Corbett’s Record

Governor Corbett has a “record of success” on education? Are you kidding me? I’m not sure what planet GOP spokeswoman Valerie Caras lives on, but she just said exactly this while boasting that the Governor actually increased state funding for our schools. Here on Earth in the state of Pennsylvania, where 89% of all our children attend public schools, we can tell you that Governor Corbett cut nearly $1 BILLION from education last year – and then carried those cuts forward into this year’s budget as well. The heartbreaking consequences of those cuts point to anything but a record of success.

The spokeswoman was responding to the announcement yesterday by the first Democratic contender for the 2014 governor’s race. Throwing his hat into what promises to become a crowded ring, Harrisburg lawyer John Hanger put public education at the very top of his candidacy launch statement, vowing to restore Corbett’s historic budget cuts and going on record opposing vouchers. He said he would “make education the first priority for state funding; not the last,” and pledged to “honor and encourage Pennsylvania’s teachers, for an excellent education begins with excellent teachers and with the amount of time spent learning.” He noted that, “Verbally beating and attacking teachers is now common in some quarters and is incredibly destructive to attracting top talent to teaching and improving education.” [Hanger Launch Statement, 11-28-12]

Looks like Governor Corbett will be feeling the heat on education in the run up to the next election. If Hanger’s announcement is any sign, the issues raised by our grassroots movement have gotten noticed by his Democratic opponents. It will be our job to keep all of the candidates talking about the draconian state budget cuts and their impact on our schools. Hanger’s comments about the importance of our teachers is a good start: we have lost almost 20,000 educators in the past two years since these cuts took effect. [See “Cuts Have Consequences.”]

That fact alone should make spokeswoman Caras’ statement on Pennsylvania jobs stick in our craw: she explained that Corbett would be running on his “pro-jobs, pro-growth record that has helped to create over 100,000 private sector jobs.” [The Patriot News, 11-28-12] I’m not sure how he is doing his math, but any way you count, our kids are missing 20,000 of their teachers. And here in Pittsburgh alone, we are missing hundreds of good jobs.

We are apparently also going to see more of that tired old claim that Governor Corbett “increased the state portion of education spending to its highest levels.” [The Patriot News, 11-28-12] This is wordsmithing and obfuscation at its best – and is clearly the tactic we can expect the governor’s advocates to take in the face of reality. Let’s remember that this year’s overall education budget was actually flat funded: the legislature “level funded” K-12 schools, essentially providing the same as last year’s budget. Flat funding effectively locked in the devastating $1 billion cuts the legislature made in 2011. And due to natural inflation, flat funding really means less funding, since school district costs for everything from electricity to toilet paper continue to go up.

But the Governor and his allies are not simply saying that they held funding level, they are claiming that they increased “the state portion” of spending to its highest levels. We heard a lot of this back in the spring leading up to the budget showdown. For instance, in May Corbett’s spokesman, Kevin Harley, tried this trick, claiming that the governor had “added more” to Basic Education and that “Pennsylvania taxpayers now pay more toward Basic Education than at any time in the state’s history.” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5-23-12] What Corbett did was collapse several line items into one, while eliminating others, so that the “basic education” line item appeared larger, while overall funding for K-12 schools was slashed. [See “Dishonesty Disguised as Generosity” for details.] In a rare moment of full disclosure, even Corbett himself admitted the truth back in February, saying, “We reduced education funding if you look at it as a whole. … and if you listen to my words, I always talk about the basic education funding formula [also referred to as the basic education subsidy].” [Capitolwire, 2-9-2012 (subscription service); for reference, see PADems 2-10-12]

What’s more, spokeswoman Caras claims that the state is now spending more (the “state portion”) than ever before. I can’t imagine what she means. Governor Corbett actually spent $372 million less last year on public preK-12 education than the state spent before it even started using federal stimulus money back in 2008-2009 to help plug holes in the education budget. [See “The Truth About the Numbers.”] And Pennsylvania still ranks in the bottom ten of all states in this country in the proportion of funding provided by the state, essentially pushing responsibility for school funding down on local communities which are forced to raise property taxes. [See “A New Mantra.”] This is the most inequitable way to fund education and the root of many of our problems.

