Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Letter to Assembly

Dear Assembly Member,
I am writing to express my deep and horrified reaction to the news that the budget and education reforms have again been linked.  The reforms that Cuomo wants to make to education will devastate our public schools, remove local control, and double down on testing for our kids.  Creating an evaluation plan for teachers where, regardless of percentages or not, test scores trump everything in determining whether a teacher can keep their job – well that’s just wrong and sure to incite mass chaos in a system that is already enduring years of defunding and destabilization because of our governor.  There are sure to be class action lawsuits from teachers who lose their jobs based on faulty tests that are WRITTEN ABOVE GRADE LEVEL, have “EQUALLY PLAUSIBLE” answer choices, and are developmentally inappropriate; and VAM that has been criticized widely by professionals, statisticians, and the public. 

Experience has shown us that ONE-THIRD of teachers vacillate from one effectiveness rating to another based on the VAM model and test scores.  How can the SAME TEACHER be highly effective one year and ineffective the next?  It is ludicrous.  And who will want to go into teaching in our state?  Enrollment at teacher prep colleges is already down 20-50% in NY!  We need quality professionals to teach our children.  Those harmed the most will be our teachers of children with identified disabilities, who show growth in a myriad of important ways, but not on a test.

If the goal is TRULY to better teaching and student performance, and NOT TO APPEASE THE HEDGE FUND CHARTER ENTHUSIASTS, then this is a horrible plan because it will cause teachers to focus even more on the test preparation that is destroying the education of this generation.  Parents have spoken out loudly and clearly, with mass gatherings and forums across the state.  Have you heard them?  Or do you choose to disregard what is best for our children for the sake of political expediency?  Do we really have to have civil disobedience with test refusals because our legislators refuse to listen to what the public demands?

Cuomo is so out of touch intellectually that he seems to not realize he is rushing headlong in the opposite direction of trends nationwide.  In Washington DC (where this whole debacle occurred years ago with Michelle Rhee) they dropped the weight of test scores from 50% to 35%.  Maybe that's because they lost 83% of their work force when they instituted an evaluation system similar to what Cuomo advocates.  Wisconsin has also given teachers more discretion in how student performance factors into their evaluations.  NJ has gone down to 10% weighted on the tests.   TN has also backed down from a reliance on VAM.

If I sound angry, I am.  If this assembly says yes to Cuomo’s backwards plan that will not only decimate our teaching force, but also make us look like fools to the rest of the nation, I will make it my mission to actively campaign and fundraise to prevent re-election for anyone who votes for this budget/plan.  And I am a woman who, unlike many politicians, keeps my word.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Sad Day for Schools in NY

Today was a very sad day for public schools in NY.  The legislature went along with most of what Governor Cuomo advocated as his "education reforms," really his thinly disguised plan to "break public schools" and fire teachers.

Most of us who care about our schools, our teachers, and our students are grieving today. We are having a hard time understanding how legislators could ignore the public outpouring of thousands of people marching and chanting against these reforms.  We are having a hard time understanding how money can buy a government, how corruption can win over democracy.  We will continue to fight.  I posted the following email, which was sent to my State legislators, Senator George Amedore and Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, today. It received a lot of attention in some of the facebook groups in which it was posted, so I am including it here in my blog.  Feel free to share, use or adapt however it suits you.  If I sound angry, I am.  But we can't get so angry that we stop working.  Keep fighting.  We have no other choice.

