Third Strike Against Teacher Evaluation Schemes: Brave New Parents Opt Out

Creative Commons Strike Three by rundnd Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Creative Commons Little League Strike Three by rundnd Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The headline in Thursday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution was “Parents push back on required testing.”

Could the movement to Opt Out of high-stakes testing be the third strike against using high stakes testing to rate teachers? In an earlier post, two studies were reviewed that cast doubt on the use of VAM scores  (which are based on student achievement scores) and classroom observation systems to rate teachers.

There is a movement that begins in the homes of children whose parents have had it with their children being subjected to tests that not only create high anxiety, but are a dubious snapshot of student learning.

Marietta, Georgia

In Marietta, Georgia, where I live, a courageous family decided not to allow their children in elementary school to take the state CRCT’s two weeks ago. Met by the police claiming that they would be trespassing if they entered the school and their children did not take the CRCTs, the family went home, and stood their ground against the Marietta School District.

School officials use scare tactics claiming that there is no provision for parents to opt their children out of exams. But, there is no provision preventing parents from opting out. So, in Marietta, the parents were told their kids didn’t have to take the CRCTs.

Meg Norris, on a United Opt Out website has created a quick-reference guide for Georgia parents who want to opt out or refuse to have their children take state mandated high-stakes tests.

In the article mentioned at the top of the article, Meg Norris was quoted as saying:

Georgia parents have been told they must withdraw their child from school if they do not wish them tested.  Georgia parents have been told they will brought up in front of tribunals, sent to court, referred to DFACS for keeping children at home.  Children have been left out of parties and humiliated in front of their classmates.

But as you will see as you read ahead, there is support out there for parents who are brave enough to whether the resistance they will get, as the Marietta family did.


Edy Chamness, a former teacher, and parent in Austin, Texas, and professor Julie Westerlund founded the Texas chapter of the Opt Out Movement.  I came in contact with Chamness and Westerlund when I reached out to Joyce Murdock Feilke to find out about what she called “psychological abuse” created by the state-wide obsession with high-stakes testing in an Austin elementary school where she was a school counselor.

Joyce reported her observations to authorities in the state and district and the Austin American-Statesman, but in the end her concerns were dismissed by the superintendent (Dr. Meria Carstarphen, Atlanta’s new superintendent).  You can read Joyce’s report here.

Edy Chamness and Julie Westerlund were professional colleagues of Joyce’s and provided more and compelling evidence that children are being used in an experiment, rooted in punitive classic conditioning to meet the goals of the school district, which is increase student test scores and eventually graduation rates.

Edy Chamness wrote to me that Joyce and Julie are not exaggerating when they described the horrible bullying practices using in Austin ISD.  She says:

I was banned from my kids’ elementary school for sharing information about the Opt Out Movement with parents. Our son started a new school this year and the administration seems decent. Unfortunately, everything at the school is totally geared toward test prep and practice testing. The vast majority of our son’s assignments are worksheet packets. Tons of work is assigned as nightly homework; most of it is skills-based instruction and memorization. The two elementary schools in my neighborhood, Mills & Kiker, are horrible. No enrichment programs, no literature-based reading instruction, no games for reinforcement or outdoor education. NOTHING but practice tests and worksheets. The only thing that matters is test scores.

Now, Director of Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests, Edy Chamness is one of many leaders of the Opt Out movement.  The Texas Opt Out group is very active, and offer a great deal of support to parents and teachers who acknowledge that the testing craze needs to be stopped, and one way to do this by taking action by not participating in any high-stakes tests.

The Nation

Opting Out or refusing to have students take state standardized tests is part of larger movement of a number of groups including FairTest, Parents Across America, Save our Schools, and the Network for Public Education.

Testing has become perverse.  It doesn’t have to be.  But we’ve gone to far, and the testing that is being mandated is unnecessary.  One Georgia Department of Education official said that we needed testing to find out how schools are doing, because, after all, the state is spending a lot of money on public education.

If we want to know how our schools are doing, there are better ways to answer that question than forcing millions of American students to spend their school days either preparing for tests, or sitting in front of computer, or at a desk to answer questions written by hired guns by corporations which charge at least $30 per student to do this!

The state of Georgia has just agreed to pay McGraw-Hill $110 million to develop a new battery of tests (to called the GMAP–Georgia Measures of Academic Progress to measure the academic progress of students on the Common Core.

Maybe the students should be paid for participating in these experiments. Maybe students should unionize, much like college students are doing who happen to be athletes.

