeed included one example: the rider in the drawing was wearing a helmet. He was also doing an Evel Knievel-like leap over a chasm spewing flames. Baffled, Farley consulted his supervisor; he was told that the rider was wearing a helmet and that that was enough to indicate that the child understood the basics of bicycle safety. Score: One.

Farley encountered many answers that did not quite fit the rigid set of rubrics in his 15-year career. One high school girl who wrote a beautifully moving and well-constructed essay about “A Special Place” could only rate a three out of four because her piece did not include the words “a special place.” Farley also cites a number of questionable practices by the testing company, including hiring scorers not fluent in English, requiring workers to mark one essay every two minutes for eight hours a day and little cross-checking of scores. . . .

This is an excerpt from Lisa Haver’s commentary in today’s Daily News, “Let’s flunk school testing and save our kids’ futures.”  It is an excellent analysis of the limitations of No Child Left Behind and standardized testing, and is an apropos rebuttal to Dom Giordano’s recent article “Let’s start grading teachers.”

Giordano asked for a debate, and he got one.  I hope you’re listening Dom!  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

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Why Minority Students Face ‘Harsher Punishments’

by Christopher Paslay

Minority students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from America’s public schools.  But there is a lurking variable in the equation that Secretary Duncan refuses to address.    

According to a new study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Black students are more than three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled.  This is noteworthy information, being that 84 percent of America’s public school teachers are White.

When addressing the report’s findings, Education Secretary Arne Duncan suggested the harsher punishments were the result of either conscious or unconscious discrimination.  Duncan said that the report was an eye-opener for school officials, and that it would force disciplinarians to reevaluate their inconsistent policies and work to make discipline fair and equitable across all races.       

Duncan’s belief that discrimination is causing minorities to be suspended or expelled is a classic example of a logical fallacy, also known as the belief that correlation proves causation.  It is also an example of a lurking variable.  Simply stated, you cannot conclude that racism is taking place in America’s public schools simply because teachers are mostly White and the students receiving the harshest punishments are mostly Black.         

The truth is that correlation does not imply causation.  For example, it would be wrong to assume that sleeping with your shoes on causes a headache, even if statistics showed that 100,000 people went to bed with their shoes on and woke up with a headache.  There is most likely another factor that led to the cause, a lurking variable; in this case, that variable would be that the people went to bed drunk. 

Likewise, it would be wrong to assume that eating ice cream causes drowning, even though statistics show that as ice cream sales go up, so do the number of drowning deaths.  The lurking variable in this case is hot weather.

Which is why Secretary Duncan should not assume discrimination is the primary reason minorities are three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled.  There is a lurking variable, and it is the fact that Black students are three times as poor as their White counterparts.

According to statistics from the National Poverty Center, 38 percent of Black children in the United States live in poverty, whereas only 12 percent of White children are impoverished.  This is extremely significant because research continues to show that poverty leads to poor conduct, low academic achievement, and the chronic breaking of school rules. 

The Educational Testing Service’s 2007 policy report “The Family—America’s Smallest School,” highlights how one in three Black children in the U.S. are “food insecure” and how 70 percent of Black babies are born out of wedlock to a single mom.  This is very troubling in light of the fact that children in single-parent families score lower on academic tests, have higher incidences of psychological problems that reflect aggression and poor conduct, have a greater tendency to abuse illegal substances, and are more likely to have sexual relationships at an earlier age. 

In a 2009 report titled “Parsing the Achievement Gap II,” the Educational Testing Service tracked national trends between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.  The report listed 16 factors that have been linked to behavior and student achievement. 

Some significant findings were that White students’ parents were more likely to attend a school event or to volunteer at school; minority students were more likely to change schools frequently; the percentage of Black infants born with low birth weight was higher than that for White infants; minority children were more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, such as lead and mercury; minority children were less likely to be read to daily by parents; minority children watched more television; and minority students grew less academically over the summer.

This research—which lays bare some of the root causes of violent and dysfunctional conduct—is not new.  Yet Arne Duncan, the highest education official in the land, attributes the high number of minority suspensions and expulsions to something as banal and cliché as “discrimination”. 

This is, quite frankly, pathetic.  It is also counterproductive from a learning standpoint.  Although some racial discrimination may still exist in public schools (there is no significant data to show that it does), reinforcing the idea that students are targets—that they are not the captain of their own ship but simply a victim—contradicts the fundamental message hardworking teachers across America are trying to instill in their students: Personal responsibility!      

Duncan’s simplistic conclusion of discrimination is also lazy.  Instead of rolling up his sleeves and attempting to fight the good fight, instead of addressing the multitude of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges facing our minority children so they can receive the supports they and their teachers need, Duncan washes his hands of the problem entirely.  It’s racism.  Period.  Next question?     

Amazingly, Secretary Duncan hypocritically speaks of the will to change.  “The power of the data is not only in the numbers themselves, but in the impact it can have when married with the courage and the will to change,” he said of the findings in the new report.  “The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.  It is our collective duty to change that.”

