I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2015

Chris Christie's Bizarro World

You mean a state can't pass a bill and then proceed to ignore it?! Wow, who knew:
New Jersey lawmakers warned of potential "draconian" budget cuts to come up with $1.57 billion if the state is forced to make a full pension payment this year. 
A state Superior Court judge ruled today that unions are entitled to that payment as part of a 2011 pension overhaul law passed by the Democratic-led Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie that forced the state to increase its payments into the system.

"The impact on programs at the end of the year would be devastating," state Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) said.

But Greenwald said there could be a solution on the horizon. He said public workers unions had "come to the table with real suggestion and real reform to try to create a pension payment and longevity that is sustainable and reliable and predictable."

"The reality is we have to either make draconian cuts and make the payment," Greenwald said. "Or we have to be doing what we have been doing over the course of the last number of months, which is work hand-in-hand with the people that are most dramatically impacted by the pension, which is the public workers. It's their retirement."
I have no idea what that last part means. But notice the construction: either huge cuts, or a further change to the pension. Not even the Democratic Leader, it appears, can dare to suggest that maybe we need to collect more revenue.

It is a testament to how far out of touch this state is with reality that we won't even mention raising taxes when it's become increasingly clear we have to do just that. Judge Mary Jacobson is merely stating the obvious: a state can't just walk away from its debts when it is perfectly capable of raising more money.

But according to Christie, meeting your contractual obligations somehow makes you the equivalent of Che Guevara:
"Once again liberal judicial activism rears its head with the court trying to replace its own judgment for the judgment of the people who were elected to make these decisions," Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said in a statement. 
"This budget was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor with a pension payment," he said. "The governor will continue to work on a practical solution to New Jersey's pension and health benefits problems while he appeals this decision to a higher court where we are confident the judgment of New Jersey's elected officials will be vindicated." [emphasis mine]
Yeah, you know what else was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor? The law that requires the state to make its pension payments!

Since when did ignoring the law become a conservative value? Since when was it considered liberal to do what you said you were going to do? Since when is it "judicial activism" for a court to insist that the executive and legislative beaches of the New Jersey government follow the laws they themselves wrote and passed?

Jacobson herself says it best:
"The Governor now takes the unusual position in this court of claiming that this legislative contractual guarantee, which embodied significant reforms for which he took substantial credit with great national fanfare, violates the New Jersey Constitution." 
"Despite the inherently limiting consequences of creating contractual rights through statutory language, the New Jersey Legislature deliberately and unequivocally created contractual rights for public employees for seven years of increasing state payments to support the actuarial soundness of the pension funds and to remedy decades of underfunding."  
"The court rejects defendants' position that finding Chapter 78 unconstitutional somehow does not result in the inevitable abandonment of the state's obligation to its employees and holds instead that the New Jersey Constitution does not bar enforcement of Chapter 78's contractual obligation." 
"Unsurprisingly, the governor does not make any promises that the budget for Fiscal Year 2016 will include a full payment for the pension systems. The court is unwilling to rely on what has now become a succession of empty promises.
"In short, the aim of the legislation is not being met. The goal of Chapter 78 was to reduce the unfunded liability to put the State pension system on sounder financial footing. The legislation defined what was reasonable, and the current underfunding falls far short of that goal. The state's failure to pay $1.57 billion is a substantial impairment both in terms of the absolute magnitude of the failure and as a percentage of the total payment that was expected under the statute." [emphasis mine]
That is exactly right: Christie and the Legislature passed Ben-Pen to great fanfare, and Christie ran around the state -- and then the country -- bragging about how was a mover and a shaker who knew how to get things done. Any time a public worker complained, Christie dressed them down, saying we should be grateful he "saved" our pensions.

But only the unions bothered to point out that the state needed to come up with an additional $5 billion a year in pension payments. The press certainly didn't seem to care that Christie didn't have a plan: editorial boards across the state lined up to endorse his re-election, but never bothered to ask how he would meet his pension obligations.

In a way, I can't blame Christie for lashing out at this inevitable ruling. Until recently, he's been living in Bizzaro World, a place where passing a pension bill that requires huge infusions of cash without any plan to raise revenues earns you the endorsement of the state's largest newspaper. The governor must be wondering why he's getting so much grief now; after all, he got a free pass back when it mattered...

I really don't know where any of this is going, but it's clear that any solution is going to have to involve raising more revenues. It's also clear that, so long as Chris Christie suffers from the delusion that one day he will hold national office, our governor will never agree to raising taxes.

Which means that this state is caught in a death spiral, trapped by the ambitions of a man who thinks keeping your word is a vice.

I'm sick of you liberal activist judges forcing me to obey my own laws!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday Night Music: Snarky Puppy

So here's something only a proud dad/jazzman would say: my son hipped me to this.

Tight, tight, tight. Nice to see some young guns bringing it.

Enjoy the Oscars.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

If You Don't Want Civil Disobedience, Stop Politicizing Our Schools

We had yet another interesting juxtaposition of events in education "reform" this week. As most of you know by now, the Newark Students Union staged another protest, this time occupying State Superintendent Cami Anderson's office. Bob Braun, as usual, had the best coverage and analysis of the event.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Essex County, a different superintendent made waves with an op-ed in NJ Spotlight (I write regularly for them as well: here's my latest piece). Jim Crisfield, departing superintendent of Millburn's schools, objects to the grassroots movement to opt out of the PARCC:
I do understand the concerns people have with the PARCC tests, and I in fact share some of them. I feel the PARCC tests as currently configured take too much time to administer, and I strongly object to how they are used to compare districts (or schools) to one another. And worse yet, very few educators, anywhere, will agree with the notion that standardized test results are either a valid or a reliable way to evaluate teachers. 
Having said that, assessment is a natural and necessary component of the education process. Great teachers deploy assessment techniques all the time to help shed light on both their students' needs and the efficacy of their teaching. PARCC results, we are told and we hope, will provide us with valuable insights into our students' needs and how we can meet them, so I am willing to give PARCC the benefit of the doubt to see if that promise will be fulfilled. After all, it's not like we haven't had standardized testing for, well, decades (if by a different name -- Iowa, Early Warning Test, NJASK, and the like).
What distinguishes PARCC from these prior versions, among other things, is the highly charged political climate of 2015. It seems as if everything now needs to be viewed (and acted upon) through a political lens. PARCC is linked to the Common Core, which in turn elicits angry, visceral reactions from several different quarters. And we then start down the road of letting politics interfere with the educational process. Politics, especially the partisan variety, has no place in the classroom and can in fact be quite distracting.
Coming out of all this political hysteria is a fast-brewing notion that it is a right to opt out of things happening at school with which one doesn't agree. [emphasis mine]
Let's stop here for a second to get a few things out of the way:

