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.

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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.

What the Polls Say

Two polls out in the past week show some surprising findings for public education with important implications for our grassroots movement here in Pennsylvania.

First, Americans are now clearly saying that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act has made education worse, not better. [Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 8-20-12] Overall, 29% of those polled said that the decade old law signed by President Bush has negatively impacted our schools, compared to 16% who thought it has improved them. But among those surveyed who said they are “very familiar” with the law, 48% said NCLB has made things worse, versus only 28% who said education is better.

No Child Left Behind has arguably been a policy fiasco. It massively expanded the federal government’s role in setting local school policy and established a national narrative of “failing public schools.” By focusing narrowly on student achievement – measured only by highly problematic standardized test scores – the law has created a highly punitive system, devalued teachers and educational professionals, villainized teachers’ unions, introduced a lucrative private system of “educational consultants” and businesses, promoted corporate-style reform anathema to the public good, and undermined the public’s faith in their schools.

What’s really interesting is how similar the responses to this recent poll were across political and class lines, and between those with and without a current K-12 child in the household. The bulk of respondents in every demographic felt that NCLB had “not made much difference.” However, with only one exception, those who feel the law has damaged education outnumber – sometimes by as much as two to one – those who feel the law has improved things. That means that Republicans, Democrats, independents, and a large swath of folks across class lines agree on public education policy. Despite a massive effort by the extreme right to polarize the issue, Americans remain largely on the same page when it comes to their schools.

The one exception was among those earning less than $30,000 who split about evenly between those saying things are worse or better under NCLB. This group has the lowest proportion (21%) of people who feel the law has been a problem, and the largest proportion (22%) who feel it has helped. This finding has important class – and probably racial – significance and reminds us that, despite its obvious flaws, NCLB has focused national attention on the most struggling students who are often poor and minorities.

Because NCLB has set the national dialogue over much of public education policy for the past decade, it is encouraging that there is generally such widespread agreement as to its results. And even more encouraging that a great many agree that it is time to dismantle the NCLB boondoggle. In fact, “[t]he results from this survey are in line with a January Gallup poll, which found that Americans tended to favor either eliminating the law or keeping it with heavy revisions. Just 21 percent of those surveyed said the law should be kept in its original form.” [Huffington Post, 8-21-12]

The PDK/Gallup poll also revealed that 48% of those surveyed gave the local schools in their communities an A or B rating – the highest in twenty years. Yet when asked about the general state of American education, only 18% gave public schools the same high grades, while 30% gave them a D or F. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls this “the real accomplishment of corporate reformers” who have been driving “an unprecedented, well-funded campaign to demonize public schools and their teachers over at least the past two year, and by some reckoning, even longer.” [Diane Ravitch, 8-22-12]

For Americans exposed to that constant drumbeat of failing-public-schools, it’s remarkable that any still show support for public education. Yet when asked about the school their oldest child attends, over three quarters – 77% – of respondents gave their school an A or B (and only 6% gave it a D or F). Again, this is the highest rating in twenty years. Ravitch points out that this question “elicit[ed] the views of informed consumers, the people who refer to a real school, not the hypothetical school system that is lambasted every other day in the national press.” [See Diane Ravitch’s excellent full analysis of the poll.]

So when you ask parents about the real schools in their own communities where their actual children go, they are overwhelmingly positive. Similarly, 71% said they have trust and confidence in their teachers, regardless of the incessant bashing they are subjected to in the national media. And perhaps the biggest news for our movement: by far the largest problem facing our schools identified by survey respondents is lack of financial support. Overall 35% identified this option, and among those parents with children in public schools, 43% chose this as the number one problem in education, far outweighing other issues (such as discipline, etc.).

Given this last statistic, it should come as no surprise that another poll last week found Governor Corbett’s approval rating continues to sink. [Franklin & Marshall poll, 8-16-12] Forty-two percent of respondents were unhappy with the governor’s performance, up three points from the last poll in June, while less than a third rated him favorably, remaining steady at 32 percent. What’s more, when asked to rank the most important problems facing Pennsylvania today, people listed education at number three, right behind “unemployment” and “government or politicians,” and right before “the economy,” and “taxes.”

In its analysis of the poll, PoliticsPa concluded “negative feelings toward the government or conceived poor handling of education (particularly with continued ire over college tuition increases and slashed spending for public schools) are likely to account for Corbett’s poor polling.” [PoliticsPA 8-16-12] Indeed. This poll also demonstrates how much Pennsylvanians care about their public schools and just how effective our grassroots movement has been in keeping the spotlight on funding for public education.

