Jerry Brown vs Arne Duncan

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If you have been following the legislative circus in California, you might know that the Govinator has called a “special session” to consider enacting a package of education redesign measures—including scrapping a law blocking the state from linking student and teacher data—in hopes of guaranteeing that the state would be eligible for Ed Dept “Race to the Top” funds.

According to the draft criteria for the Race to the Top, states that have a data “firewall” on the books would be automatically disqualified from getting a portion of the $4.35 billion fund.

California Att. Gen Jerry Brown was asked to comment on the legality of the draft criteria and sent a response to Arne Duncan that is reproduced below.  In a few short paragraphs, Brown explains exactly what is wrong with the initiatives that have come from the Department of Education since the first implementation of NCLB under Bush and Spelling up to and including Duncan’s current agenda.

Re: Race to the Top Fund [Docket ID ED-2009-OESE-0006]

In view of the hundreds of comments that are being submitted, I am confining my own to just a few general observations.

1. The basic assumption of your draft regulations appears to be that top down, Washington driven standardization is best. This is a “one size fit all” approach that ignores the vast diversity of our federal system and the creativity inherent in local communities. What we have at stake are the impressionable minds of the children of America. You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score. You are funding teaching interventions or changes to the learning environment that promise to make public education better, i.e. greater mastery of what it takes to become an effective citizen and a productive member of society. In the draft you have circulated, I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.

2. Inherent in the command and control philosophy of your draft regulations is a belief that everyone agrees on what should be taught–to whom and when–and how the lowest performing schools can best be turned around. Yet, there are so many unknowns about what produces educational success that a little humility would be in order. A better way would be to state what educational outcomes children should reach and then permit state and local flexibility to figure out how to reach the desired outcomes. The current draft regulations conflate what must be done with entirely too much specification about how to do it.

3. Curriculum choices are not just technical and “evidence based” issues, but go to the heart of deeply held beliefs and understandings of what children should learn. California’s current curriculum standards have received high national rankings and there is no evidence that they need a radical overhaul.

4. Your draft also specifies very specific data elements that need to be included without sufficient justification for why all these data elements are essential or how they should be utilized.

5. You assume we know how to “turn around all the struggling low performing schools,” when the real answers may lie outside of school. As Oakland mayor, I directly confronted conditions that hindered education, and that were deeply rooted in the social and economic conditions of the community or were embedded in the particular attitudes and situations of the parents. There is insufficient recognition in the draft regulations that inside and outside of school strategies must be interactive and merged.

6. Most current state wide tests rely too much on closed end multiple choice answers and do not contain enough written and open ended responses that require students to synthesize, analyze and solve multi-dimensional problems and construct their own answers.

7. There are huge technical and conceptual problems that remain on how to assess the specific impact of individual teachers and principals on the scores of students on annual state tests. Test score increases and decreases can be caused by many factors in a specific year, and it is beyond the current state of the art to sort out what is the unique and independent influence of teachers and principals. Performance pay schemes for teachers based primarily on annual test scores in other states reveal more about how not to structure performance pay rather than show what are viable ways to restructure teacher compensation. Compensation should to be just one element of a broader approach to improving teacher effectiveness that includes initial recruitment and preparation to retention and professional development.

Having $4.3 billion to spend on education in this time of draconian cuts is a godsend. We in California look forward to joining with you in promoting a real love of learning and outstanding achievement in all our public schools.



The Dim Bulb Award goes to Idaho State Senator John Goedde

I have considered and rejected a number of candidates for this month’s “Dim Bulb” award including the usual suspects. I was waiting for a jaw-dropping example of stupidity or illogical thinking.

At the last minute, Idaho State Senator John Goedde came through by claiming that, in order to remain true to the idea of “accountability,” the Idaho State Department of Education ought to impose sanctions on those Idaho schools who failed to meet annual progress based upon what Goedde concedes is an INVALID test.

