Momentum Grows Against VAM Evaluations of Teachers, but Eradication of VAM Will Take Time

Earlier this month, Christopher Tienken, a professor of education leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University published a short commentary on research he and colleagues have been conducting about whether standardized tests ought to be used for high stakes policy decisions.

He writes, “Every year, policymakers across the U.S. make life-changing decisions based on the results of standardized tests. These high-stakes decisions include, but are not limited to, student promotion to the next grade level, student eligibility to participate in advanced coursework, eligility to graduate high school and teacher tenure. In 40 states, teachers are evaluated in part based on the results from student standardized tests, as are school administrators in almost 30 states. However, research shows that the outcomes of standardized tests don’t reflect the quality of instruction, as they’re intended to… The results show that it’s possible to predict the percentages of students who will score proficient or above on some standardized tests. We can do this just by looking at some of the important characteristics of the community, rather than factors related to the schools themselves, like student-teacher ratios or teacher quality. This raises the possibility that there are serious flaws built into education accountability systems and the decisions about educators and students made within those systems.”  Tienken and his colleagues have been investigating issues associated with the aggregate poverty (or wealth) in the communities where schools are located.

Questions about the reliability and validity of standardized testing, reports Rachel Cohen for The American Prospect, are finally contributing to growing doubts about the use of what is known as Value-Added Modeling (VAM) to evaluate teachers. VAM, writes Cohen, is “a controversial statistical method aimed at isolating each teacher’s effectiveness based on… (her) students’ standardized test scores.” VAM models are supposed to measure the “value added” by each particular teacher.

Concerns about VAM are not new. In the spring of 2014, the American Statistical Association warned: “(V)ariation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences. The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling.”

A year later in June of 2015, the American Educational Research Association added, “Because of the adverse consequences of faulty evaluations for educators and the students they serve, use of VAM in any evaluation system must meet a very high technical bar… (T)he validity of inferences from VAM scores depends on the ability to isolate the contributions of teachers and leaders to student learning from the contributions of other factors not under their control. This is very difficult, not only because of data limitations but also because of the highly nonrandom sorting of students and teachers into schools and classes within schools. The resulting bias will not be distributed evenly among schools, given wide variation in critical factors like student mobility…. Therefore, due caution should be exercised in the interpretations of VAM scores, since we generally do not know how to properly adjust for the impact of these other factors.”

Nevertheless, the use of VAM to evaluate teachers has become widespread—driven by federal policy. Cohen traces the history, beginning with the influence of recommendations by the New Teacher Project and the National Council on Teacher Quality, both programs that oppose teachers unions and have sought to spread alarm about the quality of American teachers. “In 2009, an education reform group known as The New Teacher Project (TNTP) issued an influential report finding widespread ‘institutional indifference to variations in teacher performance.’… TNTP recommended an overhaul of teacher evaluations, urging districts to develop systems that rate teachers ‘based on their effectiveness in promoting students’ achievement’—which meant evaluating them by their students’ scores on standardized tests. The report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores and value-added modeling. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.)” Basically Arne Duncan’s U.S.Department of Education drove states to adopt VAM for evaluating teachers as a condition for states to qualify for a waiver from NCLB’s ill-conceived punishments.

Cohen adds that, “By 2015, the anti-testing backlash had gained steam across the country, in part because the federal government had pushed for test scores to be used to evaluate teachers across all grades and subjects. States had begun to require assessments in such traditionally untested areas like art and early elementary. Parents, teachers unions, and conservatives rallied together for a rollback of federal testing mandates. With the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act in late 2015, they succeeded.”  But although the federal government eliminated its requirement that states evaluate teachers with standardized test scores, many states have kept on using VAM to rate teachers.

Teachers and their unions have protested the unfairness and inaccuracy of VAM evaluation systems. Cohen summarizes lawsuits filed in a number of states by teachers and their unions, but these cases have been very hard for teachers to win.  For example, a federal judge in Florida in 2013 wrote an opinion that explained why courts have often found that while VAM may be unfair, it is not illegal: “In 2013, the National Education Association and its Florida affiliate filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that required at least half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on VAM. In practice, this meant that teachers in non-tested grades and subjects were graded based on the test scores of students they didn’t teach… Together, the seven public school teacher plaintiffs in Cook v. Chartrand argued that Florida’s law violated their equal protection and due process rights. But in 2014, a federal judge ruled against them, concluding that while the rating system seemed clearly unfair, it was nonetheless still legal. ‘Needless to say, this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would fine this evaluation system fair to (teachers in non-tested subjects), let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system… This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system. The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law.'” The decision was upheld on appeal.

