It's teacher hunting season!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

If it’s not valid, reliability doesn’t matter so much! More on VAM-ing & SGP-ing Teacher Dismissal

Here is one powerful critique, skewering the logic of the VAM reasoning in teacher "assessment" from School Finance 101: Data and thoughts on public and private school funding in the U.S. Because of its workman/woman virtues I have included the entire post.
If it’s not valid, reliability doesn’t matter so much! More on VAM-ing & SGP-ing Teacher Dismissal [note: VAM: value-added measurement; SGP: student growth percentile] Posted on April 28, 2012
This post includes a few more preliminary musings regarding the use of value-added measures and student growth percentiles for teacher evaluation, specifically for making high-stakes decisions, and especially in those cases where new statutes and regulations mandate rigid use/heavy emphasis on these measures, as I discussed in the previous post.
The recent release of New York City teacher value-added estimates to several media outlets stimulated much discussion about standard errors and statistical noise found in estimates of teacher effectiveness derived from the city’s value-added model. But lost in that discussion was any emphasis on whether the predicted value-added measures were valid estimates of teacher effects to begin with. That is, did they actually represent what they were intended to represent – the teacher’s influence on a true measure of student achievement, or learning growth while under that teacher’s tutelage. As framed in teacher evaluation legislation, that measure is typically characterized as “student achievement growth,” and it is assumed that one can measure the influence of the teacher on “student achievement growth” in a particular content domain.

A brief note on the semantics versus the statistics and measurement in evaluation and accountability is in order.

At issue are policies involving teacher “evaluation” and more specifically evaluation of teacher effectiveness, where in cases of dismissal the evaluation objective is to identify particularly ineffective teachers.

In order to “evaluate” (assess, appraise, estimate) a teacher’s effectiveness with respect to student growth, one must be able to “infer” (deduce, conjecture, surmise…) that the teacher affected or could have affected that student growth. That is, for example, given one year’s bad rating, the teacher had sufficient information to understand how to improve her rating in the following year. Further, one must choose measures that provide some basis for such inference.

Inference and attribution (ascription, credit, designation) are not separable when evaluating teacher effectiveness. To make an inference about teacher effectiveness based on student achievement growth, one must attribute responsibility for that growth to the teacher.

In some cases, proponents of student growth percentiles alter their wording [in a truly annoying & dreadfully superficial way] for general public appeal to argue that:

SGPs are a measure of student achievement growth. Student achievement growth is a primary objective of schooling. Therefore, teachers and schools should obviously be held accountable for student achievement growth.

Where accountable is a synonym for responsible, to the extent that SGPs were designed to separate the measurement of student growth from attribution of responsibility for it, then SGPs are also invalid on their face for holding teachers accountable. For a teacher to be accountable for that growth it must be attributable to them and one must be using a method which permits such inference.

Allow me to reiterate this quote from the authors of SGP:

“The development of the Student Growth Percentile methodology was guided by Rubin et al’s (2004) admonition that VAM quantities are, at best, descriptive measures.” (Betebenner, Wenning & Briggs, 2011)

I will save for another day a discussion of the nuanced differences between statistical causation and inference and causation and inference as might be evaluated more broadly in the context of litigation over determination of teacher effectiveness. The big problem in the current context, as I have explained in my previous post, is created by legislative attempts to attach strict timelines, absolute weights and precise classifications to data that simply cannot be applied in this way.

Major Validity Concerns
We identify [at least] 3 categories of significant compromises to inference and attribution and therefore accountability for student achievement growth:

The value-added estimate (or SGP) was influenced by something other than the teacher alone The value-added (or SGP) estimate given one assessment of the teacher’s content domain produces a different rating than the value-added estimate given a different assessment tool The value-added estimate (or SGP) is compromised by missing data and/or student mobility, disrupting the link between teacher and students. [the actual data link required for attribution]

The first major issue compromising attribution of responsibility for or inference regarding teacher effectiveness based on student growth is that some other factor or set of factors actually caused the student achievement growth or lack thereof. A particularly bothersome feature of many value-added models is that they rely on annual testing data. That is, student achievement growth is measured from April or May in one year to April or May in the next, where the school year runs from September to mid or late June. As such, for example, the 4th grade teacher is assigned a rating based on children who attended her class from September to April (testing time), or about 7 months, where 2.5 months were spent doing any variety of other things, and another 2.5 months were spent with their prior grade teacher. Let alone the different access to resources each child has during their after school and weekend hours during the 7 months over which they have contact with their teacher of record.

