Sunshine and Happiness

The end of the school year is almost here and all we want to think about is sunshine and happy things. Fortunately, there is much good news to report! So in the spirit of summer vacation and all things wonderful, here is our top six list of public education goodness:

Good Stuff #1: Election Results!

I am still on a high from the primary election last week. As our very own Kathy Newman wrote on Diane Ravitch’s national blog, Pittsburgh voters:

“delivered a resounding message that they support the broad platform of education justice for the Pittsburgh Public schools. This platform includes: Community Schools—schools which provide wrap-around, nutrition and psychological services to needy children during the school day and beyond, restorative justice rather than discipline and punish, more resources for nurses, librarians and counselors, a push back against over-testing, and a district budget that is determined by what students need to succeed rather than austerity, closing schools, and right-sizing. … Each of the four school board candidates who ran on this platform won the Democratic primary nomination, and they are all but assured to win in the fall, and to begin serving on the school board in late 2015.”

The winning candidates are the District 2 incumbent, Regina Holley, a former Pittsburgh principal and strong advocate for our students and schools. I have great respect for Dr. Holley and it has been an honor working with and getting to know her these past few years. In the hotly contested District 4 race, Lynda Wrenn won in a landslide victory, demonstrating the power of grassroots coalition building, with parents, teachers, and community members providing an army of “boots on the ground” to get out the word. Ms. Wrenn is the mother of two PPS graduates and two current students, has served as a PTO president, worked with the district on numerous task forces, has a master’s in teaching from Chatham, and is deeply involved in the community.

In District 6 the city gains a new champion for education justice with Moira Kaleida, a community leader who is active with Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh and mother of two young children just starting in the public schools. District 8 also endorsed a candidate running on a strong equity platform: Kevin Carter, the founder and CEO of the Adonai Center for Black Males, a nonprofit that helps young men transition from high school to college or trade school, and from higher education to the workplace. In debates this spring and in public statements and personal conversations, I’ve been very impressed with both Ms. Kaleida’s and Mr. Carter’s understanding of the issues facing public education.

These four candidates will join four other school board members elected in 2013 who were also backed by the education justice movement. That makes Pittsburgh’s board a rarity among large U.S. cities: democratically elected and supportive of evidence-backed policies to make all our schools the places all of our children deserve.

A final note about the elections: congratulations to our colleague Helen Gym, who won a huge primary victory for Philadelphia City Council running on a public education platform! This is absolutely amazing news for Philly and for all of us in Pennsylvania.

Good Stuff #2: Testing Resistance!

Mary King made big waves here and nationally when she refused to give high-stakes-tests to her students this spring. [Post-Gazette, 5-23-15] Ms. King teaches English language learners at Pittsburgh Colfax and decided that she had to take a stand as a conscientious objector after witnessing the harm done to her students. [See our “Brave Teachers Speak Out About Testing”] The Post-Gazette article about her was the #1 most shared story in last Saturday’s paper, and was also hilariously featured in Gary Rotstein’s Morning File on Monday. [Post-Gazette, 5-25-15] Diane Ravitch even named Mary King to her national honor roll!

As Pittsburgh teacher Kipp Dawson points out in a letter to the editor today, Mary King is in good company (despite the paper’s characterization of her taking a “lone stand”):

“Indeed, Mary King’s action in refusing to administer the state tests to her ESL students is unique, courageous and pioneering. However, far from standing alone, she is part of a growing movement of parents, teachers and students who are standing up against the egregious testing mania which is part of the current attacks on public schools. As a middle-school teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, it is my experience that it would be hard to find a teacher who does not have similar stories about how the testing frenzy has hurt individual students, let alone how it has been a central part of the destruction of real teaching and learning in our schools.

“Just last week Jim Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, sent a letter to parents in which he says, among other things, “… we are asking our students to do something that’s entirely unfair: To spend weeks and weeks filling in bubbles, taking standardized tests and having their entire educational ambition directed toward passing them. This is not what public education was intended to do, nor should do. … I believe in very high standards for our students. I believe in accountability. I do believe that tests can be a good thing. But not the way we are being forced, by the government, to give them.”

“Many of us would welcome such leadership from Pittsburgh Public Schools, but we are not waiting for it. Saluting Mary King, and working alongside her, many of us teachers, parents and students keep working to help people stand up against the testing mania, along with all of the other undermining that the “reformers” are attempting to do to our public schools.” [Post-Gazette, 5-29-15]

Indeed, the movement against the overuse and misuse of high-stakes-testing is growing exponentially here in Southwest Pennsylvania. As one simple measure of interest in this issue, my piece last month on “The Religious Reasons My Kids Won’t Be Taking the Test” has become our second most read post of all time; was shared by readers from this blog over 2,000 times; reached over 26,000 people from our Facebook page; and was re-published by the Washington Post and AlterNet.org.

Good Stuff #3: Listen to Teachers!

If Mary King’s courageous stand against high-stakes-testing tells us anything it’s that we should be listening to teachers. Scholastic recently surveyed all of the State Teacher of the Year winners. These top educators have been recognized by each state as the very best in the nation, and not surprisingly, they tend to agree on how we should be approaching education reform: the report noted, “Teachers see issues like poverty, family stress and other out-of-school barriers to learning greatly affecting student academic success, and they prioritize things like anti-poverty initiatives, early learning and other community supports and services for funding.”

Not a mention in here of testing students more, or more “rigor,” or “standards,” or “firing bad teachers.” Nope. Listen to their recommendations about what actually works for students: “If these teachers could choose where to focus education funding in order to have the highest impact on student learning, their top priorities would be: Anti-poverty initiatives, early learning, reducing barriers to learning (access to wrap-around services, healthcare, etc.), and professional development/learning.” [Scholastic 2015 Survey] Sounds like our education justice platform, no?

Good Stuff #4: Governor Wolf!

Oh, this Governor. He wants to put more money into the public education budget! He’s going around the state lobbying for early childhood education rather than more prisons. [Post-Gazette, 5-26-15] He even sent a sharply worded letter to the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, which opposes restoring the budget cuts to public schools, accusing business leaders of putting “oil and gas special interests” before the interests of our children. [Post-Gazette, 5-19-15] What is he thinking? Happily, he is doing exactly what we asked him to do when we elected him with a clear mandate to support public education. We still have plenty of work to do with legislators who do not think schools and kids should come first. But what a refreshing change of leadership from the very top. And we did this!

Good Stuff #5: Lobbying to End School Push-Out!

On Tuesday, our coalition Great Public Schools Pittsburgh held a rally before the school board meeting to highlight school push-out. Students of color and students with special education needs are disproportionately impacted by school suspensions and other practices that push kids out of school and, too often, into the prison pipeline. For example, last year African-American students, who comprise 54% of the Pittsburgh student body, received over three-quarters (77%) of the district’s suspensions.

