Friday, March 30, 2012

Fascinating article on right wing attacks on Obama/Duncan RTTT/Ed policies

How will the Real Reformers frame this debate?
Some bloggers posted about challenging RTTT like Obama care as somewhat of a forced mandate. Interesting analogy.

On Coercion, the Healthcare Law, and Race to the Top

Now Watch Republicans Hang Education "Reform" Around Democrats' Necks

Jeff Bryant's picture

Coming in over the transom this week, the ever-vigilant bloggers at Education Week's Politics K-12 who were camped out at hearings for the House Education and the Workforce Committee tweeted out that Rep. Judy Biggert from Illinois, "a moderate Republican," is "worried" that the Obama administration's signature education policy, Race to the Top, "is taking money away from homeless kids."
The good Congresswoman had to pioneer into territory that Republicans rarely ever inhabit to come up with this one. But we are, after all, in an election season. Republicans are on the hunt for whatever they can use to damage President Obama in particular and Democrats in general. And there's growing evidence that the Obama administration's education policies will be a target of the right wing.
The Right Wing Revs Up Its Attack Machine
Indeed, at the Congressional hearing cited above, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was in attendance to defend his program's accomplishments, got "hammered" for "continuing to pump money into competitive programs" like Race to the Top. Since when are Republicans against competition?
Tellingly, reauthorization of the federal government's chief education policy, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), is at a complete and utter stalemate.
President Obama and Republican governors are clearly at odds on spending levels for education. And the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan that just passed the House would likely produce "an 18 percent cut to education funding" curtailing the Democrat-controlled federal government's outlay for education.
The rallying cry among the right wing is to redefine "federal" -- including "federal teachers unions" -- as a pejorative. And Republican presidential candidates are openly condemning the federal government's role in education, largely based on broad dislike of No Child Left Behind -- which was enacted in a Republican administration.
Conservative Beltway think tank operatives such the American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess have cast serious doubts about key Obama education initiatives, such as the Common Core State Standards, which Hess claimed to resemble "a federally-inspired, politicized project."
As Democratic Rep. George Miller recently lamented, again in the pages of Education Week, "We've never had education dragged into this vortex. Education has always been above it. Now we find ourselves sitting in a partisan firefight."
Actually, partisan differences over education policy are likely a good thing, as it may be a sign of the DC crowd turning its back on the flawed logic of adopting centrism for centrism's sake. But if this is a "firefight," it's unclear what the Democrats are packing.
Democrats Show Up At A "Firefight" With What . . ?
It doesn't help Democrats that most of what the Obama administration is pushing for education is producing some really negative press on the ground. Earlier this week, reporters with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution presented a series of articles documenting a nationwide cheating scandal that calls into question the federal government's follow-up of top-down mandates on school accountability.
The newspaper's investigation "analyzed test results for 69,000 public schools and found high concentrations of suspect math or reading scores in school systems from coast to coast." The reporters note that the suspect results are particularly prone to appear in schools that "are grappling with urban blight and poverty" -- the schools that "NCLB was supposed to fix." And they lay much of the blame for the cheating on "way too much pressure" being put on schools to comply with testing mandates.
Although the AJC's reporters' broad conclusion is somewhat questionable, their report -- and others similar to it -- is likely to increase negative perceptions toward federal education policies.
Secretary Duncan, for his part, continues to struggle to distance his program from the widely reviled NCLB. He maintains that Race to the Top and other approachesare not an extension of the Bush administration's now unpopular edicts. But starting a political argument by explaining what you "are not like" is hardly firm ground.
Teachers, for instance, are not persuaded of the Secretary's good intentions. There is increasing evidence that there is very little teacher support for Obama school reform strategies among teachers -- especially among experienced teachers.
Only 7 percent of teachers believe standardized tests that are being pushed by Sec. Duncan are essential to good education. Many teachers report having to spend inordinate amounts of time -- over half their classroom time in some places -- on preparing for and administering tests, and they're understandably resentful of more time taken away from real instruction.
Many assessment experts advise against over-reliance on these tests. And grassroots parent organizations are increasingly vocal in their opposition to too much testing in public schools.
The backlash against testing is undoubtedly growing. Parents and public education advocates have started numerous "opt out" movements and actions. And now school boards in over 190 districts across the state of Texas are speaking out against the over-emphasis on testing in public schools.
Compounding Test-Resentment
Another factor that makes the Obama administration's reliance on standardized tests increasingly unpopular is the insistence on evaluating teachers based on the scores -- one of the qualifications for receiving federal grant money. The score-based evaluations are wildly unreliable and are leading to more and more cases of good teachers being treated very badly.
Incidents of highly respected teachers labeled as "ineffective" are being reported in Washington, DC, New York City, and elsewhere.
Sometimes, even whole schools that are well liked and supported in their communities are being shut down due to some poor test results that can hardly be attributed to the school's practices.
Due to the growing resentment toward testing and its applications, and other factors, an annual survey of teachers, MetLife’s Survey of the American Teacher, recently found that teachers’ job satisfaction is the lowest it's been in 20 years.
No doubt, Republican politicians will not lose any sleep over the growing dissatisfaction among teachers and parents with the Obama administration's education policies. What they will do is use it as a club to beat Democratic candidates over the head about the failure of federal education policies.
Democrats Are Following A Republican Playbook
The Republican strategy is quite clear. This week, my colleague Richard (RJ) Eskow laid it out.
Eskow observed how the dynamic of the Republican attack machine works during election season. In his commentary at, he explained how right-wing agitation related to the Supreme Court hearings on the individual insurance mandate takes the peculiar turn of conservatives "viciously attacking" ideas, like mandated health insurance, that were originally developed in "right-wing think tanks."
This is the exact same strategy right-wing Republicans (now the only kind) are using with education policy. Now that ideas for education policy that were conceived primarily by right wing think tanks -- standards, NCLB, high-stakes testing -- are frimly in place, thanks in part to the cooperation of Democrats, they are now the exact points Republicans are using to attack Democrats.
Of course, as Eskow explained, "that's what you get" for compromising with the Right. Democrats continue to hew their views to right-wing proposals based on the worship of "bipartisanship." And then they get attacked for supporting the very ideas proposed by conservatives.
It's no sure thing that education will be a prominent issue in the upcoming elections. It's usually not. But with popular perceptions of the economy improving, Republicans will be searching for new fodder to stoke the assault guns.
While the Obama administration has more resources on hand to weather the assault, down-ticket Democrats have to be more careful. The right thing is for liberals to "act like liberals again" and return to insistence on education policies that are grounded in the individual well-being of students rather than standards, and justice and fairness rather than a faulty accountability tied to inaccurate measures.
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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Joanne Barkan Expose of Ed Deform

Hired Guns on Astroturf:
How to Buy and Sell School Reform

For Barkan’s other writing on the self-proclaimed “education reform movement,” click here, here, and here.

If you want to change government policy, change the politicians who make it. The implications of this truism have now taken hold in the market-modeled “education reform movement.” As a result, the private funders and nonprofit groups that run the movement have overhauled their strategy. They’ve gone political as never before—like the National Rifle Association or Big Pharma or (ed reformers emphasize) the teachers’ unions.

Devolution of a Movement

For the last decade or so, this generation of ed reformers has been setting up programs to show the power of competition and market-style accountability to transform inner-city public schools: establishing nonprofit and for-profit charter schools, hiring business executives to run school districts, and calculating a teacher’s worth based on student test scores. Along the way, the reformers recognized the value of public promotion and persuasion (called “advocacy”) for their agenda, and they started pouring more money into media outlets, friendly think tanks, and the work of well-disposed researchers. By 2010 critics of the movement saw “reform-think” dominating national discourse about education, but key reform players judged the pace of change too slow.