Students with different access to summer and out-of-school time resources may not be randomly assigned across teachers within a given school or across schools within a district. And students who had prior year teachers who may have checked out versus the teacher who delved into the subsequent year’s curriculum during the post-testing month of the prior year may also not be randomly distributed. All of these factors go unobserved and unmeasured in the calculation of a teacher’s effectiveness, potentially severely compromising the validity of a teacher’s effectiveness estimate. Summer learning varies widely across students by economic backgrounds (Alexander, Entwisle & Olsen, 2001) Further, in the recent Gates MET Studies (2010), the authors found: “The norm sample results imply that students improve their reading comprehension scores just as much (or more) between April and October as between October and April in the following grade. Scores may be rising as kids mature and get more practice outside of school.” (p. )

Numerous authors have conducted analyses revealing the problems of omitted variables bias and the non-random sorting of students across classrooms (Rothstein, 2011, 2010, 2009, Briggs & Domingue, 2011, Ballou et al., 2012). In short, some value-added models are better than others, in that by including additional explanatory measures, the models seem to correct for at least some biases. Omitted variables bias is where any given teacher’s predicted value is influenced partly by factors other than the teacher herself. That is, the estimate is higher or lower than it should be, because some other factor has influenced the estimate. Unfortunately, one can never really know if there are still additional factors that might be used to correct for that bias. Many such factors are simply unobservable. Others may be measurable and observable but are simply unavailable, or poorly measured in the data. While there are some methods which can substantially reduce the influence of unobservables on teacher effect estimates, those methods can typically only be applied to a very small subset of teachers within very large data sets.[2] In a recent conference paper, Ballou and colleagues evaluated the role of omitted variables bias in value-added models and the potential effects on personnel decisions. They concluded:

“In this paper, we consider the impact of omitted variables on teachers’ value-added estimates, and whether commonly used single-equation or two-stage estimates are preferable when possibly important covariates are not available for inclusion in the value-added model. The findings indicate that these modeling choices can significantly influence outcomes for individual teachers, particularly those in the tails of the performance distribution who are most likely to be targeted by high-stakes policies.” (Ballou et al., 2012)

A related problem is the extent to which such biases may appear to be a wash, on the whole, across large data sets, but where specific circumstances or omitted variables may have rather severe effects on predicted values for specific teachers. To reiterate, these are not merely issues of instability or error. These are issues of whether the models are estimating the teacher’s effect on student outcomes, or the effect of something else on student outcomes. Teachers should not be dismissed for factors beyond their control. Further, statutes and regulations should not require that principals dismiss teachers or revoke their tenure in those cases where the principal understands intuitively that the teacher’s rating was compromised by some other cause. [as would be the case under the TEACHNJ Act]

Other factors which severely compromise inference and attribution, and thus validity, include the fact that the measured value-added gains of a teacher’s peers – or team members working with the same students – may be correlated, either because of unmeasured attributes of the students or because of spillover effects of working alongside more effective colleagues (one may never know) (Koedel, 2009, Jackson & Bruegmann, 2009). Further, there may simply be differences across classrooms or school settings that remain correlated with effectiveness ratings that simply were not fully captured by the statistical models.

Significant evidence of bias plagued the value-added model estimated for the Los Angeles Times in 2010, including significant patterns of racial disparities in teacher ratings both by the race of the student served and by the race of the teachers (see Green, Baker and Oluwole, 2012). These model biases raise the possibility that Title VII disparate impact claims might also be filed by teachers dismissed on the basis of their value-added estimates. Additional analyses of the data, including richer models using additional variables mitigated substantial portions of the bias in the LA Times models (Briggs & Domingue, 2010).

