Monday, September 29, 2014

How Charter School Owners Feather Their Nests & Other Conflicts of Interest

Many people in one of my home states — Arizona — seem to have no concept of a conflict of interest.

When charter schools were authorized in Arizona in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t long before a young woman “researcher” at the Goldwater Institute was appointed Chairperson of the State Charter School Board. And that very same Chairperson quickly issued a charter to a non-profit foundation — that was really an artifice created by K12 Inc. — that created the Arizona Virtual Academy (AVA), a huge cybercharter. Then Arizona Virtual Academy soon hired that very same Chairperson as its Director, who decided that all materials and services of the AVA would be purchased from K12 Inc. And before long and shortly after the Chairperson resigned from the State Charter School Board, K12 Inc. hired Chairperson into the position of Senior Vice President for Education, and Policy & External Affairs. So you see, this person is not only the director of one of the largest online Charter schools in the nation, but she also serves as a vice president of the company from which her charter school purchases nearly everything. (Incidentally, AVA is the cybercharter that got caught outsourcing essay grading to India.) Anybody have a problem with this? Not in Arizona.

One of the first brick-and-mortar charter schools in Arizona was named Citizen 2000. In the middle of its second year of operation, its 1,000 enrolled students showed up for class only to find a note of the door informing them that Citizen 2000 was closed for business. The Director was on her way to Chicago for good. She had been paying her divorce lawyer out of school funds, paying her mother’s mortgage, and had hired her sister as assistant director at an exorbitant salary. I was being deposed in a FOIA case by an Assistant Attorney General at about that time, and I asked whether the state had plans to pursue a case against the former Director of Citizen 2000. “No, we’re not interested.” Fine, so seemingly nobody in Arizona cares about conflicts of interest.

However, now and then the powers that be in Arizona will come down on some small fry in an attempt to prove that they are policing double dealing. Years ago, an assistant superintendent of public instruction got canned because he was running a textbook company on the side while subtlely suggesting to teachers and administrators that he knew where they could buy some really good textbooks. More recently, a school board member in a suburban Phoenix school district was nearly indicted when it was discovered that the board on which he sat was contracting with his HR company for some minor services.

Why then, is a blind eye turned to massive conflicts of interest in the charter school domain?

Consider the case of BASIS charter schools. If you have spent the last 15 years in Antarctica without internet access and no subscription to US News and World Report, then you probably haven’t heard of the BASIS charter schools. BASIS operates about a dozen charter schools, mostly in Arizona but also in San Antonio and Washington, D.C. BASIS is the creation of Michael Block, a retired econ professor from the University of Arizona. To read what the media write about BASIS, this econ prof has discovered the magic bullet, the secret to taking ordinary students and turning them into National Merit Scholars with their pick of any Ivy League college. But the truth is that BASIS charter schools — which claim to admit students only by lottery — put out a sales pitch that scares the bejeebers out of any parent whose kid isn’t already National Merit potential and then flunks out 90% of the students with a daunting gauntlet of tests from elementary grades right up to high school. By the time of graduation day at a BASIS charter, the elementary grades have been winnowed down from 200 to two dozen students. Based on graduates test scores and college acceptance rates, gullible outlets like US News and World Report rate a couple of BASIS schools in the top ten in the nation. Ridiculous, of course.

Some conflict of interest concerns have been raised about BASIS schools in the past. It was discovered that BASIS had been outsourcing bookkeeping services to Block’s wife’s relatives in the Czech Republic. Small potatoes. The really big potatoes are only now coming to light. BASIS has heretofore operated as a private corporation. Even though their revenues come almost exclusively from public money, they have refused to divulge even the most basic financial information. But for some unknown reason, BASIS Scottsdale — another one of the top ten high schools in the U.S. — has been operating as a non-profit for the first few years of its existence. Consequently, they must file an IRS Form 990 and report some financial information. IRS Forms 990 are publicly available. Voila!

And here’s what BASIS Scottsdale’s 990 Form looks like for fiscal year 2012. You can download a copy here.

It would take two accountants and three lawyers to decipher Form 990 for BASIS Scottsdale. But to an even moderately skeptical eye, a couple things stand out.

  • BASIS Scottsdale took in more than $32,000,000 in taxpayer money, close to 93% of its total revenues.
  • Roughly half ($18,593,866) of the revenues were paid as “Salaries & employee benefits.” The other half was paid for “Other expenses.”
  • Then on page 38, one finds that BASIS Scottsdale charter school is purchasing its employees and “management services” from its parent company’s Director, Michael Block:
The $18,593,866 that BASIS Scottsdale paid their teachers is exactly the amount the school paid its Director Michael Block to lease employees from his private company. And in addition, Block received more than $7 million for “management fees.” (In the prior year, Block received $14.5 million for the “subject specialists” he leased to the school and $5.2 million for management.) How much managing does one little school of a couple thousand kids require?