We already have “data” we need to assess the performance of schools.  In 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called The Nations ReportCard was established and has been using low-stakes testing in reading, writing, math, science and other subjects to assess student achievement.

Not only do we have access to reports as they come out, but the NAEP has conducted long-term studies for us to look at, and more recently designed and carried out the Trial Urban District Assessment, bi-annual tests in reading, writing, math and science.  Using sampling and stratification, the NAEP selects a sample of students from public and private schools large enough to estimate performance by state.  Only about 60 students per school selected are tested.  No student has to sit for the entire test.  Each student takes part of the test, and scores are aggregated to set up averages.

By the way, the state of Georgia could use the same research design methods as NAEP to assess students in the state.  In fact, Georgia could use the CRCT, or the new GMAP in a low-stakes approach, thereby informing the state that it’s getting its money worth out of teachers and students, but also tell the school districts about their performance.  And there would be no need to test every kid.

If high-stakes testing is revoked, we will make one of the most important decisions in the lives of students and their families, and the educators who practice in our public schools.  Banning tests, throwing them out, eliminating them, what ever you wish to call it, will open the door to more innovative and creative teaching, and an infusion of collaborative and problem solving projects that will really prepare students for career and college.

Making kids endure adult anger is not what public education is about.  Why in the world are we so angry and willing to take it out on K-12 students?  Why do we put the blame on children and youth, and if they don’t live up to a set of unsubstantiated and unscientific standards and statistics, we take it out on teachers?

The best thing for students is throw the bums (tests) out.  The next best thing will be for teachers because without standardized test scores, there will be no way to calculate VAM scores as a method to evaluate teachers.

Strike Three!

Will the Atlanta Schools Be Run by an Authoritarian Regime?

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) hired a new superintendent, Dr. Meria Carstarphen, who formerly was superintendent of the Austin Independent School District (AISD).

Dr. Carstarphen is bringing five administrators who worked for her in Austin.  These people will form the nucleus of her cabinet or central staff.  With outside private funding, she and her staff have set up shop and begun the transition to take over the APS in July.

What kind of administration will emerge from the Austin group?  There are many who are very optimistic about the new superintendent.  Over the past few days, Dr. Carstarphen has made a number of public appearances talking to various constituencies in Atlanta about her vision for the APS.

Dr. Carstarphen inherits a district which was mired in one of the worst cheating scandals in memory.  According the state’s investigation into the scandal, a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread through the APS, and this culture was directly connected to financial incentives for Atlanta’s schools to score at high levels (based on student scores on the state CRCT).  The financial incentives (~$500k) were paid from the top, down to the school administrative level, sometimes reached teachers. Pressure from above was put on administrators and teachers to do what ever it would take to improve standardized test scores.  The cheating scandal was collateral damage (Berliner & Noddings, 2007), of state and federal policies mandating high-stakes testing.  It got out of hand in Atlanta.

Dr. Beverly Hall and her administration worked in Atlanta from 1999 – 2010.   How did test scores for the city during her administration vary compared to the test scores before and after her tenure?  Well, surprise, surprise.   There was very little variation.

Atlanta Math Scores

Figure 1 shows National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 8th Grade math scores for Atlanta from 2003 – 2013.  The Atlanta cheating scandal happened from 2008 – 2010, and as you can see there is a slight gain for math achievement during these years.  But notice that the NAEP scores actually were higher after the scandal.  But here’s the thing.  These variations, at any point along this time line, are meager and insignificant.  They fall within limits that we would expect.

Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 - 2013.
Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 – 2013.


Math Scores in Atlanta, Austin and other Urban Cities

Figure 2 is an even more informative graph, and one that the new APS administration should take seriously.  This is a control chart that shows statistical upper and lower limits of achievement scores that would be within statistical control.  The graph was produced from NAEP data from its Trial Urban District Assessments (TUDA) study.  The graph was created by Mr. Ed Johnson, a Deming scholar and advocate for quality education in Atlanta.  These are the same math scores that are shown in Figure 1, but the TUDA study included 20 other urban districts, including the Austin Independent School District.  APS is highlighted in green; AISD in red.  You can see that over time Atlanta’s scores were converging with Austin math scores.  Follow this link to see more graphs and charts produced by Ed Johnson.

Any Variation?