We should be incensed that Governor Corbett or any spokesperson dares to claim that education funding has increased. A quick look at our schools tells the real story, as our students are without beloved teachers and librarians, and are now missing arts education, language, science, gifted and special education programs, tutoring, summer school, Kindergarten, sports, transportation, and more. That is Corbett’s real record.

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Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

Libraries Tell Our Story

Libraries are back in the news. Or to be more precise: old news about school libraries is getting some new attention. And it’s evidence of the power of our grassroots movement as we literally change the conversation here in Southwest Pennsylvania, keeping the focus on equity in learning resources for our students.

Back in October, we reported on a new study that found that students in our state with access to a full-time, certified school librarian have far better educational outcomes. Researchers from the Colorado based RSL Research Group looked at Pennsylvania’s standardized test scores (the PSSA) in reading and writing and tracked student achievement against five school library factors: staffing, collections, digital resources and technology infrastructure, library access, and funding. [Education Law Center Library Report, 10-23-12] The report concluded that by far the most important factor was having a full-time library professional and that the effects were particularly large for groups that tend to experience achievement gaps, including African American students, low income students, and those with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). [See “Libraries (and Librarians) Matter” for details.]

Just yesterday the Post-Gazette picked up this story and it has already been shared more than 950 times on Facebook and Twitter. [Post-Gazette, 11-26-12] The fact that the paper’s education reporter (and the editors) chose to run this article now, more than a month after the study came out, suggests that they see continued public interest in the topic – interest that we have helped to cultivate by keeping the spotlight on equity issues in school libraries. And if the Post-Gazette thought people would take notice, they were right: the number of people sharing the story on social media is many, many times larger than a typical education piece and it has generated a vigorous on-line discussion in the comments section.

The article also comes on the heels of another library story in last week’s paper, featuring the ongoing ripples of our Manchester Miracle. After seeing our call to action for that school library, Keith Harrison, an English teacher at Baldwin High School, worked with his students to organize a book drive. They wound up collecting 1,300 volumes and also wanted to volunteer their time. Since the Pittsburgh Manchester K-8 library was already well under way to its glorious reconstruction, our fearless public school librarian Sheila May-Stein suggested they turn their attention to another ailing school library at Pittsburgh Carmalt in the Brookline neighborhood. Two weeks ago, Mr. Harrison and 40 Baldwin students spent an entire day at Carmalt helping to clean the library, catalog all the new books, and stock the shelves. [Post-Gazette, 11-21-12]

Baldwin High School students Daria Och, Sarah Berardine, Jackie Nguyen, Ali Marx and Matt Doyle sort through books they helped collect for the library of Pittsburgh Carmalt. Photo source: Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette.

These stories not only highlight the continued impact of our grassroots movement, but also point to the underlying equity issues. As we’ve said many times, it’s great to have all those new books and a space open for classroom teachers to take their students when time allows, but without a full-time librarian in each of our schools, we are still short-changing our kids. Professional librarians do far more than check out books. They get to know hundreds of students in their schools; they work closely with classroom teachers to design lesson plans; they teach critical digital information searching skills; they run reading clubs, and much more. As this most recent study clearly found, librarians are even more significant for our most struggling students, yet these are often the very kids forced to go without books, staff, or space.

As we’ve seen with these latest draconian state budget cuts, libraries and librarians are some of the first learning resources that get the axe when districts are forced to make tough choices. And Pittsburgh is hardly alone: last year 56% of all public schools in Pennsylvania did not have a full-time librarian. [Post-Gazette, 11-26-12] Yet people care about their libraries and believe that children should have access to their resources. In fact, it was the threat of losing school librarians that catalyzed many in this grassroots movement into action last fall. Perhaps that should not come as a surprise here in the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie’s free public libraries, where local residents actually voted to raise their own taxes last fall to support the system.

