Why is Congress Silent on Science Debates’ High-Stakes Science-related Questions?

According to Shawn Otto, U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives have ignored a request from Science Debate to answer eight science policy questions.  The questions were selected from hundreds submitted by scientists, engineers, educators, and concerned citizens.  Science Debate would like to know what elected officials in Washington think about science related policy issues facing the U.S. in 2012.  The eight Congressional questions, which were selected from 14 questions submitted to the campaigns of President Obama, and Governor Romney,  focus on topics such as innovation, climate change, education, energy and science in public policy.   Figure 1 is a “wordle” of the eight Science Debate questions.

Figure 1. Terms and Ideas in the Science Debate Congressional Questions

There are 535 members of Congress.  According to Shawn Otto, only two (or 0.37%) Congressional members have responded — Reps Henry Waxman and Chris Van Hollen.  Where is the other 99%?

Unlike students in K-12 schools and college, Congressional members have large staffs of paid full-time and part-time staffers.  Senators have on average 34 staffers, while members of the House have 18 or more.  No doubt neither Representative Waxman or Van Hollen will sit down and write the answers to the Science Debate questions.  Their respective staff will handle the job.  But what about the other 99%.

Why are they remaining silent?

Is Silence Golden?

It may be that most members of Congress believe  that “silence is golden.”  This really is a paradox, especially if you watch politicians compete for an office in either the U.S. House or  Senate.  Be that as it may, the Congress is stonewalling Science Debates’ attempt to engage them in a discussion of science related issues that face U.S. citizens.

Interestingly, many of the members of Congress contacted have strong opinions on many science issues.  For example, one of the questions submitted to Congressional members was this one on climate change:

The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?

According to Think Progress and the Daily Kos, in nearly every state, there are members of Congress who question and challenge the scientific consensus of global warming. Many in Congress consider the scientific evidence is a hoax, scam or conspiracy.  They claim human’s  have had little influence on the climate, or at least they think the influence is unclear.  They deny that greenhouse gasses have any impact on global temperatures.  You would think that with such strong opinions, Congressional members would speak up on climate change.

Think Progress has documented that over half (56 percent) of the new Republican members of Congress deny or question the science of global warming.  Go over to this site to read the documentation.  Of the 47 Republicans in the Senate, 35 (74 percent) have publicly questioned the science related to global warming.  And more than half of the House of Representatives question the science.

Putting their views in writing to Science Debate might expose their political views,and it will show their lack of understanding and ignorance of basic scientific research.

For example, here are statements some representatives and senators have made.   Would they include statements like the following as part of their answers to the climate change question?

  • Climate change is nothing but a “hoax” that has been perpetrated out of the scientific community (Rep. Paul Broun, R-GA)
  • Climategate reveals a serious lack of integrity in the underlying data and models, such that it is doubtful that any process can be trusted until the data and models are validated and their integrity assured (Rep. Phil Gingrey,R-GA)
  • The EPA’s unilateral decision to regulate carbon dioxide would impose a de facto national energy tax on every sector of the economy and push our struggling job-creators off a cliff. This decision goes against all common sense, especially considering the many recent revelations of errors and obfuscation in the allegedly ‘settled science’ of global warming.(Rep. Tom Price, R-GA)
  •  I called the threat of catastrophic global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” a statement that, to put it mildly, was not viewed kindly by environmental extremists and their elitist organizations.(Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-OK)
  • Bill Shuster (R-PA) offered a new reason not to take action on global warming: it’s cold in Copenhagen, where the UN Climate Change Conference is taking place.
Figure 2. Terms and Ideas about Global Warming from a Sample of Congressional Members

I would have included statements by Democratic senators or representatives, but I could find no documentation that they agree with their Republican counterparts. Please follow this link to read documentation showing what congressional members think about science.

A related issue here is if these members of Congress think this way about climate change and global warming, what are their views on the teaching of science in American schools?  Do they think that teachers who design activities and projects engaging their students in data collection, and theory building about global climate change are perpetuating a hoax with America’s students?  Or do they join with many state legislators who think ideas such as global warming, evolution, origins of life, and human cloning should be critically analyzed because they are mere theories, and all points of view should be considered by science teachers.  With the support of the Discovery Institute, various states have figured out a way to get creationism and intelligent design into the curriculum through stealth.

The academic freedom bills that have been passed in Louisiana (2008), and Tennessee (2012) disguise their intent of teaching creationism and intelligent design using clever and slick language that they are coming to the rescue of science teachers by passing a law that protects teachers’ academic freedom to present lessons questioning and critiquing scientific theories being studied including but not limited to evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning. Kind of a poor “Trojan horse” scenario, don’t you think? Where is the theory of gravity, plate tectonics, and atomic theory on their to do list?