So we see that more than $30,000,000 was paid out to a private vendor who happens to be the owner of the very charter school paying out the cash, and there is no transparency whatsoever on how that money was spent. Obviously, much of it went into the pockets of uncertified “subject specialists” (as BASIS prefers to call its teachers), and some of it went into the pockets of “managers.” How much of it went into Michael Block’s pocket will remain unknown. One can speculate that all the other BASIS charter schools are similarly leasing “subject specialists” from Michael Block Unincorporated and buying management services at the same store. We’ll never know.

Perhaps even doing business in the shadows is still too much accountability for BASIS schools, because their newest venture is a BASIS school in Silicon Valley which will be wholly private. Ironically, when BASIS Scottsdale was launched a few years back, it was advertised as a private school; but when the fall term came around and fewer than 10 students had enrolled, it quickly converted to charter school status. Crony capitalism is always safer than that nasty free market.


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Monday, September 22, 2014

STEM Shortage? Baloney

We said so in 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools.

Now Hal Salzman joins the chorus of skeptics questioning the myth that the U.S. has a shortage of graduates trained in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math. In his article in U.S. News, Salzman says:

"All credible research finds the same evidence about the STEM workforce: ample supply, stagnant wages and, by industry accounts, thousands of applicants for any advertised job. The real concern should be about the dim employment prospects for our best STEM graduates: The National Institutes of Health, for example, has developed a program to help new biomedical Ph.D.s find alternative careers in the face of “unattractive” job prospects in the field. Opportunities for engineers vary by the field and economic cycle – as oil exploration has increased, so has demand (and salaries) for petroleum engineers, resulting in a near tripling of petroleum engineering graduates. In contrast, average wages in the IT industry are the same as those that prevailed when Bill Clinton was president despite industry cries of a “shortage.” Overall, U.S. colleges produce twice the number of STEM graduates annually as find jobs in those fields."

"Cries that “the STEM sky is falling” are just the latest in a cyclical pattern of shortage predictions over the past half-century, none of which were even remotely accurate. In a desert of evidence, the growth of STEM shortage claims is driven by heavy industry funding for lobbyists and think tanks. Their goal is government intervention in the market under the guise of solving national economic problems. The highly profitable IT industry, for example, is devoting millions to convince Congress and the White House to provide its employers with more low-cost, foreign guestworkers instead of trying to attract and retain employees from an ample domestic labor pool of native and immigrant citizens and permanent residents. Guestworkers currently make up two-thirds of all new IT hires, but employers are demanding further increases. If such lobbying efforts succeed, firms will have enough guestworkers for at least 100 percent of their new hiring and can continue to legally substitute these younger workers for current employees, holding down wages for both them and new hires.

"Claiming there is a skills shortage by denying the strength of the U.S. STEM workforce and student supply is possible only by ignoring the most obvious and direct evidence and obscuring the issue with statistical smokescreens – especially when the Census Bureau reports that only about one in four STEM bachelor’s degree holders has a STEM job, and Microsoft plans to downsize by 18,000 workers over the next year."


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

William Mathis on "Economics, Education and Sitting Bull"

"William Mathis is Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, a former school superintendent and member of the Vermont state board of education. In this essay, his opinions and analysis reflect something remarkable about the culture and politics of the State of Vermont. At root, he also asks questions about the nation’s economic policy, equality, and the very purpose of universal public education. ​  


“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

~Sitting Bull

Facing the extinction of Sioux culture, Sitting Bull realized that their hope – their only hope – was in the life they made for their children. Confronted by this reality, he saw that education was something far more than the narrow teaching of a set of test-based, academic skills. Education must impart the knowledge of the ways of the society, of fruitful interactions, of sustaining and nurturing cultural beliefs and rituals, of language and of the economic order, if you will, of a group of independent but related nomadic tribes. (And when the Anglo forces won, they established Indian schools to stamp out this culture).

The existence of any society demands the adoption and embracing of a common set of beliefs, mores, laws and rules. Yet, in a world where vision often reaches no further than the length of an arm holding an electronic screen, such unifying concepts appear as alien and archaic as a buffalo hunt. In times of great fragmentation, in a world which has such massive destructive power, and where hostile forces can easily reach around the globe, the need for national and international cooperation for the common good becomes even more vital.

In a different age with different challenges, our founders understood this necessity. Vermont’s Constitution says that schools must be maintained for the “encouragement of virtue and the prevention of vice.” In the language of the day, virtue meant civic virtue, the building and strengthening of society. Vice was actions that subtracted from the good of all. This resonating and grander purpose of education overshadows the anemic ranking of test scores that obsessively dominates the attention of contemporary reformers. Such simplification also appeals to a media whose own existence is, ironically, reduced to the race for quantifiable rankings, substituting the easily measurable for the important.

The weak narrative of numbers is echoed by U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

The fact is that we are falling further behind our international competitors educationally. In the U.S., we are still just talking about the steps many leading countries are actually taking to prepare their students for a competitive global economy. Falling behind educationally now will hurt our country economically for generations.
Leaving aside his inflated claims, Duncan's is a far smaller vision than Sitting Bull’s. Duncan argues that we should beat other nations; Sitting Bull focuses on people acting together. The Secretary focuses on what we should do for the economy; the Chief concentrates on what we should do together for the children.

