Sunday, December 08, 2013

It's True; There is no Shame in Being a Public Education Advocate

Whether it's ed reform or just plain old reform, there is praise to be given to anyone who speaks up for public education.  I have respect for even those with whom I disagree because public education matters.

(I do have less respect for those in ed reform who do not want to have a dialog unless you agree to agree with them.  That's happened to me on charter schools.  I also have less respect for those who only want to tell one side of the story.  Tell me the WHOLE story and then we can agree to disagree but ed reformers, taking a cue from conservatives will never say, for example, that there are any significant concerns with charters.)

The Times had a guest op-ed by Kimberly Lasher Mitchell last week entitled "There's no shame in being an education reformer."  It was better than most ed reform writing and that's to Ms. Mitchell's credit.

I waited to write about this because I had submitted an op-ed that challenges some of her statements and was waiting to see if the Times would publish it.  They did not and so I offer it at the end of this thread.

Ms. Lasher seems to take offense at any suspicious directed at her motives because she was once in TFA and worked for the Gates Foundation.  She can be offended but she can't be surprised because those are two of the most uber-ed reform groups in the country. 

She then hits deep and with some truth.

Judging by the fierce debates in the recent Seattle School Board races, the term “education reform” seems to be looked upon with deep suspicion. It is disheartening to hear how polarized, angry and even anti-intellectual the debates about education reform and reformers have become. The tone of these debates is counterproductive and does not bring us together as a community to address the toughest issues we face in education.

I agree the tone of the discussions can be counterproductive but that goes both ways (and I'll give examples in my op-ed).  But it's a time-honored tactic of ed reform to use words like "angry" and "fear" to counter any argument.  For the record, I'm not afraid of anything and not even necessarily angry - I'm worried and concerned.

What I find baffling is saying that the debates are "anti-intellectual."  I don't get that at all.

Contrary to what you might read, education reformers are not all wealthy philanthropists. They are not pushing a corporate agenda to dismantle public education. They do not want to turn students and teachers into test-obsessed automatons. They are not anti-teacher.  

I know and I think most of our readers know that not all those who support ed reform are wealthy.  I don't believe that those who support ed reform support all ed reform ideas. 

But the reverse is also true. The power of ed reform DOES sit with some very wealthy, very powerful individuals and groups.

We then come to the funny part of her op-ed:
If anything, what they are is way too quiet. Education reformers have allowed a small group of people to control the debates and misrepresent their views and experiences.  (Editor's note; her "way too quiet" was in italics and we print quotes in italic so red was added for her emphasis.)

Ed reformers too quiet?   With the money and power they have to command attention?  To create pseudo-education groups that somehow become "sources" for media?  To prop up existing ed reform groups?  Please.

And who is this "small group of people" she references?  Is it the union?  And how, pray tell, how does this small (yet powerful) group have the ability to control the debates?  I'd like to know because it would surely help my work.

One party line of the ed reformers (and, disturbingly, one that Superintendent Banda seems to be using but I doubt he is an ed reformer) is this "children before adults" line (or "adult concerns" phrase.  Anyone who says that there are large numbers of people who care about public education only because it suits their own personal needs is wrong.

You cannot separate that teaching IS a job but it's also a calling.  But teachers do get to advocate for their workplaces and their jobs just as any other group does.  I just don't believe that teachers (or others who support public education) are just concerned about their own livelihood.

Then she goes off the rails:

The rhetoric against education reform cites the influence of corporate-backed funding. It is true that many education reform initiatives are supported by wealthy philanthropists and foundations. However, their combined contributions are a drop in the bucket compared with what governments and unions spend. In fact, total philanthropic spending amounts to only one-third of 1 percent of total K-12 spending. 

Well, that's because "public" education is the government's job so certainly they spend a lot of money on it.  I believe, via McCleary, that in Washington State, that IS the responsibility of our state government.  She also doesn't state what "governments and unions" are spending their money on.  Anti-reform?

She ends on a mixed note:

Doing so, however, will require a much more robust and open-minded conversation. Seattle is known for its progressive approach to human rights, environmental stewardship and marijuana, yet it maintains a rather parochial view on education. Our region’s students and their parents deserve a balanced and informed explanation by those of us who support education reform.

