Friday, February 28, 2014

50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools

David Berliner and I have joined with 15 bright young PhDs to expose 50 of the myths & lies that are threatening our nation’s public schools. 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools is published by Teachers College Press at Columbia University.

Here's a sample:

Myth 1. International tests show that the United States has a second-rate education system. Complete balderdash! Not so. There are so many things wrong with these international comparisons that you could fill an encyclopedia with the criticisms. Finland is up one year and down the next. Idiots rush to Singapore to find the education Holy Grail, and all they find is the highest per capita rate of millionaires of any place on earth. Journalists compare test scores on reading tests written in different languages. The testers assure us that the different tests are equally difficult — sure they are — but they don’t let us see the questions. This whole international testing nonsense has gone too far. It’s time for the nations — all of them — to get together and say, “Stop!”

Myth 2. Private schools are better than public schools. Once having accounted for the enrollment of higher-SES students in private schools, and considering other variables such as race/ethnicity and disability status, Chris Lubienski and Sarah Lubienski found that public school students on average outperformed their peers in private schools. Check out their book: The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools.

Myth 3. Charter schools teach and achieve better than public schools. FALSE! Claims like these embody a couple of myths. Charter schools ARE public schools, though they want to act like private schools when it is to their advantage. (More about this later.) Second, when you equate two groups as much as possible and compare their achievement test scores, traditional public schools come out on top. Here’s why. There are a bunch of studies that make it look like charters and traditional publics score almost exactly the same on tests. Jeanne Powers at Arizona State University has shown this and will say more about it soon. But charters have an advantage that in itself won’t lift their scores above publics. It’s called the “regression effect” by statisticians, but it’s really a very simple idea. It says that if your attention is attracted to someone because they are extreme in some group, they will be less extreme the next time you look at them. The tallest mothers have slightly less tall daughters. The shortest fathers have slightly taller sons. When a student is having an awful time in a traditional public school, he is more likely to withdraw and enter a charter. Believe it. It’s a big clientele for the charter school marketers. So when you check that student's scores after a semester or two in the charter school, the scores will have benefitted from the upward drift of the regression effect. (After the drift has settled down in a couple semesters, watch the charter students re-enroll in the traditional public school they came from. It happens in big numbers.)

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder

Friday, February 21, 2014

Common Core Pushback

Four bills just cleared the Arizona Senate Education Committee by a 6-3 party-line vote.
  1. SB 1310: AZ must withdraw from the state & federal Partnership for Assessment of Blah Blah Blah;
  2. SB 1388: State Board must not adopt Common Core;
  3. SB 1395: Districts and charters can opt out of Common Core;
  4. SB 1396: Districts and charters must adopt their own standards (in place of Common Core).
The bills are pushed by right-wing, anti-federal government politicians. It's hardly a coalition, but they are joined by some school administrators who are too shy to speak up and teachers who are not heard even if they do speak up. The push for Common Core in the state is from business leaders ("We can't find enough qualified workers") and middle-class parents who have drunk the Common Core Kool-Aid ("World-class standards and world-class tests will guarantee that your child will get into a world-class university and eventually have a high-paying career."). Of course, Common Core for AZ is being pushed by the testing companies (McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, Pearson) who would love to sell the state online testing systems at $30 a kid X 1,000,000 kids = a $30,000,000 contract. Opposition to the Common Core is strong among the charter schools who view it as another means of exposing their sub-par performance and a big bite taken out of their profit margin.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

School class size matters to whom?

Class size has been an issue for millennia. "I contend that it is not only possible for one teacher to teach several hundred scholars at once, but that it is also essential.... The larger the number of pupils that he sees before him the greater the interest the teacher will take in his work." ~ Comenius (1592 - 1670) If Comenius were to be resurrected, he might be in line for a top job at the Fordham Institute or the American Enterprise Institute.