Ed reformers spend at least a half-billion dollars a year in private money, whereas government expenditures on K-12 schooling are about $525 billion a year. Nevertheless, a half-billion dollars in discretionary money yields great leverage when budgets are consumed by ordinary expenses. But the reformers—even titanic Bill and Melinda Gates—see themselves as competing with too little against existing government policies. Hence, to revolutionize public education, which is largely under state and local jurisdiction, reformers must get state and local governments to adopt their agenda as basic policy; they must counter the teachers’ unions’ political clout. To this end, ed reformers are shifting major resources—staff and money—into state and local campaigns for candidates and legislation.

Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children ($5.2 million from Gates, 2003-2011), sums up the thinking: “We’ve learned the hard way that if you want to have the clout needed to change policies for kids, you have to help politicians get elected. It’s about money, money, money” (Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2010).*

* The ed reform movement comprises a large network of nonprofit organizations and consultancies whose funding comes mostly from private foundations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—with assets six times larger than Ford, the next largest foundation in the United States—dominates the movement. To give some sense of the interconnections and the scope of the colossal foundation, I note in parentheses the amount of money various groups have received from Gates.

The Great Political Opening

The Obama administration created the perfect opening for the ed reformers’ political strategy. The U.S. Department of Education stipulated that in order to win federal funds in the 2010 Race to the Top contest, applicant states would have to pledge to abolish limits on charter schools, legislate teacher and principal evaluations based in part on students’ standardized test scores, and fully implement statewide data-collection systems. The mandates spurred money-starved states to propose controversial new education laws. Candidates running for office—from state senator to local school board member—took sides. The ed reform organizations plunged into both legislative and candidate battles, ratcheting up the campaign spending and rhetoric, casting each contest as a battle for the future of the nation through public school reform (tales of the campaigns further on).

The movement’s market-modeled reforms have so far produced more failures than successes. Study after study throws into question the value of most charter schools, incessant standardized testing, and grading teachers or closing schools based on student test scores. The ed reformers’ drive to get new laws passed aggravates matters by making bad policy mandatory and more widespread. It is mindless micromanaging gone amuck.

Take the case of Tennessee, where 35 percent of every teacher’s evaluation is now based on standardized test scores. On November 6, 2011, the New York Times reported that no tests exist for over half the subjects and grades, including kindergarten, first, second, and third grades, art, music, and vocational training. So state officials ruled that a school’s average scores for another subject and grade will be used for teachers without student scores. For example, fifth-grade writing scores will be plugged into, say, a first-grade teacher’s evaluation. In addition, teachers can choose the plug-in subject themselves for 15 percent of the 35 percent. This means they have to bet on which classes will produce the highest scores. A travesty? Not for the ever-ready boosters of the ed reform movement, including the New York Times editorial page. The Times offered this judgment on November 11: “…political forces [in Tennessee] are now talking about delaying the use of these evaluations. State lawmakers and education officials must resist any backsliding.” Anything goes as long as it’s stamped “ed reform.”

A summary critique of the reform strategy comes from Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute ($5.2 million from Gates, 2003-20011) and executive editor of Education Next (sponsored in part by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, $4.2 million from Gates, 2003-2009). Hess swears allegiance to market-based reforms but often criticizes the quality of his allies’ actual work. This is from his November 16, 2011 blog post on Education Week ($4.6 million from Gates, 2005-2009):
By turning school reform into a moral crusade, in which one either is, to quote our last President, “with us or against us,” would-be reformers wind up planting their flag atop all kinds of half-baked or ill-conceived proposals....Would-be reformers insist that overshooting the mark with half-baked proposals is actually a strategy, because that's how they'll cow the unions and change the culture of schooling. Indeed, they think concerns about program design are quaint evidence of naiveté.
Chipping Away at Democracy

Yes, the policies of ed reformers are wreaking havoc in public education, but equally destructive is the impact of their strategy on American democracy. From the start, the we-know-best stance, the top-down interventions at every level of schooling, the endless flow of big private money, and the imperviousness to criticism have undermined the “public” in public education. Moreover, the large private foundations that fund the ed reformers are accountable to no one—not to voters, not to parents, not to the children whose lives they affect. The beefed-up political strategy extends the damage: the ed reformers (most of whom take advantage of tax-exempt status) are immersing themselves in the dollars-mean-votes world of lobbying and campaigning.

The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United (January 2010) and a related federal appeals court ruling in (March 2010) created loopholes for nonprofit organizations that effectively abolish all limits on campaign contributions. Ed reformers exploit the new legal framework exactly like other political operatives. This has two marked consequences. First is the fate of the original deal established by Congress—tax-exempt status in exchange for staying away from politics while serving some public good. The deal was eroded before Citizens United; now it has collapsed. In the world of ed reform, the political strategy makes a mockery of the tax-exempt privilege of the foundations and nonprofit groups involved. Second, most ed reformers have benefitted from branding themselves as progressives or “lifelong Democrats” (“I love labor unions—just not teachers’ unions”). This has given them credibility with liberals who, like most voters, haven’t paid close attention to the content and results of the ed reforms. The labeling has always been a ruse, but the politicking reformers have obliterated dividing lines: they work in local and state campaigns alongside corporate free-marketers and right-wing social conservatives who’ve long and openly supported privatizing public education, ending social programs, and eviscerating labor unions. In practice, they are one team.

Some funders and their tax-exempt grantees have hesitated to get more involved in politics. On occasion the reluctance has been cultural: they’ve always shied away from public debates on government policy and advocacy in general. More often it’s fear of jeopardizing their tax status. According to IRS regulations
• private foundations—a type of 501(c)3 organization—cannot lobby (defined as trying to influence legislation); they cannot campaign (defined as supporting or criticizing a candidate for public office); they can, however, “educate” anyone, including lawmakers, on any issue;

• most of the recipients of foundation money for ed reform are nonprofit groups with a different 501(c)3 status; they can do a specified amount of lobbying but no campaigning for candidates.

Here is the loophole: this second type of 501(c)3 can set up affiliated groups that do lobby and campaign. It can set up the following:

• political action committees (PACs), which have limits on the size of contributions accepted

• Independent Expenditure Committees (super PACs), which can accept unlimited contributions but cannot “coordinate” work with a candidate or party (an almost meaningless restriction)

• 501(c)4 “social welfare” organizations, such as the AARP and NAACP, which can accept unlimited contributions as long as political activity is not their “primary” activity (another weak restriction)

• 527 organizations that advocate only for issues, not candidates, and can accept unlimited contributions (the line separating issues from candidates is fuzzy)

Pro-politicking ed reformers routinely set up a full array of such groups and solicit contributions for each. In this way, they can collect unlimited funds from many donors for different purposes. Having mastered the nitty-gritty of political money, these reformers have been trying to convince their hesitant colleagues to join in and pony up.

Wary of Politics? Get Over It

On May 12, 2010, six reform leaders made their pitch to a roomful of funders, consultants, and staffers of nonprofits at the annual “summit” of the New Schools Venture Fund. The panel was called “Political Savvy: Guidebook for a New Landscape.” Speakers included executives from Green Dot Public [charter] Schools (Gates, $9.7 million, 2006-2007), Bellwether Education Partners (Gates, $951,800 in 2011), Hope Street Group (Gates, $875,000 in 2008-2009), Stand for Children (as noted above, $5.2 million from Gates, 2003-20011), Democrats for Education Reform (a PAC), and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation (one of the largest ed reform funders, nonetheless a Gates grantee, $3.6 million, 2010).

Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman—who has turned his nonprofit into a political machine with prodigious fundraising capability and offices in eleven states—articulated the afternoon’s main themes: “We’re not using money for political purposes almost at all in this movement. If one percent of the money that’s going into charter schools went into politics and elections in the support of education reform, we would end up with way more progress for the movement.” Later, he exhorted, “And if you search your heart and you feel uncomfortable using certain tools, get over it.” He also addressed the legal issue: “It really needs to be ‘by any means necessary,’ and you can do a lot legally. What you can’t do legally in terms of electioneering, that’s where partnerships come in.” Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform (another robust political outfit with affiliates around the country), offered more specific advice: “Find more creative lawyers. We need them [ed reform nonprofits] to fire all of their lawyers that tell them ‘no’ all the time, if they have traditional 501(c)3 lawyers….”

