Monday, January 20, 2014

Column: Asking the wrong questions

By Mitchell Robinson

Editor's note: This column was written in response to Tom Friedman's column Obama's Homework Assignment, New York Times, Jan 18, 2014.

When you ask the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers. Mr. Friedman has uncritically bought the corporate reformers' biggest lie: our educational system is a mess, and our public schools are in crisis. To "prove" these assertions they point to reams and reams of test scores, as if these scores are supposed to indicate anything real or true about students or learning.

Mitchell Robinson
Since Sec. Duncan likes to tell stories, here's a story for you about test scores: in Michigan, we have the Michigan Test of Teacher Certification or MTTC. There are two flavors of this test, which mimic the Praxis exams. The first one used to be called the Basic Skills Test, now it's the Professional Readiness Exam. The pass rate used to be around 95% for our students at MSU. The governor decided that was too easy (and most of us agreed), so he directed the Michigan Department of Ed to redesign the test, making it longer and more difficult. They did, but sadly didn't tell anyone they were doing so. Oh yeah--they also set the new cut score so that only about 26% of test takers would pass it. And changed the criteria for the test from the knowledge that a reasonably well prepared 19 year old person should know to the knowledge needed to be a successful teacher in the schools in Michigan--a pretty big leap.

So, the new test was administered this fall, and the vast majority of students--freshmen and sophomores--failed it. The fallout has been staggering--the state's schools will not be able to provide enough teachers for our schools, and thousands of students who had been planning and hoping on careers as teachers will be forced to choose new majors or make other plans. There has been real human damage--students being forced to drop out of school because they can't take the required classes they need for their degrees and can't keep their financial aid; kids dropping their music education majors and pursuing generic degrees; frantic kids and parents wondering what to do with their futures after being admitted by a state university in their desired major because of a single test score.

To address Mr. Duncan's assertion that we are not attracting "top students" to education, several of these students were admitted to our Honors College--to which only about 10% of MSU students get accepted. One of the students who failed the test had a 4.0 GPA as a sophomore, and the average GPA of those who did not pass the test was around 3.8.

It's easy to supply evidence for a manufactured crisis. The truth is that our schools were not in trouble until the corporate reformers started implementing their agenda--and surprise, surprise: now our schools truly are in trouble. That happens when you starve public schools of needed resources, narrow the curriculum to the tested subjects, attack the teaching profession by destabilizing unions, eliminating tenure and obliterating retirement and health care benefits, and demonizing students and teachers as lazy, stupid and uncaring.

To give the corporate reformers their due, their strategy has been brilliant--plant the seed of doubt about "failing schools," "bad teachers," and "evil unions"; legislate ALEC reforms that tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, then insure that those scores are so low that few teachers will be deemed "effective" by manipulating test content, cut scores, and scoring procedures; put pressure on school boards and administrators to adopt these destructive reforms with the specter of "emergency managers," appointed officials who come in to take over "failing" schools without the need to follow state regulations and policies, with the result that boards and administrators will enforce policies they know are wrong just to keep the emergency managers from taking over the schools...

The strategy is well conceived and beautifully executed. It has even fooled many teachers, who vote against their own interests in the name of "higher standards" that inevitably wind up being moving targets, a Machiavellian bait & switch. We had a number of teachers in Lansing vote for the very proposal that eliminated their positions, only realizing they had been duped when they received their pink slips.

We teachers are a particularly easy group to hoodwink in this way. We are not by nature very political--indeed, many of us chose teaching precisely because we were not interested in issues of politics or economy or policy; we just wanted to close our classroom doors, teach our students and be left alone. And now our naïveté has come back to bite us. We have lost control of our profession, and the wolves of Wall St are at the door. They see the schools as the last, great public "profit center", and are drooling at the untapped accumulation of public wealth ripe for their plunder.

And it's working, in part due to self styled prophets/profits like Mr. Friedman, who doesn't know what he doesn't know, but has always been led to believe he's the smartest kid in the room and now has swallowed the lie whole.

This corporate reform agenda is a set of solutions in search of a problem. We still aren't asking the right ones.

Like what can we do to reduce the staggering levels of child poverty, not just in our urban centers but across demographics?

Like what can we do to address the issue of food insecurity among our young, that contributes to so many students coming to school without the readiness to learn?

Like why have we become obsessed with measuring things that don't mean what we think they mean, and using those measurements to wreak havoc on kids, teachers, schools and communities?