In any case, libraries offer a tangible and crystal clear example of the challenges facing our public schools. People understand empty bookshelves and can wrap their heads around the fight to fill them more quickly than digesting the policy weeds of state politics. But libraries also offer the perfect entrée into understanding the consequences of state budget cuts and decisions made by legislators far away in Harrisburg. That’s another reason why keeping the library story in the public dialogue has been so important for our movement.

And our Manchester Miracle is a story that just keeps on giving – like the people who keep on giving. The latest news is from the small town of Parkersburg, Iowa, that was flattened by an F-5 tornado back in 2008. With a population of only 1,800 people, the town rebuilt and decided to re-imagine their school’s purpose, giving back to the world that helped them to recover after the disaster. Sheila May-Stein reports that Parkersburg collected and mailed at considerable expense eight giant boxes of books for Manchester: “They included handmade book marks, photos of the whole student population dressed in rainbow colors, a bound book of the children’s letters of encouragement to Manchester’s children, and a letter describing what their philosophy has become, and how they wanted to help Manchester’s kids.”

Parkersburg, Iowa in 2008 after the F-5 tornado leveled the town. Photo source: AlteredStars / WunderPhoto.

And speaking of donations to Manchester: Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, PA gave three enormous boxes of brand-new, high-quality, hardcover children’s books. Sheila points out that they received “absolutely nothing from us” in return, yet Amazon.com has made over $13,000 from our Wish-List book drive and so far not responded to our requests for a single donation. (The fact that all our volunteers have been paying full retail prices benefiting a large corporation also points to problems arising from the District’s decision to eliminate a city-wide library coordinator: these books would have cost far less under contracts we previously had with school book distributors.) Perhaps if you are doing some holiday shopping this year in the Sewickley area, you might consider dropping into the Penguin Bookshop with your business – and tell them thanks for supporting public education.

Meanwhile, give yourself a big thank you, too, for keeping school libraries in the public eye where they can tell our story. This is how we know the grassroots is working.

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Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

Talking Turkey about Charters

Pennsylvania’s education secretary Ron Tomalis may not have been feeling very thankful last week. The feds just slapped down his blatant attempt to change the reporting rules for charter schools that would have made their student achievement rates look better. As you may recall, earlier this fall Tomalis had just been caught lying about the supposed impact of teachers on falling student test scores, when an investigative piece by the Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call revealed that he was also trying to cheat the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) system, making it easier for charter schools to meet those student-testing benchmarks than traditional public schools. [See “A Liar and a Cheat”]

Secretary Tomalis made the change without first getting federal approval, allowing him to report that dozens more charter schools had made AYP this year. Using Tomalis’ new math, charter school proponents could claim that 59% of charter schools made AYP in 2012, compared to 50% of traditional public schools. But the federal Department of Education rejected the scheme and ordered Pennsylvania to re-evaluate charter schools using the same process applied to other public schools. That means that only 37% of charter schools will now make AYP this year. [Post-Gazette, 11-24-12] Obviously that is significantly worse than traditional public schools.

Assistant U.S. education secretary Deborah S. Delisle nailed it on the head when she made the order, noting, “Pennsylvania is obligated to make AYP decisions for all schools and hold all schools to the same standards.” [The Morning Call, 11-21-12] But Sec. Tomalis was clearly trying to distort the playing field and inflate the appearance of charter school performance at a crucial political moment, just as charter schools are being promoted as the “solution” to “failing” public schools.

The timing of the announcement also reeks of political motivations. The U.S. Department of Education issued its order on Monday, November 19th, but Sec. Tomalis waited until Wednesday, November 21st – the day before Thanksgiving – to release it, clearly hoping that the news would be buried on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Perhaps Sec. Tomalis also hoped that the news would not leak out before the public hearings scheduled to begin today on applications for eight new cyber charter schools. Despite their dismal performance, Pennsylvania has 16 cyber charter schools – more than any other state in the country – including four it approved just this past summer. And now it wants to consider eight more? That’s crazy.

