Wendy Lecker explains – Again – Why the Malloy-Wyman teacher evaluation system is a terrible farce

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In her commentary piece last week, public education advocate Wendy Lecker returned to the issue of Governor Dannel Malloy and Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman’s unfair, inappropriate and fundamentally flawed teacher evaluation system.   Her article, entitled Teacher evaluation system needs overhaul, first appeared in the Stamford Advocate.

While Wendy Lecker has pounded away about the problems associated with Connecticut’s teacher evaluation system for four years, the good news is that it seems that some of the power-elite are finally listening.

Having helped craft and usher in the absurd and destructive teacher evaluation system, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) will be holding a press conference later today, January 7, 2016, in which they will apparently stand up for Connecticut educators and take a strong stand against Malloy and Wyman’s anti-teacher and anti-public school, teacher evaluation program.

The problem with the existing teacher evaluation system could not be any clearer.  As Wendy Lecker explains – Teacher evaluation system needs overhaul;

With the passage of the new federal law replacing the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB), Connecticut now has a unique opportunity to rethink its flawed teacher evaluation system.

In response first to the federal Race to the Top grant and then the NCLB waiver mandates, Connecticut developed a teacher and principal evaluation system calling for student standardized test scores to be a part of a teacher and principal’s effectiveness rating.

Under the federal law replacing NCLB, the Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”), the federal government no longer requires states to link student standardized test scores to teacher evaluations.

Connecticut’s Performance Evaluation Advisory Council (“PEAC”), the body that oversees the teacher and principal evaluation system, will next meet in January. Since PEAC last met, the notion that one can rate teacher’s effectiveness based on student standardized test scores has been thoroughly debunked.

As the American Statistical Association maintains, teachers account for only 1-14 percent of the variance in student standardized test scores. Joining the ASA and others, the American Educational Research Association recently declared that it is almost impossible to disentangle this tiny teacher effect on student test scores from other in-school and out-of-school factors. A New Mexico court recently blocked that state’s test-based teacher evaluation system because there is no scientific evidence proving that such a system is valid.

Standardized achievement tests were not designed to be instructionally sensitive, i.e. show what or how well a teacher teaches. They cannot be jury-rigged after the fact to be.

In light of the ESSA, some PEAC members, notably the Connecticut Education Association, now indicate they would advocate decoupling statewide standardized tests from evaluations. Indeed, why continue such a demonstrably invalid practice?

Other members, including Connecticut’s superintendents’ and boards of education associations (CAPSS and CABE), maintain that standardized test scores must still be included because they show “student achievement growth.”

What does that mean?

Learning is a complex process. Even if one focuses only on cognitive skills, different grades teach different content and different skills. Each standardized test measures skills that supposedly correspond to that grade level. Comparing one grade level test to another is comparing apples to oranges.

As I wrote in an earlier column (bit.ly/1sOOxFc), in constructing “growth scales” for standardized tests, statisticians make a fictional assumption that learning in math and reading is linear and can actually be compared from year to year. To make this work, they can only focus on a limited universe of skills that might be subject to such a rough comparison.

Measuring growth through standardized tests is, at best, looking at a tiny fraction of cognitive skills.

When we construct an evaluation system based on that tiny universe of disjointed skills, all the components in that system will be equally narrow. Any observations of and conclusions about teachers will center only on how those teachers are teaching those particular skills.

Why do we want to know so little about a teacher?

I want much more for my son. I want my son’s teachers to help him learn skills, but I also want them to help him apply those skills to other subjects and in life. I want them to help him make sense of the world. I want them to help him ask better questions, so he can become a more critical thinker. I want them to help him be a better member of his school community so he can learn to become a good citizen. I want teachers who can assess my child with tools they developed based on their teaching.

None of these teaching skills can be measured with a test.

However test scores are simple, readily available measures; so policy-makers embrace them, even when they are inappropriate.

Rather than construct an evaluation process based on what is easiest to measure, shouldn’t PEAC start with an examination of the type of skills we want in teachers?

Determining whether a teacher has those skills will require us to rely on the professional judgment of administrators and other teachers who observe a teacher’s practices, the work she assigns, and her students’ work.

The state can provide guidelines but it is time start trusting professional educators again. Teaching and learning are complex human endeavors that will never be properly reduced to numbers.

Connecticut now has the opportunity and moral duty to right the wrong being done to our teachers and students. All eyes will be on the PEAC members to see if they have the courage and wisdom to do so.

For more about Connecticut’s flawed teacher evaluation policies check out the following Wait, What? posts;

Malloy’s Teacher evaluation system is fundamentally and fatally flawed

Connecticut’s teacher evaluation plan – even worse than we thought

Ailing teacher evaluation program can’t be cured

Opt Out growing – Now decouple Common Core test from Teacher Evaluation Program

Will Malloy decouple Connecticut’s teacher evaluation system from the unfair Common Core SBAC Test?

Teacher Evaluations At The Heart Of Education Reform Are Flawed (By Jonathan Kantrowitz)

Evaluate Teachers based on Standardized Test Scores? Can an “education reformer” please answer the following question?

Teacher Evaluation Program: Malloy, Pryor and General Assembly slam door on a locally developed plans

Test Scores and Teacher Evaluations – But Wait – That’s Like Comparing Apples and Tomatoes

Leaving math standards to politicians doesn’t add up (By Wendy Lecker)

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The Corporate Education Reform Industry and its allies say the Common Core, Common Core testing mania and their agenda to privatize public education in the United States is necessary in order to ensure children are college and career ready.

