Monday, September 03, 2007

Destroying The School System In Order To Save It

by special guest reality-based educator

Here in New York City, we're all about data.

Mayor Moneybags Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have instituted their third reorganization of the New York City public school system in the last five years and whereas in the past it was all about "sameness" (as in all classrooms will have the same reading rugs and reading libraries, all bulletin boards in all schools will have the same measurements, all kids in each grade will be taught the same curriculum at the same time on the same day in the same way), this time it's all about creating “the most sophisticated achievement data system in the nation, which will allow us to focus on how well individual students are learning."

In other words, this time it's all about quantifying every part of the education process to a number and/or letter grade which can then be posted on the Department of Education website and used to close down schools, fire the teachers and administrators, get rid of the kids and start the whole thing anew for as long as they want until they finally throw their hands up in the air, say "It can't be done! We have to privatize it!"

Here's how that process is being done:

New York City public schools will be receiving letter grades this month (A-F) that will tell students, parents and school staff how their school is "performing." The letter grade will be posted on the NYC DOE website along with all the accompanying data (test scores, attendance stats, graduation rates, etc.) that went into making the grade. In addition, all New York City schools have also received "Quality Reviews" done by a British education firm that has graded schools as either "well-developed," "proficient," or "undeveloped."

Any school that receives an F is in threat of being shut down and any school that receives a C or lower for three years running will see its principal (and perhaps other administrators) fired. No word on what happens to schools that received "undeveloped" designations from the British education firm, but I suppose negative reviews like that will also be used to justify closing down schools, firing the staff and dispersing the student body around the system. (Interestingly enough, some of the people hired by Uncle Joel Klein to perform the Quality Reviews had their own schools shut down back in Britain because they were of poor quality. Perhaps Klein hired them because they know poor quality when they see it?)

Anyway, the brainchild of this "sophisticated data system" is of course Mayor Moneybags Bloomberg - the self-made millionaire who accumulated more money than god by creating a media company to track every ounce of data Wall Street and other financial and bond markets have to offer.

In other words, data has been very good to Mayor Moneybags and he sees no reason why he cannot take the same kind of data systems used to track investments, markets and the like and apply them to schools, teachers and kids. After all, if you're going to buy stock, say in a company like Bloomberg Inc., you want to know just how well that stock has performed over the last five years, what the price-to-earnings ratio is, what the highs and lows of the stock price have been and so forth. Therefore, doesn't it make sense that if you're going to send your kid to a school that you know how well students have performed in that school over the last five years, what the graduation rate is, what the teacher-to-student ratio is, and so forth?

Sure it does. At least on the surface. Especially if you have little exposure to what actually has gone into creating these grades and think the stats used are legitimate and on the up-and-up.

But they're not. The test scores used to justify these grades are as manipulated and hollow as any of the evidence the Bush administration used to justify invading Iraq. Pressure has been coming from the top to have test scores "rise." That pressure - starting with Mayor Moneybags, moving to Chancellor Klein, then to the principals of the schools, then to the assistant principals, and then to the teachers, has meant that many of these tests, given and graded in house, have miraculously "risen!"

How do you think the scores have gone up when they're graded by the very people being held accountable to the grades?

Let's just say that when the chancellor tells the principals he wants to see test scores increase and he doesn't care how and the principals inform the AP's they want to see test scores increase and they don't care how and AP's inform teachers they want to see test scores increase and they don't care how, test scores increase!!!

Amazing how that happens.

On top of this, the mayor and the chancellor will not release the testing methodologies for the exams they use to prove that the school system is getting better. Nobody outside of the DOE has any idea how the tests are developed, how many correct answers equals a passing grade and so forth. You see, it's all a secret. Like much of the "data" the mayor and the chancellor have collected over the past few years running the public school system, it cannot be viewed by anybody outside a tight circle top DOE and Bloomberg people. So if you were, say, an education expert like Diane Ravitch or a writer like Sol Stern (two notable critics of Bloomber's education reforms who once supported them) and you wanted to do an intensive analysis of the test scores to see if the increases are real or manipulated statistical noise, you would be out of luck. As a media tycoon, Bloomberg of course knows that he who controls the stats controls the story. Therefore you'll just have to take his words at face value when he says test scores are up, schools have improved and the improvement is a result of his reforms.

