Connecticut: Beware!

Diane Ravitch today gave a serious warning to Connecticut parents, citizens, and voters. I am reprinting her blog in full because the message is of such great importance. She warns us about charter schools because they segregate our children, take financial resources from our Connecticut public schools, and do not provide the transparency that makes schools safe and intellectually challenging places for our children. Please read:

Connecticut: Will Legislators Follow the Money or the Voters?

by dianeravitch

Wendy Lecker, veteran civil rights lawyer, reviews the recent report by Common Cause-Connecticut about the intrusion of Charter money and lobbyists into the state.

Former Governor Dannel Malloy depended on charter money and gave them a state commissioner and seats on the state school board,as well as generous funding.

After repeated losses in other states, like Massachusetts, the charter lobby now is doubling down in Connecticut.

After their spectacular public losses, the charter lobby is getting craftier. A recent report by Common Cause and the Connecticut Citizens Action Group reveal some of their newer tactics, but with many of the same backers.

The report, “Who is Buying Our Education System? Charter School Super PACs in Connecticut” continues the work previously done by blogger Jonathan Pelto tracking the influence of charter money. It details the donations and spending of charter Super PACs in Connecticut’s recent elections.
Super PACs enable individuals and organizations to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, as long as they do not coordinate this spending with candidates.

The report found that since 2016, six Super PACS spent more than half a million dollars in Connecticut elections. These Super PACS are founded and/or dominated by charter lobbyists and employees of charter organizations, such as the Northeast Charter Schools Network, the now-defunct Families for Excellent Schools, ConnCAN, Achievement First charter chain and DFER. Soon-to-be former Gov. Dan Malloy recently joined DFER’s board.

The majority of the money donated came from outside Connecticut and from a limited number of large donors, the largest being Walmart’s Alice Walton.

Perhaps because of their very public defeats by grassroots organizing in other states, the charter lobby became more stealth-like. The report notes that these Super PACS conceal their aims by adopting innocuous sounding names, such as Build CT, Leaders for a Stronger CT, and Change Course CT. They spent money primarily on advertising and canvassing.

One PAC, Build CT, focused on candidates in safe or unopposed races, including: Stamford’s Pat “Billie” Miller and Caroline Simmons, and Senate Majority leader, Norwalk’s Bob Duff. The authors suggest this strategy is designed to curry favor with those who will definitely be in power. Last session, Duff unsuccessfully pushed a charter-friendly school funding scheme where local districts would have to pay for charter schools over which they have no say.

The charter lobby always uses deceptive, “caring” names to hide its true purposes:

1. Privatize public schools
2. Destroy the teaching profession
3. Eliminate unions.

Connecticut Voters: Beware!

Teachers’ Opposition To Common Core Increases

It takes a lot to oppose the Common Core State Standards when they are said to offer:

  • reform!
  • rigor!
  • high academic standards approved by states and consistent with other nations!
  • a guarantee to close the achievement gap!
  • college and career readiness!

What red-blooded American could say NO to this promise? You might think none.

But 60% of American teachers and 51% of the American public do say no. This opposition has increased in the past two years. In 2013, just 24% of American teachers were opposed to the Common Core, and 35% of American citizens were opposed.  The increase in opposition is remarkable, given the tremendous amount  of money that has been spent to promote the Common Core. The increase of 36% in teacher opposition is particularly noteworthy because teachers  have come to know Common Core the best.

In the past two years, teachers have become familiar with the Common Core standards and implemented them in their classrooms. After almost 30 years of working with urban and suburban teachers, beginning and veteran teachers, brilliant stars of teachers and struggling teachers, I know for sure the one thing that teachers have in common is that if something helps kids to learn and to achieve, teachers are for it.  Teachers will learn new skills, change their ways, look at things differently IF their students learn better and achieve more.  Common Core has not offered that incentive  to teachers.

Plus teachers and parents probably have found out that reform!, rigor!, national and international acclaim!, closing the achievement gap!, and college and career readiness! are empty words. They are focus group tested words, chosen to “sell” the Common Core.

The promise of reform is an empty one. For example, 500 professionals in the field of early childhood education, including the most respected experts in the country, have written a public statement, claiming that the Common Core Standards are harmful to young children and should not be taught.  Changes that cause harm are not reform.

The most highlighted “new” Common Core practice for the teaching of English, labeled one of the six major “shifts”  of Common Core is using text evidence as students read and as they write. The problem with labeling it a “shift” and heralding it as brand new is that it has been the fundamental practice in English classes since I was in school and has been the daily practice in the many hundreds of English classes I have observed since 1985. Introducing something as new and different when it is already accepted practice by everyone in the field is not reform.