However, as parents, students, teachers and the public are learning, the effort to disrupt and undermine public schools is having a very negative impact on the quality of education many students are receiving.

In her latest column in the Stamford Advocate, fellow public education advocate Wendy Lecker takes on the notion that the “new” math being pushed by those focused on selling new textbooks, computer programs and curriculum is pushing children in the wrong direction.

Wendy Lecker writes;

At parents’ night this fall, a high school math teacher I know begged parents to teach their children long division “the old-fashioned way.” She explained that the new way students had learned long division impedes their ability to understand algebraic factoring. She lamented that students hadn’t been taught certain rote skills, like multiplication tables, that would enable them to perform more complex math operations efficiently.

It turns out that brain science supports this math teacher’s impressions. Rote learning and memorization at an early age are critical in developing math skills.

A study conducted by Stanford Medical school examined the role of a part of the brain, the hippocampus, in the development of math skills in children. The authors noted that a shift to memory-based problem solving is a hallmark of children’s cognitive development in arithmetic as well as other domains. They conducted brain scans of children, adolescents and adults and found that hippocampus plays a critical but time limited role in the development of memory-based problem solving skills.

The hippocampus helps the brain encode memories in children that as adults they can later retrieve efficiently when working with more complex math concepts. The hippocampal system works a certain way in children to help develop memory-based problem solving skills. Once the children pass a certain age, the processes change.

The study also found that “repeated problem solving during the early stages of arithmetic skill development in children contributes to memory re-encoding and consolidation.” In other words, rote repetition helps the development of this critical brain system so essential to later more complicated math work.

Those who developed the Common Core State Standards clearly ignored brain research in math, as they did in reading (http://bit.ly/1IeIgKm); The Common Core emphasizes conceptual understanding at every phase of math instruction. So, even young children are required not only to conduct a simple math procedure, but to also explain and justify every answer.

As education professor Katherine Beals and math teacher Barry Garelick wrote recently in the Atlantic, when certain mathematical procedures become automatic, it frees up the brain to progress to more difficult math concepts. Forcing children to explain every simple procedure distracts students from this vital transition. In a Wall Street Journal article last year, engineering professor Barbara Oakley explained that much like focusing on every aspect of a golf swing impedes the development of the swing, forcing children to stop and continually prove their understanding can actually impede their understanding. Mandatory explaining of math impedes the doing of math. The Stanford brain study indicates that it also inhibits brain development.

Moreover, as Beals and Garelick point out, some students, particularly English Language Learners and those on the autism spectrum, cannot easily explain their answers, even though they understand the concept and procedure. Thus these students would be penalized even though they may be strong math students.

Professor Oakley noted that just because a student understands a concept does not mean that she has mastered it. Expertise comes with repetition. True mastery, she explains, is the ability to pull out a chunk of knowledge quickly and use it. And expertise builds profound conceptual understanding, not the reverse.

Maybe the fad to force kids to explain every simple math procedure grew out of our selfie and Facebook culture; that tendency to document every mundane life experience. It certainly did not emanate from a true understanding or concern for how math skills develop.

Beals and Garelick observe that it is as if the architects of the Common Core thought that if students just act like mathematicians, they would magically become them. As they note, this approach may be an interesting behavioral experiment, but it is not mathematical development.

The goal of public education is to provide children with an education, not to use children as unwitting subjects in experiments. Our children only go through school once. Their brains only develop once. To jeopardize their growth because of some unfounded idea a policy maker thought might be neat is criminal.

Our children would be best served if politicians leave the experimenting to scientists, then pay attention to the findings.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.

You can read and comment on Wendy Lecker’s latest column at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Leaving-math-standards-to-6660194.php

NEWS FLASH:  Vermont State Board of Education Trashes Common Core SBAC Test

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Yesterday the Vermont State Board of Education approved a letter that is being sent out to parents of public school students in that state.  Their honest and hard-hitting assessment that the Common Core SBAC test inappropriately labels children as failures and undermines public education is a message that all children, parents, teachers and policymakers need to hear.  By telling the truth and essentially trashing the SBAC test results, the Vermont Board is a shining example that we can fight back against the Corporate Education Reform Industry and its political allies. – Jonathan Pelto

A MUST READ NEWS FLASH – From fellow Connecticut public education advocate and columnist Wendy Lecker;

“Do not let the results wrongly discourage your child from pursuing his or her talents, ambitions, hopes or dreams.

These tests are based on a narrow definition of “college and career ready.” In truth, there are many different careers and colleges, and there are just as many different definitions of essential skills. In fact, many (if not most) successful adults fail to score well on standardized tests. If your child’s scores show that they are not yet proficient, this does not mean that they are not doing well or will not do well in the future.”  Vermont State Board of Education 11-4-2015

Wendy Lecker explains,

Once again, Vermont’s education officials are leading the way and, frankly, putting all other education officials, state and federal, to shame. These leaders understand the proper place standardized tests should occupy in the educational landscape, and they understand the purpose of education.

With the release of the 2015 test scores, Vermont’s State Board, of which Education Secretary, Rebecca Holcombe, is a member, issued a letter essentially telling parents that tests have limited value in describing the education their children are receiving or the type of students they are.

Here is the letter. It should be sent to every parent and guardian across the country: More

We lose Dr. Dianne Kaplan deVries, A True Public Education Hero

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Dr. Dianne Kaplan deVries, a dear friend and extraordinarily powerful champion for Connecticut’s students, parents, teachers and public schools died on Sunday after a battle with cancer.