First, I know Jim Crisfield; in fact, he hired me for my current job when our family moved back to New Jersey. I didn't always agree with Jim (does anyone ever agree with their boss all the time?), but I respected and liked him. To be clear, the headline of this post has nothing to do with Jim: he's a real educator, and Pennsylvania is lucky to have him.

Second: yes, Crisfield is leaving New Jersey. Why? Because the Christie administration's truly stupid superintendent pay cap would have required him to take a huge cut in pay this year, and Crisfield wasn't willing to subject his family to that.

Yes, reformy New Jersey, this is what your beloved, teacher-bashing governor has wrought: you're losing school leaders who actually agree with you on particular education policies. And now you're stuck with superintendents who spend their days checking to see if teachers have rivets on their pants pockets (I swear I'm not making that up). Nice work...

Third: as Sarah Blaine points out in her eloquent response to Crisfield, his use of the word "hysterical" is very unfortunate. I can confirm Blaine's suspicions: I'm certain Jim didn't mean to give insult to the mothers who object to the PARCC and are opting their children out. I know this from having watched him work for years: I know he respects teachers, and I know he respects women. But that doesn't excuse his unintentional slight; I'd like to see him apologize for that.

Now on to Crisfield's argument:
Herein lies the danger. True, there is precedent for telling the school that your child will not participate in things ("family life" and "sex education" classes are the most salient example, and probably the old fashioned way of dissecting things in biology class can be included as well, and of course there is also the vaccination requirement that has been an opt-out candidate for years). 
Those topics (which often center on religious objections, by the way) notwithstanding, very few public school things have been candidates over the years for opting out. If a parent didn't like the way the local public school was approaching a given topic, they could find another way to educate his or her child (private, parochial, or even home-schooling options).
But opting out of things with such broad brush strokes is different, and taken to its extreme, this new version of opting out will destroy public education as we know it today. If we don’t stop facilitating and/or encouraging all this "opting out" or "refusing" (or whatever it's called), we might as well set up a la carte public schools. Opting out of Common Core? There go all of the child's language arts and math-class activities. Every. Single. One. Everything we do in language arts and math is aligned to the common core!
Further, what's to stop a parent of a high school student in 2015 from opting out of a bunch of other things that school does, too. What's the difference? Why not opt out of having one's child take that nasty calculus exam that she didn't study for because she was out of town over the weekend? Why not opt out of her having to go outside for PE during first period because she doesn't like the cold, and then opt her out of having first lunch, because she is way too cranky in the afternoon if she eats lunch at 10:30 a.m. [emphasis mine]
As Blaine points out in her post, this is a slippery slope argument and, as such, quite weak. Not one person I've heard or read who supports opting out of the PARCC has ever suggested parents should be able to pull their children out of any exam at any time.

Further, I disagree with Crisfield's analysis that the anti-PARCC movement is "letting politics interfere with the educational process." And this is where the protests against Anderson in Newark and the opt-out movement intersect.

It would be lovely if politics was banned from our schools, and policy was created solely through evidence-based processes that rationally balanced the interests of all stakeholders. But we live in America, and that's not how anything works, let alone education.

The imposition of the PARCC on this state is a political act. Neo-liberals like Andrew Cuomo and Barack Obama have found common cause with conservatives like Chris Christie to push the idea that American schools are failing. This allows them the space to claim they are really interested in addressing economic inequality without having to promote any policies that actually redistribute wealth. Nearly the entirety of their program to address chronic poverty and the erosion of the middle- and working-classes is to be found in education "reform."

Standardized tests are a critical component to making this political case: when you can show that schools in impoverished communities are "failing," you can flip cause and effect and declare: "If only test scores would go up, everyone would be 'ready' to move into a high-paying job!" It never dawns on reformy folks that this country needs millions of workers to do hard, often dirty, often dangerous jobs that do not require college "readiness," and that the people who do these jobs deserve living wages and lives of dignity.

Opting out of the PARCC is an act that calls b.s. on the claim that standardized testing is necessary to inform student instruction; this testing is, in fact, almost completely useless for that purpose. If anything, standardized tests are only useful as accountability measures. But if that's true, it's a waste of time and money to test every child in nearly every grade in multiple subjects; we'd be much better off using appropriate sampling methodologies to get the data we need to hold schools and systems accountable.

No, the current testing regime is really in place to create a narrative*: American schools suck, and fixing them will fix poverty (and, presumably, racism). Same with the loss of democratic, local control of urban schools: these districts are "broken," and only the subversion of democracy can save them.

As I've noted time and again, the districts in New Jersey that do not allow their citizens any say over their schools are the districts full of people of color and people in economic disadvantage.

Again, this has nothing to do with educational outcomes: it is a political reality. No one has ever shown that districts that lose local control achieve better learning outcomes for their students. Certainly, two decades of state control in Newark hasn't resulted in schools that get test scores equivalent to those in Millburn.