A handful of studies have also found that teacher ratings vary significantly, even for the same subject area, if different assessments of that subject are used. If a teacher is broadly responsible for effectively teaching in their subject area, and not the specific content of any one test, different results from different tests raise additional validity concerns. Which test better represents the teacher’s responsibilities? [must we specify which test counts/matters/represents those responsibilities in teacher contracts?] If more than one, in what proportions? If results from different tests completely counterbalance, how is one to determine the teacher’s true effectiveness in their subject area? Using data on two different assessments used in Houston Independent School District, Corcoran and Jennings (2010) find:

[A]mong those who ranked in the top category (5) on the TAKS reading test, more than 17 percent ranked among the lowest two categories on the Stanford test. Similarly, more than 15 percent of the lowest value-added teachers on the TAKS were in the highest two categories on the Stanford.

The Gates Foundation Measures of Effective Teaching Project also evaluated consistency of teacher ratings produced on different assessments of mathematics achievement. In a review of the Gates findings, Rothstein (2010) explained:

The data suggest that more than 20% of teachers in the bottom quarter of the state test math distribution (and more than 30% of those in the bottom quarter for ELA) are in the top half of the alternative assessment distribution.(p. 5)

In other words, teacher evaluations based on observed state test outcomes are only slightly better than coin tosses at identifying teachers whose students perform unusually well or badly on assessments of conceptual understanding.(p. 5)

Finally, student mobility, missing data, and algorithms for accounting for that missing data can severely compromise inferences regarding teacher effectiveness. Corcoran (2010) explains that the extent of missing data can be quite large and can vary by student type:

Because of high rates of student mobility in this [Houston] population (in addition to test exemption and absenteeism), the percentage of students who have both a current and prior year test score – a prerequisite for value-added – is even lower (see Figure 6). Among all grade four to six students in HISD, only 66 percent had both of these scores, a fraction that falls to 62 percent for Black students, 47 percent for ESL students, and 41 percent for recent immigrants.” (Corcoran, 2010, p.20- 21)

Thus, many teacher effectiveness ratings would be based on significantly incomplete information, and further, the extent to which that information is incomplete would be highly dependent on the types of students served by the teacher.

One statistical resolution to this problem is imputation. In effect, imputation creates pre-test or post-test scores for those students who weren’t there. One approach is to use the average score for students who were there, or more precisely for otherwise similar students who were there. On its face imputation is problematic when it comes to attribution of responsibility for student outcomes to the teacher, if some of those outcomes are statistically generated for students who were not even there. But not using imputation may lead to estimates of effectiveness that are severely biased, especially when there is so much missing data. Howard Wainer (2011) esteemed statistician and measurement expert formerly with Educational Testing Service (ETS) explains somewhat mockingly how teachers might game imputation of missing data by sending all of their best students on a field trip during fall testing days, and then, in the name of fairness, sending the weakest students on a field trip during spring testing days.[3] Clearly, in such a case of gaming, the predicted value-added assigned to the teacher as a function of the average scores of low performing students at the beginning of the year (while their high performing classmates were on their trip), and high performing ones at the end of the year (while their low performing classmates were on their trip), would not be correctly attributed to the teacher’s actual teaching effectiveness, though it might be attributable to the teacher’s ability to game the system.

In short, validity concerns are at least as great as reliability concerns, if not greater. If a measure is simply not valid, it really doesn’t matter whether it is reliable or not.

If a measure cannot be used to validly infer teacher effectiveness, cannot be used to attribute responsibility for student achievement growth to the teacher, then that measure is highly suspect as a basis for high stakes decisions making when evaluating teacher (or teaching) effectiveness or for teacher and school accountability systems more generally.