Like why do we think that sitting young children in front of computer screens is an adequate substitution for a real education?

Like when did the notion of learning morph from the building and nurturing of personal relationships between teachers and students into a simple transaction of information, akin to an antiseptic banking model?

Like why do we endorse a curricular model that privileges STEM when a comprehensive education has always included the humanities, arts and physical education?

Like why do the other professions have boards of review of professionals that determine entry to the profession, establish policies, and enforce those policies, but education has ceded these duties to "civilians" who are clear about their lack of background in the discipline and value their ignorance as innovation?

Like why do we think that someone with a 5 week teacher "boot camp" is qualified to teach our children, but that someone who has devoted their professional life to our children and communities is the enemy?

Just as excellent teachers have learned to help their confused students by refocusing and redirecting, it's our job to help Mr. Duncan, Mr. Gates, Ms. Rhee and Ms. Kopp. It will take decades to undo the damage that has been done to our profession by Mr. Duncan and his comrades in the corporate reform movement, but we can begin by asking the right questions.

Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education at Michigan State University. Prior to his current position, Dr. Robinson taught music for 10 years in the Fulton (NY) City School District, and held collegiate appointments at the University of Connecticut and the Eastman School of Music. Dr. Robinson recently concluded a term as Academic Editor of the Music Educators Journal, and has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Arts Education Policy Review, the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, the International Journal of Education and the Arts, and Research Issues in Music Education. His research is focused on education policy and the mentoring and induction of new music teachers.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Q and A: OPS Board Member Vin Lyon-Callo

We're very pleased to bring you a discussion with Okemos School Board member Vin Lyon-Callo.  Vin is serving his first term on the Okemos School Board and is a professor of anthropology at Western Michigan University. He has a son in 7th grade at Chippewa and a daughter in 4th grade at Bennett Woods.  Vin and his wife, Sarah, have lived in Okemos since 2002.  Vin answered our questions via email.

Q: In recent years we have seen a tremendous amount of legislation coming out of Lansing which makes decisions about how Okemos and other districts are run (third grade Read or Flunk bill, the Vouchers for Vendors provision of last year’s budget, mandating “merit pay” for teachers, etc.), and erodes local control of all districts.  Do you think the Legislature or local school boards should be making these kinds of policy decisions, and why?

It’s actually not an easy question.   It’s nice to think of local control as universally desirable, but let’s recall that segregation, teaching creationism as scientifically equivalent to evolotion (or the outright banning of teaching evolutionary theory), banning books, and separate but unequal education also are/have been  products of local control.  On the other hand, just south of us in Indiana we have a governor who is trying to enforce what authors can be taught in university classes (advocating the banning of Howard Zinn) and we have states and the federal government imposing standardized testing in the name of progress.   Perhaps there is no ideal balance, but there should be some basic standards that all students should benefit from in public schools and, beyond that, give teachers freedom to teach. The trick is finding the proper balance between local control, community standards, and universally desirable ideals.

Q: We have also seen individual districts and schools be entirely removed from local control through the use of Emergency Managers, the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), and handing over to charter companies.  What do you think of putting districts and schools under state control in this way?

I find it shameful and embarrassing that such practices are allowed to occur.

Q: We have talked a lot about the EAA on our blog and in our emails recently. Do you support or oppose the EAA?

As presently constituted and functioning?  Of course not.  It’s a bad joke right now.  It’s based on a faulty premise that outside managers and private, for profit corporations will somehow transform the conditions in positive ways.  Let’s not ignore the fact that the children in those schools have not been doing well for many years, but I’d suggest that has much more to do with our broader failures as a society to create economically and socially sustainable communities where all children have a fairly equitable opportunity to thrive.  We are far from that and, thus, both the EAA and local control are simply distractions from the real work needed to create a just society.

Q: Some have the view that the EAA will only take over “failing” schools and so this is an issue that does not impact folks in Okemos, Haslett, and East Lansing.  Do you agree?