Although her legacy is yet to be fully written and those who will benefit the most from her incredible work may never know her name, as the leading force behind the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding [CCJEF], Dianne has been and will remain the most vital force behind the historic effort to ensure that Connecticut’s public schools are adequately and fairly funded and that every Connecticut child is provided with the education, knowledge and skills they need to live more fulfilling lives.

J.R.R. Tolkien whose work is categorized as fiction rather than non-fiction, and therefore cast aside by the Common Core and Common Cores testing enthusiasts wisely noted that,

“It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit” – J.R.R. Tolkien

With that knowledge and in that light there are few who have been as courageous and dedicated as Diane Kaplan deVries and fewer still whose lifetime of work has been as important to the future of our children.

Incredible in life, perhaps the most disturbing truth of all about Diane Kaplan Devries’ work is the uncomfortable fact that so many elected officials, often led by so-called Democrats, immorally and unethically sought to throw up barriers to stop Diane’s critical effort to make sure that Connecticut’s children got the education they needed, while ensuring that Connecticut’s middle income property taxpayers were treated more fairly.

It was a topic that many education advocates including Wendy Lecker and I wrote about often.  To fully understand the meaning of losing Diane Kaplan DeVries and the way in which some worked so hard to undermined her efforts, I respectfully request that you click on the links and read some of the following articles;

Jepsen/Malloy Continue to Squander the Opportunity of a Lifetime; (2/7/2012)

It’s only the most important school funding case in our lives – Malloy supported it/Now he opposes it (by Wendy Lecker) (3/23/13)

The Dan to Dannel transformation on the most important education lawsuit in Connecticut history (4/5/2013)

The CCJEF v. Rell School Funding Case: The incredible transformation of Malloy and Jepsen (9/16/2013)

Malloy can tell it to the judge (By Wendy Lecker) (12/14/2013)

Whatever you do, don’t mention school funding and the school funding lawsuit! (1/15/2014)

NEWS FLASH: Kids win, Malloy/Jepsen lose as judge rules school funding trial to begin this summer (1/16/2014)

As CCJEF (www.ccjef.org) reported in the press released that they issued last Monday night,

For the past 17 years Dianne has been the leading champion in the battle to force long-needed school finance reform here in Connecticut. Here dedication to overturning Connecticut’s unconstitutional school funding formula began with the case of Johnson V. Rowland which lasted from 1998 to 2003.

When that case was dropped, Diane built a much larger statewide coalition that led to the filing of the CCJEF V. Rell lawsuit.  In 2010, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that “under the education clause of the state constitution, public school children are entitled not just to a free and equal education but also to an adequate (quality) education, and the state must pay for it.”  Although the court’s determination remains unfulfilled five years later, the finding was the turning point in how Connecticut will fund its schools.

While Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy was one of the original plaintiffs in the case, upon being sworn in as Governor Dannel Malloy, the self-described education proponent completely reversed his position and has spent that last five years wasting precious time and taxpayer funds in his concerted effort o delay, derail and destroy what is probably the most important Connecticut legal case in our lifetimes.

But despite Malloy’s effort and that of his administration and other key Democrats, the CCJEF v. Rell will come to trial in January 2015 in Hartford Superior Court.

In the CCJEF press release, Herbert C. Rosenthal, the CCJEF President said,

 “Dianne Kaplan deVries was a tireless advocate for the rights of all Connecticut public schoolchildren — regardless of economic background, race or town of residence — to receive the quality education our state constitution promises and requires.  The passion, intelligence and commitment that Dianne brought to educational equity and adequacy is unsurpassed.  Our friend and colleague will be sorely missed. In this sad time, all of us in CCJEF rededicate ourselves to ensuring that her dream of equal educational opportunity is realized.”

And CCJEF consultant and fellow education advocate James J. Finley added,

“Dr. Dianne Kaplan deVries will be in the forefront when the history of equal educational opportunity in Connecticut is written.  At great personal sacrifice, Dianne dedicated over 17 years of her life to righting the wrongs of our state’s PK-12 education finance system.  It is because of her singular and indefatigable efforts that the work of CCJEF will continue.”

Additional media reports on losing Diane can be found in the following recent news stories.

CT Newsjunkie – School Funding Advocate Dianne Kaplan deVries Dies of Cancer

Hartford Courant – Education Activists Say Director’s Death Won’t Stop Funding Lawsuit

CT Mirror – Kaplan deVries, leader of school-funding coalition, dies

Wendy Lecker’s latest column – The importance of listening to students

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In a commentary piece entitled Heeding the lessons of teenagers, fellow Education Advocate and columnist Wendy Lecker used her latest article in the Stamford Advocate and other Hearst Media Group outlets to remind us that when it comes to the so-called “education reform” agenda it is critically important that student voices be heard above the din of politics and the greed of the corporate education reform industry.

The Corporate Education Reformers and their allies in the charter school industry are so desperate to hijack the voices of public schools students that they actually create front groups with names like Students For Education Reform.

Calling themselves SFER, the group claims to be a “student run” organization but turns to the power elite for money and guidance.  An early member of the SFER Board of Directors was none other than Connecticut’s own Jonathan Sackler, the man behind the education reform groups ConnCAN, ConnAD, 50-CAN, as well as a key funder in the large charter school chain, Achievement First, Inc.  Sacker is also among the largest funders of Governor Dannel Malloy’s 2014 campaign for re-election.