A little background is needed here for those of you who have not kept up with the on-going fiasco know as “No Child Left Behind.” The punitive NCLB legislation is the centerpiece of Bush’s education program. It affects nearly every U.S. public school and requires all students be performing on grade level by 2014. Critics have pointed out the folly of the program’s reliance on high stakes testing and some states have even flirted with abandoning the system, which would mean giving up federal funding.

Although we can laugh at the absurd notion that educational reform will take place solely by testing, Republican business types like Goedde are strong supporters of the legislation because it claims to hold schools accountable for student learning

Have there been increases in student achievement in the years NCLB has been in effect? Yes, it appears there have been modest gains nationwide. I say “appears” because there has been only one study that has looked specifically at this question- a June 2007 Center on Education Policy (CEP) study titled “Has Student Achievement Increased Since No Child Left Behind?”

It should be pointed out that the authors of the study warned that “it is difficult to say whether or how much the No Child Left Behind law is driving the achievement gains.” Moreover, the study cautioned readers that its comparisons between pre- and post-NCLB data — available for only 13 states — should be treated as “suggestive.”


This report focuses on whether student achievement has improved since the enactment of NCLB. It is very difficult to determine whether students are learning more because of NCLB. Isolating the cause-and-effect relationship of any education policy is often impracticable. With a policy as far-reaching as NCLB, it becomes nearly impossible when states, districts, and schools are simultaneously implementing so many different yet interconnected policies and programs. If student achievement has risen since NCLB took effect, is this due to NCLB, or to state or local reforms implemented at roughly the same time, or to both? If both, how much of the improvement is attributable to state or local policies and how much to federal policies? Using multiple methods of analyzing achievement will not tease out the causes of gains or declines.

In a similar vein, this study does not take a position on how well specific components of NCLB are working or whether the requirements in the current law are the most effective means to raise achievement and close test score gaps.

Was Idaho one of those 13 states with data that allowed comparison between pre and post NCLB student achievement? No, because Idaho has invalid iSAT exams that do not measure Idaho’s educational standards or the curriculum that teachers are expected to teach.

Who is to blame for Idaho’s invalid examinations? As Bill Roberts of the Idaho Statesman points out:

Tests and standards used over the past several years were approved by the State Board in 1999 and early in this decade. The system was revised in 2007. Tom Luna, state schools superintendent, played an integral role in development of both the first standards and the exams, although he was not superintendent or a State Board member at the time.

Despite concerns from critics, including then state schools Superintendent Marilyn Howard, the board moved ahead with both testing and standards. The tests and standards were later found lacking in two independent reports in about 2005.

As a result of pressure from the Idaho School Superintendents Association, Mike Rush, State Board executive director, wrote the feds asking to reset the No Child Left Behind clock for Idaho beginning with spring 2007 statewide exam results, after the state made improvements to its testing system.

The board wants a “do-over” for hundreds of Idaho public schools facing NCLB sanctions such as forcing them to provide outside tutoring or allow children to go to schools that are more successful than the ones they attend. This last sanction is particularly absurd in small Idaho communities where there are no alternatives to the local public school.

The board has asked the U.S. Department of Education to wipe away the student progress measurements between 2002 and 2006 under No Child Left Behind on which the sanctions are based. In its place, the board wants the feds to restart the No Child Left Behind clock, which sets the deadline for schools to meet minimum proficiency standards.

“It is unreasonable to label schools and districts based on student achievement data that was measured with an invalid and unreliable tool,” Rush wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education dated Tuesday. “How can you say that a school didn’t make progress if your initial measurement was not valid?” Rush said.

But John Goedde, state Senate Education Committee chair, opposes a do-over because it defeats the purpose of accountability.

The original (exam) was not a valid test, yet that test was commissioned by the State Board of Education to meet federal standards,” he said. “Our State Board made another mistake, which is a tragedy. “But to ask to restart the accountability process due to that error seems to defeat the concept of accountability altogether.”

Merriam-Webster defines accountability as: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” Whose actions have led to this “mistake.” The list is quite long and includes Luna, the State Board, the Idaho Legislature, the Senate Education Committee and its chair, John Goedde. It does not, however, include the schools, teachers and students who will suffer the NCLB sanctions.

