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Education - even a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn

Publication Date: 2010-08-15

This is from Dailly Kos, Aug. 15, 2010.

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and even Dana Milbank occasionally writes a column that displays some real insight, as he does in today's On education policy, Obama is like Bush. He starts by referring to the summit held by the Department of Education on bullying, which included a speech by Secretary Duncan on the need to stop it, then in his second paragraph offers this slam-down:

But if Duncan really wants to stop the biggest bully in America's schools right now, he'll have to confront his boss, President Obama. In federal education policy, the president and his education secretary have been the neighborhood toughs -- bullying teachers, civil rights groups, even Obama's revered community organizers.

Milbank notes in the the recent obnoxious statement of Robert Gibbs towards critics of the President who would compare him with Bush. Milbank tells us the comparison with Bush is, when it comes to education, "spot on" -

If anything, Obama has taken the worst aspect of Bush's No Child Left Behind education law -- an obsession with testing -- and amplified it.

His very next paragraph makes this point crystal clear:

Obama has expanded the importance of standardized testing to determine how much teachers will be paid, which educators will be fired and which schools will be closed -- despite evidence that such practices are harmful. In the process, he's offended just about all the liberals involved in or advocating for education without gaining much support from conservatives.

Milbank points us at statements critical of the administration's education policy by civil rights groups, then by a teachers' union, and finally by a coalition of community organizing groups. In his column he offers brief quotes from each, so we read about "federally prescribed methodologies that have little or no evidentiary support" and "bad teacher evaluation systems" and rigid, top-down solutions that are not supported by research."

Milbank offers criticism from allies who complain about elitism and arrogance. He is absolutely spot on that the ideas driving the department are very much in tune with what the Center for American Progress has had to say about education. He does not say, but I will add, that many key players in the education department have come from think tanks and foundations whose ideas are in tune with those from CAP, from Education Trust and from the Gates Foundation, for example.

It is unfortunate that Milbank has to get some snark in, referring to some of the organizations opposing the President on education as "ossified interest groups" -- he does so when pointing out that a number of the state teachers of the year told Valerie Strauss how strongly they opposed using student test scores to evaluate teachers. Here I note that many teachers whose students do very well on such tests or --like those Teachers of the Year -- whose excellence and effectiveness as teachers is not in any doubt, oppose such use of test scores. We -- yes, I am including myself, as I fit both qualifications -- know that tests designed for one purpose usually do not allow you to draw valid inferences for another. We recognize that there are many subjects not currently subject to such tests, and do not believe the answer to that problem is to do what Michelle Rhee apparently intends to do in DC, which is test every subject. To quote yet again from Milbank,

There's nothing wrong with testing, but when you use tests to determine pay and job security, you inevitably induce teachers to turn children into test-taking automatons, not the creative thinkers that have been the most valuable product of American schools. Test obsession won't help the bad schools, and it will wreck the good ones.

He quotes from Diane Ravitch, not surprising given her outspokenness against this administration on education policy -- she was one of the first to connect the policies of this administration with those of the Bush administration, having at one point described Arne Duncan as Maggie Spellings (Bush's 2nd SecEd) in drag. Milbank also reminds us that the claimed gains in New York City under the Mayoral control of Michael Bloomberg and his handpick to run the city school lawyer Joel Klein were not real, and in fact were the result of inflated test scores, then turns to Harvard U testing expert Dan Koretz who again joins those who have pointed out that high stakes testing leads to distortion. This puts Koretz on the same side as Sharon Nichols and David Berliner, who tried very hard to point out the implications of Campbell's Law that "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor." They thoroughly explored this idea in their book Collateral Damage. Ravitch also refers to Campbell's Law, as does John Merrow in his recent book, Below C Level: How American Education Encourages Mediocrity and What We Can Do About it, a book to which I will be devoting several diaries here at Daily Kos, starting with a "review" in the next few days.