References & Additional Readings

Alexander, K.L, Entwisle, D.R., Olsen, L.S. (2001) Schools, Achievement and Inequality: A Seasonal Perspective. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 23 (2) 171-191 Ballou, D., Mokher, C.G., Cavaluzzo, L. (2012) Using Value-Added Assessment for Personnel Decisions: How Omitted Variables and Model Specification Influence Teachers’ Outcomes. Annual Meeting of the Association for Education Finance and Policy. Boston, MA. Ballou, D. (2012). Review of “The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from Baker, E.L., Barton, P.E., Darling-Hammong, L., Haertel, E., Ladd, H.F., Linn, R.L., Ravitch, D., Rothstein, R., Shavelson, R.J., Shepard, L.A. (2010) Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. Betebenner, D., Wenning, R.J., Briggs, D.C. (2011) Student Growth Percentiles and Shoe Leather. Boyd, D.J., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J.H. (July, 2010). Teacher layoffs: An empirical illustration of seniority vs. measures of effectiveness. Brief 12. National Center for Evaluation of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. Briggs, D., Betebenner, D., (2009) Is student achievement scale dependent? Paper presented at the invited symposium Measuring and Evaluating Changes in Student Achievement: A Conversation about Technical and Conceptual Issues at the annual meeting of the National Council for Measurement in Education, San Diego, CA, April 14, 2009. Briggs, D. & Domingue, B. (2011). Due Diligence and the Evaluation of Teachers: A review of the value-added analysis underlying the effectiveness rankings of Los Angeles Unified School District teachers by the Los Angeles Times. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from Budden, R. (2010) How Effective Are Los Angeles Elementary Teachers and Schools?, Aug. 2010, available at Braun, H, Chudowsky, N, & Koenig, J (eds). (2010) Getting value out of value-added. Report of a Workshop. Washington, DC: National Research Council, National Academies Press. Braun, H. I. (2005). Using student progress to evaluate teachers: A primer on value-added models. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. Retrieved February, 27, 2008. Chetty, R., Friedman, J., Rockoff, J. (2011) The Long Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value Added and Student outcomes in Adulthood. NBER Working Paper # 17699 Clotfelter, C., Ladd, H.F., Vigdor, J. (2005) Who Teaches Whom? Race and the distribution of Novice Teachers. Economics of Education Review 24 (4) 377-392 Clotfelter, C., Glennie, E. Ladd, H., & Vigdor, J. (2008). Would higher salaries keep teachers in high-poverty schools? Evidence from a policy intervention in North Carolina. Journal of Public Economics 92, 1352-70. Corcoran, S.P. (2010) Can Teachers Be Evaluated by their Students’ Test Scores? Should they Be? The Use of Value Added Measures of Teacher Effectiveness in Policy and Practice. Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Corcoran, S.P. (2011) Presentation at the Institute for Research on Poverty Summer Workshop: Teacher Effectiveness on High- and Low-Stakes Tests (Apr. 10, 2011), available at Corcoran, Sean P., Jennifer L. Jennings, and Andrew A. Beveridge. 2010. “Teacher Effectiveness on High- and Low-Stakes Tests.” Paper presented at the Institute for Research on Poverty summer workshop, Madison, WI. D.C. Pub. Sch., IMPACT Guidebooks (2011), available at Education Trust (2011) Fact Sheet- Teacher Quality. Washington, DC. Hanushek, E.A., Rivkin, S.G., (2010) Presentation for the American Economic Association: Generalizations about Using Value-Added Measures of Teacher Quality 8 (Jan. 3-5, 2010), available at Working with Teachers to Develop Fair and Reliable Measures of Effective Teaching. MET Project White Paper. Seattle, Washington: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 1. Retrieved December 16, 2010, from Learning about Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project. MET Project Research Paper. Seattle, Washington: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved December 16, 2010, from Jackson, C.K., Bruegmann, E. (2009) Teaching Students and Teaching Each Other: The Importance of Peer Learning for Teachers. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 1(4): 85–108 Kane, T., Staiger, D., (2008) Estimating Teacher Impacts on Student Achievement: An Experimental Evaluation. NBER Working Paper #16407 Koedel, C. (2009) An Empirical Analysis of Teacher Spillover Effects in Secondary School. 28 (6 ) 682-692 Koedel, C., & Betts, J. R. (2009). Does student sorting invalidate value-added models of teacher effectiveness? An extended analysis of the Rothstein critique. Working Paper. Jacob, B. & Lefgren, L. (2008). Can principals identify effective teachers? Evidence on subjective performance evaluation in education. Journal of Labor Economics. 26(1), 101-36. Sass, T.R., (2008) The Stability of Value-Added Measures of Teacher Quality and Implications for Teacher Compensation Policy. National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Educational Research. Policy Brief #4. McCaffrey, D. F., Lockwood, J. R, Koretz, & Hamilton, L. (2003). Evaluating value-added models for teacher accountability. RAND Research Report prepared for the Carnegie Corporation. McCaffrey, D. F., Lockwood, J. R., Koretz, D., Louis, T. A., & Hamilton, L. (2004). Models for value-added modeling of teacher effects. Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, 29(1), 67. Rothstein, J. (2011). Review of “Learning About Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from Rothstein, J. (2009). Student sorting and bias in value-added estimation: Selection on observables and unobservables. Education Finance and Policy, 4(4), 537–571. Rothstein, J. (2010). Teacher Quality in Educational Production: Tracking, Decay, and Student Achievement. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 125(1), 175–214. Sanders, W. L., Saxton, A. M., & Horn, S. P. (1997). The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System: A quantitative outcomes-based approach to educational assessment. In J. Millman (Ed.), Grading teachers, grading schools: Is student achievement a valid measure? (pp. 137-162). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Sanders, William L., Rivers, June C., 1996. Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Value- Added Research and Assessment Center. Sass, T.R. (2008) The Stability of Value-Added Measures of Teacher Quality and Implications for Teacher Compensation Policy. Urban Institute McCaffrey, D.F., Sass, T.R., Lockwood, J.R., Mihaly, K. (2009) The Intertemporal Variability of Teacher Effect Estimates. Education Finance and Policy 4 (4) 572-606 McCaffrey, D.F., Lockwood, J.R. (2011) Missing Data in Value Added Modeling of Teacher Effects. Annals of Applied Statistics 5 (2A) 773-797 Reardon, S. F. & Raudenbush, S. W. (2009). Assumptions of value-added models for estimating school effects. Education Finance and Policy, 4(4), 492–519. Rubin, D. B., Stuart, E. A., and Zanutto, E. L. (2004). A potential outcomes view of value-added assessment in education. Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, 29(1):103–116. Schochet, P.Z., Chiang, H.S. (2010) Error Rates in Measuring Teacher and School Performance Based on Student Test Score Gains. Institute for Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Past and Current NYPD Officers, Forum: Current NYPD Policies and Tactics