Present members of SFER’s Board of Directors includes a Chief Growth Officer from the  gigantic KIPP charter school chain, the founder of Rolling Hills Capital, a major hedge fund, the Deputy General Counsel of Unilever, the President of the major education reform consulting company called Mass Insight Education, that got a lucrative contract from the Malloy administration,  and the list goes on.

Although Students For Education Reform has yet to file their IRS forms for this past tax year, in their first three years of business the group collected at least $6 million from corporate education reform groups, including a major start up grant form Democrats For Education Reform, an anti-union, anti-teacher, pro-charter group that have run attack ads against the Chicago Teachers Union and other groups speaking out for the rights of teachers and students.

Claiming to have chapters on 100 college campuses, SFER is among the organizations that joined in the record breaking lobbying campaign in support of Governor Dannel Malloy’s education reform agenda.

In 2012 the group dropped $15,000 in support of a pro-Malloy student rally.  However, following an ethics complaint it was later revealed that the money appeared to actually come from StudentsFirst, a national corporate education reform group that was headed, at the time, by Michelle Rhee.

By comparison there are the very real and very genuine voices of students, students who aren’t being paid to parrot the phrases of corporate executives like Jonathan Sackler.

And when you listen to real students, you hear a very different set of opinions and concerns.

As Wendy Lecker writes;

Although reformers and pundits like to pretend the interests of teachers are at odds with children’s best interests, those who know understand that their interests are aligned. Teachers know teaching conditions are learning conditions. In 2012, Chicago teachers went on strike for, among other things, smaller class size, art, music and wraparound services for children. In their recent victorious strike, Seattle teachers won mandatory recess for elementary school children.

Students also know that they and teachers want the same things. A fine example is the recent, unprecedented filing by Houston high school students of an amicus brief in the Texas school funding case now on appeal to that state’s Supreme Court.

In researching their brief, written entirely by them, the students visited schools across Houston, and spoke to students, teachers and administrators. They also drew on their own experience. As they point out, by the time they graduate, they will have spent 16,000 hours in public school. These kids are the experts.

Their research and experience led them to the same conclusions that courts across the country found: Schools need certain essential resources for kids to succeed, including: small class size, teacher training and support, extra-curricular activities and a rich curriculum.

The students stressed the need for small class size to help English Language Learners (“ELL”), a large population in Texas. The authors point out that individualized attention is necessary because for these students, “every class is a language class.”

Small class size is vital for all students. The authors remark that in large classes, teachers cannot provide feedback that is essential so students learn from their mistakes. As one student said, “it’s demotivating for us to spend hours on an assignment knowing that the teacher can only afford to spend a few minutes (if even that) checking for completion before putting a grade on it. It’s also demotivating for teachers to spend hours grading assignments that don’t require any of their expertise.”

Small class size is also essential to develop a personal bond with a teacher. This need is especially strong for disadvantaged students who face trauma in their daily lives. The personal connection prevents “children from falling through the cracks.”

The students note that private schools advertise their small classes. “This factor is a selling point for well-off parents who want the best for their kids, but isn’t available for those less fortunate.”

The authors stress that they need trained teachers, not novices. They show how teacher training is vital to help ELL teachers navigate the different cultures they encounter, and how the lack of funds for training hurts students and teachers alike.

Enrichment activities are often the first resources to be cut in a budget crunch, as they are viewed as extra. The authors here provide real-life examples of how these “extras” provided a vital outlet for students experiencing personal crises, enabling them to stay in school and focus on their studies.

The students’ authentic voice shines through in their writing. They confess:

“Most of us do not wake up in the morning excited to attend school and learn math. Many of us attend school because we look forward to ROTC, band, or orchestra, and while we’re there, we might as well learn math too. That mindset is useful to understand arts education as a pragmatic method of retaining students, boosting grades, and improving education for all.”

The students recognize how the absence of support services affects the futures of disadvantaged children. They note that the lack of guidance counselors deprives impoverished students of information about “four-year residential colleges, two-year associates degree programs, or even summer internships and academic camps.”

These students illustrate with real-life examples how teaching and learning are complex human endeavors that cannot be reduced to one data point. Thus, schools need comprehensive services and programs.

The authors do not blame teachers. They know that school personnel care about them. Rather, they call out the state, which communicates to children that it does not care by ignoring the severe lack of resources in schools.

The brief is also remarkable for what it omits. These students do not ask for choice. They do not want teachers to be rated on their standardized test scores, or replaced by untrained recent college graduates, a la Teach for America. Current fashionable education reforms are irrelevant to these real students.

Politicians would do well to heed the wisdom of these teenage experts, who know what’s best for them and their teachers.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.  You can read and comment on her full piece via: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Heeding-the-lessons-of-teenagers-6545659.php

Adequate resources, not more testing, is the way to improve public schools

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The challenges associated with poverty, language barriers and unmet special education needs are the factors leading to the educational achievement gap between the haves and have nots.  The Corporate Education Reform Industry, with the help of elected officials likes of Dannel Malloy, Andrew Cuomo, Jeb Bush and others, have used the problems facing public schools in poorer communities to institute an agenda of more standardized testing, inappropriate teacher evaluation programs and the privatization of public education through the creation of privately owned, but publicly funded charter schools.

In yet another powerful commentary piece, Wendy Lecker goes to the root of the problem with the Common Core SBAC testing scheme and strategies being foisted on public school children, parents and teachers.