High-Stakes Questions?

Members of Congress  passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, a law that required each state in the country to develop tests in mathematics and reading, but over time, the policy makers decided that science and history should also be tested.  On the one hand, we have elected officials telling schools that all students should be subjected to high-stakes questions and tests, but on the other hand when asked to answer a few questions about science, they remain silent.

Why don’t Congressional members respond to the Science Debate questions?  To most members running for office, science is a non-issue.  It may be that expressing an opinion that shows an understanding of the nature of science might not be good politics.

What do you think?  Why aren’t members of Congress responding to the Science Debate questionnaire?



¿Is it Not Possible to Charter Teachers for a Change?

¿Is it not possible that if teachers were chartered to design curriculum and assessment methods geared to their own students they might provide an education that is closer to the lived experiences of their student?  ¿Is is possible that by enabling teachers to carry out their work as professionals the way most of them are prepared, school would be a better place?

¿Why not charter teachers, as we have done with schools, to use their professional knowledge and credentials to carry out a more relevant and substantive curriculum based on the needs and aspirations of students they teach?

Teachers as Professional Leaders

The models of identifying teachers as professional leaders have typically been based on raising students’ academic outcomes.  One example is the National Board Certification.  In these models, identifying outstanding professional teachers is based on what impact the teacher has on student achievement and learning.  In most cases, student achievement is measured with high-stakes content or subject matter tests.  The fundamental problem with using test scores is that even an outstanding teacher accounts for only 20% of the learning of students.  As we will see below, it is out-of-school factors that have have a larger share in determining student learning.  Presently, the Department of Education in Washington, and most state departments of education believe that it the teacher who makes the most difference in the success or failure of students.  Its simply not a valid position.

In my experience, teachers who are well prepared and experienced, are able of making professional decisions about curriculum and instruction that meet the needs of their students.  Collaborating with other teachers in their school and district, they can design and carry out a curriculum that student-oriented, and based on students’ prior experiences, needs and aspirations.

Anthony Cody described a case in which teachers working together in one of the lowest performing elementary schools in Oakland “transformed their school through a combination of teacher research and creative instruction.”  The case he described on his blog, teachers, with the support of their principal, are in charge of their reading curriculum.  There are hundreds of examples of teaching doing the same kinds of curriculum and instruction innovation.

Professional teachers do not need to be told what to do or how to teach by people who work in office buildings looking at spread sheets!!

Instead, teachers need to work in environments in which professional growth is the principle of quality teaching.  A good example is the Montgomery County, Maryland Professional Growth Systems (PGS) which is a collaborative system to improve teaching, rather than corporate and state led “value-added” or “student growth” approaches. Read more here

Another example is the Lexington School District’s (MA) implementation of one of the first evaluation programs for teachers based on professional growth. The program was named the Teacher Leadership Program, and a teacher could apply for the program after three years of service. To do so required that the teacher create a portfolio of work including lesson plans, projects, student evaluations, peer evaluations, samples of student work, sample of teacher innovative products. The teacher’s portfolio was then assessed by a team of peers and administrators. If the teacher’s credentials were judged as high quality, the teacher entered the Teacher Leadership Program, and for the next three years, and would jump two steps each year on the salary scale. At the end of the three years, the teacher could reapply. The premise of the Leadership Program was to focus on professional growth, and high quality teaching. This program was created more than 40 years ago.


Today, teachers are hamstrung by policies that are alien to their communities and neighborhoods.  Bureaucrats in Washington, and state departments of education make decisions about what teachers should teach, and what students should learn.  They hold students and teachers accountable by designing high-stakes tests based on lists of behavioral objectives or standards.  It was discovered was that students and teachers were held accountable using unreliable and invalid testing and measurement methods.  For research to support this, please follow this link to GREATER, Georgia researchers who are advocates for reforming evaluation methods.

In recent research published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (JRST), Randall D. Penfield and Okhee Lee point out that there is a paradox in the assessment policy enacted by the U.S. Department of Education.  They report that the assessments used across the country are developed for a student population of White, middle- and upper-class, and native speakers of English.  Yet, minority students, who were intended as the primary beneficiaries of the NCLB test-based accountability policy, are students of color, low-SES, and learning English as a new language.

The kind of reform that is being leveled on American schools ignores the research, and the problems that have plagued schools and teachers for years.  Terms such as choice and competition have replaced ideas such as equity and coöperation.  Reformers have turned schools into corporate factories designed to turn out students who can pass a series of high-stakes tests.