We would not see education on the number three spot of Pennsylvania’s concerns if we had not raised our collective voices. And our grassroots movement dovetails others across the country, pushing back against the narrative of failing schools, and helping people to see that our number one concern really is adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools. Our part in this local and national conversation is working, and we must keep it up!

Define Failing

It’s politically hot right now to talk about “failing” schools. To hear many legislators and school “reformers” tell the story, public education in the U.S. is circling the drain. Did you see Michelle Rhee’s obnoxious Olympic spoof ad? Remember the nasty radio campaign back in June, funded by the ultra-conservative and mega-rich Koch brothers, pushing the narrative of “students trapped in failing schools”? [See “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”] But the rhetoric of failure is not only misleading (and sometimes flat out wrong), it is having disastrous consequences on our schools.

The latest example of this comes courtesy of Pennsylvania’s recently expanded EITC corporate tax giveaway. The misnamed Educational Improvement Tax Credit program now has a companion called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, which is premised on the notion that our public schools are failures and that students must be rescued from them. To do this, the program borrows from the federal government’s No Child Left Behind, which has been labeling schools as failures for the past decade under one of the nation’s largest policy fiascoes. Under the new EITC program, Pennsylvania has developed a list of 415 “failing schools” and created a voucher-like system allowing students living near them to take public tax-payer money to go to private schools. (Students can also go to another public school in a different district, if they will accept them – more on that later).

But the whole system rests on faulty logic. First, the list of supposedly “low achieving” schools is deeply flawed. Published at the end of July by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the list uses results from the 2010-2011 PSSAs (standardized state tests given to all public school students in grades 3 – 8 and 11) to identify the bottom 15% of schools based on reading and math scores. [PDE list of “failing” schools.] However, a full third of the schools on that list actually reached their student achievement targets set by the state and federal government.

Yes, that’s right, a third of the schools on the state’s list made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) or were “making progress” under the definition of No Child Left Behind. [See our annotated chart below from the Pennsylvania School Board Association’s analysis.] Those numbers hold true here in Yinzer Nation: in the ten counties of Southwest PA, 22 out of the 73 schools listed – 30% – made AYP or were showing progress. That includes both the schools identified as “failing” in Green and Butler counties, one of the two schools in Beaver county, and six of the sixteen in Fayette county. (There was one school on the list from Washington county, and no schools identified in Armstrong, Indiana, Lawrence or Westmoreland counties.)

What’s more, of the 13 supposedly “failing” schools in Allegheny county, seven of them have already closed. (Noted red on the above chart; see PPS 2012-2013 realignment plan.) Those seven schools accounted for over a quarter of the list (7/27) of Pittsburgh Public Schools. And eight of the 27 PPS schools also made AYP or were “making progress.” Again, that’s 30% of the list in the city of Pittsburgh. As the Pennsylvania School Board Association points out, “Labeling these schools as low-achieving when they have met the student achievement standards set by the state and federal government functions to create two separate and conflicting measurements for student achievement.” [PSBA 7-27-12]

If the state is really interested in rescuing students from failing schools, why didn’t it include charter schools on that list? Only two of Pennsylvania’s 12 cyber charter schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress status last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For details on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011] Shouldn’t the state be rescuing students from these low-achieving charter schools?

The fact that the state just approved four new cyber charters suggests that this isn’t really about saving students from failing schools at all. Indeed, under the new EITC scholarship program, students need never have actually attended a failing school in order to take public money to a private institution. The law is written so that students only have to live in the attendance area for a school on the low-achieving list – they may never have even set foot in the building!

And Governor Corbett and his allies in the legislature have made sure that no one can look too closely at the results of the new EITC program. The scholarship organizations have no auditing requirements and almost no reporting requirements (despite the fact that they can take 20% of donations for their own administration), and there is no way for the public to learn if the scholarships actually help students in any way. “In fact,” the Pennsylvania School Board Association explains, “the EITC law prohibits state administrators from requesting any information related to academic achievement, making it impossible to measure the effectiveness of the program.” [PSBA 7-27-12] So students could be attending failing private schools with these scholarships – but since private schools do not have to administer the PSSAs, we would never know.