"I am asking as your constituent that you vote no on the proposed budget that is coupled with Cuomo's education 'reforms,' that will surely destroy public education in our state. Local control of our schools is NOT for sale and we expect you, as our representatives, to make sure of that.
A supermajority of NY voters have rejected Cuomo's plan for our schools. The deal that has been announced this morning, is simply unacceptable. Tying teacher evaluations to tests, instead of meaningful assessment and feedback, will lead to the firing of quality teachers. A plan to fire them after two years of unsatisfactory test ratings, based on an INVALID TEST and VAM that has been thoroughly debunked and called 'junk science,' by professional statisticians, education researchers, and professionals is nothing short of 'CRAZY.' Cuomo's disdain for teachers is palpable and his tirade makes no sense unless he wants the destruction of our public schools, firing of all union teachers, and replacement by nonunion lower quality workers. As a retired teacher, and a grandparent, I will not stand for this and thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers agree with me.
Those teachers most at risk are the ones we need the most. Special education teachers selflessly give to our neediest students. Because these students are often tested at grade level (regardless of their intellectual age) these teachers will never show progress on test evaluations. Their students show progress in a thousand different ways, but these ways are not going to show on a grade-level test. Also at risk, teachers of English Language Learners. Only 3% of these students show proficiency on the test because - duh - they do not speak the language yet. And gifted teachers or teachers of highly able students in excellent districts that have won national awards - these students often max out the tests and so do not show growth. Teachers in high-poverty communities, where psychological and social problems abound - these students are not going to show growth unless they have the resources of well-funded, well-staffed community schools where they receive social services as well as instruction.
A plan for 'drive-by' evaluators who do not understand the community in which a teacher works, and are at the control of our New York State gestapo-like State Ed Department which is filled with right-wing privatizers, is not acceptable. Your vote for this is not acceptable. My tax dollars being spent on evaluators who will demolish our teaching force is not acceptable.
If I sound outraged, it's because I am. Outraged and just plain flabbergasted that an unethical, corrupt, bully of a politician who has allowed hedge fund billionaires to buy his platform - that he can get his way with our own elected representatives is maddening. I am outraged that you have not stood up against this in a louder way, and so I am asking you to Vote No! on the budget with these "reforms." A good budget that is late is a million times better than a bad budget on time.
I have phoned to request a meeting with your office and I hope to hear from your scheduler in the near future."

Refuse the Test

When I was in third grade, I took the Iowa standardized tests.  Within a short amount of time, we received the results in a teacher-parent conference.  Because my mom was told that I needed "a challenge," she immediately bought me the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  I read them for hours, lingering on zoology, nature, and history entries.  When my interest started to wane, a set of Greek Mythology books appeared.  I spent hours curled up in a chair, reading and pondering each myth.  Then, a set of classics – Tom Sawyer, Black Beauty, Little Women, Treasure Island, and others…all books that broadened my world and my background knowledge.  I was given access to a typewriter so I could write my own newspaper.  My zest for learning, reading, and writing exists to this day.  My guess is that little of that would have happened at home without the feedback that was received because of a standardized test.  It quite possibly changed my life.

Fast forward to today, because the tests our children take in school are nothing like the Iowa’s.  Here are my best reasons (there are lots more) why refusing the test is the right thing to do, for your student, for your schools, and for the teachers in our state.  

#1.  Analysis of the text and questions on the Pearson-created exams show that reading lexile levels are sometimes three, four, or five grades beyond the student's age.  Kevin Glynn, a former test developer with Pearson and NYSED, does an outstanding assessment of third grade ELA tests here.  Russ Walsh, a literacy expert, has found similar reading levels on the PARCC ELA and math tests.

#2.  According to a teacher test instruction manual on the EngageNY website, questions for the third-grade ELA test are written with "equally plausible" answer choices.  What that means, is that students have to use abstract reasoning skills to discern between answers to pick the "one best choice."  Cognitive research based on the work of Jean Piaget states that abstract reasoning does not develop until age 12.  Simply, these type of questions are not developmentally appropriate for those under 12.

#3.  Even if the tests were written fairly and on grade level, which they are not, there is the huge matter of cut scores being manipulated.  According to a letter written by 500 New York State principals, "New York State Education Department used SAT scores of 560 in Reading, 540 in Writing and 530 in mathematics, as the college readiness benchmarks to help set the “passing” cut scores on the 3-8 New York State exams. These NYSED scores, totaling 1630, are far higher than the College Board’s own college readiness benchmark score of 1550. By doing this, NYSED has carelessly inflated the 'college readiness' proficiency cut scores for students as young as nine years of age."

As if that were not enough, cut scores are manipulated after the tests are scored to give the state the results they want.  John King announced in 2012 that 70% of students would fail the test, and after cut scores were set, that's what he got.  Last year, cut scores were adjusted downward very slightly in order to show a small amount of "improvement" from Common Core reforms.  The bell curve that they use to set these scores means that NO MATTER HOW WELL STUDENTS DO, there will be a bottom standard deviation, a middle (which is the average), and a top.  Even if all students scored above 90 on the tests, they would still rank them with a bottom 16%.  And NYSED adjusts that bell - to get the deviations they want.  The main point, is that scores are worked by NYSED to prove whatever they want them to prove.  And right now we seem to have a governor and a State Education Department, that want to prove public schools are failing, so they can privatize and push their charter school agenda.  

#4.  There is no transparency.  Pearson protects the questions to maximize their profit, even though NYS has paid for the questions.  A test cannot be valid without transparency.  A test cannot "inform or assist instruction,” if the item analysis is never given to teachers.  Test creators cannot be held accountable for poorly written questions and misleading answer choices if we never see the questions.   Anyone who tells you that these tests are to help your teachers teach students better, is blowing hot air.  It is simply not true.

