Sunday, October 05, 2008

Teacher-proofing our education system, New York style

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Teacher-proofing our education system, New York style

By Mike Williss - posted Wednesday, 3 September 2008

…I cannot understand why public institutions such schools should not be accountable to the community that funds their salaries and their running costs.

Right now, we do not have accurate, comprehensive information to allow rigorous analysis of what schools and students are achieving.

This must change

That is why today I announce that we will be making agreement on individual school performance reporting a condition of the new national education agreement to come into effect from 1 January 2009.

Kevin Rudd, Address to the National Press Club on August 27, 2008.

I’ve always had a problem with Deng Xiaoping’s maxim: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”

I agree that the colour is irrelevant. The real issue is “For whom?” Who is the cat catching mice for? Is the cat getting anything out of it? Who is really benefitting? (Sure, real cats catch mice for themselves, but you are allowed to ask questions like this when the cat is part of an allegorical reference).

By extension, I also have a problem with Gillard’s and Rudd’s attitude towards education. This goes back at least as far as Bob Hawke’s Minister for Education, Susan Ryan, who famously declared that the ALP had “once and for all put an end to the argument between public and private education”.

It hadn’t then, and neither has Rudd: his Press Club declaration that “it’s time to move beyond the outdated divisions between … public and private provision” of education notwithstanding.

For Rudd and Gillard, it doesn’t matter whether a school is public or private so long as it “achieves the results we need as a nation and (realises) the potential … of each child”.

Let’s leave for a moment the promise of “rich data” that will inform the judgment of a school’s value-adding capacity.

Where will it be a part of the published score-card that in my Year 9 Chinese class I have two students, one who entered mid-year and another who entered at the start of Term 3, after being “asked” to leave their respective private schools for a variety of behavioural (and almost certainly, academic) offences? One who up until then had studied Japanese, the other having studied Indonesian. Both of them coming into a system that, rightly, cannot exclude students in the compulsory years of schooling.

Where will it be recorded that my Year 11 and 12 students have to share the same class because no class can be less than 25 in the senior school, although at a colleague’s private school she has been told that even if there is only one Year 12 student of Chinese (and this has happened!) there will still be a discrete Year 12 class “because that is what the parents pay for”?

Where will it be recorded that I am only too happy to take every one of my Year 11 students into Year 12, while yet another private school colleague is ashamed and guilty that she can only select from among her Year 11s those guaranteed an “A” at Year 12, regardless of her students’ enthusiasm for the subject?

Yet Rudd and Gillard are now proposing to copy the New York model of “individual school performance reporting” and public comparison of “like schools” as determined by student’s entry scores and scores on standardised tests, parental income, ethnic composition and other data.

So, what is it about the New York system that has so infatuated Rudd and Gillard?

The US education system is based on local school districts which are financially supported by property owners who pay tax that directly goes to the school district. Anyone who pays the tax can be elected to the school board (a district-wide Board of Education) who in turn hires and fires the district superintendent: therefore school boards can be run by people who have little to do with education but a lot to do with how “their money” is spent. The Superintendent’s role is politicised to a greater extent than that of comparable Education Department Chief Executives here and many pursue conservative anti-spending policies in the belief that this will serve their chances at reappointment.

New York has a somewhat different model again. In 2002 Mayor Michael Bloomberg eliminated the Board of Education and brought schools under the city’s direct political control. By way of a Special Waiver, Bloomberg appointed Klein Chancellor of Education and placed him at the head of a new Department of Education that subsequently morphed into the Panel for Educational Policy.

As Chancellor, one of Klein’s first regressive acts was to change the city policy that allowed students to be promoted to the next grade even if they flunk standardised math and reading exams. The city had previously used test scores, classroom work and attendance records to develop a slightly more holistic evaluation of students before deciding to hold them back or not. Klein narrowed it down to test scores, announcing that the new policy would apply initially to third-graders half way through their 2003-04 school year. This is the man whom Gillard praises for the “transparency” of his system. Parents, however, claimed not to have been consulted: “Our position is ‘no’ on retention. It’s punitive and unfair,” said Robin Brown, head of the United Parents Association of New York City. “There’s been no consultation with parents, teachers, principals or experts” (New York Post, February 11, 2004).

The system that emerged under Bloomberg’s and Klein’s care was one in which those third-graders who scored in the lowest of four tiers of a single standardised test could be held back. With estimates that this could mean as many as 15,000 students, Klein built in an appeals system under which teachers were required to build and review an extensive portfolio of student work.

A 48-page manual for teachers on how to implement the new policy was distributed, imposing “impossible deadlines at an extremely busy time” according to unions representing teachers and principals (New York Times, May 14, 2004).

