Education Under Fire – Laws – Feb 12

so i tend to avoid education threads for the most part, for a few reasons. but boojum rules and i’ve been asked to share my thoughts so here we go.

for those of you who don’t know, i’m a high school english teacher working in california. i worked for a university teacher credentialing program before this, and i’m just dorky enough to study education and ed policy in my free time (there’s less and less of it the more into teaching i get), so i’ve got a bit of experience in and around these issues. hi, i’m laws, nice to meet you. i’ll be speaking primarily about education in the u.s.

public education is on fire, and i don’t mean in the nba jam way. there is no aspect of public education that is not saturated with problems. the problems are large and far-reaching and interwoven but i do not have the luxury of believing they are also insurmountable. teachers cannot allow themselves the placebo of hopelessness. that would, in a very real way, make me a worse teacher and degrade my self-efficacy. the first reply to this thread was “yeah the state of education in america is basically worthless but that’s what you get for basing your primary school model on factories and also on 400 year old german christian teaching models” which is exactly the sort of radicaler-than-thou semi-informed babble i have no room for in my life. there is no intelligent thought that begins, “the problem with education is ___”.

public education in america has been under siege for decades now. it is being systematically dismantled from multiple angles and its assets handed out piecemeal to private interests. their vehicles are vouchers, charter schools, standardized tests, interventionist and punitive policy, and more. throughout our lives, educational entities have been trending toward centralization: larger districts serving more students, controlled more directly by the state, controlled more directly by the fed. access to funding is the carrot, and the stick has sharpened over the years from “if your state/district is not in line you have to do a lot of paperwork to explain why and have a plan for when you will be!” to “we’re shutting down your school and firing all of you” (this last is one of obama’s additions to federal ed policy). this trend toward centralization mirrors and is abetted by the growing power of the presidency.

we can’t talk about what problems we want to solve in a vacuum, and we can’t (or i won’t) throw up our hands and say erase it all and start over, because there are people at the ends of those sentences, kids and teachers in classrooms. public education in america is explicitly about americanization, about making functional american citizens; as an arm of the state, public education is the prime tool in this work. post-reconstruction, education became mandatory for american children. at the turn of the 20th century we built an average of 400+ (mostly small) schools every day to handle the influx of immigrants. womens’ lib saw the last major demographic shift in the workforce as women became the predominant workers in public schools, though they are still the minority in administrative positions. after the world wars, we scrapped recitation for critical thinking (curricularly speaking), though really what all of these shifts were about was making american citizens. it continues to be, producing students measured and compartmentalized by multi-billion-dollar standarized tests, as neoliberalism consumes more of our economy and policies.

what education should be, and what we should aim for, is crucial to our understanding of the problems. education should be about doing better for our kids’ kids than we’ve done for our kids. that is, we should provide more – more opportunities, more understandings, more compassion – to students, so they can provide yet more to their students. very rarely will you hear in any public debate that education is about improvement, except in the manner of standardized test scores. more often, you will hear that education is about sustaining (the status quo), though the terms will be more sly. i once phrased the ideal aims of public education as “the promotion of an egalitarian, equitable society in which government institutions promote socioeconomic equity, social mobility, and the democratizing effects of shared experiences. therefore, schools should be public, free, compulsory, and integrated because it is a great way to fight centuries of discrimination while producing an educated and self-sustaining democratic populace”. schools have a lot of work to do to get there.

i would like to return to this trend of centralization. as education is defunded and dismantled, the effects are felt locally – see the growing charter school movement and sustained low pay of teachers as just two examples. districts and states, therefore, are ever more beholden to promises of access to federal and state-apportioned funds, so long as they cop to state enforcement of federal guidelines – see Race To The Top here. this means that the federal department of education, once seen as disposable by the right wing, has become a powerful implement for their goals. in the classroom, in my day-to-day work, i want nothing to do with RTTT, and yet i know that centralization is not the evil here, because despite all of the failures of public education, it is still the best avenue for achieving large-scale ideological change. and if we are to undo the stranglehold of neoliberalism, we need a literate, critical populace. we need public schools and we need to harness the centralized structures already in place. we have lots of problems to tackle, beginning with making schools a safe place for queer students and disassembling capitalistic and patriarchal notions of learning as measurable by expensive tests. schools can do these things with the proper support and enthusiasm. it is absolutely possible but it will require a sea change in how we conceive of and administer scholastic institutions.

you have to imagine that there is, necessarily, a contingent of teachers who go into the field conscious of all of these issues. they intentionally assume positions within this giant entity, for little pay and less job security, for as long as they will or can, in order to do some good and some damage control. it’s a big part of why i do what i do. i give no credence or quarter to those who interject with any of the silly canards about the low-skill of the job, the long vacations, the unions protecting bad teachers, and so on, because the well was poisoned long ago and i don’t have time for nonsense. apparently i have an hour and a half to write a missive for lf, tho. ha ha ha ha.

