Friday, June 19, 2015

House of Cards

The pendulum has reached its peak and is ready to return to rationality.  The aged ideologues are passing on this mortal coil and the new generation has very different ideas as to how the world should be.  The coalition that has held together, fighting science, reason, rationality, compassion and fairness, is falling apart and the house of cards is about to fall.

Evidence is starting to trickle in.  A majority of Americans are in favor of gay marriage.  The Republicans are starting to talk about income inequality.  The pope is producing an encyclical entreating us to do something about climate change. 

Americans are tiring of hearing about another mass shooting; about the social safety net crumbling;
about our civil liberties being threatened; about money interests controlling the political agenda; about billionaires telling us that public servants, from teachers, to fire fighters to police officers to nurses, are the cause of our societal problems,; about greater and greater threats to the environment that we are leaving our children; about spending our defense dollars on useless programs as favors to special interests; about spilling our citizen’s blood on senseless political wars.

This new generation is socially liberal and economically conservative.  They want to get high capacity guns out of the hands of deranged criminals.  They want their private conversations to remain private.  They want to have the government out of the way in their medical decisions.  They want their representatives to listen to them, not dogmatic billionaires.  They want to leave their children an environment that is healthy.  They want schools that serve their children and to promote strong relationships between students and teachers.  They want to make sure the poor, the aged, the disabled and the homeless are protected and cared for.  They want defense dollars to be spent on 21st Century threats, not Cold War boogie men.  They want restrictions on money from the rich in politics.  They want our bridges and tunnels and mass transit to be the envy of the world.   They want a path to citizenship for undocumented citizens who productively contribute to the society.    They want a tax code where the rich pay the highest taxes and there are higher taxes on work than investments.  They want police officers who abuse their authority to be held accountable.

Those who do not see this sea change will be left behind.  The house of cards is crumbling and those who see the future as just building more layers will be in for a rude awakening.

Seriously Bad Ideas

Paul Krugman wrote an Op-Ed piece yesterday in the NY Times with this title about the way that Britain is dealing with their economy, writing:  Mr. Osborne isn’t offering the wrong answer to Britain’s problems; he’s offering an answer to problems Britain doesn’t have, while ignoring and exacerbating the problems it does.”  I’ve read through the materials on the Montclair Kids First site and what was mailed home and it is clear that the same could be said about them.

For each problem they identify, they suggest solutions that would not only not improve the situation, but make it worse.  I spent 21 years in the Montclair Schools.  I gave my heart and soul to the students and the school and believed that students were getting a great education there.  I still believe they are, but not because of what is being done administratively, but despite it.

The biggest straw man and red herring is looking at the union as a core problem in the schools.  To be honest, I rarely had much to do with the union.  I rarely sought their assistance and did not even belong to the district union for my last 7 years.  But the union and the administration had great relationships for most of my time there.  When Joe Macaluso and Dennis Murray were in leadership positions and Michael Osnato and Frank Alverez were superintendents, the union and the administration worked productively together.  The poor relations with the union did not begin until the Board hired an inexperienced, dogmatic and confrontational leader to run the schools.

MKF writes that we pay too high taxes and faults the union for this.  This is wrong and misguided.  The costs are high because the Board of Education is now doing catch-up controlling costs that they should have gotten a handle on long ago.  Frankly, I was shocked at how little oversight was given to controlling costs at the school.  Until just a few years ago, almost a quarter of the teachers in the high school taught four classes, including all the English teachers and all the teachers in small learning communities.

The oversight of Special Education is abysmal.  The costs are unbelievable.  Families consistently tell me that they moved to Montclair because their children had disabilities and that the district was known to send students out-of-district, at a cost (including transportation) of about $70,000 per student.  There was virtually nothing done to improve the Special Education teachers’ instructional ability or oversee what was going on in the classroom.  African American students, particularly males, continue to be classified at an incredibly high rate yet little was ever done to actually meet their needs except profligate spending.  The school is extremely heavy in case managers, psychologists, social workers, therapists, etc., and they generally were quite good, but left the oversight of the teachers to a weak administrator.  The result was, and continues to be, a huge expenditure without any oversight of instruction.

The answer from MKF is using the PARCC test to assess teacher performance.  This is another red herring for all students  (more on this later) but absurd for the Special Education students.  The test is not designed for and totally inappropriate for students with intellectual disabilities.  Depending on tests to determine teacher performance is like expecting your children to do their laundry well and punishing them for doing it poorly, or not at all, when you never did any work showing them how to do the laundry, not overseeing what they were doing and not doing the hard word day by day, making sure they are improving what they are doing. 