I am all in favor of accountability. I only hope the citizens of Idaho hold those “dim bulbs,” truly culpable for this fiasco, accountable when they go to the polls in November.

Washington Teacher Practices Civil Disobedience

Carl Chew, a Seattle science teacher, has been placed on two week suspension without pay for refusing to give his sixth-graders the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). Chew decided to practice civil disobedience by refusing to administer a test he considers harmful to students, teachers, schools and families.

Chew was interviewed by Linda Shaw of the Seattle Times.

“I did it because I think it’s bad for kids,” he said. He said he knew he would face consequences, and might even be fired. “When you do an act of civil disobedience, you gracefully accept what happens to you,” he said.

Chew had told the administrators at the middle school where he taught that he would not give the exam. He said they tried to talk him out of it. He then was suspended without pay from Monday through May 2, the day WASL testing ends.

“He failed to follow his duties as teacher,” said Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Patti Spencer. The district, she said, understands there are debates over standardized tests such as the WASL, but it expects teachers to fulfill all their responsibilities, which include giving state-mandated exams.

The WASL is given each year to students in grades 3-8 and Grade 10, and covers reading, writing, math and science. It is used to determine whether Washington schools are meeting the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. And starting this year, students must have passed reading and writing on the 10th-grade exam to graduate from high school

Chew may be the first teacher in Washington state to refuse to give the test. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state’s largest teachers union, said they didn’t know of any similar cases.

Juanita Doyon, director of the Parent Empowerment Network, an anti-WASL group, says she’s heard of only one teacher in the nation who has refused to administer a high-stakes test. That teacher works in Colorado. Chew, she said, “has taken a brave stand.

Chew issued a two-page, single-spaced statement listing all of his concerns about the WASL. It includes his contention that many questions on the test are unclear, notes its costs, and says teachers get little information about how to help students improve. The letter also says the WASL focuses too much attention on just a few subjects.

“I think it’s good for students to have basic skills in reading, writing and math,” he said. “But also to have good skills in P.E. and art and music and public speaking.” The WASL, he said, needs to be scrapped and replaced with a “gentler, kinder way of finding out what our students know and helping teachers educate them better.”

Chew stated that this was his first act of civil disobedience. Washington’s “Parent Empowerment Network” encouraged supporters to sent money to Chew to replace his lost wages, but Chew says he wont accept the money and requests that it goes, instead, to local groups that oppose high-stakes standardized testing

Chew said he didn’t tell his students about his plans.

“I simply let them know that I had something important to do during the WASL time, and expected them to treat the guest teacher with respect,” he said. “And I told them to do well on the WASL.”

And next year?

“I have let them know I’m never going to give the WASL again,” Chew said. At the same time, he added, “next year is a long way off.” In the meantime, he said, he plans to think about what might be a “win-win situation.”

Science in the Sunshine State

The anti-science creationists are continuing their state-by-state assault on evolution. Florida is currently revising the state standards for science and the strategy is to pass resolutions like the one below from Taylor County.

[W]e are requesting that the State Board of Education direct the Florida Department of Education to revise/edit the new Sunshine State Standards for Science so that evolution is presented as one of several theories as to how the universe was formed.

DarkSyde at Kos has the details:

One of several theories as to how the universe was formed? Good grief, could they be any more blatant in their scientific ignorance? Evolutionary biology examines how living things change over time, regardless of how the universe (Or the earth) ‘formed.’ Evo is about as relevant to the origin of the universe as geology.

Early indications are that many more counties in the Sunshine State have passed or are considering almost identical resolutions. The inference is that someone is shopping around an anti-science template to perhaps well meaning but nevertheless gullible school board members. . . if physical reality is something we could change merely by voting on it, why not vote big? How about “Resolved: Cancer is no longer a deadly disease and is instead less serious than a hangnail” or “We the undersigned hereby decree all people can travel faster than light anytime they want to”? If you can answer that question for cancer or relativity, you’ve answered it for evolutionary biology as well.

