The Dangerous Path for Georgia Schools Created by the Purdue, Deal and Hames Troika

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The Dangerous Path for Georgia Schools Created by the Purdue, Deal and Hames Troika

  • Sonny Purdue: Former Governor of Georgia when Georgia was awarded $400 Million Race to the Top Grant
  • Nathan Deal: Governor of Georgia who inherited the $400 million RTT funds, and instigator of the Georgia Opportunity School District
  • Erin Hames: Former Governor’s Office staff member under Purdue (headed up Georgia’s RTT) and Deal (Deputy Chief of Staff who lead the work to pass the Opportunity School District, which will authorize the Governor’s Office to take over 20 or more of Georgia’s schools each year for the foreseeable future).

Between the Race to the Top and the Opportunity School District, this Georgia troika has set in motion the infrastructure to tear Georgia’s public schools apart.  Georgia’s Race to the Top funds were used to set into motion ways to use student test scores to rate teachers and schools, and to rationalize the concept of “failing schools” based on this data, which most educational research organizations have deemed unreliable and invalid.

The Race to Top Fund promoted the idea that the lowest achieving schools should be either closed, or “reformed” using one of various reform models.  In these reform models, the principal is fired, and at least half the teachers are replaced. In all cases, the measurement to decide performance is high-stakes testing.

The Opportunity School District, Deal’s bad deal to take over the “failing schools” that were defined in the Race to the Top, will set up a state-run school district to insert charter schools into buildings that were once public schools.

And who was the connection between each of these ideas?  Why, Erin Hames, a lawyer, with three years of teaching experience who believes that experienced teachers don’t really do better in the classroom than inexperienced ones.  How would she know?

Hames work on the Race to the Top and Opportunity School District is only the tip of the iceberg.

She recently resigned from the Governor’s office, and was hired as a “permanent” consultant to the Atlanta Public Schools for $96,000, but retained by the Governor’s office for another $30,000.  And its been reported that she will lead an ReformEd group (funded by two unknown national families) to turn around failing schools.

But here is the very strange thing.  Atlanta hired her to help them figure out a way to save the 20 or more APS schools that have been labeled as “chronically failing schools” from being swallowed up the Governor’s Opportunity School District.  And she is looking for other districts who could use her consulting services.

Where does this path take public education in Georgia?  It’s a path that is based on fear.  It’s a path that is based on competition.  It’s a path that is based on greed.  It’s a path that is based on opinion and not knowledge.

As others have said, the plan that will be voted on in the 2016 election, and will be supported by a group that Hames will lead, and will be targeted by organizations and families outside of Georgia who stand to make a financial killing in the state.

We’ve created a dangerous path for public schools in Georgia.  It needs to be disrupted.

What do you think?



Atlanta Teachers–From Educators to Racketeers–I Don’t Think So

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Atlanta Teachers–From Educators to Racketeers–I Don’t Think So

Last week, 11 educators from the Atlanta Public Schools were convicted on racketeering charges related to the test erasure scandal.  The fact that these educators were brought to court on racketeering charges is not only outrageous, but also informs us of who holds power, and how they are able to side-step any accountability, and are able to keep themselves out of the court.

Ever since the story was reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2009, I’ve written many blog articles about the “scandal,” and explained why I think these educators should NOT have been brought to court in the first place, and how a system that was mired in a “culture of fear” was infected, resulting in test erasures.  The culture of fear, that was described in the Governor’s report of the Atlanta case, exists in many school districts across the country, from Pennsylvania, to Texas, to California.

The eleven Atlanta educators are scapegoats for a system that Jose Luis Vilson explored in one of his recent posts.  He said this about these teachers:

The 11 educators we saw arrested in Atlanta, mostly women and mostly Black, didn’t come off as criminals racketeering for massive profits, but as scapegoats for policies written on the backs of their children (Vilson, J. (2015, April 6). Recruiting Educators of Color In The Time of Race To The Top. Retrieved April 9, 2015, from

Below is a link to one of many posts I wrote about the “cheating scandal.”  I introduced this article with this statement:

How could this happen in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS)?  The district is in a city that is home to The King Center, The Carter Center, Clark Atlanta University, Emory University, Georgia State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and many other institutions that embody academic, research and cultural and social change.   Each of these institutions collaborated with the Atlanta Public Schools, some more than others, in research projects, staff development programs, curriculum development, and other educational activities for decades.