Pennsylvania law actually requires the state to review cyber charter schools every year and revoke those charters when they fail to meet student performance standards. [See PA state law: 24 P.S. §Section 17-1741-A (3) and 17-1742-A(2)] Only one cyber charter school made AYP this year and abundant research has demonstrated their dismal track record for students. [See “Dueling Rallies” for summary of the data.] In calling for a state moratorium on approving any new cyber charters, Rhonda Brownstein, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, noted, “Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania have longstanding problems with poor academic outcomes for students, and the Department does not appear to have the current capacity to handle its legally mandated and critical oversight and accountability functions for these taxpayer-funded schools.” [ELC Release, 11-21-12]

The Education Law Center will be testifying today at the public hearing in Harrisburg. We here in the grassroots ought to lend our voices to this highly reasonable call for a moratorium on new cyber charter schools. When only 37% of all charter schools are making AYP and cyber charters are performing even worse, we must ask why the state would even contemplate opening more schools that fail our kids. Holiday weekend or not, we were paying attention – and now it’s time to talk turkey about what really works in education.

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Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

Why Care About State Politics?

Why should we here in Southwest Pennsylvania care about what happens in state politics? That’s the question put to me by the editor of the Pittsburgh City Paper last week during an interview for a forthcoming story they are doing on our old friends at the Students First PA super PAC. It’s a good question, and the answer has everything to do with how we are going to save our public schools.

As we have learned, the state plays an enormous role in what happens inside our local schools, through both funding and policy. When Governor Corbett cut nearly $1 BILLION from public education last year (and then carried those cuts forward into this year’s budget as well), we saw the direct and immediate impact: our children lost teachers, tutoring programs, textbooks, librarians, arts, custodians, sports, and so much more.

State-level education policies are just as significant when it comes to equitable funding for our schools: for instance, Governor Corbett’s administration decided to stop reimbursing school districts for charter school tuition payments. Pittsburgh Public Schools estimates that decision alone will cost $14.8 million by 2014. [Post-Gazette, 11-14-12] When our legislature adjourned a few weeks ago without summoning the courage to address the cyber charter school funding formula, they forced our schools to continue over-paying those charters by $1million per day. (See “One Million Per Day”) And sometimes state policies target specific districts, such as the 2007 decision requiring Pittsburgh Public Schools to hand $77.1million over to the city. [Post-Gazette, 11-14-12]

In addition to these state-level funding decisions, the administration and Pennsylvania legislators set policies that directly affect our schools. Consider, for example, the recent bill that would have installed a statewide panel to authorize new charter schools, removing control from local, democratically elected school boards, while centralizing power in the hands of political appointees. The bill would also have exempted charter schools from our state’s right-to-know laws, keeping executive salaries secret among other things. (See “A Victory.”) Charter schools cost districts millions of local taxpayer dollars – Pittsburgh alone is spending $52.4million this year on them – and local boards ought to retain fiscal oversight. [Post-Gazette, 11-19-12] If we are not paying attention to these “policy weeds,” then we will discover that they have grown up to strangle public education.

But you don’t even have to be in the weeds to see the connection between what is happening at the state level and the recent decline in student performance. That makes yesterday’s Post-Gazette editorial about the recent A+Schools report all the more frustrating. (See “Bad Report.”) Without even mentioning state budget cuts, the editors wrote: “Traditionally this city has been the beneficiary of a close-knit community of neighborhoods committed … to maintaining a strong urban school district,” and concluded, “For the sake of Pittsburgh and everyone with a stake in it, let’s keep it that way and make sure the next report card shows marked improvement.” [Post-Gazette, 11-18-12] In effect, the editorial board has reproduced the report’s assumption that all the city’s problems are of its own making – implying that all the answers lie within the city as well. We have got to get past this way of thinking, which not only ignores the immense role of state politics in what is happening locally, but also reinforces the city vs. suburban, us vs. them, mentality that prevents us from seeing how public education connects us all.