Another of Williams’s comments reveals what is so misguided about this brand of education reform: “I think charter schools should be paying advocacy organizations for their advocacy work out of their per pupil dollars. If you think of running a school as running a business, any sound business is going to allocate right off the bat a certain percentage of their funding towards lobbying, advocacy work.”

But why think of running a school as running a business? Striving for efficiency is one thing—a good thing in many human endeavors, including school administration. But the analogy doesn’t hold beyond that: a school’s “bottom line” is not measured in dollars of profit; it shouldn’t waste resources on winning “market share” away from other schools. And why should charter schools pay for advocacy out of per-pupil dollars? Those are taxpayer dollars meant for those children’s education; the students “carry” those dollars away from a regular public school and give them to a charter school.

Williams’s position is self-serving: the per-pupil “fee” for advocacy would go to him and others among the multitude of salaried ed reform advocates. This problem of self-interest goes far beyond dunning kids for advocacy dollars. The ed reform movement has turned itself into an industry—an industry made up of scores of nonprofit groups of every size that operate locally, statewide, and nationally. They employ hundreds of people, many at high salaries (Williams’s 2010 salary was over $265,000); they rake in money from private foundations, wealthy individuals, and government. (As critics note, George Bush’s signature ed reform program, No Child Left Behind, quickly became No Consultant Left Behind.) The nonprofit ed reform industry has a growth model: the more of its agenda that becomes law, the greater the demand for personnel to design, implement, study, and revise government mandated programs. To opponents, this looks like a racket. For ed reformers, it’s only, and always, about “helping children.”

It Takes a Bundle: The New School Board

In one model of democracy, local school board elections would be genuinely local. With a few hundred dollars, a stack of lawn signs, time to ring doorbells, and one or two endorsements, you could win a position of importance in your community: a say in how children would be educated and how a sizable amount of public money would be spent. In the real world until recently, only teachers unions and the Christian Right paid much attention to these elections (the Christian Right recognized their importance as a political stepping stone some thirty-five years ago); few citizens bothered to vote. Now the ed reformers have jumped in, turning school board races into battles requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars per candidate and outside operatives. This sabotages both rootedness in the community and access. A potential forum for grassroots democracy is lost.

Consider the November 1, 2011 school board race in Denver. Three candidates ran as a “reform slate” for the three available seats on the seven-member board. Colorado doesn’t limit contributions in school board elections, so money from the ed reform movement and corporate CEOs poured in.

According to the final tallies posted on Colorado’s Campaign Finance Disclosure website, the reform slate took in $633,807 (an average of $211,269 per candidate). Just six donors—including executives in the oil, health-care, construction, and financial industries—accounted for $293,000 of the total. One of them, Strata Capital president Henry Gordon, told the Colorado Statesman (October 17, 2011) that he wasn’t familiar with the candidates when he gave the slate $75,000 but simply complied with the request of another major donor. The market approach to ed reform appeals to business leaders in general. Depending on their industry, some of them also stand to gain from reform-generated contracts.

STAND FOR Children (headquartered in Portland, Oregon) gave the reform slate $88,511 in “non-monetary” contributions of staff support and canvassing services. When an outside organization hires and pays for staff and vote solicitors and then “donates” their work to a candidate, the work looks like grassroots organizing but isn’t. It is “astroturfing”—a term the late U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen is believed to have coined in 1985. Astroturfing is political activity designed to appear unsolicited, autonomous, and community-rooted without actually being so.

Astroturfing is the modus operandi of the ed reform movement. Contributions of staff and services skyrocketed in Denver in 2011. Two years earlier, for example, the candidate who is now the pro-reform school board president received just $310 in non-monetary contributions. In 2011, in addition to the $88,511 from Stand for Children, the reform slate took in $34,231 in mostly non-monetary contributions from a 501(c)4 group called Great Schools for Great Kids (Education News Colorado, December 2, 2011). The original source of this money isn’t clear—501(c)4s are not required to disclose donors. But the record shows that Great Schools for Great Kids transferred money to a super PAC that has the same registered agent and office suite as a Stand for Children affiliate. The money sloshes around.

The six other candidates in the nonpartisan race raised a total of $212,973 (an average of $35,495 per candidate). This, too, seems like a lot of money for a school board race, and yet, on a per candidate basis, the reform slate took in six times as much money as opponents did. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed two candidates. One of them received $71,240 from the union in monetary and non-monetary donations; the other received $40,720. According to the Denver Post (December 2, 2011), the union spent another $86,000 through a committee called Delta 4.0 on mailers to advocate for the two candidates. Labor unions [501(c)5s in the IRS code] have tax exempt status, as do business associations and political campaign organizations. Unlike ed reformers backed by private funders, however, the teachers’ unions are mass organizations with established local affiliates and elected leaders accountable to dues-paying members. Whatever their strengths and weaknesses, teachers unions are tied to schools, students, parents, and communities through their members.

Two of the three Denver reform candidates won; the third lost by only 142 votes to the union-endorsed incumbent. The deluge of money certainly helped the reformers retain their four-to-three majority on the board. Equally important, the ed reform operation reached a pivotal goal: to eclipse the longstanding power of the teachers’ unions in the political arena. The expense and acrimony of the race prompted a Democratic state representative to re-propose spending limits. Unfortunately, after Citizens United, limits can end up funneling even more money into the web of political committees, where it’s harder to track and where individual donors can remain anonymous.

Denver wasn’t the only absurdly expensive school board race in 2011. For other examples, click here.

The Company They Keep

Ed reformers liven up their websites with photographs of happy-looking school children, many of them minorities: the kids are busy at work or smiling into the camera. Meanwhile, their self-appointed benefactors ally with politicians who are slashing school budgets, cutting social services and benefits, gutting jobs programs, undercutting health-care reform, pummeling public sector unions, and passing laws that make it harder for the children’s parents to vote. The disconnect between what ed reformers claim to be doing for low-income children and what they actually bring about boggles the mind.

The poster child for this moral disconnect is former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor and ed reform celebrity Michelle Rhee. Rhee resigned her D.C. post in October 2010 after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, failed in his reelection bid. Within weeks, Rhee had set up a 501(c)4 advocacy organization called StudentsFirst; she announced a five-year fundraising goal of $1 billion. Rhee explained the purpose of her project this way (Daily Beast/Newsweek, December 6, 2010):
When you think about how things happen in our country—how laws get passed or policies are made—they happen through the exertion of influence. From the National Rifle Association to the pharmaceutical industry to the tobacco lobby, powerful interests put pressure on our elected officials and government institutions to sway or stop change. Education is no different.
Rhee had a hectic first year. She started 2011 with gigs as ed reform policy advisor to three conservative Republican governors: Florida’s Rick Scott, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and Ohio’s John Kasich. Walker and Kasich provoked mass protests in their respective states by pushing through laws that rolled back not only the salaries and pensions of public sector workers (including teachers) but also their union rights. Rhee came under fire for helping to shape the teacher-related provisions of the laws. She tried to wash her hands of the matter by saying that she didn’t work on collective bargaining issues and didn’t endorse everything in the laws. But during a March 5, 2011 interview on Fox News, she asserted that unions “don’t have a place in getting involved in policies, and so I think that the move to try to limit what they bargain over is an incredibly important one.”

NO ONE knows how much money Rhee has raised so far or from whom: at this writing, the tax returns haven’t been filed, and she keeps her donors anonymous (although Rupert Murdoch is rumored to have given $50 million). Regardless, Rhee made a splashy debut as a high-rolling lobbyist. Her lobbying entity in Michigan, called United for Children Advocacy DBA StudentsFirst, spent $951,018 from January through July 2011 to influence the content of ed reform legislation. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, this made Rhee the biggest spending lobbyist in the state. She accounted for nearly half of the 11.6 percent increase in total lobbying spending compared to the same period in 2010. The state’s largest teachers union, the Michigan Education Association, ranked sixth, spending $324,197.