Wendy Lecker writes;

The SBAC results are out. With them will come recriminations about how our students, teachers and public schools are failing. Those who make these accusations hope the public has a short memory. They do not want us to remember that the SBAC has not been externally validated and therefore, according to the Vermont State Board of Education, does “not support valid and reliable inferences about student performance.” They hope we forget that the arbitrary SBAC proficiency levels set in Washington, D.C., guaranteed ahead of time that the majority of Connecticut students would fail.

Standardized tests are universally recognized to be unreliable and unhelpful in determining how well students learn. Experts routinely caution to therefore never use test results for any consequential decisions about schools, teachers or students.

Decades of testing evidence show that the only stable correlation that exists, whether it is the CMTs or the SATs and likely the SBACs, is between test scores and wealth. Researchers such as Sean Reardon at Stanford note that wealthy parents not only can provide basic stability, nutrition and health care for their children, but also tutoring and enrichment that gives affluent children an edge over poorer children.

The wealth advantage extends beyond test scores. Two studies, by St. Louis Federal Reserve and by the Boston Federal Reserve, demonstrate that family wealth is a determining factor in life success. The St. Louis report, published in August, revealed a racial wealth gap among college graduates. A college degree does not protect African-Americans and Latinos from economic crises as it does for whites and Asians. Employment discrimination figures into the disparity, but a major role is played by family wealth. Without a safety net of family assets, graduates of color must make more risky loan and other financial decisions. Last year’s Boston Fed study noted that wealthy high school drop-outs stay in the top economic rung as often as poor college graduates remain in the bottom economic rung. As a Washington Post article put it, rich kids who do everything wrong are better off than poor kids who do everything right. These reports, coupled with the fact that most job openings in the United States are for low-skilled workers, expose the uncomfortable truth that education is not the great equalizer.

These truths should inform education policy. To attempt to level the playing field, we should at least be equipping schools to provide supports to needy children that affluent parents provide their children.

Instead we spend billions on testing that tells us what we already know — rich kids are better off than poor kids; without addressing that inequality. Education reformers deflect attention from the supports poor kids need and tell us that all kids have to do is develop some “grit” to succeed. In his best-selling book, “How Children Succeed,” Paul Tough claims there is “no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths” like grit. Connecticut policy makers are trying to develop tests to measure the degree of “grit” our kids have. We are even told that if students have enough “grit” to get high test scores, our economy will be more competitive.

This is American individualism taken to its absurd extreme. Not only are children supposed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they have to bootstrap the entire national economy. The Fed studies show us that grit does not determine success in today’s highly stratified society — privilege does. And our nation’s economic health — surprise! — does not depend on test scores. The United States has remained competitive while our international tests scores have always been middling. Moreover, former U.S. Department of Education analyst Keith Baker compared 40 years’ worth of nations’ per capita gross domestic product and international test scores and found that test scores actually dropped as the rate of economic growth improved.

Those who push this false narrative of individualism also fight efforts to fund schools in order to give poor kids the support they need. Last month, the Washington Supreme Court held the state’s legislature in contempt, fining it $100,000 a day, for failing to adequately fund the state’s schools. Interestingly Microsoft, whose chief Bill Gates is a major player in test-based education reform, lobbied heavily against state taxes that would have helped finance the public schools.

Robber-baron education reformers such as Gates fight to protect their wealth to pass on their success to their children. For other people’s children their message is clear, as teacher/blogger Joe Bower remarked: “Let ’em eat grit.”

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.  Her complete commentary piece can be found at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Education-is-not-the-great-6487019.php

State’s most vulnerable children get their day in court by Wendy Lecker

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Wendy Lecker is one of Connecticut’s most outspoken education advocates.  As senior attorney at the Education Law Center, she has helped lead critically important school finance lawsuits.  Wendy Lecker is also a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group.  This week she reports on Connecticut’s vital CCJEF v. Rell School Funding Lawsuit.

Once supporters for ensuring Connecticut has a fair and equitable school funding formula, Governor Dannel Malloy and Attorney General George Jepson are now leading the effort to ensure that Connecticut’s public school students and Connecticut’s local property taxpayers don’t get the help they need and deserve.

Wendy Lecker explains,

Connecticut’s elected officials have steadfastly refused to fix our school finance system, which leaves schools underfunded and local property taxpayers overburdened. Public school students and local property taxpayers will finally have their day in court when Connecticut’s school funding case, CCJEF v. Rell, starts trial in October. It is now important to understand some of the basic tenets in school finance.

First, all children have the constitutional right to school resources sufficient for an education enabling them to participate in democratic institutions, attain productive employment, or progress to higher education.

Second, it costs more to educate some children than others. Children living in poverty often require more services than children who do not. The stresses associated with poverty affect brain development, often leaving children with behavioral and cognitive difficulties. As a result, schools serving poor children need specific resources, such as: social workers, behavioral therapists, psychologists, learning specialists, small classes.

Children learning English require more services than those already proficient. The services necessary to help a child learn English are different than those needed to support a child who lives in poverty. Similarly, children with disabilities require additional services.

Third, some municipalities cannot raise as much revenue as others, and therefore need more state school aid. Often, those municipalities serve the highest concentration of the neediest — and therefore most expensive to educate — children.

These cornerstones of school finance are universally accepted and understood. They form the bases of school funding systems across the nation. They undergird the CCJEF plaintiffs’ case. Essentially, the plaintiffs claim Connecticut has underfunded its public schools in large part because the state school finance system does not accurately account for the cost of education in general, the cost of educating students with additional needs or a municipality’s capacity to raise revenue.

CCJEF’s school finance experts calculated the gap between what the state provides in school aid and what our schools and children need to be about $2 billion; based on 2004 standards, costs and demographics.