#5. Pearson embeds product placement within the tests.  New York State Ed claimed this was because they were “authentic text.”  Not true.  I did research on the 2012 exams that proved a financial interest between Pearson and the companies that were mentioned.  The product mentions are disjointed and do not flow with the text.  Have you ever read a children’s story where the waiter dropped MUGS Root Beer?  No. 

#6.  According to the NYSED ELA Educator Guide, provocative and "emotionally charged" passages are used in the tests.  Normally, a teacher would have a class discussion around such passages and help students to analyze various perspectives and come to an understanding about the meaning of such literature. Our State Ed Department, however, has a gag order preventing teachers from discussing questions, even after the test is completed.  What this means, is that students never get to ask questions about this content and therefore never get a chance to pursue full understanding.  This has the potential for skewing student opinion and could potentially be manipulated for a political purpose.  We have a right to know what our students, the captive audience, are being led to believe.

#7.  Students are being data mined by the tests.  As students complete the tests, personal information, and each click during the time they are online, records data points on the student.   In OH in 2013, the state contracted with PARCC and that contract allowed PARCC to ask personal noneducational questions about the lives of students.  Questions like, “Does anyone smoke in your house?”  Or “Do your parents get along?”  True this is an extreme case, but federal FERPA laws are being weakened to allow data collection on children, and the sharing of that confidential information to “third parties."  Pearson also apparently monitors the social networks of students before, during, and after the test to check for “test breaches” or “brand mentions,” as apparent during a recent event in NJ. This is not okay. 

#8.  The tests are too long.  NY Reading and Math tests in 2014 took about 7 hours.  In comparison, the GRE and SAT takes less than 4 hours, and the MCAT for medical school – about five hours.  Test fatigue becomes a factor in student performance.  The length of the exams also leads to greater student stress.

#9.  Teachers are unfairly assessed using test results, and according to Cuomo's education reform proposals, may lose their jobs if rated "ineffective" for two years in a row.  These assessments are produced using what is called VAM - Value-Added Measurement.  VAM has been called "junk science," and has been criticized by the American Statistical Association and in a joint statement by the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education.  Fully one-third of teachers vacillate from one effectiveness rating to another, from year to year.  There is no rhyme or reason to the outcomes, and it does not do the job of giving verifiable feedback regarding a teacher's aptitude for their job.  Our best knowledge tells us that teachers have at most, only a 1-14% influence on standardized test results of their students.  VAM results are highly correlated with the poverty of the district, with teachers in impoverished communities receiving the lowest evaluations. Teachers most at risk of being fired based on faulty test scores, are those who are most needed - special education, teachers of English Language Learners, and of course, teachers in impoverished communities.  What new teacher will want to go into these jobs, knowing they have absolutely no job security.

#10.  Schools are labeled failures and targeted for takeover by the state, absolving locally elected boards.  School districts that have been taken over in other states have been doled out to for-profit charter investors, with little oversight or accountability.  There are many cases of charter fraud nationwide.  Cuomo's plans for "receivership," will eliminate local control.

#11.  As teachers strive to retain their jobs, more and more emphasis will go to test prep, reducing the amount of time that students can be engaged in projects, authentic assessment, and creative activities.  What do you remember most about school?  Taking a test, or perhaps a medieval fair your class acted out?  Sadly, there is little time left in the schedule for the all-day learning and enrichment experiences that my own now-grown children have as memories.  Test prep is crowding out the humanities and arts - social studies and even science are relegated to second or third fiddle status, with classes usurped for the almighty test prep.  Life is more than just ELA and Math.  So much more. And our children are missing out.

#11.  Perhaps the most compelling reason in my mind – and I think about my grandchildren – is the emotional/psychological component.  What does it do to our youngest learners to sit and take a test that is much too difficult for them?  Children know when they “don’t get” something.  Do they feel like failures?  Do they feel like they are letting their teacher or the school down?  Do they blame themselves and believe they “aren’t smart enough?”  These are questions that I know are first in the minds of parents and grandparents, because we want our children to grow up as confident learners who know they can grow, and who have the motivation to try.