might as well show y’all the example i referred to regarding RTTT. i wrote this almost two years ago now but this is the current sharp stick:


Blunt Tools in Sharp Relief
How mass layoffs in Rhode Island illustrate fundamental imprecision in current federal education policy

On February 23, 2010, Rhode Island’s Central Falls School District Superintendent Frances Gallo fired the entire staff of Central Falls Senior High School, including teachers, administrators, and staff support, a total of 93 people, as the final move in a negotiation with the teachers’ union. Termed a “turnaround,” this model of school reform was one of four options Superintendent Gallo faced after the teachers’ union balked at the district’s previous offer. Journalists, pundits, and bloggers have written much about the union’s gall in demanding contract salaries for extra work and about the district’s nerve in taking this drastic action.
Almost all of this writing is misguided or misinformed. To understand what happened in Rhode Island, we need familiarity with a federal program called Race To The Top, terms like “turnaround” and “reconstitution,” and the processes involved in teacher compensation. What we need most, however, is familiarity with the classroom and community context in which this occurred. We can access this context through publicly available, raw data.

Let’s start with what Race To The Top (RTTT) actually is.

RTTT is the most recent incarnation of market model-driven education policy and the flagship policy of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Like No Child Left Behind (2001), the Goals 2000: Educating America Act (1994, 1996), and the Improving America’s Schools Act (1994), RTTT enacts increasingly interventionist and punitive measures on schools deemed to be inadequate or failing. It accomplishes this by setting standards and benchmarks for districts, schools, and states and then rewarding them with disbursement of federal funds for subscribing to its provisions and meeting goals. Schools, districts, and states that do not comply with RTTT programs are not eligible for those federal funds, and schools and districts that do not meet federally-defined educational goals are penalized.

If you’re paying attention, that last paragraph should have raised the following questions:

  • What are the standards and who sets them?
  • What form do the interventionist and punitive measures take?
  • What defines an inadequate or failing school?

The federalization of educational standards began in earnest in the mid-1990s, when Congress passed Goals 2000, the first piece of legislation that required states to set academic standards. Districts would oversee the implementation of standardized tests, administered by teachers, to gauge student achievement, and professional development would be made available to teachers. States were not quick to effect this policy, so when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was written as a successor to prior federal ed policy, included were various forms of punitive action to take against schools, districts, and states that did not comply or meet standards. The new millennium brought with it an unprecedented era of federal requirements and intervention in America’s classrooms.

Standards as defined – or not defined – by NCLB are the current metrics of today’s educational assessments, standardized tests being their primary vehicle. Tests are mandated yearly for grades 3-8, plus at least once more in grades 10-12. Each state must set testing goals for its schools, targets which are called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Schools failing to meet their AYP goals two years running are dubbed “In Need of Improvement” and subject to various forms of restructuring if future AYP goals go unmet.

Secondary schools must consider another metric in measuring their academic success: graduation rates. In order for a high school to avoid being labeled In Need of Improvement or as making Insufficient Progress toward its AYP goals, it must meet both testing and graduation quotas.

George W. Bush’s administration passed NCLB, and now Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack H. Obama’s administration has established RTTT, which adopts the structure of tying state-set standards to federal designations, funds, and interventions.

Let’s pause here and look at the situation in Rhode Island, where we have a sadly illustrative example of the application of this policy.

Central Falls Senior High is one of the most densely populated school zones in Rhode Island. The school has a carrying capacity of 960 students but exceeds this with an enrollment over 1,000. All of these students are drawn from the same square mile and a half. A majority of CFSH students are Hispanic and a quarter receive English as a Second Language instruction. A fifth receives Special Education services. The families of these students are staggeringly poor – commentators are reporting average yearly incomes of $22,000 – and nearly 80% of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged. They are also largely immigrants and in many cases itinerant. This is reflected in the school population, where a third of students cease regular attendance before the school year is out. We are speaking of a poor, unstable population that would present attendance challenges, to say nothing of instructive challenges, to the Platonic form of teachers.

The Central Falls teaching workforce has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks. The common claim has them earning average yearly salaries of up to $78,000, a number which should raise eyebrows among those familiar with teacher compensation. Fortunately, real numbers are available on some Rhode Island-based state watchdog databases, including, from which I was able to obtain some information about the teaching workforce that has gone unreported. Of 62 non-special education teachers fired:

  • 28 (45%) hold Master’s degrees or other advanced degrees.
  • 41 have advanced to the highest step of their contract salary schedule, indicating long employment with the district and hundreds of hours of professional development over their careers.
  • In 2007-2008, these teachers earned $3.94 million for an average base salary of $63,780, a cool $14,000 less than what is being touted so loudly by commentators. By way of contrast, the district administrators take home an average yearly salary of $123,230.