To increase the amount of "data" that can be collected, collated, diced, sliced and manipulated, the chancellor is instituting 8 additional standardized tests this year, 4 in math and 4 in English (the tests - or "periodic assessments" - will actually start in the Spring term because the company hired to create them, McGraw-Hill, has not completed them much else to do with the constant reorganization of the Department of Education, the "reform" was trotted out before it was actually workable.) The results of these tests will be put on line at the DOE's new (and barely working) website. The idea behind these tests and the public posting of the scores is "to provide timely and detailed information on students’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as their progress over time, to teachers, parents, and students." The DOE website claims that "There are no stakes attached to the results for schools, principals, teachers, or students." Cynics and DOE vets note that there are "no stakes" for the tests this year, as McGraw-Hill hasn't even created them yet and nobody knows what they look like, what they will test or how they will be scored, but the mayor and the chancellor didn't create these additional data opportunities for fun. It seems pretty clear that the "no stakes" tests, despite the haphazard way they are being created, will be used to evaluate schools, administrators, and teachers much the way the school report cards and Quality Reviews have been. Since the mayor and chancellor have been in the business of shutting down as many large schools as possible and opening new ones, it seems possible that the half-assed way these tests were created might even be intentional - they'll use bad test scores here to justify shutting down more schools, opening news ones and perpetuating the meme that the reform movement is ongoing and thus cannot be properly measured yet.

How long will it take to measure the success/failure rate of Chancellor Klein's/Mayor Bloomberg's "reforms"? According to Klein, a long, long time:

Mr. Klein, in an interview, said that he and the mayor have brought the “most profound school reform in America.” At the same time, he said, the school system is only adequate.

“I’ve always said that this would take seven years, minimum,” Mr. Klein said, and for the first time he expressed a desire to stay on, even after Mr. Bloomberg, in the hope of finishing the job. “It might be more like 10 or 12 years — a generation of students. If I can continue to do the work that’s necessary, I would like to stay.”

Since we are now on the third reorganization of the system in the last five years, another 5-7 years of Klein rule would mean at least three more reorganizations and lots more "data opportunities." Teachers, administrators, schools and students would all be held accountable for the data, while Chancellor Klein and his reform lieutenants would not because it takes a long time to radically rework a public school system.

Or so they say.

Critics say the constant reorganization is nothing more than an attempt to completely break the country's largest school system and provide the rationale for a privatized public school system run by one of the education management organizations (EMO's) like Edison Schools (Klein has hired the former president of the private school corporation, Edison, as deputy chancellor of the NYC public school system) or Greendot. The NY Times reports that Klein sees public school systems as "monopolies" that must be broken for the good of the nation:

Much of the way Mr. Klein is trying to transform the system is rooted in his longtime career as an assistant United States attorney general and antitrust lawyer — he is still trustbusting. He has sought to break what he regarded as a vise grip by the teachers’ union on work rules; to divide large failing schools into small schools; to put traditional public schools into competition with charter schools; and to end what he viewed as a monopoly by the mostly white, middle and upper middle class on good public education services.

Klein and Bloomberg - anti-union, anti-labor and pro-business - see education reform as a way to remake the public school system into a corporation. CEO's don't have to deal with union rules, they just fire who they want whether it's justified or not. CEO's can reorganize their companies anytime they want for any reason. CEO's don't have to listen to outside bureaucracies like school districts - they do whatever they want whenever they want. CEO's don't pay employees on pay scales, they offer incentives and bonuses for "productivity" and "success."

This has been the blueprint for the latest reorganization:

this month the administration is cutting principals loose to run their schools like independent franchises. The administration believes that principals are the best equipped to make decisions for their schools, and can best improve efficiency. Their job performance will be measured by a vast new storehouse of data on student achievement used to create a report card on each school — and a record on each principal.