Our very own Pam Harbin has been leading a GPS working group aimed at developing recommendations to address this inequity that has life-long consequences for affected students. This week, we called on the district to commit to the following:

  • Adopt support-­based, district-wide disciplinary policies that move away from exclusionary discipline practices in favor of a comprehensive restorative justice approach.
  • Revise the Student Code of Conduct to divide the levels of infractions for misbehavior into five (5) levels. Out­-of-­school suspensions are not an option for the first two levels and expulsion is only an option for the fifth level. Remove option of permanent expulsion.
  • Further revise the Student Code of Conduct to include a glossary/index that defines every misconduct offense, guidance approach and possible disciplinary responses in student/caregiver friendly language. The Student Code of Conduct must be translated for non­-English speaking families.
  • Place a moratorium on out-­of-­school suspensions/expulsions for our youngest students, preK­5th grade, with nonviolent misconduct.
  • Assign, in every school, at least one full­time counselor or social worker whose primary job is to coordinate appropriate interventions and support for students.
  • Provide PPS police officers and security with the proper and necessary training on topics to meet the varying needs of officers working with youth.
  • Publicly report suspension and expulsion data at monthly School Board Legislative meetings broken down by grade, race, and disability category.

The effort received considerable press coverage from WESA, KDKA Radio and KDKA TV, KQV, WTAE TV, WPXI TV, the Post-Gazette, and the Courier. That’s pretty incredible! Here are some photos from the event:

Post-Gazette, print edition, 5-27-15

Post-Gazette, print edition, 5-27-15

Good Stuff #6: More Equity Work!

I am delighted to announce that starting Monday, I have a new job. I will be the inaugural Director of the new Women’s Institute at Chatham University. I also have a faculty appointment and will continue teaching. I will be leading efforts to focus on gender equity through education, research, and outreach – both on campus and in the larger community. I am thrilled that Chatham is continuing its commitment to gender equity and women’s leadership and am excited to be a part of this crucial work. I don’t know how much time I will have for blogging as I settle into the new position, but will certainly remain engaged in our education justice movement. As feminism has taught us, systems of power and oppression overlap; our fight for justice and equity in public education is intimately connected to the fight against racism, poverty, homophobia, sexism, and gender discrimination. I can’t wait to get to work!

The Religious Reasons My Kids Won’t be Taking the Test

As we head into several weeks of high-stakes-testing here in Pennsylvania, I would like to share with you the religious reasons my children will not be taking the state mandated PSSAs. Here is an open letter I sent to Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools; Dr. Lisa Augustin, Director of Assessment; Ms. Jamie Kinzel-Nath, Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 principal; and all of our children’s wonderful teachers.

April 10, 2015

Dear Dr. Lane and Ms. Kinzel-Nath:

Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(5) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my children, ____________, excused from PSSA testing on the grounds of my religious beliefs. Please allow ­­­­­­­­­___________ to pursue alternate educational activities such as a research project or volunteering in younger classrooms during testing.

I could stop my letter right there, as that is all that is legally required by the state in order to excuse our children from testing. However, as this is our third year writing such letters, I would like to explain the religious grounds we have for refusing to allow our children to be tested. Even though, under law, no state or school official is permitted to ask us about our faith nor require “proof” of our beliefs, I would like to share these religious reasons with you.

We belong to First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, a member of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), which is active in education justice. Every Sunday, we recite seven principles that unite Unitarian Universalists. Most of these principles are basic moral and philosophical statements shared by all of the world’s major religions. They reflect the common values of most faiths, from “love one another” and “do unto others,” to respect for the spark of the divine in each of us, and the ethical-humanist imperative to leave this world a better place. Please allow me to explain how each of these seven principles has led us to refuse high-stakes-testing for our own children, and on behalf of all children.

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Every child is valuable – priceless – and has the human right to a rich, full education. Respecting the inherent worth of every child also means treating each student as an individual, and not a widget being produced in a factory. Standardized testing, tied to an ever more standardized common core curriculum, sorts students into categories (“below basic,” “basic,” etc.) There are serious consequences to this sorting and labeling (see below), but the underlying premise of this standardized high-stakes-testing is to compare and rank students – not to support the individual learning of each student.

This is clearly evident when schools use standardized, normed tests, which force all students into a bell curve, guaranteeing that a large proportion of the children will fail. To get that nice bell shape of test results, with exactly half of the children falling on the “below average” side of the curve, the tests are carefully designed with purposefully misleading questions. For instance, test makers will use tricky sound-alike answers to intentionally trip up English language learners, or culturally specific clues most easily decoded only by students from wealthy families. Pittsburgh is subjecting students to the normed GRADE test not once, but three times a year (a result of accepting state money that came with testing strings attached). Teachers have been reporting the problematic GRADE test questions for years, but the test-maker has not changed them because this “assessment” requires a set failure rate. In what way does this kind of standardized testing respect the inherent worth of our students? When students’ test scores are then displayed for all to see on “data walls” (an increasingly common practice in our schools), how does this respect the dignity of each child?

  1. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

While advocates claim that high-stakes-testing will hold teachers and schools accountable for student learning and therefore promote equity, it often does the exact opposite by reinforcing inequality. High-stakes-testing labels our schools as “failures,” but never results in additional resources to actually help kids. Instead, “failing” schools are often targeted for closure. When you look at the pattern of school closures across the country – including here in Pittsburgh – you can see that districts have closed schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, displacing some students multiple times. Our communities of color have been harmed the most, with places like Oakland and Hazelwood turned into education deserts without a single neighborhood public school.

Schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of student test scores are often targeted with other “reforms” that rarely help children. Our own beloved Colfax provides an excellent example of the “disruptive innovation” imposed on supposedly failing schools. Nine years ago when our family first started at Colfax, its large achievement gap had recently earned it a designation as a “turnaround school.” The district fired every single teacher and the principal then handpicked an entirely new teaching staff. The idea, of course, was that we had to get rid of the “bad” teachers and hire only “great” teachers and that would solve the problem of low test scores. Fast forward almost a decade and you can see that this didn’t work: Colfax still has one of the largest achievement gaps in the city (which is really an opportunity gap made highly visible by the presence of families from some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest and poorest communities together in the same school).

During this same decade, Colfax students also experienced a relentless series of “reforms,” all aimed at increasing test scores. When we started, Colfax was a Spanish language immersion school, then we lost the extra language instruction to become an “Accelerated Learning Academy” focused on reading and math. We got an America’s Choice curriculum that was supposed to solve everything and added extra periods of reading. We got a longer school day and a longer school year. We got a Parent Engagement Specialist. Then we lost the curriculum, lost the extra time and days, and lost the parent specialist. The district changed to a 6 day week, so we could cram in extra reading and math periods, since these are tested subjects, resulting in a net loss of music, art, language, and physical education. With state budget cuts we lost more music and athletic programs, and we even lost our after school tutoring program aimed at those very students whose test scores continue to cause so much alarm. And class sizes ballooned to 30, sometimes 35 and more students.