A new study just released by the National Education Policy Center is another resounding put down of the Comenius line. "Does Class Size Matter?" by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach concludes that "Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes." But that is about as far as it goes. That this conclusion must be repeated over and over in every decade is evidence of the tenacity of the Comeniusites. Indeed, in 1982, my colleagues and I published the first meta-analysis of nearly a century of class size research and concluded that class size matters ... for achievement test scores. The book is apparently available now for about $170 – making it almost as rare as a copy of the Gutenberg Bible (don't buy it, incidentally).

We are long past the point of having to debate about the benefit of class size reduction for students' achievement test scores. Remove 2 students from a class of 30 and the average achievement test score will rise microscopically. Remove 5 and the gain will be barely visible. Remove 15 and the scores will go up a little bit. Who cares?! The test scores are irrelevant. Whatever it is they measure – e.g., the difference between congruent and similar triangles – will soon be lost to memory.

I can tell you who cares how big classes are. Teachers. Class size research and the arguments about it are a vestige of Puritanism. Niggling effects of class size reduction are elevated to the highest level of goodness, and the working conditions of teachers are ignored. The difference between a class size of 20 versus a class size of 30 for a high school English teacher is considerable. Lab science teachers who have to set up lessons for 25 students instead of 15 know what a 67% increase in class size means. It means more work, more stress, more time spent before the morning bell rings or after the afternoon bell.

That teachers' workloads are virtually never mentioned in the research on school class size is just amazing. And when the battle is taken to the streets, the tiny achievement benefits trump the large workload increases. What other profession would tolerate being treated this way? Would lawyers accept a 20% or even 15% increase in their workload without compensation? Would surgeons? Would professors? Class size research tells us so much about the power struggles teachers now find themselves caught in. It speaks volumes about the assault on the teaching profession and their unions.

Larry Cuban, because he is an educator, is almost alone in acknowledging that large classes make more work for teachers.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Apartheid in Paradise

It has nearly risen to the level of a truism – denied by some – that school choice is slowly producing a divided public school system. Where charter schools flourish, segregation along racial, ethnic, and wealth lines follows. We are rapidly evolving into two school systems: one for those who aspire to be the future 1%, and one for the inevitable 99%. Actually, the percentages are more like 30% of the white, middle and upper-middle class in one system (of charter schools, private schools, and public schools chosen through open enrollment) and 70% in the other system. And as always, Arizona – on account of its aging white population and burgeoning Hispanic population – is leading the way to the future with its unregulated charters, tuition tax credits, empowerment scholarships and open enrollment policies. Earlier I estimated that 40% of the students in Arizona public schools have exercised "choice" in one form or another. And the elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction avails himself of money from the Koch brothers to make 15,000 robo-calls to poor families urging them to apply for state tax money to "buy excellent education in the free market." But he hardly could have done otherwise after having accepted nearly $30,000 in donations to his campaign for State Superintendent from school choice interests.

And so we have the case of the Scottsdale (AZ) Unified School District. Scottsdale, occupying the northeast corner of metropolitan Phoenix, is a town of 225,000 people with a north-south axis of about 30 miles and an east-west axis of about 10 miles. But the Scottsdale Unified School District (27,000 students strong) incorporates nearly all of that area in the city and most of the neighboring town of Paradise Valley to the west. The southern portions of Scottsdale are lower to lower-middle class economically, and most of the town's Hispanics and American Indians live in the south. Neighboring Paradise Valley is for the rich: 96% white; and multi-million dollar homes of residents like Muhammed Ali, Shaquille O'Neal, Mike Tyson, Charles Barkley, Glen Campbell, Stevie Nicks, Dick Van Dyke, Alice Cooper, Hugh Downs, Dan Quayle, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Charles Keating.

Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) has been bleeding about 2% of its student population in recent years. According to administrators, the loss is the gain of charter schools and private schools; and there are several – Notre Dame Prep, Christ Lutheran School, Veritas Prep, Basis Scottsdale, Primavera Online, Pardes, King David, and many others. Next year Great Hearts Academies plans to open two new charters in Scottsdale. In a recent enrollment study undertaken by the SUSD it was learned that the district's capture rate (i.e., percentage of eligible students who attend SUSD schools) for students living in Paradise Valley was 43%. For students living in south Scottsdale, the capture rate was 95%.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Teacher as Sisyphus

Sisyphus was a king whose sins were punished by being made to push an immense rock to the top of a hill every day only to have the rock roll back down each night. Philosophers and poets for centuries have given various interpretations to the Sisyphus myth, some making him out to be a fool, some a hero.

In the 1925, a German psychoanalyst wrote a book that grew out of his experiences as head of a project in 1919 called Kinderheim Baumgarten, which provided housing and education for 300 Jewish children from Poland, who were displaced after WWI. The title of his book was Sisyphos oder die Grenzen der Erziehung (roughly, Sisyphus or the Limits of Education). (Bernfeld, who was analysed by Freud’s daughter Anna, eventually emigrated to the U.S. and practiced psychoanalysis in San Francisco for several years before his death in 1953.)

Bernfeld likened the task of the teacher to the labors of Sisyphus: arduous work over long periods of time against huge odds, both psychological and environmental. Of course, the modern myth is that Teacher is Zeus – all powerful, able to accomplish any goal, hence if the Teacher fails, the Teacher is entirely to blame; and in the end, there are severe limits to what any teacher can accomplish. (See Endnote below.)

My colleague David Berliner struck a note reminiscent of Bernfeld’s book on the occasion of his acceptance of a Doctorate of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa from Manhattanville College last May. The teacher’s task is sometimes thankless and undertaken against the odds dealt by poverty and debilitating societal forces. His speech was untitled; had he asked me for a suggestion, I would have said,

The Teacher as Sisyphus

David C. Berliner
Regents’ Professor Emeritus
Arizona State University

Good evening. First, I want to assure you all that I will not stand long in the way of your celebration. Only a fool stands for too long between food and drink. So I will be brief, which isn’t easy for a professor, since whenever we get a podium we think we should talk for 50 minutes. Second, I want to thank the administration of the college and the Board of Trustees for the recognition given to me. I am deeply honored, and immensely proud. Third, I want to congratulate you graduates.

I also want to tell your parents, relatives, and friends gathered here today to remember something very important, namely, that the future pay of each of the graduates you care about depends on your ability, and your desire to pay your taxes! Many of these graduates are likely to end up as workers for the common good, helping to serve us all. And those who work for the common good—the police, firefighters, librarians, our teachers and other educators— are all paid from monies collected in taxes. So if you parents, relatives, and friends think you are done helping to support these graduates emotionally and financially, think again! I don’t want to be a scold on this wonderful day, but these graduates will need your support for their entire careers.

Doing the business of education is hard work and emotionally draining work, and you should be proud, very proud, that a family member or friend of yours has chosen to give back to our nation a portion of what they have received. Thank you graduates, and thank you to your families and friends who helped make this day possible.

Now whether you graduates end up working in a public school or a charter school, a secular or religious private school, a public or private college or university, is irrelevant. And even if you work eventually outside of education, no matter where you end up, you all need to protect public schooling. I’d like to tell you why that is.

The Pulitzer prize winning historian, Lawrence Cremin, explained it this way: When the history of the United States is written from the vantage of the middle of the 21st century, and the question asked is what was it that made the United States the preeminent nation in the world during the 20th century, the answer will be found in the 19th century. Cremin argued that it wasn't the Gatling gun, or the telegraph, or the telephone, or Fulton's steamboat that made America great. Rather, it was the invention of the common school. That is the gift that keeps on giving.