What does this massive school funding shortfall mean? Schools serving our neediest children lack essential academic resources: teachers, reading specialists, guidance counselors, social workers, reasonable class size, well-equipped libraries, academic intervention services, computers, preschool, etc.

Connecticut’s leaders have gone to great effort — and expense — to ignore these three basic tenets of school finance.

Since the CCJEF case was filed in 2005 — when then-Mayor Dannel Malloy of Stamford was a plaintiff — our leaders have convened commissions, task forces and ad hoc committees ostensibly to study school funding. They did this without consulting real school finance experts. These gimmicks provided the appearance politicians were doing something to fix the problem.

In reality, our leaders have done next to nothing. The state owes our neediest districts up to $7,000 dollars per pupil. However, from 2012-13 to 2014-15, the average increase in Education Cost Sharing (ECS) aid to our neediest received was $642 per pupil.

The only recent change politicians made to our ECS formula undermined fair funding. The legislature removed from the ECS formula the ELL weight: i.e. the adjustment in the formula that attempted to account for the cost of educating ELL students. This move is contrary to sound education finance policy and is particularly absurd in a state with a growing ELL population.

Connecticut’s inaction on school finance is why our small wealthy state figures prominently in a national report on financially disadvantaged districts. Connecticut is ranked fifth in the nation in the percentage of children enrolled in financially disadvantaged districts, with more than 13 percent of our children in these districts. The state with the highest concentration, Illinois, has 25 percent.

At the same time the state has done nothing to help poor districts, it has spent millions on unsuccessful attempts to have the CCJEF case dismissed.

In the latest budget season, the state made matters worse. State figures reveal that the largest increase our financially distressed districts will receive in 2016 is about $100 per pupil. Windham will receive an increase of only $19 per pupil. Most needy districts will get no increase for 2017.

At this pathetic rate, it will take more than 20 years before the state makes up the gap in school funding.

In human terms, that means two generations of children will go through school without adequate resources to help them learn, losing years of learning they cannot recapture.

Year after year Connecticut’s elected officials have been unresponsive to the educational needs of our most vulnerable children. In October, they will have to answer for that in court.

You can read and comment on Wendy Lecker’s original piece at: http://m.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-State-s-most-vulnerable-children-6378743.php?utm_content=buffer47d00&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

When an Education Reformer says “Turnaround” — Don’t!

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Education Advocate Wendy Lecker has another column out and it is once again in the “MUST READ” category.

Her latest piece is part one of a multi-series takedown of those who use fiction rather than facts to fancifully present the term “school turnaround” as if it was a magic bullet.

This particular chapter begins with the Can Can Team from ConnCAN who recently performed a dog and pony show for Connecticut state legislators where they crowed about the “success” of various “school turnaround” projects.

Using their traditional corporate education reform rhetoric, rather than facts, the charter school front group performed magic that would have made a “three card Monte” aficionado proud. [Three card Monte being a card trick in which the mark can’t win because trick cards are used.]

The well-documented corporate education reform failures of New Orleans and Philadelphia were incredibly heralded as successes and that was before they got out their shovels and really started throwing IT around.

Here is Wendy Lecker’s latest MUST READ commentary piece, which first appeared in the Stamford Advocate.   

Failure as a model for Connecticut (By Wendy Lecker)

A recent large-scale federal study revealed that most states lack expertise to turn around struggling schools and are rarely successful. It’s no wonder. Legislators who write turnaround laws never turn to the experts: educators. Connecticut is no exception. Last month, the General Assembly’s Education Committee held a day-long session on school turnarounds. Instead of relying on education experts, it turned to ConnCan, the charter lobby known for its evidence-free reports that push one agenda: Taking power away from school districts to pave the way for privatization.

ConnCan brought in three examples of turnaround to push the idea that the key to success is handing schools or entire districts over to outside operators.

The most startling choice for a presentation was Hartford’s Milner school. Recall that Milner was one of the first commissioner’s network schools. Milner suffered through a failed turnaround in 2008 under then-Superintendent Steven Adamowski. It also had a persistent and severe lack of resources. Rather than providing Milner the necessary resources, the State Board of Education decided to turn it around again in 2012, handing it over to Michael Sharpe’s FUSE/Jumoke charter chain. FUSE/Jumoke had no experience educating ELL students, which made up a large part of Milner’s population. After the revelations of Sharpe’s criminal record and falsified academic credentials, it came to light that FUSE/Jumoke ran Milner school into the ground, hiring ex-convicts, relatives and “winging” the takeover, as Sharpe admitted — all while supposedly under heightened scrutiny by state officials.

Milner’s principal under this takeover, Karen Lott, told Milner’s story. She admitted that this fall, only 13 percent of Milner’s students scored proficient in ELA and an even more shocking 7 percent were proficient in math. She said although they are in the fourth year of the Commissioner’s Network, she is treating this as the first year. Amazing! No public school would be allowed to fail for three years, then magically erase its poor track record.

She blamed the school’s poor performance on several things. First, there was high staff turnover at the school: 85 percent of teachers now have 0-3 years’ experience teaching. This is mind-boggling, as staff turnover was not only the result of the state takeover but one of its goals. Lott spoke of the need now to “aggressively recruit” veteran teachers. Like the ones Jumoke-Milner pushed out in the first place? She also stated that now she is relying on teacher training and mentoring from Hartford Public Schools.

Lott further explained that under Jumoke there was no curriculum. She is now using the Hartford Public Schools curriculum and assessments.