Without any solid research evidence, the nation’s schools have accepted that a common curriculum in math, reading/language arts, and science is in the best interests of teachers and students.  According to Achieve, Inc., the developer of the standards, students are responsible for the mastering the standards, regardless of where they live.

We have reported on this blog that changing or writing new standards will have little to no effect on student achievement.  Loveless, in the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, explains that neither the quality nor the rigor of state standards is related to state NAEP test scores.  He points out that if there was an effect, we would have seen it since all states have had standards since 2003.

In another important study reported in the prestigious Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Carolyn Wallace found that science standards actually present barriers to teaching and learning.  Wallace analyzed the effects of authoritarian standards language on science classroom teaching.  She found that curriculum standards based on a content and product model of education are “incongruent” with research in science education, cognitive psychology, language use, and science as inquiry.

I am going to suggest that we find a way to charter teachers with the authority to make curriculum and assessment decisions based on the tenets of professional credentialing and practice.   In order for teachers to enact their charters, we need to stop using high-stakes tests as tools to punish and reward teachers and schools.  In tandem with eliminating high-stakes tests, we need to reverse the move to “standardize” education,” and say out loud that one size does not fit all.  There is no evidence to support the notion that the curriculum for all 49 million U.S. students should be based on a single set of standards.

One size does not fit all!

But in order for teachers to succeed as professionals, we need to face head on the issue of poverty and the kind of pedagogy that will help students become successful citizens in the 21 Century.


¿May it not be that just as students who attend schools in wealthy neighborhoods, do well in school, and go onto higher education and into 21st century careers, that students attending schools in poor neighborhoods would experience the same successes if they had similar social, financial, and academic attributes found in wealthier neighborhoods?

¿Is it not possible to say that if students lived in housing environments that were safe and less prone to violence that they might do better in school?

¿Is it not possible to say that students with adequate access to health care, nutrition and activities would have a better chance at success in and out of school?

It is a policy at the federal and state levels that poverty in not an excuse for not succeeding in school.  The policy promotes the idea that as long as a students have a great teacher, we can not use any excuse for students not doing well. ¿Is it not possible that even with a great teacher that a student who lives in a family with little income, poor housing, and fears her mother will be deported, just might not do well in school, even with a great teacher?

Anthony Cody provides evidence that even with a great teacher, only 20% of student success is in the hands of that teacher.  There are simply too many factors, most of which are out of school control, to claim that focusing on teachers will change schooling for children in poverty.  Yet, organizations such as the Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education have repeatedly ignored the effects of poverty on student success in school, and instead have put the full burden on teachers.   Anthony Cody, on his blog, Living in Dialog put it this way:

First of all, let’s take a closer look at what “out of school factors” really are about. One of the central tenets advanced by many education reformers is that poverty is used as an excuse, a bogus justification for poor academic performance, that allows schools and teachers in poor neighborhoods to remain ineffective. Therefore, the best way to beat poverty in these circumstances is to set high expectations for everyone, hold teachers accountable for increasing test scores, and accept no excuses. So I want us to understand just what these schools, teachers, and children are up against.

Cody then goes on to discuss the impact of violence, the effect of health and housing on child development.  According to Cody, about one-third of children living in the nation’s violent neighborhoods have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  He also talks about the effect of murder, reporting that living in a murder prone neighborhood affects academic achievement in school.

Until reform focuses on poverty, test scores will not meet the expectations of the current force of corporate reformers.  Using the code words of choice and competition, American education is rapidly moving toward a market driven educational system.  The Charter School, which was designed to empower teachers, free them from overly bureaucratic regulations, and strengthen their voice in school and curriculum decision-making, has become a politicized and corporate movement that is slowly taking control of public schools.  Although there are more public schools in the U.S. than charters, many states seemed to have thrown up their hands, and are passing laws that will make it possible for state appointed commissions to create charter schools without the approval of the local school district.  Many of these charter schools have been established in poor neighborhoods and are being staffed with teachers who have as little as six to eight weeks of teacher preparation.

Critical Pedagogy

The Common Core State Standards, and the emerging national testing movement (such as PARCC), American schools are soon to become a national, centralized system of education.  Through Federal acts and laws such as the No Child Left Behind Act, the Race to the Top, and the ESEA Flexibility Requests (waivers on some aspects of NCLB), state educational departments are being “regulated” by federal mandates.   Again have the state education departments just given up.  This regulation extends to every local school district that must now follow a singular set of standards, and are required to administer high stakes tests that find the success or failure of students, teachers and administrators.  The race is on to train teachers to use the Common Core State Standards.  Does anyone have an idea how much this implementation will cost.  It’s in the billions.