"From Behind The Blue Wall of Silence"
A Public Forum Featuring Current and Former NYPD Officers
Speaking about Their Experiences on the Job and Presenting
Their Critique of Current NYPD Policies and Tactics.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
LGBT Community Center
208 W. 13th St.
btw. 7th & 8th Aves.
Graham Rayman
Staff Writer for the Village Voice.
Carlton Berkeley
President of Brothers and Sisters Who Care and former NYPD Detective 2nd Grade. 
John Eterno 
Professor at Molloy College and former NYPD Captain. 
Jeff Kaufman 
NYC High School Teacher in Brownsville and former NYPD Officer and Counsel.
Anthony Miranda
Chair of National Latino Officers Association and former NYPD Sergeant.
Colleen Meenan
Practicing attorney, former NYPD Sergeant, former executive director of the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL).

Adhyl Polanco
Current NYPD Officer.
Graham Weatherspoon
Black Law Enforcement Alliance and former NYPD Detective.
         Download the flyer on the event.

Police Reform Organizing Project, Urban Justice Center
123 Williams Street, 16th Floor, New York, NY 10038

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Common Core, Common Fallacies

From eSchool News, "New report IDs problems with international school rankings: Common Core standards also predicted to have little impact on U.S. achievement" from February 17, 2012
eSchool News has a valuable critique of the assumptions behind the Common Core and it makes reference to Brookings Institution study that punctures the hype around the common core curriculum and similar current educational fads.
The opening part of the eSchool News article:
A new report that tackles a number of hot-button education issues argues that U.S. academic performance might not be as poor as originally thought when compared to other countries—and that the Common Core standards might not have the impact many are hoping.
The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education is organized into three sections: Common Core State Standards, achievement gaps in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and international test scores and rankings.
In the report, author Tom Loveless, senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy, notes that education has not yet been an important issue in the Republican nomination campaign and “is unlikely to be a prominent issue in the fall general election,” although the report covers topics that will need presidential attention.
International assessments
The report says educators and policy makers often misinterpret international test scores because of dubious conclusions of causality, rankings, and what Loveless calls the “A+ Country Fallacy.”
The errors are usually committed by advocates of a particular policy position who selectively use data to support an argument, he noted.
For more education reform news, see:
Beyond ‘Superman’: Leading Responsible School Reform
“Dubious causal conclusions” refers to attributing a change in test scores to a particular policy change. The case of Poland is used to illustrate. It accomplished large gains on the PISA reading test. But the theory that tracking reform produced the gains is not supported by the evidence, the report argues.
When it comes to international rankings, Loveless demonstrates how rankings can distort a nation’s relative standing by exaggerating small changes in test scores or the reverse, making large changes appear less significant than they really are.
“Rankings are not equal interval—they differ in various parts of the distribution—so a nation may jump several rankings with a gain that is actually smaller than that of a country whose ranking stays the same,” Loveless notes.