Grants were received from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and many other funding agencies. The Georgia Department of Education has contributed to the APS by providing consultants to help teachers who work with struggling students in the lowest performing schools in Atlanta.

Some schools received funding from private foundations and corporations, as well as mentoring and training relationships with local universities, especially in science and technology.  (Disclaimer: I was professor of science education at Georgia State University from 1969 – 2002, and worked with teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public Schools for more than 30 years).

Did these organizations have their heads in the sand while they were working with the district?  How could the Georgia Department of Education not be aware of any of the pressure that was being put on teachers to make students score as high as they could on the high-stakes tests, no matter what?  Did the agencies that funded specific schools in Atlanta not check on how their resources were being used.

If you go ahead and click on the link, you will find some surprises about students in Atlanta perform–before, during, and after the period teachers were accused of changing student answer sheets.  ¥ou’ll also find why I think the reform policies that are still in effect in Atlanta specifically, and Georgia generally, will prevent education from improving.

So I invite you read this blog post:

From Educators to Racketeers: How Education Reform Led to a National Testing Scandal


Atlanta Public Schools’ Equity Audit Finds Differences! by Ed Johnson

Guest Letter by Mr. Ed Johnson, Advocate for Education, Atlanta, GA

Creative Commons "I Come In Peace" by JDevaun is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Creative Commons “I Come In Peace” by JDevaun is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Ed Johnson wrote a letter in response to the Atlanta Public Schools Equity Audit which was prepared by researchers at Georgia State University to look at differences in the characteristics across schools in the APS district.  As you will see in Ed Johnson’s letter, he uses a form of thinking that looks at the APS as a whole, and not as separate schools, and applies the work of W. Edwards Deming, Russell Ackoff, and Peter Bernard to investigate equity in the context of systems thinking.

This is an important letter written by a person who for years has explored how to improve education in the Atlanta Public Schools.  It is hoped that the new Atlanta Public Schools superintendent will seek his advice, and in so doing challenge the “turn around” and “urban” mentality that dominates educational reform.

June 26, 2014

Well, of course, Atlanta Public Schools’ equity audit would find differences. Differences always exist. No two of anything are exactly the same. So the discerning question always is, what do differences mean?

In its upfront Executive Summary, the APS Equity Audit Report proclaims:

Equity audits are a relatively new tool for school systems and there are large variations in their thresholds for determining whether or not characteristics are substantially different across schools. Simple percentage difference cutoffs or using standard error calculations to generate confidence intervals of means both avoid complex questions of whether or not differences across schools are practically meaningful. This report finds substantial variations across schools on numerous characteristics, but leaves questions of whether and how to address these differences to the broad group of stakeholders concerned with educational outcomes for the students of APS.

On the one hand, the APS Equity Audit Report responsibly cautions against using “[s]imple percentage difference cutoffs or using standard error calculations to generate confidence intervals of means both [of which] avoid complex questions of whether or not differences across schools are practically meaningful,” and that is fortunate. Such figures are usually presented in business-style financial reports that often prompt reacting to and holding people “accountable” for past performance while typically providing no rational basis for predicting performance and learning into the future.

Equity from the Standpoint of Random Variation v Non-Random Variation

On the other hand, without question, although it “finds substantial variations across schools on numerous characteristics,” the APS Equity Audit Report clearly forgoes addressing “whether or not differences across schools are practically meaningful,” and that is unfortunate.

It other words, the APS Equity Audit Report does not address the very important question of what do differences mean. Do differences with respect to a particular characteristic mean something or mean nothing? To answer the question requires detecting and distinguishing differences that arise from random variation and differences that arise from non-random variation.