In a nation with 50 states,  320 million people, 15,000 school districts, and the continuing call to make sure that schools eliminate inequity, it is unfortunate that we are creating centralized educational reforms.  It doesn’t make sense!

By their very nature, standards are  authoritarian documents offering teachers very little flexibility in their use, and essentially remove the professional judgement of teachers in deciding how to make their courses relevant to their students. Combined with high-stakes tests, we have a system that is centrally controlled. ¿Is this not an odd mixture in a democratic society?

Instead of relying on an authoritarian system of standards and tests, many teachers and researchers suggest that education should be in the service of providing students with the tools to improve themselves and take part in a democratic society by engaging in “progressive social change.”

One of the emerging progressive ideas in the teaching of science and mathematics over the past twenty years has been social constructivism.  According to researchers, such as Dr. Mary Atwater, professor of science education, The University of Georgia, constructivism provides a lens to view multicultural education in a democratic society.  In order to provide for equity in teaching and learning, social constructivism in light of a multicultural vision is crucial in making decisions about teaching.  Atwater suggests that we embrace critical pedagogy.  Critical pedagogy helps students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, a connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action.

Critical pedagogy calls for teachers who are free and conscious of their role in helping students become active and life long learners capable of making decisions, and taking positions on issues that are close to their hearts.  Thus the students would become leaders in their community, think creatively, and to use knowledge to innovate and solve problems, all the while taking part in a democratic society.   Critical pedagogy faces head on the issue of poverty and equity.  To many researchers, critical pedagogy is based on the idea that there is an unequal social stratification in our society based on class, race, and gender.

As discussed on this blog, critical pedagogy is a progressive world-view, as a opposed to the conservative world-view, which dominates American education.  Based on the research of George Lakoff, a progressive view emerges. There are four principles which would drive education:

  • The Common Good Principle–Citizens bring together their common wealth to build infrastructures that benefit all, and contributes to individual goals.
  • The Expansion of Freedom Principle–Progressives demand the expansion of fundamental forms of freedom, including voting rights, worker’s rights, public education, public health, civil rights.
  • The Human Dignity Principle–Empathy requires the recognition of basic human dignity and responsibility requires us to act to uphold it.
  • The Diversity Principle–Empathy involves identifying with and connecting socially and emotionally with all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation. Ethic of diversity in our communities, schools, workplaces.

Chartering Teachers

Chartering teachers based on this pedagogical ideology would change the way curriculum is developed and selected, and way students are viewed as learners.  Charter teachers would be empowered to shape school curriculum, to work collaboratively on innovative projects, and take-risks to improve the education of their students.

Students in the progressive classroom would be respected, nurtured, and encouraged to communicate with peers and the teacher from day one. The classroom would be viewed as a community of learners. The progressive teacher’s beliefs about teaching are formulated by many factors, but two that stand out are empathy and responsibility.

The chartered teacher would be a highly qualified and certified professional who not only has a strong background in content and pedagogy, but has a range of experiences with youth enabling them to understand students and treat people through the eyes of progressive morality.

Chartered educators would be research oriented. That is, they would tend to experiment with new approaches to teaching and would also do action research in their own classrooms to improve the teaching/learning environment.

Chartered/Progressive educators would ask lots of questions:

  • ¿Why is our state and district willing to accept a top-down authoritarian set of standards that weren’t developed with our students’ interests or aspirations in mind?
  • ¿Do you know what the research tells us about the ineffectiveness of using high-stakes tests on students achievement?
  • ¿Why does the state department of education have so much authoritative power over the inner workings of every school district in the state?
  • ¿Why aren’t educators involved in the development of curriculum is based on the lived experiences of students, and the interests that students might have for getting involved in real work?

¿Do you think it is possible to charter teachers?  ¿Do you think it would make a difference?


I have used this symbol ¿ with my own editorial license.

Inspiration in the Rockies


The Rocky Mountains as seen from the YMCA of the Rockies, Estes Park, Colorado, August 19, 2012

This is a view from the YMCA of the Rockies, which I first visited in August, 1975 to attend my first conference of the Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP). Since then I’ve been here about 15 times.

But it was my attendance at the (AHP) conference that changed my outlook as a teacher at Georgia State University.

Continue reading “Inspiration in the Rockies”

Give Us Charter Schools, Or We’ll Amend the Georgia Constitution

In the November 2012 election, citizens of Georgia will vote (charter school amendment) to re-establish the State Charter School Commission which will have the power to create charter schools anywhere in the state, even without local school board approval.