What does Margaret Spellings think about all of this?

For all the rhetoric about world-class standards and maintaining scientific supremacy in the world, you might think that the Bush Administration would have an opinion about this. Not so, according to the Miami Herald.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who is visiting states to tout the benefits of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, stayed as far away as she could from the unfolding controversy in Florida over whether the word ”evolution” should be included in the state’s science standards for schools. The State Board of Education is expected to vote on the new weather science standards next month.

Spellings said it isn’t her job to make policy decisions and said it was up to people such as new Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith.

When asked whether the nation’s top education official has a position on whether evolution should be a part of science standards, Spellings replied: “No, I don’t.”

We can look forward to this state-by-state strategy eventually making its way to Idaho. It is just a matter of time given the make-up of the current state board.

Bush Unscripted

Anytime Bush is allowed to speak in public, we are given a chance to hear his “Deep Thoughts.” Here are a few from Thursday’s “talk on terrorism” in Ohio.

“Politics comes and goes, but your principles don’t. And everybody wants to be loved – not everybody. … You never heard anybody say, ‘I want to be despised, I’m running for office’.”

“There are jobs Americans aren’t doing. … If you’ve got a chicken factory, a chicken-plucking factory, or whatever you call them, you know what I’m talking about.”

“There are some similarities, of course, between Iraq and Vietnam. Death is terrible.”

“I’ve been in politics long enough to know that polls just go “poof” at times.

Those “Bushisms” are a great source of humor for the media, but sometimes Bush says things that make clear he has no idea what he is talking about. He has no idea what his own policies actually mean. For example, Bush is frequently referred to as the “Education President” because of No Child Left Behind legislation. NCLB is currently up for reauthorization and here are some statements Bush reportedly made at a meeting last week at the White House.

“It is important for all of us to make it clear that accountability is not a way to punish anybody,” said Bush in a meeting at the White House, “It’s an essential component to making sure that our system, our education system, frankly, is not discriminatory. Education isn’t about learning, or getting an education, it’s about ensuring that people of all races and all backgrounds have identical test scores.”

“There cannot be one nationwide federal test that compares all students equally,” said Bush, “that’ll just never work. Some parts of the country have more minorities than others, some are overflowing with illegals, and some are in the south; we cannot expect these states to perform at the same level as other, less unfortunate states.”

The next time anyone calls Bush the Education President, share those quotes with them.

NCLB Backlash

The critics of No Child Left Behind now include many leaders of the Republican party. There are 57 Republicans including House Minority whip, Roy Blunt, and Senator Mel Martinez, the Chair of the Republican National Committee, who have signed on to the bill would allow any state that objected to the law’s standards and testing to excuse itself from those requirements and still receive federal school aid.

But, the real resistance is happening on the state level. Marc Fisher has a great article in today’s Washington Post profiling a Virginia Superintendent of Schools, Jack Dale.

…the superintendent of Fairfax County schools, who presides over one of the highest-achieving systems in the land, has taken a stand at the schoolhouse door: “The last thing I’m going to do is subject some third-grader to tears because someone’s standing over them saying, ‘You must complete [this standardized test], you must complete.’ That’s not happening. Let them fire me for it.”

In the next couple of weeks, either Dale or the U.S. government will blink. Until then, threats and counterthreats are flying across the Potomac. Dale, backed up by his school board and several other Northern Virginia superintendents, insists he will not require newly arrived immigrant children to take the same reading test that other kids take. And the feds reply: Oh, yes, you will — and if you don’t, you’ll lose $17 million in federal dollars.

Fisher pulls no punches in describing the flaws of NCLB.

No Child Left Behind is built on a mirage. At some point that’s always just over the horizon, the law assumes, all children in the nation will miraculously read and compute at grade level, simply because they have been tested and tested and tested again. The theory is that somehow, when told the exact number of children who are lagging in achievement, teachers will agree to render the magic that they have thus far withheld and — poof! — those kids will become smart, cooperative and productive.