Imposing constant churn and disruption on our most vulnerable students in the pursuit of higher test scores is not education justice. Worse, the relentless high-stakes-testing has served to re-inscribe inequality. We recently heard from Jon Parker, a Pittsburgh high school teacher, who explained what high-stakes-testing is doing to students’ sense of self worth in his classroom. Every year, he asks his students to write him a letter introducing themselves. In his class of struggling readers this year, over half of the students included their most recent PSSA rating as part of their introduction. They literally said things like, “I’ll work hard but I’m below basic.”

Mr. Parker explains, “the tragic message from our high stakes test environment is ‘you are your score.’ And if we tell a student he’s below basic regularly from the time he’s in kindergarten, what else would we expect of him? One of the stated goals of No Child Left Behind was to combat the ‘soft racism of low expectations.’ But instead it has created a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. ‘You have failed in the past; you will fail forever.’ I cannot imagine where I would be if I had that school experience, but I can guarantee you I wouldn’t be here.”

Mr. Parker also examined the ways in which high-stakes-tests are used to exclude students from high-quality courses and programs. He gave the example of a young woman of color in his class right now with a 4.0 GPA – “one of the most well-rounded and motivated students I’ve ever had” – who will be excluded from taking the advanced math and science courses she would like to take next year solely because of a test score.

What’s more, Mr. Parker argued that if high-stakes-tests are meant to indicate which students need support so teachers can help them, they are miserably failing this most basic task. Instead, administrators and teachers makes lists of “bubble students” who are close to the passing mark and focus their energy on moving these students up to “proficient.” The students with the most needs, struggling at the very bottom, are passed over: “they are neglected, perpetuating what has probably been the whole of their educational experience. ‘You’re a failure; you’re not worth our time.’ Then we wonder why we have such disparity in opportunities, a lack of student or family buy-in, negative attention seeking behaviors (for which we then suspend students).”

So if our students who need the most help never get that help, where is the equity? If a young woman of color with 4.0 GPA wants to take advanced math and science classes but and can’t because of a single test score, where is the justice? If children now label themselves with their own test scores and literally believe themselves to be “below basic,” where is our compassion?

  1. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

Part of accepting one another is recognizing that we each have unique gifts and strengths. We are not all the same. Some students excel in trombone or slam poetry, or are highly empathetic or fantastic story tellers: none of which gets measured by high stakes testing. I am concerned about the intellectual growth of our students as well as the nurturing of their individual spirits. I believe in real learning and more learning time for our children. I support quality assessments that help our children learn and provide meaningful information to teachers to help them meet the needs of individual students. I want tests, ideally designed by teachers, which align with the curriculum and give timely, informative results to parents and students.

  1. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

As a scholar, I am committed to a free and responsible search for truth and I highly value data and evidence in that quest. We now have a mountain of evidence about the negative consequences of the high-stakes attached to testing, as well as the over-use and mis-use of testing. To summarize, these are some of the high-stakes for students:

  • Lost learning time: there’s less time for learning with testing and test prep (for instance, Pittsburgh students now take 20-25, or more, high-stakes tests a year). We have reports in the district this week of students covering up the walls to prepare for testing, rather than spending their time learning.
  • Reduced content knowledge: research shows that students are learning how to take high-stakes-tests, but cannot demonstrate subject mastery when tested in a different format. In other words, they are not actually learning. [Koretz, 2008]
  • Narrowed curriculum: with a focus on reading and math scores, students lose history, civics, world languages, the arts, and other programs.
  • Decreased ability to write: writing portions of high-stakes standardized tests are graded by hourly employees – not teachers – who are often recruited from Craig’s list and paid minimum wage. To “pass” these tests, students are taught a narrowly confined way to answer writing prompts.
  • Subjected to stale, dull methods: educators report that the focus on high-stakes-testing and test-prep means they cannot be creative and innovative in their teaching.
  • Missed teachers and classes: intense security measures prevent teachers from overseeing testing in their own classrooms, so teachers from non-testing classrooms (such as Kindergarten teachers) are frequently pulled from their students to proctor exams.
  • Used as guinea pigs: schools and districts routinely agree to allow their students to “field test” new questions and entire exams for testing corporations without notifying parents or compensating students. Teachers are expected to give a test they did not design, on material they did not teach, to students who will not learn anything from the experience. Those teachers, students, and their parents will never see the results. Last year when the district field-tested text dependent analysis, one principal told us students ripped up the tests and said they couldn’t do it. Field testing further reduces actual learning time and contributes to the stress imposed on our children.
  • Shut out of programs: high stakes exclude students when test results count as extra weight in magnet lotteries or for entrance to gifted programs or advanced courses.
  • Diverted resources: the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on testing in Pennsylvania are not available for classroom education. Most high-stakes tests are written by and benefit the bottom line of a handful of large international corporations. For instance, the new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, cost Pennsylvania taxpayers $2.7 million to develop and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. This does not include the five-year, $201.1 million contract with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. Dr. Greg Taranto, Pennsylvania Middle School Teacher of the Year and member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team, recently shared with us that state testing will cost us $58 million this year!
  • School closures: schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of test scores can be threatened with closure. These schools are usually in communities of color.
  • Loss of curiosity and love of learning: bubble tests are developmentally inappropriate for the youngest learners, yet are routinely being pushed down into Kindergarten in an attempt to get students “test ready.” The emphasis on “skill drill and kill” fails to stimulate children’s imagination and limits their natural curiosity. At Colfax, I’m concerned this has meant that our “enrichment” period has turned into an extra period of reading skills for most students.
  • Blocked access to facilities: as more and more tests are given on-line, many schools find their computer labs taken over by testing for weeks on end and not available for learning.
  • Harmful stress: children are pressured to not only demonstrate their knowledge but to represent the effectiveness of their teachers and their schools. Teachers are reporting children throwing up, losing control of their bowels, and increased commitments for psychiatric and anxiety issues. Mandated testing conditions, particularly for some special education students, border on child-abuse and some parents are reporting evidence of self-harming behaviors.
  • Internalized failure: struggling students forced to repeatedly take tests that label them “below basic” begin to believe they are “bad” or “worthless” students who cannot succeed in school.
  • Grades: some high-stakes tests are included in students’ grades.
  • Graduation requirements: as Pennsylvania introduces the Keystone graduation exams, evidence suggests that up to 60% of our students of color will be forced out of school without a diploma on the basis of a single score.
  • Altered school culture: schools must empty their walls and hallways for many weeks; classes are under lock-down with limited access to restrooms; some turn to daily announcements or even pep rallies to “prepare” students for testing and all-school field trips to “celebrate” testing (rather than actual learning).
  • Private data tracked: testing companies are tracking an enormous amount of information on our students, from test scores to even discipline data on children. Dr. Taranto told us, “this fact is not disclosed to parents” and he asks, “Who has access to this information? Who will have access to this student data down the road?”
  • Loss of enrichment: schools are eliminating academic field trips and pressuring teachers not to participate in activities that would take students out of school to maximize classroom time (for test prep). During PSSA testing, Pittsburgh’s gifted center also closes so those teachers can be reassigned to proctor the exams in other district schools.