For all these reasons and many more, REFUSE THE TESTS.  Starve the beast.   It may be our one best hope for our public schools and our children.  Write a letter, and/or send a note in with your child stating that they refuse the test and their test should be scored as a "999" refusal.  For more information, and forms, visit NYSAPE.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Cuomo's Fallacies and Follies Part One

There is a heck of a lot of hot air coming from the Governor's office lately.  I thought it would be a fun exercise to look at his arguments, repeated over and over in soundbytes nearly word for word, as if he is afraid to depart from the script.  Here are just a few of his claims, refuted by solid evidence.

1.  "New York State schools are failing."  This is an outrageous generalization.There are a number of studies that came out recently that prove this assertion false.  Education Week consistently ranks New York education at the top compared to other states, year after year. Their most recent ranking pegged us at 17th, but after adjustment for regional costs, 4th.  Not too shabby.  The most recent SmartAsset study ranked us 4th.  According to that study, we have the sixth-highest college attendance rate, with 71% of graduates attending college within twelve months of their graduation.  Graduation rates are steadily improving.  NY students excel in prestigious academic competitions like the Siemens and Intel science competitions.  By every measure NY schools are schools of excellence.  Those schools that are struggling, do so because of impoverished communities and a funding inequity that is the fault of the state, not the schools.

2.  "250,000 NY students went through failing schools in the last ten years."  Cuomo's assertion is not in comparison to the number of students who were enrolled in NY schools during that time period, and therefore is a meaningless statistic.  When you add the yearly totals, 26,853,740 students were enrolled in NY schools from 2003-2004 up to and including 2012-2013.  Working from Cuomo's figure of 250,000, that means that .93% - less than one percent - of students went through "failing schools."  And to put the ball back in Cuomo's court, those "failing schools," were underfunded by the state.  According to the Alliance for Quality Education, under Cuomo's leadership funding inequality among schools has risen to historic proportions.  If Cuomo were really concerned about failing schools and the students who attend them, he would work out an aid formula that gives additional funding where it is needed the most. Though several rulings in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit ordered the state to fairly fund the neediest schools, funding cuts have brought the financing back to pre-lawsuit levels. 

3.  "Only 38% of NY students are ready for college or careers."  Cuomo pulled this little factoid from the College Board benchmark, using SAT results.  Only one problem:  The College Board recently responded to enormous criticism that the test was not an accurate indicator of academic performance.  They have announced a change in the test to make it "more representative of high school curricula."  A measure is only as good as the validity of the tool which is used.  Using an SAT benchmark that is based on a faulty test, invalidates all claims based on that benchmark. The SmartAsset statistic that NY has the sixth-highest college attendance rate also refutes the claim.  And on a personal note, standardized tests don't fully show what students are capable of in college.  I did poorly on an ACT myself, yet graduated as valedictorian of my college, and had a 23-year career as a teacher.  Hmm.

4.  "99 percent of teachers were rated effective while only 38% of high school graduates are ready for college or careers.  How can that be?"  First of all, refer to #3 above for information on the "ready for college or careers" statistic.  Secondly, why wouldn't New York have 99 percent of their teachers effective?  We rank 11th in the nation for teachers who have gone through the rigorous national certification process.  NY teachers complete some of the toughest licensing requirements.  To achieve permanent certification, teachers must have a master's degree, pass professional exams, and have a portfolio review.  To get a tenure in a school district, they have to go through three years of probation with frequent observations.  All NY teachers must participate in ongoing professional development. 

Cuomo, your assertions are faulty and illogical, based on poor evidence, generalization, and vague suppositions.  It's almost too easy...given that you have a law degree and all, and I'm just an old retired teacher.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Open Letter to NYS Legislators

Dear Legislator:

I am writing to express my concern about the Governor’s plan for teacher evaluation and to share some information with you.  I retired last year after 23 years of teaching in Guilderland, NY, and now spend my time as an education activist.  I truly believe reforms like those the Governor proposes will destroy our public schools, dismantle our present high-quality teaching force, and keep prospective candidates from entering the career path.

Teachers are not against evaluation processes that are fair and that help them to inform their teaching, set goals for improvement, and hone their skills.  This process was continually refined BEFORE Cuomo decided to base a large chunk of the evaluation on test scores.  A couple of years before I left the field, our district (and most others in NY) started using the Danielson Rubric for observations and evaluation.  It is available online here:  http://erhsnyc.entest.org/ourpages/Danielson%20Rubric.pdf.

This thorough evaluation tool has 58 pages of domains and components for assessment.  Observations are done throughout the year by administrators who then meet one-to-one with the teacher and spend much time going over the feedback and setting goals for improvement.  Though I considered myself a master teacher, I always found inspiration in those meetings and I was thus able to continually make progress in my field.  I am attaching the pdf for this rubric so that you can see how extensive it is.  You would be hard-pressed to find another profession that cooperates with such an intense evaluation system, on an ongoing basis.