In addition, at the 2015 annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, there were 642 presentations. Of those 642 presentations, only 19 of them were about implementing the Common Core, and even those were largely about how to circumvent or add better teaching to that mandated implementation. The remaining 623 presentations were about authentic teaching and learning that scholarly research and/or teaching experience show is best practice. Advocating something not respected by experts in the academic discipline is not reform; it is just a plan of action recommended by people without the requisite knowledge. It was employees of testing companies, individuals without knowledge of teaching and learning, who wrote the Common Core; no English educators and no early childhood professionals were involved in writing those standards. Because people who are not educators call what they put together an educational reform does not make it so.

The standards are not rigorous. The tests to assess the attainment of those standards are “gotcha” enterprises with plenty of students receiving low scores, but that is because the tests are designed to fail 60-70% of the students who take them. Anyone who has taught knows that it’s easy to create a test to fail most students. Those failures don’t mean that the test challenges the students to reason clearly, to raise pivotal questions, to collaborate in order to problem solve or create new thinking, or to communicate effectively orally or in writing. That would be rigor. But that would require a totally different pedagogy than the pedagogy the Common Core mandates.

The states never approved of what we now call the Common Core Standards; appointed state officials simply agreed to the abstract concept of standards. In 2009, states signed on to that concept before any standards were written in order to avoid financial sanctions from the federal government for not having the 100% proficiency specified by NCLB. No state officials ever reviewed the actual standards and decided they were good learning. Similarly, the Common Core Standards are not aligned with international standards. The writers of Common Core reviewed standards of other nations but did not match Common Core to them. For example, other nations have standards for the vital 21st century skill of collaboration, but Common Core does not.

No standards can close the achievement gap, especially when that gap is measured by scores on standardized tests. All standardized test scores are correlated with family income, not with how much or how little the standards are taught. For example, the school districts that adhere most assiduously to the teaching of the Common Core Standards are the impoverished, urban districts, and the schools in those districts have the lowest standardized test scores. Also, if standards could positively affect achievement, then all students who were taught them- those now proficient and those now failing- would improve, and the gap would remain the same.

Lastly, the Common Core Standards are untested for college and career readiness. No one has any idea if a high score on the tests aligned to the Common Core is a predictor of success in college or careers. It’s anybody’s guess. Even the Executive Director of SBAC has said that the Common Core aligned tests have a “huge validity problem” because they were never field-tested. It is unconscionable that we as a state mandate that all children and adolescents learn in prescribed ways that we don’t have any evidence are good for them. What we do know is that key skills for the future (questioning, collaboration, oral communication, and creativity) are not tested on the Common Core aligned tests so it is unlikely that the standards and the tests that measure them do make our students”college and career ready”.

Teachers, who are under pressure of job security to teach to the Common Core, often find it prudent to be compliant, yet they, in increasing numbers, are expressing their opposition to the Common Core. They seem to be looking closely at what reform, rigor, nationally agreed-upon standards, and international benchmarking, closing the achievement gap, and college and career readiness really mean. That critique is good news for the future of education. It is good news for the future of the country.

If those voices of opposition continue to increase, what will we do? What can move education forward in effective and healthy ways?  In 2009, maybe it seemed efficient to turn education over to non-educators who had money and political clout. But, as H.L. Mencken said:  ” For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, ………….    and wrong.

The right way to improve education is to ask educators to design standards and to make the decisions about how to teach students to learn. We will get it right.  We know when reform is needed and when it is not. We know what reform really looks like. We know what rigor is and how to motivate and engage our students in learning that is truly rigorous. We know how to address and minimize the achievement gap. We know how to prepare students for their future. Give us a chance and watch what happens.

Vermont Leads; Connecticut Flounders

Several days after I spoke in front of  the Education Committee of the General Assembly, I read an article (See below) in The Stamford Advocate, written by Wendy Lecker, a civil rights attorney. She explains how Vermont is taking the lead among New England states in opposing the SBAC standardized tests and criticizes the positions on SBAC testing of our governor and the former Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor.

It is two months since the publishing of Lecker’s article, and those in power in Connecticut remain entrenched in SBAC testing.   The current Commissioner of Education, Dianna Roberge Wentzel, is unequivocally  in favor of the Common Core and the aligned SBAC tests. And as recently as Friday, May 8, 2015, Governor Malloy said, ” I think the Smarter Balance test is the right test. A lot of work has gone into developing that and, you know, I think that we are actually seeing success with it being given and making real progress.”  Also, Andy Fleischmann, the Chair of the legislature’s Education Committee, said in a CT Mirror  article published on May 15, 2015, ” The (SBAC) test does show to be robust and valid.”