Cohen reports, however, that teachers are encouraged by a judge’s recent decision in a Houston case: “The lawsuit centered on the system’s use of value-added modeling (VAM)…. United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith concluded that the metric’s impenetrability could render it unconstitutional. If, he wrote, teachers have ‘no meaningful way to ensure’ that their value-added ratings are accurate, they are ‘subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.’  More specifically, he continued, if the school district denies its teachers access to the computer algorithms and data that form the basis of each teacher’s VAM score, it ‘flunks the minimum procedural due process standard of providing the reason for termination in sufficient detail to enable (the teacher) to show any error that may exist.'”

Beyond the courts, reports Cohen, even prominent education “reformers” have begun to question the reliability of VAM-based teacher evaluations.  Jay Greene, the director of the far-right, Walton-funded think tank at the University of Arkansas, the Department of Education Reform, has begun raising questions. Cohen describes her interview with Greene: “In an interview with the Prospect, Greene… said that test-based accountability advocates tend to imagine either that existing accountability systems are already designed according to best practices, or that states will eventually adopt best practices. “But there’s no sign that this will happen…'”

Despite widespread evidence of its flaws, VAM modeling has unfairly damaged the reputation of the teaching profession and seriously undermined morale. We have begun to see a shift in attitudes, but it will take considerable and persistent advocacy to rid VAM entirely from state policy.

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Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner Leads Ideological Fight Against School Funding Fairness

In an ugly special legislative session in early July, Illinois finally enacted a budget when the Legislature overrode Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto. It is the first budget the state has had since Rauner was elected governor over two years ago. But the wrangling between Republican Governor Rauner and the Democratically dominated Illinois Legislature continues.  On Monday, Rauner called another special session of the Illinois Legislature—beginning today—to resolve an impasse on school funding that threatens to hold up money necessary to start the upcoming school year.

Although the majority-Democratic legislature overrode Rauner’s veto to pass the budget, school districts cannot access their state funds because the formula to determine the distribution of state funds for school districts remains blocked.  The legislature has passed a new “evidence-based” school funding formula intended to equalize school funding, but, through a legal technicality, has not yet sent the budget to Rauner.  Legislative leaders fear Rauner will use what Illinois calls his power of “amendatory veto.”

Parsing out what’s going on in Illinois is confusing.  Here is a summary of what’s been happening and what it means.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH ILLINOIS SCHOOL FUNDING?   The Education Law Center’s National Report Card on School Funding identifies Illinois as fourth from the bottom of all the states in school funding fairness. The only states that do a worse job of using state funds to compensate for notoriously uneven local capacity to raise school taxes are Nevada, Wyoming, and North Dakota.  For WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station: Amanda Vinicky explains: “An over-reliance on local property taxes means that as much as $32,000 is spent on each pupil attending a school in a wealthy area, while spending on a student growing up in an area with low property values can be in the $4,500 range.”

WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE-BASED SCHOOL FUNDING PLAN?   This is the substance of a new law, Senate Bill 1, passed by both houses of the Illinois Legislature but not yet signed into law by Governor Rauner.  John O’Connor and Sophia Tareen, writing for the Associated Press explain: “The legislation would revise the way the schools receive state aid for the first time in two decades. The method funnels money to the neediest school districts first after ensuring that no district receives less money than last school year.  That includes a $250 million-a-year grant for the financially-troubled Chicago schools for programs funded separately in other districts and a requirement that the state pick up the annual $215 million employer portion of Chicago teachers’ pensions.”

THE POLITICS   Illinois is a split state with both houses of the legislature dominated by Democrats but a very conservative Republican as governor. After members of the legislature overrode Governor Rauner’s veto of a state budget that was years overdue, Rauner fired many of his key staffers and hired what Natasha Korecki at POLITICO describes as “several members of the Illinois Policy Institute, a lightning-rod conservative think tank, in their place….”  The Illinois Policy Institute is so far to the right that it is a member of the State Policy Network, a group of libertarian “think-tanks” at the state level that work with the American Legislative Exchange Council to develop and promote right-to-work and school privatization legislation and distribute model bills to be introduced in legislatures across the fifty states.

WHAT IS AN “AMENDATORY VETO”?   O’Connor and Tareen explain: “Illinois is one of just seven states that give its governor the power of amendatory veto.  It allows a governor to return legislation with ‘specific recommendations for change.’ But according to the state Supreme Court, that does not include changing a bill’s ‘fundamental purpose’ or making ‘substantial or expansive’ changes.” Governor Rauner has threatened to use his power of amendatory veto, which is why the bill has not yet been sent to Rauner.

THE SCHOOL FUNDING BILL WAS PASSED ON MAY 31. HOW COME IT HASN’T REACHED THE GOVERNOR’S DESK?   Vinicky at WTTW explains the mechanics of the delay: “Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, says given Rauner’s veto threat, he used a parliamentary procedure known as a ‘motion to reconsider’ to put a hold on the measure. That prevents the governor from killing it with his veto pen, and from signing it into law. There is no limit on how long the hold can last.”