What kind of variation in math test scores do we see here?  Is this variation exceptional?  Is the variation do to innovations, or new curricula, or putting pressure on teachers to teach better?  Is it due to a new superintendent?  Or is it due to pressure on students and their parents?

Well, the variation is not due to any of these things.  The variation is normal.  The variation is within statistical limits.  The variation is what we expect from math instruction in these urban schools. There is no specific cause related to any variation along graph  The performance is steady.  The performance is predictable.  The performance is the result of the teaching and learning in these urban districts.

Ed Johnson explains that each of these 21 districts is sailing on the same boat, with movement from one side to another, but still on the same boat.

Now here’s the thing.  This historical period is the age of Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama & Duncan’s Race to the Top.  Neither of these programs has had any effect on math scores in some of the nation’s largest school districts!  Reformers seem to think that this continuous testing will in some way “cause” student achievement to improve.

In fact, in Georgia, state officials announced that instead of using the state CRCTs, a new slew of standardized tests will be developed and used starting next year.  A headline in the AJC read, Students face harder high-stakes testing, and when you read the details, the bar (passing score) will pushed higher.  Somehow, these state officials think that by making more difficult for students to pass a standardized test it will make them smarter.  What a dumb idea.

If they would look at the chart in Figure 2 and others like it, none of these testing reforms have had any effect.  If they want to improve student performance, they need to look some place else.  And it’s not by focusing on the darn test scores, or the graduation-rates.


Figure 2.  Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin.  This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.
Figure 2. Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin. This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.

So, for a new administration to come into Atlanta and start claiming that they raise graduation rates and student achievement score, raises many questions.

Is Carstarphen claiming that her legacy will be that Atlanta’s schools were turned around by raising rates and scores?

How does she plan to this? Will she import the strategies she used in Austin? Will she use an authoritarian style of leadership (which some teachers and professor claim she used in Austin), or will she engage the key players in the system, principals and teachers? Will teachers in collaboration with principals engage their communities without interference from orders from the top? Will the administration create a culture of learning and collaboration or one based on competition, test scores, fear?

It won’t be long to find out how the Austin administrators work with educators in Atlanta.

What do you think will happen?  With this be an authoritarian or receptive administration?

Why Candidates for Governor and State School Superintendent of Georgia Should Oppose High-Stakes Testing?

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"Creative Commons Gravel Hill School 1950" by Erin Nekervis is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
“Creative Commons Gravel Hill School 1950” by Erin Nekervis is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

In an earlier post, I challenged candidates for state school superintendent to oppose the Common Core State Standards.  Today, I am writing to candidates for Governor and State School Superintendent of Georgia to oppose High-Stakes testing.  If they would, they’d open the door to a new paradigm of assessment that would improve education in Georgia beyond their wildest dreams.

Since 2001, the U.S. Department of Education has mandated the annual testing of children as young as 7 years old in mathematics and reading, and most states have added mandated high-stakes testing in writing, science, and social studies.

The American Education Research Association states that it is a violation of professional standards to make decisions about students’ life chances or educational opportunities on the basis of test scores alone.  Yet schools around the state of Georgia and indeed the rest of the country use end-of-the-year tests to make crucial decisions about whether students move on or not.  Additionally, these high-stakes tests have become an even greater burden on students because they know that the test results will be used to grade their teachers.

There is no easy answer to explain why we have an educational system that puts students in harm’s way by the continuous and unparalleled testing program.  When we read the newspapers soon after the release of international, national, or state tests, the emphasis is on who came in first, or who is at the top of the leader board.  No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top have perpetuated an educational model based on competition and winning.

In some cases, officials will do what ever it takes to make sure they either win, or make the cut so that they place high on the leader board.  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exposed the cheating scandal in Atlanta, and revealed that cheating (erasing wrong answers and changing to the correct answers on student test forms) was taking place in most cities and states.

Am I advocating the banning of high-stakes testing because it might lead to cheating.  No.

I am advocating banning high-stakes testing because it does not improve student learning, nor does it help teachers change their instruction to improve student learning.   Most of the those who advocate high-stakes testing believe that American education is failing, and that the fundamental goal of schools is improve achievement scores, and the only way to know if that has occurred is to use high-stakes standardized tests every year, and compare the scores from one year to the next.

But, if we do compare the test results from one year to the next, the results are quite astonishing.  First, we discover that in general, academic performance has gradually increased over time.  Secondly, we do see variation in average scores from one year to the next, but the variation is within expected statistical limits.