Given that we are still in the middle of the  first year of testing students (Last year’s tests were just to aid testing companies in creating future test questions.) and there are not yet any results  from the tests, it is difficult to figure out what Governor Malloy means by “seeing success” and “making progress” with the SBAC tests. Also, since the executive director of SBAC, Joseph Willholt, has admitted that there is a “large validity question” with the SBAC tests because no one  has any idea if success on the test equals success in college, it is difficult to figure out what Chairman Fleischmann means  by the test being “robust and valid”.

The elected and appointed officials who oversee education in Connecticut seem committed to continuing down a path that is increasingly recognized as the wrong path for our children. We in Connecticut need a thoughtful investigation, led by experienced educators, into exactly what are the skills that students need and what are authentic ways to assess those skills.   As citizens, educators, and parents, we must demand that our elected and appointed officials be educational policy leaders and not political followers. Connecticut must join Vermont in thoughtful inquiry about real learning and in concern for the welfare of children.

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Read what Vermont is doing:

The Truth About The SBACs by Wendy Lecker (March 20, 2015)

A New England state is leading the way on sane testing policy. Unfortunately for us Nutmeggers, that state is Vermont, not Connecticut.

There is a growing national consensus that standardized testing has deleterious effects on education. The National Research Council concluded that test-based accountability under the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB) had “zero to little effect” on achievement. Evidence from around the nation proves the focus on standardized testing has narrowed curricula and resulted in significant losses in learning time. Anxiety is prevalent among public school students, as more and higher stakes are attached to these standardized tests.

There is also a growing realization of what experts have known for years — that the federal government demands that states overuse and misuse standardized tests. Experts know that standardized tests are of limited value, because they are unstable, unreliable and most importantly, do not measure the breadth of skills and experience that are the goals of education. Despite the well-known limitations of standardized tests, federal officials insist test scores be used to rank and rate schools, students and teachers, and impose real-life consequences, including sanctions on schools and possible school closures, firing teachers and even decisions regarding student placement and graduation.

When federal policy conflicts with a solid body of evidence, one would expect our state education officials, those charged with safeguarding the educational rights and welfare of our children, to provide guidance on sound testing policy.

Unfortunately, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s top education officials have failed to provide any useful guidance whatsoever. To the contrary, Connecticut officials willingly participate in damaging testing practices. Connecticut rushed to sign on to the federal NCLB waiver in 2012, without analyzing the costs or consequences. As part of the waiver, then Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor committed the state to implementing the common core tests known as the Smarter Balanced, or SBACs. These tests are longer than the CMTs, and must be taken on a computer or tablet, requiring a certain level of computer skill and literacy. Commissioner Pryor also agreed to “cut scores,” proficiency levels, guaranteeing that a vast majority of Connecticut students will fail the new tests. By agreeing to the waiver, Pryor also committed the state to evaluating teachers based on standardized test scores, even though the weight of evidence demonstrates that evaluating teachers on student these test scores is invalid and major organizations such as the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association oppose this practice.

Contrast Connecticut’s complete lack of leadership with Vermont’s. Because the NCLB waiver called for mandates that were contrary to good educational practices, Vermont refused to apply for an NCLB waiver in 2012. In an August 2014 resolution, Vermont’s State Board of Education called on the federal government to “reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality, eschew the use of student test scores in evaluating educators, and allow flexibility that reflects the unique circumstances of all states.”

Last week, Vermont’s State Board of Education unanimously approved a new resolution on the SBAC tests, which gives strong and informed guidance that Connecticut’s education leaders are unwilling to provide.

Vermont’s resolution declares that while the SBAC tests “purport to measure progress towards `college and career readiness . . . the tests have not been externally validated as measuring these important attributes.”

Accordingly, the state board resolved “until empirical studies confirm a sound relationship between performance on the SBAC and critical and valued life outcomes (“college and career-ready”), test results should not be used to make normative and consequential judgments about schools and students.”

Vermont’s state board also resolved that until Vermont has more experience with evidence from the SBACs, “the results of the SBAC assessment will not support reliable and valid inferences about student performance, and thus should not be used as the basis for any consequential purpose.”

Finally, honest education officials admit the SBACs have never been proven to measure “college readiness” or progress toward “college readiness,” and in fact are unreliable to measure student learning. In other words, the foundation upon which the Common Core rests is an artifice, and our children are being subjected to unproven tests. Connecticut districts have been diverting resources and time toward a testing regime without any proof that it would improve our children’s education.

In its thoughtful articulation of its policy stance, Vermont’s educational leaders demonstrated their dedication to the educational welfare of Vermont’s children. It is shameful that Connecticut’s so-called leaders cannot muster the same concern for ours.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.

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