On the most basic level, the measures used to take over schools with emergency managers has much more to do with meeting financial conditions rather than academic performance.  The state sets guidelines and thus far local districts have managed to avoid that fate.  Okemos, Haslett, and East Lansing have continued to cut programs and decrease real compensation for staff for almost a decade while financial reserves continue to disappear.  We are not isolated from those pressures and could eventually fall into the situation.  Then, there is the concern that as emergency managers become more and more widespread, it may become much easier for that to eventually become the new common sense and become implemented more widely.  But, more fundamentally, I suggest that we all do better when we all do better.  We don’t live on an isolated island of privilege, but rather in a world full of other people.   Perhaps we’d all be better off if we created a situation where all children have an opportunity to thrive and make the most of their potential human capacity.  Pretending we are isolated from the broader community strikes me as callous, selfish, and misguided.  If we hope to reverse the current paths of increasing economic and environmental instability, we need to figure out ways of working together to create more sustainable global communities.  Of course, we can choose to just continue along the current path of increasing oppression for many with privilege for a few.  It works great at creating jobs in the incarceration industry.  But, that’s not the type of world I like living in.

Q: Often times those arguing for radical changes and experiments like the EAA and the Read or Flunk bill claim Michigan schools generally are failing.  Do you agree with that proposition?

Yes, I pretty much agree that many Michigan schools are generally failing but in very different ways than those advocating the EAA suggest. One obvious way that the schools are failing is in how the state funding system operates to institutionalize inequities by funding some districts more than others on the per pupil basis.  Most disturbingly, this unequal funding tends to exacerbate already existing inequities in that those districts that get more money per pupil tend to be relatively wealthier (for the data see:

What message does it send when the state provides much more on a per pupil basis for students in Bloomfield Hills or Gross Pointe than for those in Detroit or Kalamazoo?  Is it because the children in those wealthier districts need the extra resources in order to overcome the challenges of growing up privileged? 

Related is the policy of allowing local school districts to fund themselves more with local bonds.  I know the argument is that those in that district are supporting their community, but why do we want to continue with such a narrow visioning of community?  It’s why I was so torn about the recent bond in Okemos.  It’s great that we can agree to tax ourselves to fund computer devices for the local schools, but what about those children who are in districts that can’t possibly afford such a practice?  Are they not our concern? Are they not part of our community too?   Doesn’t this just increase already existing inequities and opportunities between different children?  Is that really the message we want to be sending through our educational policies?  Institutional structures and regulations that reinforce already existing disparities are indicative of a failure to me.

But, perhaps the major problem is that so many school districts have cooperated with the embracing of standardized tests and the related curricular focus on so-called “core” subjects (which, ironically mirror the messages from the far right in the 1970s who advocated a return to “reading, writing, arithmetics”) and a consequent loss of creativity and critical thinking skills (for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I’d strongly recommend Kenneth Robinson’s TED talk on “How Schools Kill Creativity”).  In Okemos, we at least maintain a strong music program, but I find the marginalization of art, philosophy, social science, language instruction, and science to be quite problematic.  How do we continue to not teach languages other than English until 7th grade (or, for that matter, computer programming or coding)?  How does it make sense to have a gifted and talented program so reliant on references to outside resources?  Is 600 students per counselor really ideal?  Are fewer school days than just about any other state or developed nation pedagogically sound?   So much of educational practices still focus on individualized learning and competition with little depth of critical exploration of subjects that students appear to be being taught more how to learn information that learn how to critically and intellectually engage the materials.  I see the results of that in my own classes as students coming to my university classes are increasingly excellent at spitting back what I tell them or writing to a rubric, but struggle with working together cooperatively or when asked to exhibit more creative thinking and writing. The thing is that none of these are really what any teacher or administrator I talk with want to do (many senior teachers will express real frustration with the recent trends if you talk with them privately); it’s the combination of pressures from inadequate funding, pressures to perform on standardized tests, and an increasing sense that education is primarily a form of training for employment that results in the failure of education.  So, I guess failure depends upon how you define success.  I’d like to see education that prepares students for lives as rich citizens able to take on the challenges of the 21st Century rather than just preparing them for competing in an increasingly exploitative labor market.

Q: As of September 56 Michigan school districts had budget deficits.  Some say local mismanagement and teacher compensation are to blame for these deficits.  What do you think is driving Michigan schools into deficit?

