by Karen Rubin, News & Photo Features
Statewide and in some New York districts, a sizeable number of students opted out of the high-stakes assessment tests – 20% statewide, as high as 32% in Roslyn – which puts into question whether New York State will be eligible to receive billions of Race to the Top federal education dollars and what penalties the State Education Department will impose on districts who defied the mandate. It was the desire to get those dollars that was the basis for twisting public education into pretzels to cater to the Accountability & Privatization movement that is the basis for No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top.
Only 10% of Great Neck Public School students opted out of the ELA and 15% on the Math. Of those that took the test, 30-40% fell into that dreaded “Level 1” or “level 2” category, meaning that they “lacked proficiency” or “mastery” of the subject, and were in jeopardy of not graduating “college ready.” That is actually the same result as in 2013, the first year of the high-stakes tests in which the State Education Department targeted a 30 percent failure rate, and lo and behold, exactly a 30 percent failure rate.
Great Neck that year scored among the highest in the state on the ELA, with 60-70 percent of students achieving “proficiency” on the high-stakes ELA and Math tests, newly configured for the Common Core standards which had yet to be fully implemented in the curriculum. It was the same this year, with Great Neck ranking among the best in the state and among the 56 Nassau County diostricts. What is odd is that a district that also had a 70% “proficiency” rate was rated as performing “highest.” How could that be?
On the Math test, 73 to 80% of students scored as “proficient” or “mastery.”
Great Neck is a district accustomed to 80 to 90% of students achieving proficiency or mastery, but the results on the state’s high-stakes tests, which now require academic intervention for as many as 40% of students, would suggest these students in jeopardy of failing to make the grade for college and career.
Did the students – who graduate and go onto colleges at the enviable rate of over 95% – suddenly get stupid? Did Great Neck teachers who year after year have provided the stellar education that produces such high rates of achievement, suddenly become inept?
Great Neck Public Schools steer $1 million into academic intervention services. Actually, the district had always provided academic intervention to students deemed to need it, but now there are students who are mandated to receive such services based on a test that even the Governor admits is flawed. (Besides the test being flawed in that it asks students what they haven’t been taught, the scoring is not based on “right” and “wrong” answers, but a pre-determined “curve.”)
So, in a system that mandates budget caps (2% or the CPI, whichever is less), and also issues a score of unfunded mandates (pension and health contributions, for example) and does not make any accommodation for increases in student enrollment, or the population requiring special services, that means that limited resources have to go into academic intervention, rather than, say, to enrichment programs.
And because the tests have become truly high stakes for the students who are held back from promotion and for teachers to keep their jobs or get raises, that means more time and money pouring into test preparation rather than music, theater, sports, clubs and anything that is not, well, mandated.
It is one of the thorns of contention that progressives have with the Obama Administration, though Education Secretary Arne Duncan (who is being replaced by New York State’s Commissioner John King) has attempted to walk back the “one-size-fits-all” and the “teach-to-the-test” regimentation that is implicit in standardized testing and actually contradicts the overarching goals of Common Core, to get students to learn how to problem-solve, think for themselves, and be creative. (I’m not sure that “love of learning” enters into the equation, but what is true is that schools function more and more like prisons.)
That is the irony of the backlash against Common Core: Conservatives hate that the curriculum seems to come from on high (when it was developed by the states and with actual teachers) and that it is supposed to teach broader skills that, theoretically at least, would be more suitable to the Workplace of the 21st Century. What that means is that there are jobs that will exist by the time our children enter the workplace that don’t exist today, and jobs that exist today that would have become obsolete and people need the skills to adapt.
But Conservatives love the idea of using test results (so-called Accountability) to beat back teacher unions and justify privatization of schools (charter schools, testing services, home-school curricula) as well as channeling public money to faith-based/religious organizations. (New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would literally like to punch teachers in the face.)
Progressives on the other hand actually appreciate the notion of a more rigorous curriculum but abhor the practical impact on students, teachers and parents alike of having so many high-stakes, high-stress tests. Just the time spent in test-prep and test administration alone means that there is less time to do interesting projects or activities that cultivate “the whole person” (like music, theater, art). They say that standardized testing, in which you are teaching the student to come up with an answer to satisfy the scorer, defeats the whole objective of raising confident thinkers who can come up with novel solutions and innovative inventions. And they hate that the practical impact of the Accountability Movement has been to browbeat teachers and undermine unions.
The irony of the Accountability movement is that the beneficiaries – charter schools operated for for-profit and so-called nonprofit, but nonetheless highly profitable; test-making companies; tutoring services – aren’t accountable at all, at least, not immediately, when it would matter. They don’t have to justify the tax money spent, but are allowed to exploit new, non-union teachers who typically move on after just a couple of years, before they actually have the skills of a professional.