It is insulting to imply, as MKF does, that the parent PARCC opt out movement is union led.  Why do parents object to the PARCC?  Because it does nothing to help their kids!  It takes tens of hours out of instruction for every student, not to mention millions of dollars out of the school budgets and hundreds of hours of administration time, to give a test that is used as a cudgel on teachers without holding accountable the administrators who are asleep at the switch.  The results provide little to help teachers work with their children.

The issue at Montclair schools is not that there is not enough management and control.  There is too much management and control of behavior and woefully inadequate oversight of education.  Where I work, we have peace with the union.  All teachers teach 6 classes.  Special Education instruction is strong and costs are controlled.  We have high school supervisors for each academic area and there are excellent relations between the Board, the superintendent, the teachers and the community.  Why?  Because the emphasis is where it should be:  on the needs of students and on the quality of education.

Montclair has good education going on for economic reasons.  Schools, including mine, are not hiring expensive teachers.  Thus the teaching staff is stuck where they are.  Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to work together with a staff, Montclair, particularly the high school, has chosen the route of confrontation.  It is insulting that most of administrators in the high school are overseeing departments that they have no experience in.  The English Department, after pushing out of the nation’s top administrators, Jim Aquavia (also a National Teacher of the Year), was led by Shirlene Powell-Sanders and James Earle, who each had no experience (or talent) in overseeing English instruction.  Imagine being an English teacher and being told what to teach and how to teach by persons who never taught English, knew nothing about the subject and considered hands-on oversight of the education as their last priority.  It was like having your plumber do eye surgery and your eye surgeon doing your plumbing.

The morale of the teachers is as poor as one can imagine.  The teachers have taken to seeking refuge in their classrooms.  There is no sense of community in the high school.  It does not have to be, but this is the path that the administration has chosen and MKF is advocating.  The Board certainly needs to have oversight of what is going on in the schools and this does not mean hiring more leaders who are managers.  They need to hire leaders who are educators and team builders.  Here, they have fallen down on the job and should be held accountable.

The poor relations between the teachers/union and the administration is not a consequence of the leadership not achieving what they wanted to do, but a direct result of what Penny MacCormack and the Board, in hiring her, wanted to achieve.  The irony  was amazing in the letter from Susan Weintraub in the Montclair Times.   She wrote that “state and national union activists [are] using Montclair as a testing ground for their agendas, contrary to the interests of Montclair students”.  This is exactly what was done in the hiring of Penny MacCormack in the attempt to take the urban schools initiative from the Broad Superintendent Academy into the suburbs.  We see how the Broad methodology is playing out in Newark and it is unsurprising that hostility and conflict emerged in Montclair.

Montclair Cares About Schools arose out of opposition to a lazy and misguided approach to leadership.  Having good schools is hard work.  It is daily work to oversee and improve teaching and education.  It is responding to things that will not come to your attention.  The administration of the Montclair Schools are seeking to improve education by rubrics, by demanding rather than earning loyalty, by expecting improvement without leadership or mentoring.  Educational research has shown time and again that the way to improve the achievement gap is by encouraging a meaningful relationship between teachers and students.  This has been ignored as a value in Montclair and the “reform” movement.

So why is there a problem with Montclair Kids First?  For one, it is an exclusive group of white residents, none of whom are educators, purporting to know what is best for education, particularly for closing the achievement gap while fighting for lower taxes.  MCAS was developed in response to the misguided mistake of hiring a dogmatic ideologue to run our schools.  She is gone.  It is time to move on and hire an inspirational leader and educator.  We need someone who does not have an ideology to implement other than on improving the education of students, the morale of the community and the financial security of our schools and town.  We need someone who is a healer and works to unite the community, not divide it.

MKF grew out of support for Dr. MacCormack and the Board that hired her.  It was an error in judgment.  It is time to move on and seek to heal the wounds.  MKF seeks to not only continue the disunity, but make it worse.  They are using legal means to obtain and publish e-mails of Michelle Fine and David Cummings, those they see as opponents.  They do not seek to support the schools but to undermine them.  If you want good schools, seek the support of the teachers in a common purpose.  If you want to prove that public schools are failing, you undermine teachers by challenging their professionalism, their job security and their integrity and make them feel that their worth is determined by tests results and the judgments of those who have no expertise in their subject. 