To give evidence that you might want to use with your constituents or potential voters, I am going to use a few graphs that were prepared by Mr. Ed Johnson, which were published on this blog earlier this year.  I am also going to use charts from the Anne E. Casey Foundation, and pull together data from various state and federal agencies.

NAEP Trial Urban District Assessments (TUDA)

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides some of the most reliable data on student learning.  The tests given by NAEP are low-stakes, and an individual student takes only part of the test, so they don’t spend hours sitting for the exam.  NAEP has been studying American education since 1969.

About a decade ago, NAEP launched a study of urban school districts which they refer to as TUDA.  They provide telling results that I think will help you with the case of abolishing high-stakes tests.

The four graphs shown below in Figures 1 and 2 were prepared by Mr. Ed Johnson, an expert on W. Edwards Deming’s system of profound knowledge and how to transform organizations that result in continuous improvement.  He also is an expert in using facts to generate flow charts that help us understand how a system is working.

Figure 1 plots math scores for 21 cities over a ten-year period (for a list of the cities, follow this link).  Note that the scores fall within what are called upper control limits and lower control limits.  In no case do scores fall outside these predicted levels.  Yes, there is variation in the scores.  But they are within expected limits, and the variation is small.  For example, the green and red dots follow the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and the Austin Independent School District (AISD).  If you show this graph to citizens in Georgia and ask if these graphs support the idea that our schools are failing, what is the answer? The answer is No.

Figure 1. Control Charts for NAEP TUDA Math Grades 4 & 8, 2003 - 2013
Figure 1. Control Charts for NAEP TUDA Math Grades 4 & 8, 2003 – 2013. Source Ed Johnson

Figure 2 plots reading scores for the same 21 cities over 11 years. Again, note that for the most part, the scores for each district fall within the expected limits, except for five points of measurement.  Each is labeled and as you see, only Charlotte and Hillsborough fall outside on the 4th grade reading TUDA results.  Think about this.  On only these five instances can we show significant variation from what we expect on the reading test.  The obvious thing to do, is to ask, what are these two districts doing, and how might what they are doing apply in other places.  It might be worth studying their system of education.

But, the real discovery here is to look at all math and reading TUDA results.  There are roughly 408 points of measurement shown in these four graphs, and in only five instances was the variation outside the range expected.   That is 0.012 percent. The systems of teaching math and reading in these 21 cities is predictable and consistent.

We can also see that there are no major swings in the test results.  When we send kids to school, we have a very good idea what to expect.  Another way to say this is that the system is performing as expected.

Or better yet, our teachers are doing it!

But there is always a need for improvement.  In Ed Johnson’s and W. Edwards Deming’s world of human systems, there is always the expectation for improvement.  The methods of improvement do not include the outright firing of department heads, or rank and file workers, any more than would we think that firing principals and teachers and bringing in uncertified and inexperienced teachers would help the situation.   But this is exactly what the Georgia Department of Education mandates when schools “fail” to meet the standards two years in a row.  Schools in this situation are labeled “turnaround schools.”

Here is what you need to know.  The high-stakes testing model is designed to make it very difficult for some schools, especially those schools where most of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches (a statistic used to identify the poverty level of a school).  We know that students in less affluent schools will not do as well on these tests as students attending affluent schools.  It’s an unsustainable situation because these schools and their neighborhoods are punished by either closing the school or labeling it a turnaround.  But this is a sure ticket for financial rewards for charter management companies and teacher temp agencies including Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.  Follow this link to find out a better way to help these schools.

Labeling schools as failures is not sustainable.  It will not improve instruction. It represents an inaccurate interpretation of testing, and it is perverting a system that should be helping families, rather than punishing them.

Figure 2. NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th & 8th Grade, 2002 - 2013.  Source: Ed Johnson
Figure 2. NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th & 8th Grade, 2002 – 2013. Source: Ed Johnson

If We Were to Ban High-Stakes Tests?

Ok.  As a candidate for governor or state school superintendent in Georgia, and you were to go around the state campaigning for the banning of high-stakes tests, the odds are you would be elected.  You will be surprised who will support you, but you will need to tell the rest of the story.