SO WHY IS GOV. RAUNER THREATENING TO VETO AND CHANGE PART OF THE SCHOOL FUNDING PLAN?   The problem is that the Legislature has allocated money to help the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which have been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Chicago Public Schools is the state’s largest school district, and it serves an enormous number of children who need services due to concentrated poverty, special education programs, and programs for English language instruction. And there is a two-decades’ old pension crisis. The state contributes to the pension system for all of the state’s other school districts, but Chicago’s pension system is on its own.  Earlier this week, Reuters summarized: “Escalating pension payments have led to drained reserves, debt dependency and junk bond ratings for CPS, the nation’s third-largest public school system. The governor called the CPS pension funding ‘a poison pill’ in the legislation, adding that it should be taken up separately.

Heather Cherone for Chicago’s DNA Info explains further: “Rauner again said he plans to issue an amendatory veto that would remove the $300 million the legislation would send to CPS to cover current and past-due pension payments, which amounts to a ‘bailout of Chicago’s broken teacher pension system’ that the governor’s office said would take ‘away critical resources from school districts across the state.'”

Partly due to lack of equity in the state’s funding system, the Chicago school district has depended on borrowing for years, most notoriously from its teachers’ pension fund. The teachers’ pension fund has been in crisis, and it is clear that the pension crisis is not the fault of the teachers, who have paid their individual contributions. Maureen Kelleher, writing for the Chicago Reporter, explains that it stems from 1995, when the state created mayoral control that included sweeping financial changes: “The biggest revenue shift came from combining several property tax levies—including one earmarked to pay for teacher pensions—into one fund that could be used to pay current operating expenses. That year, $62.2 million was diverted from pension payments to operating expenses.” And the school district has persistently failed to pay its full contribution to the fund and diverted pension funds for school operating expenses—basically borrowing out of the teachers’ pensions to run the district. In the summer of 2015, Kelleher concluded that unfunded liabilities in the pension fund totaled $10 billion.

The Chicago Sun-Times editorial board castigates Rauner for pitting “Chicago against the rest of Illinois”—Chicago that educates 19 percent of the states public school students while, even under the new plan, receiving “only 16 percent of the state’s funding for education.”

Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown describes the common ground achieved between school leaders and advocates in Chicago and in smaller communities downstate as the Legislature developed the plan: “They found common ground with Chicago Public Schools in developing a formula that benefits both by recognizing their shared challenges—notably high percentages of students from poor families who are more costly to educate.” Brown profiles small-town school superintendents  “who have been holding town forums to explain the benefits of Senate Bill 1 to their residents,”  including Rolf Sivertsen, the “superintendent of Canton Union School District 66, about 30 miles west of Peoria. His district has 2,600 students in grades pre-k through 12th. Sixty percent of these students come from low-income families.  The school district would receive $760,000 more if Senate Bill 1 becomes law.”

It appears that most people in in Illinois and the legislators who represent them want to move forward with an unbiased system of funding schools, including fairness for the beleaguered Chicago Public Schools. Bruce Rauner’s ideological rigidity is blocking an equitable solution.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Owes ALEC for Promoting Her Anti-Public Education Agenda

Today in Denver, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will deliver the lunchtime keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Last year, right after the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Mike Pence, then-Governor of Indiana and then-nominee for Vice President, went home to Indianapolis to deliver a keynote address at last year’s annual meeting of ALEC. What this means is that key people serving in the Trump administration are political extremists. We know that, of course, but it isn’t bad to stop and really take in the meaning of who’s in charge.

Esteemed education policy writers David Berliner and Gene Glass trace the history of ALEC: “In 1971 one Lewis F. Powell, Jr., a lawyer and member of 11 corporate boards, sent to the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce what has come to be known as the Powell Manifesto. (Powell was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court within a year of his having transmitted his manifesto.) In brief, Powell urged conservatives to adopt an aggressive stance toward the federal government, to seek to influence legislation in the interest of corporations, and to enlist like-minded scholars in an attack on liberal social critics… (T)he Powell Manifesto influenced the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute… and other powerful organizations… The Powell Manifesto spawned the powerful American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Formed in 1973, just 2 years after the Powell declaration, ALEC has been without question the most powerful influence on education policy in the United States during the past 3 decades.” (50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 7-8)

It is primarily state policy and funding under the fifty state constitutions, not federal policy, that shapes public schools. ALEC is the far-right’s tool for influencing state government.  For forty years, ALEC has been the operation turning the agenda of corporations and far-right think tanks into the bills that are introduced in state legislatures across the country. It is a membership organization for state legislators and for the corporate and ideological lobbyists who sit down together to craft model legislation—the very same bills, perhaps tweaked just a bit to localize them— that are then introduced in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Florida,  Kansas, and Arizona.