With all of that evidence that high-stakes-testing is hurting students, changing their schools for the worse, and reducing real learning, why are we still giving so many standardized tests? Steve Singer, a teacher in the Steel Valley School District, points out that some tests can serve a political purpose. For instance, the DIBELS test, used to evaluate reading, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and “cut scores are being artificially raised to make it look like more students are failing and thus our schools aren’t doing a good job.” Yet Mr. Singer explains that the DIBELS “doesn’t assess comprehension,” and “rewards someone who reads quickly but not someone who understands what she’s reading.” Also, he explains that, “focusing on pronunciation separate from comprehension narrows the curriculum and takes away time from proven strategies that actually would help [a student] become a better reader.”

My son’s experience with the DIBELS illustrates the way in which standardized tests can be used as gatekeepers, excluding even very high achieving students from accessing appropriate programs. My son was a “late” reader (which is not really true: he learned to read when he was developmentally ready in the third grade, and became a voracious, wonderful reader). But when he was in second grade, we were told his DIBELS score was too low to allow him to take an accelerated math class. He had taught himself multiplication at the age of four and was bored out of his mind in class. But the teacher had her orders: students needed to be reading 100 words per minute or could not advance to anything else. During our conversation with her about this, she called our son over and said, “I notice that you spend a lot of time looking out the window, like you were just now. Why are you daydreaming?” To which he answered, “Well, I was thinking about how if you have a ball in your hand, and drop it, and it hits the floor but doesn’t come all the way back up, where did that energy go?” I kid you not. He was seven years old and this was his response. The teacher looked right at us and said, “But see? He’s not reading 100 words per minute.”

Ideally, teachers are able to use test scores as just one data point among many to determine what students need to support their learning. But the hyper-focus on testing – and accountability measures that hold teachers responsible for getting every student over developmentally-arbitrary thresholds – means that time and again students are not treated as whole, complex learners, but rather reduced to a single score.

Testing advocates tell us that we must test every child, every year in order to identify inequality and drive reform (something no other high-education-achieving nation in the world does). But we have ample evidence from education researchers that high-stakes-testing is not improving schools. Over 2,000 education researchers recently sent an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress: citing reams of data, the researchers wrote, “we strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” The letter went on to quote evidence at length from a new policy memo from the National Education Policy Center, which effectively summarizes a “broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform.”

Evidence also shows serious problems with using high-stakes-testing to evaluate and rate schools. For example, a detailed analysis of the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) rating system found that – despite its claim to use “multiple measures” to evaluate schools and teachers – 90% of the calculation is based on high-stakes standardized tests. Yet “these measures are closely associated with student poverty rates and other out- of-school factors.” In other words, the tests are very good at measuring one thing: a family’s socio-economic status. Even the much-touted Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS) component of the score, which is supposed to calculate projected student growth while controlling for out-of-school factors, instead strongly correlates with poverty. The report raises “questions about whether the measures are a valid and reliable measure for purposes of school accountability.” In essence, schools are being held accountable, not for what students learn, but for the poverty level of the families they serve.

Similarly, teachers are being evaluated on the basis of the test scores of their students. This is an invalid use of data, violating a basic principle of assessment, since those tests were never designed to measure teacher effectiveness. You can’t take a test created to measure one thing and use it to measure another. Nevertheless, the entire teacher evaluation system is built on just this assumption. In fact, the Value Added Model (VAM) used to evaluate teacher “effectiveness,” assumes that student test scores are the result of a specific teacher, independent of all other factors. Yet the American Statistical Association (ASA) released a report last spring strongly warning about the limitations of VAM models, explaining, “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores” and that “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” The statistical researchers concluded, “This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.”

My son’s situation reveals how inappropriate the entire VAM system can be. He is now several years ahead in math and takes his class at the high school each morning, before returning to Colfax for the rest of the day. However, the state would require him to take a PSSA several grade levels below where he is currently working. In what way would this assess his actual learning this year? This test is clearly not about helping my son in any way: it’s about evaluating his teacher. But if he scores at the very top of the PSSA, as he is bound to do, he is simply demonstrating the ceiling effect – there is no way to “show growth” for this student. Yet his teachers are accountable for the “growth” in each student’s test score. Furthermore, which teacher should we hold accountable for his score – the math teacher at Colfax who does not even have him in school this year? His math teacher at the high school who is not teaching him the material covered on the PSSA?

The American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education released a report showing that VAM models are highly unstable: teachers rated highly effective one year, are frequently rated ineffective the next. Their ratings also differed substantially between classes taught in a single year. The report also confirmed that teachers’ VAM ratings were significantly affected by the demographics of the students they taught: even when VAM calculations tried to account for this, teachers’ scores were negatively impacted by working with poor students, English language learners, and students with special education needs. Finally, this report demonstrated that VAM ratings “cannot disentangle the many influences on students progress” and stated “most researchers have concluded that VAM is not appropriate as a primary measure for evaluating individual teachers.”

Yet as we place more and more emphasis on holding teachers, principals, and entire schools accountable for student test scores, we have seen a plague of adult cheating scandals erupt across the country. We should not be surprised, since Campbell’s Law in social science states that the more a quantitative measurement is used to make decisions, the more subject it becomes to corruption and the more likely it is to corrupt the thing it was supposed to measure. This is exactly what has happened, with the conviction of 11 former teachers in Atlanta this week who are now facing 5-20 years in prison for changing answers on student tests to raise scores. The superintendent of El Paso, Texas is currently in prison for taking low-performing students out of classes in order to increase the district’s test scores. In Ohio several cities apparently listed low-performing students as “withdrawn” to remove their scores from school totals. Some charter schools are well known for the “charter dump,” pushing students out just before testing season in order to inflate their test scores (sending students back into traditional public schools, where their new teachers will be held accountable for their learning). In Washington D.C. former superintendent Michelle Rhee – now the darling of the corporate reform movement who is famous for publicly firing a principal and massive school closures – oversaw her own “Erasure-gate” but was never held accountable. And right here in Pennsylvania our own former state Secretary of Education, Rom Tomalis, was caught both lying and cheating about student test scores (and then went on to occupy a ghost-job in the state capitol, making $140,000 a year but not showing up for work).