Yes, you will support the idea of banning high-stakes tests.  But you need to clear that you are not suggesting that teachers and administrators all of a sudden stop assessing students.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you have been a teacher, you know that the assessment system  you use in your classroom has a major impact on student learning and classroom behavior.  Assessment is an integral aspect of teaching.  As teachers we assess students during every class session, and interaction that we have with them.  Teachers know that assessment, used as part of instruction, does indeed help student learning.  This is not an opinion.  One of the foremost researchers on assessment is Professor Paul Black, King’s College, London and he has found that formative assessment strategies do improve learning for students.  Formative, unlike the high-stakes tests that the government mandates, are embedded in instruction.  In my view, formative assessment is assessment for learning, not of learning.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment are tools and methods that teachers use to humanize learning, and give students opportunities to apply their learning, and to engage in activities that involve communication, problem solving and team work–the kinds of skills and abilities that are important today, and will be tomorrow.

As a candidate for governor or state school superintendent you should listen to your most important constituency, and this is the professional teachers in public schools.  Last year, there were more than 111,000 teachers in Georgia teaching 1.6 million students.

So, what would happen if you said to nearly 1.6 million students (and their parents) and 111,000 teachers that the state would no longer need high-stakes tests.  Would the education system crumble?  Would students all of sudden not be motivated to learn?

It would thrive.  And it would free up a lot of money that would otherwise go to corporations.

According to a Brookings Institute report, the cost of testing in the U.S. exceeds $1.7 billion.  But according to the report, that is only for payments to testing vendors who also score the tests.  But what is the cost for lost instructional time.  In Georgia, the CRCT exams and high-school end-of-course exams take three-four weeks during the year.  So for about 4 weeks or about 12% of the school year, high-stakes exams dominate the school experience.

What’s the cost of 4 weeks of testing?  Well according to the Brookings Institute, about $600 billion is spent on education in the U.S. per year.  According to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, the 2015 fiscal year budget for K-12 education is $7.95 billion.  The cost of high-stakes testing is at least $950 million.

Every school in the state already has experts on assessment, and these educators need to be supported to collaborate with colleagues to develop assessment methods that will improve student learning, and increase student’s love of learning.

We know from many research studies that the best predictor of success in college & career (college & career is the favored purpose of reformers such as Bill Gates) are grades, not test scores.   Teachers are in the best place to assess their students.  Not only are they able to create their own tests, but there are multiple resources available that teachers already use to help their students learn.

Imagine if you were a high school biology teacher, and it was announced that the state would no longer need high-stakes tests.  How would this affect your teaching, and especially your relationship with your students.  One obvious difference is that the curriculum will expand because you no longer would be forced to teach to the test.  No longer would the students in your class be required to take tests that would be used to not only to decide whether they progress to the next science course, but the tests would no longer be used to decide if you keep your job.

In the next post, I’ll go into more detail about what assessment would look like in this alternative paradigm.

In the meantime, are you willing to discuss the possibility of returning the education of students into the hands of professional teachers?


Are Georgia School Superintendent Candidates Willing to Oppose the Common Core & High-Stakes Tests?

Creative Commons School of Neon Fusiller School" by Malcoml Browne is licensed  under CC BY-ND 2.0.
Creative Commons School of Neon Fusiller” by Malcolm Browne is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Dear Candidates for Georgia School Superintendent,

Today, I want to challenge you to not only oppose Georgia’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but also the use of high-stakes tests such as the CRCT. In this post, I’ll offer some facts you can use to discuss why to oppose the CCSS.  In the next post, we’ll give reasons why high-stakes tests need to abolished.

For nearly two decades, Standards and high-stakes testing have dominated teaching and learning in every Georgia public school.  I’ve shown in earlier posts, that standards are barriers to student learning, and if teachers are not given autonomy over the use of standards, then they tend to impede innovation, creativity, and teaching that focuses on the needs of children and youth.  Communication skills, problem solving, team work, and innovation are the kinds of experiences that are important to students now, and will be in the future.  The standards in the context of high-stakes tests impedes these goals.

Common Core State Standards

It’s time, however, to break these connections, at least for standards and high-stakes, and look for different ways to help students learn.

Making a one-size fits all curriculum for every student in Georgia makes little sense. We know that the “real” curriculum for our students is what happens in their classrooms with their peers and teachers. The curriculum should not be determined by non-educators from a highly financed organization (as was the Common Core State Standards), but should be an effort carried out by teachers and educators–Georgia has a top-notch teaching force, and some of the countries major universities.