Cami Anderson is a political appointee. She was installed by a governor who overwhelmingly lost in Newark, but garnered enough votes in the white suburbs to win re-election. Does anyone think it's a coincidence, then, that suburban school districts whose leaders have engaged in corruption at least as bad -- arguably far worse -- as that found in Newark 20 years ago retain local control, while Newark and Paterson and Camden and Jersey City do not?

Again: it would be lovely to have a world where students don't have to resort to actions like occupying offices in order to gain agency for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. But state control is a political act; it requires a political response.

Now, some of you are probably thinking that I'm being unfair. After all, don't we all just want what's best for our students? Can't people have legitimate differences on testing and state control? Isn't it poisonous -- and unnecessarily political -- to suggest that this debate isn't taking place in good faith?

Certainly, I'm not going to tar everyone who sees value in the PARCC or isn't for the immediate return of local control of schools in Newark with the same brush. Again, I think Jim Crisfield, for example, is sincere in his willingness to give PARCC a try. I can tell this because he's willing to acknowledge the arguments of the anti-PARCC side and express his own reservations about the test.

But there are others far more vocal than Crisfield, and far less willing to acknowledge any doubts about things like PARCC and state control. Their certainty annoys and troubles me; in addition, I'd be far more willing to accept that these people's intentions were sincere were it not for two troubling facts:

1) There is no evidence reformy policies work. Again, where is any evidence state control makes urban schools better? Where is any evidence the PARCC is a "better" test than the NJASK, or any other test? Where is any evidence "college and career readiness" is an appropriate goal, or that it is the sole responsibility of the K-12 school system?

For that matter, where is the evidence in favor of vouchers and charters and test-based teacher evaluations and all the other reformy stuff we are told will fix our schools? The burden of proof is on the reformies, but they haven't shown what they want will actually work.

2) Why aren't the reformies also advocating for things like school funding reform and reduced class sizes, which have tons of evidence to support them? The fine, reformy folks keep telling us that these new tests are so wonderful -- but where are they when it comes time to stand up for adequate school funding? They tell us that state control is necessary in Newark -- but where are they when it comes time to demand that class sizes in the city should be reduced?

It's hard to accept the sincerity of the arguments in favor of PARCC and state control when the same folks making those arguments are silent (and sometimes openly hostile) on the issues of school funding and class size reduction. Could it possibly be that reformy folks only want to advocate for "reforms" that are cheap, while dumping the problems of income inequity, racism, and a lack of social mobility almost entirely on our nation's schools?

Until the reformies are willing to have this debate, I really don't want to hear from anyone about how we need to keep politics out of our schools. Our schools are already politicized -- the reformies made sure of that. If they don't like the civil disobedience that has sprung up in resistance to their political acts, they should stop engaging in them.

This blog remains a proud supporter of the Newark Students Union.

*It's also in place to make some companies money -- a lot of money. Anyone who denies this is being willingly naive.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Are College Remediation Rates SOLELY K-12 Schools' Responsibility?

It seems to me, from the outside looking in, that the reformy argument for the Common Core and its aligned tests, such as the PARCC, is largely based on the "problem" of college remediation rates.

JerseyCAN says the Common Core will help remediation rates. Community college presidents say Common Core and the PARCC will help close the "preparation gap." NJDOE officials say the Common Core and PARCC will "remedy" the problem of college remediation. The PARCC people themselves say aligning instruction with the test will help bring remediation rates down.

This is as good an example as I have seen of how the reformy mind works:
  • College remediation rates are too high, because...
  • High schools are graduating too many students who aren't really ready for college, therefore...
  • We need to design K-12 instruction with the goal of "college readiness," which means...
  • We must have tests like the PARCC which predict that readiness.
It's all so logical, isn't it? One point flows to the next...

But neither the premises nor the logical connections between them ever get challenged. No one ever stops to think:
  • Are college remediation rates really unacceptably high?
  • If they are, is it really the fault of K-12 schools that so many students aren't "college ready"?
  • Is it really better for society if we withhold high school diplomas from those who aren't "college ready"?
  • Are students really not aware of their own "college readiness"?
Carol Burris wrote a couple of posts this year for the Washington Post -- see here and here -- that shed light on the question of whether college remediation rates are all that bad. I want to explore her ideas and some others in future posts, but for right now, let's focus on this:

Can the blame for a lack of "college readiness" be put entirely on our K-12 system?

Burris starts her second post with an interesting anecdote:
I was standing on line at a local sandwich shop, when the young man behind me got my attention. He had graduated a few years ago from my high school, and he was anxious to share good news.
He beamed as he told me how well he was doing at Hofstra University. He was studying what he loved, and doing very well. He did not start out at Hofstra, however. Tom began at a local community college and then transferred to the four-year university.
I remember him as a great kid who struggled in math due to his learning disability. He was able to get through geometry, but math beyond that was too tough. After he told me about his success at Hofstra, I asked him how he did at the local community college where he began.
The young man said that after taking a test with, as he described it, “math I had not seen in years”, he was placed in two remedial courses. He got through them, and his family luckily did not mind spending tuition on classes for which he would get no credit. In English, he went right into a college level course.
I asked him if he felt more prepared for college math after having remediation. He laughed and described the credit0bearing course as “really not math at all…it was easier than high school.” Why this school insisted that he take two, non-credit bearing courses, only to then have him take a course he could have successfully completed without remediation, is something that neither he nor I understand. [emphasis mine]
This story highlights a real problem in making the claim about a lack of college readiness: there really isn't an objective definition of what "college readiness" actually is. I know there is a movement afoot to tie this to the SAT, but as Burris notes, colleges aren't even in agreement on the cut score that should constitute "readiness."

But let's set that aside and look at the highlighted quote: "math I had not seen in years." The implication here is that there was a time of at least a couple of years between this young man's last math course and his community college placement test. New York State requires 3 units (years) of math to earn a diploma. So it's reasonable here to think he had been out of high school at least a year before enrolling in community college.

Is this typical? Well...