School officials across America are more than willing to face the facts and become agents of change.  The question is—is Secretary Duncan?

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Multiculturalism, School Violence

The Haves and Have Nots of State Exams

by Rainiel Guzmán

Not all students are required to take the PSSA exams.  Money and politics play a role. 

As the headwinds of standardized tests fast approach with all the anxiety and stress that announce their arrival—I have often wondered, are there students who may opt out of taking state mandated tests?  Believe it or not, some may.

Surely students who are learning English as a second language may opt out from taking state mandated tests. Unfortunately they cannot. ELL students are required to participate in standardized testing. Nonetheless, many states in recognition of the challenges ELL students confront exempt their test scores for the purposes of their school’s AYP status. Yet, the exemption is partial and limited.

In Pennsylvania, ELL students are excused from taking the Reading and Writing portions of the PSSA in their first year of schooling. However, they are required to participate in the Math and Science portions. Their scores are not a factor but their participation is a determinant in their school’s AYP status. One might ask, why then given this Byzantine rational is so much stress placed upon ELL students? 

Authoritative studies have demonstrated the timeframe required to acquire a second language. For example, students between 8 – 11 years old with 2 – 3 years of native language education take 5 – 7 years to test at grade level in English. Moreover, the formal education or lack of formal education prior to arriving to the United States is a major determinant in the acquisition of English as a second language.  Students with little or no formal schooling, who arrive before the age of eight, take 7 – 10 years to reach grade level norms in English language literacy.

These convoluted exemptions are married to an equally complex set of accommodations.  For example, ELL students may use a word-to-word dictionary as long as it does not provide definitions or illustrations. Likewise, its use is limited to the Math and Science tests yet it is not permitted for the Reading and Writing portions. Lost in this whirlwind of parameters is the fact that many of these exemptions and accommodations hinge greatly on the first year classification.

What happens to ELL students in their second year of schooling? They are required to take all of the tests portions. Enter the Byzantine rationale once again. The following is an excerpt from the PSSA Accommodations Guidelines:

“The USDE guidance also provides flexibility in determining who can be included in the ELL subgroup for purposes of making AYP determinations. Because ELL students exit the ELL subgroup once they attain English language proficiency, schools and districts may have difficulty demonstrating improvements on state assessments for these students. The USDE allows schools, districts, and states to include in the ELL subgroup those students who have exited anESL/bilingual education program within the past two years. AYP is determined using monitored students (former ELLs) if necessary.”

Let’s keep in mind the stress and anxiety that high-stakes tests inflect on native English students. Now try to imagine the levels of stress and anxiety in a student of English as a second language, especially those in their initial years of English language acquisition. Fortunately, exemptions do exist for some students from these levels of stress and anxiety. Yes, private, religious and home schooled children may opt out of high risk, high stress and high anxiety testing (20 U.S.C. § 7886 United States Code / § 7886. Private, religious, and home schools).

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Why are they exempt? you may ask. The answer is simple: private and religious schools generally operate under their own independent charter and more importantly do not receive public funds. These facts enable them to opt out of mandated state tests. Many private and religious schools opt out of state mandated assessments due to philosophical and pedagogic reasons as well. Their numbers are not to be dismissed.

In Pennsylvania there are 1,400 private schools. Nearly half of these are religiously affiliated; 530 Roman Catholic schools, 39 Jewish schools, 26 Friends schools, and 8 Episcopal schools. A uniting criterion among these schools is their belief that a child’s education should be individualized rather than standardized. Likewise, these schools cater to parents who seek out these programs and values for their children.              

I sincerely applaud these parents. However, I cannot ignore the present irony. The students with the greatest means are able to opt out. While the most vulnerable of students and with the fewest means are compelled to take assessments that ignore research and their humanity.                                                                                                                                       

As the headwinds of 2014 (100 percent proficiency under NCLB) fast approach with all the anxiety and stress that precede their arrival—I have often wondered as well, given that private and religious schools may be exempt from state mandated standardized tests and thus unencumbered with AYP, do they fall under the statutes of NCLB? The answer is simply, no. Surprised? Unfortunately, there is no exemption for your astonishment.      

Rainiel Guzman is a 2011 Lindback Distinguished Teacher Award winner.  He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University, and teaches art at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.

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State Has Double Standard When It Comes to Cheating on PSSA

by Christopher Paslay

The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s investigation into possible cheating on state tests has been less than transparent.  Its handling of the situation indicates a bias against Philadelphia public schools.    

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has a problem on its hands—cheating. Not just minor cheating, but cheating on a grand scale that brings into question the validity of state exams and the integrity of many highly regarded suburban districts. 

In July of 2009, a “Data Forensics Technical Report” flagged 39 districts and 10 charters across Pennsylvania (a total of 89 schools, 28 from Philadelphia) for having highly suspicious results on the 2009 PSSA exams.  According to the report, there was a 1 in 10,000 chance of these testing irregularities happening by accident.