The movement is being driven by the Billionaire Class (like Mark Zuckerberg who donated $100 million to “reform” Newark public schools, only to have the whole thing blow up) which has made School Reform their pet (they used to buy hotels and before that, magazines and newspapers and before that made movies).
At its core, Common Core is intended, in fact, to inculcate key skills of problem-solving, creative thinking, collaborative thinking. But the effect of the obsession with high-stakes standardized testing teaches a different lesson entirely: there is a right answer.
The fact of the matter is, we’ve had 14 years of No Child Left Behind/Accountability – an entire generation of students who have lived every day of their school careers under NCLB/Race to the Top regimen – and yet there are the exact same complaints about how terrible public education is.
To justify the Accountability movement, the so-called “reformers” have cited statistics which put the United States as a middling to awful performer on international tests of language skills, math, and science. The United States ranks below the OECD average in every category on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and despite the fact No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top has been implemented for the entire school careers of current graduates, has slipped in all of the major categories in recent years.
So it is interesting in this context – ironic even – that China, whose students rank #1 in Math, Reading and Science on the PISA, is changing its curriculum.
“China is a big manufacturer, but we want to innovate in China. This requires a big change in educational system,” Yang Lan, Chairman, Sun Media Group and Sun Culture Foundation, said at the Clinton Global Initiative’s session titled, “From Education to Entrepreneur: Linking SME Success with Human Capital.”
“Chinese kids perform great in international assessments, but we are questioning ourselves in the level of critical thinking, independent, innovative thinking, collaborative thinking, risk taking” that the curriculum promotes.
Indeed, Jack Ma, widely hailed for his genius at creating Alibaba, boasted that he failed his exams three times, and it took 10 tries to get into university.
Hanne Rasmussen, Chief Executive Officer, The LEGO Foundation, indeed, criticized the lack of focus on early-childhood education, and even the new stress on academic rigor instead of play, having deleterious impact on the child’s development, and ultimate success as an adult.
“Investing in children pays off in massive returns over time, achieving income equality and social mobility later in life,” she told the Clinton Global Initiative’s panel examining Escalators of Opportunity. “Children who participate in early childhood programs have improved learning outcomes, increased social competency, are more likely to succeed in school. Play is correlated with resiliency, problem solving, emotional well being and other essential functions, a strong foundation for learning and navigating their lives.”
“Play is so important that the right to play is listed in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Child.
“But many throughout the world do not prioritize early childhood learning – and many who do make it a priority, focus on formal education at an earlier age rather than whole child development. Traditional viewpoints on academic achievement often (discourage) parents from concentrating on the role of play. But there is evidence that academic, didactic, formal education at a young age may slow cognitive development, increase stress and hamper a child’s ability to learn.” In other words, put away those flash cards.
“We have to make sure children everywhere are equipped with the skills of lifelong learners. At LEGO Foundation, we believe learning through play is one of best ways to insure success,” Rasmussen said.
Studies show that every $1 spent on early childhood education returns $8 in benefits. What are these benefits? Better achievement on the part of the student, requiring less funding for remediation (otherwise known as academic intervention services), discipline problems, the likelihood of graduating high school and college and earning substantially higher salaries, and ultimately in terms of achievements that benefit society.
Indeed, the American Federation of Teachers, Amalgamated Bank and National League of Cities’ Early Childhood Institute for Youth, Education and Families, are taking matters into their own hands, with a plan to apply $100 million from the pension fund to create an Early Childhood Expansion Infrastructure Fund – in effect, providing an alternative bonding stream to cities to build facilities. The fund plans to start by providing funding for 250 new classroom facilities that will serve 36,000 children in Baltimore over the next three years.
But in the United States, the dollars have gone to private contractors for test writing, test preparation, test scoring, tutoring to the test, academic intervention after the test, and to shift resources to for-profit charter operators and parochial schools, rather than to early childhood education, where the dollars would do the most good.
Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo, who while minimizing the legitimacy of the standardized tests to evaluate students has continued to insist they be used to a greater degree in evaluating teachers, has just convened a new Common Core Task Force.
“Governor Cuomo believes that the learning standards should be strong, accurate and fair, because having the highest standards is critical to ensuring that students are educated and prepared for their futures in college or the workforce,” the statement describing the task force said. “However, the Common Core program’s flawed rollout by the State Education Department has caused disruption and anxiety that must be fixed, including testing aligned to the standards.”
The Task Force is charged with reviewing and reforming the Common Core state standards; reviewing the state’s curriculum guidance and resources; developing a process to ensure tests fit curricula and standards; examining the impact of the current moratorium on recording Common Core test scores on student records, and recommending whether it should be extended; examining how state and local districts can reduce quantity and duration of student tests, and developing a plan where parents can review the local tests; and reviewing the quality of the tests to ensure competence and professionalism from the private company creating and supplying the tests.