This comes from the American Association of Community Colleges. 63 percent of community college students enrolled for credit are age 22 or older -- which means it is reasonable to assume that many of those students haven't had a high school math course for years.

I'm not a cognition and learning expert, so I won't claim to know the literature. There is at least some evidence, however, that memory of learning falls off quickly for those who don't achieve a high level of proficiency. But even if you do, you'll experience a sharp drop in memory early, followed by a period of stabilization. Of course, the issue is highly complex and outcomes depend on many factors.

As a music teacher, I know that it doesn't take long for facility at playing an instrument to drop off quickly, especially if you haven't achieved high levels of playing before (although there are other benefits to music training that have long-term benefits). This is almost certainly true in other domains. Learning is contextual, so if you lose the context, you almost certainly lose at least some of the learning. Given all this...

Is it at all reasonable to hold K-12 education responsible for all deficits in learning for those students who haven't been in high school for years?

You can't hold people or systems responsible for things that you can't attribute to them. Yes, I'll admit the K-12 school system can't shrug off it's responsibilities by claiming: "Hey, you won't remember any of this stuff anyway!"

But it is unreasonable to attribute a college student's math proficiency entirely to his K-12 school system if he hasn't been in that system for a long time. In other words: it's not necessarily your high school geometry teacher's fault if you need a refresher course in geometry years after you were in her classroom.

My point here is that even if we set aside highly subjective nature of college remediation rates, using them as "evidence" of K-12 failure is extremely problematic. We need much better research to show that insufficient instruction in high school and before is leading to the current community college remediation rate.

Once again, this is the problem with so much "reformy" thinking -- it is a victim of Yogi's Fallacy:

Before rushing off to "fix" our schools, we ought to think a lot harder about why outcomes are the way that they are, and whether our "fixes" will actually make things worse. More in a bit...

ADDING: Ajay in the comments points us to this post from Judith Scott-Clayton:
While remediation rates have risen slightly over time — to 22 percent of all first-time first-year students in 2003-4 from 18 percent in 1995-96, according to Department of Education statistics— the increases have been striking for students with strong high school grades. 
For students with high school grade-point averages between 3.5 and 4.0, remediation rates have more than doubled (see chart below). This is not a result of high school grade inflation – the percentage of students with G.P.A.’s in this range has not changed – but is consistent with increasingly ubiquitous placement testing.
Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Beginning Postsecondary Students database; computation by N.C.E.S. QuickStats.
Screening seemingly prepared students for remediation is questionable for at least two reasons. First, the benefits of remediation are far from obvious: remediation has been referred to as the Bermuda Triangle of postsecondary education, because the majority of those who enter never make it out
Across several rigorous, quasi-experimental studies of the causal impact of remediation, only one found positive effects on college outcomes, while others found null to negative effects. 
Second, the tests commonly used to screen for college readiness are only weakly related to college outcomes, as two recent studies by the Community College Research Center show. (Disclosure: I am a senior research associate at the center and the author of one of these studies.) Some students manage to pass the tests even though they are not ready for college-level work, while even more who are ready for college-level work are kept out. 
My own research, using data from a large urban community college system with particularly high remediation rates, estimates that one in four students assigned to math remediation could have passed a college-level math course with a grade of B or better and one in three students assigned to English remediation could have passed freshman composition with a B or better.
Off hand, I think the GPA argument is a bit more complex: if we're getting more high-GPA students from lower-performing schools entering colleges, that could explain some of the increases in remediation.

But Scott-Clayton's larger point is solid: remediation is a questionable policy. And, again: how much of the "problem" of remediation is attributable to the K-12 system?

Big, knotty topic -- the sort of stuff we love here...

Saturday, February 14, 2015

PARCC Cheerleaders: Snide, Dismissive, & Wrong

The PARCC tests -- new, computerized, Common Core-aligned standardized tests -- are coming to New Jersey, and many people aren't happy. NJEA's recent poll clearly shows parents and other stakeholders hold standardized testing in low regard, and the burgeoning "Opt Out" movement continues to draw attention.

As I wrote yesterday, the confident claim of Common Core supporters that PARCC is a "better" test has little evidence to back it up. But no matter; these folks continue to make broad, unsubstantiated assertions about the new tests, based merely on their own beliefs.

Worse, the PARCC cheerleaders have developed a nasty habit of snidely dismissing anyone who doesn't share their enthusiasm for the Common Core State Standards and the tests aligned with them. Here's a case in point, from the reliably reformy Atlantic Monthly and author Laura McKenna:
The PARCC test for its part doesn’t require much more time than previous assessments. In the past, all public-school students in New Jersey, for example, took a state-designed standardized math and reading test. Fifth-grade students had 316 minutes to fill in the bubbles on an answer sheet. The PARCC’s fifth-grade test, meanwhile, will take 405 minutes. That might seem like a big difference for a 10-year-old, but the 89-minute difference doesn’t have much impact on the 180-day school year. That’s about a quarter of the time that my teenage boys like to spend playing Super Mario Brothers on any given Saturday.
First of all, there are plenty of people -- myself included -- who thought the NJASK took too much time to begin with. As Sarah Blaine points out, a New Jersey 4th Grader will spend more time in one year taking the PARCC the PARCC and other standardized tests* than a law school graduate will spend taking the bar exam.

There's no need for this: we could be using appropriate sampling methodologies to get all the information we need to direct education policy. The mere administration of the PARCC requires significant time and resources from schools; this is certainly a legitimate concern.