Random Variation Means…

Detection of differences that arise from random variation would indicate differences that mean nothing, that are not “practically meaningful.” Such differences would be due to common, ever-present systemic causes, any or all of which may be known, knowable, and unknowable.

Non-Random Variation Means…

On the other hand, detection of differences that arise from non-random variation would indicate differences that mean something, that are “practically meaningful.” In this latter case, for better or worse, such differences would be due to special causes powerful enough to dominate and stand apart from all differences due to common causes. Special causes may occur continually, irregularly, or temporarily and are generally known or knowable.

So, there are differences due to common causes that may be referred to simply as “common cause variation.” And there are differences due to special causes that may be referred to simply as “special cause variation.” Hence, there exist two kinds of variation.

Signals and Noise in the Data

Now, considering any characteristic’s data in the APS Equity Audit Report, can something be done with those data to detect and distinguish the two kinds of variation the data may contain? Asked differently, is there a way to filter the data to separate “signals” the data may contain from the “noise” the data do contain?

To do so is important so as to:

  1. avoid responding to a signal as if it were noise and
  2. avoid responding to noise as if it were a signal

To fail at either 1) or 2) is to drive up costs and generate excessive waste, unnecessarily.

Is there a Way to Detect Signals from Noise?

Indeed there is a way to detect and distinguish common cause variation and special cause variation. And it is a way even some elementary school children have learned to use in the process of continually improving their own learning. The way is to make a “process behavior chart” from the data. (The process behavior chart is much like an EKG (electrocardiogram) made to tell a story about the behavior of a patient’s heart.)

Now, from actually having made a process behavior chart for a fair number of characteristics the APS Equity Audit Report covers, none revealed any special cause variation, save a few where Forest Hill Academy was detected to represent a special cause matter, which is to be expected of APS’ alternative school.

The Inexperienced Teacher Category

For example, the process behavior chart in Figure 1 below takes a district-level look at the characteristic “Inexperienced Teacher (Less than 3 years),” in the category “Teacher Experience by Academically Disadvantaged Students” (APS Equity Audit Report, pages 179-183). The APS Equity Audit Report explains this characteristic means the proportion of students’ time spent with a teacher that has less than three years experience, and that the proportion can be expressed as a percent by multiplying by 100, which the process behavior chart in Figure 1 does.

Figure 1: District-level Teacher Experience by Academically Disadvantaged Students, Inexperienced Teacher (Less than 3 years) ©Ed Johnson


The process behavior chart in Figure 1 detects only differences due to common causes, or common cause variation, or noise. All the variation ranges around the center-line average of 26 percent (26.26%) and between the lower control limit, at zero percent (0.00%), and the upper control limit, at 55 percent (54.55%). No variation exceeds the upper control limit. This means academically disadvantaged students that have a teacher with less than three years experience is a systemic matter among all APS elementary schools and not a matter for any individual schools. It would be top administration’s mistake, and abdication of their leadership responsibility, to single out Centennial Place, or Hutchinson, or M. Agnes Jones so as to hold any people there “accountable” as a special matter.

Again, Figure 1 is district-level, with all APS elementary schools taken as a system. But what about APS Region-level, with each Region taken as a system? What might process behavior charts say about how the North, East, South, and West regions of APS compare on the example characteristic being considered here?

Consider Figure 2, below. The figure comprises four process behavior charts, one for the East Region, North Region, South Region, and West Region of APS. Figure 2 makes it easy to compare the APS Regions holistically and rather straightforwardly and much at a glance. Like the district-level process behavior chart in Figure 1, each Region-level process behavior chart in Figure 2 detects no evidence of special cause variation; all differences are due to common cause variation, to noise. No differences are “practically meaningful.”

It is also quite easy to see in Figure 2 that common cause variation appears the least “spread out” around the North Region center-line average compared to the spread of variation around the other Regions’ center-line averages. Even so, if extended to the right, the North Region lower and upper control limits would cover all West Region schools as well as all South Region schools. And if extended to the left, North Region lower and upper control limits would cover all East Region schools, save Centennial Place. Thus Figure 2, like Figure 1, says differences among all APS elementary schools with respect to the example characteristic are systemic, and equitable.