All of this indicates a seasoned and prepared workforce working in a tough setting with troubled students. By any rationale, these teachers should be making at least the purported $78k per year, if not more, especially those with advanced degrees. However, it is a truism that teachers make about one-third less than other professions of similar education levels, and so the common complaint is of an overpaid, greedy, and lazy teaching workforce. It did not take long for commentators to levy all three of these charges against the teachers and their union.

Here’s how it happened. Last year, Central Falls Senior High was identified as one of the six lowest-performing schools in Rhode Island, in terms of the two metrics set by the state (AYP and graduation rates). Having already earned the In Need of Improvement designation, district administrators were now under obligation to choose one of four models of top-down intervention to address the problem: turnaround, transformation, restart, or closure. The rather euphemistic first three are differentiated in whether and how much of the workforce of a school can remain employed there, and the fourth is all too clear. When negotiations between the district and the teachers’ union broke down, it was due to the district rejecting the union’s counteroffer for contract salaries for extra time worked. At that point, Superintendent Gallo sought and was granted approval to designate CFSH as a “turnaround” school. Under Race To The Top, a turnaround school must fire its administration, staff, and faculty, and is allowed to rehire no more than 50% of its faculty. (This model of intervention has its immediate progenitor in NCLB, where it was termed “reconstitution.”)

Put another way, under current federal mandates, once Central Fall School District decides to designate Central Falls Senior High as a turnaround campus, all the employees are fired, with the assumption that replacing the entire staff will improve student performance in Adequate Yearly Progress scores and graduation rates. Keep in mind the explicit goal of NCLB, taken from its title: “to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.” So let’s take a look at the actual numbers from CFSH.

Here are the Adequate Yearly Progress scores from the last five years of testing at CFSH in English and Language Arts:

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These scores are percentages out of 100 and indicate a generally positive trend. Every year shows improvement in test scores except for 2008. According to the state-adopted tests, the students’ language skills are improving, albeit gradually.

Here are the scores for Mathematics over the same five-year period:

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Notice the initial jump in scores from 2005-2006, followed by a small but definite decline in average over the next three years. Except for economically disadvantaged students, the scores from tests administered in 2009 are still higher than those from tests in 2005. In particular, pay close attention to the decline in the scores of economically disadvantaged students from 2007-2009. This sharp drop strongly indicates an external factor at work.

Now look at the graduation rates for students enrolled at CFSH under the teachers whose salaries I discussed previously:

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Graduation rates are notoriously difficult to measure, in part because they are so ill-defined at the federal level. For school accountability purposes, Rhode Island only counts students who receive diplomas from public secondary institutions toward graduation statistics. But this is another undeniably positive trend, with a strong gain from academic year 2005-2006 and small but measurable gains over the next two years.

However, according to the goals set by the state, CFSH did not improve enough from 2006-2007 or from 2007-2008 to shed its In Need of Improvement designation. In short, even where the students show decided improvement, they’re not doing it quickly enough for the school to retain its dedicated teaching workforce and staff support.

Now, the graduation rate fell drastically in 2009 to 52.5%. This statistical outlier suggests a factor external to classroom teaching, as the drop is widespread enough to affect students from many classrooms. For example, a sudden influx of immigrants to the Central Falls region would inflate the population of students at large; if these new students are not proficient in English they may experience less classroom success and be less likely to graduate; or maybe people have moved away from Central Falls. Perhaps the rising unemployment rate in Rhode Island, edging on 13% and one of the three highest in the nation, has pressured high school students to drop out and seek work to help support their families. Certainly something extracurricular is at play.

From all of these data we can conclude that Central Falls Senior High is a school with problems far outstripping the means of teachers in classroom. This is an overpopulated school in an undereducated, underemployed, and impoverished community, about to lose a well-trained teaching workforce under federal mandate as a result of its new, test-based designation. Superintendent Gallo has stated that the district anticipates resumes from Teach for America, which places teachers with no professional training into urban school, and a majority of them leave the teaching profession entirely once their contract expires.

The bottom line is that neither NCLB nor RTTT is interested in identifying the causes of academic failure measured by standardized testing and graduation rates that reflect little of the actual scholastic context. The primary directive of every one of RTTT’s four school reform models is a replacement or elimination of the scholastic workforce, which could be charitably termed myopic. At Central Falls Senior High, this has the ancillary benefit of busting the union, and newer, short-contracted replacement teachers will undoubtedly save the district money. The district, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and even President Obama have appealed to simple logic in finding fault with the school staff, and yet even a cursory look at the actual numbers and context suggests far greater issues than those touted in the media thus far.

In 2010, federal education policy is either unwilling or unable to identify the specific reasons for academic success or failure, and knows only how to fire and replace, at large, in a vacuum of test scores and graduation rates.

Welcome to the new accountability.

there is no one point to this giant post, except to show that education is the locus and the pressure point of almost every public domestic debate in america, that public education is absolutely necessary and requires nuanced thought to engage – nuanced thought beyond wrap it up teacherailures, that is – and that many of the debates orbiting education need a clear sociohistorical context if we want to understand them.