Thursday, September 29, 2011

Prophet of Profit: Governor Kasich Tames the Government Beast

Does government corrupt business?
Or does business corrupt government?
Recently we've been hearing a great deal about the great deal in store if Governor Kasich can introduce sound business principles and curb the government beast.

You know the lyrics to this song. Break the education monopoly, privatize prisons, make the firemen and police give up some of their ridiculous perks, like health insurance and those needlessly expensive bullet proof vests.

So lets look down the road and try to see what we have in store. Private prisons? Let's cut pay for guards. So what if a few more prisoners escape.

The solution? The privately-operated prison takes some of its profits to advertise. Simply claim: OUR PRISONS MAKE THE STATE 28% SAFER! Then donate some of your profits to politicians who helped you win the fat contracts to begin. Do what Reebok has been doing. Until recently, the shoe-making giant was touting the benefits of its new "toning" sneakers, 28% better at "toning bottoms."

Sales ballooned into the hundreds of millions.

Ah, but it turns out the shoes didn't work and Reebok is now paying a $25 million settlement for making false claims.

How about free market principles in schools. Tying test scores and teacher pay can't possibly go wrong. Isn't that so?

Okay, sure. There have been those nasty cases of cheating in places like Atlanta and Washington, D. C., as administrators (whose jobs depend on raising scores) push teachers to insure that scores go up, by erasing wrong answers if necessary. Why not let solid business types run the schools? You know, like the guys at Countrywide Financial or Enron. Or we can follow the college football business model, where dollars and diplomas already cross. Let's just ignore graduation rates for athletes and pursue the next billion-dollar TV contract. Better yet, let some fat-cat businessman, like the fellow in Miami, pay to hire prostitutes to entice recruits to come to your institution.

Yep: when you introduce business methods into college sports/education you also get a nice healthy dose of business ethics.

It's kind of a Bernie Madoff model.

So, Governor Kasich, let's get serious about this push for good business methods in government. We all know operating the Department of Motor Vehicles is expensive. Fire the clerks and outsource operations. Let a call center in India handle inquiries.

Press one if you would like to schedule a driver's test.

Press two if you would like to transfer a title.

Press three for replacement license four, press five, press eighty-nine...

Private enterprise is the ONLY way to go.

In fact, let's take it another step and start advertising in courtrooms and schools and on fire engines and ambulances. It's a perfect fit: "Have you been injured in an accident recently? Let the law firm of Christie, Kasich and Walker represent you."

Let's have more schools run by companies. If they go bankrupt in the middle of the year the government can bail them out. Let's have million-dollar contracts going to testing companies, who hire former legislators as lobbyists

We can trust entreprenuers to put children first. 

Like the corporations that overcharged the military in Iraq. Or the dozens of medical professionals recently busted for Medicare fraud.

One doctor was submitting billing for more than twenty-four hours per day.

See, you lazy unionzed public sector workers! That's the spirit we need: a willingness to put in the long hours to make the business model work.

The possibilites that will open up if we kill the public sector unions are endless. Turn the water works over to companies that sell bottled water (they already admit that they're selling purified tap water anyway). Sell naming rights to public buildings and bridges. Let's celebrate the virtues of capitalism and remember titans of investing and industry. The Brent Spence? Call it the Ken Lay Bridge.

That state park on an island in Lake Erie? British Petroleum State Park.

If we're going to keep taxes low, and bring more jobs to Ohio (even if they are minimum wage and workers don't have any more health insurance), we have no other choice than to turn to private enterprise for solutions. Don't stop at half measures, Governor Kasich. And don't be shy about your roots. Let's have a state government that works with all the precision and profit-making powers of the giant corporations on Wall Street.

Admit it folks: the people at Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs didn't get us into our current economic fix. It was that policeman driving down your street late at night, looking for signs of trouble.

It was that greedy teacher, still sitting at her desk long after all her students have gone home, trying to finish grading a stack of student essays.

They're the enemy; and Governor John Kasich is taming the government beast.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

How Low Can You Go? Kasich, Perry, and the Average Worker

To hear Governor Kasich tell it, public sector workers are grossly overpaid and taxpayers are loaded down with economic chains.  He has to rein in pay and benefits.  Unions are evil and greedy and the cause of our present economic malaise.

On the surface, it's a position that has appeal to conservative voters, but you have to wonder:  "How low do Kasich and his allies really want Ohio workers to go?"

Consider the record of Governor Rick Perry, who touts his success with jobs creation in Texas in recent years, as a sort of model for the future.  On the surface, Mr. Perry has a solid record.  Gross Domestic Production rose 2.6% nationally in 2010.  Texas had a rate of 2.8%. 