This was troubling news for the state.  School districts like Pennsbury, Abington Heights, and Wallingford-Swarthmore were on the report, and this was not good.  The state handled this problem by burying the report and hoping it would go away; the PDE sat on it for two full years.  Then, in July of 2011, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook uncovered the report and blew the state’s cover.         

The news went viral.  Suddenly, the state was forced to address the problem of widespread cheating and the integrity of suburban schools, so State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis ordered that investigations be conducted at all 89 schools flagged for possible cheating on the 2009 forensic data report.  He also ordered a similar forensic audit of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA tests, with special attention being paid to Philadelphia.     

On August 15, 2011, the Philadelphia School District announced the results of its internal investigation and concluded that only 13 of the 28 schools listed on the 2009 forensic report warranted further inquiry.  The state ignored these findings.    

In September of 2011, the audits of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA exams were completed and delivered to the state.  PDE spokesperson Tim Eller confirmed this in an interview with the Notebook.  Interestingly, the state refused to release this information, even after the Notebook filed requests under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law for the information; the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records denied the requests, arguing the audits were exempt from public disclosure because they were not part of a criminal investigation.           

In January of 2012, after additional requests for the results of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA audits, PDE spokesman Tim Eller changed course and wrote in an email to the Notebook that the “PDE does not have the [2010 and 2011] forensic audits.”  It was right around this time—January 12th, to be exact—that the state cleared 22 districts and six charters of cheating, announcing that no further inquiry was needed; Pennsbury, Abington Heights, and Wallingford-Swarthmore were all cleared.  The Philadelphia School District was not cleared, and no information regarding the decision was provided by the state.

In February, as the list of suburban schools to be investigated dwindled to almost nothing, the PDE widened its inquiry into cheating on the PSSA exams to include 50 Philadelphia School District schools.  This decision was based on the 2010 and 2011 forensic audits of the PSSA tests, which the state now apparently had in its possession, but which they still had not released to the public.  No data from these reports was given to the Philadelphia School District, either.

In late February, because of cheating allegations, the state announced its decision to prohibit school teachers from Philadelphia, Hazelton, and three charter schools from administering the upcoming PSSA exams to their own students.    

Nothing exposes the state’s double standard more than its decision to place PSAA proctoring restrictions primarily on Philadelphia. If the PDE truly wanted to crack down on possible cheating, they could have made it a state-wide mandate that all districts in the state be prohibited from allowing teachers to administer state exams to their own students.  Or, they could have placed this restriction on any district previously flagged for possible testing irregularities; at the very least, the state could have applied this mandate to the 15 school districts across the state—in addition to Philadelphia and Hazelton—that are still under investigation for cheating on the 2009 PSSA exams.

But the state did not do this.  Why?  First, the state would face too big an opposition from the above communities if they forced these districts to restructure their testing schedules and logistics two weeks before the 2012 PSSAs.  Second, and more importantly, it behooves the state to turn up the spotlight on Philadelphia public schools—and downplay the involvement of districts in the rest of the state—in regards to the PSSA cheating debacle. 

In other words, it’s good for the state to send the message that cheating isn’t widespread after all, that it’s primarily Philadelphia public schools and their teachers that can’t be trusted.  This is truly an injustice, being that 200 Philly public schools—80 percent of the district—have never been implicated in anything.

The lack of transparency displayed by the state is, quite frankly, outrageous.  How many schools have been flagged for suspicious testing results on the 2010 and 2011 PSSAs?  What suburban blue-blood districts are on the list?  Why haven’t these forensic audits been made public?   Why haven’t the internal district investigations of the 89 schools flagged for cheating on the 2009 PSSA been made public?  Why have some schools been cleared and why do others require further inquiry? 

A closer look at the actual PSSA “Data Forensics Technical Report” compiled by the Data Recognition Corporation in July of 2009 shows some interesting results.  For example, on the 11th grade PSSA, under the forensic category called AYP1 (which determines if the changes in test scores have improbably changed across years), Penn Wood High School registered 6 flags, but was cleared by the state.  Frankford and Northeast high schools had 5 flags, but were not cleared as of January.  Cheltenham, Connellsville, Pleasant Valley, Strath Haven, and Strawberry Mansion high schools all had 4 flags—and all were cleared by the state, save for Strawberry Mansion.

One of the most confusing “clearances” was that of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School—which had multiple flags across multiple grade levels (3 flags 5th grade, 3 flags 6th grade, 3 flags 7th grade, 3 flags 8th grade, 3 flags 11th grade).  Yet the state concluded there was no further inquiry needed into possible cheating.  This is quite surprising, considering instruction takes place at PA Cyber Charter at home and in cyberspace.    

The Pennsylvania Department of Education must be held accountable for their inconsistent handling of cheating on state tests.  Forensic audits of all PSSA exams must be made public, and clearances based on internal investigations must be adequately explained and justified.

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Filed under Charter Schools, Standardized Testing