As we get closer to that utopia, it’s becoming ever more clear that Some Children Remain Behind and that, gadzooks, Not Every Child Is the Same. Oh, and this: Staking everything on a test doesn’t produce a flowering of inspired teaching, but rather what Dale, a former math teacher, calls an “obsessive focus on tests.”

What this is really all about, the superintendent thinks, is an unresolved debate over whether there should be national education standards. Remember, the same people who now mandate Testing Uber Alles were pushing two decades ago to abolish any federal role in education. Under the No Child law, designed by a purportedly conservative administration, the amount of time that a superintendent such as Dale must spend satisfying the federal bureaucracy has skyrocketed from hardly any to hours and hours each week.

No Child Left Behind is built on a lie. Not every kid will go to college, no matter what you do. So you can either lower the standards enough to pretend that everyone is succeeding, or give up on the lie.

Don’t hold your breath that an educational leader in Idaho will demonstrate the same bravery and strength of character shown by Jack Dale.

Spinning and Spying at the Department of Education


At the same time U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has been spinning and fabricating about the success of No Child Left Behind, her Department has been engaged in some disturbing intrusions into the lives of people who do contract work for them.

Spellings has been touting NCLB as a rip-roaring success in boosting academic achievement. “According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP],” she says, “9-year-olds made greater reading gains in five years than in the previous 28 years combined.” What she failed to mention is that virtually all of those gains occurred before the 2002-03 school year, when NCLB took effect. Spellings also claimed recently that Bush’s new budget would result in a 41% increase in school funding. This is simply not true. In fact, as Scott Lilly points out, NCLB should be called “No Gimmick Left Behind.”

Now it turns out that “Spinmaster” Spellings has been demanding such intrusive background checks on researchers who contract with the department that they border on invasion of privacy. According to an article in the New York Times,

As a condition of his work for the federal government, Andrew A. Zucker was willing to be fingerprinted and provide an employment history. But then he was asked to let federal investigators examine his financial and medical records, and interview his doctors.

Dr. Zucker was not tracking terrorists or even emptying the trash at the Pentagon. He was studying how to best teach science to middle school students. He was stunned at the breadth of the request for information.

“To me, personally, it’s shocking,” said Dr. Zucker, who worked for a contractor doing research for the Education Department. He withdrew from the job. . . .

This is the same Department of Education that wants a national database to track students from the time they are subjected to their first kindergarten tests. It is all a bit scary, but certainly in keeping with the attitude of the Bush Administration across the board.

Tough Review of Tough Choices

There is a report just released by the “New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.” Titled “Tough Choices for Tough Times,” it calls for a radical restructuring of American Public Education based on the premise that the current system has “failed” because it does not prepare American students to compete in the global marketplace. This argument is certainly not new. In fact, it is based upon a faulty “blame the schools” logic that goes back to the 1950s. Jerry Bracey has an excellent critique of this latest reincarnation in the Huffington Post.

There is a cottage industry in this country that generates reports devoted to keeping Americans anxious about the future and laying the responsibility for that future on the schools which are never working as they should be. The latest of these scare tactics, Tough Choices for Tough Times, might be the dumbest, least democratic, least reality-based of them all.

The notion that America’s schools determine the nation’s future developed just after World War II. During the Cold War, “manpower” was the term of the day and CIA chief, Allen Dulles, was telling politicians that the Russians were generating twice as many engineers, scientists and mathematicians as we were (doubt that CIA intelligence was any better then). Where would we get our manpower? From the colleges, of course, but the colleges depended on the schools and the schools were seen as wanting.

The Russians’ launch of Sputnik in October, 1957, proved to the school critics that they had been right. Blaming the current schools for letting the Russians get into space first was silly since those working on rockets were well past their K-12 and university educations. Education historian Lawrence Cremin quipped that Sputnik only proved that the Nazi scientists the Russians had absconded with after World War II had gotten a little ahead of the Nazi scientists we had absconded with after World War II.