Lott also emphasized that community supports are necessary for children to achieve. She said families need stable housing and mental health services, parents need job training and the neighborhood needs to be safe and clean. Imagine that — poverty affects learning. If this were a public school educator saying these things, ConnCan would condemn her for using poverty as an excuse.

Lott detailed the steps she was now taking beyond the Hartford curriculum, assessments, training and mentoring. She acknowledged that a centerpiece of her efforts is a large increase in resources. Milner now has a full-time therapeutic clinician and after-school programs. Hartford Public Schools re-opened its budget to provide the school will more computers. Central office also allowed Milner to have two half-days a month, so teachers get additional professional development. Lott also said she now implements Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a system used by many public schools.

To her credit, Lott seems to be focusing on proven methods of helping students: extra academic and social support for at-risk children, training, mentoring and support for teachers, and adequate school resources. What must be stressed is that none of these ideas are innovative. Nor do any of these resources require takeover by an outside operator. They are tools schools either already use or have been pleading for. The lack of these resources is a basis for Connecticut’s school funding case, CCJEF v. Rell.

Lott contended that what she needed is more time, more resources and more autonomy. Schools need time and resources to improve. The claim for autonomy, however, is puzzling, given she is relying on central office for curriculum, assessments, training, mentoring and special treatment so she can get resources other schools do not have.

Lott’s message is — perhaps unintentionally — the opposite of the one ConnCan is pushing. Schools do not need takeover or turnaround. Just give struggling schools time, support and resources to do what everyone already knows helps kids learn.

You can read and comment on Wendy’s original piece at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Failure-as-a-model-for-Connecticut-6267220.php

Common Core jeopardizes foundation of learning (By Wendy Lecker)

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Fellow Connecticut educate advocate Wendy Lecker has been one of the most powerful and important voices on behalf of public education and against the corporate education reform industry’s unending assault of public school teachers, public schools and the rights of students and parents.  While many policymakers, education administrators and even the organizations responsible for protecting and promoting public education have turned a blind eye or engaged in the politics of appeasement, Wendy Lecker has continued to speak the truth and promote the notion that a just society strengthens not undermines its commitment to a comprehensive public education system.

In her latest piece entitled, Core jeopardizes foundation of learning, and initially published in the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker takes down the claim that the “Common Core” is the “Solution” to the challenges facing the nation’s public schools.

Core jeopardizes foundation of learning (By Wendy Lecker)

This spring, parents and students across the country led a massive movement to refuse Common Core tests to protest over-testing and the changes in education wrought by the new standards. In the face of this revolt, supporters are attempting to salvage the Common Core by claiming that while testing may be a problem, the standards themselves are educationally superior. Moreover, they assert, the standards do not dictate what is to be taught in school. These claims are false: many of the standards are bad for education and demand developmentally inappropriate educational practices in schools.

Recently, experts at the organization Defending the Early Years issued a report focusing on one of these bad standards: the standard calling for kindergartners to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” Translation: children must learn to read in kindergarten.

This mandate contradicts everything we know about child development and forces kindergarten teachers to engage in damaging practices. Play has been severely reduced or eliminated in favor of direct instruction, worksheets and frequent testing.

As I have written before (The disturbing transformation of kindergarten), the milestones of child development have not changed in a century. While there is a wide range of development at this age, most children in kindergarten are not ready to read. Reading requires understanding that symbols, letters, represent sounds and put together, in words, represent ideas or objects. Kindergartners’ brains cannot comprehend that kind of abstraction. They also typically do not recognize certain shapes and lines that are essential to understanding letters. This “lack” is normal, and it explains why play is essential in kindergarten.

As child development expert Diane Levin of Wheelock College told me, through play, children develop the foundation for reading. When a child builds with blocks or engages in socio-dramatic play, s/he is making a representation of something in a different form — a step toward abstract thought. By painting and drawing, a child begins to understand that two-dimensional lines can represent three dimensional objects — a precursor to comprehending that letters can represent sounds and words can represent objects or ideas. By telling stories or putting on plays, a child understands sequencing. In playing with objects, s/he learns to categorize. These activities are intentionally designed to help children build a strong foundation for the kind of skills required for formal reading instruction later on. Children need to first build this foundation experientially, in the concrete world in which they live, in order for the skills to have meaning for them.

During the above-described play, children may start to recognize letters and words. However, for most children, formal reading instruction at this age is not meaningful or engaging. They may learn to mimic and comply with instructions, but without the necessary foundation, they will not integrate the lessons. In fact, studies show that children who begin formal reading instruction at age seven, having first developed strong oral language skills in a play-based environment, catch up to children who learn to read earlier and have better comprehension skills by middle school.

Emphasizing formal reading instruction in kindergarten has crowded out the play-based, child-directed activities essential to building a strong foundation for successful academic learning. Teaching reading earlier does not give children get a “head start” on academic learning; it is a roadblock.

Losing play-based kindergarten also deprives us of a vital tool to help children’s social and emotional development. The majority of American public school students live in poverty. Brain experts have shown that many of the factors associated with living in poverty cause “toxic stress;” which impairs, among other things, the development of their executive function, making it difficult for children to concentrate, remember and control impulses. This impairment has a lifelong impact, impeding the ability to sustain relationships, cope with stress, make healthy life choices and learn successfully.

Play helps develop executive function, coping mechanisms, and problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills. Through play, children also learn to build social supports with peers — a key to resilience. Eliminating play robs children of an opportunity to develop these skills. Replacing play with developmentally inappropriate, frustrating and meaningless demands heightens children’s stress levels and destroys their trust in the adults charged with their welfare — the exact opposite of the type of environment our most vulnerable children need. It can also make young children hate school from the start.