Unemployment has been lower in Texas, too:  8.5% vs. 9.1% across the country, according to reports out just today. 

So put on your cowboy boots and buckle up your holster, buckaroo, and head to Texas if you want a good ol' job.  Perry for president!  And Michelle Bachmann for VP.  Bachmann once argued that doing away with the minimum wage would cure unemployment. 

The "good old Medieval days."
When the serfs still knew their place.
So would a return to feudalism. 

But I digress.

As always, the full picture is more complicated than politicians like Kasich ever care to admit.  In 2010 almost 1 in 10 Texas workers (9.5%) worked at or below the federal minimum wage (vs. 6.0% nationally).  So you can GO to Texas and find work.

You just might have to be content with minimum wage.

Even better, in 2009, 26% of the workforce in Perry's state went without health care vs. 17% nationwide.  (See New York Times; 8-16-11)

Maybe that's the plan in Ohio, Wisconsin and New Jersey where fiscal hawks like Kasich rule.  Let's cut costs for taxpayers, follow the Texas model, so to speak.  Let's face it, teachers, if you gave up health care entirely, the burden on taxpayers could be dramatically reduced.  And police?  Really, you and your firemen buddies are grossly overpaid.  With your union bargaining rights gone, you really should be willing to do your part and swallow a 25% cut in pay.

If you don't like it pack up that U-Haul and head for Texas.

In the end, that's the question I'd like to hear asked at the next Republican presidential debate:  How LOW do they want the average American worker to go?

Call me a crazy liberal:  but I'd prefer to hear my politicians promise to fight to improve conditions for low-paid workers in this country, who promise to help pull working Americans up, in Ohio and elsewhere, not tear unionized workers down.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Standardized Testing: The Fallacy of Teacher Accountabililty

On this blog, I posted recently about the continuing decline in SAT scores since 2002, at a time when the greatest names in American education reform are promising, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die, that if only we only follow their lead we are going to witness a resurrection in our schools, we are going to see standards raised, by god, and if we don't a few thousand "failing" teachers are going to have to be thrown to the lions by way of warning to all the rest.

I'm a retired teacher.  So I know better than most that good teachers make a difference.  Unlike most leading reformers, however, I actually taught real students, and taught for a long time, and know STUDENTS also determine how they do on any test, standardized or otherwise.

In any case, one former star student responded to my last post, wondering how a slight decline in SAT scores could possibly be significant.

If the general public would look deeply into these matters, the general public would realize that--really--a slight decline is NOT important.  The general public might also realize that rating school and teacher performance based solely on student test scores is a form of insanity.  The general public might easily grasp this reality, but the general public is too busy watching Jersey Shore, ten permutations of CSI and The Real Housewives of New York and so their focus is rarely on education. (Coming soon?  The Real Housewives of Wapakoneta, Ohio.)

SAT scores--rising or falling--are generally a false measure of how schools in this country are doing.  In fact, most of the recent drop can be attributed to a steady rise in test-takers from minority populations, who historically score lower.  And the fact that more minority students are aiming for college is actually a positive trend.

Still, critics of the public schools love to cite such declines as proof of teacher failure and this has been true since at least the 70's, even before I began my career in a seventh grade classroom.

What our leading reformers and education experts (and the reporters who quote them) routinely miss is the fact that STUDENTS also determine how they score on SAT's, on their weekly quizzes in Algebra I or their unit tests on the American Civil War, and the same is true of the standardized tests now so in vogue.

Without intending, an editorial in the New York Times today makes this very point. Talking about the need for better security to insure accurate results on the New York State Regents Test, the Times notes the accelerating push "to make schools accountable for student performance."  The editorial continues:  "In coming years, teachers will also be judged, in part, on how much their students improve on state tests."

As always, the focus is on how TEACHERS perform. 

Until we place a much larger part of the responsibility on students all our talk of "raising standards" is just moving our lips.

If a child misses 22 days of school in an average year (the norm in the Washington, D. C. schools) and ends up two years behind, academically by his or her senior year, maybe we should blame parents, not teachers, for low SAT scores.  Or maybe we should blame America's health care system?  If a kid in the Chicago schools misses 26 days (also the norm) maybe we should hold the kid responsible for slacking off, not fault the teacher who only marks the questions they missed on their eighth grade math final wrong.

Michelle Rhee (who ran the D. C. schools) and  Arne Duncan (who ran the Chicago system) both focus on teachers as the only important variable when they preach about "raising standards" and tell us they know just how to do it.