A lot of state legislatures have recently been discussing laws for Education Savings Accounts, for example, a new form of vouchers. Although you might have imagined that Betsy DeVos and her incessant rhetoric about tuition tax credits and education savings accounts is the reason for this wave of bills introduced seemingly everywhere, it is ALEC that should get the credit. Betsy DeVos owes ALEC big time. ALEC is the assembly line that turns her kind of ideas into prototype bills and then sends them along the conveyor belt of its state legislative members for consideration across the fifty state legislatures.

Here is economist Gordon Lafer describing ALEC’s power: “Above all, the corporate agenda is coordinated through the American Legislative Exchange Council… ALEC, the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level, brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation. According to the group’s promotional materials, it convenes bill-drafting committees—often at posh resorts—in which ‘both corporations and legislators have a voice and a vote in shaping policy.’ Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills. The organization claims to introduce eight hundred to one thousand bills each year in the fifty state legislatures, with 20 percent becoming law.” Lafer lists over a hundred corporations whose lobbyists also represent their interests on ALEC committees writing the bills. (The One Percent Solution, pp 12-14)

A huge irony is that the IRS persists in considering ALEC a tax-exempt nonprofit instead of classifying it as a lobbying organization, Common Cause has filed a formal complaint: “Common Cause filed an IRS whistleblower complaint against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in April 2012, charging the organization with tax fraud as it operates as a corporate lobbying group while registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity.” Despite that Common Cause has updated its complaint to keep it active—in 2013, 2015, and 2016—the IRS has not reconsidered.

Not only corporations but also national organizations and think tanks promoting a corporate, anti-tax, and school privatization agenda are ALEC members and have served on its Education Task Force, including the Alliance for School Choice, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the Walton Family Foundation. Others have been sponsors of programming or exhibitors at ALEC annual meetings, including the American Enterprise Institute, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, the Center for Education Reform, the Family Research Council, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, Ed Choice (formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice),  and the pro-voucher Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Member think tanks of the far right State Policy Network are also members of ALEC’s bill-writing task forces. Their staffs collaborate with ALEC’s corporate and legislative members to draft model bills. Examples of  State Policy Network member organizations are Ohio’s Buckeye Institute, the Illinois Policy Institute, Michigan’s Mackinac Center, North Carolina’s John Locke Institute, New York’s Manhattan Institute, and Arizona’s Goldwater Institute.

So what do we know about the agenda for education policy—endorsed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—that is being created and spread to the state legislatures along ALEC’s conveyor belt of prototype bills? Here is Gordon Lafer; “The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the (corporate) agenda… The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education…. Finally the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence…. (F)or those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education. In all these ways then, school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda….” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

Lafer continues—identifying ALEC’s role in all this: “In states across the country, corporate lobbyists have supported a comprehensive package of reforms that includes weakening or abolishing teachers’ unions, cutting school budgets, and increasing class sizes, requiring high-stakes testing that determines teacher tenure and school closings, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, diverting public funding into vouchers… lowering training and licensing requirements for new teachers, replacing in-person education with digital applications, and dismantling publicly elected school boards. Almost all of these initiatives reflect ALEC model legislation, and have been championed by the Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and a wide range of allied corporate lobbies.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 130)

I wish we had a U.S. Secretary of Education who would challenge ALEC’s agenda in the luncheon keynote today in Denver.

The Edu-Tech Billionaires Promote “Personalized” Learning That Lacks the Personal Touch

I was relieved when I read the Los Angeles Times‘ editorial a couple of weeks ago about the newfound humility of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as regards its education philanthropy. Recounting the history of billions spent on failed projects like the small-schools initiative, the initiative to evaluate teachers and reward the best with merit pay, and the investment to develop, publicize and spread the Common Core standards, the LA Times editorial board writes: “Tucked away in a letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week, along with proud notes about the foundation’s efforts to fight smoking and tropical diseases and its other accomplishments, was a section on education. Its tone was unmistakably chastened. ‘We’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make systemwide change,’ wrote the foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman… ‘It is really tough to create more great public schools.'”

The only problem is that it isn’t quite true that Gates has disappeared from the world of education “reform.” Gone are the days, of course, when Arne Duncan hired Jim Shelton, right out of the Gates Foundation to lead the Office of Innovation at the U.S. Department of Education. But the Billionaire Boys continue to work behind the scenes.

Today the focus is “personalized learning,” the Orwellian name its proponents are calling computer-driven learning.  And, no surprise, Jim Shelton has come back to lead the philanthropically-driven effort, but this time he’s working with the Gates Foundation from a perch as head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, what Benjamin Herold at Education Week calls “the philanthropic and investment arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.” “The head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education division, former U.S. deputy education secretary Jim Shelton, previously worked as a program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for more than seven years.”