I am pretty sure that it’s not the development of new educational programs that is doing it.  School districts are experiencing financial distress because their costs are increasing faster than their funding.  In Okemos, for example, we have expenditures today of approximately 41 million dollars while expenditures were slightly more than 42 million dollars seven years ago.   Employees have not seen raises for many of those years, programs and staff have been reduced or cut, students and parents and the OEF have taken on paying for more,  class sizes have been increased, schools have been closed, bussing has been reduced, reserve funds have been spent, and properties have been sold.  Part of what has happened here has been a decrease in students which naturally reduces funding on a per pupil basis.  But, other expenses have increased (primarily health care and pension costs).    So, overall, districts are in difficult positions because the state government has been either unable or unwilling to provide funding consistent with the increased costs.   That’s the broader question though---why is the state unwilling or unable to afford the cost of at least maintaining the same level of support in inflation adjusted dollars?  I believe it’s part of a broader trend of neoliberal restructuring of life that has disastrous impacts on the lives of most people in the nation over the last thirty years.  It’s the promotion and embracing of policies and imaginings predicated on a misguided faith in the so-called free market, privatization, individualization, and deregulation.  The result has been a massive transfer of wealth into the hands of a tiny fraction of the population matched by an unwillingness to tax those with the wealth.  As most citizens become more financially insecure, emotional insecurities increase as well which lends credence to an increased security apparatus through the criminal justice system.  Take a look at state spending on “criminal justice” and compare that to education and public health.

Q:  The Snyder administration makes the claim that it has increased funding to K-12 education.  Is this a fair statement?

Sure, the administration can make that claim if you interpret the data in a particular way.  You could also easily provide alternative readings demonstrating how real K-12 spending has not increased during the Snyder administration ( as the slight recent increases have yet to make up for the previous cuts.   Either way, it’s just not enough to cover the actual cost of providing high quality public education.   I was showing my son some information about a few private schools in New England this fall and how they go about educating.  He was impressed, but then asked a logical question: why can’t we make all schools for all children as good as the best private schools?  Of course, there is a cost to that type of education, but not much more than we spend per prisoner each year.  Or, Is it that we believe that only those able to pay the $45,000 tuition deserve that quality? 

Q:  Do you see a common theme with all of the education coming out of Lansing?

It’s difficult to know.  I’d like to assume that those advocating the education bills are genuinely interested in improving education.   But, who knows.   And, of course, it’s not just Lansing.   There are advocates in private foundations pushing for all sorts of problematic reforms while the Secretary of Education himself is very troubling in terms of his own agenda and policy recommendations.  So, it’s not just Lansing.  And, it’s not just Republicans or just Democrats.  There seems to be a desire to force changes to the schools, implement mandates without funding, and to punish unionized workers for daring to still lead middle class lives rather than to do the hard work of reducing the growing inequalities in the nation.  The disease is growing inequality and exploitation and the proposed remedies do all they can to avoid tackling that problem.

Q:  What can folks do to work toward more positive education policy?

Read, think, read, and think some more.   Talk with each other about how we might rebuild our nation and communities.  Rebuild the dream of crafting democracy.  Resist the easy answers and begin to work collectively to create a land where everyone is valued and valuable. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

What is the EAA? Part 3, widespread opposition

We've already discussed the dubious methods the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) employs as well as the questionable results they have achieved, What is the EAA? Part 1, methods and results, and we have also discussed serious concerns about the EAA's management, What is the EAA? Part 2, management and finances. This post will discuss the widespread opposition to the EAA from virtually everyone involved.

Literally everyone involved with the EAA - teachers in the EAA, teachers across the state, the university faculty ostensibly responsible for the EAA, parents, and even the students in the schools - are voicing opposition to the EAA in unprecedented ways.

The most vocal EAA teacher to speak out about conditions inside the takeover district is Brooke Harris.  The English teacher from Mumford High School spoke to Michigan Radio, and many more teachers confirmed Harris' comments off the record:
“Mass chaos,” Harris says. “My first hour class had 61 kids in it for the first month and a half of school. So I would just pray, every day, that a lot of them were late.”
Harris told me on the record what several other EAA high school teachers told me anonymously—the rollout was a mess. The whole thing seemed rushed and disorganized. They say there are still too few resources, too many overcrowded classrooms and a general sense of chaos.
Chancellor Covington and state officials acknowledge their own learning curve as they roll out the EAA. They also insist it takes time to really change things in such challenging school environments.
But Harris says that’s just not an excuse for what she’s seen.
“Don’t believe the hype,” she tells me. “If you want to know what’s going on in these schools, go into the schools and talk to the students.” [The Education Achievement Authority, Part 2: A tale of two EAA schools, Michigan Radio, April 15, 2013.]
Harris also testified to the Michigan Legislature in explicit detail about the flawed methods employed in the EAA. Letters and Wish Lists, The Ann Arbor Chronicle, December 6, 2012.  Harris was eventually fired from the EAA for voicing her opposition.  EAA retaliates against Brooke Harris, ACLU charges, Michigan Citizen, August 1, 2013.  But Harris is far from the only education professional to speak out about the EAA.