Seattle has a "parochial" view of education?  While other states (and districts) long for things like international education, Montessori and STEM, Seattle Schools has them.  SPS didn't need the threat of charters to be innovative.  Parents got that ball rolling DECADES ago with our alternative schools.  Somehow Ms. Mitchell must have missed this.

I agree with the need for dialog so that more of us are united in more and better ways to educate all children.  I myself have reached out to a couple of ed reform people only to be rebuffed or ignored.  I'm not sure what else to do.

I also agree with the "balanced and informed explanation" by ed reformers but I'm still waiting to see that happen.

 My op-ed to the Times:

I spent over 20 years being a public school parent in Seattle and 15 years as a public education activist, working for a stronger school district and helping to raise awareness of education issues.

I haven’t met a person yet who thinks all is well with our current public education system. But ed reformers go a step further and call our public school system “a mess”, “a cesspool” and other demoralizing phrases. That kind of hyperventilated talk doesn’t help.

Education activists want to talk about it all – the good, the bad and the ugly. Ed reformers will only talk about reform in their terms and not fully-fleshed out ones.

Much of the ed reform talk is just rhetoric – it’s words like “angry”, “afraid”, and the very tired “status quo.” Noted ed reformer Michelle Rhee said cooperation is “overrated.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently used Twitter to lash out at “white suburban mothers” for not supporting the Common Core standards. It’s gotten to the point that Stanford University even offers a class on rhetoric and ed reform.

It’s hard to start a conversation with that kind of assumptive language.

It's also hard to deny the money in ed reform. On one side, you have the Gates Foundation with $38B at their disposal. And then you have Diane Ravitch, a former deputy secretary of education in the Clinton Administration and her public education blogger colleagues. Who really has the influence?

Besides the Gates Foundation, there’s also the Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation and the infamous Koch Brothers and their shadowy group, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).

That much of ed reform is based on top-down,market-oriented goals isn’t surprising given these groups.

What is amazing is that the fight against ed reform isn’t a small group of people in any single area of the country. Parents in New York state are pushing back against their children’s’ student data being placed in a data “cloud”. Communities in New Jersey are fighting charter expansion. In a strange bedfellows twist, Tea Party activists and other right-wing types are allied with moms and others who don’t support the new Common Core standards. This is a nationwide uprising that is not going to stop any time soon.

Nearly 25% of American children today live in poverty.* What’s interesting is that the wealthy activists who are driving the ed reform conversation don’t seem to get that poverty and its effects are real. That they believe a single good teacher in a classroom (and Washington State has some of the largest class sizes in the country) could change outcomes for those students without help is baffling.

Activists believe teachers should be in schools that are fully-funded and provide supports to students with challenges. Activists believe the principal/teacher relationship is a two-way street. Activists don’t believe in “grading” schools any more than you would grade your legislator or city council member.

Finally to note - no other country in the world is following the U.S. lead on ed reform. Not with charters, not with testing, not with grading schools. In fact, Finland does just the opposite of what we are doing in the U.S. and has the highest scores in the world. All their teachers are in a union. Even China is backing off on testing and homework.

It would be great to have both sides meet and find common ground. But it’s hard for public school parents to do that if they feel marginalized and shushed by those with wealth and power.

* http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html


chunga said...

Great op-ed Melissa! It puts me off whenever I hear ed reformers complain about the "tone" of their critics.

Anonymous said...

Michell's pity-the-poor-maligned-ed-reformer victim rhetoric is hard to take seriously.

The invoking of Teacher's United as some kind of independent teacher's group was another low point in the article.

The reformers seemed to think that money and brainwashing were all the tools they needed, but the masses have surprisingly (to them) caught on.

Being found out does not make one a victim.

--enough already

Anonymous said...

CHECK the Data....

Finland is NOT the highest scoring country on international testing.

