The destructive impact of accountability on public education (Guest post by Joseph A. Ricciotti)

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An important guest post from Josesph Ricciotti, a retired educator and a leading public school advocate in Connecticut.  His commentary pieces can be found in many of Connecticut’s media outlets as well as here at Wait, What?

School districts in Connecticut will soon embark on another round of standardized testing referred to as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium( (SBAC) which are tests administered to all students in school districts that are implementing Common Core. Hence, as a life-long educator and a former principal the question I would ask is why? Education officials from the Connecticut Commissioner of Education down to the superintendents of Connecticut school districts immersed in implementing the SBAC tests would say we need “accountability.” Ah, yes, that infamous word “accountability” that has a thirty year record of failing children, parents, teachers and communities.

The era of “accountability” started back in the early eighties when Ronald Reagan was president. Education historian Diane Ravitch and author of the best selling book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools” traces the accountability movement back to 1983 when “A Nation at Risk” was published. Ravitch cites “For the past 30 years, U.S. educators have been like a dog chasing its tail. What has happened is tragic.” Ravitch is also of the belief that our nation’s political leadership “have become obsessed with the idea that everything that matters can be measured and that test scores are the ultimate measure for children, schools, teachers, and now, higher education.” As one educator said, “it is as though we want to quantify everything.

For the past fourteen years also in the name of “accountability” we have had No Child Left Behind (NCLB) followed by Race to the Top (RTTT) which, because of the testing aligned with these programs, have been utter failures. And now we are entering a new era of “accountability” with Common Core and the SBAC tests, again, all in the name of “accountability.” In essence, what NCLB and RTTT and now Common Core have done according to Tom Skelar, Dean of the Edgewood School of Education in Wisconsin,”was that over the last 14 years it has literally denied a generation of children access to their fundamental right to a powerful and critical education.” Skelar goes on to state that the only beneficiaries of “accountability” have been legislators and, of course, the testing companies that have made millions on the sale of tests and data systems to schools.

The SBAC tests aligned with Common Core were largely designed by testing experts with minimal input from teachers. Yet so much of teachers’ success under the guise of “accountability” will now be determined by SBAC test scores – or more commonly known in educational circles as “high-stakes testing” – which includes teacher performance evaluations as well as their salaries. As George Ball in an op-ed piece in the San Franciscogate so appropriately stated, “What’s lost in Common Core is the human factor. Teachers are deprived of the freedom and creativity that is the oxygen of learning. Common Core sacrifices the magic of teaching and learning at the alter of metrics.” Needless to say, these are powerful words aimed at what is occurring throughout the nation’s schools in the name of “test-based accountability.

In Westport, where Staples High School principal John Dodig is retiring, he cites his displeasure with the state’s implementation of the SBAC testing tied to teacher evaluation emphatically stating “I don’t believe in it. I think it is hypocritical, it’s destructive and it’s not going to change education.” Under Dodig’s tenure, Staples High School in 2008 was named by Connecticut Magazine as “#1 High School in the State and was also recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education in 2013.

The new interim Connecticut Commissioner of Education Dianne Roberge-Wentzell has wasted no time as her top priority in pushing school districts in Connecticut in the administration and implementation of the SBAC tests aligned with Common Core which are schedule to be given to public school students during the spring of 2015. Why the big rush for tests that are destined to create havoc? According to Jonathan Pelto, the SBAC tests are “designed to ensure that potentially up to 70 percent of students fail to reach goal.” Hence, critics of Common Core testing believe that its evaluation methods are built on bad science, faulty research and compare it to “ building a plane while flying it.” Do we really want the test makers experimenting with our children in the name of “accountability”? Is Common Core and the SBAC aligned tests yet another train wreck waiting to happen?

Research on testing indicates that SBAC test scores will, in reality, simply and basically describe the demographics of students. That is why school districts such as Fairfield and Westport will have high SBAC scores while Bridgeport and Hartford will have low scores. In the end, the SBAC test scores will tell more about the real estate values than the quality of its schools. University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber has shown that nonschool factors such as family income amount to 60% of achievement.

Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, in a recent talk had  a poignant message to education reformers and test makers when she said, “Testing does nothing but show you the educational attainment of the child’s mother. We don’t even see the test results, Why? What is the point of all this testing? These tests are what they are using to ruin people’s lives-adults and children; and then they run around saying, “I’m for the kids.” We continue to brand education as a failure. Why are we telling these lies?”

In light of the nonschool factors that impact student achievement, the Connecticut State Department of Education needs to take a step back and reflect on what their focus on high-stakes testing is doing to our students and what they are doing to our teachers and schools. There is more to teaching and learning than test scores. “Accountability” is the culprit that is demeaning our public schools.

It is the unparalleled levels of poverty, inequity and violence!

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Jonathan Kantrowitz, is a public education advocate, political activist and blogger.  His blog appears on the Connecticut Post website and the sites operated by the Hearst Media Group.  In a post entitled, “U.S. has the world’s most educated workforce—but students face unparalleled levels of poverty, inequity and violence,” Jonathan Kantrowitz has written an extraordinary and profound piece about the real problems that are causing the growing educational achievement gap in the United States.