This year, for the first time, the schools are offering cash incentives to students and administrators. Some low-income students will be able to earn $25 a test for doing well on periodic exams. Principals can earn $25,000 bonuses if their schools shows considerable improvement.

Some critics say you cannot run a school system like a corporation, of course. Treating adult employees as cogs in the corporate machinery is one thing, treating kids in pre-K to 12th grade like that is something else. Children are people, not investments, and cannot be educated solely by paying attention to data.

Other critics (myself included) say that treating kids like cogs in the corporate machinery is EXACTLY the purpose of the "reforms." The education reformers - Bloomberg, Klein, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs - are all CEO's and corporate officers with decidedly corporate agendas. Socializing kids into the corporate agenda (longer work hours, longer work years, less pay, salary by incentive, data accountability) is REALLY the idea behind all of the "reforms." You'll note that Bloomberg/Gates/Jobs have created an education reform movement for the 2008 election season known as Ed in '08 and their agenda is: 1) longer school days/longer school year; 2) more standardized tests; 3) national standards for these additional standardized tests; and 4) merit pay for teachers. This agenda is EXACTLY the one Bloomberg is slowly instituting here in New York City, along with a corporate structure where each school becomes an island to itself.

Critics argue that paying kids to do well on tests sets up a very scary reward system for the future (will kids learn only if they're being paid to learn?). Critics also argue that merit pay based solely on standardized tests privileges teachers with AP and honors students over teachers with lower performing students and special education students. How will merit pay and incentives be doled out fairly when the level of student achievement is so different through no fault of the teachers or the schools themselves? Critics also note how all these reforms have been done without any input from parents (it goes without saying that CEO's Klein and Bloomberg would do them without any input from teachers or administrators.) Parent groups are very angry at the chancellor for a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is his refusal to consult with them over anything. (But again, why would a CEO consult with his customer base? If they don't like what he's selling, they can go elsewhere...)

In addition, critics note the destruction of the centralized bureaucracy is going to create havoc system-wide:

“The latest reorganization is the most radical change in the history of the system,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has been highly critical of Mr. Klein. “For the first time, there are now 1,500 islands rather than one central system of command.”

Merryl H. Tisch, a member of the State Board of Regents, has another reason why the reorganization is ultimately harmful:

“What he has is loads of experiments going on simultaneously, but it isn’t clear which of these are working, and a large system like this does need some underlying structure.”

Nobody knows who to call tomorrow when something goes wrong. As the Daily News reported here, parents cannot get any answers to their questions from the schools or the DOE central offices. The NY Times reports that the latest reorganization has created havoc even before the first day of school:

Hundreds of teachers who had taught in schools that are being shut down gathered in Long Island City last week for last-minute placements. Many principals said they were not sure to whom they were supposed to turn if they had problems on the first day of school. And in the past few weeks, in some district offices, phone calls went unanswered for days at a time, according to a spot-check conducted by Ms. Gotbaum.

Klein says once all the reorganization is in place, there will be time to judge the results. But as I have noted again and again on this blog, the constant reorganization of the system gives Klein and Moneybags an excuse to say "Wait, you can't judge us until everything's in place." The few times they do want to be judged, they want it only on their own terms. They will cherry pick test scores and say "See - we're having success with our reforms!" but they won't let anybody outside the system look at the data closely. Plus, whenever they make changes, they do it overnight. The idea is to give the system "shock therapy" and make the changes so quickly that opponents cannot mobilize against them.

This is why the additional standardized test curriculum has been added even though the tests have not been created yet. This is why the bus schedule reorganization last year done by outside firm Alvarez & Marsol that was such a nightmare was done overnight. Make the changes before anyone knows they've been done.