Figure 1 shows the mathematics achievement level of Georgia students compared to students across the nation using National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests. Note that we have an upward trend in mathematics achievement in Georgia as well as the nation.   Figure 2 is a table showing the percentage of 8th grade students meeting or exceeding state standards on CRCT tests in math.  From the data presented in Figures 1 and 2, the trend in 8th grade mathematics achievement, as measured by the NAEP tests, and the state of Georgia CRCT, is positive, showing steady improvement.  If we look at results in math at other grade levels, as well as reading and science scores, the trends are similar.

Figure 1. NAEP 8th Grade Math Achievement At or Above Basic for Georgia compared to the United States 2000 - 2013. Source: Kids Count data center, Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Figure 1. NAEP 8th Grade Math Achievement At or Above Basic for Georgia compared to the United States 2000 – 2013. Source: Kids Count data center, Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Figure 2. Georgia 8th Grade Students Meeting or Exceeding State Standards on CRCT Tests in Math, 2006 - 2012
Figure 2. Georgia 8th Grade Students Meeting or Exceeding State Standards on CRCT Tests in Math, 2006 – 2012.  Source: Kids Count Data Center, Annie E. Casey Foundation

Georgia’s state standards did not result in a tailspin of student achievement.  The Common Core State Standards, which were implemented a year ago, have not resulted in any major variation in testing.  In fact, the variation in test scores that we see not only in Georgia, but nearly all states (Massachusetts is an exception) is within the limits of what we would expect.  Figure 3 compares the average scores in 8th grade math achievement based on NAEP tests between seven states, including Georgia.

Using the control chart approach of W. Edwards Deming and Donald Wheeler and David Chambers (which I learned from Ed Johnson), we see in Figure 3 that for over a decade the achievement scores in most of these states and District of Columbia fall within expected limits.  In fact for most of these Any variation for these states, except for Massachusetts, is NOT due to any special cause (new curriculum, new standards, using high-stakes tests), but are simply what we expect in a system that is operating as it should.  In general we can conclude that education in these states is not a failure, but schools are doing what we expect them to do.  The continuous improvement that we see in the scores is not due to any innovation or special cause, but is simply the result of the way the education system works.  And it doesn’t matter whether we look at scores from suburban communities, and compare them to urban environments.

As a candidate, you will hear the oft mentioned phrase, that “America’s schools are failing and they need to be reformed.”  In fact, this phrase has been repeated so often, that in a recent survey over 70% of parents agree that schools were failing.  But over 80% said that the school their children attended was doing very well.

You need to use facts to show that our schools are not failing, and help your potential constituents realize that they’ve been sold down the river that America’s schools are failing.  They are not.


Figure 2. 8th Grade Math as a System. All states, except for Massachusetts fall within the framework of Upper and Lower Control Limits.  Any variation within this zone is due to system causes, and not special causes.  Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center,
Figure 3. 8th Grade Math as a System. All states, except for Massachusetts fall within the framework of Upper and Lower Control Limits. Any variation within this zone is due to system causes, and not special causes. Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center,

Schools, They Aren’t Failing

You might ask, what about urban schools.  Are our urban schools failing?  The fact is, there are lots of people who will tell you that schools in urban environments are failing, and what they need is help from charter management companies, and temp teacher preparation organizations such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.

They need none of this.

Take a look at Figure 4.  It’s an analysis done by Ed Johnson using data over the past decade comparing 21 city school districts, with the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and the Austin Independent School District (AISD) highlighted in green and red, respectively.   As you can see in the graph, there is variation in math NAEP test scores over the ten-year period.  The variation we see is consistent.  There are not wide swings in the data.  Indeed, all the points of measurement fall within statistical control limits.


Figure 2.  Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin.  This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.
Figure 4. Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin. This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.


If there is any truth to this kind of data, there is no need to radically change the system.  But, as Deming and others have found, there is always the need for continuous improvement of the system.  If we want to improve schooling, say in Atlanta, we need to improve the system, not “turn it around.”

But the mantra you will hear is that we need to close schools, or turn the school around by firing the school principal and most of the staff, and then replace them with a new principal, and new teachers who are inexperienced, uncertified, and will only stay there for 2 years.  If you are elected State School Superintendent, you will find that there are questionable relationships among the Georgia Department of Education, Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and charter management companies.

Don’t fall into the “our schools are failing” trap.

Improving Schools

As a candidate for the top job in education, you surely want to figure ways to help Georgia school districts improve their schools.  Adopting the Common Core State Standards will not improve our schools.

We want, what Ed Johnson explains, continuation improvement.