Randi Weingarten president of the teachers’ union said “What they have done here in every step of implementing the tough retention policy has been to teacher-proof it and to overwhelm teachers with paperwork and bureaucracy. It’s really intended to eliminate any ounce of professionalism and discretion that a teacher would apply in assessing his or her children.”

Several months later, after ramming through the test, Klein was forced to reveal that 20 per cent of some 5,000 third-graders who had been held back under the old policy had failed the new standardised test and would have to sit through third grade a third time (New York Daily News, June 18, 2004). The mother of one boy who had already been held back twice criticised the policy for turning her son into a bully: “He’s in a class with a bunch of little kids he can pick on. He’s a bully.”

The situation compounded the following year when fourth graders were held to the new promotions and testing regime: 23,163 fourth graders or 30.1 per cent, received letters mid-term warning that they could be held back if their performance did not improve (New York Times, March 19, 2005).

It’s easy to see how, with this mindset, you could be led to believe that the problem of “poorly” performing Grade 3 and 4s might be tied to performance in kindergarten and Grades 1 and 2. And lo and behold! On the same day that Rudd was addressing the National Press Club, the New York Times (August 27, 2008) was reporting that New York’s elementary school principals were “being urged to join a yearlong pilot program with five testing options for kindergarten through second grade”.

Assigning pass or fail grades to students and promoting them or holding them back as a result is one thing. Assigning pass or fail grades to whole schools and rewarding them or closing them accordingly, is quite another.

In 2006, Klein and Bloomberg appointed death penalty litigation expert James S. Liebman (New York Times, November 16, 2007) to oversee the introduction of a schools grading system. Based on student improvement data and like schools demographic information, schools are awarded a grade between A to D, or F. The grades are published by Klein and distributed at parent-teacher meetings. Referring to the 50 schools that copped an F in the first round, Liebman drew on his professional expertise to remark “It’s not a death sentence for the school, and it’s certainly not a death sentence for the kids who attend it”.

While the real estate agencies loved the new school grades, (New York Times, November 7, 2007) parents were not at all convinced. Many were “perplexed by the way the grades were calculated. Other dismissed them as meaningless … ‘I find the methodology to be confusing, problematic and flawed,’ said (parent) Emily Horowitz”.

And despite the assurances from Liebman that an F grade would not be a death sentence for schools, 13 schools in areas like the Bronx and Brooklyn were identified for closure, some with D grades. (New York Times, December 8, 2007). For some working class and black communities this represented a loss of a community facility; for others it meant standing in the shade of the wings of vultures as privately-operated Charter School companies hovered over the pickings, opening privately-operated public schools in the same buildings as newly closed schools.

As one Australian parent who had children in New York schools observed: “In New York, the best schools are rewarded with more funding. Poor schools, if they don’t improve, are allowed to fail. The school closes, the teachers lose their jobs and the next year another school replaces it, using the same buildings.”

Gillard promotes this atrocity in education by saying that parents in New York City are “given everything there is to know about schools” (Advertiser, August 12, 2008). Actually, the comments by Robin Brown and Emily Horowitz (see above), are echoed across Klein’s landscape. Last December Liebman was “repeatedly interrupted by boos and hisses from dozens of parents” at a hearing before the City Council’s Education Committee whose members blasted his school grading system as “unfair, reductive and a maze of statistics” (New York Times, December 11, 2007).

On June 19, 2006 a group of 15 parents and parent leaders from Los Angeles, who had spent a week investigating the New York system said “We are back from the front lines of mayoral takeover of school … If we have seen the future, then it don’t work.”

One LA PTA President said: “In New York City under Mayoral Control there is no parental involvement or engagement in the process and direction of reform; parents have been marginalised, disenfranchised and disempowered! In the vernacular of the Big Apple: Parents have been ‘kicked to the curb!’… Parents in the NYC system have no voice.”

And it’s no wonder Murdoch’s Australian ran a glowing profile on Klein last weekend. Another Deng is closely involved with him on the Board of the Fund for Public Schools. She is Wendi Deng, aka Mrs Rupert Murdoch! Needless to say Rupert and Wendi’s two girls attend a prestigious private school.

And the Labor Party? The Labor Party should really rename itself the Business and Development Party and completely sever its ties with the working people on whose behalf it pretends to speak.

In Rudd, Gillard and Co we have politicians who use the electoral support of working families to get into office so as to better and more efficiently pursue the policies of the corporate elite that really governs the country. Gillard’s embrace of Klein’s agenda for closing poor schools, punishing poor neighbourhoods and privatising public education can’t be hidden behind a smokescreen of “like schools comparison” and “rich information”.

And there’s probably worse to come …

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