This article should be mandatory reading for the President of the United States, every member of Congress, every state governor and every state legislator.

At the very least, Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy and New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo should read it and be required to respond  – in writing – as to why they are promoting policies that take our public education policies in exactly the wrong direction.

The following is Jonathan Kantrowitz’s post;

Source: Horace Mann League (HML) and the National Superintendents Roundtable

A new study released today challenges the practice of ranking nations by educational test scores and questions conventional wisdom that the U.S.educational system has fallen badly behind school systems abroad.

In their report, School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect, the Horace Mann League (HML) and the National Superintendents Roundtable examined six dimensions related to student performance—equity, social stress, support for families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes—in the G-7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) plus Finland and China. They then examined 24 “indicators” within those dimensions.

Of the nine nations, the United States remains the wealthiest with the most highly educated workforce, based on the number of years of school completed, and the proportion of adults with high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees.

“Many policymakers and business leaders fret that America has fallen behind Europe and China, but our research does not bear that out,” said James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.

Despite high educational levels, the United States also reflects high levels of economic inequity and social stress compared to the other nations. All are related to student performance. Measures included rates of childhood poverty, income inequality and violence. For example, in American public schools today, the rate of childhood poverty is five times greater than it is in Finland. Rates of violent death are 13 times greater than the average for the other nations, with children in some communities reporting they have witnessed shootings, knifings, and beatings as “ordinary, everyday events.”

The study is a unique analysis, which for the first time compares K-12 education internationally on an array of social and economic indicators, not just test scores. The goal was to look at the whole iceberg, not just the tip—and provide a clearer snapshot of each country’s performance, including its wealth, diversity, community safety, and support for families and schools.

Some key findings:

 Economic Equity: The United States and China demonstrate the greatest gaps between rich and poor. The U.S. also contends with remarkably high rates of income inequality and childhood poverty.

 Social Stress: The U.S.reported the highest rates of violent death and teen pregnancy, and came in second for death rates from drug abuse. The U.S.is also one of the most diverse nations with many immigrant students, suggesting English may not be their first language.

 Support for Families: The U.S. performed in the lowest third on public spending for services that benefit children and families, including preschool.

 Support for Schools: Americans seem willing to invest in education: The U.S. leads the nine-nation group in spending per student, but the national estimates may not be truly comparable. U.S. teachers spend about 40 percent more time in the classroom than their peers in the comparison countries.

 Student Outcomes: Performance in American elementary schools is promising, while middle school performance can be improved. U.S. students excel in 4th grade reading and high school graduation rates, but perform less well in reading at age 15. All nations demonstrate an achievement gap based on students’ family income and socio-economic status.

 System Outcomes: The U.S. leads these nations in educational levels of its adult workforce. Measures included years of schooling completed and the proportion of adults with high-school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. American students also make up 25 percent of the world’s top students in science at age 15, followed by Japan at 13 percent.

“Too often, we narrow our focus to a few things that can be easily tested. To avoid that scoreboard mentality, we need to look at many measures important to shaping our future citizens. Treating education as a horse race doesn’t work,” said HML President Gary Marx.

A call for more nuanced assessments

American policymakers from both political parties have a history of relying on large, international assessments to judge United States’ performance in education. In 2013, the press reported that American students were falling behind when compared to 61 other countries and a few cities including Shanghai. In that comparative assessment—called the Program for International Student Assessment—PISA controversially reported superior scores for Shanghai.

“We don’t oppose using international assessments as one measure of performance. But as educators and policymakers, we need to compare ourselves with similar nations and on a broader set of indicators that put school performance in context—not just a single number in an international ranking,” said Harvey.

“Our study suggests the U.S. has the most educated workforce, yet students confront shockingly high rates of poverty and violence. Research shows that those larger issues, outside the classroom, are serious threats to student learning,” noted HML Executive Director Jack McKay.

For more of his posts, go to; http://blog.ctnews.com/kantrowitz/

Race to the Bottom: A story about the strings attached to federal funding;

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On any given day, Governor Malloy, his Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor and other “education reformers” including superintendents in Bridgeport, Hartford and elsewhere are racing around – often in circles – in pursuit of some of the money that is being handed out by the United States Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” Program.

Applications and waivers are the terms of the day as more and more states and cities promise to implement reforms in return for more federal funding.

In the rush, some elected and appointed officials forget that while the preamble of a bill or program may sound great, you’d better read the fine print before you sign on the dotted line.

That message came through loud and clear earlier this month when the Malloy Administration quietly submitted Senate Resolution No. 14.  With no press release or even an explanation, the language of the bill reads;

January Session, 2013 of the Connecticut General Assembly

Senate Resolution No.14

RESOLUTION APPROVING THE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION AND THE CONNECTICUT STATE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION.