Rhee also set up a super PAC in Michigan called Parents and Teachers for Putting Students First. It contributed $73,000 of its $155,000 bankroll to oppose the recall of Paul Scott, Republican chair of the state House Education Committee. Scott voted to cut K-12 spending while advancing ed reform bills. According to the Flint Journal (January 1, 2012), the Michigan Education Association contributed $140,000 to support the recall. Scott raised almost double that amount. Rhee’s major allies in this battle included the right-wing billionaire couple Dick and Betsy DeVos (his father co-founded Amway). The DeVos family has funded education privatization efforts around the country since 1990; they are among the biggest promoters of vouchers (per-pupil public funds that students can withdraw from the public system and use to pay for private schools, including religious schools); they also fund Christian Right schools. The recall effort succeeded by 197 votes.

In New Jersey, Rhee connected with two hedge-fund managers—David Tepper, a Democrat, and Alan Fournier, a Republican. The duo had recently joined the club of no-expertise-in-education billionaires dedicated to changing public schools. In March 2011, Tepper and Fournier launched a 501(c)4 called Better Education for Kids, Inc., and a super PAC called Better Education for New Jersey Kids, Inc. During the summer of 2011, the super PAC spent about $1 million on TV and radio commercials to promote Republican Governor Chris Christie’s ed reform program. In the fall, the super PAC gave $400,000 to support four pro-reform candidates for state Assembly: two, both Democrats, won; the two Republicans lost. Since then, the 501(c)4 has been offering New Jersey teachers $100 gift certificates to participate in private meetings about teacher evaluations. Tepper and Fournier’s super PAC and 501(c)4, it turns out, constitute the New Jersey branch of Rhee’s StudentsFirst. The ed reform network expands while remaining knit together by money and the strength of the moral crusade.

Jammed Down Their Throats: An Inside Story

Hubris is a core characteristic of today’s ed reformers. Of necessity, it informs their politicking. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the ed-world scandal that Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman created (his name reappears because he’s a prime mover of the political strategy). At a session of the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 28, 2011, Edelman told his story of how the Illinois chapter of Stand, under his direction, shaped the state’s education reform bill and helped get it through the legislature. A video of Edelman’s presentation went viral on the Web, causing great embarrassment for Illinois lawmakers and teachers’ unions. They promptly denounced him and tried to correct the record. Edelman made a public apology, and Stand’s Illinois chapter appointed a new, if nominal, director. Still, Edelman’s account is extremely useful for understanding the attitude and style of ed reformers.

The Illinois law, which the governor signed on June 13, 2011, makes it easier to fire tenured teachers and revoke certification, eliminates seniority as the top consideration in layoffs, bases teacher evaluations on to-be-finalized measures of student performance, gives Chicago’s school administrators the unilateral power to lengthen the school day and year, and makes a strike by Chicago’s teachers nearly impossible.

Maneuvering for the law began with the 2010 elections to the state legislature. Chicago Democrat Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House for twenty-seven years, was running again. Edelman had raised more than $3.5 million for Stand’s Illinois war chest, mostly from Chicago’s wealthiest families, Republicans as well as Democrats. Since the substance of the story is in Edelman’s telling, here are excerpts from his talk (for the complete video, click here):

…So our analysis was he’s [Madigan] still going to be in power, and as such the raw politics were that we should tilt toward him, and so we interviewed thirty-six candidates in targeted races.…I’m being quite blunt here. The individual candidates were essentially a vehicle to execute a political objective, which was to tilt toward Madigan. The press never picked up on it. We endorsed nine individuals, and six of them were Democrats, three Republicans….

…That was really a show of—indication to him that we could be a new partner to take the place of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. That was the point. Luckily, it never got covered that way. That wouldn’t have worked well in Illinois. Madigan is not particularly well liked.

[Stand for Children, which gave $610,000 to its endorsed candidates, was one of the biggest contributors in the election.]…After the election, we went back to Madigan…and I confirmed the support [for Stand’s legislative proposal]….The next day he created an Education Reform Commission, and his political director called to ask for our suggestions who should be on it….In addition, we hired eleven lobbyists, including four of the absolute best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them. We raised $3 million for our political action committee. That’s more money than either of the unions have in their political action committees.

And so essentially what we did in a very short period of time was shift the balance of power. And I can tell you, there was a palpable sense of concern, if not shock, on the part of the teachers unions in Illinois that Speaker Madigan had changed allegiance and that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats the same way pension reform had been jammed down their throats six months earlier.

…And so over the course of three months, with Advance Illinois [another ed reform group, $1.8 million from Gates in 2008] taking the negotiating lead…and Advance and Stand working in lockstep…they [the union negotiators] essentially gave away every single provision related to teacher effectiveness that we had proposed.

…We fully expected [on the collective bargaining issues] that our collaborative problem-solving of three months would end, and we would have an impasse and go to war, and we were prepared. We had money raised for radio ads, and our lobbyists were ready. Well, to our surprise, and with [Chicago’s newly elected mayor] Rahm Emanuel’s involvement behind the scenes, we were able to split the IEA [Illinois Education Association, a statewide union] from the Chicago Teachers Union.

…So the Senate backed it [the bill] 59 to zero, and then the Chicago Teachers Union leader started getting pushback from her membership for a deal that really, probably, wasn’t from their perspective strategic. She backed off for a little while, but the die had been cast. She had publicly been supportive. So we did some face-saving technical fixes in a separate bill, but the House approved it 112 to one.

… We’ve been happy to dole out plenty of credit, and now it makes it hard for folks leading unions in other states to say these types of reforms are terrible because their colleagues in Illinois just said these are great. So our hope and our expectation is to use this as a catalyst to very quickly make similar changes in other very entrenched states.

Astroturf—Says Who?

Jonah Edelman’s exploits offended not only Illinois legislators and unionists but also African American clergy in Chicago. posted an account by David A. Love on July 29, 2011 (available here):
Edelman attended a community meeting of black Chicago clergy with what observers have called a "slick dog and pony show."…According to Rev. Robin Hood, executive director of Clergy Committed to Community, SFC [Stand] wasn't the least bit interested in the concerns of the black community. "They were interested in getting people to see [the pro-charter film] Waiting for Superman....I found they were anti-union when we met with Stand for Children. It was all about money.”…Although SFC spread around a lot of money in Chicago communities, Rev. Hood emphasized that not one of the pastors in his group would take any of it.
The Edelman Affair is a sorry tale, not only because Jonah is the son of civil-rights leader Marian Wright Edelman and poverty analyst Peter Edelman, but also because Stand started out as an authentic grassroots organization in Oregon. When the scandal broke, longtime activists who had quit or become inactive “spoke out” online. Their reports are remarkably similar. The following is from an open letter to Edelman from Tom Olson, a decade-long volunteer and local leader, posted on the Parents Across America website on July 22, 2011. Olson and his wife had cancelled their sustaining memberships fifteen months earlier:
[I]n 2009, a number of us began to observe a serious erosion of your commitment to true grassroots operations....One of the “reforms” you and your staff began to tout was a call for legislation to create more “flexibility” for schools. This was obviously a thinly disguised attempt to erode negotiated teacher contract agreements and to create more charter schools. It was clearly modeled after some Colorado legislation you had pushed as you shifted to demanding attention to a national agenda supported mostly by corporate and Wall Street millionaires.
Dropping grassroots activism in favor of the ed reformers’ top-down strategy put Stand in sync with the rest of the movement. Ed reformers rarely concede, let alone lament, that they deal mostly in astroturf paid for by wealthy whites. So a frank assessment by Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform, merits attention. In 2010 CER received $275,000 from Gates to launch the Media Bullpen, a baseball-themed website that rates education reporting according to reform criteria. (I gladly disclose that my article in Dissent, Winter 2011, “Got Dough: How Billionaires Rule Our Schools,” received a “strike out,” the lowest rating.) Allen posted the following online on December 19, 2011:
The main reason that poor and minority communities fail to engage in our movement has very little to do with elected Republicans or Democrats and everything to do with us. As a movement (and I've seen this first-hand for more than twenty years), we believe advocacy is when a professional shows up in their friend the majority leader's office and has a good meeting....Real grassroots efforts are on the ground, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, long-term, sustainable education efforts to engage and fortify REAL people, to be REAL voices. Neither ConnCan [flagship branch of 50CAN, $2.4 million from Gates in 2011], nor Stand, nor any of those who claim to do grassroots do it....It's the failure of people who love and advance an issue through their own narrow (albeit powerful) lenses and fail to recognize that the marketing and lobbying firms they hire are clueless about what is really necessary to truly make progress.