In addition, the time giving the tests is only part of the time devoted to the tests. And there is no question that tests like the PARCC redirect instructional hours toward test prep. Here's Bob Shepherd:
4. The tests have enormous incurred costs and opportunity costs.
First, they steal away valuable instructional time. Administrators at many schools now report that they spend as much as a third of the school year preparing students to take these tests. That time includes the actual time spent taking the tests, the time spent taking pretests and benchmark tests and other practice tests, the time spent on test prep materials, the time spent doing exercises and activities in textbooks and online materials that have been modeled on the test questions in order to prepare kids to answer questions of those kinds, and the time spent on reporting, data analysis, data chats, proctoring, and other test housekeeping. [emphasis mine]
I'm guessing McKenna wouldn't allow her own kids that much time playing Super Mario Brothers. I'm also guessing she wouldn't like it if all this test prep leads to a narrowing of the curriculum at her children's school. Sadly, she appears to be unaware that this is what is happening in many school districts:
The reality of the Common Core model is much more boring. America’s schools could be better, no doubt. They could be more equal. They could be more effective in preparing kids for the new, global economy and the ever-growing rigors of higher education. But there is no evidence that one set of standards, that a single standardized test, will alter the basic school experience of children. They will probably still have to do book reports on Abraham Lincoln and To Kill a Mockingbird. They almost certainly will still have time to joke around on the playground with their buddies. They will be evaluated by teachers’ exams and rubrics and probably won’t be penalized by the Common Core tests. [emphasis mine]
As I've noted before, the notion that these tests do not have high stakes for children is just flat out wrong: even if you don't buy into the notion of these tests influencing a child's self-image, the use of these tests for placement into advanced courses by itself makes them high-stakes.

Further, McKenna's attempt to downplay the influence of standardized testing on schools is contradicted by a boatload of evidence. ASCD has an excellent summary of just how powerful the influence of high-stakes, standardized testing has been:
In contrast, since the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with its high stakes for schools, the traditional pattern of time allocation across subjects in elementary schools has changed markedly. Five years into NCLB, researchers found that 62 percent of a nationally representative sample of all districts in the United States—and 75 percent of districts with at least one school identified as needing improvement—increased the amount of time spent on language arts and math in elementary schools. These increases were substantial: a 47 percent increase in language arts and a 37 percent increase in math. Correspondingly, these districts decreased time allotted to other subjects and activities, including science, social studies, art, music, physical education, and recess (McMurrer, 2007).
Other studies from the NCLB era conclude that the higher the stakes are for educators, the more curriculum and instruction reflect what's on the test—particularly in low-performing schools where the threat of sanctions is strongest. A study of a large urban district from 2001 to 2005 (Valli & Buese, 2007) found that as worries about adequate yearly progress increased, teachers matched the content and format of what they taught to the state test. These researchers concluded that the content of the tests had effectively become the learning goals for students.
Au's 2007 synthesis of 49 recent studies found a strong relationship between high-stakes testing and changes in curriculum and pedagogy. More than 80 percent of the studies in the review found changes in curriculum content and increases in teacher-centered instruction. Similarly, a study of California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania school districts found that teachers narrowed their curriculum and instruction to focus on tested topics and also increased their use of test-like problem styles and formats (Hamilton et al., 2007).
Now, it may be that McKenna's school district hasn't felt this pressure acutely yet; that doesn't mean it's not happening in other places. And it doesn't mean that suburban districts, fearing the crashing of test scores like we saw recently in New York, aren't also now feeling the heat. In fact, the reformy types behind the PARCC in New Jersey have been explicitly clear in stating that they are looking to set up a narrative of failure for suburban public schools.

Given all this, I'd say suburban parents in New Jersey and elsewhere are more than justified in their apprehension about the PARCC. I'd say they have every right to question why local high school end-of-course assessments should be replaced by the PARCC. I'd say that after having seen the narrowing of the curriculum in New Jersey's urban schools, suburban parents should be asking if the same thing is going to happen to their schools post-PARCC.

McKenna and her fellow cheerleaders, however, see such concern as the fretting of a bunch of ill-informed, naive ninnies:
A typical suburban parent, like all parents, has an intense, natural instinct to protect his or her kids. We parents are hard-wired to protect our babies from the unknown—and for the most part, this is a good thing. After all, protection of offspring and suspicion of outsiders have kept the human species alive for millions of years. But this instinct sometimes takes parents in the wrong direction. Just look at the anti-vaccination movement: Though the instincts of anti-vaccination parent activists are pure, their actions have resulted in what’s arguably a public-health crisis in the country.
Isn't that lovely? According to Laura McKenna, if you have any doubts about the PARCC, you are the equivalent of Jenny McCarthy!

Am I the only who sees the irony in a group of people, claiming that the PARCC measures critical thinking, making such poorly reasoned arguments? We have reams of research showing the relative benefits and risks of vaccination; where is any equivalent evidence regarding standardized testing, let alone the PARCC? Where is any research confirming that the PARCC is a "better" test than what came before? Where is the data that shows PARCC has greater external validity, or accurately assesses the quality of instruction? Where's the proof?

This condescension is completely unwarranted and, frankly, obnoxious. People have legitimate questions about the role of standardized testing in America's schools. They have every right to ask if the influence of the education-industrial complex, the profiteers behind the testing movement, has grown too great. They have more than enough reasons to be leery of the PARCC or any other standardized testing regime.

I'll give McKenna this: at least she seem to understand that these tests are not about informing instruction:
Parents need to understand why a new universal set of standards is important, particularly parents in good school districts where schools are working well. They need to know how their kids will benefit from this program—and if their kids won’t benefit, parents need to know why these test results serve the larger public good, that they can help shape policies that will help others. Parents need to know that their kids will continue to be graded based on their teachers’ assessments and that the tests really serve to provide data for administrators and political leaders who can set policies based on students’ overall performance. Parents need to know how the Common Core differs from previous state curricula and how it will affect their kids on a daily basis. Simple facts—that the Common Core does not prescribe certain textbooks, for example—would go a long way in dispelling confusion. [emphasis mine]
McKenna agrees: PARCC tests aren't designed to inform student instruction (of course, even NJDOE officials admit this when pressed). However, if these tests are really tools for making policy, there is no reason to test every child twice in every school year in most grades. We could get all the data we need for far less cost and with far less intrusion.

McKenna and her fellow PARCC cheerleaders shouldn't snidely dismiss their fellow parents who continue to point this out.

