Saturday, May 25, 2013

Race to the Top and the 10th Amendment -- a look back at 2009

Did you ever wish you could go back in time?  Here, let me help you. 

Reprinted below is a discussion of an editorial from August 25, 2009, written by Paul Riede, who often writes on educational matters for Syracuse's Post Standard newspaper.  (Link to the article here, although most of it is reproduced in segments in this post.)

Prophetically, he titled his piece "State education law misguided, but so are Obama requirements." I have already blogged about Obama's bizarre flip-flop on the relationship between testing and accountability, as well as the eerie stranglehold, the near-total dominion, that the wicked trinity of NCLB, Race to the Top and Common Core have on our beloved profession.

But I have to admit, when I was teaching in Syracuse in 2009, and there were whispers of, "Hey, there's a ton of money available for schools that increase student performance," my ears perked up a bit.  I think everyone was a bit suspicious, but I'm not sure anyone really saw what was coming.

Well, except apparently Paul Riede.

Riede’s 2009 approach to RttT was grounded firmly in that age-old GOP rallying cry: “States’ Rights!” In making his claim, he presents a middle ground that I want to discuss for a moment, that many anti-RttT, anti-Common Core, anti-NCLB people, including myself, often ignore:  that it’s important not to conflate the lambasting of current methods of implementation of Common Core and rubrics of Race to the Top funds dissemination (which is thoroughly justified) with the rejection of all notion of content-area standards (which is foolish).

Riede dodged this false dilemma, this either-fallacy, by saying (emphasis mine):
Clearly, student test scores should not be the only thing used to evaluate teachers. School officials who give too much weight to such tests to the exclusion of the many other means of evaluation would be doing a disservice to teachers and their students. In important ways, an overemphasis on test scores limits teacher creativity and encourages a "teaching to the test" syndrome that can stultify a learning environment. But to ban administrators from even considering how students do on such tests -- the most important of which measure basic math and literacy skills -- is ludicrous.
That is particularly true as schools gain the ability to use the tests to track students' progress from year to year. If one teacher manages to get most of his or her students to make a year's worth of academic gains while the teacher next door gets only half those results with similar students, that's something administrators should be able to consider.
In this, he made a valid point. He is rejecting the extremist knee-jerk reaction position, which is, in general, a rhetorically sensible thing to do.  The rabid sentiments expressed by educators (again, including myself) often do not allow for such nuance. Political activism typically pushes one to the most extreme version of one’s own position, as combatants strive to distance themselves as much as possible from their ideological opponents. Of course test scores should be looked at – somehow – and of course they should not be the sole basis for decision-making, nor should they be disproportionately, or even heavily, weighted (as they so often seem to be).  I’m not sure that even the most venomous test-haters out there would call for the elimination of all testing, so Riede’s criticism seems at least partially valid.

Riede was consistent in his moderate stance in criticizing the state of New York for its attempted response to RttT:
The Obama administration is taking aim at New York and other states that ban public school officials from considering student test scores when they evaluate teachers. The administration is right to question states about such counterproductive laws, passed at the insistence of teachers' unions. But it is dead wrong to punish them over what should remain state policy decisions.

Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan has proposed a "Race to the Top Fund" that would divvy up some $4.3 billion in federal stimulus funds to states that are pursuing school reform and have innovative plans for further improvement. But under Duncan's plan, not a cent of the money would go to states that ban the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. Placing restrictions on charter schools could also hurt a state's chances. That would appear to leave New York out of the running for any of the money, along
with California and a few other states.

Last year, the New York State Legislature and Gov. David Paterson succumbed to pressures from teachers' unions and approved a two-year ban on the use of student test scores in teacher-tenure decisions. The unions argued that the tests were not designed as teacher evaluation tools and should not be used as such.
Riede called the state’s argument “silly” and its ban on considering testing in teacher evaluation a “counterproductive law,” and expressed a wish that New York would lift their ban, for pedagogical reasons.  I call Riede's snap judgment into question here; there is nothing silly about arguing that "the tests were not designed as teacher evaluation tools and should not be used as such." And I think most, if not all, teachers would line up behind that statement quite happily.

By his comment, Riede seems to want to say that test scores are, or ought to be, one of many rubrics to be used in concert to assess students and teacher performance, and it’s hard to argue with that stance, although I think the more important factor is growth, as opposed to a single, decontextualized raw test score, as I try to illustrate here: 
Recently, I had a girl recently in an English 10 course who, at the start of the year, could not write a coherent paragraph, much less a coherent sentence.  It was an Inclusion class, and she was a special-needs student, with major written/expressive language difficulties.  But I and my aide, as well as the support systems the school provided, worked with her all year. She passed the course, albeit just barely, with some modifications for her needs - allotted time, occasional alternative assessments, etc...  -- but no modification in the rigor and standards I required for passing the course.  In other words, the content standards remained fixed, but we adapted our pedagogy to help her rise to meet them, we did not lower our standards for her convenience and the school's passing rate numbers.  At the end of the year, she took the New York State English Language Arts Regents Exam, which at the time was a 6-hour test given over two days (and because of her special needs, she would have had double the time, so imagine being forced to take a 12-hour test in two marathon 6-hour sessions).  This test had not one but FOUR full-length essays on it.  Click here, and look at June 2010, to see what I mean.