Here is Herold’s description of the new project: “Two of the biggest names in technology and education philanthropy are jointly funding a $12 million initiative to support new ways of tailoring classroom instruction to individual students. The grant marks the first substantive collaboration of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, chaired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative…. Their joint award was given in April to New Profit, a Boston-based ‘venture philanthropy’ organization. New Profit will in turn provide $1 million, plus extensive management advising, to each of seven other organizations working to promote personalized learning… The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not a traditional nonprofit foundation. Instead, it’s an LLC. That organizational structure allows for direct investment in for-profit companies and political lobbying and donations, as well as philanthropic giving.”

Reporters for Inside Philanthropy, who call the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative CZI, add that since Shelton took over a year ago, “CZI’s work on personalized learning has evolved rapidly, and now has a number of parts. Developing and promoting the technology for personalized learning is a central focus. In March, Shelton wrote on Facebook that CZI is ‘building a world-class engineering team with a commitment to developing breakthrough products and practices that support personalized learning.’ More specifically, it’s creating a free online tool, the Summit Learning platform, which ’empowers teachers to customize instruction to meet their students’ individual needs and interests.’  This platform was developed by a partnership between Facebook and Summit Public Schools, a leading charter school provider. It’s now used by 130 schools, 1,100 teachers and 20,000 students, according to Shelton. But CZI is dreaming even bigger… Shelton described the philosophy here more broadly: ‘It turns out when you let people choose, their level of engagement and motivation goes up.'”

And, explains Inside Philanthropy, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has made a grant to Chiefs for Change, a network of local and state school superintendents convened by Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has pushed all sorts of ed tech contracting. “Chiefs for Change will use the funds to support the new Transforming Schools and Systems Workgroup.”

Inside Philanthropy concludes its report: “What can be said is that personalized learning, facilitated by new technology, obviously tracks with Mark Zuckerberg’s own background and world view. And it reflects a techno-optimism at the core of CZI’s work. ‘We believe engineers can help turbocharge and scale solutions to facilitate social change,’ the organization says.”

In a new analysis for the NY Times, Natasha Singer is a little more skeptical about The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools, including Facebook’ s Mark Zuckerberg: “The involvement by some of the wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century amounts to a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers for their ideas. Some tech leaders believe that applying an engineering mind-set can improve just about any system, and that their business acumen qualifies them to rethink American education.”  She continues: “If Facebook’s Mr. Zuckerberg has his way, children the world over will soon be teaching themselves—using software his company helped build. It’s a conception that upends a longstanding teaching dynamic. Now educators are no longer classroom leaders, but helpmates… Mr. Zuckerberg has described how it works. Students cluster together, working at laptops. They use software to select their own assignments, working at their own pace. And should they struggle at teaching themselves, teachers are on hand to guide them. ‘When you visit a school like this, it feels like the future—it feels like a start-up.. You get the feeling this is how more of the education system should work.'”

Let me be very clear.  Students need to learn how to use technology. Even as a relatively computer-illiterate blogger, I compose on a laptop. I recently found an old kitchen mug to store all the pencils that have been lying around the house, and I carried them up to the attic. And technology is a wonderful tool for exploring and researching and calculating.  School should incorporate technology beginning in the elementary years.

But there is something very important missing from these articles about Zuckerberg and Gates and Shelton and the huge grant to New Profit.  In Education Week, Benjamin Herold quotes the Gates Foundation’s program officer commenting on the new work with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: “It’s 100 percent collaborative… We’re looking for ways to work together and to coordinate when it’s appropriate.”  If this is a collaborative project about how students are going to learn in the future, I wonder about the very important people whose voices seem to be missing from the collaboration: teachers.  If this effort were really collaborative, wouldn’t you think the edu-philanthropists might have folded in some contributions from experts at Teachers College or Bank Street or the state teachers’ colleges? What about engaging the wisdom of advisory panels from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers? Teachers might bring a focus to the kind of classroom leadership, student mentoring, and classroom management that is going to be needed for this “remaking” of education.

And finally there is the really personal part of learning.  While the tech edupreneurs might dream about each child’s “personal” exploration through the computer, lots of us worry about protecting the personal relationships between children and their classroom peers and their real live teachers—in small enough classes where those relationships can flourish. We must insist that, just as patients in hospital beds need doctors and nurses (assisted by technology of course) to care for them, children be provided well-trained, experienced teachers to build classroom communities and nurture learning.