The measure of our society is reflected in the health of our schools. The well-being of society can be measured in the quality and the equality of the education we provide all of our children. The United States is one of the very few nations that spend less on needy children than on the affluent. The achievement gap is not primarily a product of low quality schools; it directly mirrors the educational opportunity, educational spending, and economic gaps in our nation. Unfortunately, over the last forty years, the achievement gap has widened. The gap was smallest when our policies focused on building the strength of our schools rather than on just testing them.

Thomas Piketty’s seminal work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, tells us that when the rate of return from invested wealth outruns the rate of growth in production wealth (as now in the U.S.), then democratic society, economic vitality and social justice are threatened. Not surprisingly, those who profit from such an arrangement work to protect their advantage. Unfortunately, wealth inequalities contributed to the 2008 Great Recession and slowed the recovery as lower and middle-income segments of society stagnated. And no Western or industrialized nation has a greater wealth or a greater achievement gap than the United States. Regrettably, the strongest predictor of test scores is not school quality; it is the socio-economic status of the children.

While Vermont does have a high per-pupil cost (which is a topic for another day), the state’s hidden and greatest outcomes for education may not be in our very high test scores as much as in the social indicators: the highest graduation rate, the second highest well-being of children, and low youth risk behaviors. A healthy society is our best return on investment.

As we enter the 2014 election cycle, there will be any number of claims about educational spending accompanied by a blizzard of opaque analyses and exotic extrapolations. Piketty cautions us against reading too much into such elaborate statistical explanations. Often, they are obfuscations masking the shifting of burdens to middle and lower-income citizens – which has the effect of making the problems worse.

Sitting Bull also said, “Inside me are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins, I answer, the one I fed the most.” As for the coming debates, we will certainly hear from the fighting dogs. Then, we choose which dog we feed. Hopefully, we put our minds together to see what life we can make for our children.


William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado Boulder. The views expressed here are his own.

Monday, September 1, 2014

"50 Myths" & the Two Worlds of Public Education

A few people have asked me recently why this blog is called Education in Two Worlds. The reason is because K-12 public education is caught in a political struggle between progressives and conservatives — the "two worlds" — as never before. There are reasons why this is so, and they are the same reasons why Congress is strung up between two worlds and is unable to act, to the chagrin of the vast majority of American voters. In particular, the advent of huge capacity high speed computers and the ready availability of detailed Census data have made the gerrymandering of legislative districts a nightmare for those who believe that politics is the art of compromise. No more: politics has become the art of feeding raw meat to your base so that you can hold onto your seat.

Never was the political struggle in education brought home to me more clearly in a personal way than when Peter Smagorinsky published a review of the book that David Berliner and I and our young Associates wrote this year. We are most grateful to Smagorinsky for the care and insight that went into his look at our book.

It was the comments from the public at the Atlanta Journal Constitution web site that provide the stunning example of how far apart the public is on the major policy issues facing K-12 public education. Below, I present a sample:

  • So it's all just in our minds. A myth, or a series of them, says Smagorinsky. The stories of dysfunctional classrooms your own children bring to the dinner table, the dumbing down of the curriculum and the second rate test results our nation produces ... are just myths. I think most parents wish the organized resistance to reforms such as charter schools was a myth.
  • Thanks for the tip about this book. I will be one who will read it.
  • So in your opinion, we should dumb down our standards so that anyone from anywhere can drop into any Georgia school and graduate. I know of a specific case in our hometown where a student was not going to graduate from the public high school. Solution, he transferred to the local private school and surprise, surprise, surprise, he graduated! One size does not fit all. Our community has rampant welfare "participation", the primary growth industry is EBT card acquisition. Our teachers struggle everyday to overcome apathy towards education yet you believe we should be doing the same things as say, Gwinnett County or how about Washington D.C.? Before you jump on the Common Core bandwagon, you might want to investigate where it is heading. I know, you didn't mention Common Core, but that is the matra of the Grand High Socialist and his administration.
  • Once again, Dr. Smagorinsky hammers it. Thanks, Dr. S. I've just requested the book through interlibrary loan. I so wish that all who are quick to jump on the charter bandwagon and other such regressive, corporate "reforms" would really search the available literature for deeper answers. There are good ideas out there, but turning over our public schools to folks full of ulterior motives and manipulative distortions and lies is not one of them.
  • Lots of "myths" about the schools,but there are also lots of "myths" from the schools: a) There is an efficient,fair process for removing an incompetent or ineffective teacher. b) That there is no self interested bureaucracy that thwarts real reforms in order to maintain their power and position. c) That the dispensing of public monies leads to gross corruption and outright theft and malfeasance such as with the Beverly Hall scandal d) That the largest union in America is the NEA, and the NEA stands foursquare against ANY school reforms that don't expand its power and reach. e) That the system,with all of its conflicts and incestuous political machinations, can reform itself.
  • So, your response to this information that cuts through the propaganda with actual facts and destroys many of the myths being espoused by "reformers" is... Everyone should watch one of the most blatantly obvious pieces of pure propaganda ever produced (waiting for superman). Brilliant.
  • Rent the film "Waiting for Superman" to see what's missing from this article.
  • Too much of the education establishment is only interested in maintaining the existing system that pays their salary and guarantees a fat pension. Thankfully, these feeders at the public trough are not nearly all the teachers and many faithful, talented teachers remain in the profession and in the public schools.
  • Smagorinsky points to a book that spins statistics to allegedly prove that public education doesn't suck.
  • Professor Smagorinsky, the challenged state of our public schools is not a myth. I've seen it firsthand. But in a system where politics and education is inextricably linked, I find myself very concerned if our nation can ever get it right. Not when public education is a microcosm of the never-ending struggle between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian governance philosophies. With no consensus, there is no hope for a solution that our citizens will support in large numbers. And so we have the turmoil we are faced with today - merely a snowball that has been rolling for decades and getting more and more powerful - until it crashes. Have we crashed yet? I hope not.
And the debate goes on and on. One half sees U.S. public education as an abject failure, propped up by the mendacious, greedy, and all-powerful National Education Association. The other half sees it as one of the last institutions in America attempting to protect the common good. No compromise in sight.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Texas Charters Use Occasion of Texas Judge's Decision to Whine About Their Funding