MKF is not about improving schools and education.  It is time to move on. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

NACAC and Student Scams

To the NACAC EList:

Yesterday, I was driving and saw the car in front of me with a bumper sticker that said that the driver's child was a member of the National Society of HIgh School Scholars (many of you all probably have brought home one of their teddy bears to your kids after a national conference).  This is another Vanity Press/Award organization that charges fees to join and do things like get your picture in a book, buy a book, etc.  My naive first response was "what's the harm".  So the family has to pay $60+ for really nothing, but they are happily deluded that their child, who has not received much recognition in life, is being mysteriously honored?  Well, upon further thought, I began thinking, yeah, there is real harm in this.  It is presenting something as an honor that isn't, is taking people's hard earned money in a disingenuous manner and we are not only accepting this, but promoting it?  We, promoting it?  Well, look at this response that was written to College Confidential from the NSHSS:  "NSHSS is affiliated with counselor associations, scholarship programs, higher education institutions and international school associations. Our partners include Abercrombie & Fitch, AFLAC, Alzheimer’s Association, the National Society for the Gifted and Talented, and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. Some of our collaborating universities include Spelman College, UC - San Diego, and Purdue University."  

They are vendors at the National Conference, I know, but are they really "affiliated" with NACAC?  If so, this is really a problem.  If not, shouldn't NACAC be putting out a cease and desist order in using the organization this way.  Similarly, NRCCUA/My College Options is also an organization that is not straightforward in their methods (see for a discussion of this) yet their executive director, Don Munce, moderated a panel at the last NACAC Conference and they also promote their connection to NACAC.  

Maybe this is something that NACAC should really be taking a look at.  I am not saying that we as an organization are actively promoting groups which take advantage of students and I am not suggesting that we ban these groups from participating as exhibitors at our national conference.  But perhaps a committee should be put together to look at the relationship between these groups and the national association and we should do more to educate our members and communicate with students about groups that are not straightforward on how they operate and what they offer to students.  

We should take a hard look at the whole business of organizations profiting through the use of deceptive practices using unsolicited mail and email to profit off our students, frequently those students who can least afford it.  This would include all the "scholarship search" services that charge huge fees, etc.  I know there have been numerous reports from NACAC on this issue, but I don't think that there is a unified response to this.  And it is not black and white.  While some groups are clearly deceptive and dishonest, some are more disingenuous.  

My suggestion is not that we ban every group from a connection to NACAC who profits off of kids by feeding off the college admissions frenzy (the exhibit hall would be empty if we did this), but that we are more self-conscious and self-reflective of what we do.  Perhaps a sub-committee of the Admissions Practices Committee can develop clearer guidelines and provide more useful communication on groups that are not honest or straightforward in their practices.  Perhaps we should look at promoting legislation that prevents organizations from using language that is deceptive.  Absent that, maybe the organization should have minimal standards for groups that promote services to our counselors, either through the exhibit hall, in conference sessions, advertising in our publications or sponsoring NACAC events.  

This is something we can and should do.  This flood of deceptive mail and e-mails is not abating, it is growing by the day.  Can we put a stop to it?  Absolutely not.  But we can take a much more active roll in examining our part in this and make sure we are not explicitly or implicitly endorsing and promoting groups who do not serve our students' best interests.

Joyce and members of the e-list:

Joyce, thanks for your posting.  I think it does clarify NACAC's relationship with these organizations.  Like the SPGP, there are mandatory actions and best practices.  I would agree that NACAC is fully abiding by the former but could be doing significantly more in the latter.  I'll try to be more specific about my concerns:

*I have had numerous low income kids come in this year who have paid money to organizations that purport to be honors when they are not, NHSSS among them.  Perhaps a committee could look into exactly what students are receiving and decide whether it is transparent, deceptive or dishonest.  If it is either of the latter two, the organization can be asked to work with NACAC to be more transparent on how the students was selected and what the advantages of membership are.

*The "invitations" to summer programs are similarly problematic.  Just yesterday a staff member came to me with a letter asking them to nominate students for the National Student Leadership Program.  There was no mention anywhere that there was a substantial cost for this program.  The teacher thought that they were choosing a student for an award rather than providing a name for solicitation to an expensive summer program.  The student then receives an embossed certificate stating they have been "selected" for this honor, when in fact, they used a deceptive technique to get the names for this program.