Passing was a 65.  She got a 59 on the exam.  I was ecstatic.  This was a girl whose level of writing started off only slightly better than my 7-year-old daughter's (maybe not even that) who came literally within one or two rubric points out of 24 of passing a major composition test with four essays -- not only were her skills improved, but also her stamina and attention and focus, to be able to have even finished the test.  Even she was happy -- "Well, I almost passed it!" she told me, smiling.

In the eyes of the State of New York, in the eyes of the Board of Regents, and in the eyes of the administration of the Syracuse City School District, however, she (and by extension, her teacher and the aides that attended to her tutelage) was a failure.
I would rather have a class full of 25 of this girl than a class full of students who could receive easy grades of A and B, but coast comfortably to grades of C.  But of course, a teacher who had the latter would be lauded for his 100% pass rate, and a teacher with the former would be fired.

I ask you: Which one is doing the real teaching?

I support the existence of standards – national content-area standards, even, and even of tests to assess performance within those standards – but the NYS Board of Regents has gone from being a board that primarily monitors course content and testing to a Sauron-esque Master of Puppets (Lord of the Rings and Metallica in the same noun phrase – top that!) with its slimy tendrils (Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn) reaching into all areas of pedagogical practice.  Now magnify that by a factor of 50, and you have what is happening at the federal level.

Clearly, a set of standards is an essential component of any functional educational system.  I absolutely reject the Libertarian and Objectivist (yes, I know that they are philosophically divergent views, but their political positions overlap largely) notions of full school privatization and total local/parental control over all content and standards, as expressed here last year by C. Bradley Thompson: 
Just as antebellum Americans in the North had to be roused, educated, and radicalized on the evils of government-sanctioned involuntary servitude and on the need to abolish slavery, so too 21st-century Americans need to be shown the horrors of government-run, involuntary schools and persuaded to abolish them. Americans must come to see not only that the public school system is failing, but also that it cannot be reformed—because, like slavery, it is fundamentally immoral.
It might not be such a terrible thing if the Common Core standards were allowed to continue to exist, and just kind of “sat there” as guideposts, instead of being forced down teachers’ throats at the point of a gun, with financial inducements, punitive measures, implied threats and consequences, and an inordinate crush of weighty bureaucracy designed to do nothing more than fatten Pearson’s coffers and increase the extent of government control into an area where, even if you successfully made the argument that it belongs, it certainly has no expertise.

Even Riede, who (in 2009) seemed somewhat sympathetic to RttT’s mission, made this argument back in 2009, not based on the absolute evil of RttT (this was before Common Core was birthed, ravenous and already snarling, from RttT’s festering womb and began suckling on its wretched mother's wrinkled teat), but on the idea that the Federal Government is just too involved:
The New York Legislature should repeal the legislation, or at least let it expire next year. But that decision should be a state one, not a federal one. Duncan's proposal to deny millions of dollars in potential grants to states that don't comply with his policy preferences is an example of the kind of federal overreach on education that many hoped had ended with the Bush administration.
How very Tenth Amendment of him.  It is an interesting exercise in political philosophy.  The federal government created a disastrous policy and signed it into law.  A state drafted a policy defense and signed it into law, but the state’s law itself was an over-response.  The federal government responded by threatening financially devastating punitive measures against the state for blocking the will of the federal government.  Riede argued that, even though the federal policy was a bad one, the state’s defensive position was just as bad, and should be repealed.  However, he argued, it was not the federal government’s job to force or coerce that repeal, since it was a states’ rights issue.

Riede’s solution?  For Duncan to grow the hell up and not be so petty:
Duncan should reconsider the conditions on his "Race to the Top Fund" and direct the money to wherever schools and teachers are working diligently and creatively to help students succeed.
And we all know how that worked out….

Can schools be trusted to keep to rigorous content-area standards without the government heaving its weight behind them?  Should government have any say in what schools teach?  How about how schools teach? (Not the same thing – one is content, the other is pedagogy.)  And if so, how to titrate it to an acceptable level? And who decides what is an “acceptable” level? Will government ever trust schools and schoolteachers again?  Was the failure really mine that that English 10 student only pulled a 59 on her final, and is there anything government can do to make sure that such a tragedy never happens again?

If you taught in New York State in the 70s and 80s; Is my perception of the shift in the NYS Board of Regents' shift in priorities on the money, or am I misremembering a non-existent glorious past because the present has become so exaggeratedly bleak?

This is perhaps not a simple black-and-white issue, as many pundits might make it seem (even, I fear, myself at times).  Any ideas?

I’m just

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