In a recent book, First Do No Harm, progressive educator Steve Nelson shares his concerns about so-called “blended” and “personalized” learning: “My objections to technology are mostly directed to the misuse with young children and to the alarming tendency to substitute technology for real human interactions… The world’s greatest problem is not a shortage of people who can write computer code… Our challenge is to develop humans who have the fluid intellect, creativity, imagination, aesthetic sensibilities and ethical convictions to save the world from the sorry mess we have created. That’s the purpose of education… Relationships are central to learning, both as a contributor to the release of dopamine, but also as a critical social context for language development as articulated by Vygotsky, Bruner, et al.”

Nelson continues: “The colorful images that often accompany education articles or on school websites show children sitting in small cubicles, smiling at their computers, with little human interaction at all…  The symbolic representation of life is not the same as life itself. Perhaps the greatest harm done by technology is an act of omission. Every hour of screen time, whether in school or at home, is an hour not spent in some much more important activity, especially those things that involve real human engagement…. (T)echnology is just the most recent manifestation of the industrial model of education.  Inherent in the technological model of education is economy of scale. It must be impersonal, and people and parts must be interchangeable. It must be replicable…  Most importantly, it must be profitable.” (First Do No Harm, p. 126-133)

Kansas Legislature Overrides Brownback Veto: Raises Taxes, Passes New School Funding Formula

Something stunning happened on Tuesday night in Topeka.  John Hanna of the Associated Press reports: “Kansas legislators Tuesday night repudiated the tax-cutting experiment that brought Gov. Sam Brownback national attention, with even fellow Republicans voting to override his veto of a plan reversing many of the income tax reductions he’s championed…. The state will increase its personal income tax rates and end an exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners. Legislators expect the changes to raise $1.2 billion in new revenue over two years to close projected budget shortfalls totaling $889 million through June 2019…. Under the new tax laws, Kansas will return to having a third income tax rate for its wealthiest filers, something cuts in 2012 eliminated. The top rate will be 5.7 percent, as opposed to 4.6 percent now.”

Even before passing the tax hikes—in the wee hours of Tuesday morning—the Kansas legislature also addressed the school funding crisis, passing a new and more equitable funding distribution formula, and increasing revenue dedicated for all-day Kindergarten.  Legislators hope that the new plan, which will increase public school spending by $293 million over two years will be acceptable to the state’s supreme court that, in March, again found the system unconstitutional and demanded that the legislature correct school funding by June 30 or shut down the public schools. There is some worry that even the new plan won’t be enough: “The justices did not say exactly how much funding must increase when they set a June 30 deadline for lawmakers to pass a new school finance law.  But attorneys for four school districts that sued the state in 2010 have said the increase needs to be much larger, and Democrats have argued that the minimum is phasing in a $400 million increase over two years.”  We’ll have to watch for the  Supreme Court’s response.

There is also something else in the school funding plan that is objectionable to a number of legislators—an expansion of the state’s tuition tax credit voucher program.  John Hanna explains: “Democrats and many GOP moderates also object to a proposal in the school funding plan that would expand a program giving income tax credits to corporations that donate money to private-school scholarships for students in poorly performing public schools. GOP conservatives created the program in 2014, and this year’s proposal would allow individuals and partnerships to claim the tax credit as well.”

The Washington Post‘s Max Ehrenfreund, analyzing the Kansas legislature’s repudiation of Brownback’s stubborn dedication to tax-slashing, reminds readers that voters in last November’s election—people who had been living through the economic collapse that has ensued since Brownback cut taxes in 2012 and 2013—defeated several ultra-conservative Republicans and replaced them with moderates.

Ehrenfreund also explores the broader, national implications of this week’s political shift on taxes in Kansas: “Tuesday’s vote was a rebuke not only for Brownback, but also for Republicans in Washington who have advocated similar cuts in taxes at the national level—including President Trump. Although Republicans in Kansas are giving up on the experiment, Trump and his allies are hoping to try again. The principles Trump endorsed during the campaign and in the early stages of his presidency are broadly similar to those enacted in Kansas.  As Brownback did, Trump has proposed bringing down marginal rates, getting rid of brackets and giving a new break to small businesses.”  Ehrenfreund reminds us that Brownback called his tax reform, “a ‘real-live experiment’ in conservative governance. Yet the economic boom Brownback promised has not materialized, leaving the state government perennially short on money and forced to reduce basic services.” “Last year, Kansas’s gross domestic product increased just 0.2 percent, federal data show, compared to 1.6 percent nationally.  That was an improvement for Kansas, though: At the end of 2015, the state was in what many economists would describe as a recession, with the economy contracting two quarters in a row.”

Brownback, however, remains unrepentant. In a late report John Hanna, covered Brownback’s news conference following the legislature’s override of his veto: “Republican Gov. Sam Brownback says the income tax increases legislators enacted over his veto will be bad for the long term health of the state’s economy.  The governor said during a news conference Wednesday that he believes the increases will slow job growth and discourage companies from moving to Kansas.”