Resolved by the Senate:

That the provisions of the settlement agreement dated January 30, 2013, between the United States of America, acting through the United States Department of Justice and on behalf of the United States Department of Education, and the State of Connecticut, acting through the office of the Attorney General and on behalf of the Connecticut State Department of Education, requiring an expenditure from the General Fund budget in excess of two million five hundred thousand dollars and submitted by the Attorney General to this Assembly for approval in accordance with section 3-125a of the general statutes, are approved

Not the easiest piece of legislation to decipher, but in essence is says that on January 30, 2013, an agreement was signed between the federal government and the state of Connecticut dealing with some problem between the United States Department of Education and the Connecticut State Department of Education, and to resolve that problem, Connecticut will be issuing a check to the federal government for an amount in excess of $2.5 million.

So what is the story?

It turns out that in 2002, 2003 and 2004, the Connecticut State Department of Education applied for and was granted funds from the United States Department of Education’s National Initiative to Ensure Child Eligibility for Title I, Part C, Migrant Education Program.

The state spent those funds on various education programs that it believed met the rules and regulations of the program.

However, the federal government charged that the Connecticut State Department of Education “submitted or caused to be submitted false claims for payment or approval by misrepresenting the number of children in Connecticut who qualified for federal MEP funding.”

It is not that the federal government was saying the Connecticut’s State Department of Education stole the funds or spent them on non-education expenses; the problem appears to be the programs being funded may have helped children other than just the children of migrant workers.

In any case, after nearly a decade of investigations and negotiations, costing untold amounts of money, the federal government and the State of Connecticut recently signed an agreement that the State of Connecticut will pay back a portion of the funds….about $4.5 million.

However, as the agreement makes clear, “This Agreement is neither an admission of liability by the State, nor a concession by the United States that its claims are not well-founded.”

Bottom line – Connecticut agrees to pay back the funds but everyone agrees that the agreement does not imply that we were guilty of anything.

So in the coming years, Connecticut taxpayers will pay the United States government the sum of $4,500,000 with  non-Federal funds .  It actually starts with an initial payment of $1,500.000 within forty-five calendar days after the approval of the agreement by the Connecticut General Assembly, with annual payments due until the full amount has been paid).

In addition, the state will pay interest on the unpaid portion of the stipulated amount.

And, if for some reason the General Assembly rejects the agreement, bad things will happen that will undoubtedly cost the state even more.

So all in favor, say yes…

Case closed.

Connecticut asked for the money, it spent the money, it probably even thought it was spending the money in the right way, but the federal government said Connecticut failed to spend the money correctly and we now have to pay it back, with interest.

Of course, this migrant education program was minor compared to the amount of funds and the level of federal rules and restrictions associated with the federal government’s massive No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top funding.

And yet just the other day, Governor Malloy, Commissioner Pryor and the Connecticut State Board of Education were talking about changes and flexibility associated with Connecticut’s absurd teacher evaluation system, but there was virtually no mention that the federal waiver Malloy, Pryor and the state requested and received puts severe limitations on just how much “flexibility” Connecticut has in some of these areas.

We took the money but the rules we have to spend it under will actually do severe harm to many of our public schools.

Remember, when the “education reformers” tell us not to worry about the restrictive rules concerning No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the federal government will let us do whatever we want as long as we adopt some education reforms, remind them about this new Senate Resolution 14 that will cost us $4.5 million, plus interest.

It is a question every legislator should be asked.

And while you’re doing that, ask them why the Malloy administration is providing so little information about this settlement.

Waivers intensify injustice of No Child Left Behind (Another must read column by Wendy Lecker)

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My colleague, fellow public education advocate and commentator, Wendy Lecker, had another “must read” column in the Stamford Advocate, Connecticut Post and the other papers that make up the Hearst Connecticut Media Group.

While many readers know about the problems associated with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, many may not fully appreciated why a federal waiver doesn’t solve the problem.  In her column, Lecker explains why the Malloy Administration’s unquestioning commitment to getting a federal waiver is not the right solution.

Wendy writes;

“If education is supposed to be the civil rights issue of this era, why does Connecticut’s new system for rating schools and districts discriminate against our most vulnerable students? Connecticut instituted the new system in order to obtain a waiver from some of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB). NCLB mandated that states judge schools and districts, and impose punishments, based on test scores of the entire school and district and of subgroups of students: different ethnic groups, English language learners, children living in poverty and students with disabilities. One claimed benefit of reporting scores by subgroups is that this revealed which groups of children tended to score poorly on standardized tests.

However, under NCLB, schools serving a more heterogeneous population were more likely to be punished. Not only did entire schools and districts have to pass the testing goal for a year, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), but each subgroup had to pass the goal as well. Thus, a school or district with fewer subgroups had a better chance of making AYP than a diverse one.

Since the ultimate goal of NCLB, that 100 percent of students would be proficient on state tests by 2014, was widely acknowledged as unattainable, more and more schools were failing to make AYP as we approached that deadline. Even homogeneous, affluent districts were bound to fail. Sanctions under NCLB ranged from mandating unregulated tutoring and allowing students to transfer out, to more serious interventions such as firing all staff and/or handing schools over to private operators. None of these sanctions have proven effective at improving schools.”

Read the rest at http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Waivers-intensify-injustice-of-No-4004364.php#ixzz2BeV8i2CU