Moreover, it is also quite easy to see from Figure 2 that each APS Region’s center-line average compares favorably to the district-level center-line average in Figure 1. In Figure 1, the district-level center-line average is 26.26%; in Figure 2, the four Regions’ center-lines average to 26.37%. The difference is a mere 0.11%, or roughly one-tenth of one percent.

The observations made from Figure 2 support and now extend the observation made from Figure 1. Now it can be said that academically disadvantaged students that have a teacher with less than three years experience is a systemic matter for all APS elementary schools, and is not a matter for any individual school or APS Region.

Figure 2: Region-level Teacher Experience by Academically Disadvantaged Students, Inexperienced Teacher (Less than 3 years)
Figure 2: Region-level Teacher Experience by Academically Disadvantaged Students, Inexperienced Teacher (Less than 3 years) ©Ed Johnson

Implication for Administrators, Especially Those at the Top

In addition, and much like already concluded, it would be APS top administration’s mistake, and abdication of their leadership responsibility, to single out any school or Region so as to hold any people there “accountable” as a special matter. Leadership from the top, from both the school board and the superintendency, is required. Only they can be held “accountable” in any rational way. And no manner of “accountability” pushed down from the top can substitute for the requisite leadership needed to foster collaboration with and among affected stakeholders, as a system.

Now, let’s be clear on this point: Both Figure 1 and Figure 2 present process behavior charts that evidence only equity; neither evidences inequity.

Where is the Inequity?

So, if inequity exists, then where does it exist?

Well, actually, knowing where the inequity exists comes through the story the process behavior charts in Figures 1 and 2 tell. The charts tell the story that the teacher characteristic “Inexperienced Teacher (Less than 3 years)” has been optimized among APS elementary schools only about that singular teacher characteristic. It is a story with telltale signs of strictly systematic analytical thinking operating to the exclusion of systemic synthetical thinking. It is a story with telltale signs of believing that the whole is the sum of its parts, and that the whole can do its best only if each part does it individual best, that each part “executes with fidelity.” It is a story where teachers that have less than three years experience have been assigned quite equitably throughout APS elementary schools and to academically disadvantaged students.

And that is the rub, the genesis of the inequity, though it may seem counterintuitive.

Standardized test results have for more than a decade shown APS to be, in effect, “two systems in one,” White-Black, with Black greatly lagging. More recently, standardized test results have begun to show APS’ devolution into becoming “three systems in one,” White-Hispanic-Black, with Black still lagging.

Therefore, the inequity comes not from placing less experienced and unremarkable teachers with especially “Black” students in the APS West Region and South Region. Again, the process behavior charts in Figure 1 and Figure 2 say equity exists among all APS elementary schools with respect to the teacher characteristic “Inexperienced Teacher (Less than 3 years).” Rather, the inequity comes from “Black” students being without greatly experienced and remarkable teachers! For example, five-weeks trained personnel by Teach for America placed with “White” students would constitute equity. However, five-weeks trained personnel by Teach for America placed with “Black” students would constitute inequity. Why? Simply because none can possibly be a greatly experienced and remarkable teacher.

Why the Inequity?

Now, why might this inequity exist? What might be its root?

Consider that the Atlanta Board of Education Policy Manual offers understanding. Specifically, Policy Number BBBC, titled “Board Member Development Opportunities,” states, in part:

The Atlanta Board of Education places a high priority on the importance of a planned and continuing program of professional development of its members. … The board considers participation in the following activities consistent with the professional development of its members: Conferences, workshops, conventions, and training and information sessions held by the state and national school boards associations and other conferences sponsored by local, state, and national educational organizations. … The list shall include, but need not be limited to, the following organizations:

  • National School Boards Association
  • Georgia School Boards Association
  • Council of Great City Schools
  • National Alliance of Black School Educators

This policy has inequity built-in. How? First, it restricts “professional development” (PD), which goes policy-wise undefined, to school board procedural matters vis-à-vis the school board associations listed. Then it more narrowly restricts PD to thinking and treating APS as an “urban” school district in need of “urban school reform” or “transformation” vis-à-vis Council of Great City Schools and similar other organizations. Then more narrowly still, the policy restricts PD to a “racialist ideology” (Fredrick Douglass) vis-à-vis National Alliance of Black School Educators.