Nick Johnson, the senior vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, disagrees with Brownback: “Governor Brownback promised the tax cuts would be a ‘shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy,’ but reality has been far different.  Rather than spur a boom, the Brownback plan merely gave a tax-cut windfall to the rich and raised taxes on many lower income people while sending the state’s finances into a tailspin. Kansas’ finances are now in crisis. State reserves are drained, and Kansas faces a $900 million budget shortfall. Two bond rating agencies have downgraded Kansas due to its fiscal problems, and the state’s education system and other crucial services have suffered as the state struggled to afford to invest in people and communities.  Kansas’ five year experiment shows us what happens when we try to tax-cut our way to prosperity.”

I guess the members of the Kansas legislature noticed, and finally did something to begin correcting the problem.

New Orleans’ Charter School Transformation: the Very Definition of Injustice

When I look back, I can see that the year between September of 2005 and September of 2006 was when I realized deeply and in the most unforgettable way how powerful people can transform the systems we take for granted and in the process disempower the vulnerable.

In November of 2005, I couldn’t believe it when I learned—while bodies were still being discovered in the attics of New Orleans’ flooded and abandoned houses and while most people were staying with relatives in far away places or FEMA trailers in Houston—that the state of Louisiana had changed the law to seize the city’s public schools and fire all the teachers as part of a complicated school governance experiment driven by ideologues in the U.S. Department of Education, the state of Louisiana, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I had naively imagined that the goal would be to get families back to town as soon as possible and get children back in school under the secure guidance of the teachers those children knew.

Others were alarmed as well. Naomi Klein used the seizure and mass charterization of New Orleans’ public schools as the very definition of what she called “the shock doctrine”: “New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’… I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)  Leigh Dingerson and the Center for Community Change published a short resource titled, Dismantling a Community. And later, in a book published by the Teachers College Press, Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City, Kristen Buras shared the voices of New Orleans’ high school students describing what had been done to their schools.

In July of 2006, I was able to spend a week in New Orleans and to write about it.  I listened to all kinds of people including experienced teachers—replaced by Teach for America recruits—who had lost their profession and lost their livelihood. Tracie Washington, a civil rights attorney, told me she worried about fragmentation of services in the mass of charter schools: “The schools cannot be effectively compared and evaluated because there are too many types, too many curricula, too many tests, too many everything.”

I learned that a special exception had been made to the theory that charter schools ought to be non-selective.  New Orleans had been permitted to create charters with admissions tests and other selection screens—seizing the public, neighborhood Alcee Fortier High School, for example, and, with a big investment from Tulane University, converting it into selective Lusher Charter High School with an admissions preference for children whose parents taught at area universities. A former public school teacher told me: “Selective schools will show promise because they are selecting students who will show promise by testing well.”

Now, a dozen years after Hurricane Katrina, we have another opportunity to listen to the people in New Orleans describing what has happened to their schools.  Last fall, the national NAACP passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools, and the civil rights organization has been holding local hearings on that resolution. In April, the NAACP chose New Orleans, where the mass charter experiment was launched, for one of its hearings, and Bill Quigley, a long New Orleans resident, esteemed professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans, and Associate Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, listened as people told their stories.

Here is Bill Quigley’s report:  “The New Orleans hearing… featured outraged students, outraged parents, and dismayed community members reciting a litany of the problems created by the massive change to a charter school system. The single most powerful moment came when a group of students from Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools took the podium and detailed the many ways the system has failed and excluded them from participating in its transformation.”

Quigley summarizes: “(T)he NAACP heard that the charter system remains highly segregated by race and economic status. Students have significantly longer commutes to and from school. The percentage of African American teachers has declined dramatically leaving less experienced teachers who are less likely to be accredited and less likely to remain in the system. The costs of administration have gone up while resources for teaching have declined. Several special select schools have their own admission process which results in racially and economically different student bodies. The top administrator of one K-12 system of three schools is paid over a quarter of a million dollars. Students with disabilities have been ill served. Fraud and mismanagement, which certainly predated the conversion to charter schools, continue to occur. Thousand of students are in below-average schools. Students and parents feel disempowered and ignored by the system.”

Quigley emphasizes lingering bitterness about the elimination, in late autumn of 2005, of New Orleans’ entire teaching staff: “The first casualty of the abrupt change was the termination of the South’s largest local union and the firing of over 7000 mostly African American female teachers. Attorney Willie Zanders told the NAACP of the years of struggle for those teachers which, though initially successful, ended in bitter defeat years later. The city’s veteran black educators were replaced by younger, less qualified white teachers from Teach for America and Teach NOLA. The change to charters reduced the percentage of black teachers from 74 percent to 51 percent. There are now fewer experienced teachers, fewer accredited teachers, fewer local teachers, and more teachers who are likely to leave than before Katrina.”