TIMSS most recent release from 2011 testing:

Looking at all 57
education systems
that participated at grade
4 (i.e., both countries and other education systems, including
U.S. states that participated in TIMSS with individual state
samples), the United States was among the top 15 education
systems in average mathematics scores
(8 education systems
had higher averages and 6 were not measurably different).
Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong-CHN, Chinese Taipei-CHN,
Japan, Northern Ireland-GBR, North Carolina-USA, and
Belgium (Flemish)-BEL had higher average scores than
United States;

and Finland, Florida-USA, England-GBR, the Russian Federation, the Netherlands, and Denmark had average scores not measurably different from the U.S.
average at grade 4.
The United States outperformed 42
education systems

Looking at all 56
education systems
that participate at grade
8, the United States was among the top 24 education systems
in average mathematics scores
(11 had higher averages and
12 were not measurably different). Korea, Singapore, Chinese
Taipei-CHN, Hong Kong-CHN, Japan, Massachusetts-USA,
Minnesota-USA, the Russian Federation, North Carolina-USA,
Quebec-CAN, and Indiana-USA had higher average scores
than the United States; and Colorado-USA, Connecticut-USA,
Israel, Finland, Florida-USA, Ontario-CAN, England-GBR,
Alberta-CAN, Hungary, Australia, Slovenia, and Lithuania
average scores not measurably different from the U.S.
average at grade 8.
The United States had a higher average
mathematics score than 32 education systems.


2012 PISA results are next

-- Dan Dempsey

Anonymous said...

PISA 2012 results

Math scores for the following 5 tested jurisdictions.
Finland USA Korea Hong Kong Singapore

Percent of students scoring below level 1
Finland 3.3
USA 8.0
Koreaq 2.7
Hong Kong 2.6
Singapore 2.2

Scores at levels 4, 5, 6
Finland 23.2 11.7 3.5
USA 15.8 6.6 2.2
Korea 23.9 18.8 12.1
Hong Kong 26.1 21.4 12.3
Singapore 22.0 21.0 19.0

I think Jay Greene put it best regarding attempts to use international testing results for much of anything.

Let the BEST Practices Rorschach Test Begin

But just eyeballing the top performers and making up stories about why they succeeded based on picking and choosing characteristics about them is pure quackery. As I’ve said before, best practices are the worst.

So, reach for your Duck Dynasty duck quacker and watch as folks make up stories about the picture above. Personally, I see a cute little dog.

-- Dan Dempsey

Anonymous said...

sounds like Suzanne Dale Estey's platform - all those negative, angry, cynical, bitter and negative people don't want to work together to implement the bipartisan vision of LEV, SFC, TFA, KIPP, NCTQ, CRPE, ... Gate$ !!!

I wonder how many 6 figure a year ringwraiths Gate$, Walton and Broad are budgeted for? Even if there are ... 200 ? 500? of them - there are plenty of over credentialed under employed know it alls willing to bow and scrape for that kind of coin - PLUS - you get to be in pictures with fellow reformite$


Mother of MS and HS students said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mother of MS and HS students said...

Actually, both "education reformers" and "education activists" agree that poverty makes it more difficult for children to learn. Neither "Education refomers" nor activists "believe a single good teacher in a classroom ALONE could change outcomes for poor students. " "Reformers" do believe that strengthening teacher quality is perhaps one of the most powerful levers -- and one that the public dollars can (and should) have influence over. (We can't go into every child's home and get every parent a high paying job or off drugs.) But we can make sure that when they come to a public school, they have a high quality teacher, skilled in his or her pedagogy and supported to do their best work.

Activists -- and reformers-- BOTH believe teachers should be in schools that are fully-funded and provide supports to students with challenges. Activists -- and reformers -- believe the principal/teacher relationship is a two-way street.

And I don't see the concern about grading schools-- or teachers. Most employees get performance reviews. That's good management. As I see it, the problem is that my teacher friends have told me they do not get the kind of regular quality, multi-perspective feedback that helps any professional improve their practice. They have a principal do a "drive by visit" a few times a year. That's one reason we have a huge range in quality -- from some great ones -- to some terrible teachers that are ineffective but left in the classroom because we have not leverage ot make them either get better or get out of teaching.

And yes, we grade our legislators and city council members every few years. It is called A VOTE!

I think we'll all get further if we focus on what we have in common.

Anonymous said...

But we can make sure that when they come to a public school, they have a high quality teacher, skilled in his or her pedagogy and supported to do their best work.