Here is my point:  if administrators already have the tool to properly assess their teachers, and to help them to improve – then if it is true that we have “ineffective” teachers – why are all teachers being held accountable?  It is the administrator’s JOB to assess, mentor, train and assist teachers wherever they are on their career path.  If there are issues, and I have seen this happen with burnout, teachers are counseled out by their administrators.  In severe cases NYSED can get involved and pull the license.  For new teachers, there is a three year probation time, during which assessments are even more crucial, and give a path to weeding out those who haven’t shown potential for teaching. 

I am also attaching a pdf of a brochure I created that highlights why Cuomo’s assertions about our teachers in NY are based on false logic.  First of all, if we go along with Cuomo’s thinking we have to believe that NY schools as a whole are failing – which is just NOT TRUE.  I am sure you know that Education Week ranked us as 17th, and after adjustment for regional costs, 4th.  SmartAsset just came out with a study that placed us 4th in the nation, sixth for the number of students in college, with 71% attending college within 12 months of graduating.  How does Cuomo’s assertion that only 38% tested college ready even make sense?  I call foul on this nonsensical and skewed use of testing data.  As we well know, the tests themselves are designed for failure, which is why so many parents across the state are protesting and refusing the tests for their children.  

In contrast to the Danielson evaluation, the APPR is deeply flawed, with fully one-third of NY teachers moving from one category to another on that measure.  Teachers most affected by basing their performance on the tests include those we need the most – special education and teachers of English language learners (ELLs).  Only 3-5% of these populations pass the tests, and their teachers are held accountable.  It is infuriating that those who spend their lives selflessly giving to our neediest students are punished in this way.  Who will choose to work with these populations when their careers are on the line, and if Cuomo gets his way, lose their livelihood after only two years?  I could go on with the reasons it does not make sense to give a grade-level test to students who cannot approach grade-level ability, because it is akin to child abuse, but that is another whole letter.

I am proud to say that NYS teachers are some of the highest-qualified in the nation.  The extensive process that occurs to even become certified in NY is one of the toughest in comparison to other states.  That is why I am not surprised that “only” one percent of NY teachers were rated ineffective.  What I am surprised at, is why legislators and the public at large do not seem to know that little fact. 

The bottom line is that THE MAJORITY OF NY TEACHERS ARE NOT INEFFECTIVE.  The issue is the populations that they teach.  Poverty, homelessness, disabilities, and other factors have everything to do with a test score that does not favor teachers.  Even teachers of gifted students are at risk, because those students often “max out” the test and do not show growth.  The present evaluation system is faulty!

Please do the right thing for NYS students and reject Cuomo’s evaluation plan for teachers and his punitive and draconian measures that will surely dismantle our public schools.

Monday, March 23, 2015

New York's Backdoor Voucher Proposals

Both the Republican-led NY State Senate, and Governor Cuomo, have proposed an Education Investment Tax Credit for this year’s budget.  Cuomo’s plan would give a tax credit of 75% of any contributions made to school scholarship funds, while the Senate plan would credit 90%.  What this means, is that individuals or corporations could give money to public schools, private nonprofit schools, and educational scholarship organizations.  Under Cuomo’s plan, any qualified contribution would net the donor back 75% of their gift on their taxes, up to one million dollars.  Basically, it lets individuals or corporations take money away from the state treasury, and requires taxpayers to bear the burden of a three-to-one matched donation.  The worry is that, even though Cuomo’s version of the proposal also includes public schools as qualified recipients, the scheme will divert tax dollars to private schools and thereby threaten the money available for public schools.

A criticism of both the Senate’s plan and Cuomo’s proposal, is that the term “education programs” is much too vague.  The definition of a “non-public school,” though making a point of including schools that are only not-for-profit, defines such a school as one that “provides instruction at one or more locations to an eligible pupil.”  An, as in one.  So could this be used for the purpose of home schooling as well?  Imagine if this were the case – everyone’s family members donating a scholarship to the home school, and receiving back 75% of what they gifted. 

And what about those charter schools?  Though Cuomo’s plan is worded to leave those that make a profit out of the picture, what about charters that have been calling themselves public schools?  Could charter schools rebrand themselves to fit the criteria of non-public not-for-profit schools while still paying hefty salaries to their CEO's? 

