Duncan tells schools how to assign teachers

Uncle Sam shouldn’t try to manage school staffing, writes Rick Hess.

The Obama administration has used its Race to the Top program and unprecedented, far-reaching conditions for states seeking “waivers” from the No Child Left Behind Act’s most destructive requirements as excuses to micromanage what states are doing on teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, and much else. In a new, particularly troubling twist, the administration has announced that states will henceforth have to ensure that “effective” teachers are distributed in a manner Uncle Sam deems equitable.

Arne Duncan, who’s not the school superintendent for the U.S., wants to staff high-poverty schools with more effective teachers, writes Hess. That’s a worthy goal, but it shouldn’t be dictated from Washington.

 Ill-conceived policies might move teachers from schools and classrooms where they are effective to situations when they are less effective. Heavy-handed efforts to reallocate teachers could drive good teachers from the profession. And we are far less able to identify “effective” teachers in any cookie-cutter fashion than federal officials might think.

Some teachers who are effective with easy-to-teach students aren’t effective with hard-to-teach students, Hess points out.

We need more tests, but what kind?

American Schools Need More Testing, Not Less, writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The New Republic. Students learn more when they take frequent, short tests.

A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving. In Butler’s research, undergraduates were given six prose passages of about 1,000 words each filled with facts and concepts. (Fact: There are approximately 1,000 species of bats. Concept: how bats’ echolocation works.) He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did his subjects demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked to take the concepts about which they’d been quizzed and apply them in completely new contexts—for example, by using what they’d learned about bat and bird wings to answer questions about airplane wings. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.

Only tests written by teachers are useful, responds Diane Ravitch. “Today’s standardized tests are useless.”

What he really admires, and appropriately so, are the regular weekly tests that he took in high school chemistry. His chemistry teacher Mr. Koontz knew what he had taught. He tested the students on what they had learned. He knew by the end of the day or over the weekend which students were keeping up and which ones were falling behind. He could act on that knowledge immediately to make sure that students understood what he thought he had taught and to explain it again to those who did not. He also learned whether to adjust his style of teaching to communicate the concepts and facts of chemistry more clearly to students. Mr. Koontz used the tests appropriately: to help his students.

Standardized exams are being used as “a ranking and rating system, one that gives carrots to teachers if their students do well but beats them with a stick (or fires them and closes their school) if they don’t,” Ravitch writes.

Most researchers say that teacher quality cannot be reliably measured by student test scores, because there are so many other variables that influence the scores, but the federal Department of Education is betting billions of dollars on it.

The job of writing, grading and analyzing tests belongs to “Mr. Koontz, not to Arne Duncan or Pearson or McGraw-Hill,” concludes Ravitch.

Duncan fails to block state testing law

California will scrap its state testing system to field-test new exams linked to Common Core Standards. That means schools won’t be held accountable for students’ progress and parents won’t see how their children are doing.

The Los Angeles will have to defer plans “to use student test scores to evaluate teachers,” notes the Los Angeles Times. “Such performance reviews would be impossible because the results could not be compared to previous years.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan threatened to withhold federal funds, but legislators ignored him, reports EdSource Today.

Veteran education watchers in California could not recall a presidential cabinet officer ever attempting to block state legislation and certainly not in the heavy handed way U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attempted to do on Monday night.

In an extraordinary move, Duncan issued an after-hours statement in an effort to head off a vote by the California Legislature the next day on Assembly Bill 484. The bill calls for administering field tests tied to the Common Core State Standards this spring in place of the California Standards Tests in math and English that have have been a fixture on the California education landscape for 15 years.

California won’t “look in the rear view mirror with outdated tests, no matter how it sits with officials in Washington,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Under AB 484,  only the high school exit exam and science tests in three grades, required by federal law, would survive.

It could be three to five years before the state reintroduces an Algebra I or Geometry test, creating a big gap in information on student achievement in those and other subjects.

Students in districts offering the field test would get either the math or English language arts part of the test, not both. Because the new test must be taken on computers, districts that don’t have enough computers wouldn’t participate in the pilot.

Against Algebra II

Advanced algebra should be an elective for motivated math students, not a requirement, argues novelist Nicholson Baker in a Harper’s cover story (subscribers only), Wrong Answer.
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Baker isn’t the first to question whether future arts majors need advanced math, notes Popular Science.