The schools were hit from time to time in the 1960’s and 1970’s with other critical reports, but the next big bombshell blew up in 1983, A Nation At Risk. The commissioners who wrote this golden treasury of selected, spun and distorted statistics were, like many Americans at the time, convinced that other nations, especially Japan, were going to eat our economic lunch. They wrote, “if only to keep and improve on the slim advantage we still enjoy in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system.”

This assertion reflected the commissioners’ erroneous assumption that high test scores were causally linked to thriving economies. But Japan’s bubble burst in 1990 and it is only now coming out of 15 years of recession and stagnation. Beginning in 1991, on the other hand, the U. S. enjoyed the longest sustained economic expansion in the nation’s history. Japan’s kids continued to ace tests, but that didn’t goose the Japanese economy. Our kids continued to score in the middle of the pack, but the economy boomed and the World Economic Forum ranked us No. 1 in global competitiveness among over 100 nations (this year the U. S. fell to No. 6 largely because of the incompetence in the Bush administration, the incompetence and corruption in both the Bush administration and the private sector, and the insanity of an open-ended, coffer-draining commitment to war coupled with the simultaneous commitment to continue cutting taxes).

American kids were average on the various international comparisons in 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2003, and 2004 and the “Oh ain’t it awful, we’re doomed” refrain was reprised over and over. Now comes Tough Choices. If successful it would accomplish what some have been intending for decades: the private control of publicly funded education. School boards would not operate schools. Private firms would do that.

The report throughout emphasizes the importance of creativity and imagination, but it calls for kids to be tracked into different institutions after 10th grade based on scores from tests that cannot measure creativity or imagination. This is the commission at its most naïve. About the exams it writes “No one would fail. If they did not succeed, they would just try again.” Oh, sure. The nature of human nature is beyond these guys. Given the inequality of opportunity in schools and society generally, one can quickly see the Brave New World this would lead to (it would save a lot of money currently spent on coaches, band directors and uniforms, though).

Perhaps the most inane proposal from the report is to let the states, not localities, fund the schools based on some kind of formula. Excuse me, but aren’t these the same states that have been sued by districts, state after state, because of inadequate, unconstitutional funding formulas? Just who would have the power to install this new funding scheme is not clear.

The report claims that the future “is a world in which a very high level of preparation in reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, science, literature, history and the arts will be an indispensable foundation for everything that comes after for most members of the workforce” (emphasis added). Huh? Who really wrote this thing? Ayn Rand’s ghost? The nation currently has 9 cashiers, 6 waiters and 5+ janitors for every computer programmer and it has no shortage of programmers. I want some of the commissioners’ mushrooms.

This report is another smoke and mirrors trick in what I have come to call the High Skills Hoax.

Over the years these reports have accomplished the goal of their authors. Most American have bought the myth of failing public schools. Every Gallop poll for the past thirty years has shown the same incongruous result: Amercian public schools in general are doing a poor job, but my child’s school is excellent. What is the intent of the the critics? I think the answer is buried in Bracey’s article- “…the private control of publicly funded education”. The No Child Left Behind law is based on the same premise.

The attacks on public education are not limited to the National level. Radical advocates of charter schools and school vouchers like former Idaho legislator Darrell Diede have the same goal. It remains to be seen, but I suspect new Superintendent Tom Luna will be a willing dupe for the anti-public education forces in Idaho also. If you would like to learn more about the previous attacks of public education described by Bracey, read The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud and the Attacks on America’s Public Schools.

An Idaho Teacher Takes on NCLB

I just returned from a week long conference in San Francisco and have missed out on local news. One item I missed was the NPR audio essay by local teacher Sharon Hanson. Fortunately, Tom, at Fort Boise, put up a link on his site. In her essay, Hanson points out the educational harm caused by NCLB and high stakes testing. If you missed it live, go to Fort Boise and listen because Hanson has it exactly right. She discusses Donald Grave’s book, Testing is not Teaching, which details the arguments against teaching to the test. A short review of his book can be found here and a longer one here

If you want to read a detailed critique of NCLB, the book, Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging our Children and Our Schools, is a great starting place. I have a link to it through below.