How do we do this?  First, we need to act on the idea that education is a human system.  It’s about people.  It’s about parents sending their students to schools enjoy learning, and not to be there to serve the state by simply being a number, and someone who is required to take tests throughout their school days.  If you ask parents what they like about their children’s school, they always talk about how their children are treated and accepted, and helped to learn.  They talk about the kind of communication among their children’s peers and teachers.

Improving schools means we need to think differently and bring to the front what we know about successful organizations.  In a recent post, I discussed some steps that we should take that have a greater likelihood of establishing an environment that will result in continuous improvement.

  1. Put high confidence in teachers and principals and learning.  The focus on meaningful learning must be at the school level.  Superintendents need to get out-of-the-way, stop micro-managing, and entrust education to well prepared teaching staff.
  2. Create a systemic environment which encourages teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches.  Encourage principals to work with teachers to push for curiosity, imagination and creativity in the classroom, and make that the focus of learning.
  3. Fill classrooms with well experienced and well-educated teachers who are not only knowledgeable in the content, but more importantly understand how to teach and how to experiment with different pedagogies.
  4. Empower principals to be the leaders of change, not superintendents.  Superintendents are too far away from the day-to-day life of students to encourage the kind of creative teaching that can be supported by principals.
  5. Teachers should have masters degrees in education and be knowledgeable in their field of teaching.  Reliance on uncertified and inexperienced teachers will in the long run lead to failure.

In the next post, I will provide evidence to support the second thing that I would like you to oppose, and that is the use of high-stakes tests.  High-stakes tests are the biggest impediment to real improvement of schooling for students.  I hope you’ll check out the next post.

Pearson Just Saved Us $82 Million: Where’s The Money?

Field Test Locations for the PARCC Field Tests Given to One Million Students. Source of map; PARCC Website. Extracted May 5, 2014
Field Test Locations for the PARCC Field Tests Given to One Million Students. Source of map; PARCC Website. Extracted May 5, 2014

According to an Education Week article by Sean Cavanagh, Pearson won a the major contract with PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) to develop test items, delivery of paper-and-pencil and computerized test forms, reporting of the results, analysis of scores, and to “work” with the states to develop “cut scores.”

Nearly everyone thought that Pearson would nail the contract.  However, according to ED Week, Pearson was the only bidder!

And Pearson gave PARCC a real deal.  Instead of charging the expected $29.50 per student, they agreed to come down to $24.   But, here is the real deal, there are 15 million students in the PARCC states.

$442 million – $360 million = $82 million

At $29.50 per student, the estimated cost (of just the test material and computer analysis) for 15 million students in PARCC states, would be $442 million.  But since Pearson agreed to such a lower cost, knowing full well that PARCC was a cash cow, it agreed to $24 per student, meaning it would only cost the states $360 million.

That’s a savings of $82 million.  But, where’s the money?

There are 16 states and the District of Columbia that belong to the PARCC consortium.  PARCC was one of two consortia funded by the U.S. Department of Education as part of its Race to the Top (RT3) Fund. The RT3 set aside $362 million to fund consortia to develop assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards.  In 2010, PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (21 states) were awarded nearly $165 million each for develop assessments.

According to the Smarter Balanced website, its assessments will cost about $27.30 per student.

Member states of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.  Source: Smarter Balanced Website.
Member states of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Source: Smarter Balanced Website.

The PARCC states also represent 8 of the 12 winners of the Race to the Top (according to the Achieve website).  It’s estimated that about 15 million students live in PARCC states. Smarter Balanced states represent 4 of the 12 winners, and its estimated about 19 million students live in Smarter Balanced states.

Now, back to the Pearson contract with PARCC.

The Single Contract Trend

Imagine having a single contract with that many clients!  Imagine that your company is not only developing the tests, but also is developing multimedia textbooks for these 15 million students that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English/language arts.  So, its possible that states in the PARCC consortium might decide to buy ONLY Pearson multimedia textbooks in math and English/language arts, and to tell local districts that if they don’t adopt Pearson multimedia books, then they will not receive state textbook funds.

This no doubt will happen.  It already has happened in Louisiana.  In that case, the issue is not with Pearson, but it clearly shows that using a single vendor is something that states will do.  Over on Crazy Crawfish’s Blog, he reports on Louisiana’s Textbook Selection Shenanigans, and explains that the Louisiana Department of Education has only one vendor for math (Eureka Math) and only Core Knowledge for language arts.  The story reported by Jason France, author of Crazy Crawfish reveals how a few decision makers at the Department of Education can create a monolithic and authoritarian environment in the selection of teaching materials.  In Louisiana, John White, the Superintendent of education, has taken it upon himself to choose which texts can be used with the Common Core.  He was a former employee of Teach for America, and assistant to Joel Klein, former New York City Chancellor, and charter school director in NYC.  Now he is asserting his authority in the world of textbook choice.