  • It was the public schools that gave America some mobility across social classes, providing a modicum of truth to the myth that we were a classless society.
  • It was the public schools that changed our immigrants into patriotic Americans.
  • It was the public schools, along with public libraries, that gave Americans the skills and opportunities to develop the kinds of knowledge that Thomas Jefferson had rightly noted is first among the necessary conditions for a democracy to function.
  • It is the public schools that serve most of our nations’ special education students, hoping to give them productive lives, and hoping to give their parents a modicum of relief from a tougher parenting role than most of us have had to face.
  • It is the public schools that primarily serve the English Language Learners who, in another generation, will constitute a large part of the work force that we depend upon.
  • It is the public schools that serve America’s neediest children and their families.
  • And it is the public schools, in the wealthier neighborhoods, that provide a large proportion of American students with a world-class education.
Whatever your feelings about charter schools and private schools, for the foreseeable future the vast numbers of our students and the vast number of the jobs open to educators will be in our public schools. So for both personal and patriotic reasons, educators and their closest family members and friends need to support our nations’ greatest invention, our public school.

The teaching profession and education, as an enterprise, are not well understood by many. For example, research tells us that it takes teachers three to five years to learn how to be effective with their students, and even then they do not maximize their student’s test performance until about their seventh year on the job.

We are talking about these graduates joining a profession as a teacher, administrator, or teacher educator that takes three to five years to master, and five to seven years in which to become an expert. This is not easy-to-master work. But unless you all support these new graduates by how you vote, and what you pay in taxes, as well as by listening to tales of their successes and their challenges, and by laughing and crying with them as they develop in their careers, we could lose them to the profession. We know that we lose half of America’s newly certified educators within five years. We need to make the profession these graduates have chosen to enter a better one: one in which they will wish to stay. And that requires all of us to reconsider how we vote, whom we vote for, and what we say to each other about education and its role in American life.

I know that some say supporting our public schools is difficult to do because they are not doing their job well. Therefore, these people say, we need more alternatives to the public schools; charter and private schools, as well as support of home schooling.

Let me be sure you understand this issue. In three different recent international tests of literacy, science, mathematics and problem-solving skills in those three areas, the students in American public schools, where poverty rates were under 10 percent, scored the highest or among the highest in the world. And in public schools where the poverty rates were 10-25 percent of the student body, American students scored among the top few nations of the world. Those two groups of public schools, all of which serve middle and upper middle class students, educate about 15 million of our youth (30% of all K-12 students), and they do as good a job as any nation on earth, and a lot better than most other nations.

But they are not our only public school students. Public schools that teach the poor, where more than 75% of the children are in poverty, do terrible in international competitions. Those schools are not doing a good job, but it is hard to say that it is the professional educators that are at faultt when we also have public schools that these same teachers staff that are among the best in the world. It is much more likely that it is the fault of our political system that has plunged millions upon millions into poverty since the early 1980s, not our school system or the personnel who run it.

About 25% of America’s youth are locked into poverty, and in other wealthy nations, like Finland, that rate is under 5 percent. In fact, The U.S. now leads the industrialized world in income inequality and it makes education very difficult in schools that serve our poorest children. Our housing patterns lock students of all social classes into school settings that result in both poor and wealthy students going to school only with students from the same socio-economic class. And that gives us both wonderful public schools, but it also gives us public schools that are very hard in which to teach and learn.

So to help today’s graduates help America – should they end up teaching or managing or providing some other form of assistance for schools that serve the poor – we need to rethink our social programs and policies. If we changed many of the social and economic policies that are not now helping to lift achievement in schools that serve the poor, we could probably do with a lot fewer tests, and less performance pay systems, and less shaming and firing of teachers based on student test scores, and less quick and dirty certification of teachers. It is pretty clear that here in Westchester county, and in New York state, and throughout our nation, we won’t get much better in the schools that serve the poor with new standards, new curricula – a Common Core, in other words – new laptops or ipads, or through school closings, as they continue to do in the little city just south of us.