The massive lobbying for vouchers and tax credits across the nation is headed by the “Coalition for Opportunity in Education,” with hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner at the helm.  Even though the name of the organization sounds all social justicey, I rather doubt that they have altruistic motives.  The aim of all those who push for privatization is nothing less than the destruction of public schools.

Perhaps the most bothersome issue at play in this scheme is that in the case of religious schools, this “backdoor voucher” system is a way to bypass the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, with the state subsidizing a parochial education.  Political Research Associates reports that “In Florida and Pennsylvania, the two states with the largest private school choice programs (both are corporate tax credit programs or neovouchers), many of the students who receive neovoucher money attend fundamentalist Christian, conservative evangelical, or nondenominational schools.”  In Florida, 81.5% of the scholarships go to religious schools.  While many of those schools are excellent schools, some are Christian fundamentalist, teaching Young Earth creationism, climate change denial, or revisionist history.  Some schools openly teach hostility to other religions. 

Alan Singer of Hofstra University says, “Religious groups could charge the state for all sorts of “non-religious” services and outsource delivery to group members who would then donate money back to the organizations to subsidize their religious programs.” 

Of course, the tax credit is strongly endorsed by Orthodox Jewish and Catholic groups that are seeking to bolster their school funding in times of waning student enrollment.  Though I have sympathy for the plight of parochial schools, it is clear that the intent of our constitution is to separate church and state, and there are good reasons for that.  Should our tax dollars go to teach religion?  I think not. 

As Diane Ravitch warns, “Do not be fooled: this is not a conservative plan.  This is a radical plan.  It will send public dollars to backwoods churches and ambitious entrepreneurs.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Follow the Money in Pearson Tests

This blog was originally written on my personal blog in December 2014.

Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects (there are many) related to Pearson testing is the product placement that happens within exam questions.  On the 2013 NYS English Language Arts exam, for example, products mentioned included Mugs Root Beer (Pepsico), Melmac dinnerware, Lego/Mindstorms, IBM and FIFA.  I was curious about why these particular brand names showed up so I did a little digging.

After complaints occurred about the very conspicuous and seemingly unrelated-to-text product placement, Antonia Valentine at the New York State Department of Education stated that the product names occurred because of the fact that "authentic texts" were used by Pearson.  She was quoted as stating that "Any brand names that occurred (in them) were incidental..." See here for full article.  Actually, quick research on google reveals that the products mentioned were not so incidental.  Pearson itself, or a Pearson executive, had at least a cursory financial interest that can be tied to every mention.

1.  Mugs Root Beer It turns out that Rona A. Fairhead, who at the time the 2013 tests were published was the Executive Officer of the Financial Times Group division of Pearson, and had previously been their Chief Financial Officer, was elected to the Board of Directors at Pepsico in February, 2014. New Century Beverage Company, manufacturer of Mugs, is a subsidiary of Pepsico. This means that Ms. Fairhead would have had direct and continuing business dealings with Pepsico at least as early as 2013.  Did the product placement improve her standing with the company, and if so, did she pull strings at her workplace to make that happen?  Granted, this is a weak link - why not just mention Pepsi?  But perhaps they were hoping a product a bit removed would not connect back so easily to her work at Pepsico.

2.  IBM - There is a stronger link between IBM and Pearson.  The companies have had a business relationship since at least 2007, when they announced a five year $128 million IT agreement between the two companies.  See the article here.  In 2014, after the product placement, IBM dumped Prometrics, the company that administered IBM professional certification exams.  Who did they give that business to?  Pearson.

3.  Lego/Mindstorms - In 2013, Pearson already had an agreement with LEGO that allowed them to publish curriculum on how to build and program Mindstorms robots.  In June of 2014, Lego and Pearson gleefully announced a partnership that would produce and sell lesson plans and manipulatives (the LEGOEducation StoryTales) for enhancing ELA curriculum. See article here.

4.  FIFA - Even the World Cups Games are not immune to Pearson's reach.  It turns out that Pearson franchises e-learning centers in Brazil and has helped to teach English to over 500,000 Brazilian students.  In December 2013, Pearson announced that they had made a major acquisition of a Brazilian English Language Training (ELT) company named GrupoMulti.  Their press release boasts that the demand for ELT services will accelerate in the future, due to the FIFA World Cup.  (See article here.)

So though we have been assured by our New York State Education Department, that no money changed hands in return for the product placements on the tests, it does seem that there was at least a tit-for-tat going on and that the placements were, at the very least, beneficial to Pearson financial interests.  In the meantime, our children were subjected to nothing less than shameful brand advertising during mandatory standardized tests, all paid for courtesy of the New York State taxpayers.

