Archive | August, 2015

Response to Dianne Feinstein

23 Aug

Senator Feinstein, I am responding to you via open letter to address not just you but as many leaders as possible about education policy in America. At the outset, I want you to know that I have admired you since those horrible days when Dan White killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone and you were called upon to lead a wounded city. This message is not an attack on you, but rather, it is an attempt to educate about a harmful and widely held misconception regarding education testing.

In the message to me you wrote:

“I recognize that standardized tests have clear limitations and are not a cure-all for our nation’s education challenges; however, I also believe testing is an important tool for measuring student and school performance in order to ensure that every child receives a quality education. Standardized testing makes it possible for parents to see the progress their child is making and teachers to know when to correct course in their instruction.”

Now, I realize that this view, though unsupportable, is and has been for some time the belief of a majority of politicians and education bureaucrats in our nation’s capital. In the past, I did not appreciate how deeply this idea had permeated political thought. It therefore left me completely confused about why both Republican and Democratic leaders abandoned their own principles when it came to education.

I wondered, “Why have Democrats adopted test and punish policies that have clearly become a key tool for destroying public schools? Why have people like Barack Obama advocated charter schools that are little more than publicly financed private schools with little accountability? Why do Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton all seem to believe that a massive testing program will protect schools in poor and minority neighborhoods?”

On the other side of the isle, it is just as strange. Since the days of Abraham Lincoln, Republicans have stood for individual rights and local control but for two decades they have authored laws transferring control of education from local communities to the federal government. George H. W. Bush signed legislation that promoted federal involvement in local schools and his son sponsored, as his signature achievement, the “No Child Left Behind” law that gave control of school policy to the federal government.

Why is Jeb Bush such a long time and until recently vocal proponent of federal standards of education (the poorly written common core and next generation science standards)? Why did Orin Hatch vote against the Murphy opt-out amendment to the “Every Child Achieves Act?” Why was even Ronald Regan’s secretary of education, Terrell Bell, an early leader promoting the federalization of public education?

A very witty blogger named Peter Greene posted a comment about the recent education policy debate by Republican presidential candidates:

“GOP pols have the message– local control is great and the American Way and they totally support it except when they have to take it away from places that suck. Parents should be free to choose from an assortment of great schools, or at least from the assortment of charter schools that we say they should have. And parents who want to exert local control by keeping their community school intact (like, say, the hunger strikers of Chicago or the protesters of Newark)– well, they can’t have it.”

I started to wonder if our entire political class had become completely corrupted by money and power. Fortunately, that did not really make sense to me. I now believe I have plumbed the essence of the dilemma. Our political leaders do not understand the limitations of testing and especially standardized testing. The truth is that standardized testing is incapable of evaluating teacher or school quality, but there is a widely held belief it can.

A book written in 1999 by the education writer Alfie Kohn points directly at the disconnection:

“… it is an open secret among educators that much of what the scores are indicating is just the socioeconomic status of the students who take them. One educator suggests we should save everyone a lot of time and money by eliminating standardized tests, since we could get the same results by asking a single question ‘How much money does your mom make?’”[1]

That is the point. Standardized testing has a tremendous correlation to the economic conditions of the neighborhood in which the students live. This is the only variable that does have a high correlation with testing results. The environmental component of test results is so strong that it completely masks inputs like quality of teaching or quality of school. For the past more than a decade we have been mistakenly destroying great schools in poor communities based on a widely held misunderstanding of what the data means.

The famed education measurement expert, Gene V Glass, announced this month that he is no longer working in education measurement, because of its misuse. He asserted:

“The degrading of public education has involved impugning its effectiveness, cutting its budget, and busting its unions. Educational measurement has been the perfect tool for accomplishing all three: cheap and scientific looking.”

Last spring I heard Professor Yong Zhao speak. In his often humorous remarks he said that American students have never compared well on international testing. He then said, “The real question is why America is still here?” This instigated much laughter. The point is that standardized testing could not elucidate the greatness of America’s schools.

Here are a couple quotes from Professor Zhao’s latest book:

“’Out of the one billion people who have been educated in Mainland China since 1949, there have been no Nobel prize winner,’ Zheng wrote in an article. ‘This forcefully testifies [to] the power of education in destroying creativity on behalf of the [Chinese] society.’”

“The only way China will win the global competition of the future is for the West to begin educating the way China does.” [2]

I realize that when the federal government spends large sums of money there must be some form of accountability. Standardized testing has no real benefit to schools and misleads governance. It does not provide meaningful feedback to parents or teachers and it does serious harm to the classroom by narrowing curriculum and encouraging drill and skill pedagogy.

It is a mistake for congress to make specifics of education policy such as requiring standards and testing, the tool of accountability. I can think of three requirements that congress could make of states receiving title I funding that would significantly improve schools:

  1. All teachers must be fully certificated for the course they teach. (Professionalism is important for success in the classroom.)
  2. No classes can have more the thirty-two students. (Class size is very important especially in communities suffering the ravages of poverty and these are the very communities title I is designed to support.)
  3. All schools must successfully 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 giving important feedback.)