UPDATE: Susan Ohanian has written an important critique on the subservience of educators to the Common Core, endangering libraries:
(Thanks to the Schools Matter blog, "The Common Core: A serious threat to libraries and free voluntary reading," with the tip to the Ohanian critique on what the common core will do to practiced literacy.)
NCTE Allegiance to the Common Core Is Burying Us
[note: National Council of Teachers of English]

NOTE: I tend to be quite tolerant of people holding pedagogies differing from mine: critical, maybe, but tolerant. But the Common Core Curriculum issue isn't about pedagogy. It is about power. Who's in charge? And who's going to lie down and play dead?
My quarrel with various NCTE powerbrokers is not that they and their spouses write textbook series or offer staff development. My quarrel is that they are systematically silencing us, encouraging teachers to accept a systematic de-professionalization. My frustration is with the 99% of NCTE members who allow themselves to be silenced by the 1%.

Wake up, NCTE people. Your dues are paying for your professional destruction.
And if you don't think teachers face a dire emergency, then take a look at the films being shipped out to state departments of education from Hunt Institute Videos. An Albuquerque educator put me on to this, and look what I found for Vermont. You can bet your bippy other states are doing likewise.
In 2009, the Hunt Institute received $5,068,671 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation "to provide state-level policy and communications support to states seeking to rapidly implement the Common Core." In 2011, the Hunt Institute received $500,906 "to create the Hunt Fellows program to develop a strong cadre of state leaders who both care deeply about and have the knowledge and skills to ensure effective policies and practices to support improved educational outcomes." You can see a full list of Hunt Institute partners and collaborators here.
Teachers, ask yourself why NCTE isn't protecting you from David Coleman and his chilling rules for literacy. Kudos to Leslie S. Rush and Lisa Scherff for their editorial in English Education, January 2012. The good news is that they warned readers about Coleman, pointing out that he's offering lessons based on New Criticism tenets hardly suitable to young readers' needs. The bad news is that they failed to give any specific references. Advising readers to do a web search for Coleman is hardly sufficient.
I looked for other NCTE mention of David Coleman. I learned that then-NCTE president Kylene Beers met him. This, too, is woefully insufficient.

That was just the opening. Click here to the get the continuation of Ohanian's piece.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

For a People's Board of Education -Coalition for Public Education, May 5, 2012

Saturday, May 5 - Coalition for Public Education 9:00 am - 5 pm citywide public forum for a People's Board of Education on organizing against mayoral control, DC 37 Headquarters, 125 Barclay St. at the east side of the West Side Highway (A/C/E Chambers St./WTE or 2/3 Park Row) RSVP and register at Click here to download flyers for this event. Please circulate widely.

Whose Schools? Our Schools!!
Parents, Students, Teachers, Education Workers, & ConcernedCommunity Members of New York City...Public education has been under assault by Mayor Bloomberg and hisbig business partners who have turned hundreds of billions of dollarsin public funds over to those seeking private profits!
These attacks are connected and affect all of us!!!For more than 10 years, Mayor Bloomberg 
-through his chancellors and Panel for Educational Policy ( PEP ) -has turned a deaf ear on the protest of parents, students, and educational professionals giving them no say in what happens in public schools.
 For Parents this has resulted in...
Over 100 school closings and counting.
Forced co-locations and the redirection of resources to Charter Schools who often don't serve the same populations.
Continued failure to produce college ready high school graduates; only 13
are college ready for Black and Latino students.