If only they had taught a little longer (Rhee and Duncan spent three years in the classroom each), they and other reformers (many of whom have never taught a single day) might be a little more realistic.  I'm not going to be modest.  I was a very good teacher in my time and most of my former students would probably tell you that was true.

I certainly realized that if I worked hard I could do a better job;  but I also knew that if my students wanted to be a success, in my history class, or later in life, THEY would have suck it up and bust some serious ass.  I knew they had to work harder, themselves, or nothing I said or did would matter much in the end.

This sole focus on what teachers do--measuring their efforts by how student do on tests--that approach to "raising standards" cannot possibly work.

It can't work.

It can't.

Until we face up to that fact, all efforts at education reform are doomed to failure.

***WAPAKONETA corrected at reader request.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Reformers Puzzled: SAT Scores Decline in 2011

That's my bicycle at the top of Tioga Pass,
coming into Yosemite National Park from the east.
You pedal uphill for twelve miles and gain 3,100 feet in elevation.

I'VE BEEN BUSY BICYCLING ACROSS THE UNITED STATES all summer and haven't had time to post anything on my teaching blog. 

The weeks and months are ticking by; and we're now less than three years removed from a time when reformers promise they can take us to a state of absolute academic nirvana, when every child in America will be proficient in reading and math. 

By now don't you almost have to assume the first sweet fruits of success are ripe for picking?

So how is the "big reform push" going?

I was heading out the door to run a few errands last week--catch up on chores that went untended while I was pedaling--when I passed the TV and heard Andrea Mitchell on CNN mention declining SAT scores. Mitchell went on to say that Michelle Rhee would be on after a commercial break to explain.

God. Not Rhee again. That woman's sour mug can be seen on TV more often than reruns of Law and Order.

I was in a hurry and didn't get to hear Rhee spout. But I'm sure it was fun. Remember her? The woman with the plan to save education? The lady who blames teachers for all the nation's academic failings? The Joan of Arc who was going to save the Washington, D. C. schools with a relentless focus on standardized testing data?

I wish I'd had time to listen to what she said, because SAT scores fell again for U. S. high school seniors in 2011. It's enough to make education reformers weep.

After almost a decade of "reforms" under No Child Left Behind, after all the preaching of geniuses like Rhee and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, here's where we land:  Critical reading scores sagged three points in 2011, to 497, the lowest on record.

Writing scores fell two points to 489.

Math was down one:  to 514.

Since 2002, when the standardized-testing craze swept America's schools and education experts began acting like zombies in an old science fiction movie--all promising improvement if only we followed them, followed them, followed them--we have been in slow decline. 

We are down from 504 in critical reading to 497. 

We are down in math from 516 to 514. 

And in five short years, since the writing test was first instituted, seniors have lost eight points, down from 497.

If we listen to the likes of Rhee, Duncan, Joel I. Klein (former chancellor of the New York City public schools) and Governor John Kasich in Ohio this really can't be happening. We have more charter schools like they wanted, more vouchers and way, way more testing. Experts have written enough shiny new "standards" to keep real teachers busy for the next century. And when students fail to meet "standards" we have fired more and more teachers. In Ohio, where average SAT scores are a hundred points higher than nationally, the governor has decided that the best way to insure improved scores is to break teachers' unions and take away tenure.

SO WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE WRONG? We've listened to these kinds of people for ten years and we're going nowhere. 

Here's the first problem:  We allow school reform to be driven by people like Rhee and governors like Kasich, Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Chris Christie (New Jersey), who either went to private schools, send their children to private schools, or both. 

These are people who want to fix the schools they didn't even care to attend. 

Secondly, we listen to people like Rhee and Duncan who have only the briefest classroom experience, or like Klein, none at all, and lack true insight.  It's an odd trend, really.  If you placed the top ten names in education reform today and all U. S. Secretaries of Education end to end, from the founding of the Department of Education in 1979 until this very moment, their classroom service would not equal one thirty-year veteran in some elementary school in Peoria or Pocatello. 

Perhaps most importantly, we have spent the last decade focusing on teachers and measuring what they do and writing paper standards

We haven't demanded anything from students.

This idea that if only we get better teachers into classrooms then every student can be a success is shallow and simplistic. It's like saying, "If only ministers gave better sermons sin would disappear."  It's as if  a bad football team could go undefeated if only the coach drew up better plays, even if players never practiced.

Until we have to courage to ask students to do more all talk of "raising standards" is just pontificating and puffing hot air. 

OUR LEADING POLITICIANS AND REFORMERS don't know this, and don't know they don't know this. So we're going nowhere fast.