How can this be done?

Meanwhile in February comes a movie:

Building the Machine

a movie about Common Core State Standards


I just do not see how there is any mechanism to provide or assure us that ... a high quality teacher, skilled in his or her pedagogy and supported to do their best work will be present in every classroom.

Recent actions on the national stage seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

It seems more likely that the move toward Massive Online Courses with little or no "teaching" are on the way.

-- Dan Dempsey

Melissa Westbrook said...

Mother, first, next time a shorter name.

You said this,
"Neither "Education refomers" nor activists "believe a single good teacher in a classroom ALONE could change outcomes for poor students. "

Actually, Ms. Mitchell DID say that. Read her op-ed. She didn't say poor students, she said all students.

You also said this:

"Activists -- and reformers -- believe the principal/teacher relationship is a two-way street."

Funny but she also left that out of her op-ed and focused on principals having all the power about who is in their school.

You said "employees" get performance management. But not businesses. So why would an entire school - with so many variables - get a grade? Any parent can go to OSPI and look at a long list of variables about any school and decide. Anyone who looks at one letter grade and believes that is the entire output of a school, well, that's someone who wants an easy life.

As I said, I would like to find common ground. Hard to do with the name calling and refusal to talk with others. I've extended my hand but no answer.

balada said...

Here is part of my comment that I also left at the seattletimes.com

Ms. Mitchell's assertion: "The preponderance of data clearly demonstrates that teachers are the most important school-based factor in student achievement. This is not to say that other factors do not matter — just not as much. Great teaching trumps everything else: curriculum, technology, even class size."

My response: I think this is a good place to start the debate, but if this constitutes “setting the record straight”, it sounds more like a broken record as I’ve heard this for years. As another commenter said, the bigger correlation is socioeconomic background of families. But let’s look at the variables mentioned above. There was a recent Department of Education study that looked at the effectiveness of different types of math curricula and the correlation with test scores and the impact was significant when controlling for other factors like teacher tenure and excellence (Discover math methods did NOT fare well in this controlled study). The interesting question around class size needs to be asked: If a great teacher has 30 kids vs. 20 kids, how much more effective can they be? If a mediocre teacher has 30 vs. 20 kids, what is the impact? Given that teacher effectiveness is a difficult topic and certainly can’t be reduced to only standardized test score progress. Has this been studied? Do we know the point of diminishing returns on class size even for effective teachers? Meaning, if you have a great teacher, at what point are they unable to be effective due to class size, 30? 40? 100 kids? I think it defies common sense to say that class size is not important.

More importantly, why is this a single variable problem? Is there any public policy issue that can be reduced to a single variable? Is it a zero sum game? If we focus on teacher quality does that mean we shouldn’t focus on class size or curriculum when there is data to suggest that addressing those issues can be impactful? And isn’t there a series of interesting questions about their interdependence? Meaning that keeping great teachers may be deeply dependent on how many kids they are asked to manage every year (given their high standards, don’t they feel frayed at the edges if they are dealing with 30 first graders vs. 22?) or that being forced fed curricula they know doesn’t work and have to spend extra time every night creating materials that do work, doesn’t that impact job satisfaction? And to suggest that we not factor in the socioeconomic issues underlying performance issues is not responsible. This does not mean we cave to another single variable problem statement (over simplified by ed reformers) of “until we solve poverty, we can’t solve educational issues.” This means looking across the nation and acknowledging that when controlling for socioeconomic factors, some districts do much better than others in addressing the needs of poorer kids. So even that is potentially addressable in terms of school and education policy (and can be decoupled from poverty programs that the government implements or doesn’t). Let’s have a real debate on this.
(part 1 of 2)

Lundi said...

Propublica posted an interesting story about childhood poverty with U.S. ranking 34th out of 35 top nations in childhood poverty.

When it comes to child poverty, the US ranks 34th among 35 developed countries: http://propub.ca/1cw7wcu

What those numbers mean for one young girl, one of New York City's 22,000 homeless children: http://propub.ca/1cwsWGo from The New York Times

Anonymous said...

balada asks: More importantly, why is this a single variable problem?