*NRCCUA is not alone in sending out surveys with buried small print that says what the surveys are for.  They almost always send them to the superintendent with no mention in the cover letter that they collect and sell student names.  These are passed onto guidance directors who think they must comply because it came from the superintendent.  

These are not evil organizations that are out to harm students and their net effects may be positive.  But their marketing techniques are highly questionable and it would behoove the organization to take an active role in improving this.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Benefits of Not Shooting for the Stars

So I have been thinking about this match issue as well as the implied action of most applicants that they are compelled to go to the most selective college that admits them.  This has also come up with much of the writing of students from urban schools being "mismatched" because some students do not apply to colleges that are more competitive that they could get into.  I can think of a few examples where following this approach has downsides.

I went to Swarthmore (as did my daughter) and it was the right choice for me, except in one major area.  I had a really weak high school chemistry course and was considering pre-med.  The chemistry course, as it is in many similar schools, was largely a vehicle to self-select out pre-med students.  It started on page 150 of the text book, with the professor saying all of you had this first 150 pages in high school (mine got to page 25).  We couldn't have lab partners and our labs were graded by upper class international students, who were brutal.  I ended up with a W on my transcript when I realized I could never catch up.  If I was truly committed to becoming a doctor, going to a less selective college would have served me better.

My son had much stronger credentials than I did, but knew that he was eligible for a Presidential Scholarship (spelled F-R-E-E) at Rutgers and would, on each college visit, to say Brown or Georgetown, say that they were lovely places but not lovely enough to balance off going to college for free (I love that kid!)  He is a senior now and is constantly being sought out for awards, honors, programs and fellowships, something that would be unlikely if he had gone to a most competitive college.

Lastly is my wife, a high school dropout who is brilliant.  She went back to school at age 48 to train to be a teacher at Montclair State University.  She was able to get, for instance, 6 CLEP credits in Humanities, by walking into the test and taking it, even getting a certificate for being among one of the highest scorers in the nation on the exam.  She got a great education there.  Sometimes, even in a larger lecture class, she would sit up front with a few other highly motivated students, and it would be like a smaller seminar with them.  She also got a level of attention, smaller classes, and outstanding faculty that really impressed her.  

So here is my top ten list of why NOT to go to the most selective college that will admit you:

1.  Merit Money:  Lynn O'Shaughnessy in The College Solution discusses how colleges will provide merit money for kids who are strong students for the school, which is generally not a student's reach school.  Even without merit money, as one moves up the selectivity ladder there are higher costs and higher debt.
2.  Meeting Professional Goals:  In some highly competitive fields, like pre-med, it is often best to go to a school whose need is to make sure that every student who wants to go to med school gets in as opposed to selecting out students before they apply.  The experience of being supported rather than being weeded out can change the course of your life.
3.  Personal Attention:  There is often a greater opportunity to work with professors and develop close mentoring relationships with teachers when you a are big fish in a small pond.  It is often easier to get more highly supportive teacher recommendations as well.
4.  Scholarships and Fellowships:  students who are more distinguished in their school will be regularly sought out for awards, honors, fellowships and scholarships.
5.  Quality Faculty:  It is really hard to get a college teaching job and you can get outstanding teachers at virtually any college.  You are more likely to get teachers who are as focused in teaching undergraduates as they are in their own research at strictly undergraduate schools.  You are also are not taught by graduate assistants at strictly undergraduate colleges.
6.  Graduate School:  It is much easier to shine coming from a less selective pool of students.  Of two identical applicants applying from an extremely selective college and from one considerably less selective, the latter will have the advantage in admissions.  This person is likely to have greater faculty support, more leadership opportunities and better grades.
7.  Licensing:  Many of the extremely selective schools do not have opportunities to get professional licenses as an undergraduate.
8. Employment:  After your first job, rarely do employers care where you went to undergraduate school.  And if you go to graduate school, it is this imprimatur that matters more than undergraduate school.  It is also well documented that higher pay is more related to college major than the selectivity of the undergraduate school (see John Boeckenstedt's for a thorough analysis of this).
9.  The Community College Option:  This is a very inexpensive way to getting through the first two years of college.  Your diploma from a 4-year college does not say "community college transfer" and two years of successful community college will often open more doors than many students would have have leaving high school.  This is a much better option than enrolling in a 4-year college with the plan of transferring.
10.  Graduation:  The number of students who end up not graduating yet accumulating huge debt is staggering.  Students need to be honest with themselves as to what they are prepared for emotionally, psychologically and financially.  For many students, not straying far from the nest, particularly right out of high school, is more likely to guarantee future success.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Response to Atlantic Monthly Article "Suburbia and its Common Core Conspiracy Theories