As we know, the “Every Child Achieves Act” (S. 1177) to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Public Law 107-110) passed the Senate and will be conferenced with the House reauthorization bill, the “Student Success Act” (H.R. 5). Both laws enshrine federal requirements for standards, testing and remediation of schools that are judged failures by this regime. Therefore, I urge you to stop this bill until the profoundly damaging and wasteful testing requirements are removed. Please protect public education from circling vultures.

1) Kohn, Alfie. The Schools Our Children Deserve, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, © 1999, page 77.
2) Zhao, Yong. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Jossey-Bass a Wiley Brand, ©2014

New ESEA Continues “Reign of Error”

16 Aug

In September both the house and senate versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) are scheduled for a conference committee. Since 1965, title I of this law has provided money to schools with children living in poverty. That provision is beneficial, but it has unfortunately become the lever that congress uses to wrestle control of schools away from local communities and parents. Both proposed versions of this rewrite do exactly that.

The new ESEA should be blown up in conference and any legislator who supports the federalization of public schools should be thrown from office.

Many people I agree with most of the time say about the new ESEA proposal, “It is not perfect but it is an improvement over NCLB and it limits the power of the secretary of education.” That is all true but the proposed law still arrogates unwarranted power to the federal government; putting curricular choice and education theory in the hands of politicians and their patrons.

We already have a generation of teachers that have never seen education without standards and what Peter Greene calls the “Big Test.” This legislation ordering testing and standards will continue the real damage being done to our schools and children.

My title that says the new ESEA continues the “Reign of Error” is a tip of the hat to Diane Ravitch’s latest book. In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane recounts her journey from being an architect of standards based education and accountability as Assistant Secretary of Education in the George H. W. Bush administration to her present strong opposition to these ideas.

Diane tells of reviewing 20 years of work materials and coming to a new understanding. On page 13, she says:

“Before long, I found that I was reverting to my once familiar pattern as a friend and supporter of public education. Over time, my doubts about accountability and choice deepened as I saw the negative consequences of their implementation.”

Now, Diane’s old boss, former Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, is the chairman of the senate education committee. He is still very much enamored with standards and accountability. His version of the new ESEA states the purpose of title I:

“The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equitable, and significant opportunity to receive a high-quality education that prepares them for postsecondary education or the workforce, without the need for postsecondary remediation, and to close educational achievement gaps.”

Sounds wonderful but then the senators threaten to take away all federal money to schools with children at or below the poverty line unless they adopt the senate’s edicts on education. The house does the same.

Since more than 20% of children in the US live at or below the federal guidelines for poverty, state education budgets will be devastated if they do not comply with federal authority. States became dependent on these monies when it was originally offered in 1965 without the federal mandates about how to teach, what to teach and how to evaluate teaching.

The meat of federal control in the senate version of the new ESEA starts in section 1111. Here, senators transform local school boards into tax collectors who enact authoritarian mandates from federal and state bureaucrats. Parents and educators no longer have significant input into their own school’s policies.

From the senate bill:

Section 1111 paragraph “(B) describes how the State will implement evidence-based strategies for improving student achievement under this title and disseminate that information to local educational agencies.”


(A) IN GENERAL.—Each State shall provide an assurance that the State has adopted challenging academic content standards and aligned academic achievement standards (referred to in this Act as ‘challenging State academic standards’), which achievement standards shall include not less than 3 levels of achievement, that will be used by the State, its local educational agencies, and its schools to carry out this part. A State shall not be required to submit such challenging State academic standards to the Secretary.

(C) SUBJECTS.—The State shall have such standards in mathematics, reading or language arts, and science, and any other subjects as determined by the State, which shall include the same knowledge, skills, and levels of achievement expected of all public school students in the State.”


(A) IN GENERAL.—Each State plan shall demonstrate that the State educational agency, in consultation with local educational agencies, has implemented a set of high-quality statewide academic assessments that—
(i) includes, at a minimum, academic statewide assessments in mathematics, reading or language arts, and science; and”

This language that mandates standardized education held accountable by testing goes on for many pages. Then section 1114 describes mandated intervention strategies for schools that do poorly on the “Big Test.”

The ESEA rewrite in both houses of congress orders a behaviorist approach to education driven by the terrible pedagogical theory known as standards based education. It is a mechanized approach. The problem is that young humans are not mechanisms.

Even if standards were to be adopted they should be adopted by the local communities not amateur educators serving in the United States congress who have the power to impose their will on local communities that they have never seen.

Federal control of schools by forced testing is based on the belief that the “Big Test” accurately identifies learning or teaching. It absolutely does no such thing. The “Big Test” does reflect the condition of the neighborhood from which a school’s students are drawn; however, these conditions completely mask any test derived information about the quality of the school or its teachers.

Jessica Holloway-Libell and Audrey Amrein-Beardsley released a meta-study this July which cites overwhelming evidence that schemes like Value Added Measures (VAM) are completely unsupported by research. It is the latest paper in a long string of papers that show that evaluating schools and teachers by standards based testing is folly. It does not give any information about the quality of education. The “Big Test” is USELESS as a tool to evaluate teacher or school performance.

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

“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.”