Remember that the EAA is structured like a charter district, and so requires an "interlocal agreement" with an "authorizing institution" to receive state funds.  Eastern Michigan University is the EAA's authorizer.  We've discussed before how authorizing institutions like state universities give charters a feel of credibility, but in practice the authorizer has almost no involvement with the charter.  What are "charter schools?", Okemos Parents for Schools, June 28, 2013.  The EAA's colossal failure and the faculty's complete lack of oversight has proved too much for the EMU faculty to stomach. The faculty are protesting and their efforts have made national news:
Professors at Eastern Michigan University are fighting to end the school’s connection to a highly controversial state school takeover district created by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. The faculty members argue that they had no input in the way the Education Achievement Authority is run and that they oppose the way the [EAA] is being operated.
Opponents have charged that the EAA is a miss. They say, among other things, that the EAA’s governance is secretive; that student and teacher turnover is excessive; that the EAA relies on young and inexperienced teachers, including many from Teach For America; that many teachers taught outside the areas for which they had certification; and that there has been an explosion of disciplinary reports but teachers have been encouraged not to report them. [Faculty fight university’s link to controversial school turnaround district, Washington Post, October 25, 2013.]
The faculty expressed concerns that they had been "excluded from any direct participation in the creation or implementation of its policies, operating procedures, professional development, curricula or pedagogical practices, many of which we find questionable at best." Further, despite offers to pitch in an help, they continue to be excluded while inexperienced Teach for America teachers are brought in.  Because EMU is the authorizer, the EMU faculty fears their individual reputations and that of the university are being damaged by the affiliation. The teachers concluded:
Thus, we find EMU’s participation in the EAA unacceptable. These negative impacts on our reputation, our local relationships, our students and programs, the clear effect on enrollments and thus revenue to the university are a repudiation of EMU’s legacy as a champion of public education and a leader in the preparation of educational professionals. We implore you to remedy this situation as quickly as possible by unanimously voting to withdraw from the contract creating the EAA. [Id.]
Shortly thereafter, the EMU education dean left her post on the EAA board.  EMU education dean leaving EAA board, Detroit News, December 3, 2013.  The EMU Board of Regents meeting has seen protests calling for the affiliation to be ended.  People protest EMU’s involvement with EAA, The Eastern Echo, December 4, 2013.

Other Michigan teachers have joined the protest as well.  Teachers in Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti-Lincoln, Whitmore Lake, Chelsea, Manchester, Saline, Milan, Dexter, and Ann Arbor public schools have all boycotted student teachers from EMU until the university ends its affiliation with the EAA.  Ann Arbor teachers union joins boycott of EMU student teachers over EAA,, December 13, 2013.

Maybe most tellingly of all, the students themselves are in open revolt against the EAA - the students Mumford High School issued "Declaration of Independence."  Unsurprisingly, they are not thrilled with a longer school year.  But they also had serious substantive concerns:
The EAA does not treat the students fairly. We have been suspended for dress code, truancy, and even no identification. . . . We lack on teachers, education, and responsibility. . . .
The EAA needs to be stopped; it is a process of confusion. How are seniors going to go to any college without the right amount of credits? We need Detroit Public Schools back. We were cared for when they taught us. Our education was valuable to most DPS teachers. The teachers of the EAA lack showing us that they are interested in our education. . . . We are not treated equally to other public schools.
There should only be one school district and that is DPS. The millions of dollars that were spent on unnecessary things in our school should have been spent on more teachers. We have way too many classes, not many teachers, but most importantly we don’t have enough time in our classes. We have seven classes in a day not including seminar and lunch. We are worn out and tired. Mumford is a public school not a jail. EAA should be put away! [Mumford High School's Social Justice League - The Declaration of Independence, May 18, 2013.]
The Mumford students also created a YouTube channel to record some of their stories.

This is just the headline grabbing opposition.  As we have already discussed in Part 2 of this series, EAA parents are pulling their kids out of the schools in droves.  Parents groups like Okemos Parents for Schools, Michigan Parents for Schools, and others have spoken out against the takeover district. Democratic lawmakers such as Ellen Cogen-Lipton, Theresa Abed, Hoon-Yung Hopgood have been fierce critics of the school.  Even Republican Senator Rick Jones has spoken out against the EAA's expansion. 

In sum, outside the small circle of those politically and financially invested in the EAA, there is almost no one in Michigan advocating for expansion of the EAA.