A strong democracy requires a public education system, one that is excellent throughout and open to all. The United States failed even to aim for this standard until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawed racial segregation in schools. Since then, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (which directed federal funds to low-income schools), the nation has made progress toward access and excellence. Too slowly, of course, but progress nonetheless (see Richard Rothstein’s March 8, 2011 analysis for the Economic Policy Institute). Ed reformers ignore the data, claiming that poor and minority children are no better educated now than thirty or forty years ago. In fact, progress has slowed only in the last decade, since No Child Left Behind was implemented and the reform agenda gained traction. Other factors may play a role, but the ed reformers certainly haven’t improved progress.

The line of battle for the future of public education is clear. Allied on one side are free-market zealots in the business community, pro-voucher social conservatives, and this peculiar breed of reformers whose political movers are often wealthy, private-school educated, white, male, and under the age of fifty. They are the junior plutocracy, strivers whose do-good goal twenty years ago would have been a seat on the board of the municipal art museum. They are typically clueless about public education. On the other side are public school students, their families, their teachers, and believers in the link between democracy and public education. The first side has money, powerful political connections, and an infrastructure of nonprofit organizations with paid staff. The other side has this: the ability to become a true grassroots movement. This looks like an unequal contest. But with sustained effort, citizen activists at the grassroots can trump hired guns on astroturf.

The 1 Percent for School Board

Louisiana: The usually low-key elections for state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education cost well over $1 million in the fall of 2011. According to state campaign finance data, a pro-reform funding group called the Alliance for Better Classrooms took in more than $750,000—40 percent of it from construction mogul Lane Grisby and family members ($200,000) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s trust ($100,000). The state’s most important business lobby, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, gave pro-reform candidates at least $250,000, according to Stateline, a news service sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts (Gates, $1.4 million to the Pew Research Center, 2011). The pro-reformers won six of the seven races.

Wake County, NC: The fall 2011 school board elections were the most expensive in the county’s history, costing more than $500,000, according to an early tally by the News & Observer website (November 8, 2011). At stake was a nationally acclaimed program that uses busing to achieve economic—and thereby racial—diversity. In 2009 multimillionaire conservative Art Pope (profiled in the New Yorker, October 10, 2011) spent heavily to get a Republican majority elected that would dismantle the program. The board promptly devised a plan to do that. The backlash against Pope, his allies, and the board produced a Democratic sweep of the five open seats in 2011. This vote for school integration made news around the country.

Correction: The original version of this article stated, “Three candidates ran as a ‘reform slate’ for the three open seats on the seven-member board.” Three candidates did run on a “reform slate,” however only two of the seats were open; the other was contested by an incumbent.

Joanne Barkan is a writer who lives in Manhattan and Truro, Massachusetts. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago where she attended public elementary and high schools.

Is there a Superman to save America’s public schools? MON. APR 2

Email to rsvp by March 30, 2012 and please bring ID.

The Roosevelt Campus Network @ NYU Presents:

Is there a Superman to save America’s public schools?

When: Monday, April 2, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Where: Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life, Room 269, 238 Thompson St., Greenwich Village.
Map here.

Come watch clips from films Waiting for Superman and
The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and
participate in a discussion led by:

Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman (Professor at Steinhardt)
Leonie Haimson (parent activist and founder of Class Size Matters)
James Merriman (President of the NYC Charter Schools Center)

Refreshments served.