The Common Core reading standards have forced schools to discard all that we have learned about child development. How many young futures are we willing to sacrifice before we return education policy to those who know something about children?

Another MUST READ by Wendy Lecker: Charter schools — civil rights rhetoric vs. reality

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Perhaps the greatest indignity perpetrated by the corporate education reform industry is their fallacious claim that they represent the “new civil rights movement.”

Nowhere, including here in Connecticut, do they talk about tackling the terrible growth of child poverty that is destroying our society or the challenges faced by children who require special education services or need help with their English language capabilities.

None of the corporate education reform groups are willing to acknowledge, let alone address,Connecticut’s unconstitutional school funding formula or the fact that Connecticut public schools aren’t provided the resources necessary to support the children who walk through their front doors.

Instead of providing a meaningful solution to the problems the country faces, the charter school company owners and their allies, under the guise of “school choice,” demand more public funds while creaming off a sub-set of children and refusing to educate those who are English Language Learners and those who require additional special education services.

Claiming to be vehicles of opportunity for children, these fraudsters run schools that are more segregated and less egalitarian than the true public schools in their communities.

Chanting slogans of civil rights and wrapping themselves in the image of Martin Luther King Jr., the education reform industry is the antipathy of King’s message and the policies and practices that could heal this troubled and divided nation.

In her latest piece, education advocate and columnist Wendy Lecker dissects the utter failure of Connecticut’s charter schools to be part of the solution when it comes to reducing racial isolation.

Charter schools — civil rights rhetoric vs. reality (By Wendy Lecker)

First published at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Charter-schools-civil-rights-6207481.php

Education “reformers” often proclaim they are carrying on the tradition of great civil rights leaders, employing the rhetoric of that movement while in reality pushing measures that exacerbate inequality and impact most harshly on children and communities of color-like school closures, privatization, and over-testing. Last week, noted civil rights expert Gary Orfield, of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, issued a report on Connecticut school integration that included an indictment of the practices of Connecticut’s most-practiced purveyors of civil rights doublespeak — charter schools. The report also called out state officials for their willful blindness to charter school practices.

The report, titled “Connecticut School Integration,” praised the state for some of the strides made in desegregating schools. However, it noted the well-documented “hyper-segregation” of charter schools, which undermines Connecticut’s progress on integration. The report further remarked that national education policies, including the expansion of charter schools, ignore race and poverty and have “consistently failed” to meet the goal of improving education for our neediest children.

Connecticut law on segregation is far-reaching. While the federal constitution only prevents intentional segregation, our Supreme Court, in the 1996 decision in Sheff v. O’Neill, prohibited “unorchestrated,” i.e. de facto segregation. Thus, state officials have an affirmative obligation not just to prevent intentional segregation, but to eliminate even unintentional segregation.

Most Connecticut charters are intensely segregated. They routinely fail to serve English Language Learners, students with disabilities and often our most impoverished students.

Yet, as the Civil Rights Project writes, Connecticut state officials have refused to do anything to stem the tide of charter school segregation. The report observes that the education commissioner could require changes in a charter if that school does not make measurable progress in reducing racial, ethnic and economic isolation. It remarks that the state board could make this goal a prerequisite to granting a charter. Yet, as the report goes on to note, these state officials, those with the express obligation to reduce segregation, have consistently chosen to do nothing to prevent charter school segregation and its effects, including exacerbating racial, ethnic and economic imbalance in the host school districts.

Indeed, one wonders if Connecticut officials had forced Hartford’s charters to abide by desegregation policies all along, would the city have reached its Sheff goals long ago, saving the state millions of dollars?

School integration is fundamental to advancing the democratic purpose of education. As the court noted in the Sheff decision: “If children of different races and economic and social groups have no opportunity to know each other and to live together in school, they cannot be expected to gain the understanding and mutual respect necessary for the cohesion of our society.”

Decades of evidence prove that school integration achieves this goal, reducing stereotypes and enabling adults to function successfully in a variety of settings. The benefits of school integration are more lasting and meaningful than the empty pursuit of higher test scores.

In 1996, our highest court clearly articulated the state’s responsibility to reduce segregation. Yet almost 20 years later, state officials allow charter school segregation to flourish. The State Board of Education continually rubber-stamps charter applications, trampling community opposition, and ignoring their duty to prevent charter school segregation and over-concentration. Even a new policy the state board announced, which applies to charter renewals only and not initial approvals, fails to require that charters serve the same students that their host district public schools serve.

This session, the legislature’s Education Committee considered a bill that would have placed a moratorium on charter school approvals. Yet, our political leaders did not even have the will to move this bill out of committee. And now the governor wants the legislature to fund new charters while refusing to provide public schools with any ECS increase.

In his report, Dr. Orfield exhorts the state to bring charter schools in line with Connecticut’s law and policies against segregation and to ensure that charter operators live up to their “civil rights responsibilities under state and federal law.” He even suggests pursuing litigation against charters that receive public funds, yet operate segregated schools in violation of Connecticut law.

Given the unwillingness of state leaders to do anything about charter school segregation, communities may have no choice but to look to the courts. In December, the Delaware ACLU filed a federal complaint against charter school segregation. One can only hope that a civil rights organization here will follow the lead of the Delaware ACLU and pursue a real civil rights agenda when it comes to school segregation in Connecticut.

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