Answer: Because only a single variable - "teacher quality" - allows for a single convenient scapegoat: The Fat-Cat Unionized Classroom Teacher. Add more variables, like facts and truths, and the slogans don't work.

In light type at the bottom of the article, it states "Seattle resident Kimberly Lasher Mitchell is co-founder of Inquiry Partners, a professional development and education consulting firm." What a surprise, and for 23 years she's been "in Education" - but not in the classroom save for her 2 years in TFA, which naturally qualifies her as an expert teacher.

Upton Sinclair got it right when he wrote, "It is difficult to get a man (or woman) to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

It's clear the Times is pulling out all the stops in concert with whomever and whatever they can acquire via common interest in pushing the Ed Reform agenda in Seattle. Expect a lot more of this tripe from those who depend on the same troughs for their livelihoods.

Folks: For the thousandth time, follow the money. This is all about who controls the public purse strings in the future. When asked what kind of government the founding fathers bequeathed upon us, Ben Franklin said: "A Republic, if you can keep it."

In the end, that's what these battles are all about. Not whether your son or daughter works for Boeing or Amazon someday.


Anonymous said...

I think curriculum should be a much bigger focus than it is. My son had an excellent math teacher at the Center School. She came from the well regarded International School in Bellevue. But here in Seattle she had to teach a discovery type curriculum and my son was completely lost. We supplemented with an outside tutor but it still did not overcome the weakness of the curriculum.

Now it is many years later and we STILL have this terrible math. How many math adoption committees will it take to get a better math curriculum? It is inexcusable.

S parent

Anonymous said...

My kid has a disability and is now in high school. Indeed. Teacher quality is the ONLY thing that matters. Period. You can all cry about poverty. In our case, poverty isn't the problem. At all. "Poverty" is just an excuse for why the system doesn't work. Or an excuse for teachers who won't/can't/don't want to teach particular students. I've seen them every year, and my kid has suffered them year in and year out. Around 20%. Sure. All things being equal - poverty will always degrade a kid's experience. So what? That really isn't the point. This year, we've got a first. My child has ALL great teachers. Yes the teacher is the thing that maters most... AT SCHOOL of course. And it is immensely impacting. To have 100% of your kid's teaching staff firing on all cylinders, well it makes a tremendous difference. And no. It surely isn't about the books. If your kids are as smart as you all say they are, they should certainly be able to keep up no matter the chosen books. For crying out loud, we've got the internet now, and anybody can clarify, quantify, and repeat any topic they chose... especially if they're in high school. There's absolutely no shame in being a public education advocate, but neither should you stive to be a public school apologist.

-Seen It All

Anonymous said...

From "The Economist"
Dec 7, 2013
page 62 (International)


The fall of a former Nordic education star in the latest PISA tests is focusing interest on the tougher Asian model instead.


-- Dan Dempsey

Anonymous said...

An excellent teacher will not succeed with a poor curriculum. We have gone so far in the discovery math direction that basic skills are not being taught. It is why so many students place into remedial math in college.

Seattle Public School administrators sold this math to parents by saying it would give children greater abilities to problem solve. They called it a more creative solution than the dreaded drill and kill of past textbooks.

In reality, the text heavy approach of discovery math is confusing to many students, especially those with English language or attention deficit challenges. Textbooks without examples are unhelpful to students and parents.

I sure hope the new board at SPS can address this weakness. The past board and administrators did immense harm to students.

S parent

Melissa Westbrook said...

Seen It All,

"I've seen them every year, and my kid has suffered them year in and year out."

What schools have you been at? Very sad if every single teacher your child had was poor quality. And now you're at a school where every teacher he has is good? That's quite the change.

No one here is a public school apologist so I'm not sure who you are referring to.

S parent, Director Peters spoke out at the Board retreat about the math curriculum being on her radar. She has not forgotten what she ran on.

Anonymous said...

I know Marty is a big supporter of better math in SPS. I volunteered my time to help her with written materials in her campaign. Sharon Peaslee and Sue Peters should also help.

I am just frustrated it is taking so long, given that parents have complained about the math for years. The past board members were asleep on this when they selected new curricula. They never questioned the administrators and cheerleaders for discovery math, like former OSPI director Terry Bergeson.

S parent

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