Monday, March 26, 2012

American Teacher - American Hoax

Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 07:10 AM PST

"American Teacher" - American Hoax

The movie America Teacher is touring the country. It's producers travel from city to city hosting one night stands, telling viewers about the remarkable story of TEP, The Equity Project Charter School, that pays teachers $125,000 a year plus up to $25,000 in bonuses.
Sound too good to be true? Well, that's because it is.
Originally posted at Great Schools for America.
The movie American Teacher finally premiered in Portland, Oregon, where I live.  I had been curious to see it since it was promoted on ABC's Education Nation in September. The movie is said to be based on the book, Teachers Have It Easy co-written by Ninive Calegari, Daniel Moulthrop, and Dave Eggers and first published in 2005. The movie had received glowing affirmations from National Education Association president,  Dennis Van Roekel, and American Federation of Teachers president, Randi Weingarten.  It is narrated by Matt Damon who gave a passionate speech to teachers at the Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C. this past summer. Finally, I was ready to be inspired by a film about teachers that would bring a modicum of respect and recognition to the profession.  So, when four friends and I met up at the screening, what I hadn't anticipated was that by the end of the film, I would feel betrayed and disappointed . . . again.
Unlike Waiting for Superman, last year's blockbuster propaganda piece, funded, produced, and promoted by the Billionaire Boys Club, American Teacher had no national release.  It is appearing at in cities across the country, usually for a one night showing. There is no charge for admission, but there is an option to make a donation when you RSVP or show up at the door. Why such an unorthodox method of promotion and distribution? With the backing of the Billionaire Boys, why no national release?
I did some research on American Teacher.  What I found is disturbing and confusing. I'm sharing it so that you can ask thoughtful questions when the American Teacher tour comes to a theater near you. Join me below as I share my American Teacher experience.
Before the movie began, author and producer Ninive Calegari, giving a brief introduction to the film, informed the audience that her 200 city tour had just expanded to include 300 more showings through the generosity of Bill Gates. That revelation evoked groans from many in the audience, including my friends and me. But, we vowed to be optimistic; to keep an open mind. Calegari then invited the entire audience to join her in a bar across the street for appetizers and drinks to discuss the movie afterward.
The movie tells the stories of four teachers and the hardships they face  working and living on a teacher's salary.  As a solution to the low salary issue, the movie offers TEP -- The Equity Project, a charter school that pays all teachers $125,000 a year with a chance to earn a $25,000 bonus. According to the film and the Q & A after, TEP operates the school and pays eight teachers $125,000 each using only the per pupil expenditure funding from the government. "WOW! Remarkable! That's amazing," I thought. But, how can that be? Time for a reality check.  If this charter school can pay teachers $125,000 a year, then why don't all schools pay teachers more?
Outside the theater my friend Kris and I stopped Calegari to ask a couple more questions. Our conversation went something like this:
"Is the principal at TEP a Teach for America entrepreneur?" I ask Calegari. She evades the question at first and eventually answers, "Yes, Zeke has figured this all out." Zeke is Zeke Vanderhoek, principal of TEP.
"Are class sizes much larger at TEP?" I ask, thinking that would be one way to pay larger salaries. Again she evades the question at first, but after some persistence from me, says she thinks class sizes are a little larger.
"How many students are enrolled at TEP?" is my next question.  She evades the question again, but finally says, "Let's say 200."
Kris and I simultaneously do the math to determine the class size to be about 25. "That's about average, small for Oregon," we say.
"Come inside and have a drink, and we'll talk more about it," she urges, visibly flustered.
"I'd rather not imbibe on drinks paid for by Bill Gates," I reply." I just want to ask one more question about the money."  Kris is somewhat taken aback by my response.
"Just look at the financial statements, it's all there." At this point Calegari becomes testy, hurls a couple of insults at me in response to my lack of appreciation for Gates' hospitality, and excuses herself to go to the party. Kris politely offers her regrets to Calegari, and we leave.
I think she's lying I told Kris as I remembered Pamela Meyer's talk on TED about How to Spot a Liar. Lying is a cooperative act, and I wasn't willing to indulge Calegari. So, I investigated  American Teacher and TEP's financial statements. The research generated more questions than answers. An alternate title for the film is The Teacher Salary Project.
Slate magazine described the film this way: Dave Eggers and Matt Damon’s American Teacher is almost as flawed as last year’s big school reform movie, Waiting for Superman.
Within the first few minutes of the movie, the big three make an appearance to espouse their views on education reform in regard to teacher compensation: Bill Gates, who has no education credentials but has positioned himself Education Czar; Arne Duncan, who has no education credentials but has been appointed Secretary of Education; and President Obama, who prescribes corporate charter schools staffed by those without credentials for children living in poverty.  All three promote competition for funding among public schools and accountability though relentless standardized testing as keystones of education reform.  All three send their children to elite private schools that subscribe to none of these reforms.
Film synopsis from Slate:
In Brooklyn, Jamie Fidler spent $3,000 of her own money on classroom supplies. In the Dallas exurbs, Erik Benner works the night shift at a home improvement store to make ends meet. New Jersey elementary school teacher and Harvard grad Rhena Jasey can’t afford takeout when she gets home too late and exhausted to cook dinner. And Jonathan Dearman, a beloved San Francisco charter school teacher, quits his job because he can earn twice as much annually selling real estate—even in a “slow” year. These stories are engagingly told, and the movie effectively fights back against stereotypes that teachers are lazy and undereducated, with short, easy work days. Who wouldn’t want good folks like these four educators to earn more money for doing incredibly difficult work?
Truth be told, the title of the movie could be "American Worker" because most of the difficulties experienced by these teachers are not unique to the teaching profession. Workers in any occupation/profession may need to work a second job or find a better paying one to make ends meet these days.  Jamie Fidler's family leave problem is not unique to her profession. Moms in many professions face the issue of having to return to work in only six weeks, and many don't even receive pay during their leave. Rhena Jasey has huge student loans to repay, but so do many, many students in this economy where tuition escalates, and Pell grants and scholarships are hard to come by. Unlike workers in most other fields, teachers know exactly how much money they will make before they enter the profession -- salary schedules are public information. Would it be nice to be paid more?  Of course, but the same holds true for any occupation or profession. So why all the concern over teacher pay? From The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Scholastic Project as reported in the Wall Street Journal:
The project has conducted in-depth studies of over 3,000 teachers on the attitudes and expectations of public school teachers . . . Of 15 items on the survey of things that might retain the best teachers, salaries ranked 11th, behind benefits.
If teachers rank salary as 11th on their list of concerns, why is Bill Gates promoting American Teacher and The Teacher Salary Project as an issue of great importance to teachers while ignoring and even thwarting their foremost concerns?  My guess is to showcase TEP. NBC's Education Nation promoted TEP at length. CBS's 60 Minutes did a segment about the bold experiment conducted at TEP. The charter school professes to pay teachers $125,000 plus a year if they take on more responsibilities, give up benefits,  and decline job security including protection offered by the union. But data compiled at Great Schools for America Education Watch, is in dispute with claims made by the movie and the media.  Some discrepancies include:
1.  IRS returns do not list one person as being paid more than $100,000. Since paying teachers $125,000 is the primary tenet of the school and the movie, this is either a major oversight or something more nefarious.  Teachers agree to work other jobs and forgo benefits to earn the higher salary. So, why would the school make extraordinary claims and then forget to report compensation on its tax return? And, why if teachers are giving up benefits, does the school list over $90,000 in employee benefits?
2.  TEP claims to enroll 480 students on its tax return, 2009-2010. The New York City Report Card sets that number at 125. Perhaps TEP intends to grow the school to 480 at some later date, but the IRS likes facts not aspirations.  In its first year, 2009, The Equity Project Charter School enrolled 125 fifth-grade students.
3.  The school is funded by more than the government per pupil expenditure. Both the annual report and tax returns state clearly that the school receives over a million dollars in local, state, and federal grants, and generous private contributions and loans in addition to the annual per pupil expenditure.  According to the TEP's web site, the school is seeking investors:
We are currently seeking one or more lead donors for the Bricks for Equity capital campaign to help fund construction of TEP's new building. Facility naming opportunities are available!
According to Crain's New York Business,  Prudential made a $750,000 start-up loan to the Equity Project:
"We liked the model and concept, and when we met Zeke, we recognized we liked the guy putting it together," said Preston Pinkett III, vice president of social investments at Prudential, which made a $750,000 loan to the school. "He’s bright, energetic and committed to making a difference." TEP is facing the growing pains familiar to any startup. The school is housed in 15 temporary red trailers, and Mr. Vanderhoek needs to raise $10 million to build a $28 million facility on land purchased in Inwood.
4.  Although the film makes no claim to providing its students with an adequate education, its state test results are dismal. According to the Annual School Report Card (Accountability and Overview Report 2009-2010, p. 13), only 24% of students tested proficient in language arts and 37% tested proficient in math.  It seems that paying teachers much higher salaries does not buy an excellent education. 5. TEP's principal claims that The Equity Project is scalable. Zeke Vanderhoek says the model can be replicated on a national basis so that teachers in communities across the country can make $125,000 a year plus $25,000 in bonuses. Since the data seems to infer that The Equity Project isn't making it as a single school, Vanderhoek's claim of scalability seems, at the very least, premature. This claim does the most damage. If the objective of this film is to raise unreasonable expectations -- that all teachers should be able to make $125,000 plus a year, then the producers are probably succeeding. After all, why would a movie, championed by so many teacher advocates, make false claims?
So, what's going on here? Why is American Teacher being promoted by Gates when it appears that the entire concept is a hoax? Why did our teacher unions promote this scheme when TEP is so obviously anti-union? Why are Teach for America darlings, who know nothing about education, being entrusted with the education of our most vulnerable children in the name of entrepreneurial education?  I'm fairly certain if an honest-to-goodness educator went to the bank, presented this scheme, and requested a $750,000 loan, she'd be laughed out of the institution.
Is the purpose of the movie to plant the seed of unrealistic expectations in the minds of teachers? Is the movie more than a hoax?  Is the deception fraud? Are the presenters profiting off the deception?  Is the presentation harmful?  Of one thing I'm certain, with the Gates involvement, the show will likely go on. So, when American Teacher comes to your neighborhood theater, again you can check the schedule here, occupy the movie and ask tough questions. Have a drink on Gates -- he can afford it, and let the producers know we can pay teachers adequately and give kids a great education without giving credence to this charade.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cheating our children: Suspicious school test scores across the nation

Interesting they report improbable scoring trends were twice as likely in charter schools

Cheating our children: Suspicious school test scores across the nation

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Suspicious test scores in roughly 200 school districts resemble those that entangled Atlanta in the biggest cheating scandal in American history, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.
Hyosub Shin, St. Louis: Patrick Henry Downtown Academy’s principal was placed on leave last year for falsifying attendance records. Because attendance rates are used to calculate state funding, it’s possible the alleged fraud attracted state aid to the school that it didn’t deserve. Even though the state has not found cheating at Henry, an AJC analysis uncovered unusual scores dating back to 2007.