We all need to be paying attention to what is happening right here in Duquesne, as that school district collapses under the multiple pressures of post-industrial decline. The state has just announced a new Chief Recovery Officer (CRO) who will be in charge of planning next steps for the district. [Post-Gazette, 11-17-12] Given the administration’s track record with other CRO appointments – remember how they put the fox in charge of the henhouse in Chester Uplands? – we better reserve judgment until we learn more. (See “Taking the Public out of Public Education.”) But already the charter school applicants are circling, with two new proposals, either of which would essentially charterize the entire remains of the Duquesne school district. [Post-Gazette, 11-19-12]

Still don’t think what the state does matters to your kids in your school district? Take a look at Pennsylvania’s largest cyber charter school, PA Cyber Charter, which has made a little boomtown out of Midland over in Beaver County. With 11,000 students enrolled all across the state, PA Cyber now gets payments from home school districts in every corner of Pennsylvania totaling more than $100million a year. That’s $100million of taxpayer money that is not going to local school districts – and coincidentally, the same amount Governor Corbett tried to slash from this year’s state education budget. All that money has led to a cesspool of corruption and unethical behavior (recall that Florida condo exchanging hands to launder payments), with executives resigning and now under investigation by a federal grand jury.

The Post-Gazette ran an excellent investigative report yesterday that is worth reading in its entirety, but to summarize: more administrators now stand accused of setting up a kickback scheme, acting as paid consultants to funnel their own school employees into a graduate program. “In 2011 and 2012,” the reporters note, “PA Cyber paid Franciscan University of Steubenville a total of $1.3 million in tuition for the charter school’s employees” who were getting a master’s degree in on-line education that those administrators helped to establish. That $1.3million in tuition came straight out of taxpayers’ pockets, while the program expected to earn millions in profit. [Post-Gazette, 11-18-12]

By way of comparison, Pittsburgh Public Schools does not offer any tuition assistance for teachers seeking graduate degrees, its administrators are not acting as highly paid consultants for other institutions, and it did not just put taxpayers on the hook for millions paid to an out of state private school. Yet the state has not only allowed PA Cyber Charter to operate this way, it has gone out of its way to change the ground rules for charter schools, to inflate their student performance relative to traditional public schools. (See “A Liar and a Cheat.”)

The bottom line is that state politics matters. This isn’t Las Vegas: what happens in Harrisburg does not stay in Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania legislature and the Governor’s education administration make funding decisions and set policies that directly impact our local schools. We here in the grassroots not only have to pay attention, but we must insist that others connect the dots as well.

Bad Report

The latest report on Pittsburgh Public Schools is bad, but no one seems to be asking the right questions. On Monday, A+Schools released its annual summary of Pittsburgh school performance with a dreary assessment: despite years of determined effort, student test scores are down, the racial achievement gap is widening again, and the graduation rate has declined. [A+Schools 2012 Report to the Community] But neither A+Schools nor the Pittsburgh Public School district seem to want to talk about two of biggest reasons why: horrifyingly bad decisions made by the state and poverty.

Let’s start with the state, which, as we all know by now, cut nearly $1BILLION from public schools last year, then carried those draconian cuts forward into this year’s budget. Pittsburgh school superintendent Dr. Linda Lane is always careful not to point the finger of blame at state budget cuts, as the district valiantly attempts to avoid the wrath of Harrisburg. I get that. Just look at Philadelphia if you want to see what happens when you’re on the administration’s bad side. (For a refresher course on Philadelphia, see “This is What Privatization Looks Like.”) But Governor Corbett cut close to $30million from Pittsburgh schools, and it’s time the district started educating the community about exactly what the consequences of those cuts have been.

To take just one example, last year the Pittsburgh Public School that my children attend was forced to eliminate its after school and Saturday tutoring program for its most struggling students. Our PTO raised money to revive a scaled back program midway through the year using volunteers. It’s a wonderful thing, but still does not reach the number of students who previously received school services from professional educators. And the school lost in-classroom paraprofessionals and its textbook and supply budget. These are the kinds of things that have a direct impact on student learning. Why are we pretending that disappointing test scores have nothing to do with these massive budget cuts?