A lack of external validity.

* I try to get this stuff correct, so to be clear: the science test is what puts Grade 4 over the top, after the students take math and language arts tests. But science is only tested in Grades 4 and 8 (there's also the biology test in high school). The science test is not PARCC.

Friday, February 13, 2015

What We DON'T Know About the PARCC

One of the more annoying aspects of the current debate about PARCC -- the new statewide, standardized tests coming to New Jersey and a dozen other states -- is how the test's advocates project such certainty in their claim that the PARCC is a superior test.

They will tell you the PARCC will help ensure that students are "college-ready." They will tell you the PARCC will "provide parents with important information." They will tell you the PARCC is "generations better" than previous standardized tests.

People are certainly entitled to their opinions, but let's be clear: at this point, there is very little evidence to back up any assertions of the PARCC's superiority. In truth, there is a great deal we don't know about the PARCC:

We don't know if the PARCC is more reliable or valid than the NJASK, or any other statewide standardized test.

Those who claim that the PARCC sample items that have been released are "better" than the questions on the old NJASK have the rest of us at a disadvantage: we never got to see the NJASK. In fact, any claims of the PARCC's superiority over the old tests fail if only because the NJASK was never properly studied; we don't really know how "good" or "bad" the NJASK actually was.

There are two major considerations for any test: validity and reliability. Validity speaks to whether the test measures what you want to measure; reliability deals with the consistency of a test's results. I've been looking, and, so far, I've found no evidence the PARCC is more reliable than any other standardized statewide test.

And we have very little information as to the external validity of the PARCC, if only because it is so new. We don't know if better results on the PARCC correlate more tightly to better outcomes in college or career. How could we? We haven't even administered the test yet!

When anyone asserts that the PARCC is somehow "better" than another test, they are offering an opinion based on personal preference. That's perfectly fine (and it's worth noting that some people's preferences are better-informed than others). But claims about PARCC's superiority over what came before it are not currently backed up by objective evidence, and PARCC's cheerleaders ought to be far more circumspect in making their claims.

We don't know if the PARCC has better predictive validity for "college and career readiness" than other standardized tests.

I'm going to make a bet right now: $50 (hey, I make a teacher's salary...) says scale scores on the PARCC and scale scores on the NJASK for individual students are highly correlated. Of course, no one with access to this data is going to take me up on this bet, because they know that a student who scores well on one standardized test will almost certainly score well on a different one.

The primary task of standardized tests is to rank and order students. If you doubt me, look at how the NJDOE is going to report the results: it's all based on how students do compared to other students.

The notion of "college and career readiness" (which I think is utterly phony anyway) isn't supposed to be tied to the ranking of students. It's supposed to be about whether students have acquired the knowledge needed to be successful adults. But ranking students is what the PARCC is designed to do; setting the proficiency levels comes later (see below).

I can guarantee you that the ranking and ordering of New Jersey's students on the PARCC will barely differ from their ranking on the NJASK.* If that's the case, what could possibly make the PARCC any "better"?

We don't know the extent the "rigor" which the PARCC is allegedly measuring is developmentally appropriate.

As parents and other stakeholders take a closer look at the sample items that have been released, they grow increasingly concerned that the PARCC is not developmentally appropriate. Russ Walsh has produced evidence that some PARCC sample tests overreach in the difficulty level of their reading passages.

There's no point in setting high standards for students if they can't reasonably achieve them. And I haven't seen any evidence that the standards the PARCC demands can be achieved by the large majority of our students.

What I do know is that tests like the PARCC must have items with various degrees of difficulty in order to create a normalized or "bell-curve" distribution of scores. This summer, a committee consisting of lord-knows-who will "benchmark" the test and set the performance levels -- after the test has been administered.

New York went through this process last year, leading to the crashing of proficiency levels and the wailing and gnashing of teeth by reformies like Governor Andrew Cuomo. He promptly decided to dump all the blame on teachers and ignore his own failure to provide adequate funding for New York's schools. This, of course, appears to be the real purpose of standardized tests: ammunition for politicians to get what they want.

It's perfectly fine to benchmark an exam after the fact. But doing so highlights the normative nature of setting proficiency levels. The criteria for setting "cut scores" -- the levels needed to show various levels of proficiency -- isn't based on some objective idea of learning; it's based on how all of the students did on the test. Which is why the cut scores are going to be set after the PARCC is administered, when the benchmarkers can see the results for each test item and determine how difficult it was.

I know this is knotty stuff: lord knows I've struggled with writing about it before. But the critical point is this: given the variation in the abilities of our students and the amount of resources we are willing to devote to public schools, it is reasonable to question whether all students can achieve the levels of "rigor" the PARCC is calling for.

That isn't a statement excusing low expectations for children: it's a statement informed by the knowledge that this test is going to rank and order students. And, logically, not everyone can be above average.

We don't know how large the bias resulting from the computerized format of the PARCC will be.

I was just at a "Take the PARCC" event last night (more on that later). Even the parents and teachers I spoke with who didn't have a problem with the content of the PARCC admitted that children who are more computer literate are going to have an advantage on this exam.

I'll leave it to others to point out the design flaws in the user interface of the PARCC (scroll windows within scroll windows?). And I'll certainly acknowledge paper tests can and do have design flaws.

But there's no question in my mind that a child with regular access to a modern computer with high-speed internet access at home will feel far more comfortable in the PARCC testing environment than a child without that access. At the very least, we ought to study the extent of this bias before we make high-stakes decisions based on PARCC results.

We don't know if the PARCC is sensitive to changes in instruction.

I know regular readers have seen this a billion times, but once again...

It is impossible to deny the correlation between socio-economic status and standardized test scores. And yet we're using these scores to make high-stakes decisions about schools and teachers and even students (yes, we are) without appropriately acknowledging this bias.