The newspaper analyzed test results for 69,000 public schools and found high concentrations of suspect math or reading scores in school systems from coast to coast. The findings represent an unprecedented examination of the integrity of school testing.
The analysis doesn’t prove cheating. But it reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities followed a pattern that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating in multiple schools.
A tainted and largely unpoliced universe of untrustworthy test results underlies bold changes in education policy, the findings show. The tougher teacher evaluations many states are rolling out, for instance, place more weight than ever on tests.
Perhaps more important, the analysis suggests a broad betrayal of schoolchildren across the nation. As Atlanta learned after cheating was uncovered in half its elementary and middle schools last year, falsified test results deny struggling students access to extra help to which they are entitled, and erode confidence in a vital public institution.
“These findings are concerning,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an emailed statement after being briefed on the AJC’s analysis.
He added: “States, districts, schools and testing companies should have sensible safeguards in place to ensure tests accurately reflect student learning.”
In nine districts, scores careened so unpredictably that the odds of such dramatic shifts occurring without an intervention such as tampering were worse than one in 10 billion.
In Houston, for instance, test results for entire grades of students jumped two, three or more times the amount expected in one year, the analysis shows. When children moved to a new grade the next year, their scores plummeted — a finding that suggests the gains were not due to learning.
Overall, 196 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts had enough suspect tests that the odds of the results occurring by chance alone were worse than one in 1,000.
For 33 of those districts, the odds were worse than one in a million.
A few of the districts already face accusations of cheating. But in most, no one has challenged the scores in a broad, public way.
The newspaper’s analysis suggests that tens of thousands of children may have been harmed by inflated scores that could have precluded tutoring or more drastic administrative actions.
The analysis shows that in 2010 alone, the grade-wide reading scores of 24,618 children nationwide — enough to populate a midsized school district — swung so improbably that the odds of it happening by chance were less than one in 10,000.
Cheating is one of few plausible explanations for why scores would change so dramatically for so many students in a district, said James Wollack, a University of Wisconsin-Madison expert in testing and cheating who reviewed the newspaper’s analysis.
“I can say with some confidence,” he said, “cheating is something you should be looking at.”
Statistical checks for extreme changes in scores are like medical tests, said Gary Phillips, a vice president and chief scientist for the large nonprofit American Institutes for Research, who advised the AJC on its methodology.
“This is a broad screening,” he said. “If you find something, you’re supposed to go to the doctor and follow up with a more detailed diagnostic process.”
The findings come as government officials, reeling from recent scandals, are beginning to acknowledge that a troubling amount of score manipulation occurs. Though the federal government requires the tests, it has not mandated screening scores for anomalies or investigating those that turn up.
Daria Hall, director of k-12 policy with the nonprofit The Education Trust, said education officials should take steps to ensure the validity of test results because of the critical role they play in policy and practice.
“If we are going to make important decisions based on test results — and we ought to be doing that — we have to make important decisions about how we are going to ensure their trustworthiness,” she said. “That means districts and states taking ownership of the test security issue in a way that they haven’t to date.”
‘Way too much pressure’
Both critics and supporters of testing said the newspaper’s findings are further evidence that in the frenzy to raise scores, the nation failed to pay enough attention to what was driving the gains.
“We are putting way too much pressure on people to raise scores at a very large clip without holding them accountable for how they are doing it,” said Daniel Koretz, a Harvard Graduate School of Education testing expert.
Test-score pressure is palpable in schools grappling with urban blight and poverty.
These are the schools that the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to fix.
But at Patrick Henry Downtown Academy in St. Louis, airy red brick towers rising above the school belie a grimmer reality on the ground. Children leaving one recent afternoon passed piles of trash and a .45 caliber bullet tucked into the curb. Inside, their classrooms are beset by mold, rats, discipline problems and scandal.
Last year, the former principal — once hailed as among the district’s strongest — was accused by Missouri officials of falsifying attendance rolls to get more state money.
State investigators didn’t publicly question Henry’s test scores.
But the AJC’s analysis found suspicious scores in the school dating back to 2007. In 2010, for instance, about 42 percent of fourth-graders passed the state math test. When the class took the tests as fifth-graders the next year — with state investigators looking into cheating and other fraud allegations — just 4 percent passed math.
Experts say student learning doesn’t typically jump backwards.
Henry’s scores were consistently among the lowest in the state — except for the occasional sudden leap.
After school one recent afternoon, Deborah Dodson, who sends two children to the school, said she saw a teacher provide inappropriate one-on-one assistance during a state test. And she’s heard from other parents that teachers will give students answers.
Some students who aren’t likely to test well don’t receive tests at all, she said. “They don’t do anything by the book,” Dodson said. “That school and how they do things is not right.”
Rural, city schools flagged
The AJC used freedom of information laws to collect test scores from 50 states to look for the sort of patterns that signaled cheating in Atlanta. A Georgia investigation last year found at least 178 Atlanta educators — principals, teachers and other staff — took part in widespread test-tampering.
In each state, the newspaper used statistics to identify unusual score jumps and drops on state math and reading tests by grade and school. Declines can signal cheating the previous year. The calculations also sought to rule out other factors that can lead to big score shifts, such as small classes and dramatic changes in class size.
Some school leaders accused of cheating have attributed steep gains to exemplary teaching. But experts said instruction isn’t likely to move scores to the degree seen in the AJC’s analysis.
Through teaching alone, Wollack said, “it’s going to be pretty tough to have that sort of an impact.”
The AJC developed a statistical method to identify school systems with far more unusual tests than expected, which could signal endemic cheating such as that which occurred in Atlanta. The newspaper’s score analysis used conservative measures that highlighted extremes and were likely to miss many instances of cheating.
Big-to-medium-sized cities and rural districts harbored the highest concentrations of suspect tests. No Child Left Behind may help explain why. The law forced districts to contend with the scores of poor and minority students in an unprecedented way, judging schools by the performance of such “subgroups” as well as by overall achievement.
Hence, high-poverty schools faced some of the most relentless pressure of the kind critics say increases cheating.
Improbable scores were twice as likely to appear in charter schools as regular schools. Charters, which receive public money, can face intense pressure as supposed laboratories of innovation that, in theory, live or die by their academic performance.
Common problems unite the big-city districts with the most prevalent suspicious scores: Many faced state takeovers if scores didn’t improve quickly. Teachers’ pay or even their continued employment sometimes depended on test performance. And their students — mostly poor, mostly minority — were among those needing the most help.
The analysis, for instance, flagged more than one in six tests in St. Louis some years. In Detroit, it was one in seven.
Dozens of school systems in mid-sized cities — such as Gary, Ind., East St. Louis, Ill., and Mobile, Ala. — exhibited high concentrations of suspicious tests, too.
Though high-poverty city schools were more likely to have suspicious tests, improbable scores also showed up in an exclusive public school for the gifted on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And they appeared in a rural district roughly 70 miles south of Chicago with one school, dirt roads and a women’s prison.
The findings call into question the approach that dominated federal education policy over the past decade: Set a continuously rising bar and leave schools and districts essentially alone to figure out how to surmount it — or face penalties.
“If you want to keep your job, keep your school out of the news, keep winning awards and advance in your career, you need to make your school look better,” said Joseph Hawkins, a former testing official with the Montgomery County, Md., school system.
Koretz, the Harvard expert, said cheating is one extreme on a continuum that, at its other end, includes gaming the test in legal ways — such as through test-prep drills — that don’t significantly increase students’ overall knowledge or skills.
Even as state test scores have soared, students’ performance on national and international exams has been more mediocre. Cheating and gaming may help explain why.
“The big picture is: Are we seeing apparent gains in student achievement that are bogus?” Koretz asked.
Decade of tumult
Test scores show that instead of progressing steadily in their academics, districts have endured a decade of tumult.
In some of the nation’s biggest cities, dynamic district leaders preached “data-driven” decision-making and even linked test scores to bonuses or principal hiring and firing decisions. Many boasted of taking a corporate approach to education, focusing on student test achievement as the single most important measure of success.
Some of the most persistently suspicious test scores nationwide, however, occurred in districts renowned for cutting-edge reforms.
In Atlanta, for instance, former Superintendent Beverly Hall won national recognition as Superintendent of the Year in 2009. State investigators later confirmed scores that year were widely manipulated by educators who assisted students improperly and outright changed tens of thousands of their answers on state tests.
