A Response to Congressman Peters

11 Jul

I received a reply from Congressman Peters (D-California 52) this April to my message against HR-5, “The Student Success Act.” The Congressman made several assertions concerning education that I discuss here in an open response.

Opening assertions by Congressman Peters:

“In an increasingly global economy, it is critical that we make educational investments that put our students in a position to compete with the rest of the world. For years, the United States has trailed countries like China and India not only in education investments, but also in student achievement. When crafting education bills, Congress should be sure that it is taking steps to close that gap, rather than broadening it.”

This paragraph states several widely held false beliefs. First of all the United States out spends India and China on education combined. According to the worldbank and a Chinese government data report for 2012, India spent less than 4% of GDP ($2.1 trillion) or about $80 Billion; China spent 4.2% of GDP ($10.36 trillion) or about $430 Billion; and the US spent more than 5% of GDP ($17.42 trillion) or about $800 Billion on education. Our education spending almost doubles India and China’s combined spending and per child we spend many times more than either country.

Student achievement measures depend upon what you want. If the goal is creative students who can innovate and lead happy lives then our system is clearly out producing India and China. One measuring stick might be Nobel Prize winners since 1949: America had 313 laureates; India 7; and China 8. Of the 8 Chinese, the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo who won peace prizes both are considered criminals – Xiaobo is still in a Chinese prison; four are scientists who earned their degrees in the United States or Great Britain; and only the two literature recipients were educated in China. To recap, since 1949 two international and widely recognized citations for Chinese educated students compared to 313 such citations from our world’s best American education system.

It is common for business and political leaders to believe that standardized tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that is promoted by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation are reliable indicators of school quality and student achievement. For several reasons they are not. Walter Hahn from the University of Utah recently returned to Europe to investigate the changes in education since he left. He reports that about age eleven most students are tracked into either a university path or various non-university paths. Testing of the non-university track students is not typical. Same is true in Asia. We test everyone. Researchers also point to many other problems with international testing.

It is true that US students have never been top scorers on international testing, but large segments of our students are very competitive. However, focus on testing leads to bad pedagogy. Professor Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon has written extensively about the problem with hyper-focus on testing in China. He reports that the Chinese government has been trying since the 1970’s to reform its test focused education system. However, because of the culture steeped in millennia of testing is so ingrained, Chinese parents insure test preparation. It is normal in China to put children in test preparation private academies after school and on weekends.

Some of my colleagues have been paid to go to China and demonstrate teaching while Chinese delegations searching for education improvement have visited and observed at my high school, Mar Vista High School. They do not care that our federal government labels my school as “failing.” No one in China thinks they have a great education system. Professor Zhao recently wrote, “The only way China will win the global competition of the future is for the West to begin doing education the way China does.”[1]

Standards based testing is misleading. Professor Haladyna and associates conducted a highly regarded study that shows as soon as high stakes are tied to these tests, their validity is undermined. When institutions, teachers and students gain experience with high stakes tests they find ways to focus primarily on test preparation. I was even taught by a consultant at a teacher training, “if it is not on the test, it is a waste of time to teach it.”

Another example of how high stakes undermine test results is the SAT. For three decades, SAT scores have gone up, an industry has emerged to prepare students for the tests and the predictability of future success based on test results has gotten worse. The data is quite clear that high school grades with all their flaws are much more predictive of future collegiate success than SAT test results.

Your colleague Congresswomen, Susan Davis (D-California 53), asked me “how can schools be held accountable without testing?” This indicates a belief that standardized testing is a valid measure of school or teacher quality. Today, few people outside of the testing industry believe that to be the case. When No Child Left Behind (NCLB) forced high stakes testing on the nation, it did not enforce school accountability. Ironically, based on testing results, public schools were blamed for the result of poverty by the political and businessmen who were actually responsible. Kind of anti-accountability don’t you think?

To Congresswomen Davis’ question, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) testing because it does not have high stakes attached is a reliable metric. The best school accountability is performed by regional accrediting agencies which send in teams of current educators who spend a week or more evaluating each school. They interview; administrators, teachers, students, non-certified staff and parents. They visit every class room and analyze all school documents including action plans. Finally they give useful feedback with a clear idea of what they expect in the way of improvement going forward.

I bring all this up because the re-write of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been revived. Thank you for voting against the Student Success Act this July 8. I am hoping if the Orwellian named Senate version “Every Child Achieves Act” ever comes to conference you can help improve this law.

Poverty is clearly the over arching problem in education. We have great public schools with the most educated work force American education has ever witnessed, but we have out of control child poverty and it shows up as the key driver in every statistic. Here is some data from the department of education:

In 2013, approximately 21 percent of school-age children were in families living in poverty, an increase of 4% since 1990. But that poverty is much more damaging to certain ethnicities and as this table reveals it is reflected in testing results.
Ethnicity                               White          Asian         Black         Hispanic
Living in Poverty                   13%             13%          39%            32%
NAEP 8th Grade Math           294              306           263            272
NAEP 8th Grade Reading      276             280            250            255

Pretty much all of the schools that were labeled as “failing schools” by NCLB and slated for closure or “turnaround” were in high poverty areas; while no schools in upper middle class neighborhoods were touched. Having worked in both kinds of schools, I can assure you the teaching in the wealthier neighborhoods in California is not significantly better than the teaching in poorer ones. Teachers talk disparagingly about being punished for working in the wrong zip code.

STEAM initiatives and federal test and punish programs will not solve the achievement gaps among schools as long as pervasive poverty is allowed to persist. Sending education dollars to charter schools that now have a known history of disruptive financial failure and fraud will only hurt America’s students. Please get the federal government out of the business of running schools. Give the schools back to local control. NCLB was a huge mistake and we need a course correction.

In 1910, Commissioner of Education Elmer Ellsworth Brown wrote about the genius of the American system of education:

“Our educational organization answering as it does to our federal plan of government presents peculiar advantages as regards the making of a varied flexible yet inherently unified system of instruction. It is an organization not readily understood by foreigners. It offers many obstacles to the carrying out of any plans for rapid and uniform improvement. Yet the self governing character of its several members is of itself an incalculable advantage. Whatever unity is attained must be an inner unity an agreement through conviction.”

The hugely successful public education system in America has always come from the people of their own volition adopting the education ideas that best fit their own community. Soviet style command and control education undermines the great crucible of democracy that is public education and dooms the creative American spirit. Please end the disastrous experiment in federal control of education.

1) Zhao, Yong. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, © John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2014.

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2 Responses to “A Response to Congressman Peters”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. New ESEA Continues “Reign of Error” | tultican - August 16, 2015

    […] recently wrote a response to my congressman, Scott Peters about his involvement in the house version of the ESEA rewrite. I […]

  2. Response to Dianne Feinstein | tultican - August 23, 2015

    […] win accreditation by their regional accrediting association. (As I have written about this in other posts, this is real accountability by professional educators looking deeply into school function and […]

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