So why are we doing this? Why are we using our children’s test scores to feed a teacher evaluation system that not only doesn’t work, but actually harms teachers who work with our most vulnerable children? Finally, this Unitarian principle requires a commitment to a responsible search for truth, which means we have to be willing to examine the consequences of our own seeking. What if the collection and use of data on student achievement, as measured by test scores, is actually causing harm?

  1. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

I am exercising my right of conscience by refusing to allow my children to take these tests. Our family cannot and will not be complicit in a system that we see harming others and damaging our common good.

High-stakes testing has also interfered with the democratic process. In many cities that lack democratically elected school boards, mayoral appointees have used high-stakes testing to label schools as failures and then moved to close them in unprecedented waves. Chicago is still reeling from the mass closure of 50 schools in 2013, almost entirely in communities of color. In cities like Philadelphia and New York, state or mayoral control has resulted in the privatization of public schools, handing over large numbers to private charter operators. Where is the democratic process when parents and communities no longer have a voice in public education and what is best for their children? When hedge fund managers are pouring enormous amounts of money into local school board races across the country to stack the deck in favor of privatization? When private charter operators are some of the biggest political donors in the state and refuse to comply with Pennsylvania’s sunshine open-records laws?

  1. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Pennsylvania’s new Keystone exams pose a particular concern for education justice, as they threaten to fail enormous numbers of poor students and students of color, preventing them from graduating (one of the highest stakes of all for students). The Pennsylvania NAACP has demanded the removal of the Keystones as graduation requirements, calling the use of these tests a “present day form of Eugenics.” With pass rates last year at some impoverished schools in the single digits, how will this form of high-stakes-testing create justice for all? And where there is no justice, there is no peace.

In a letter to the PA Department of Education, the NAACP wrote, “Attaching the Keystone Examinations to graduation is clearly based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society through selective scores on a paper and pencil test. … Pushing masses of students out of high school without a diploma will create a subculture of poverty comprised of potentially 60 percent of our young citizens.” The letter uses strong language to object to the impact of high-stakes-testing on our most vulnerable children, including: “human rights violation…unspeakable horror…holocaust on our youth and society…life-long trauma… a system of entrapment for the youth of Pennsylvania…depraved indifference…deficient in a moral sense of concern…lacks regard for the lives of the children who will be harmed, and puts their lives and futures at risk…lynching of our own young.”

If we are serious about the goal of education justice, how can we ignore the impact these tests will have on an entire generation of children denied diplomas, with life-long consequences? Where is their liberty and their freedom?

  1. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

To me, this principle evokes Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are all connected – in an interdependent web of existence – and the oppression and harm caused to other people’s children, causes harm to all of us. We are all harmed by allowing oppression and oppressive systems to continue.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This entire system is only about 15 years in the making. Other countries that we admire greatly for their highly effective education systems do not test like this. If researchers need data to compare we could test sample groups of students, rather than every child. We could test every few years, instead of every year. We could remove the high-stakes for kids and teachers, and go back to using assessments to measure student learning, with the goal of helping students. We could admit that our most vulnerable students – our students living in poverty, our English language learners, our students with special education needs – don’t need more testing, but rather smaller class sizes; a rich, engaging, culturally relevant curriculum; and well supported teachers with adequate resources.

Respectfully submitted,

Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D.

Our Amicus Brief in the State Funding Lawsuit

Did you know that there is a current lawsuit against the state to fund our schools? The Education Law Center (ELC) and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia brought the suit last fall on behalf of six school districts, seven parents, and two statewide associations accusing the state of failing to uphold Pennsylvania’s constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education. The state is arguing that the case should be thrown out and there is a key court date coming up on March 11th.

Yinzercation has joined with other grassroots organizations to submit an amicus (meaning “friend of the court”) brief demonstrating the reasons this case ought to move forward. I will include the full Statement of Harm we were asked to file in support of the brief below. (Click here for the full amicus brief, which was delivered on Tuesday.) For more information about the lawsuit, including an easy-to-read FAQ, visit the Pennsylvania School Funding Litigation website.

If you would like to attend the oral arguments in the case, you are invited to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg (601 Commonwealth Avenue, Courtroom 5001) on Wednesday, March 11th at 9:30AM. As the ELC explains, “this is a historic case challenging the legislature’s failure to adequately support and maintain Pennsylvania’s public school system.” The suit “asks the Court to ensure that all students — including those living in low-wealth districts — have the basic resources they need to meet state academic standards. We ask the court to hear this case and enforce the rights of our children to a “thorough and efficient” system of public education as guaranteed to them by our state constitution.” If you plan to attend or have questions, please contact Spencer Malloy at smalloy@elc-pa.org.

Here is the information Yinzercation submitted to support the arguments in this important case:

Statement of Harm

Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom five of all states in the proportion of funding provided by the state to public schools. This under-funding, combined with four years of de-funding in the 2011-2015 fiscal budgets, has pushed responsibility for supporting public education down on local municipalities, which have been forced to cut programs and staff. In its most recent survey of the state’s 500 school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) found that:[i]

  • 90% of school districts have cut staff, and more than 40% of districts have already, or plan to, cut more teachers.
  • 64% of districts have increased class size since the historic budget cuts in 2010-11, with the elementary grades hit the hardest.
  • Over half the districts will eliminate or reduce academic programs next year. The most frequently cited cuts will come from field trips (51% schools will eliminate); summer school (37%); world languages (34%); music and theater (31%); and physical education (24%).
  • Students will lose extra-curricular and athletic programs, or have to pay a fee, in over a third of the districts.
  • The vast majority of school districts report that their costs are going up because of un-funded state mandates (such as the administration of high-stakes testing).
  • In nearly every part of the state, districts are relying on local revenues (property taxes) to pay for a growing majority of school budgets. Over 75% of school districts will increase property taxes next year (that’s more than any in the past five years).

The over-reliance on local resources such as property taxes to support education exacerbates inequity in school funding as poor districts struggle to meet basic needs. In addition, because the state’s budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts, Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable children have been harmed the most. For example, class sizes have increased more in high poverty districts while reading and math scores have declined the most for students living in poverty.[ii]

Graph-AverageFundingChangePerStudent201011-201415

[Source: PSEA analysis, 8-25-14]

Yinzercation’s analysis of data for Allegheny County supports the finding that on a per-student basis, the poorest school districts have been impacted the most by state budget cuts. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a list of nine other high-poverty school districts. Race is a crucial factor, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Those districts harmed the least by state budgets cuts in the county include those in the wealthiest suburban areas, including Upper St. Clair, which actually gained $4 on a per-student basis during this time period.