A few days ago, Dr. John Barge, Georgia’s State School Superintendent broke ranks with the Georgia GOP and announced that he opposes the charter school amendment on the November ballot.  Barge, who is a Republican and former teacher, previously supported the state’s right to create charters.  Now he’s changed his mind.

Governor Deal is mad.  The Georgia House majority whip is really angry.  And a host of other GOP legislators are quite mystified.

Give us charters, or….

This is not the first time I’ve written about the charter school controversy in Georgia.  Charter schools are seen as a cure-all to raise test scores of American students. It kind of like a philosopher’s stone, or a 19th century elixir, to serve as an antidote for the ills of traditional public schools. Many policymakers are motivated by the delusion that choice and competition is the answer to solving problems facing our schools.

I want to revisit the issue again to put into perspective this issue that is facing educators, school boards, and the citizens of Georgia.


In 2009 and 2010, seven Georgia public school systems (Gwinnett, Bulloch, Candler, DeKalb, Atlanta, Griffin-Spalding, and Henry) filed a constitutional challenge to the 2008 Georgia Charter Schools Commission Act.  The districts contended that the act was unconstitutional because it violates the “special schools” provision of the Georgia Constitution of 1983 which includes the principle that only local school districts can establish schools.  In the Georgia Charter Schools Commission Act, the state is authorized to create competing State-created general K-12 schools.

In May 2011, the Supreme Court of Georgia in the case Gwinnett County School District v. Cox, ruled that charter schools must be approved by local school boards of education.  Many legislators and charter school lobbyists were not pleased by decision of the court to neuter the state commission on charters.  During the 2012 legislative session, GOP legislators submitted a bill that would  avoid the court’s decision by making an amendment to the State’s constitution.

In March, 2012, the Georgia legislature passed a bill (HR 1162) that amends the Georgia State Constitution by establishing state-wide policy that will enable the Georgia General Assembly to set up special schools that will include charter schools without the approval of local schools.

The Georgia Senate , needing 120 votes, narrowly passed the bill 123 – 48.  Republican senators got three Democrats to join them in the vote.  Three days before the vote, the GOP did not have the votes, but over that weekend, several Democratic senators changed their minds, fearing a back-lash from constituents. This blog contacted each democratic member of the Georgia senate to urge them not to change their vote.

On May 3, 2012, the governor of Georgia signed a bill that will restore the state’s power to approve and finance charter schools without local school district approval. The legislation, however, needs voter approval in November because this bill is a constitutional amendment.  On November 6, 2012, Georgia citizens will vote on the Georgia charter school amendment.  In a March 30 poll by McLaughlin & Associates, 58% of those polled were in favor of the amendment, 23% opposed, and 19% undecided.


One of the consequences if the charter amendment passes is the loss of local control of some educational policies.  If the amendment is approved, then the state commission will run a parallel school system that will take more than $400 million from the already stretched education budget in the state.  Money and decision-making are at the heart of the charter school issue in Georgia, not the improvement of education or options for parents and students.

If the Georgia charter amendment is approved it will result in an increase in politics and influence peddling in the context of multimillion dollar opportunities by establishing charter schools in various counties in each state. Real estate investment firms will find a pot of gold here.. Firms will come in to buy land and/or empty buildings (schools, factories) and then in turn lease them to for-profit charter school management companies, such as KIPP, Academica, or Charter Schools USA. Boston recently worked out a deal in the interests of corporate investors.

John Barge, State School Superintendent says:

that until all public school students are in school for 180 days, until essential services such as student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not direct one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts – much less an additional $430 million in state funds, the cost of adding seven new state charter schools per year over the next five years.

According to Barge, more than 4,000 teachers have lost their jobs since 2008, and this does not count furloughs.  And today, President Obama is calling on Congress to release billions of dollars in funds to counter the effects of teacher layoffs on student-to-teacher ratios which have risen by 4.6%.

The conservative editorial writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kyle Wingfield charges Barge with turning on the GOP, and of not telling the complete picture of the charter amendment.  You read Wingield’s article here.  Wingfield has it wrong, not Barge.  The charter amendment will open the flood gates to investors who see a cash cow in Georgia.

Last year when the Georgia legislature was debating the amendment, State Senator Doug Stoner, who voted against HR 1162, believes that the charter schools amendment would set up a dangerous system.

He wrote this in his newsletter:

To change the Constitution to create a charter school or any “special school” favored by current or future state bureaucrats, and forcing local school districts to accept such schools would set up a very dangerous system that clearly violates the concept of local control. I cannot support such a state government mandate, especially when the legislative majority has slashed local school funding by more than $1 billion in recent years.