In his brief and well-documented report, Quigley also summarizes some history: “One of the more dramatic and well-documented problems in the changeover to charters is the absence of services for students with disabilities. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued over disability violations in 2010… Children with disabilities had been denied enrollment altogether, forced to attend schools ill-equipped or lacking resources to serve them, and suspended without procedural protections.. After suit was filed it took an additional four years to set up a system to uphold the educational rights of students with disabilities. Now, there is a district-wide consent decree in place overseen by an Independent Monitor who reports to the Court. Yet, the disability problems remain. In 2017, a charter was rebuked for suspending a student who the school thought was depressed…  At another charter, since closed, the State identified egregious special education violations. Staff reused to screen students, tried to keep them from enrolling, put them in rooms with nothing to do, deprived students of their services, and faked records to cover it up.”

I urge you to read Bill Quigley’s fine report on the recent  NAACP hearing and the history of New Orleans’ charters over the past dozen years.  In every way Quigley’s essay reinforces what I heard when I visited New Orleans in 2006. I spoke with the Rev. Torin Sanders, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, which had already lost control of all but a handful of the public schools to the state Recovery School District slated to manage the charter conversion. Sanders described what he thought was the meaning of the seizure of New Orleans’s public schools: “We need to keep the public in public education. Bureaucracy has come to connote ‘slow’ and ‘barrier.’ I am against that as well as out-dated rules. But you can have a system without those things. We have thrown out the system. The only people who can make it when there is no system are those who already have access to resources.”

House Trumpcare Bill Guts Medicaid Funding Used by Public Schools to Pay for Special Education

President Donald Trump and members of the House of Representatives celebrated after the House passed the new Trumpcare bill last Thursday. But there is much in the new law not to celebrate, including this: Tucked into the bill is a little-noticed cut in Medicaid funding for the expensive services school districts are required to provide under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for students who need speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, medical services, or specialized school transportation.

Here is Stephen Koff, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Washington Bureau Chief: “Ohio schools could lose millions of dollars they now get to pay for speech and physical therapy, behavioral services, student evaluations and other special education services, because of changes to Medicaid in the congressional bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. The money assists about 61,000 students in 580 Ohio school districts. In 2013, the last year for which final figures are available, the federal government sent Ohio schools an estimated $47.25 million for the program.”  That is merely what Medicaid paid that year for necessary services in one of the 50 states.

Here is Erica Green for the NY Times: “School districts rely on Medicaid, the federal health care program for the poor, to provide costly services to millions of students with disabilities across the country. For nearly 30 years, Medicaid has helped school systems cover costs for special education services and equipment, from physical therapists to feeding tubes. The money is also used to provide preventive care such as vision and hearing screenings, for other Medicaid-eligible children.”

Green explains that the bill the House passed last week to repeal and supposedly replace the Affordable Care Act  “would cut Medicaid by $880 billion, or 25 percent, over 10 years and impose a ‘per-capita-cap’ on funding for certain groups of people, such as children and the elderly—a dramatic change that would convert Medicaid from an entitlement designed to cover any costs incurred to a more limited program.”

Stephen Koff explains the problem in plainer language: “(T)he bill… would change Medicaid, a joint federal-state program for low-income Americans that expanded under Obamacare, and lead to a cut in Medicaid funding. Unknown to many Americans, Medicaid helps support special education programs in schools. The Medicaid in Schools program helps pay for services to children with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), ‘including but not limited to behavioral health, nursing, occupational therapy, targeted case management and specialized transportation,’ state documents say.”

A report last week for the Center for American Progress explains: “Part B of the IDEA guarantees children ages 3 to 21 access to special education services in their public schools… (F)unding for Part B falls well below the cost for services, and school districts use a combination of other local, state, and federal funding sources to meet children’s needs… Each year, school districts collectively rely on $4 billion to $5 billion in Medicaid funds to support special education services for children eligible for Medicaid.  Schools use these funds to pay critical personnel such as speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists, as well as to provide assistive technology and transportation for children with special needs.  Many schools also provide developmental screenings to students through Medicaid….”

In the Plain Dealer, Koff quotes a statement released by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown: “Whatever your opinion of the Affordable Care Act, we should all agree that forcing schools to choose between laying off special education therapists that students depend on and increasing class sizes or reducing AP and elective classes for other students is wrong.”

The U.S. Senate will soon be considering Trump’s request to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Although in March and April, as the House of Representatives prepared to consider a healthcare plan, some advocacy groups did raise concerns about threatened cuts in essential special education services paid for by Medicaid, many of us have remained unaware of the problem. Please become conversant with the issues described in this post, inform your colleagues and friends about this serious matter, and be prepared to speak with your U.S. Senators when the healthcare law debate reaches the Senate.