The Texas Charter Schools Association was hoping to get Judge Dietz — who ruled on August 28th that Texas school funding levels were inadequate and unconstitutional — to declare inequitable the $1000 difference between charter and traditional per pupil expenditures. He didn't. He simply ignored their arguments that charter schools should be supported at the same per pupil expenditure as traditional public schools.

The Association whined in a press release the same day. "...the judge got it wrong on specific charter claims, and it's now time for the Texas Supreme Court to get it right," said David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association (TCSA). "Public charter schools have answered the call from parents for more quality education choices and innovative options, but we know that parents aren't willingly choosing to walk away from needed funds for their students. It's unfair to provide the option and not provide the means."

In reality, charter schools are stripped-down, bare-bones, hollow institutions that pay teachers below scale and line the pockets of Education Management companies. The claim that they should be supported at the same level as real public schools is laughable, and yet that argument is made in virtually every jurisdiction that permits them to operate.


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Put a Hold on that Pultizer Prize Until We Answer a Couple of Questions

A Phoenix newspaper, the East Valley Tribune, recently ran an article with the exciting title "BASIS Chandler ranks among world's best in international test." The BASIS charter school company is well known to readers of this blog. The East Valley Tribune article simply oozes with PR flack enthusiasm: "A Chandler charter school has been recognized as being among the best in the world. BASIS Chandler was one of the four BASIS charter schools selected for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Test for Schools. The school didn’t merely take the test but excelled in it, scoring above Shanghai...."

What little of relevance that we can infer from the puff piece is that a group of BASIS Chandler charter school 15-year-olds took the PISA test and their average scores were high — higher even than some entire nations. What is not reported and what is borderline impossible to determine is how many students took the PISA at BASIS Chandler. Well, more than an hour's digging through files at the Arizona Department of Education finally produces some numbers:

    BASIS Chandler charter school enrolled
  • 500 students in Grades K - 8, and
  • 195 students in Grades 9 - 12.
What we also know from past experience with BASIS schools is that many begin but few finish. A couple years ago at BASIS Tucson — the natal BASIS charter and showcase for the company — of the 60 students starting grade 9, only 20 were around to graduate 4 years later. Now if that same attrition rate holds for BASIS Chandler, the World Beater, then we would expect that something of the order of 25 students at BASIS Chandler took the PISA — and smoked the entire population of Shanghai.

So, an honest headline for the editors of East Valley Tribune would read something like this: "Two Dozen Students Get Good Scores on a Test." And next week's headline, should anyone wish to do a follow-up article, could carry the headline: "50 Students at Chandler High School Outscore Two Dozen Students at BASIS Chandler Charter School."


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

K12 Inc. Keeps Trying to Get Its Virtual Charter School into Maine

A 2012 Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of K12 Inc. and Connections Education (Pearson) showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, that the companies recruited board members in the state, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in analyses of student achievement.

In 2013, K12 Inc. settled a federal class-action lawsuit in which some claims, including those alleging K12 Inc. made false statements about student results, were dismissed for lack of merit, while other allegations – that K12 Inc. boosted enrollment and revenues through “deceptive recruiting” practices – were dismissed as part of a $6.75 million settlement to the shareholders.

In April, the NCAA announced that it would no longer accept course work from 24 schools operated by K12 Inc., saying the courses were out of compliance with the NCAA’s nontraditional course requirements.

Earlier this month, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman ordered K12 Inc.-managed Tennessee Virtual Academy to close at the end of this school year unless test scores show dramatic gains, according to The Associated Press.


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

One State Has the Courage to Stand for What It Believes

On August 19th, the Vermont State Board of Education issued a remarkable document. Their "Statement and Resolution on Assessment and Accountability" is a remarkable document, and it is essential reading for educators and politicians in all 50 states. Is it too much to hope that it is the bell wether of a trend?