Many people have attempted to communicate with the Department of Education and with the White House how wrong-headed some of their educational policies are. We saw the President push back with his speech to the Urban League, and many people have experienced a response that is simply repetition of talking points or worse. This happened in two conference calls Duncan held with groups of teachers, some of whom are highly recognized in the profession - in one case of group of about a dozen a handful of whom were themselves former state teachers of the year.

Milbank concludes with a quote from someone he knows. This immediately follows his quoting from Koretz that "When scores are inflated, many of the most important conclusions people base on them will be wrong, and students -- and sometimes teachers -- will suffer as a result." Let's see how Milbank finishes his piece:

but try telling all this to the Obama administration. "There's an attitude that if you aren't with us, you are against us -- and therefore against children and reform," a Democratic friend of mine who runs an education advocacy group in Washington told me. The administration, she said, "tries to bully and condemn any opposition, even if it is from groups that should be their allies."

If Obama's interested, she's available to speak at the next bullying summit.

Let me be clear. There are SOME good things in what the administration is attempting to do in educational matters. But these heavily outweighed by those things that are destructive. They are insisting on raising the caps on charters without control as to what makes charters effective, when the bulk of the research says that on the whole charters do NOT perform better than traditional public schools. They are insisting on tying teacher compensation at least in part to assessments of student performance that are not necessarily all that accurate in their primary task of assessing student performance and which cannot be shown to demonstrate anything meaningful about the effectiveness of the teaching. They are pushing the states towards what will effectively be national standards the first stages of the development of which did not include the voices of teachers or of the professional organizations for the subject matter areas for which the standards were being developed. They seem to think that value-added assessment is a magic bullet when experts on assessment tell them it cannot support the purposes for which they want to use it. Here I refer you to a short Huffington Post piece by the late Gerald Bracey, posted in 2007, in which he refers to a previous piece he had done and reminds us that people working in value added assessment such as Henry Braun, Howard Wainer, Dan McCaffrey, Dale Ballou, J. R. Lockwood, and Haggai Kupermintz, who

acknowledge that it cannot permit causal inferences about individual teachers. At best, it is a beginning step to identify teachers who might need additional professional development.

There is a palpable anger among teachers and other education professionals towards the way this administration approaches many issues in education. We are grateful that it has twice provided state and local governments the funds to keep schools from being eviscerated by the loss of massive numbers of teaching positions. We are certainly not happy to find the likes of Kati Haycock of the aforementioned Education Trust bashing us by bashing our unions, blaming us for the fact that food stamps are being slashed (in the future) to pay for the most recent set of funds (which also apply to police, fire and others, but of course to Haycock and people like here it is all the fault of greedy teaches' unions).

I could add much more. This is long enough.

I had thought of changing my title, which I acknowledge is not all that descriptive. But Milbank, of whom I usually think his primary purpose is to prove how clever he is, and who has to my knowledge not previously focused on or demonstrated much understanding of education has today offered us an important column. The imagery of the blind pig finding an acorn seemed appropriate.

Part of what appealed to many in Obama's run for the presidency was his repeated emphasis on change happening from the bottom up. When many of us look at what the administration is doing on education we do not see any evidence of that. We see an approach that they and those on who they rely know better than those of us dealing directly with the students, that therefore they should be entitled to impose that vision -- which for the most part lacks any research demonstrating its effectiveness and in some cases is directly contradicted by what research there is -- upon the rest of us and we should shut up and support them. Otherwise perhaps if we describe some of what they are doing as a continuity with the Bush education policy --despite strong statements during the campaign of how they opposed the Bush education policy - we are, by the likes of Robert Gibbs, told perhaps we need to be drug tested.

That is bullying.

And don't tell us to shut up, ever. Don't tell us to be polite when we see the real possibility of the destruction of meaningful public education. We will have to live with the results of what you, the administration are doing. The administration needs to hear -- not merely listen to - our voices. If you shout us down, if you belittle us, then you are, as Milbank suggests, operating as bullies, unwilling to have meaningful discourse that might show that these educational emperors are naked.

Milbank found an acorn. We can only wish that some involved with educational policy in the administration might do the same.


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