MostHarmedDistricts

LeastHarmedDistricts

In order to deal with the under-funding of their schools, poor districts have been forced to slash line items directly affecting students and their classrooms. For example, in 2012, Pittsburgh furloughed 285 teachers and educators. To put this in context, in total between 2008 and 2013, Pittsburgh students lost:

  • 17 percent of their teachers,
  • 45 percent of their librarians,
  • 35 percent of their paraprofessionals and support staff, and
  • 20 percent of their guidance counselors and psychological personnel.[iii]

Similarly, this school year, Wilkinsburg – a predominantly low-income, African-American school district adjacent to Pittsburgh – eliminated 18 teachers, amounting to a full 14% of its faculty. This was in addition to the 13 teachers and staff members who were furloughed last year.[iv]

Students in these districts are some of the poorest in the county, yet have lost critical education programs. Some examples illustrate the actual impact on kids:

  • Pittsburgh Colfax K-8, a Title I school with one of the largest achievement gaps in the city, eliminated its after school and Saturday tutoring program.
  • Some classes grew to 39 or more students.
  • This school also cut its middle level choral program and baseball team, and delayed instruction for instrumental students at the elementary level.
  • Pittsburgh Manchester, a Title I school with 94% students of color, has a brand new library built by the community but students cannot check out books because there is no regular librarian.
  • Parents and teachers at Pittsburgh Linden K-5 provide paper for photocopies and other basic supplies.
  • Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, a magnet school for creative and performing arts, eliminated sculpture classes for visual art students and solo lessons for instrumental students (a cornerstone of instruction in those fields).
  • There aren’t enough math textbooks for the students at Pittsburgh Allderdice high school.
  • The historic marching band at Pittsburgh Westinghouse high school was not able to purchase drumsticks or replace 15-year-old uniforms.
  • The district eliminated its Parent Engagement Specialists who worked with the most marginalized students and their families: this position had been especially effective at schools serving children bussed from distant communities (the result of a long pattern of school closures in poor neighborhoods and communities of color).
  • In 2014, Pittsburgh announced plans to cut additional world language classes, with schools eliminating language offerings entirely or seriously reducing courses.
  • The graphic on the following page offers additional impact statements from parents, students, teachers, and community members about the effect of cuts in Pittsburgh’s schools due to inadequate state funding.[v]

Inadequate state funding for school districts also leads to inequities within poorer districts, as some individual schools have access to community resources while others do not. For instance, one school on Pittsburgh’s East End has an active parent organization that annually raises over $60,000 to support educational field trips, student activities, classroom technology, and basic supplies – items that wealthier school districts are able to provide without relying on volunteer donations. Yet parents at other city schools struggle to raise similar donations leading to wide variation in the availability of crucial educational programs and enrichment opportunities for students within the same district. Adequate and equitable state funding for public education is crucial to address such inequities within and between school districts and to eliminate the harmful impacts on our most vulnerable children.

BudgetCutComments

[i] PASA-PASBO report, “Continued Cuts: The Fourth Annual Report on School District Budgets,” June 2014. [http://www.pasa-net.org/BudgetReport6-5-14.pdf]

[ii] PSEA report, “Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence,” August 2014. [http://psea.org/uploadedFiles/LegislationAndPolitics/Key_Issues/Report-BudgetCutsStudentPovertyAndTestScores-August2014.pdf]

[iii] Pittsburgh Board of Public Education, “Financial Statements, Final Budget,” August 2013.

[iv] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 5, 2014. [http://www.post-gazette.com/local/east/2014/06/05/Wilkinsburg-teachers-approve-contract-permitting-furloughs/stories/201406050293]

[v] Great Public Schools Pittsburgh report, “Creating a District of Last Resort,” October 2013. [https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BwHydmYY4leQRVRVREpqd3BxUkE/edit]

Hurting the Poor

I don’t know how Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, can keep a straight face when he talks to reporters. Again and again he declares that Governor Corbett “has increased state funding for public schools by $1.5 billion” over the past four years. [Post-Gazette, 8-28-14]

Anyone with half a brain or with a school age child can tell you that’s a load of hogwash. Sometimes having school age children makes us parents operate with only half a brain, but we can still tell you that Pennsylvania kids are sitting in larger classes, with fewer of their teachers, and missing critical books, supplies, academic courses, and programs.

Of course, what Mr. Eller means is that Gov. Corbett collapsed a bunch of line items into the Basic Education Funding portion of the budget, so that he could say that this single line item increased. Meanwhile, he decimated overall state funding for public schools. Gov. Corbett also likes to tout the additional dollars he put into pension payments (as required by state law) when he calculates that $1.5 billion figure, but will not account for the fact that he slashed charter school tuition reimbursements for districts, Accountability Block Grants, School Improvement Grants, or other programs such as the Education Assistance and High School Reform programs.

As the following graph clearly illustrates, even allowing for increased state contributions to pension payments, our schools are still not receiving the level of preK-12 funding that they were back in 2008-09! (In this chart the federal stimulus dollars are in yellow and pension dollars in light blue: check out the dark blue columns to see how our schools have been set back more than six years in budget cuts.)

PAbudget_w_pensions

But this is more than a rhetorical debate over which line items to count. Four years into this mess it is now clear that these historic budget cuts have hurt our poorest students the most. A new report out this week analyzes state funding per child and finds that budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts. What’s more, using the state’s own data, the report demonstrates that class sizes increased more in high poverty districts and that reading and math scores declined the most for students living in poverty. [Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence, PSEA August 2014] Look at the disparity in chart form:

Graph-AverageFundingChangePerStudent201011-201415

[Source: PSEA, 8-25-14]

What does that look like here in Southwest Pennsylvania? Just look at the following table of the ten biggest losers in Allegheny County on a per-student basis. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed by budget cuts with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a parade of high-poverty school districts. It’s worth noting the story of race here, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Compare these numbers to Fox Chapel, which has “only” lost $36 per student (no students should be losing money for their education), or Mt. Lebanon ($9), or my alma mater, Upper St. Clair, which has actually gained $4 on a per-student basis.

MostHarmedDistricts

 LeastHarmedDistricts

Perhaps Gov. Corbett should spend more time explaining why his policies are hurting poor kids than trying to convince us that he has increased spending on public education. We parents just aren’t that gullible.

Still Black and White After Brown

A diverse group of parents, students, teachers, community leaders, and elected officials rallied at Freedom Corner in the Hill District yesterday to mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Under a surprisingly scorching sun, one speaker after the next noted that we have yet to see the full promise of that historic Supreme Court case.

Rev. Freeman of the Resurrection Baptist Church in Braddock and President of the PA Interfaith Impact Network, talked about the impact of the 1954 Brown decision on his fourth grade classroom in highly segregated Georgia. He reminded the crowd of about 50 that we are part of a much larger movement for equity and educational justice.