Locally elected school board members across the state have spoken out against HR 1162, which comes as no surprise. It is certainly reasonable to ask why the state is creating a new funding stream for charter schools while reducing financial support for other schools, forcing reduced education calendars, elimination of programs and teacher furloughs.

These are decisions that should be made by school districts at the local level, not from a high-rise office tower in downtown Atlanta. The sponsors of HR 1162 say it is necessary to overturn a Georgia Supreme Court ruling against state-mandated charter schools. But common sense says the court got it right. That’s why I will oppose HR 1162 if it comes to a vote in the Senate this week.


According to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, “charter schools are touted as the reform model that will boost student achievement by allowing schools to be creative and by having parents, teachers, and the community more a part of the decision-making.” But as you will see below, charter schools simply do not do as better as their public school counterparts, and indeed, students would be better off going to public schools.

But what is odd, is that politicians, from governor’s houses to state legislatures, are willing to “sell off” public entities, and turn them over to other interests. In fact, Michael Klonsky claims that powerful conservative forces are pushing for less regulation over charter schools, and more teacher evaluation largely on student test scores. These moves by the Georgia legislature will result in the overall weakening of Georgia Public Schools. Pushing teachers to the sidelines, and moving corporate interests into public education is a huge mistake.

Corporate interests? Yes. Behind this move to make it easier to set up charter schools are for-profit charter school organizations who are ready to move in and use state and local funds to manage charter schools. In some states, new charter schools receive start up funds at a time when public schools are having furlough teachers and administrators to try to meet the budget.

According to a report by Dick Yarbrough, charter schools appear to be about money and politics and influence peddling. He wonders why, with the Georgia Department of Education reporting that charter schools don’t perform as well as traditional public schools and their graduation rates are no better, the Georgia legislature is so bent on changing the State Constitution to allow charters to be created by an appointed state commission.

As Yarbrough reported, the Miami-Herald did a study of charter school operators in Florida, and found that is nearly a half-billion dollar business, and one of the fastest growing in Florida. According to the newspaper report, the charter school industry, is “backed by real-estate developers and promoted by politicians” and “rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest.”

In Florida almost two-thirds of charters are run by management companies. The management companies charge fees that sometime exceed $1 million per year per school. And another interesting aspect, is that these management companies own the land and/or the buildings, and then turn around and charge either the state or the local school system.


Although not likely to change the minds of the proponents of charter schools, research shows that charter schools do not fare well when compared to regular public schools.

At the University of Texas, Dr. Michael Marder, Professor of Physics, analyzed data looking at academic performance in all Texas schools.   One of Dr. Marder’s significant findings in his research on educational outcomes is that

Nothing makes sense in education except in the Light of Poverty.

Dr. Marder found that when he plotted poverty concentration in Texas schools and percentage of students in each school meeting SAT Criteria, he found that schools with low concentrations of poverty did well on the SATs, but students from high poverty schools did not do well.  As seen in Figure 1, there is an inverse relationship between poverty concentration and academic performance as measured by SAT scores.

When he looked at the type of school, charter vs regular public school, he found the results to be quite dramatic.  If you look at figure 2, there are 140 charter schools in Texas with 11th grade data.  As you can see in Figure 2, most of the charters form a flat line at the bottom of the graph indicating that except for 7 charters off the flat line, the rest of the charters are doing worse than the regular public schools. Dr. Marder has analyzed data from California, New York, and New Jersey and found that charter schools do not do better than regular public schools in any of these states.

Figure 1. Percentage of high school graduates meeting Texas SAT/ACT College Readiness Criterion plotted as a function of concentration of poverty. Every disk is a high school, with the area of the disk proportional to the number of graduates. Colors indicate the percentage of minority students in school. Source: Dr. Michael Marder, Used with Permission. Click on the graph for more visualizations.
Figure 2. Percentage of high school graduates meeting Texas SAT/ACT College Readiness Criterion plotted as a function of concentration of poverty. Every disk is a high school, with the area of the disk proportional to the number of graduates. Charter schools are highlighted; non-charters are grey. Source: Dr. Michael Marder, Used with Permission. Click on the graph for more visualizations.

In a second major study of charter schools, we turn our attention to Standford.

In a study published by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford, hundreds of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia were studied to find out what was the impact of these charter schools on student learning. The approach CREDO followed to carry out this study is described here:

CREDO has partnered with 15 states and the District of Columbia to consolidate longitudinal student?level achievement data for the purposes of creating a national pooled analysis of the impact of charter schooling on student learning gains. For each charter school student, a virtual twin is created based on students who match the charter student’s demographics, English language proficiency and participation in special education or subsidized lunch programs. Virtual twins were developed for 84 percent of all the students in charter schools. The resulting matched longitudinal comparison is used to test whether students who attend charter schools fare better than if they had instead attended traditional public schools in their community. The outcome of interest is academic learning gains in reading and math, measured in standard deviation units.