Regressive Policy

The policy is regressive, and acts much like a funnel to direct APS into associations with persons and organizations committed to disrupting public education as a common good or who have not the wisdom to understand and value public education as a common good. The aim is the transformation of public education in especially “urban” school districts into a profit-making, free-market commodity all the while opportunistically and unashamedly co-opting Civil Rights struggles. This inequity built into school board policy and steeped in urbanism effectively keeps APS stuck in stasis and incapable of learning to continually improve, unlike the global community that is continually learning to improve.

A consequence of such inequity rooted in Atlanta Board of Education policy is the thinking that “it takes a black educator to educate a black child” made a prominent operational aspect of APS culture, and with it APS never going beyond urbanism’s boundary to seek greatly experienced and remarkable teachers to place with especially “Black” students! The inequity is such a deep, self-imposed operational aspect of APS culture that it goes virtually unspoken and unchallenged among stakeholders until it becomes convenient to use to insinuate, excoriate, or defend against allegations of maltreatment or oppression, or to conduct an equity audit.

Fortunately or unfortunately – take your pick – wisdom teaches that the problem is in here, with us, not out there, with them. But then, wisdom comes from learning, not from achievement and certainly not from merely performing.

So, isn’t it time for Atlanta Public Schools to leapfrog City of Atlanta’s modern day “Atlanta Compromise” and turn to embracing humanness more so than “race?” Isn’t it clear by now that especially “Black” children’s quality of education depend on doing so?

Kind regards,

Ed Johnson
Advocate for Quality in Public Education
O: (404) 691-9656 | C: (404) 505-8176 |

“The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.”
Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412 – c. 323 BCE)

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?

Psychological Abuse: A Springtime School Ritual?


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Image provided courtesy of licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It might seem extreme to you for me to write about the psychological abuse of children in schools. However, at the end of the post, I hope you will understand why I did.

Although the content of this post might seem to some to be controversial, I believe that the content warrants being stated, and that there is more to what is discussed here than meets the eye.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 50.1 million students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools.  Except for students in kindergarten and Grades 1 & 2, about 40 million students take high-stakes tests for several days during the springtime.  This ritual is repeated every year, and has been since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001.

Imagine, nearly 40 million students sitting at their desks bubbling in or keyboarding their answers to multiple choice tests that will be used to rate them against each other, and also be used to rate their schools and teachers, who potentially could lose their jobs depending upon how the kids do on the tests.  Is this happening in a democratic society?  Yes it is.  Why in a democratic society would we put students in this place of not only determining their own fate, but the fate of their teachers.

It’s not only a dumb idea, it possibly violates child labor laws.  We are asking parents to send their students to school (work?) to sit for hours upon hours providing the state with examination results that will be used to check teachers, and their own schools.  Professor Stephanie Jones of the University of Georgia suggests that

Teachers — workers in the system controlled by bosses above — will be exploited. Students — the “producing” workers in the system whose production of test scores will decide reward for those above them — will be exploited.  Extracted from Merit Pay Could Revive Child Labor, AJC, May 3, 2014.

High-stakes testing is not a one-day or a week-long event.  Many schools have reduced the curriculum, especially at the elementary school level to mathematics and reading, and spend all year preparing their student for the high-stakes testing ritual.

Students, in many situations, are subjected to a “drill and kill” curriculum and are burdened with incessant amounts of homework, much of which is rote learning and mindless.

Are students being subjected to a curriculum that is abusive?  Have student test scores become the goal of education, and does this focus limit the range of experiences for students and teachers?  What is effect of such narrowing on student spontaneity, creativity and problem solving?  What is the effect on student’s mental health?  Feelings?  Attitudes?  Hopes? Self-worth?