The members of the Vermont State Board refused to bow to the pressures of fad and federal coercion. They took courageous stands against useless over testing of children and the unfair evaluation of teachers. Here are a few excerpts from their policy paper:

  • Standardized tests do not "...adequately capture the strengths of all children, nor the growth that can be ascribed to individual teachers."
  • "...under high-stakes conditions, when schools feel extraordinary pressure to raise scores, even rising scores may not be a signal that students are actually learning more."
  • "At best, a standardized test is an incomplete picture of learning: without additional measures, a single test is inadequate to capture a years’ worth of learning and growth."
  • "Unfortunately, the way in which standardized tests have been used under federal law as almost the single measure of school quality has resulted in the frequent misuse of these instruments across the nation."
  • "Excessive testing diverts resources and time away from learning while providing little additional value for accountability purposes."
  • "Although the federal government is encouraging states to use value added scores for teacher, principal and school evaluations, this policy direction is not appropriate. ... Thus, other than for research or experimental purposes, this technique will not be employed in Vermont schools for any consequential purpose."
  • "While the federal government continues to require the use of subjectively determined, cut-off scores; employing such metrics lacks scientific foundation. ... Consequently, there is no single point on a testing scale that has proven accurate in measuring the success of a school or in measuring the talents of an individual. Claims to the contrary are technically indefensible and their application would be unethical."
The State Board's "Statement and Resolution" is a remarkably intelligent statement about practices in assessment and accountability. Will it be fobbed off by less courageous states as just one little exceptional place up there in New England? Not really relevant? Peculiar? That would be a shame. Or will it be seen as the knowing and progressive document that it is, worthy of serving as a model for policy statements across the nation?

Watch for the press release on Tuesday.


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Year-Round-Schools? Is anybody really interested in that any more?

Year-Round-Schools were popular back when the Beatles were all the rage. But you don’t hear about them much any more … year-round-schools, that is; you still hear about the Beatles a bit. People were looking for ways to cope with rapid population growth in the 1960s and 1970s. Baby Boomers were advancing through the education system and soon Baby Boomers' children were entering schools. The Boom is over, and population growth is coming from a different demographic sector – one that doesn’t get quite as much audience for complaints about crowded schools. So it was a surprise when a reporter for Education Week called to ask about Year-Round-Schools.
“Why has this topic come up now?”

“Well, both Virginia and Michigan have money in their 2014-2015 budgets that schools can apply for to try a year-round calendar.”

“Do you mean, going to school for the entire year, or just rearranging the 180 days differently.”

“Just rearranging the 180 days.”

“Hmm, that’s surprising ... I mean, that's curious”


Year-Round-Schooling (TRS) came about for a couple reasons. Taxpayers and their school board representatives looked at empty schools from June to September and they knew that the kids were no longer working in the fields so they questioned the poor use of resources. In areas where population was burgeoning and new schools needed to be built, those empty schools for 3 months started to look like an opportunity.

“If we just divided the kids into 4 tracks and staged each track on a 9-week-on and 3-week-off calendar, we would achieve a 25% increase in building use. Instead of building 4 new schools, we would only have to build 3.” Behold: YRS was born.

It all sounded wonderfully economical. But as soon as it starts in any town, problems arise.

The alternative calendars (the 4 tracks) are not equally desirable at the middle school and high school levels. You have the sports teams, and then you have the marching band that has to play during half-time at the football games; and so the athletes and the band have to be in the same track. So the 9-week-3-week track that has the 9-weeks from September to November gets to be a desirable track with all the cool kids in it. But when you have lots of kids wanting in the cool track and nobody wants in the uncool track (like 9-weeks of school from June to August) you have a real problem. You won’t save any space unless the tracks have about equal numbers of kids in them. So you can’t allow free choice of a track; so what you do is allow choice of tracks except that all new kids and transfers into the district are forced into the undesirable track. Now parents start to grumble.

Parental grumbling intensifies when families with more than one child discover that they can’t get all their children on the same track. There are big problems coordinating schedules across elementary, middle, and high schools for multi-child families. Try to plan your family vacation, for example, when one child is in grade 5 on a traditional calendar and the other child is in grade 8 on a YRS calendar.

But that’s not the half of it. When the schools start messing with the traditional 9-month—3-month calendar, they start messing with a host of summer activities that have grown up over the decades and accommodated to the traditional calendar: Boy & Girl Scouts, Boys Club, Girls Club, Cub Scouts, Little League, summer camps of a thousand different kinds – I could go on, but you can supply your own examples.

Eventually, you realize that changing the traditional school calendar is about as impossible as moving a cemetery. But the board and the taxpayers insist, so what happens? The superintendent, the principals, and the teachers are caught in the middle. They have to deal with the myriad complaints and complications. And what is their response? Well, the only thing they have left to argue is that the YRS calendar is a superior form of education! Kids learn more; that’s why we’re doing it. They don’t suffer the horrible learning loss over the three-months summer vacation. Well, doesn’t psychological research prove that distributed practice is better than massed practice? And all those poor children who have turned their brains completely off during the summer have to spend September and October relearning everything they have forgotten so that they can continue with the next stage of learning math or reading or social studies or whatever.