In some Atlanta schools, cheating was an open secret for years. After students turned in their tests, teachers and administrators erased and corrected their mistakes — even holding a “changing party” at a teacher’s home. In another school, staff opened plastic wrap securing test booklets with a razor, then melted the wrap shut again after making forbidden copies.
State investigators accused a total of 38 principals with participating in test-tampering. One allegedly wore gloves while erasing to avoid leaving fingerprints.
Ultimately, the cheating supported a massive effort to bolster the Atlanta superintendent’s image as a tough reformer who had turned around a struggling system.
In 2002, Houston was the first winner of the Broad Prize, which has become the most coveted award in urban education. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation praised Houston’s intense focus on test results. More recently, Houston has been among the leaders in tying teacher pay to student test scores.
But twice in the past seven years, the AJC found, Houston exhibited fluctuations with virtually no chance of occurring except through tampering.
In 2005, scores fell precipitously in five dozen classes in 38 schools after a statistical analysis by the Dallas Morning News suggested test-tampering in Houston. The district fired teachers and principals and improved test security.
In 2011, however, as three-fourths of Houston teachers earned performance-based bonuses, scores rose improbably in a similar number of classes in the same number of schools. In the same year, Houston confirmed nine cheating allegations and fired or took other action against 21 employees.
Through Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the district, Houston officials questioned whether cheating caused all of the unusual score changes the AJC found. He said the district doesn’t think its pay-for-performance plan has made cheating more likely.
“We feel like we put a lot of safeguards in place,” he said, but added: “We know it happens. We would never pretend it’s not an issue.”
Teachers and other school staff in Atlanta were eligible for mostly small bonuses if scores hit district targets. Perhaps more worrisome for principals were the penalties: Former Superintendent Hall boasted of replacing about 90 percent of principals and told new hires they had three years to deliver high scores. Her mantra: “no exceptions, no excuses.”
Three studies of merit-pay programs did not show they consistently produce higher test scores, either legitimately or through cheating, said Matthew Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University.
Yet, he added that “it’s incredibly important that we systematically monitor these programs for opportunistic gaming of the system.”
Pushback from officials
Some school districts and states have taken an apathetic, if not defiant, stance in the face of cheating accusations in recent years.
The AJC sent detailed findings to districts with some of the most suspicious clusters of scores. For those not already publicly looking at cheating, the responses were similar: Officials said they were unaware of most anomalies, but protested characterizing the score changes as cheating.
Several local and state school officials objected to conducting the analysis at all, saying it doesn’t consider enough variables.
Some districts simply denied any problems exist. Detroit, for instance, claimed its scores were not “unusual or out of line in any way” and that Michigan officials had not identified irregularities “with respect to an erasure analysis, suspected cheating, or any other issue.”
In fact, Michigan’s education agency identified six Detroit schools as having statistically unlikely gains on a state test in 2009. At one school, the state determined, sixth-graders averaged 7.4 wrong-to-right erasures. Their peers statewide averaged fewer than one such change.
Analyzing Detroit’s scores from 2008 and 2009, the AJC found suspicious swings in 14 percent of classes. The statistical probability: zero.
Regardless, Detroit officials offered an explanation that experts have said is among the least likely: better teaching.
Steven Wasko, an assistant superintendent in Detroit, said the district has offered before- and after-school programs, expanded summer school, and added extra reading and math instruction. “Increases in student performance,” Wasko said in an email, “could be attributed in part to these factors.”
In a statement, St. Louis school district officials acknowledged the strangeness of score changes, but disagreed that cheating was to blame. They said neither the district nor state education officials have any “credible evidence that testing improprieties have occurred at the schools in question.”
Officials acknowledged, however, that the district has a cheating investigation open at one school. The state said that since 2010 it has received allegations of cheating at two other St. Louis schools identified as suspicious by the AJC analysis. Accusations of cheating persist.
State officials say they do not screen test scores for possible cheating and do not consider unusually high gains to be a sign of test-tampering — if schools provide an explanation.
“We hope to see great gains in our proficiency levels,” said Michele Clark, a spokeswoman for the Missouri education department.
Dallas officials said that when irregularities surfaced several years ago, they instituted new test security measures and started screening for anomalies.
Few big-city districts have attacked cheating as aggressively as Baltimore.
After he became the district’s chief executive in 2007, Andrés Alonso heard a whistle-blower complain at a PTA meeting about the district’s lax investigation into cheating allegations at her school.
With accused educators sitting nearby, Alonso recalled recently, the room became “a deafening vacuum.”
Alonso ordered a new investigation, which spread into 15 other schools. The district posted independent monitors in each school during tests. In the suspected schools, scores fell dramatically. In other schools, scores continued to rise.
Alonso asked state officials to check test papers for illicit erasures and changes. Their analysis confirmed his suspicions.
At Fort Worthington Elementary, for instance, as many as 20 mistakes were corrected on some students’ tests, often in a lighter shade of pencil.
All of Fort Worthington’s classes posted improbable gains in 2008, the AJC’s analysis shows. The performance level held for two more years, when the school faced the threat of state takeover. After the cheating was detected, statistically unlikely score drops multiplied, occurring in three-quarters of the school’s classes. Similar patterns show up across the district.
Sitting outside the school in her aging station wagon one late winter day, Vernetta Jones-Marshall said Fort Worthington is doing the best it can.
“I don’t even know if it was really a true statement,” Jones-Marshall, 57, said of the cheating allegations as she waited to pick up her son, a fifth-grader. “We didn’t make a big deal about it.”
Cheating is a big deal to Alonso, however.
Most educators act with integrity, he said, but others “feel a sense of impunity” because school officials haven’t always held cheaters accountable.
“I was doing this before the Atlanta story broke,” he said. “This was me feeling that nothing mattered more than the integrity of the school system.”
Call for vigilance
Leaders need to maintain that tough stance even after cheating disappears from the headlines, experts say.
In Dallas, for instance, the score analysis shows the number of suspicious gains dropped after cheating allegations surfaced in late 2004 — but then began inching up again a few years later.
For years, Los Angeles’ scores were among the least suspicious for big-city districts. But when California stopped conducting routine erasure analysis in 2008 for budget reasons, the number of improbable score changes in L.A. climbed steeply.
States and districts find little advice when they do decide to conduct erasure or statistical screenings of test scores.
Federal education officials and testing experts have begun working on new recommendations for detecting and investigating test-score anomalies.
Wollack, the Wisconsin testing expert, said there is room to improve. “Some of the investigations that have taken place in the past have been less than thorough, have been less exhaustive than they should have been,” he said. “Cheating went undetected as a result.”
Districts don’t have a big incentive to unearth ugly truths about their own testing programs. What’s more, most screening methods miss instances of cheating by setting high thresholds in an effort not to falsely identify innocent schools.
“It’s clear there are schools, there are districts, that are under that threshold that are still engaged in some level of misconduct,” Wollack said.
Critics of testing have complained for years that increased pressure brought on by accountability measures leads to more testing abuses.
Education historian and New York University Professor Diane Ravitch said the incessant focus on testing has eroded the quality of instruction.
“All of this is predictable,” said Ravitch, a former top U.S. Department of Education official who in recent years reversed her support for testing and tough accountability measures. “We’re warping the education system in order to meet artificial targets.”
Through programs such as Race to the Top, federal education officials have pushed states to adopt more aggressive teacher evaluation systems that, typically, consider test scores.
“Whatever the stakes were under No Child Left Behind,” Ravitch said, “they are going to be much higher, now that teachers are being told your scores are going to be public and you’re going to be fired if they don’t go up X number of years in a row.”
But Daria Hall, of the Education Trust, said most educators don’t cheat, and testing data is essential for determining if students have basic skills — such as the ability to read.
“What parent doesn’t want to know how their child is doing in reading and in math? What teacher doesn’t want to know how their student is doing?” she said. “You can’t take away the source of the information. We have to make the information better.”
Crisis of confidence
For parents, questions of academic integrity can lead to a crisis of confidence.
The chronically low-performing Nashville district illustrates the conundrum. Test scores in some of the district’s schools have alternately soared and swooped to improbable degrees.
Nashville school officials said the data raises concerns about their effectiveness as educators, but not cheating. They echoed other districts’ objections to the analysis, including their relatively high percentage of students learning English and the number of students changing schools from one year to the next.
In Hermitage, a working-class section east of downtown Nashville, Megan McGowan said she was torn about whether to send her son to Dupont Tyler Middle School.
Tests carry too much weight, she said, and teachers face tremendous pressure to produce results. Still, she said, cheating is inexcusable. If it happened at Dupont Tyler, she said, she’d think twice about sending her son there.
“I expect teachers to be ethical,” she said.
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