Open Letter to President Obama

This post was originally written on my personal blog in December 2014.  I never received an answer to my letter, which was mailed.

Dear President Obama:

Why are you taking New York State’s failing educational leadership into your administration?

I am one of your supporters, though I do not agree with everything that you do.  I think you are a good man and leader, and I voted for you in both elections.  I thank you for your service, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

However, on your educational policy and administration, you unfortunately get a failing grade from this retired teacher, as well as from many other educators.  The reason I am writing to you today is the recent announcement that you will take NYS Commissioner John King into your administration.  My question is, WHY?

As Commissioner of NYS Education, King has had an administration full of controversy and failure.  Criticisms of his reign are many.  Foremost, the members of the NYS United Teachers (NYSUT) voted No Confidence and called for his removal in January of 2014.  Their press release stated that his rollout of Common Core had failed… “The commissioner has pursued policies that repeatedly ignore the voices of parents and educators who have identified problems and called on him to move more thoughtfully,” said NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi. 

King’s response to criticism has been defensive and contentious, proving that he has little ability to listen and learn from others, and few political skills.  When criticized that he was unwilling to listen to the voices of those who had issues with the too-rapid and botched rollout of core curriculum, as well as testing that caused the “failure” of  70% of NYS students, King scheduled parent forums in October 2013.  When parents attended the forums in large numbers and pressed him for answers that he did not have, his fear of contention caused him to cancel additional planned events.  Parents were astounded at his lack of respect for the input he himself had sought, and the NYS Allies for Public Education, an advocacy group of over 42 parent organizations, called for his resignation.

He is also not an effective manager or leader.  He led the effort to create the EngageNY core-related curriculum, but once more instead of planning an effective process by involving teachers and pedagogical leaders, he funneled $12.9 million dollars of RTTT money to private corporations.  The lessons have been widely criticized by educators, students and parents.  Even NYSED has acknowledged that the lessons are weak, and they have now backpedaled and created a plan for teachers to revamp the curriculum for 2015-16.  In addition, directives and materials that have come to educators from his office have been filled with grammatical and other errors.

He is the second NYS education official to take a job with your administration this year – Amy McIntosh, who oversaw teachers evaluations, is now a deputy assistant secretary.  Under the individuals that you have taken into your camp, New York State schools and students have suffered, and educator morale is at an all-time low. 

Most vociferous in praise for Commissioner King is the StudentsFirstNY, a pro-charter reform group that seeks to privatize education.  In spite of the fact that Commissioner King lived within the boundaries of one of the best public schools in New York State (the school and staff  have received numerous national recognitions for its excellence), King chose to send his own children to a private school that does not require the abusive testing he foisted on NYS students.

President Obama, I am very disappointed at your apparent lack of care for public education, and that you have apparently bought into the pro-charter, pro-privatization line of propaganda.  The fact that you are filling your administration with individuals who are pro-charter and who by all appearances are most deliberately causing the public education system to fail, causes me great concern.  The present system of testing is abusive to students.  Common Core curriculum has many errors and is not developmentally sound for students.  The VAM and APPR evaluation model for teachers is flawed and I have no doubt that will be proven so in court cases, but my fear is that before it is, we will lose too many valuable prospective and in-service teachers to recover easily from the blow.  Some states have already begun teacher recruitment efforts in other countries.  Please educate yourself about the true needs of public education before your administration leaves a negative legacy of damage that will take generations to become fully known.

What Education Warriors Can Learn From NY Fracktivists

This post was originally written and published on my personal blog, on December, 2014.  This has been edited.

On December 17, 2014, the anti-fracking community received an early holiday gift with the announcement that New York State would ban fracking.  This victory was an astounding turnaround from the situation just a few years ago.  There have been some news articles that have analyzed how/why this success occurred.  It made me wonder how those lessons could be applied in support of public education, which has been under attack from both pro-privatization government and business interests.

1.  Many small grassroots anti-fracking organizations sprang up in New York.  They had the good sense to unite their efforts to work together with not only state groups, but national groups as well.  We are also seeing this in the fight for public education, with outstanding groups such as the Badass Teachers Association, Save our Schools, United Opt Out, New York State Allies for Public Education, Alliance for Quality Education, etc.  So far, however, AFT and NEA, along with state organizations like NYSUT, have not matched the efforts of the smaller organizations and have not reached out to create a united front.  In fact, they have accepted money and defended Common Core. In my opinion, a change in union tactics and/or leadership is essential to combat the money and political clout of the reformers.  Political change does not happen until opposition becomes a united movement.