The Post-Gazette featured the rally on the front page of the Local section this morning with a big color photograph. [Post-Gazette, 4-14-14] Here are some more photos from the afternoon:

"Remember the Promise"

“Remember the Promise”

Debra Srogi, a Whittier parent, and Irene Habermann, chair of the PIIN Education Task Force

Debra Srogi, a Whittier parent, and Irene Habermann, chair of the PIIN Education Task Force

No More "Gated Communites of Education"

No More “Gated Communities of Education”

"Education Justice NOW"

“Education Justice NOW”

Rev. Freeman talks about racial segregation in Georgia in 1954

Rev. Freeman talks about racial segregation in Georgia in 1954

Perry graduate, Allegheny K-5 parent, and Westinghouse teacher Regina Hutson

Perry graduate, Allegheny K-5 parent, and Westinghouse teacher Regina Hutson

La'Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh speaks about the meaning of equity and justice

La’Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh speaks about the meaning of equity and justice

City Council members Natalia Rudiak (center) and Dan Gilman (right)

City Council members Natalia Rudiak (center) and Dan Gilman (right)

After the rally, groups fanned out to go door-to-door, talking to people about becoming an “education justice voter.” The aim is to encourage folks to get out and vote and to consider candidates on the basis of their support for public schools. Here’s a video from the Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia, documenting the kick off of a similar education-voter drive there:

 

Also this week, the National School Board Association released this video featuring the legacy of the Brown decision in Pittsburgh. The filmmakers visited Pittsburgh Milliones/U.Prep and interviewed me, Dr. Lane, and others about persistent racial segregation in our city:

 

And another release this week in recognition of the Brown anniversary: the national Journey for Justice alliance just published, “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage.” (Journey for Justice is a national coalition of 36 grassroots groups working for education justice. The local partner here is Action United.) This devastating report is heavily documented and also features the results of a “listening tour” conducted in 13 cities earlier this year, including Pittsburgh. It’s worth a close read as we remember the disproportionate impact budget cuts, school closures, and educational policies continue to have on communities of color.

The Unfulfilled Promise of Brown

Next week marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision desegregating schools. To be sure, much has changed since 1954 here in Pittsburgh and across the country. The Steel City now regularly tops the list of “best” cities to live in, raise a family, buy a house, and see public art. We have the best views, most dramatic entry to the city, and even the best tree canopy! [Post-Gazette, 4-28-14] But “best” for whom?

Despite our many successes, Pittsburgh remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States with trenchant social, economic, health, and educational disparities. Consider this:

  • Pittsburgh has the third-highest poverty rate among working-age (18-64) African Americans in the country (31% in 2011). [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • Nearly half (45%) of black children under the age of 18 live in poverty; and a whopping 53% of black children under the age of 5 live in poverty. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • Compared to other cities, “African-American babies are much more likely to die here.” Pittsburgh has the largest disparity in infant deaths in the nation: the infant mortality rate for African-American babies (14.5 per 1000) is twice that for white babies (5.7), and 25% higher than the national average (11.6). [Post-Gazette, 7-7-13]
  • Pittsburgh has the highest black teen pregnancy rate in the country. [Post-Gazette, 7-7-13]
  • One recent study found that 12.1% of Allegheny County students have asthma and the black asthma rate is especially high: overall “17 percent of blacks in the county had asthma, while 9 percent of whites had the disease.” [Post-Gazette, 1-21-14]
  • Compared to all major metropolitan areas, African Americans here have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country (19% in 2011), and it’s been this way for years. That’s 1 out of every 5 African Americans who wants to work and can’t find a job, and 2.6 times the unemployment rate for whites. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • African Americans in Pittsburgh earn significantly less than their white counterparts: “In 2011, the average African-American man with a full-time job earned $39,132 in the Pittsburgh region,” which was more than 40% less than white men. Black women earned even less (an average of $37,138). And these numbers are worse than other African-American workers nationally. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • African Americans are stuck in low-paying occupations: “Only 23 percent of African-Americans in Pittsburgh work in management, business, science and arts occupations, the second-lowest percentage among the top 40 regions, whereas 34 percent work in service occupations, the highest percentage among major regions.” [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • Pittsburgh has become the least diverse city in the country: only 12% of the population is nonwhite, while the average among major metropolitan areas is 32%, and the country as a whole is 24% – still twice as high as Pittsburgh. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]

These statistics are reflected in outcomes for Pittsburgh students, with a “racial gap” in graduation rates, attendance rates, disciplinary action rates (that feed the school-to-prison pipeline), and test scores. Black students here are disproportionately in schools with the fewest resources and live in communities that have been impacted the most by multiple waves of school closures. In short, Pittsburgh has yet to fulfill the promise of the historic Brown decision as this “racial gap” illustrates a persistent opportunity gap.

That is why Yinzercation is co-sponsoring a rally on Tuesday, May 13th, at 4PM at Freedom Corner in the Hill District. As the flyer below states, “We are determined to reclaim the promise of a just nation that lives by the principles articulated in the Brown v. Board decision: equity in public decision-making, and policies that advance the hopes and dreams of all Americans, without regard to their social or economic status.” Please bring the kids over after school – we will have food and snacks, thanks to our 10 national sponsors, and 10 local sponsors, including the coalition partners of Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-Pep), the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing, and the Women’s Walk for Peace Committee.

Brown v. Board of Education was a historic decision. Come be a part of more history in the making.

Brown.v.BoardFlyer

Pointing Fingers

Mea culpa! I’m sorry! I messed up. Last week I posted a comment on an article in the Post-Gazette that caused quite a stir among some of the people whose opinions I care deeply about. I issued a public clarification, but I feel this episode could give us all an opportunity to think through some issues together.

In fact, from its inception, that is what this blog has been about – a place where I have essentially been “thinking out loud,” posing questions, and looking for answers. It has often been a place for public dialogue, with people posting responses and counter arguments. As posts have circulated in social media (and occasionally been picked up in the national media), they – and your reactions to them – have become a part of the public conversation around education justice.

But I should note that this is often a very uncomfortable form of writing for an academic: it’s vulnerable and offers much less shielding than peer review and the lengthy research and publication process. No matter the format, I believe scholars ought to approach their writing with humility, admit they don’t know everything, and be willing to ‘fess up when they step in it. So here goes.

Last week Tony Norman published a column on education, taking some black leaders to task saying, “Their emphasis on teacher evaluations as the key to closing the education gap and spurring black academic achievement is misplaced….” And he noted, “The racial achievement gap and the academic mediocrity of far too many black students is not the creation of diabolical teachers unions determined to protect the jobs of unqualified teachers at the expense of children in urban schools.” [Post-Gazette, 2-18-14] He then turned and pointed the finger at black parents, suggesting they are the real problem in education today.

