Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Meddlers Exposed! Tony Bennett's Version of Educational "Reform"

Sometimes, great news comes out that just makes my day.

If you’ve read this blog or my other writings, you know of the questionable esteem in which I hold the wealthy and political influencers of educational policy.

These are people who in most cases possess very little actual expertise in the field of education, yet because of their financial or political influence, they nevertheless get to exert power over education policy that far outweighs their knowledge.

These people, whom I call meddlers and PeWKoB (People Who Know Better), and who another site refers to as ‘edushysters,’ are most often referred to as "reformers." And they do indeed want to reform education. It’s just that most of their ideas are terrible.

Ideas such as merit pay, charter schools, STEM, burdensome and mostly useless standardized tests, new standards every five years, and the like. These are what will save education and overcome trenchant poverty, broken families, absenteeism, apathy, and a luxury-minded generation that wants everything to be fast (including learning) and "meaningful."

Their other big idea is to "grade" schools, using testing, graduation, and who knows what other data–all decided by non-educators who get paid more than we do for less valuable work. And it’s that particular one that has just been exposed for the fraud that it is, courtesy of the Associated Press.

The article doesn’t say how they came upon these revelatory emails, but this is the gist of it:

The Breaking Story
Florida’s state school superintendent Tony Bennett, who used to ‘superintend’ Indiana’s system, has been found to have deliberately changed the grade assigned to an Indianapolis charter school. The reason? Because a prominent donor and supporter of Bennett’s style of reforms runs this particular charter school.

You can read the full article here. It deliciously exposes Bennett and those of his ilk for the disingenuous, two-faced, superficial, and totally baseless "reformists" they claim to be.

These meddlers exert enormous effort, legislative and grass roots, to implement ideas such as grading schools into state systems. Their arguments usually fall into the notion that "parents deserve choices, and should know which schools are the best."

Now, I have written extensively about how the idea of "good" schools is itself kind of silly. Schools reflect the culture in which they exist. You can have bad teachers at a rich charter or private school (or public, for that matter), and the students will still do well because of their parents pushing them, their own self-motivation, and the inherent benefits they have in growing up in a generally positive environment that facilitates educational achievement.

Conversely, you could have great teachers at a school with entrenched poverty, lots of broken or non-existent families, homelessness, dozens of different languages spoken, and bad attendance, and that school will have lower achievement. For a school like that to see 50% of its students go on to college, and 80% to graduate is a greater achievement than if the rich school were to see 80% and 95%, respectively.

So grading schools is just stupid. It’s utterly pointless. Where are all the ‘A’ schools going to be located? Well, naturally, in the weathiest zip codes.

Up until now, folks like me have been declaring this truth with no evidence other than that we just know it’s true, because we work in schools. We have said that parents in those zip codes would never stand for their schools being anything less than ‘A’ quality. And we were right.

Now, we have proof. And not only proof that it’s true, but more importantly, proof that the people who advocate for these charter schools and the grading of them will do anything to make sure those schools get the A grades.

The article reveals an email where Bennett states, "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work."

In Indiana, many of these dubious reforms have taken root. The state can take over schools that get failing grades. (Because the state of course knows how to do it better than the people in the actual school—they just haven’t told any of us their secret).

It turns out, the charter school in question was going to get a C instead of an A. The reason? "Terrible" tenth grade algebra scores "dragged down their entire school." This is from Jon Gubera, Indiana’s director of this grading program (how much does HE make? More than a teacher, no doubt....).

These high-level state bureaucrats–meddlers in action–were in an apoplectic email panic about how to fix this. And fix it they did. Get this: Bennett blames the "flawed formula" for causing this low grade for his cherished school.

To fix it, they tried to adjust the color charts to make a high B look like an A, and literally changed the grade just for this one school. After changing the formula, this school’s new grade went from a 2.9 up to a 3.5. That along with the new graphics gave this school an A, and all was well in the world of the PeWKoB. But the smell escaped, and now we have the source exposed.

Bennett’s final quote, in response to a concern that they couldn’t legally change the cutoff for what constitutes an A, is a classic for the record books: "We can revise the rule."

My Thoughts
I am thrilled beyond belief for this. The AP reporter who somehow got a hold of these emails ought to be given a Pulitzer. Let’s take a look at how much this really does undermine the meddler’s mantra of "reform." We can see, item by item, how this story exposes so many of their bogus ideas.

School Grading Systems
The fact Bennett complains about the "flawed formula" is the height of irony. This is exactly, precisely, specifically, and completely what I have been saying for years about all these grading systems. And that includes standardized tests students are required to pass.

Who decides what constitutes passing? What are the parameters? How do we know they are fair and accurate, and will produce an appropriate measure? Who decides that? Where is the data coming from that verifies all this, and how do we know it’s quality data?

These are the questions the Rhees and Brills and Bennetts and Duncans of the world just brush off like mosquitoes around a campfire.

Until now.

Now we have one of their own people saying the exact same thing! And what’s so despicable about it is that he’s only complaining about the formula because it makes his favorite school look bad! He doesn’t care about the rest of the schools. He doesn’t say anything about how this flawed formula might also be misconstruing the grades of other schools.

If it’s bad for his school, doesn’t it seem pretty reasonable to assume it’s bad for others?