Here is how this stuff happens.  Jason France, in his own words:

John White (Superintendent of Education, Louisiana) has only selected a single vendor that is complaint with his rigorous standards. One is the patent holder of Common Core, which shares the patent with CCSSO, an organization John White and Holly Boffy worked for when they are not being Superintendent and BESE members for Louisiana. The other is Core Knowledge which was bought by Rupert Murdoch and is run by two folks he used to work for in New York City. (France, Jason. “Louisiana’s Texbook Selection Shenanigans.” Crazy Crawfishs Blog. N.p., 4 May 2014. Web. 05 May 2014).

Pearson: America’s Walmart of Education Materials

Pearson is a British multinational publishing company, and according to published reports, it is the largest education company and the largest book publisher in the world.  The Pearson board of directors is composed of seven men and three woman.  You can see them here.

Pearson publishes pre K-12 curriculum, testing and software.  They have products that are aligned to the Common Core including Pearson Early Learning, Pearson Digital Learning, and Family Education Network.

Pearson publishes elementary (Pearson Scott Foresman) and secondary (Pearson Prentice Hall) in reading, literature, maths, science, and social studies.

The corporate led assault on education is at play in the latest deal made between PARCC, a Washington D.C. group, and Pearson, the multinational publisher.  It’s a sweet deal for these two corporations.

But it’s not a sweet deal for those who believe in public schools.

The concoction that has been produced by the mixing of high-stakes testing and the world’s largest multimedia company is a recipe for disaster.  Buried deep in the contract is the statement that Pearson will work with the PARCC states to decide the “cut-off” scores that determine whether you pass or fail the assessments.  There is absolutely no scientific basis for this.  It is a pure opinion.  However, it reeks of manipulation.

Large corporations are trying to get in line to come in and fix schools that are considered failures by the men who set the “cut off” scores.  Failing schools are also labeled turnaround schools, and there are specific policies in play that outline how failing schools should be fixed.  Corporations such as Pearson, Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and charter schools are eager to come in and use public funds to fill their own coffers.  The relationship among these groups is documented here.

I asked at the beginning if the Pearson deal with PARCC resulted in real savings.  Of course it doesn’t.  It means that another EDU-CORP has positioned itself to reap the benefits of the reformers calling card which says: America’s Schools are Failing: We’re Here to Help.

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 6.53.40 PM

How did this happen?  Why is it that the playing field has been tilted in favor of corporations, and foundations with lots of money.  Here is how it happened.  Listen to the words of John Kuhn, superintendent and acclaimed educator and author of Fear and Learning in America.  He says:

How can it be that so many Americans are simultaneously satisfied with the public schools their children attend and dissatisfied with American schools in general? Their opinion of their children’s school— based on their experiences with the school itself, its people, its facilities, and its programs— is overwhelmingly positive. But where do they get their negative opinion of all those other schools, the ones that are “out there,” that they’ve never seen but have scary mental pictures of?

With pundits, politicians, journalists, and the murmuring class all repeating the party line that “our schools are failing” since 1983, is it any wonder? When former DC superintendent and perennial school reform superstar Michelle Rhee has her well-funded political group run an advertisement during the Olympics “featuring a disheveled athlete trying and failing to effectively compete,” purporting to highlight “the struggles of America’s education system and its challenges competing internationally,” is it any wonder (“ Michelle Rhee appears,” 2012)?

When famed documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim makes a huge splash with an unashamedly propagandistic film that selectively portrays public schools in a harsh light and portrays hand-picked charter schools in pastels, contending that they alone will save America from its disastrous public schools, is it any wonder?  Kuhn, John (2014-02-15). Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education (Teaching for Social Justice Series) (Kindle Locations 798-808). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.

High-stakes testing, which has been in the hands of corporate America for years, and now poses an even greater risk to children and youth because we have enabled the U.S. Department of Education in partnership with a few corporations to cut the curriculum to a few subjects, and make it more difficult for students, especially ethnic and racial minorities, and low socioeconomic status to pass these tests.

What did you think when you heard that Pearson got the contract to develop the Common Core tests?