Of course, all this justification that the administrators and teachers are forced to put out is pure poppycock. The psychological research on massed vs distributed practice is on nonsense syllable learning and doesn’t generalize to learning things as complex and messy as school subjects. And furthermore, most of that research was done by college professors who hated that their students ignored their courses during the semester and then crammed for the final.

Also, the idea that school subjects are so tightly articulated across grades that forgetting something during the summer will paralyze you when you try to learn the next level of the subject in September is blatant nonsense. Does reading work that way? Of course not. And does anyone really believe that kids these days don’t read in the summer, or write? Ever hear of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or texting? And if it were true that subjects are so tightly sequenced that you can’t advance to Stage 5 unless you mastered Stage 4 (in social studies?), then we all would have stopped learning anything at about the 6th grade.

And what about the summer learning loss? It’s tiny and insignificant and the only ones pushing it are businesses trying to make a buck off of it by selling books or apps or tutoring services.

So what you have is school professionals caught in the middle between taxpayers trying to reduce costs and parents trying to run a household. What they invent are a bunch of myths and weak arguments hoping to convince parents to put up with the trouble and inconvenience. It seldom works for long. Most places that try YRS give up on it after a few years, say, when the population growth pressure lessens.

One of the few places I have seen YRS tolerated for long was in a super-wealthy suburb of Denver where the families loved taking 4 vacations a year: skiing in the winter, surfing in the summer, Europe in the spring, and New England in the fall.

If YRS is such a fantastic learning experience, why don’t we see it at Choate, Andover, Phillips, et al.?

180 days is 180 days. It doesn’t matter how they are spread out over the year. Now if you are talking REAL YRS, i.e., 365 days a year with weekends off, well, that’s a different matter. But, do you think the country is ready for a 33% increase in the cost of K-12 schooling? Shall we really up the budget from $500 billion to $666 billion?

Now, back to Virginia and Michigan. What’s up there? Why are they putting aside a little money in an attempt to induce a few school districts to try YRS? Sure, they’ll say that it is an experiment on increasing learning and avoiding that horrible gigantic loss of learning over the summer. But color me more suspicious than that.

Many (most?) school teachers have organized their lives so that they have plenty to do over the 3-month summer break. They take jobs at the rec center or the summer camp; they go back to school themselves and work on their Masters or doctorate; they travel with their families. Many will not be willing to give up these things to continue teaching during the summer. Who will step in and help with the teaching? Look for Teach For America to step up. Or better yet, let’s watch and see if the K12 Inc. and Connections/Pearson sales force shows up in Virginia and Michigan with the perfect staffing solution: online line courses!

References

  • Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. 1996. “The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and metaanalytic review.” Review of Educational Research, 66, 227–268.
  • Smith, M. L. & Glass, G. V (1975). Evaluation of Year-Round Schools. Cherry Creek District 5. Educational Report. ERIC Identifier: ED145537.
  • Smith, M. L. & Glass, G. V (1976). Evaluation of Year-Round Schools. Cherry Creek District 5. Second Year Final Report. ERIC Identifier: ED145538.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Follow Up to "50 Myths & Lies"

My co-author, David Berliner, and I were recently interviewed by Larry Ferlazzo as a follow-up to the publication of our recent book 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools. A somewhat shorter version of the interview was published by Education Week and is available there. For those wishing to read a slightly longer version of the interview, it is reproduced below.
Ferlazzo: You make a clear distinction between what you call school myths and hoaxes. Could you elaborate on what you see as the differences between the two, along with providing some examples?

Answer: A hoax is a deliberate attempt to deceive, and is more elaborate than a simple lie. Hoaxes are stories of doubtful veracity, constructed to create a desired opinion in the mind of the hearer. The Piltdown Man was a hoax. American education has not had to contend with many hoaxes, but the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) to privatize our public schools is fertile ground for growing a few hoaxes. Slick TV ads for online charter schools – like those run by K12 Inc., for example — that show smiling children and happy mothers negotiating an education on a laptop on the kitchen table approach the mendacity of a full-blown hoax.

Unlike hoaxes, myths arise from our well-intentioned attempts to understand and generalize our personal experiences. Unfortunately, our personal experience is a poor guide to the creation of general knowledge. We may have held our son or daughter back in the 3rd grade for a second year and the child turned a couple Fs into Cs. When we conclude that retaining children in grade is a beneficial practice, we contribute to the myths of The Benefits of Grade Retention.

Ferlazzo: What do you see as the two or three most dangerous “myths and lies” about schools and why do you think they are so dangerous?

Answer: One myth, we call the grand myth, is a myth from which many others flow. It is the common myth that America’s public schools do poorly compared to other countries. It is fair to say that some of our schools do not do well, but it is a flat out lie to say America’s schools do not do well. Those are two very different claims. On the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS] tests, on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study [PIRLS] test, and on the Program for International Student Assessment [PISA] tests of reading, science and mathematics, public school students in five groups were assessed. One group attended schools where fewer than 10% of the families were in poverty, others attended schools where approximately 10-25% of the families were in poverty, or where 25-50%, 50-75% or over 75% of the families served by the school were in poverty. On each of these three international tests the American public school students in the schools where poverty rates of families were under 10%, or under 25%, did terrific. The approximately 15 million children in these two groups of schools were consistently among the world leaders! Even the middle group, where poverty rates for families was between 25-50%, our public school children did well, that is, above the international average. That means that about 50% of our public schools students, about 25 million children, are doing fine. But others are not. Children in schools here over half the families live in poverty—particularly those children that attend schools with over 75% of the families in poverty, do not do well in school. We run an apartheid-lite system of schooling, where housing patterns determine whom you go to school with and how those schools score on achievement tests. Where poverty rates in schools are low, scores are remarkably high on all three tests. The myth that we cannot compete well in international tests is just that—a grand myth, a meta myth, a destructive myth.