There is a long history on the effects of such a narrow view of schooling on student well-being and achievement.  However, in this blog post, I want to focus on the experience of a school counselor who documented and then put forth a report on her experiences in an elementary school about student abuse.

At the heart of this story is the ends that school officials will go to raise student achievement scores.  We don’t have go any further than the Atlanta Public Schools and the cheating scandal that was caused by a culture of fear and intimidation (as documented in the Governor’s Report), and lead to the indictment of over 40 Atlanta school officials, including Beverly Hall, former superintendent of school.  Changing answer sheets, providing copies of the exams to teachers in advance, clandestine and secret meetings in administrators offices, and outright denial when a few brave teachers questioned the actions of some administrators and teachers.

As so often happens, people who ask questions, or whose views are different from those in power are often ridiculed and called lunatics or fanatics.  Is this what happens when we boil education down to a test score?  Is this what happens when we overtly champion competition among students, between schools, and use this to showcase administrators, especially superintendents.  Beverly Hall received the hight accolades available in the field of education while at the same time leading a corrupt administration.

The policy of using high-stakes test scores to measure and rate student outcomes may be one of the worst policies that we have enacted.  Because of this policy, it is always in the best interest of administrators and school boards that teachers be held responsible for raising student achievement scores, and if they don’t and if their school doesn’t measure up, then there will be severe consequences.

As John Kuhn has said in his new book, Fear and Learning in America, “it isn’t tests that are the bad guy, it’s the misuse of tests.”  Using tests as the motivator of learning will lead to failure for many of our students.  We misuse testing and in so doing, put students in harm’s way because many of the teaching strategies that seem to work are ones in which an authoritarian regime is put into place, and students end up being indoctrinated into a system of control and behavioral management.

Kuhn puts the apparatus of high-stakes testing in perspective with these comments:

Standardized testing has gone from tool to tenet. At one time, standardized tests in schools were used explicitly according to instructions. In recent years, however, no less of an authority than the federal government has called for extending student test results beyond their prescribed meaning. Others have carried this unproven new method out to yet another degree.

They want to use student scores to rate the educator preparation programs that produce the educators who teach the children who take the tests. This is akin to castigating the maiden who milked the cow that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt if there happens to be a problem with the house that Jack built.

Soon they’ll ask to use 4th-graders’ math scores to rate the institutions that granted the graduate degrees to the professors who teach in the educator preparation programs. It’s the Six Degrees of Standardized Testing game, and there seems to be no end to the extension of testing.  (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 987-994). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition).

Fear and intimidation are an unfortunate result of this extreme view of the use of tests.  It can cause schools to import teaching strategies that will take advantage of students, especially students who typically have not been served well by schools or society, and ask them to carry out mindless tasks, that parents in more affluent neighborhoods would not allow to happen to their children.  And if affluent parents don’t live in neighborhoods where the schools meet their standard, then they send them to prestigious private schools.  We have many here in Atlanta.

The Courageous Counselor

There is an educator in Austin, Texas who has documented this approach to teaching, and the effects on the psychological well-being of elementary  school students.  This is an educator who was willing to use open and use democratic methods to alert the school system of the what she considered to be the abuse of students in a Title I school in Austin.  She wrote and submitted several reports to bring this abuse to the attention of the school district, a school district whose superintendent was Dr. Meria Carstarphen.  Dr. Carstarphen has been hired by the Atlanta Public Schools, and will begin her transition to becoming the superintendent this month and will begin officially in July.

Will what I am about to describe rise up in Atlanta’s elementary schools?  Will the new superintendent focus her attention on turning around so-called failing schools?  Will she come in to “fix” Atlanta’s schools?  Will she be committed to a corporate type of school reform she advocated in Austin by relying charter schools, Applied Behavioral Analysis, and hiring of uncertified and inexperienced recruits from Teach for America (TFA). Indeed, will she form a bond with the Teach for America recruits who were just elected to the Atlanta School Board, and will she hire new principals, who are in some way affiliated with TFA, or who subscribe to her turn around and fix it type of reform?