“The Governor has directed the Task Force to conduct its process as transparently as possible and to solicit and consider input from regional advisory councils comprised of parents, teachers and educators across the state. A new website (ny.gov/CommonCoreTaskForce) has been launched to encourage participation, allowing visitors to submit comments and recommendations to the Task Force. The Task Force’s report will be issued publicly by the end of the year so that it can be reviewed by all and changes can be implemented quickly and effectively.”
The Task Force includes representation from a broad group of stakeholders, including educators, teachers, parents, State Education Department officials, teachers’ union officials, and bipartisan legislators from the Assembly and Senate. It is chaired by Richard Parsons, Senior Advisor, Providence Equity Partners Inc. and former Chairman of the Board, Citigroup Inc., who chaired the Governor’s New NY Education Reform Commission. Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers, is also on the task force.
“Like other people nationwide, our students, teachers, administrators, and parents are confused and anxious,” Cuomo said. “The evidence of failure is everywhere. Today many teachers and superintendents across the state will rightfully point out errors in the program. They will point out that they did not receive enough support to fully understand and implement this dramatic transition. It is time to overhaul the common core program and also the way we test our students.
“As a parent I believe our education system tests our students too often and for too long, and we should relieve the unnecessary pressure on our children that detracts from the time spent learning. There is no doubt that tests or assessments have a role in education – I understand that – but I think the number of tests should be reduced, including the number of local tests.
“Last year, to lessen the anxiety of students, last year we passed a five year moratorium on test scores because we didn’t want artificially low scores recorded on our student’s academic records. We passed a law to improve transparency by directing SED to release the tests to the public and end the secrecy around the system and to make sure that teacher evaluations accounted for the different demographics of our schools – we have schools with different poverty levels, different types of students, different types of language proficiencies, et cetera. Now, I believe these were all good changes, but they weren’t enough and we must do more to reform the system because there is still too much disruption, anxiety and confusion.”
Cuomo added, “I believe teaching is an important and a hard job. At the same time we must maintain accountability in our system. Teaching is a hard job. Now, don’t be confused by what you have heard from disagreements with Albany lobbyists. There’s no doubt I have my differences with the lobbyists. I have for a long time but that is a different story and that has nothing to do with how I feel about the state’s teachers. My mother was a school teacher. I have the greatest respect for the occupation and the dedication teachers have for their students and their craft. I believe teachers who are performing well should be incentivized and should be given bonuses. We are enacting the first teacher bonus system in the state. This January I will propose giving teachers tax credits for the money they spend on classroom supplies out of their pockets. It is also critical that teachers who need assistance should be given the support they need. While the teacher evaluation systems are nationally recognized as a step in the right direction, I believe it must be done correctly and fairly. It is critical that teacher evaluations support teachers in improving their practices, not punish them. At the same time we should ensure all students have access to high quality teachers.
“This year’s transition has weighed especially heavy on the teacher in the classroom, so by law we have directed SED to implement a new teacher evaluation system that doesn’t force the teacher to teach to the test but rather tests the student on what they learned in the classroom. The evaluation should be fair to the teacher and the student and should include observations of the teacher’s classroom performance from other trained educators. SED’s evaluation process will also provide the teacher with the right to appeal an evaluation under circumstances where the evaluation is flawed or unfair. No one – no one – wants an evaluation system that is inaccurate or unfair,” Cuomo said.
At the first Great Neck School Board meeting of the 2015-16 academic year, the conversation was about how the district is allocating more money to the various school buildings in order to meet the demand for the robotics clubs. The school district had been allocating $1000 to each school building, and there were wait-lists for students to join the clubs. This year, the board is allocating an additional $1000 per building.
You can no longer take such things for granted.
Meanwhile, among the long list of items that Congress has refused to do anything on, fixing No Child Left Behind is just one. When NCLB was first enacted, the singular item of George W. Bush’s tenure, it mandated that by 2014, 100% of all students would have achieved mastery, including special needs children. As if students are a fixed production item, like a widget, and you only have to tinker with the machinery to finally produce a perfect widget that can be replicated over and over and over again. By that measure, every school district in the nation, including Great Neck, would be considered failing and lose federal funding.
Everyone hates NCLB, yet Congress has not acted.
“New research shows that Americans want more focus on school funding and less on high-stakes testing, that 63 percent of Americans oppose vouchers and that 78 percent say student engagement is a better measurement of learning than test scores,” Randi Weingarten wrote.
“That’s why America’s students, parents and educators need a new law that ends the failed policies of No Child Left Behind, including high-stakes testing and mandatory school closings; preserves equity; and helps ensure a high-quality education for all our children.”
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