Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Two members of our State Board of Education on the enormously expensive Smarter Balanced standardized tests:
Finally, any new state test will come with a higher price tag because state assessments have evolved in technology and in function. However, Iowa will get much more for our money with the Smarter Balanced assessments. The testing process will be more efficient, results will come back faster, and — most important — teaching and learning will be enhanced. The assessments offer incredible precision in identifying skills that students have mastered, as well as those areas where they’re struggling, both for individual students and for groups of students. This kind of information is priceless to the teachers, school administrators, parents and elected school board leaders who are working hard for our students.
That’s the best they can do? “The testing process will be more efficient”—oh, but somehow twice as long. “The results will come back faster”—hooray, but who cares? “Teaching and learning will be enhanced”—didn’t our state board members learn about supporting their assertions with evidence? “Incredible precision”—well, they got the incredible part right. “This kind of information is priceless”—I guess that’s why no one can tell us how much it will cost.

Will someone please explain how these tests will actually be used to improve our kids’ education? Points for being concrete and specific!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The cost-free world of education policy

How did it become so common—almost universal—in education policy-making to refuse to acknowledge costs?

Some examples, large and small:
  • Our state assessment task force recommended adopting the Smarter Balanced standardized tests without even trying to assess how much the necessary technology would cost—even though that cost is almost certainly enormous. The report simply dwelled (unconvincingly) on all the supposed benefits of the new tests. So no need to assess costs!
  • Last year, the state enacted a teacher leadership program that takes experienced teachers out of the classroom to teach other teachers. Don’t worry, they reassured us, the state will pay for the costs. Then this year, it turns out that there’s not enough money for school aid because we spent so much on the teacher leadership program. Couldn’t have seen that coming.
  • At a recent school board meeting here, there was a lengthy discussion about setting academic goals for the district. The board decided to focus on raising reading and math scores. Don’t worry, the superintendent assured the board, focusing more on reading and math doesn’t mean we’ll focus less on other subjects. But how is that possible?
  • Two years ago, our district adopted specific numerical diversity goals for school attendance areas without any consideration of what it would take to meet those goals. After months and months of effort to produce new attendance area maps, when it became clear what it would take to meet the goals, the board backed off from the goals.
  • Six years ago, to get a grant, the district instituted PBIS, a behavior-modification program that emphasizes reflexive compliance with school rules. There was no consideration whatsoever of possible downsides—for example, of whether the program encouraged acquisitiveness, taught mindless obedience, or would have other unintended consequences. We can get grant money = let’s do it!
  • The biggie: Everywhere standardized test scores are held up as the measure of educational success. But even if higher test scores are a benefit, the scores tell us nothing about the associated costs. What was dropped from the curriculum to make those scores go up? Did the teaching techniques have harmful effects in other ways? Were the kids deprived of free play time or a decent lunch period to achieve those scores? Did the teaching achieve short-term success at the cost of creating a long-term aversion to the subject matter? Did the school have to start using behavioral control systems that teach authoritarian values? Did the kids also learn that learning is a joyless drudgery to be avoided as soon as they’re free of compulsion? The scores tell us nothing about those things. What good is that kind of partial information?
Everyone knows—literally everyone knows—that you cannot make an intelligent policy choice if you refuse to consider costs. Trying to make policy that way is the opposite of empirical, rigorous, and evidence-based. If you went to a doctor who practiced this kind of “empiricism,” you’d soon be dead from the unassessed side-effects of the treatment.

So why is it the default mode of school policy-making?

It’s almost as if they’re unprincipled

Peter Greene has a good post about the inherent tension between wanting federal aid for schools but not wanting federal control of school policy.

But I really don’t understand the attitude of our federal lawmakers toward school policy. They intentionally designed No Child Left Behind so it wouldn’t directly regulate school policy; it just puts conditions on whether the states can get federal money. But the feds aren’t just “giving” that money to the states; first they’re collecting it from the people of those states through taxation. In other words, federal school policy occurs through putting conditions of the federal redistribution of wealth.

So our federal lawmakers seem to agree that school policy is a state issue that they shouldn’t regulate directly. And many of them would certainly oppose any suggestion that we should redistribute wealth. But apparently they’re fine with redistributing wealth when it enables them to control state issues? WTF?

If “redistribution” weren’t such a dirty word, maybe we could recognize that we’re already doing a lot of it, and that it would be a good thing even if it were unaccompanied by federal intrusions into state policy-making.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Those are big numbers

We have no idea how much money it will take to implement the Smarter Balanced standardized tests. That’s one of the main objections to going ahead with them. We can estimate how much it will cost to buy the actual tests—and that’s an enormous increase over what we’re currently spending—but we don’t have any estimates of what the necessary tech upgrades and support will cost. Any estimate I try to make here would have to be very rough, because the state has simply not done its homework about the cost.

But I’ll try anyway.

Start with the proposition that every one-percent increase in state school aid in Iowa means about $64 per student. (Derived from the numbers here.) Right now, the Governor is proposing an $80 per student increase for next year.

Then let’s look at what another state has done to prepare for using Smarter Balanced. California is a much bigger state than Iowa, but we can at least try to compare on a per-student basis. California approved $1.6 billion to “help” districts implement the Common Core, including the Smarter Balanced tests. California has about 6.2 million K-12 students. So that’s about $258 per student.