Here is the story of one Austin educator who uncovered and then revealed the kind of teaching and test-taking that led to the psychological abuse of students in at least one if not more Austin elementary schools.  Carstarpen’s footprint is revealed in her story.

In an October 2013 report that she sent to Texas State Senator Nelson and the HHS Committee, she raised the specter that psychological abuse was observed and happening in a public elementary school in the AISD.

She described a system of behavioral engineering called the New 3 R’s that was being hailed as a success story because it raised the test scores of students in a Title I school.  However, Ms. Feilke documented that punitive methods were being used to prod and prompt students to learn by rote, get the right answers on tests, and conform to a system of extreme authority.  She observed, over her 30-year tenure as a school counselor, the steady decline and deterioration of the school environment.  Her premise is that the school climate has changed because of the emphasis on state testing and corrosive school politics.

Open Letter

Her open letter which you can read in full here, is a harrowing description of how children, especially of low socio-economic and minority status, have been mistreated to reach the goals of the state, and the administration of the district.  She believes that these 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.

She summarizes her observations of her report this way:

  • The New 3 R’s System is a rigid system of behavioral engineering that uses punitive methods of ABA which are known to cause psychological harm to young children.  Some of the methods are known to cause mental illness and criminality.  The New 3 R’s is a sophisticated system of bullying.
  • AISD administrators allowed the New 3 R’s System to be used in elementary schools for the purpose of obtaining high performance ratings on statewide tests, but without adequate oversight of mental health experts who would have recognized the potential for psychological abuse.
  • AISD has allowed administrators to use punitive methods of ABA in violation of certification requirements and with methods known to cause psychological damage to young children.
  • AISD administrators ignored the counselor’s reports of the New 3 R’s methods as being psychologically abusive to children, and retaliated against the counselor.
  • Children in Texas public elementary schools are entitled to have their mental and physical health protected by state law.  There are no agencies with adequate laws in place to protect the rights of these children.

Administration’s Investigation

After her report was filed in October, the school district sent in an Associate Superintendent to investigate [itself].  Here is what Ms. Feilke wrote about this in an email on May 1, 2014:

AISD Asst. Sup Maria Hohenstein spent a month at the school in a crisis mode doing “cover up”, and creating “fake” surveys that only included “select” staff, then AISD denied that my  allegations were true. They turned the “punitive” cafeteria punishment into an “opportunity” for any student who wanted to sit in isolation and do work during lunch.  That was after they first absolutely denied it existed, then discovered several mentors who had observed it for two years, and then tried to make it “positive”. Parents and teachers in AISD Title I schools have become well indoctrinated so now it is” beware the messenger’s head”! (Email from Joyce Murdock Feilke, May 1, 2014)

I don’t have good evidence that the school district used bullying tactics to discredit Joyce, but eventually she decided to resign in February, 2014.  Her letter of resignation is one that is written by an educator who was willing to withstand an administration that had a reputation, according to Brian R. McGiverin, Texas Civil Rights Project, of retaliating against employees who speak out against its flavor-of-the-day pet project.

Mr. McGiverin also indicated that:

Superintendent Carstarphen was probably an unfortunate choice for the top post in Austin because she didn’t seem to brook disagreement or dissent.”  Mr. McGiverin goes on to say that in 2012, in a backlash against Carstarphen’s project above, half the trustees were replaced with a slate of reform candidates. They haven’t done as much as we hoped they would, but they blocked extensions of Carstarphen’s contract beyond 2015. The next election this November was likely to add board even less likely to extend her contract, which is the reason most people think she decided to leave. (Email from Mr. Brian McGiverin, May 2, 2014).

All the more evidence that we should read Joyce Murdock Feilke’s letter of resignation as a preamble for real education change. Here it is.

Letter of Resignation

During the past twenty years that I have worked in the Austin Independent School District, I have served as counselor at Bowie HS, Reagan HS, Kealing MS, Burnet MS, Oak Springs Elementary, Lucy Read Pres Center, and most recently at Blackshear Elementary School. In my earlier years in AISD, counselors experienced administrative support when advocating for children’s mental health needs.