A second myth we see as dangerous has that quality because of what it reveals about too many of America’s politicians and school leaders: it reveals both their ignorance and their cruelty! This is the myth that leaving a child back in grade who is not doing well academically is good for the child. It provides the child with “the gift of time” to catch up. We believe that only ignorant and cruel people would support such a policy, although it is law in about a dozen states, including Arizona and Florida. First of all, a large and quite consistent set of research studies, many of excellent quality, point out that for the vast majority of the children retention in grade has either no benefit, or is detrimental. Only rarely does retention benefit the child who was left back. So the research overwhelming suggests that those who recommend retention are likely to be ignorant. Second, an important piece of the rationale for retention policies is that if you cannot read well by third grade you are more likely to be a school failure. But reading expert Stephen Krashen disputes this, citing research on 12 young students with serious reading problems, dyslexics all. Eleven of the twelve did not learn to read well until they were between 10 and 12 years of age, and one did not learn to read until he was in 12th grade. Among these slow learners, all of whom would have been left back in Florida and Arizona, were nine who published creative scholarly works, and one who became a Nobel laureate. So not doing well by third grade does not determine one’s destiny. Third, the research informs us that retention policies are disproportionately directed at those who are poor, male, English language learners, and children of color. Middle class white children are rarely left back. Fourth, a retention decision changes family dynamics. Parents and siblings change in their treatment of, and aspirations for, the child identified by the school as having “flunked.” Of course, the schools do not say a child is dumb. Instead they offer the children and the families “the gift of time” to catch up. But the world interprets that gift more cruelly. Fifth, being left back is associated with much higher rates of dropping out before completion of high school. Thus, the social costs of this policy go way up since these children are more likely to need assistance in living because of poor wage earning capacity, and there is also the greater likelihood of a higher incarceration rate for people that do not finish school and cannot find decent work. Sixth, when surveyed, children left back say it feels as bad as losing a parent or going blind. It is an overwhelmingly negative event in the lives of the vast majority of the retained children, so leaving them back is cruel as well as a reflection of the ignorance of those who promote these policies. Seventh, and finally, the same costs expended for an extra year of education for the child who is held back, say eight thousand dollars, could more profitably be spent on a more beneficial treatment than repetition of a grade. A certified reading specialist, working twice a week as a tutor throughout the school year and for some part of the summer, would have greater success in improving a child’s academic performance. There is no more powerful treatment than tutoring, and in this case it is cheaper and more humane than is flunking a child. For the seven reasons given, we can think of no education policy that reflects worse on America’s politicians and educators than the policy of retaining students in grade.

Ferlazzo: What are a couple of “myths and lies” that didn’t make the list?

Answer. We didn’t challenge the Common Core State Standards. We were not all against them, though we did think there were some issues with them. Most of all we were concerned with the lies that were told about them. For example, we felt that The Common Core will not raise international test scores because the problem is clearly not our curriculum. Our students who are not in schools that serve large numbers of families in poverty actually do quite well in international competitions—see above—and our Asian students, of any income level do, remarkably well. This means our admittedly uncoordinated curriculum is not at all inadequate. So selling the Common Core as a way to do better on international tests is bogus.

We also felt that the Common Core will not grow the economy, as some have claimed. The economy is a function of the creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship of our workers and company executives, along with tax codes and government incentives. Sadly, it is the many admirable characteristics of young American adults that could easily be killed by an education system built around the Common Core standards and its associated tests. That will occur if the tests of the CCSS tests are little different from those that came before, tests of memorization that promoted little more than coaching of the most mind-numbing type. Further, if high stakes are attached to those tests, as currently demanded by the federal government and most states, the test will be corrupted, as will all the people who work with the tests.

We felt that the Common Core will not create high paying jobs. Investment of capital creates jobs. Contrary to naïve beliefs, merely educating a person does not necessarily create a job for that person, if it did there would be much lower unemployment in many poor nations around the world. In fact, one middle-class job that might be affected negatively by the Common Core is teaching. The salaries of teachers can be driven down with standardization of the curriculum because the job of the teacher becomes more like training and less like educating. Trainers are cheaper to hire than teachers. Further, because of curriculum standardization, the Common Core promotes use of cyber-curricula, making experienced teachers less necessary and certainly less costly.

We felt that the the Common Core may not lead to a more democratic society. While the “rigor” of the CCSS is applauded by many, the application of “rigor” is sometimes used to keep poor and minority students out of college preparatory and AP courses, and to foster dropouts. Rigor is often a code word for discrimination.