Now school districts in California are taking legal action to obtain an additional $1 billion that the Smarter Balanced tests are costing them. That’s another $161 per student. We’re up to $419 per student (though some portion of that is for other Common-Core-driven costs). And, as the California School Board Association advised the districts, “Remember that while the state has provided some one-time funding for SBA implementation, the expenses of SBA implementation will be ongoing.”

Is it a perfect comparison? No, because I’m a spare-time blogger Googling figures on the internet, as opposed to, say, a building full of state employees who are paid to figure things like this out.

But those are big numbers. More reason to think that if these tests are adopted, we can say goodbye to any hope of decent supplemental aid.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Superintendent, school board members want more cuts to school programs

What other conclusion can you reach from their utter silence on the proposal to spend uncounted millions on the Smarter Balanced standardized tests?

They know that the tests will cause cuts. If they didn’t know it already, their experience with the teacher leadership program would make it obvious. When the legislature debated the teacher leadership program last year, our superintendent and board members didn’t object. Then—surprise!—the teacher leadership program cost so much that there wasn’t enough left for supplemental aid. And now the district wants us all to lobby for more aid. Where were they when it mattered?

Now the same thing is happening again. The state wants an enormous increase in the amount spent on standardized testing. This will obviously divert money from supplemental aid; a 4% funding increase will be a pipe dream. You can have the tests or you can have decent supplemental aid; you can’t have both. How can our district ask us to lobby for more aid while not objecting at all to that huge expense, especially when a much cheaper alternative is available?

There’s only one way to interpret it: They want the cuts.

UPDATE 2/8/15: The Press-Citizen has an article this morning about the tests; the ICCSD curriculum director told the reporter that district leaders have “concern” about the tests. See the comments below. Still no indication that that concern is enough to make those leaders oppose adopting the tests, or that they are expressing any of those concerns to the legislators who will decide the issue. Still, it’s something. More please?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Do our district administrators support spending millions on Smarter Balanced standardized tests?

Parents at at least one elementary school in our district received an email from their Parent-Teacher Organization today designed to encourage them to advocate for the district’s legislative priorities. “This email contains legislative advocacy information to help you stay up to date with what is happening in Des Moines,” it said. “Superintendent Murley requested that this information be shared.”

The packet contained, among other things, two documents summarizing the state task force’s recommendation that the state adopt the very expensive Smarter Balanced standardized tests. Neither document makes any reference to the dissent that accompanied the task force’s report and that raised serious concerns about the substantial and unquantified tech-readiness costs of adopting those tests. It also omitted this memo, written by our own David Dude for the Urban Education Network of Iowa, raising serious questions about tech readiness and cost. Finally, the packet included a statement about assessments, issued by the Iowa Association of School Boards, that sounds like it could have been cut and pasted from a standardized testing industry press release.

The district included all of those materials in the advocacy packet without comment on whether it wants people to support or oppose the new tests. Omitting any information about the dissenting opinion and any contrary views, though, could certainly come across as an endorsement. What are parents supposed to make of this information?

We have no idea whether the ICCSD has adequate technology to administer these tests. Judging from Dude’s memo, there’s a very good chance that it doesn’t and that the technology costs alone (not to mention the cost of the tests themselves) will be, in the dissent’s words, “significant and ongoing.” The Governor’s school funding proposal isn’t even enough to maintain our current level of spending. Where will the money for these tests come from? Where will it come from the next year, and the year after that? What is our district going to cut to pay for these tests?

It’s at moments like this when I wonder who our administrators work for.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Parties can (and should) endorse in local elections

Prompted by a meeting he attended of the Black Voices Project and Sound Off, John Deeth has a post discussing the ways in which the Democratic Party can and cannot support candidates in local elections.

Local elections in Iowa are “non-partisan,” which just means that party endorsements do not appear on the ballot. Parties can still endorse candidates, of course, just like any group can. Deeth points out that the Democratic Party’s own rules make endorsements in local elections very hard to obtain, and he notes that changing the rules can be a years-long affair. (Deeth doesn’t discuss Republican Party rules, but I’ll assume they’re roughly the same.)

I left a comment saying that I wish parties would endorse—and change their rules to make it easier to do—because it’s a piece of information that at least some voters would be interested to know.

I also think that there’s a relatively easy work-around. Deeth is right that the Democratic party rules are cumbersome and hard to change. So do this: Create a new group called, say, the Johnson County Democratic Association. Provide in the group’s constitution or by-laws that every member of the Johnson County Democratic Central Committee gets one vote in this new group. Then provide much simplified procedures for endorsements in local elections. Set a biennial meeting to consider endorsements in local elections, set a reasonable quorum requirement, and then allow endorsements by majority vote at that meeting.

That’s all it would take. Of course, you couldn’t force the party to take part, and you’d need a critical mass for the system to work. But if local party committee members participated, voters would quickly come to understand that these are the equivalent of Democratic Party endorsements. And if party committee members decide they don’t want to take a stand in local elections, then at least they couldn’t blame party rules for their choice.

I don’t mean this as a cheeky thought experiment. I really believe that party endorsements can happen this easily if the parties are willing. I’d happily volunteer to draft something if anyone’s interested.