However, in recent years, the punitive culture of high stakes testing and test preparation has created a disturbing and unhealthy obsession with children’s performance and data, while disregarding and neglecting their most basic developmental needs. The current rigid curriculum of fragmented, mind numbing, low-level thinking, and rote memory test drill neglects real learning and healthy development that is the essence of children’s future success and well-being.

AISD administrative abuse of power and lack of empathy and understanding of children’s developmental needs indoctrinated school principals to use a management/leadership style that can be callous, self-absorbed, and dishonest. It indoctrinates enthusiastic talented teachers to become desensitized, emotionally detached, and to act like scripted robots. It indoctrinates parents to give up family time and outdoor time with their children to endure more of the same punitive work and performance anxiety at home.

AISD’s age inappropriate focus on performance has created an environment that does not confirm children or allow them freedom to develop their own individuality and independence through real learning and positive interactions with peers and healthy attachments to teachers.

Instead, children are psychologically stifled, manipulated, and exploited with performance reward/punishment/competition and chronic feelings that they can never fully measure up. The children learn to distrust adults and feel bad about themselves. It is an environment of “survive” rather than “thrive”.

My observation of AISD’s dysfunctional system and lack of protest from employees is expressed in the words of Alfie Kohn in an article called Encouraging Courage: (Education Week, September 18, 2013)

… professionals in our field often seem content to work within the constraints of traditional policies and accepted assumptions — even when they don’t make sense. Conversely, too many educators seem to have lost their capacity to be outraged by outrageous things. Handed foolish and destructive mandates, they respond only by requesting guidance on how to make them. They fail to ask “Is this really in the best interest of our students?” or to object when the answer to that question is NO.

As an elementary school counselor, I have continued to be “outraged by outrageous things.” I question if AISD administrators have the ability to recognize the difference between punitive and positive, or if they fully understand the damage caused by an invalidating environment that is observable in many AISD elementary schools, especially the Title I Schools?

While AISD administration employs a large communications staff to promote itself “Hollywood style” to the public with claims of being a model urban school district, there is a worm in that red apple logo.

Behind closed doors, the most oppressive and psychologically restraining environments in AISD are those in Title I Elementary Schools, where minority children are conditioned to become submissive to harsh authoritarian control, where they learn not to think for themselves, but only to obey commands and to fear making mistakes.

The prison like environment of “learned helplessness” called the 3 R’s that is celebrated by AISD for winning performance awards in Title I Schools is a shameful testimony to the professional disregard of children’s needs and arrogance that now prevails and is perpetuated by AISD administration. I have attempted to speak up and advocate for children in AISD who are most affected by this invalidating environment and dysfunctional administration.

It is my goal to continue speaking up. I am submitting my resignation as counselor to pursue this advocacy without retaliation from an administration that does not recognize or respect the needs of children, or the rights of professionals who work to support and help them.

For the past week or so I have been in touch with Joyce, and have also communicated with Mr. Brian McGiverins, an attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, and author of an important blog that relates to much of Joyce’s story.  I also have been in touch with Dr. Julie Westerlund, Professor of Science Education at Texas State University who has collaborated with Joyce, and written about how state testing impedes learning.

For many years, I have written about testing and how it has been misused to control teaching and learning, and the nature of the curriculum.  Testing is entwined with curriculum standards, and the fact that America is moving toward a Common Core of standards sets up a perfect storm for U.S. schools.  There are administrators, bolstered with the support of the reformers of the last ten years, who believe all student should learn the same stuff at the same time, and that we should use web/computer based high-stakes tests to keep everyone in line.

The opposition to this is growing.  I am very pleased to join with educators including Joyce Murdock Feilke, Julian Vasquez Heilig, Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Ed Johnson, Mercedes Schneider, Julie Westerlund and many others to give voice to the opposition, and to rebuff those that think the purpose of education is to destroy public education.

Was it extreme for me to write about the psychological abuse of children in schools. What do you think?