We felt that the the Common Core will not reduce the achievement gap. The standards were not written by experienced educators, and so they do not consider the individual needs of students of varying abilities who populate the classes in our public schools. Some students might need to be challenged more, some students need to be challenged with a different curriculum, and there are those who face challenges in learning at the levels expected at each grade. The CCSS do not have much to say about these realities of classroom life.

Furthermore, the testing accompanying the Common Core will limit the states’ abilities to develop unique local curriculum, as promised by the developers of the CCSS. This is likely to occur because teachers and schools will be judged on tests that match the standards not the local curriculum. This likelihood suggests, as well, that the U.S. system of education might end up having more homogeneity in its outcomes than is desirable. If all 50 million or more students are learning the same things, it might be limiting the potential of our nation. Our nation has to deal with a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. To confront such a world we might be better served with a broad spectrum of students’ knowledge and skills than by a narrower set of the type promoted by the CCSSs.

Other myths we might want to do more with include

  • The high school exit exam myth. They might be close to worthless.
  • Single sex classes. More on that has come out. They don’t seem to do much.
  • Readability formulas seem to have lots of bunkum associated with them.
  • Lots more on VAMs—really junk science.
  • And related to VAMs is the weak teacher effect on aggregate scores, as opposed to their powerful effect on individual scores.

Ferlazzo: What is your advice to those who want to fight against these “myths and lies”?

Answer: Become more politically active. Education is often the biggest budget item in states and local districts so unless you are helping to make those decisions education will get screwed, especially by the rich and the old who don’t want to pay taxes, especially for young children of color. Run for school board in your own or in neighboring districts.

Join community organizations that are concerned with the schools: The Lions, Rotary, Elks, the woman’s auxiliary to the Royal Order of Moose, and the like. Make sure that those people know what is going on in the schools.

Refuse to give capricious tests; tell parents to keep their kids home at standardized test time; get more militant: “A profession of sheep will be ruled by wolves.”

Write letters to the editor, op ed pieces, attend political meetings, especially school board meetings when you can, and speak out.

Shame people who say really stupid things, like “teachers are overpaid,” “we have lots of incompetent teachers,” “teachers don’t work hard,” and “poverty is no excuse.” Make fun of them. They deserve that.

Ferlazzo: During my nineteen year community organizing career, we always kept in mind the organizers axiom attributed to Saul Alinsky, “The price of criticism is a constructive alternative.” There’s an ongoing discussion among critics of many present-day “school reforms” about balancing what we’re “against” with what we’re “for.” Though you include some suggestions for better alternatives, I’m curious if you ever considered framing your book as “Fifty Policies That Work” instead of “50 Myths and Lies”? Was your decision to choose the latter for rhetorical, political or other reasons?

Here are just a few of the things we are for: We never wanted to get into policies that work because we are probably better critics than advocates, but also because the single biggest problem we see is a HUGE one. It’s the expansion of the middle class through decent employment, along with the promotion of dignity for workers and their families. That’s more than an educational issue, but that’s what would help our schools a lot. But we are for some particular things, elaborated on next.

What we are for is an enormous change in housing patterns. Putting low-income people with low-income people is apartheid-lite. We need more mixed SES housing.

We are for dual language schools.

We are for higher taxes on the wealthy and some corporations to fund the commons—teachers, police, fire fighters, our army and its veterans, park rangers, and all others who make a democracy work. Decent pay and enormous respect for those who serve the commons gets us higher quality public servants and remarkably low levels of corruption.

We are for an enriched but not an academically pressured childhood. We like play. We invented childhood 150 tears ago—lets not throw it out just because many Asians are willing to.

We are for an inspectorate made up of excellent experienced teachers (perhaps Nationally Board Certified Teachers) to regularly supplement principals visits to classrooms. They should both advise and, if needed, help remove teachers from the classroom. This requires a number of observers, and a number of observations, to reliably assess teachers and is therefore expensive. But it is likely to be less expensive than a court fight over teacher tenure. Professions are partly defined by having the right to police themselves and determine due process. Maybe it’s time to try doing this.

We are for an expansion of the meaning of an education budget. We’d include expansion of high quality early childhood education, summer educational programs that are not just for remediation, paying a part of the budget to local people who run local youth organizations, running after school cross age tutoring programs and after school clubs with paid instructors, such as robotics clubs, school news clubs, and of course sports. Evidence exists that each of these activities helps youth develop in both academic and pro-social ways as they mature.

Ferlazzo: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

Answer: We have written too much already. But we did this book because we want to start a thousand conversations. Public education in the next few decades could be lost if it is not a focus of attention and support. That would be a shame. We always think of Lawrence Cremin when we discuss education. He said that when the history of the United States is written in the middle of the 21st century, and the question is raised about why the US became the dominant power in the world at the end of the 20th century, the answer would be found in the 19th century. It was not inventions like the Gatling gun, cotton gin, steamboat, telegraph or telephone: It was the invention of the common school. We believe that. These schools need to be helped survive the privatization movement both because they work well where poverty is not the killer of achievement that it has become, and because a successful public school system may allow us to keep our fragile democracy.


Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.