The author proves the most salient point about the criticism of the direction of education, including NCLB, Common Core, PARCC, etc. She is not an educator, she is a political scientist, and she pretends that she know about what is best for schools because, what, she went to school? She taught college? There is a huge pot here thrown together as if there are two sides here, pro and con Common Core and PARCC. Most educators I know, and I am a school administrator and former teacher and counselor, are in favor of more consistency in education. The find it ridiculous that biology taught in Arkansas is so different than that taught in NJ, or worse yet, in the classroom next door. There is an acceptance that things like a model like the CC or having common assessments, on balance, will improve education. There is also a desire to move away from rote memorization to more nuanced understanding, such as that measured by the PARCC. But with that does not come an unquestioning trust in those that are creating and implementing this assessment system. The greatest error is the downplaying of the burden of the PARCC on schools. There is a huge difference from the past. The high school graduation requirement in NJ was 3 days of testing one time in HS. Now it is 9 days of testing every year of high school. That is 3 vs. 27 days of disrupted education. In addition, the complexity of administering and using this test is mind boggling. It has required EVERY school to spend millions of dollars on infrastructure to allow every student to test on computers. We have spent countless hours at our school preparing for this test, as the expense of overseeing instruction, responding to parents, etc. The test format itself is a nightmare. Even adults who take this have a huge problem navigating the multiple screens and tools needed to complete the test. The test is also really hard. Which is not a bad thing for the students who are abstract thinkers and who do not have high test anxiety. But for the concrete thinkers, unfortunately, most kids, this will be a miserable process. But the most salient question of this test is WHY? Why are we having these kids and schools do this? The teachers won't get the results until after the kids are in another classroom, so it certainly isn't to improve instruction. It is clearly so that bureaucrats can assess, and some believe punish, schools and teachers. We were told that this test would not be a graduation requirement, and, before the ink was dry, it was listed in NJ as a graduation test. Perhaps the most salient issue is whether all this dedication of time, student, teacher and administrator, and money is worth the return. I will bet you that the scores on this test correlate almost perfectly with prior, shorter, simpler tests and that they correlate much higher with parental income than differences in schools or teachers. The whole movement of accountability assumes that the lack of performance is more affected by teacher quality than things like parental oversight and economic well being. That is the most salient objection to this whole charade.

Obama and Education

Congratulations, President Obama.  On your watch, the billionaires have set the agenda for public education and you not only let them, you actively encouraged them.  You've bought into the narrative that public schools are failing then endorsed a process to make that so.  What were once places of thought and creativity are guided by unproven tests and assessment rubrics that make teachers feel as if they are only valued by their scores.  You have pitted parents against each other and against their school leaders.  Its like it all one large cock fight, with principals fighting with superintendents, teachers fighting with principals, parents fighting with school administrators, while the billionaires and test developers and state and federal departments of education all snickering.  "See, we told you it is all a mess."  Its rare these days to have a kid come in and say he wants to be a teacher.  It used to be that was something worthy of respect.  Now it seems somewhere between heroic and foolish.  Who would want to go into a job where the profession is constantly under attack?  National "leaders", from Scott Walker to Chris Christie, have gained their prominence from their attacks on teachers.  Sure, they always mouth the words that they are not attacking teachers, but the unions, but everyone knows this is not true.  They want to make everyone pay attention to the benefits that teachers have and ignore that this is one of the hardest and most meaningful jobs on the planet; that what appears to be a short work day is perhaps one which requires the most time of any job.  And Mr. Obama, you have set the stage for this.  Your silence in support of teachers is telling.  Your support for the corporatization of schools has allowed this to happen.  It is time for you to stand up and say "teachers matter", "great teaching cannot be measured on tests", that "relationships between students and teachers is as valuable at that between children and parents in moving children in the right direction." Anyone who has spent anytime in schools knows that great teaching cannot be measured any more than great art.  President, you have begun to stand up for immigrants, for the environment, for victims of sexual assault.  Hooray for you.  But it is time, Mr. President, to stand up for parents, for teachers and most importantly, for students in abandoning this false premise that testing and assessment is the path to better public schools.