Furthermore, if just changing a formula results in a 0.6 increase in the grade, this is a very bizarre formula! I mean, nothing else changed. It’s the same data. 2.9 increasing to 3.5 is a 21% increase! Again, this is just from changing the formula.

There are entire schools who, if they were to increase their state test scores by 21%, they’d be celebrating in the streets. And this guy increases the grade his school "earned" by that amount, just by changing the formula!

How reliable are these grading formulas then? How reliable are these state tests and the standards and scoring systems they’re based upon? How much are we paying these people, like Jon Gubera, to administer these apparently highly flawed systems? Why? Maybe if we fired the entire department and saved all that money, nothing at all would change.

Now there’s a reform I can get behind.

Standardized Assessments and NCLB/Race To The Top

The PeWKoB regularly tout the greatness of standardized tests. ‘How will we know if students have learned anything if we don’t test them?’, they always ask with rhetorical ignorance.

How will we know? Because the teachers do it. It’s our job. But that’s another post I won’t get into for now.

But look at this. Bennett’s complaint is that bad 10th grade math scores drug the whole school down. What’s funny is that this is the exact same complaint that first surfaced about the No Child Left Behind law from the early 2000's. There were schools, even ritzy suburb schools where over 90% of the students go on to college, that were labeled as "failures" because one of the 36 different demographics did not show enough improvement.

Even if that demographic was special education students, and even if that school only has ten of them out of 2000 total students, if those ten kids didn’t improve enough, they would single-handedly cause the entire school to be labeled a failure–in spite of the acceptable (to the meddlers) growth of the other 35 categories of students.

This really happened. It’s one reason NCLB has been all but rejected by pretty much everyone lately.

But pay attention to the point. We–the ones who actually teach and know this stuff–saw this lunacy over ten years ago, and pointed it out then.

What did the meddlers say in response? They called us anti-reformers, against change, obstructionists, union pawns (and I personally am far, far from being a union pawn), and many other things. In other words, they dismissed us and went on with implementing their terrible idea.

Yet, here we are, ten years later, with one of their own being caught in the same trap. One category of students–tenth grade algebra–scored so badly they brought down the rest of the school.

Do you see what’s going on here? The reforms they support that we oppose are failing because of the very reasons we’ve been giving for the last ten years.

The Real Explanation
It’s so simple to see what’s going on here. They probably just got a tougher group of tenth graders than usual. You know what? It happens all the time, at every school, everywhere. But, since none of these people have ever taught, they don’t know this.

Any teacher will tell you that year to year, for reasons we can’t fully grasp, sometimes you just get a really great group of students, and the next year it’s not as good. This goes up and down all the time. It’s called randomization from the norm. Or, put more simply: People aren’t all the same. Students aren’t factory products. They’re people. And some groups, for some reason, do better than others year to year.

Every teacher just knows this. It’s common sense, and silly to even bring it up.

Do I blame the teachers at Christel House? No. Do I blame the students? No. Do I blame the parents? No. Do I blame the principal? Or the testing? Or the methods? Or the curriculum?


Now, some of those could be factors. I don’t have the data. But very possibly, none of those made any significant difference. Very possibly, it’s just a bad year. And next year, amazingly, the 11th grade math scores will probably be lower than normal too. Incredible prediction I just made there. Did you see that? Mark it down. I’m going way out on a limb with this one...

Charter Schools
Yet another big reform idea is the whole "school choice" and charter school doctrine. And as we’ve been saying for years, charter schools aren’t going to be any better or worse than public schools. On average, they actually tend to do worse.

I once read a rebuttal to that data that essentially said, "You can’t look at the average. The average may be worse or the same, but that means some charter schools are way better. So we just need to focus on those schools only."

But, couldn’t we say the same thing about the public schools you’re comparing to? Aren’t the "best" public schools also being lost in the average? Of course they are.

This is why it’s ridiculous to use averages in this way. It’s like saying the average baseball player hits .260. What good is that? It’s worthless information. I care about what each player does, not the average.

Saying "schools are failing" is a stupid statement. You can’t lump all schools into a single statement like this.

So the whole idea behind charter schools being "better" is just absurd. They can cherry pick students they want; and kick out the ones they don’t want.

But that’s why it’s so funny that the school Bennett is protecting here is a charter school. One of his prized examples has fallen to a 2.9, and this is a crisis we have to fix.

No it’s not. This is what happens in education. Things go up, and things go down. Some years students excel more, some years less.

In 2012, two thirds of my AP chemistry students passed the AP test. Last year, only half passed it. The first year I taught it in 2011, only one fourth passed.

What does that mean? It means the first year is the toughest for the teacher, which every AP teacher will tell you. And it means students will vary year to year. That’s all it means.

The Best Reform Idea Ever
So, if people choose to grasp the significance of Bennett and all his panicked bureaucratic friends adjusting the grades of his favorite school just so he can keep pushing his "reformist" meddling agenda, perhaps they will finally start to question many of the other ideas these guys stand for.

Merit pay? Teacher accountability based on test scores? Closing schools that "fail"? Replacing half of a staff because of low achievement?

Maybe these ideas are as empty as Bennett’s grading system–by his very own words–turned out to be. Maybe the whole "reform" movement is a flawed formula. Maybe we should try scrapping the whole movement and then marvel at the sound of "nothing" happening, as well as all the money we'd save.

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