And then there’s the pesky problem that EITC diverts our public funds meant for public education – where those resources could actually address student achievement issues. But with draconian state budget cuts, school districts have been forced to cut even basic tutoring programs while continuing to be on the hook for students who leave. For example, there is no limit to how far away an EITC student can go with their publicly-subsidized “scholarship,” and the student’s home school district is legally obligated to provide transportation for up to ten miles. It’s no wonder local school districts are not buying into this program. Even those that did not appear on the state’s list – and could volunteer to receive students from “low achieving” schools – have shown little interest (only two have signed up in the whole state so far, and none in Southwest PA).

Interviewed by the Tribune-Review, Wilkinsburg School District Superintendent Archie Perrin “said the tax credit program is yet another means of siphoning needed resources from districts — particularly those with high percentages of students from low-income households — which already contend with declining state revenue.” [Tribune-Review, 7-27-12] And West Mifflin Area Superintendent Daniel Castagna explained that his district would not participate in EITC because “it’s a blatant attempt to privatize public education.” He and 23 other Allegheny County school superintendents had a conference call last week, and the majority concluded “that the opportunity scholarships would not help public school districts.” [Post-Gazette, 8-18-12]

The EITC program is clearly not about what is best for students. It is about giving corporations huge tax breaks while sending public dollars to private and religious schools, doing an end-run around our own state constitution and draining our public schools of desperately needed resources. It’s about labeling schools as failing and then using the rhetoric of failure to legitimatize the privatization of public education. Now that’s an epic failure.

One Million Per Day

One million. Every day. That’s how much Pennsylvania taxpayers are losing on over-payments to charter and cyber charter schools. Auditor General Jack Wagner released a report Wednesday explaining that our state is spending “substantially more” than the national average on a “flawed and overly generous funding formula.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-21-12]

That eye-popping number comes to $365 MILLION wasted dollars every year. And a nice chunk of that money is going to line the pockets of wealthy, for-profit school owners who just happen to be some of Governor Corbett’s largest campaign donors. (See “Soaking the Public” for stomach-turning details.) This latest report echoes testimony Deputy Auditor General Thomas Marks gave the House Education Committee back in March when he told them cyber charters in particular were being drastically overpaid. He noted that taxpayers and school districts could have saved approximately $86 million in 2009-2010 alone if cyber charter schools had received funding based on what they actually spent per student. (See “Trouble Seeing the Money.”)

Representative Mike Fleck, a Republican from Dauphin County, has introduced a bill (HB 2364) that would start to fix this problem. It has received bi-partisan support and been endorsed by both the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania School Employees Association, which is saying something. Auditor General Wagner calls this a “good first step” though he would still like to see legislation setting average payments for charter and cyber charter schools. He targeted cyber charter schools in particular, which are spending large amounts of money on billboards and other advertising, and often wind up with large cash reserves. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-21-12]

That $365 million would save a lot of Kindergarten programs, tutoring, and librarians in our public schools. Instead, our legislators are ready to hand over even more of our taxpayer money to private and parochial schools. The latest voucher-in-disguise effort comes from Rep. Jim Christiana right here in Southwest PA, who has proposed expanding the current educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. Right now EITC gives away $75 in revenues from corporations that would otherwise be supporting the public good, and legislators have reached a “tentative agreement” to give away another $25 million in the current budget plan. [Post-Gazette, 6-22-12] Where are lawmakers finding millions of taxpayer dollars to send to private schools when our public schools are cutting Kindergarten?

But it gets worse. Playing right into the national narrative of “failing public schools,” our legislators are also planning to give away an additional $50 million that would be available to students attending the state’s bottom fifteen percent of schools. I wonder if they realize that some of the lowest-achieving schools are actually charter and private schools?

Last year, Lawrence Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition used student reading and math data from the PSSAs (the state’s standardized tests), and found 30 charter schools in the bottom fifteen percent. Religious schools may optionally administer and report their PSSA scores, but he also found 7 of them at the bottom. [KSEC, “Questions About 144 Failing Schools.”] And there are surely many more. Only two of twelve Pennsylvania cyber charter schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For more on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) Should we be giving EITC “scholarships” (which are really vouchers) so that students can attend these failing charter and private schools?

Maybe we should be giving vouchers to send students from failing charter and private schools back to public schools. Oh wait. That would mean funding public schools. Well that one-million-per-day would sure help.