Now anyone who has read my work surely knows that I do not blame black parents: from my book on black and white families and the history of child welfare, to the over 250 posts on this blog calling for equity and vociferously objecting to racism and the disproportionate impact of education policies such as school closures, discipline, and resource decisions on students of color and communities of color. But I did a poor job of explaining that when I posted my comment:

“Thank you, Tony, for moving the needle on this conversation. It’s time to think bigger about our persistent opportunity gap. Parents and families are a crucial part of the equation — but they, too, must often be supported. I am very excited about the Community Schools strategy put forward by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, with proposals for working with the mayor’s office, community partners, teachers, parents, faith based groups, foundations, social services, and more. Community Schools can engage entire communities in supporting families and students, and put the resources we need back in our neighborhoods. This is a positive, attainable plan to re-energize our public schools as the hearts of our communities again. I encourage everyone to read:
http://www.gpspgh.org/storage/documents/GPS_Community_Schools_Education_Report.pdf”

In response to a public firestorm around Norman’s article (it seemed everywhere I went last week it was being discussed), and several pointed emails from friends that landed in my inbox, I realized in horror that my comment could be interpreted as support for blaming black parents and I posted this additional note:

“Several people have contacted me in regards to this comment, so I am offering this clarification. I am glad to see a piece that is not simply blaming teachers, which has become a very loud public narrative that I do not find helpful. And I am most indeed very concerned about our achievement/opportunity gaps. But I disagree with Tony’s conclusion: I don’t want to blame parents, either. Substituting parent blame for teacher blame won’t work and plays on long-standing, troubling assumptions about race and families. My hope is that we can find bigger solutions, that address our pernicious equity and resource issues. That is why I am hoping everyone will take the time to read the new GPS report, which offers both vision and solutions.”

Obviously I am excited about the new Great Public Schools Pittsburgh report and am eager for folks to read it, comment, and discuss. I do feel it offers a blueprint for community collaboration that will let us get past pointing fingers at teachers or parents, and focus on bigger answers to the complex problems that vex public education in our city. If I was overly eager to direct people to the report and missed an opportunity to shake my finger at Mr. Norman, I apologize.

Right now, however, I would like to put all those fingers down. I am concerned about the growing divisiveness I have seen over the past year in the education justice movement, especially around the issue of teacher evaluation. (And to the extent that I have contributed to that, I apologize, too.) I have largely resisted writing directly about Pittsburgh’s new evaluation system because it’s extremely complex and I still have more questions than answers. But perhaps now would be a useful time to sketch out what I see and pose some of those questions.

First and foremost, I think we all believe teachers should be evaluated. That’s not the issue. It comes down to the context in which it is done and the way that process impacts students and our schools (not to mention individual teachers).

Here’s my understanding of how the new system works. Most teachers will now receive a score based on 50% observation (a relatively new system called RISE), 15% student ratings (a new system called the Tripod survey), 30% teacher Value-Added Measure (VAM) and 5% school VAM. The value-added system is a complicated formula that attempts to predict how much individual students should learn in a year and then calculates how much they actually grow, on the basis of test scores. The VAM system uses Curriculum Based Assessments (CBAs) and unit assessments, which are given throughout the year, as well as PSSA and Keystone results from the state exams, which are given just once a year. There are VAM scores generated for both individual teachers as well as for the whole school.

I have heard very good things from teachers and administrators alike about the new RISE system, which uses both principal and peer observation. I particularly appreciate that it is done in the spirit of practice improvement and to target professional development. It seems to me that multiple classroom visits by both peers and principal evaluators also means problems can be caught earlier (rather than relying, say, on state test data that is not available until six months later, in the next school year). Presumably, this kind of improved observation can help the district weed out unacceptable teachers more quickly.

I’ve been hearing more mixed results about the Tripod surveys, which students complete about their teachers, especially concerning poorly worded and confusing questions. I learned recently that the survey is made and administered by the Cambridge company, and that we can’t change these questions. But, it’s “only” 15% of the total score, so maybe not enough to get too worried about. (If it’s fair to say that about numbers that affect real human beings.) I am curious if the district is seeing a strong correlation between RISE and Tripod data? In other words, are principal and peer observers seeing the same thing that students are saying?

VAM is where I have the most questions. Again, I am glad that the majority of the teacher’s score is observation based. But with 35% of the score dependent on student test data, I am concerned about the impact on students as we continue to expand the number of tests (for example, so that we can get test data for all teachers, including music and art) and therefore the change in test culture in our schools. For instance, we now see far more test-prep and focus on the tests with posters, morning announcements, pep rallies, and more. And I worry that Pennsylvania will see a similar lawsuit like the one in Florida this week which forced the state to release individual teacher’s names and VAM scores to the media. [Tampa Bay Times, 2-24-14] When that happened in California a few years ago, a highly regarded teacher committed suicide. [LA Times, 9-28-10]

Yet even with my concerns about privacy and individual pieces of the new system, I have listened to and been reassured by Dr. Lane that our teachers will not be force stack-ranked (in other words, the system does not force a certain number of teachers into each category, thereby guaranteeing a particular “fail rate”). I have met with district officials who have described very positive professional development and support structures, some existing, some in the works. And just last week I heard the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee interview Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president Nina Esposito-Visgitis, who reiterated the union’s support for the entire evaluation system and described the current quibble with the district as a disagreement over where to draw the “cut score” defining unsatisfactory teachers.

So if the district and the union both think this is a worthwhile system, it seems to me it’s time for them to get back together and figure those numbers out so we can move on to talking about much more important things. I have zero interest in the cut-score debate.

I would rather be talking about what kind of professional development and support our teachers need and what they’re getting. I would much rather be talking about how to reduce the overall number of high-stakes tests our kids are taking and how we might work together to change some of those stakes attached to the tests. (For instance, I just learned that students applying to district magnet schools get two extra weights for advanced PSSA scores, while low income status adds only one extra weight: should good test taking count for more than poverty for kids trying to get into some of the district’s best schools?) I want to have an honest conversation about test culture. Heck, I want to talk about the Community Schools strategy and nurses and librarians and early childhood education.

There’s room for disagreement in these conversations, but we could be working together. Here’s what I’ve committed to working on in the coming weeks in the spirit of collaboration and fostering dialogue:

  • I’m delighted to serve on Mayor Peduto’s newly appointed Task Force on Public Education.
  • I’m also thrilled to be working with the Heinz Endowments and several other key community leaders on a proposal to bring a major national education justice conference to Pittsburgh (we are one of two finalists in the running!)
  • On Friday I will be going to Austin along with two other Yinzercation activists, where I’ve been invited to speak at the first national conference of the new Network for Public Education. I look forward to learning more about the national education justice scene and reporting back.
  • On Tuesday, March 11, Yinzercation will be hosting a screening of the new movie, “Standardized,” followed by a community discussion of testing and student learning.
  • On Tuesday, April 8, Yinzercation and PIIN will be co-hosting a gubernatorial candidate debate focused exclusively on education (the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania!). The event will be co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters, and others are coming on board. I’ll have more details for you soon. We need help organizing, so let me know if you’re interested.

I’m inviting all of us to put away the fingers and participate in some good old-fashioned civil discourse.