Dr. Lane alluded to the state budget cuts when she tried to explain why student scores on Pennsylvania’s standardized tests (the PSSAs) dipped this year, saying that it was likely a combination of teachers worried about whether they would have their jobs and the loss of preliminary assessments used to identify which students need additional help. [Post-Gazette, 11-13-12] She and many other school superintendents around the state have also pointed to increased security measures during the exams, which created test anxiety, especially for the youngest students.

A+Schools alluded to a “budget crisis” only once in its 118 page report, without actually naming state budget cuts as a problem: noting the teachers who have been laid off and schools that have closed, the report says, “The budget crisis that provoked these changes is not over.” [p. 5] Readers who catch the reference at all, may well be left with the impression that the school district has a budget problem entirely of its own making. The District certainly must share responsibility, but we can’t ignore the role of the state in setting disastrous educational policies that are harming students and seriously undermining the ability of our public schools to boost achievement. To see the many ways in which the situation in Pittsburgh is tied directly to Pennsylvania policy, consider for example how the state has:

  • Reneged on its commitment to equitable school funding, pulling the plug on the implementation of the Legislature’s own six-year plan which was already two years underway. (See “A Shameful Betrayal”; also see why this had nothing to do with the end of stimulus money, in “Should Schools Have Known the $$ was Temporary?”)
  • Pulled reimbursements for charter school tuition payments, costing school districts millions. In Pittsburgh the total loss will come to $14.8million by 2014. [Post-Gazette, 11-14-12]
  • Refused to fix the cyber charter funding formula that forces school districts to overpay cyber charter schools by millions of dollar. (See “One Million Per Day”)
  • Gave $77.1million from the earned income tax since 2007 to the city instead, to help its financial problems. [Post-Gazette, 11-14-12]
  • Forced many local districts to raise property taxes, including a third of those in Allegheny County this year alone. Yet the Pittsburgh Public School district has not raised taxes in over a decade! (See Brian O’Neill’s piece comparing the city’s track record to suburban school districts, some of which have hiked taxes by more than 50% in the same period: Post-Gazette, 11-8-12)
  • Attempted to take away local control by democratically elected school board representatives by installing a statewide charter school authorizing board. (See “Where are the Real Republicans?”)
  • Failed utterly to take on the looming pension crisis, which can only be appropriately addressed at the state level and threatens to swallow school district budgets. (See “Pension History 101”)

I could go on, but the point is that state level budget cuts and policies are directly and negatively impacting our kids.

I am equally puzzled why no one wants to talk about the impact of poverty on declining student test scores. When the Post-Gazette reported on the A+Schools dismal findings, it concluded with what should have been the most important sentence in the entire article: “The student body is also poorer, with the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches 3 percentage points higher than in 2010-11 at 71.3 percent.” [Post-Gazette, 11-13-12]

That’s a substantial climb – and it means that well over two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s public school children are feeling the direct results of poverty. Think about poor nutrition; inadequate pre-natal care; high exposure to health risks such as premature birth, lead poisoning, and asthma inducing smog; and the instability of frequent moves, substandard housing, and food insecurities, to name just a few. And research shows that what happens to children outside the school doors has the greatest impact on their learning: schools are important, but we cannot pretend that academic performance is not affected by poverty. [Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 256-57]

I continue to be frustrated with reports such as this latest from A+Schools that focus on student scores on high-stakes-tests. While the authors caution against using these scores alone to judge schools (and correctly avoid labeling individual schools with their AYP status, which only serves to further attach “failing” labels to them), the bulk of the pages do just this. There is no doubt that we have serious problems here in Pittsburgh, but we cannot begin to address them adequately if we are unwilling to connect local equity and student achievement issues to state level budget cuts, harmful policies, and the effects of poverty. Dr. Lane might have to worry about appearing to make excuses for the District’s performance if she mentions such things – but we here in the grassroots must make the connection, and do so loudly.