The best gift we can give to our newly minted educators, many of whom will be working in our public school systems, is a society that gives the parents of the children they teach jobs that pay fair wages and provide basic benefits. That would be the best gift to give our new teachers and administrators.

A brighter future for parents almost always results in kids perceiving a brighter future for themselves. And that makes the very tough job of teaching a whole lot easier. Nothing less than brighter futures for children born into poverty is what we owe these newly minted educators. It will make their jobs so much easier, and they will feel much more successful at the end of their careers.

Please understand, I strongly believe that America should have a diversity of school options. That is good for democracy and it is sensible from a market standpoint to have some competition, to see if anyone in charter schools or private schools can innovate and do a better job than that being done by traditional public schools. But we have learned that teaching is an old profession, though thankfully not the oldest profession, and most of what works well has been discovered already, though I am sure we will see some new wrinkles in instruction coming from all our new technology.

But all educational system are fundamentally about controlling 4 things. Someone, (usually that’s a teacher or a parent or a supervisor), is teaching, showing, telling or yelling something (like how to fix a carburetor, how to solve quadratic equations, or how to color within the lines) to someone else (a student, a child, an employee), in some setting (a classroom, a shop, an office, or on a basketball court).

Four variables: some one, teaching some thing, to someone else, in some setting

There are only four variables for schools and teachers and school administrators to control, so the general public thinks that teaching seems easy. It certainly sounds easy, until you remember that four is exactly the same number of variables that make up our DNA. And just as those four nucleotides result in billions of different people, and great variation even within the same family, those four educational variables result in no two classrooms ever being alike. Class-to-class and year-to-year variations, even in the same schools, end up requiring remarkably different skills to teach and to administer well. Teaching and schooling is hard work because you cannot ever be sure of what you will draw as a class or what the dynamics will be at a school. Although there are identical twins, there are no identical classes and no school settings or school years that are ever like the ones previously experienced.

So each year school administrators and school teachers start anew. Our job is to provide these educators with children who are ready and eager to learn. That should be as true in the schools that serve the poor as it is in the schools that serve the privileged. Of course all children in our nation deserve caring and competent educators, and Manhattanville provides that kind of educator to our schools. But all these educators deserve well-fed, well-loved, and physically healthy children, in order to be successful at providing those children with a high quality educational experience.

So I ask each of you here today to think about the young people your loved ones and friends will be working with, as they graduate and take up various hard-to-master positions in our education system. Do what you can to make sure that these educators you care so much about get the kinds of kid, and the kinds of community, in which they can succeed. If we can give them just these two gifts — healthy kids who come from healthy communities — we will not only make them successful educators, but we are sure to remain one of the preeminent nations of the world.

Endnote. David C. Berliner and I address the myths that threaten America's public schools in a forthcoming book: Berliner, D. C. & Glass, G. V & Associates (2014) 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America's Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education NY: Teachers College Press. Please read it and arm yourself against the false narratives that threaten to turn our nation’s most prized institution into a profit machine for corporate interests.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Who is Being "Empowered"?

I pointed out in an earlier posting that the attack on public education in the state of Arizona is relentless. As many as 40% of the school-age children in the state have exercised "choice," either in the form of charter school enrollment, cyber-charter, home schooling, or open enrollment.

The latest attack on traditional public education is making its way through the Arizona Legislature. "Traditional public education" can now be seen to mean schools run by experienced administrators trained in schools and colleges of education and staffed by certified teachers, and schools that offer a comprehensive curriculum supported by counselors, nurses, and teachers with training in meeting the needs of handicapped children. The very thought of traditional education raises hackles on the (red)necks of legislators in this state.