2.  Activation of the public is essential, and is a direct result of grassroots efforts.  This was particularly difficult in the movement against fracking because at the start of the movement, the majority of citizens did not even know what fracking was.  There was much scientific and research-based information that had to be disseminated.  Some of this information was/is difficult for the layman to understand.  Documentaries like Greenland, which were screened in homes and small cinemas, as well as on social media and video channels, were essential to the building of this understanding.  Even The Simpsons had an episode where their water was on fire, indicating that anti-fracking points were being integrated into our cultural media.  Once people understood, they began protesting.  Signs on lawns, rallies, and (thanks to the coordinated efforts of organizations) ONGOING continual protests at Cuomo appearances also helped to spread the word.  Social media was essential and letters, petitions, phone calls and/or visits to legislators were vitally important.  In the public education fight, most citizens do not understand what is really happening in our schools, and misinformation that comes from media attacks, teacher-bashing, "failing schools" soundbytes, etc., has convinced many that teachers are to blame for the "failure" of the public school system.  We are somewhat hampered by (understandable) teacher reticence to speak out, because they are in fear for their livelihood.  Creating a new public and social understanding of the web of deceit and misinformation that has been deliberately and carefully crafted by reformers is difficult, but not impossible.  Allying with parents in this struggle is essential.

3.  The movement did an excellent job of supporting the efforts of small governments to resist fracking.  Towns and cities passed prohibitive zoning ordinances that would keep fracking out of their communities.  When big oil and gas money and lawyers descended on them, communities were helped with fundraising efforts that enabled them to defend their resolutions in court, and they won.  This was a "pivot moment" in the fight.  We need local governments, school boards, and school districts to speak out and pass resolutions against the so-called reforms that are destroying our schools.  Defenders of public education need to be willing to go to court over unfair school/teacher evaluation procedures, civil rights violations that occur in testing (see http://badassteachers.blogspot.com/2014/12/bats-send-open-letter-to-secretary.html), unfair funding of public schools, and practices that favor for-profit corporations. A true partnership with teacher unions, public education alliances, local school boards, parent groups, and school districts should develop that would financially support the crucial legal plays that need to occur.  Everyone who is a part of the pro-public education movement should be attending and participating in their local school by attending board meetings, as well as joining and working with any number of activist groups.  We also need more representation on boards of education, parent associations, and other local government groups.

4.  Never underestimate the role of research studies, bloggers, and expert opinion. Scientific studies were crucial in combating erroneous and misleading industry studies on the "safety of fracking."  Pro-public education also has science and statistics on their side.  Studies that have decried the use of Value-Added Methodology (VAM) in teacher evaluations have been publicized, and solid evidence is building.  For example, the joint statement of the American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education on the failure of VAM models used in teacher evaluations shows that solid research is on the side of educators (https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/getting-teacher-evaluation-right-challenge-policy-makers.pdf). Likewise, evidence that US schools are not a failure is out there (see http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/education-uprising/the-myth-behind-public-school-failure), as well as the effect of poverty on school/student performance (http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/12/10/education-poverty-international-student-assessment-column/3964529/).   Statistics and articles like this need to be relentlessly front and center in our efforts. Thankfully, the public education movement has many outstanding professionals who have produced and shared a prodigious amount of information on their blogs, and their voices are being picked up by newspapers like the Washington Post and Huffington Post.  Facebook groups are sharing this information and communicating it to the public at large.

5.  Politicians need to be called out and made to define their position in public statements.  Wherever there is a chance for questions and answers, on public record, the right questions need to be asked.  Some people feel Cuomo painted himself into a corner by continually referring (for political reasons) to the need to wait on scientific studies before making a decision on fracking.  When the science came in against fracking, he therefore could not make a case on an economic level.  Cuomo seems not to be shy about voicing his goal to destroy the "monopoly" of public education.  That is why we need to follow the money trail that is behind such positions, and publicize efforts like that of Zephyr Teachout to call out the hedge fund manipulators (https://greatschoolwars.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/corruption_in_education.pdf), as well as the recent work by the Hedge Clippers.  Wherever there is a pro-privatization fight, there is dark money and political contributions.  Groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have people working full-time to advance their privatization goals, and they often write the legislation that shows up in our state and federal system.  Where political contributions are swaying public education policy, we need to find out, and shout it out!

I believe we can win our fight to save public education.  The future of our children depends on it.