Testing and More Testing

It’s National Education Week and it’s time to talk about testing. High-stakes-testing that is. These are not the old end-of-unit quizzes you and I took in school. We’re talking about an entirely new system of labeling and punishing schools that is having dire consequences for students. Hand in glove with other corporate-style “reform” measures and draconian state budget cuts such as we’ve seen here in Pennsylvania, high-stakes-testing lies at the heart of the modern attack on public education.

So where did this come from? The high-stakes-testing and accountability movement solidified under federal law in 2001 when President George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This legislation radically transformed public education policy by dramatically increasing the role of the federal government and mandating standardized testing to measure student achievement. It also created a culture of failure and blame, accusing teachers of poor performance when their students did not do well on the tests, and then labeling schools as failures when their students struggled. This effectively reinforced an existing national narrative of “failing public schools.” And while there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that narrative conveniently fits with what many people already believe about cities, urban schools, and minority students, lending the narrative even more power.

NCLB effectively created the system of “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula” giving teachers less and less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Students are certainly learning how to take standardized tests, but not actual content: when they are tested on the same material in a different format, they cannot demonstrate any real subject mastery. Even those students in districts that have shown impressive gains over the past few years under NCLB cannot transfer those skills, failing to perform on different tests of similar content. [Daniel Koretz, Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, 2008].

The massive increase in school time spent on test preparation inevitably detracts from time on other learning tasks. Yinzercator Pamela Harbin points out that this year Pittsburgh Public School sixth graders – including my own son – will take 23 of these tests, nine more than last year. Teachers are increasingly being evaluated on their students’ test scores and little else, even though these tests were never designed for this purpose. And schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the federal law are threatened with punitive sanctions, including loss of funding, and in the worst-case scenario, complete closure.

High-stakes-testing has therefore set the stage for a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. (See how this has made Pennsylvania’s own Secretary of Education “A Liar and a Cheat.”) NCLB set the unrealistic target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students in reading and math by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed. In a nationwide study of high-stakes-testing, Arizona State University researchers concluded, “The scores we get from high-stakes tests cannot be trusted—they are corrupted and distorted. Moreover, such tests cannot adequately measure the important things we really want to measure. Even worse … [h]igh- stakes testing programs corrupt and distort the people in the educational system.” [“The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High Stakes Testing, 2005”]

What’s more, high-stakes-testing has drastically narrowed school curricula with its laser focus on reading and math. These are essential skills, but our children have lost music, art, foreign languages, history, science, and much more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two areas. And when Governor Corbett cut nearly $1BILLION from our schools, many districts were forced to eliminate programs, keeping only those classes that would be measured on standardized tests. When we lament as a community empty library shelves and rally behind our very own Manchester Miracle, we must stop to consider how high-stakes-testing has created a climate in which libraries are expendable. [If you haven’t already, be sure to read why cutting libraries is so short-sighted in “Libraries (and Librarians) Matter.”]

And now we have new tests. Under new federal Common Core Standards, states are phasing in new standardized tests – here in Pennsylvania they will be called Keystone Exams – which will be significantly more difficult. Last year, Kentucky became the first state to use the new Common Core in its testing and “the percentage of students scoring proficient dropped by a third or more in elementary and middle school compared with the old test.” [Post-Gazette, 11-8-12] In an on-line comment to that story, the National Association of Secondary School Principals applauded the Pittsburgh Public School district for trying to “prepare their stakeholders” for what will in all likelihood be a “precipitous drop” in test scores. “Otherwise,” they noted, “a different narrative will be created for them, and the scores will just become one more bludgeon for public-school detractors.”

This is exactly the point. These high-stakes-tests are being used to hurt schools, not help them. Schools with low-scoring students do not get extra resources or offers of help. They get labeled as failures and threatened with sanctions. And despite all the additional tests, our children are not learning more – they are learning less. They are losing their libraries, arts education, tutoring, and so much more.

Enough is enough. Since it’s National Education Week, let’s spend some time this week educating ourselves about the real consequences of high-stakes-testing. Stay tuned and we’ll talk some more about a growing national movement resisting this cancerous plague in our public schools.