In 1950, only 25 percent of students in the U.S. were taking algebra, while the Soviet Union was churning out mathematicians, writes Baker. The National Defense Education Act, passed in 1958, raised math requirements, “creating a lot of unhappy students who, as they struggle through required math course after required math course, become discouraged and learn to hate school.”

The Common Core won’t help, Baker argues.

Algebra 2 Common Core is “a highly efficient engineer for the creation of math rage: a dead scrap of repellant terminology, a collection of spiky, decontextualized, multistep mathematical black-box techniques that you must practice over and over and get by heart in order to be ready to do something interesting later on, when the time comes,” he writes.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan sees Algebra II as “the mystic portal to prosperity,” Baker complains.

Baker proposes “a new, one-year teaser course for ninth graders, which would briefly cover a few techniques of algebraic manipulation, some mind stretching geometric proofs, some nifty things about parabolas and conic sections, and even perhaps a soft-core hint of the infinitesimal, change-explaining powers of calculus.”

After that, advanced math would be reserved for those who really want to learn it.

Graduation rates are rising — finally

After 30 years with little progress, high school graduation rates increased by 6 percentage points between 2000 and 2010, while the black-white gap narrowed to 8.1 points and the Hispanic-white gap to 8.5 points, write Richard J. Murnane and Stephen L. Hoffman in Education Next.

Improved K-8 education, decreased teen birth rates, and lower incarceration rates may share the credit.

A gender gap favoring females has been growing since the 1970s, but it’s narrowing slightly because more Hispanic males are earning diplomas. “The Hispanic dropout rate has been cut in half” since 2000, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a conference call today with the Education Writers Association.

Duncan rules the waives

The Obama administration “waiver gambit” lets states — and now eight CORE districts in California –  “ignore poor and minority kids,” writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

The CORE districts’ waiver application doesn’t show how they’ll improve education, he writes, citing the review panel’s criticisms.

Kansas, Oregon, and Washington State — threatened by the feds with losing the waivers –  ”are unlikely to implement their proposed reforms,” Biddle writes.

It has also been clear that the administration’s decision to allow states to focus on the worst five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent or more of schools with wide achievement gaps) — and ignore those districts serving up mediocre instruction and curricula — will lead to widening achievement gaps.

The administration could have “worked within the imperfect yet successful accountability framework No Child put in place 11 years ago,” writes Biddle, “if Barack Obama used his bully pulpit and political capital.”

Instead, the CORE, Kansas, Oregon, and Washington State waivers show the administration’s “shoddy and irresponsible” policymaking.

“Education insiders’ ripped the CORE waivers as bad policy, according to Whiteboard Advisers’s survey, reports Politics K-12.

  • “Is there nothing they won’t permit? Why CORE but not Burlington, Vermont? Why push for common standards but permit so much local control in how you collect and use data and what you measure?”
  • “The waiver was not well put together, the process for approval wasn’t transparent, it doesn’t maintain accountability. In other words it does none of the things the Secretary of Education keeps piously saying that the waivers all do.”
  • “Terrible. At this point, the Department is just making things up as they go along. It’s impossible to discern a coherent strategy. [Race to the Top] for states, for districts; waivers for states, for districts. They are leaving federal education policy a complete shambles.

And the ultimate nightmare: “Just imagine what a Republican president will do with this authority and what Arne Duncan as a school leader would have said.”

Minority gains ended in Obama era

Racial/ethnic achievement gaps were narrowing, till the Obama administration waived and weakened No Child Left Behind, writes Paul Peterson, who directs Harvard’s program on Education Policy and Governance, in a Wall Street Journal commentary.

During the Clinton-Bush era (1999 to 2008), white 9-year-olds gained 11 points in math, African-American student performance rose by 13 points and Hispanic student performance leaped by 21 points. In reading, the gains by white 9-year-olds went up seven points, black performance jumped by 18 points and Hispanic student achievement climbed 14 points.

For the first nine years, the average annual gains were six points for African-Americans, five points for Hispanics and three points for whites.

In 2008, President Obama campaigned against No Child Left Behind’s testing and accountability provisions, writes Peterson. Once elected, he “halted enforcement of most of No Child’s key provisions and offered waivers to states that signed up for more lenient rules devised by the Education Department.”

Between 2008-12, gains by African-Americans at age 9 were just two points in each subject, while Hispanics gained one point in reading and nothing in math. Whites gained one point in reading and two points in math.

The racial achievement gap has widened slightly.