And all of this is done without any oversight from anybody. Bloomberg and Klein long ago promised they would bring in an outside independent research group to monitor and assess the mayor's reforms and education policies. But the group has never been brought in. Klein and Bloomberg won't say why, but I can tell you EXACTLY why - their "reform successes" have all been smoke and mirrors and the illusions of success would crumble under ANY outside scrutiny by an independent research panel of education experts who know what they're looking at. But as Sol Stern, conservative critic from the Manhattan Institute noted here, Bloomberg and Klein don't want to be held accountable:

The Department of Education routinely undermines accountability with a public-relations juggernaut that deflects legitimate criticism of his education policies, dominates the mainstream press, uses the schools as campaign props, and, most ominously, distorts student test-score data. Without transparency, real accountability doesn’t exist.


Bloomberg, master manipulator of the media, knows EXACTLY what he's doing. The general press know little about education and cares even less to look closely at his "successes." They mostly report whatever his p.r. department publicizes uncritically and move on (as Stephen Colbert once said, the press often sees it's job to uncritically report word for word what political leaders say and then go home and work on that novel about the intrepid reporter who holds political leaders accountable for lies and misdeeds...) A real cynic would even say that reporters do not want to anger a potential future employer by writing anything nasty about him or his policies.

Given that the mayor has managed to hide his past as a serial sexual harasser with three separate sexual harassment lawsuits filed against him and a racist with a penchant for ethnic/racist "humor" (see here for one of the rare media stories about these problems), count me with the cynics.

In any case, as the school system enters its fifth year under Klein's command, kids, parents, teachers and administrators will be lab mice in Bloomberg's and Klein's grand "market-based accountability" system. Schools are on their own, the central system is gone, schools will be graded and held accountable with all the available data, more data-collecting opportunities are being added by the year (juniors in high school will now take at least 12 standardized tests - 4 math, 4 ELA, 1 practice ELA Regents, 1 real ELA Regents, the PSAT and the SAT.) The data will be tracked very carefully, released publicly (again, given their penchant for secrecy and data manipulation, one can only assume that what will be released is only what they WANT released) and those schools that do not perform well will be closed.

Given the mish-mosh creation process of the tests (we still do not know what they will look like or actually test), there is a lot of fear in the system this year. You can imagine that about ALL that will take place from now on is test-prep, test-prep, test-prep. In my school, we have instituted grammar curricula for all grades, ratcheted up the test-prep, decreased literature study (there is no time for it with all the test prep) and decreased other important education units. I, for instance, will probably not be able to teach my financial literacy unit this year. After school clubs have been canceled so that additional tutoring classes can be added.

The media, of course, reports little of the havoc (after all, Bloomberg's p.r. releases do not say anything about it) or the complete and total emphasis on test prep in the system. The shock therapy has been completed and the changes instituted. Klein and Bloomberg have gotten their way.

It's a shame that they will not be held accountable along with the schools, the administrators, the teachers and the students. But as the chancellor told the Times, reorganization takes awhile and the changes cannot be effectively evaluated until 10-12 years after they started.

By that time, of course, the complete destruction of the country's largest public school system will have been completed and Edison Schools and other EMO's will have been brought in to run things. Bloomberg/Gates/Jobs et al. will be publicizing the "successes" of the market-accountability reforms and pushing a national movement to do the same for districts all across the continent.

They will have saved the public school system by destroying it. And the corporate agenda (privatized schools, busted teachers unions, longer days, longer years, incentive pay) will be the norm.

I have said for a long time that the "education reformers" do not REALLY want an educated populace. After all, a truly educated populace might start to question why income and real wages for all but the top 5% have risen above inflation in 30 years. A truly educated populace might ask why they have to work harder and longer than their parents did to make less money. A truly educated populace might be less willing to spend themselves into debt for consumer crap they don't really need. A truly educated populace might no longer elect rich patrician politicians like Bloomberg and Bush who support policies of class warfare and the re-feudalization of society.

No, they don't want a truly educated populace. What they want is a populace just smart enough to be able to kinda add, subtract, read, write and run the offices, but not smart enough to know they've been getting screwed lo these last 30+ years.

So far, their reforms are right on schedule.
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