Education Victories

We had several significant election wins for public education in Southwest PA last night. And it’s a good thing, because we just got more dire school budget news, meaning these folks are going to have their work cut out for them. But first the good news.

Congratulations to Erin Molchany, a Democrat in State House District 22, which is largely in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. She said the key issues in her race were “reliable public transit… And of course public education.” Molchany is connected to our Yinzercation networks and I had the pleasure of sitting on a Town Hall panel with her last month at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Last night she noted, “There’s a very evident commitment to public education in the district and beyond.” [Post-Gazette, 11-7-12] We look forward to working with Rep. Molchany and having another strong voice for public education in the legislature.

Also in the South Hills, Democrat Matt Smith is moving from the House to the District 37 Senate seat. Smith has been very vocal about public education, calling Governor Corbett’s budget cuts “draconian,” and when he was in the House, “he introduced legislation that would increase funding for full-day kindergarten.” [Post-Gazette, 11-7-12] Smith has also met with Yinzercation parents multiple times and issued a detailed public statement last spring about the impact of state budget cuts on our schools. Both Smith and Molchany were endorsed by Education Voters PA. (For details on other EdVoter endorsed candidates across the state, see the rundown put together by the Keystone State Education Coalition.)

Back in the State House, we are glad to see public education stalwart Dan Frankel, who ran unopposed in this election for his District 23 seat. As minority caucus leader, Frankel is a crucial leader in our state, and has met numerous times this past year with our grassroots movement. Frankel also lent a hand to first-time candidate Susan Spicka, a public education grassroots organizer from the middle part of the state, who put up a spectacular fight in the 89th House District. [The Sentinel, 11-7-12] Spicka had an incredible turn out, and we hope she runs again. She will have lots of support from her public education allies in Southwest PA.

Our schools are going to need all the supporters they can get in Harrisburg this year as the pension crisis looms, threatening district budgets everywhere. For a quick tutorial on this critical topic, please be sure you have read our “Pension History 101.” The Pittsburgh Public School District announced Monday night that it would be broke by 2015. While it has slashed its spending and laid off a historic number of teachers, the district is already in deficit – plunged there in no small part because of state budget cuts – and has been spending down its reserve account. Those reserves will be gone by 2015, at which point the deficit is forecast to grow to $42.78 million. And these projections assume no further budget cuts from the state. [Post-Gazette, 11-6-12]

The pension crisis is a massive threat to public education in our state and will require a serious bi-partisan effort to address. Our job in the grassroots will be to insist that our legislators get started, and that they take every step with the assumption that public schools are a public good worth saving. Dr. Linda Lane, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent, noted that every district in the state is affected by growing pension contributions, but said, “I don’t see a miracle out there to solve it other than money from school districts.” [Post-Gazette, 11-6-12] If local school districts are forced to substantially increase property taxes to compensate for the pension spike, it will only further solidify inequities in our public schools. This is one issue that we must insist that our state legislators have the courage to address.

The good news is that the overwhelming majority of public school families believe strongly in their schools. In a report released this week, the Pittsburgh Public School District found that two-thirds of parents surveyed would recommend their child’s school to a friend. The most enthusiastic support came from parents with children in early childhood centers, where 85% would recommend the school, and in K-5 schools, where 74% would recommend the school. Sixty-seven percent of respondents felt that teaching quality is improving in the district. [Post-Gazette, 11-6-12] These results reflect national trends, as Americans are giving their local public schools the highest ratings in twenty years. Nationally, when asked about the school their oldest child attends, over three quarters of those polled – 77% – gave their school an A or B (and only 6% gave it a D or F). [Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 8-20-12] (For more on this survey and its results, see “What the Polls Say.”)

In other words, Americans may feel there is a general public education crisis, but when you ask them about the actual schools in their own backyards, they are quite positive about them. Our grassroots movement needs to tap into this overwhelming majority that supports their local public schools. This is truly the “silent majority” that we must give voice to – our work is to amplify those voices so that they can be heard all the way in Harrisburg by our newly elected legislators.