Now, “the Obama administration, teachers unions and some Republicans are joining forces to gut core provisions” of No Child Left Behind, which is up for reauthorization, writes Peterson.

The latest bill promoted by the Senate education committee calls for testing but allows states to let students submit “portfolios” or “projects” in lieu of the standardized tests required by the original law.

He has more in Education Next.

The Obama administration isn’t “serious” about passing a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act to replace No Child Left Behind, even though Sen. Tom Harkin’s bill is “close to the administration’s vision,” writes Alyson Klein on Ed Week‘s Politics K-12. “With waivers in place in 39 states and the District of Columbia, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is instead spending his time and effort on prekindergarten, a policy that probably has even less of a shot in a Congress bent on cracking down on spending.”

How to defend Common Core Standards

Common Core Standards are under attack in a growing number of states and could “stall” over the next four or five years, writes Rick Hess. Defenders must get off the same old talking points and address critics’ legitimate concerns.

To start with, Education Secretary Arne Duncan should admit that “federal involvement and money played a nontrivial (and perhaps, in hindsight, an unfortunate) role in the early stages of the Common Core.”

Like Hess, I see potential for the new standards to improve learning in many states, but I also see lots of problems.

Duncan delays teacher accountability

“In what some see as a tacit recognition of the Obama administration’s overreach into nitty-gritty management of America’s schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will give states a reprieve from certain aspects of teacher evaluations’ consequences and the new wave of testing tied to the Common Core,” reports Joy Resmovits in the Huffington Post.

Duncan said Tuesday he will give “some flexibility” in when states with No Child Left Behind waivers start “using student growth data for high-stakes decisions.” The first two groups of waiver states will have an extra year, until the academic year 2016-2017, before they must use teacher evaluations to make personnel decisions.

The U.S. Senate and House are holding hearings on “dueling bills” to revise No Child Left Behind. There’s little hope of replacing rule by waiver with a “coherent law,” writes Resmovits.

States must still evaluate teachers, at least in part by their students’ academic progress.

An Education Department memo obtained by HuffPost states explicitly that “there will be no pause or moratorium in rollout of standards, assessments, and teacher leader evaluation … or in accountability … because the need for these changes is too urgent.” But given the changes, “it is crucial that teachers and principals are well prepared for this shift.”

Teachers will receive low ratings if their students show too little growth on the standardized exams, but cannot be fired for those ratings within the year of reprieve.

Duncan also said states piloting new exams won’t have to give the old exams too in 2013-14. Without “double testing,” schools could be held to different standards in the same year.

Selling Obama’s ‘preschool for all’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is trying to persuade Republican governors to persuade Republicans in Congress to back $75 billion in new tobacco taxes to fund President Obama’s “preschool for all” initiative, reports the Washington Post.

“The average disadvantaged child comes to kindergarten a year to a year and a half behind other kids,” Duncan said. “And we spend all this time and money trying to catch them up. And we wonder why we have an achievement gap.”

The plan doesn’t really offer preschool to “all.”  States would get federal grants to fund preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The federal share would diminish from 91 percent to 25 percent after 10 years. Obama also is seeking $15 billion for programs for babies and toddlers.

Georgia has funded its own preschool program. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal wants some of the money spent on Head Start, the federal preschool program for poor children. “We could do a better job of it because, frankly, our program is better,” Deal said.

Without new taxes, there isn’t enough money, Duncan responded. “I’m talking about a massive influx of resources . . . Our goal is to dramatically expand access.”

If Duncan is serious about high-quality preschool, he’ll offer Republicans more than a new federal tax, writes Mike Petrilli.

Cut the TRIO programs, which (as a recent Brookings paper shows) don’t work at preparing disadvantaged high school students for college. That’s $1 billion a year.

Cut Title II of ESEA, which is a big slush fund for school districts to spend on “teacher stuff” and class-size reduction—with no evidence of results. $3 billion a year.

Cut Pell grants, many of which are flowing to remedial-education courses from which disadvantaged students never escape. Introduce some minimal standards so that only students who are college-ready—a very low bar for community colleges, it turns out—can receive the aid. I bet you could shave $5 billion a year easy—a big chunk of it currently landing in for-profit universities.

Cut $9 billion and then ask Republicans to pitch in $1 billion in new money, Petrilli suggests.

Head Start hasn’t produced lasting benefits for low-income children. I think Duncan’s first step is explaining why “preschool for some” will be more effective. And why not let states expand their preschools with Head Start funding?