Worse: even the PARCC people admit they don't know how this test does at measuring the quality and alignment of instruction. We are attributing all sorts of causes for the variations in PARCC test scores without even knowing the extent of the relationship between school and teacher effectiveness and those scores.

Do I even have to point out how insane this is?

Look, I'm not going to defend the NJASK or any other pre-PARCC test. As I've said many times: we barely knew anything about that test, or many of the other statewide tests that were administered in the wake of No Child Left Behind. 

I'll also risk alienating some of you by stating, once again, that I believe there is an appropriate and reasonable use for standardized testing, especially in the formulating of policy. I think tests results can help inform decisions, even if using them to compel decisions is totally unwarranted and, frankly, ignorant.

Lord knows my job as a researcher and blogging smart-ass would be far more difficult if I didn't have test scores to work with. Much of my work in advocating for teacher workplace rights and fair/adequate school funding and reasonable charter school policies relies on standardized test results.

But when I and others use this data, we use it appropriately, with full acknowledgment of its limitations and flaws. And we certainly don't make unsubstantiated claims about how the tests themselves are going to radically improve instruction and outcomes for students.

It's time for the PARCC cheerleaders to take a step back and think more clearly about their claims. It's time for them to start showing a little more humility and a little more healthy skepticism. It's time for them to stop holding on to arguments that have little evidence to back them up.

We know way less about the PARCC than many would have us believe. We have very little evidence that it is "better" than what came before. Let's at least wait until we've studied it before we claim otherwise.

A lack of external validity.

* One caveat: we might see the ceiling go up a bit, especially in math. More on this later.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Howard Dean's Reformy Scream for TFA

There was a time I really admired Howard Dean. Alas...
In the debate over education, progressives have been presented with a series of false choices: I believe in collective bargaining, so I guess I’m anti-charter school. I think poverty makes it harder for kids to learn, so I’m against teacher evaluations. I think that creativity matters, so I oppose the Common Core. In each, we’re asked to look at two ideas in tension – that poverty matters, for example, and that a great education may just be the fastest possible route out of it – and accept them as diametrically opposed.
When we think harder or look more closely, the dichotomies fall away. Consider, for example, the debate over Teach for America. Launched in the early ‘90s to engage more Americans in the fight for educational equity, the effort took off quickly. In 2014, 50,000 people applied – each declaring his or her intention to help our nation live up to its potential in classrooms from South Dakota to the South Bronx.
Along the way, the criticisms kicked in. These days, as TFA works to ensure its 10,000 corps members in public school classrooms lead their students to better results, it must also contend with accusations of “neoliberal corporate education reform” from groups and individuals actually trying to talk people out of committing their lives to education through the program. In one ear, TFA fields calls from superintendents wondering what it would take to get just a few more teachers. In the other, they hear of social media campaigns designed to deter applicants. Let’s restrict the talent pipeline, rather than expanding it, the opponents seem to say. Fewer teachers will leave kids better off? [emphasis mine]
Let me get this straight:

- Understanding poverty's effect on learning versus test-based teacher evaluations: "False choice."

- Recruiting talented people to teaching versus questioning the efficacy of TFA: "Not a false choice"???

Logic like this is enough to make you scream...

What do we know about TFA? (all emphases mine)

- TFA is tiny. By its own count, it fields 11,000 active corps members. In contrast, there are about 3.1 million full-time equivalent teachers in public schools. That makes TFA about one-third of one percent of the total teaching corps in America. Realistically, TFA can never be scaled up to provide a sizable numbers of America's teachers; there just aren't enough graduates from "elite" colleges to fill the demand.

- TFA is expensive. Here's former TFAer Matt Barnum:
I am ambivalent on the question of whether TFA, taken as a whole right now, is having a positive effect on schools and students. However, I am not ambivalent on the question of whether TFA is a cost-effective: it’s not.
In 2009 Teach For America spent a stunning  $38,046 per incoming corps member; in 2005 that same number was just $18,811. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations – dividing TFA’s 2011 expenses (pdf) by the number of 2011 incoming corps members – TFA is now spending $42,151 for each new recruit.
[In a response to the 2010 GiveWell report, TFA writes that the additional funding is being "invested in improving corps member and alumni effectiveness" and that future efficiencies will reduce the cost per recruit.] 
Even so, it’s simply impossible to fathom that it’s worth throwing this kind of money at corps members, two thirds of whom will be out of the classroom within four years, and who may or may not be more effective than the average teacher. Not to mention the reality – which I speak to in my original Washington Post piece  – that for some corps members, the expensive training and continued support is largely useless.
- TFA training is inadequate. Here's Gary Rubinstein, TFA's Jiminy Cricket:
In recent years a new problem emerged in the training model.  As the size of the corps grew exponentially (the first few corps were around 500 people, then it was around 1000 for a while, but now it is 6000 a year), TFA did not figure out a way to give all those trainees enough summer school students to practice teaching.  Now we routinely see people training for less than 12 hours in front of a class for the entire summer with less than 12 students in each class.
In the pre-institute reading that new CMs got this year, they explain why the readings are focused on big ideas surrounding education rather than much about how to teach:
If any trainees actually empower their “summer school students to make incredible academic strides,” I’m sure that it will have a lot more to do with the tiny class sizes of often single digit numbers of students than any “nuts and bolts” (maybe thumb tacks) that the teachers picked up at institute.
- TFA has high attrition rates. Here's Julian Vasquez Heilig, who has studied TFA more than just about anyone:
While the debate about the impact of TFA teachers on student achievement continues, there is little disagreement across the research literature regarding the attrition of TFA teachers. We previously reported that, based on TFA’s longitudinal national survey of alumni, Miner49 suggests that “all one can say with certainty is that . . . at least 16.6 percent of those recruited by TFA were teaching in a K-12 setting beyond their two-year commitment.” A number of research studies examining TFA in localities nationwide have looked more closely at the retention rate using state and district administrative data. For example, a recent national study by Donaldson and Moore Johnson (2011) provides more information about the proportion of TFA teachers in the classroom.50 TFA claims about 50% of its alumnae remain in the “education field.” This vague assertion avoids noting the much smaller percentage of TFA teachers who actually stay teaching in public education and the even smaller percentage of TFA teachers who stay in their initial placement. Donaldson and Moore Johnson found that while the majority of TFA teachers leave their assignments after two years, 28% of TFA teachers do remain public school teachers after five yearscompared with about 50% of non-TFA teachers.51 After seven years, only 5% are still teaching in their initial TFA placement. 
Miner52 cites Barnett Barry, founder, partner, and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, aptly summarizes the retention picture: “TFA gets its recruits ready for a sprint, not a 10K or a marathon.” The weight of the empirical literature consistently finds high rates of attrition for TFA teachers out of the classroom. The high attrition rates of TFA teachers are predictable. TFA teachers have not made an explicit long-term commitment to teaching, in contrast to individuals who complete college-recommended teacher education programs. TFA has traditionally made the two-year commitment clearvalidating the conception of teaching not as a profession but a short-term stopover before graduate school or employment in the “real” world. 
And if this wasn't the case, why would TFA itself tell recruits their time in the corps is attractive to employers outside of education?
As a Teach For America corps member, you’ll develop strengths that are critical to being a successful teacher in a low-income community. These skills are also essential to leadership across many other professions and sectors. Many exceptional graduate schools and employers value corps members’ talent, resolve, and commitment to educational equity, and actively recruit corps members and alumni and offer them special benefits to recognize their experience in the corps.
- TFA teachers are not especially effective. Vasquez Heilig again:

A plethora of non-peer-reviewed “studies” or “evaluations” can be found to support any position on the effectiveness of TFA. However, a review of all of the peer-reviewed research examining the impact of TFA on student achievement over the past decadeoutlined in this brief and our prior oneclearly shows that TFA teachers are not decidedly or substantially better than non-TFA teachers. Secondary math TFA teachers are statistically significantly “better” than non-TFA secondary math teachers, but the importance is negligible, especially when one considers the methodological challenges of the studies that posit this result and the small percentage of TFA teachers who teach secondary math. As such, policymakers and educational leadership should focus less on which pathway is best and instead focus on what features from each pathway result in the best outcomes for students and on other educational reforms that have consistently proven to have a much greater impact on student achievement. 

 - TFA has become a political organization. As I reported back in 2012, TFA alumni -- many with the bare minimum of two years teaching experience that TFA requires -- occupy many positions of political influence. Stephanie Simon's 2013 piece for Politico goes into even more detail. TFA is also closely linked to funding of campaigns for local school board and statewide legislative seats.

If Howard Dean doesn't know all this, he should -- at least, he should before he puts sanctimonious pablum like this into digital print:
I became an advocate for Teach for America and public not-for-profit charter schools in 2008. My son was teaching at a high school in the Ninth Ward New Orleans and gave me a tour of the school on a Saturday morning in the late fall.  I picked up a bunch of the kids’ papers from his desk in his ninth grade classroom.  Scanning through, it dawned on me that nearly every young person in his classroom was functionally illiterate. Without a major change, they would never have the opportunity to work in the jobs that would allow them to reach their full potential.
I was enraged. I was in college during the civil rights struggle, and now 40 years later it was obvious to me that all of us—Republicans and Democrats; whites, Hispanics and African Americans; school boards and politicians at every level—we’d all broken our promises of equal opportunity under the law to two generations of poor kids. Right there, I vowed that whatever we did, we could not continue to do what we had been doing for the previous four decades.  There could be no more excuses – not poverty, not money, not union rights, not political deals on school boards. Everything with real, reasonable potential had to be tried, and everything had to change.
If you are someone who cares about breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty, you need to play close attention to this next point. This year, one in every three TFA members is the very first in his or her family to graduate from college. Many of these individuals were themselves taught by TFA members in our hardest-to-staff classrooms before going on to graduate from college then go back to teach in those very classrooms. Want to see what meaningful, systemic, community-level change looks like? Keep an eye on these people. Better yet, join them.
"Systemic"? 0.3% of the teaching work force is "systemic"? Please.

If Howard Dean really wants to try "everything with real, reasonable potential," how about he start standing up for equitable and adequate school funding, which we know improves educational outcomes? Why not advocate for reducing class sizes, a policy with reams of evidence to support it? Why not work to make teaching a more attractive profession, especially in urban schools populated with many students in economic disadvantage?

Why is Howard Dean wasting his time advocating for a costly, tiny, minimally effective education program when our schools aren't getting the funding they need, even as America's wealthiest citizens pay historically low tax rates while making historically high incomes?

Let's give Gary Rubinstein, who bucked the TFA trend and remains a math teacher, the last word on TFA:
If I were ‘America’ I would have this to say to TFA:  While I appreciate your offer to ‘teach’ for me, I’ve already got enough untrained teachers for my poorest kids.  And if teaching is just a stepping stone, for you, on the path to becoming an influential education ‘leader,’ thanks, but no thanks to that too.  I don’t need the kind of leaders you spawn — leaders who think education ‘reform’ is done by threats of school closings and teacher firings.  These leaders celebrate school closings rather than see them as their own failures to help them.  These leaders deny any proof that their reforms are failing and instead continue to use P.R. to inflate their own claims of success.  We’re having enough trouble swatting the number of that type of leader you’ve already given us.  If you want to think of a new way to harness the brain power and energy of the ‘best and brightest,’ please do, but if you’re just going to give us a scaled up version of the program that tries to fill a need that no longer exists, please go and teach for someone else.
Amen. Howard, if you really want to help America's schools, you can do a lot better than shilling for TFA.


ADDING: Just in case you thought Dean's son was still in the classroom...

ADDING MORE: TFA endorses junk science teacher evaluations. Hey, what do they care, most of them won't stay long enough to get more than two evaluations anyway...