For a couple years now, Arizona has had a law on the books called the Empowerment Scholarship Account. The "scholarship" is cash given to a student's family who wish to enroll that student in a private school. The amount of the "scholarship" is approximately $2,000 – hardly enough to make a dent in tuition to Phoenix Country Day, but an amount welcomed by any of hundreds of religious schools. As the enabling legislation was originally passed, the following criteria were used to select recipients: Reside in the state of Arizona; A child with a disability; A child of an active duty military parent; A child who is a ward of the juvenile court and is residing in prospective permanent placement foster care; A child who is a ward of the juvenile court and who achieved permanency through adoption; A child who attended a letter grade “D” or “F” public school the prior school year. The tug at the heart strings is apparent. "We only mean to help those poor disabled, adopted kids whose dads are fighting in Afghanistan," the legislators must have been thinking.

But now comes House Bill 2291. HB 2291 would expand eligibility for Empowerment Scholarships to any family whose child is eligible for free-and-reduced lunch or whose family's income is within 15% of the free-and-reduced lunch cut-off. And the income criterion would grow 15% each year beyond 2014-15.

In 2012, 300 families received nearly $2,000 each in a state funded bank account which they could spend for tuition at any private school. The number of families receiving this state tax money in 2013 jumped to more than 700. If HB 2291 becomes law, it is estimated that 4,500 families will be eligible for the money. The limit of the law, to be reached in 2019, would fund 5,500 families and cost the state roughly $40,000,000 in public education funds that would be diverted to private schools.

The state's Superintendent of Public Instruction can be seen pushing the program on a web video. He informs parents that the scholarships empower them to purchase "private educational services on the free market." Apparently, this video was not enough advertising for the backers of Empowerment Scholarships, because the State Superintendent made thousands of robo-calls to parents of school children on February 11 and 12 hawking the program. The robo-calls direct listeners to a web page that pushes the program; the web page is on the web site of the Goldwater Institute. The calls were funded by the Arizona Alliance for School Choice, as part of a quarter-million dollar program promoting choice options in the state. A spokesperson for the Alliance said, "It is not strange at all for him to be the voice on the phone informing parents about a program that runs out of his department." Apparently the Superintendent disagrees because today he is frantically issuing apologies for the calls.

P.S. The Alliance for School Choice was originally based in Phoenix but now operates out of Washington D.C. The organization is funded by private individuals and foundations. Their pay-outs to state-level school choice groups are available on their IRS Form 990 form. But they are not required to list the source of their income. Apparently, transparency is only for traditional public schools.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Wonderful Successes of School Choice

Today's Arizona Republic carries the news on the front page that a new company is planning to "invest" $2.5 Million in creating 25 new charter schools in the Phoenix area. The word "invest" is hardly appropriate – unless you would call my fronting someone $100 for a guaranteed return of $1,000 a year later an "investment." The whole point of crony capitalism is that profiteers and government work together to enrich the already rich without risk.

Now Arizona is the school choice capital of the world: 1) 500 charter schools – soon to be closer to 600 if New Schools for Phoenix has its way, and they will; 2) huge virtual academies run by out-of-state companies like K12 Inc.; 3) open enrollment laws; 4) tuition tax credits subsidizing families sending their kids to religious schools; and 5) a history of active homeschooling. In fact, the number of students whose parents have "chosen" is staggering. There are 1,100,000 students of K-12 school age in Arizona. Of that number, 180,000 attend charter schools, 200,000 have exercised their right to switch school districts under open enrollment laws, and about 80,000 attend private (mostly religious)schools or are homeschooled. That amounts to more than 400,000 "choice students" in Arizona out of a population of a little more than one million for a choice ratio of about 40% plus.

With nearly half of all students enjoying the benefit of choice – with its effects on driving incompetent teachers out of work, shutting down bad schools, stimulating private and public schools to reach higher levels of effort and innovation – the condition of K-12 education in Arizona must be nothing short of fantastic!

But, to hear the state's politicians and business leaders speak of it, Arizona's school systems are terrible. Below average; lagging behind other nations; a threat to the economy of the entire state; not preparing students for college or careers; in need of major reforms; bring on the Common Core. Arizona's education system is the paragon of choice, and yet it is a mess. Somebody needs to get their stories straight.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University