The results raise serious question about the efficacy of charters, and reaffirm the central importance of a strong public school system. The results also are in agreement with the findings of Michael Marder’s study: Failure of U.S. Secondary Schools in Mathematics: Poverty is more important than Teacher quality.

Here are some of their findings from the CREDO study:

  • Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
  • Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total.
  • The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools


The outcome of the charter amendment in Georgia will not be known until the evening of the Presidential election.  Polling data shows that the amendment will pass.  If so, school districts around the state should be prepared to challenge the constitutionality of enabling unelected and non accountable appointed bureaucrats to create their own school system.

Do Higher Science Standards Lead to Higher Achievement?

In a recent article in Scientific American, it was suggested that the U.S. should adopt higher standards in science, and that all 50 states should adopt them.

When you check the literature on science standards, the main reason for aiming for higher standards (raising the bar) is because in the “Olympics” of international academic test taking, the U.S. never takes home the gold.  In fact, according the tests results reported by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students never score high enough to even merit a bronze medal.  In the last PISA Science Olympics, Shanghai-China (population 23 million) took home the Gold, Finland (population 5.4 million) the Silver, and Hong Kong-China (population 7 million, the Bronze.  The United States (population 314 million) average score positioned them 22nd on the leaderboard of 65 countries that participated in the PISA 2009 testing.

Some would argue that comparing scores across countries that vary so much in population, ethnic groups, poverty, health care, and housing is not a valid enterprise.  We’ll take that into consideration as we explore the relationship of standards to student achievement.

Its assumed that there is a connection or correlation between the quality of the standards in a particular discipline such as science, and the achievement levels of students as measured by tests.  So the argument is promoted that because U.S. students score near the bottom of the top third of countries that took the PISA test in 2009, then the U.S. science education standards need to be ramped up.  If we ramp up the standards, that is to say, make them more rigorous and at a higher level, then we should see a movement upwards for U.S. students on future PISA tests.  It seems like a reasonable assumption, and one that has driven the U.S. education system toward a single set of standards in mathematics and reading/language arts (Common Core State Standards-CCSS), and very soon, there will be a single set of science standards.

There is a real problem here

There is no research to support the contention that higher standards mean higher student achievement.  In fact there are very few facts to show that standards make a difference in student achievement.  It could be that standards, per se, act as barriers to learning, not bridges to the world of science.

Barriers to Learning

I’ve reported on this blog research published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching by professor Carolyn Wallace of Indiana State University that indicates that the science standards in Georgia actually present barriers to teaching and learning. Wallace analyzed the effects of authoritarian standards language on science  classroom teaching.  She argues that curriculum standards based on a content and product model of education are “incongruent” with research in science education, cognitive psychology, language use, and science as inquiry.  The Next Generation Science Standards is based on a content and product model of teaching, and in fact, has not deviated from the earlier National Science Education Standards.

Over the past three decades, researchers from around the world have shown that students prior knowledge and the context of how science is learned are significant factors in helping students learn science.  Instead of starting with the prior experiences and interests of students, the standards are used to determine what students learn.  Even the standards in the NGSS, or the CCSS are lists of objectives defining a body of knowledge to be learned by all learners.  As Wallace shows, its the individuals in charge of curriculum (read standards) that determine the lists of standards to be learned. Science content to be learned exists without a context, and without any knowledge of the students who are required to master this stuff, and teachers who plan and carry out the instruction.

An important point that Wallace highlights is that teachers (and students) are recipients of the standards, rather than having been a part of the process in creating the standards. By and large teachers are nonparticipants in the design and writing of standards. But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, in the first place. That was done by élite groups of scientists, consultants, and educators.

The Brown Center Report

According to the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, the Common Core State Standards will have little to no effect on student achievement. Author Tom Loveless explains that neither the quality nor the rigor of state standards is related to state NAEP scores. Loveless suggests that if there was an effect, we would have seen it since all states had standards since 2003.

For example in the Brown Center study, it was reported (in a separate 2009 study by Whitehurst), that there was no correlation of NAEP scores with the quality ratings of state standards. Whitehurst studied scores from 2000 to 2007, and found that NAEP scores did not depend upon the “quality of the standards,” and he reported that this was true for both white and black students (The Brown Center Report on American Education, p.9). The correlation coefficients ranged from -0.6 to 0.08.