The path of success in American education which has led to our great democratic social success and world leadership in: science, mathematics, literature, the arts and economics is local control. If education theories are good they will propagate. If they are bogus theories like accountability and standards which have never been adopted without coercion, they will die a natural death.

Authoritarian models always fail because they eventually adopt bogus theories by compulsion. The US congress cannot succeed as school board of America. Reject the new ESEA and its unwise usurpation of local school governance.

No to the ESEA Re-authorization

3 Aug

Whether it is the senate’s “Every Child Achieves Act” or the house’s “Students Success Act”, local control of schools is being dangerously arrogated to the federal government. The United States Congress has lost its way. They are turning local school boards into powerless tax collecting agencies that implement authoritarian mandates.

Many people that I admire say the Senate bill is an improvement over NCLB (the 2001 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)). Saying we will never get perfect, they council embracing the improvement. These new re-authorization bills do limit the power of the Secretary of Education, but both versions continue grabbing power away from communities and assigning it to federal bureaucracies. I say it would be wiser to live with the clearly flawed NCLB and work for a better law next year than accepting 5 years of mandated bad education theory and extreme testing.

Historically, it has been difficult to institute quick national change in education. That is how American public education achieved a greatness that is envied worldwide. It was only by their own volition that local educators adopted policies and those policies became widely implemented by dint of classroom testing and approval. Education policy was informed by the wisdom of the national education community. Harmful policies were identified and shunned.

When fads like “new math”, “phonics only” or “whole word” came along, they infected many jurisdictions but not a majority of the country. As their weaknesses manifested, these fads were abandoned before serious damage occurred.

The latest fad is standards based education and assessment. Even though graduates of American education have dominated academia, the arts and the sciences for the past century, there exists a constant constituency favoring a more behaviorist philosophy of pedagogy i.e. standards and testing. Business leaders are particularly enamored with behaviorism and the odd idea that schools should be run like businesses.

Standards based education is seductive to the uninformed. Its associated drill and skill pedagogy to ready students for high stakes testing is widely embraced by those who have no practical knowledge of good pedagogy. Although this education ideology has existed for centuries, it never appealed widely enough to spread across America. That only changed when federal lawmakers realized they could use the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act to exert federal control over local schools.

In 1978, Congressman Ronald Mottl D-Ohio 23 who trained in law at Notre Dame introduce a bill promoting education standards. It was the first time a bill was proposed that amended ESEA to promote a particular theory of education. Mottl’s bill went nowhere like bill (H.R.371) introduced the next year by his colleague who also had no education background, Tennyson Guyer R-Ohio 4.

In 1983, Ronald Regan’s Secretary of Education, Ted Bell went rogue and established a blue ribbon committee consisting of primarily business executives to report on education. They produced the infamous “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform”. It was a polemic and political, but was neither factually nor pedagogically well founded. History and serious academic research have consistently shown this non-peer reviewed writing to be a misguided amateurish analysis of a national strength. It was an ill-conceived politicization of public education but ironically, it opened the door for today’s misguided federal control of education.

The Department of Education under Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, was very pro-standards and testing. They facilitated a growing momentum for standards based education inside the beltway. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush signed into law first the bill providing federal money to research and promote standards. This amendment to ESEA was called the Education Council Act of 1991 and was sponsored by Senator Jeff Bingaman D-NM.

Within a week of her husband Bill being elected President in 1992, Hillary Clinton received a screed of social engineering from Marc Tucker known as the “Hillary Letter.” Republican Congressman Bob Schafer from Colorado was so disturbed by the contents of this letter that he had it printed in the congressional record. The federalization of public education was a central thesis of the eighteen page letter.

Amongst Tucker’s proposals was:

“Clear national standards of performance in general education (the knowledge and skills that everyone is expected to hold in common) are set to the level of the best achieving nations in the world for students of 16, and public schools are expected to bring all but the most severely handicapped up to that standard. Students get a certificate when they meet this standard, allowing them to go on to the next stage of their education. Though the standards are set to international benchmarks, they are distinctly American, reflecting our needs and values.”

Two years later, Bill Clinton signed the 1994 re-authorization of ESEA that required states receiving title-I money to develop education standards and standards based testing. This became the legal push and financial incentive for states to develop high school exit exams. When Liz Chaney loudly objected to proposed history standards, Clinton retreated from his all out push for standards.

By 2001, there was a substantial bipartisan agreement that the federal government should be in charge of education and furthermore, standards and high stakes testing were the path to education nirvana. Senator Ted Kennedy, Congressman George Miller D-California 11, and George H. Bush finalized the federal take-over of education with NCLB.

Maybe I am wrong and the politicians are right. Maybe John Dewey did not know what he was talking about when it came to effective education and we should ignore his warning against standards based education.[1] Maybe the great Japanese education thinker, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi was completely misguided when he warned about the deleterious effects of mechanized education and testing hell.[2] On the other hand, why don’t we test these ideas contradicting the pedagogy of beltway politicians and bureaucrats in the American way? Let local school districts, teachers and parents decide which philosophy of education is best for their communities.

1) Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916. Page 203
2) Bethel, Dayle M. Makiguchi – The Value Creator. New York: Weatherhill, 1973