The higher a “cut score” that a state established for difficulty of performance can be used to define the rigor or expectations of standards. One would expect that over time, achievement scores in states that have more rigorous and higher expectations, would trend upwards. The Brown study reported it this way:

States with higher, more rigorous cut points did not have stronger NAEP scores than states with less rigorous cut points.

The researchers found that it did not matter if states raised the bar, or lowered the bar on NAEP scores. The only positive and significant correlations reported between raising and lowering the bar were in 4th grade math and reading. One can not decide causality using simple correlations, but we can say there is some relationship here.

When researchers looked at facts to find out if standardization would cut the variation of scores between states, they found that the variation was relatively small compared to looking at the variation within states. The researchers put it this way (The Brown Center Report on American Education, p. 12): The findings are clear.

Most variation on NAEP occurs within states not between them. The variation within states is four to five times larger than the variation between states.

According to the Brown Report, the Common Core will have very little impact on national achievement (Brown Report, p. 12).  There is no reason to believe that won’t be true for science.

The researchers concluded that we should not expect much from the Common Core. In an interesting discussion of the implications of their findings, Tom Loveless, the author of the report, cautions us to be careful about not being drawn into thinking that standards represent a kind of system of “weights and measures.” Loveless tells us that standards’ reformers use the word—benchmarks—as a synonym for standards. And he says that they use it too often. In science education, we’ve had a long history of using the word benchmarks, and Loveless reminds us that there are not real, or measured benchmarks in any content area. Yet, when you read the standards—common core or science—there is the implication we really know–almost in a measured way–what standards should be met at a particular grade level.

Loveless also makes a strong point when he says the entire system of education is “teeming with variation.” To think that creating a set of common core standards will cut this variation between states or within a state simply will not succeed. As he puts it, the common core (a kind of intended curriculum) sits on top of the implemented and achieved curriculum. The implemented curriculum is what teachers do with their students day-to-day. It is full of variation within a school. Two biology teachers in the same school will get very different results for a lot of different factors. But as far as the state is concerned, the achieved curriculum is all that matters. The state uses high-stakes tests to decide whether schools met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Now What?

If standards do not result in improved learning as measured by achievement tests, what should we be doing to improve schools?

Over on Anthony Cody’s blog on Education Week, we might find some answers to this question.  Cody has begun a series of dialogs with the Gates Foundation on educational reform by bringing together discussions between opposing views to uncover some common ground. Cody has already broken new ground because the Gates Foundation is not only participating with him on his website, but Gates is publishing everything on their own site: Impatient Optimists blog. Three of the five dialog posts have been written, and it is the third one written by Anthony Cody that I want to bring in here.

In his post, Can Schools Defeat Poverty by Ignoring it?, Cody reminds us that the U.S. Department of Education (through the Race to the Top and NCLB Flexibility Requests) is unwavering in its promotion of data-driven education, using student test scores to rate and evaluate teachers and administrators.  Cody believes that the Gates Foundation has used its political influence to support this.  There is also an alliance between the ED, and PARCC which is developing assessments to be aligned to the Common Core Standards.  The Gates Foundation is a financial contributor to Achieve, which oversees the Common Core State Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards, and PARCC.

There is a “no excuses” attitude suggesting that students from impoverished backgrounds should do just as well as students from enriched communities.  The idea here is that teachers make the difference in student learning, and if this is true, then it is the “quality” of the teacher that will decide whether students do well on academic tests.

Anthony Cody says this is a huge error.  In his post, he says, and later in the post uses research to tell us:

In the US, the linchpin for education is not teacher effectiveness or data-driven management systems. It is the effects of poverty and racial isolation on our children.

As he points out, teachers account for only 20% of the variance in student test scores.  More than 60% of score variance on achievement tests correlates to out-of-school factors.  Out-of-school factors vary a great deal.  However, as Cody points out, the impact of violence, health, housing, and child development in poverty are factors that far out weigh the effect of teacher on a test given in the spring to students whose attendance is attendance, interest, and acceptance is poor.

In the Scientific American article I referenced at the beginning of this post, the author cites research from the Fordham Foundation that scores most state science standards as poor to mediocre.  We debunked the Fordham “research” here, and showed that its research method was unreliable, and invalid.  Unfortunately, various groups, even Scientific American, accept Fordham’s findings, and use in articles and papers as if it a valid assessment of science education standards.  It is not.

It’s not that we don’t have adequate science standards.  It’s that if we ignore the most important and significant factors that affect the life of students in and out of school, then standards of any quality won’t make a difference.

What is your view on the effect of changing the science standards on student achievement.  Are we heading in the wrong direction?  If so, which way should we go?