 For students this has resulted in...
Increased class sizes and budget cuts for in school and after school programs.
Continued growth in use of high stakes testing and endless test preparation.
Narrowing of the curriculum; loss of science, humanities, and other electives.
Culturally unresponsive curriculum that doesn't reflect your needs or concerns.
For teachers and educators this has resulted in...
Continued attacks on job security and worker protections.
Mass firings and school shutdowns under the guise of "turnaround schools".
Public shaming and attacking of teachers using discredited teacher data reports
( TDR )
Tying teacher evaluations to high stakes test and arbitrary evaluation criteria.
Continued disappearance of Black and Latino teachers from the profession.
Loss of professional autonomy and the "de-professionalizing" of teaching.
It’s time to organize a citywide fight -back to end Mayoral Control!We are coming together to build a People’s Board of Education made up of parents, students and educators. We can move forward united to build a collaborative   powerbase dedicated to a human rights based education system for all of our children.
YES WE CAN Build a People's Board of Education!!!
Join us at the First People's Assembly for Public Education

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bloomberg Contempt for Special Education; State Legislators Oppose Mayoral Control, Without UFT Push

Anyone seriously noticing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's policies toward special education students gets the idea that he views them as a problem that won't go away. Just read United Federation of Teachers Vice President for Special Education Carmen Alvarez's letter on the mayor's practices.
The Department of Education is rolling out its special education reform to all 1,700 city schools next year. The expectation is that nearly all incoming elementary, middle school and high school students with disabilities will attend the same school they would attend if they didn’t have Individualized Education Programs.
The stated goals of the reform for students with disabilities are to: 1. close the achievement gap; 2. increase access to and participation in the general education curriculum; and 3. build school-based support through greater curricular, instructional and scheduling flexibility. This week the DOE began to put meat on the bones of these lofty statements. It wasn’t pretty.
The real agenda is laid bare in the 50-page “Flexible Programming Guide” [UFT link to DOE document] developed for principals. We’ve been hearing about flexible programming for a couple of years now. The way that it has been explained by the DOE actually made some sense: It called on schools to mix and match special education services based on student needs in various content areas. But my antennae always go up when I hear the word “flexible” as it almost never means anything good. I am sorry to say that my instincts were right.
Reading between the lines, this is the message that the DOE is sending to principals through the examples in the guide:
· Unless the recommendation is for service provided in the general education class, assume the IEP team did not understand the child’s true needs in recommending services.
· Less service is better than more service and push-in service is better than pull-out.
· Schools shouldn’t open self-contained classes even if they have enough students with IEP recommendations to fill them.
· Students with significant behavioral challenges recommended for full-time self-contained classes can be adequately supported in general education classes with counseling during lunch or in class a couple of days a week.
· It is never appropriate to recommend that a student attend another school that can actually provide the services on the student’s IEP.
· Paraprofessional services should be used infrequently and when used, they should be part-time, provided in a group and time-limited.
Let me tell you what is wrong with this picture. Placement decisions, including decisions regarding location of services and intensity of services, are made by the child’s IEP team.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it is impermissible to recommend services based on the availability of the program or personnel, space, budget or administrative convenience.
Yes, IEP teams must consider the least restrictive environment in which the child’s needs can be met and, where possible, students should be served in the schools and classrooms they would attend if they did not have a disability. But if the child’s needs require that the child attend a school other than the school he would attend if not disabled, or that the child receive related services in a therapy room, that is the least restrictive environment for that child.
We have combed the research study that the DOE cites in all of its public presentations and we cannot find support for the DOE’s sweeping conclusions about the academic benefit of serving students with disabilities in general education settings. The research tells us that students who perform several years below grade level require intensive and explicit instruction with ongoing progress monitoring, not a few periods of team teaching or Special Education Teacher Support Services.
Where did this come from? Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez and Special Education Director Lauren Katzman have publicly stated that the purpose of this reform is to increase options for students with disabilities, not to dismantle programs and services recommended by IEP teams or to eliminate special education classes.
Where is the data from Phase I of this reform that shows that the IEP changes outlined in the guide improve student achievement and reduce challenging behavior?
The DOE previewed its plans at the Citywide Council on Special Education meeting in March. Nothing in that presentation suggested that the DOE would be asking schools to make changes in student IEPs of this magnitude.
Is this why they are hiding the guide in a link only available to principals? Why are they saying one thing and doing another? Where is the transparency and accountability?
We can hear their excuses now: “It wasn’t us, we just make policy. It was poorly implemented by the networks.”
Read the UFT's online guide, Special Education Reform. Let us know how this is playing out at your school. File a special education complaint immediately if your principal says self-contained classes have been eliminated, directs you to change IEPs to recommend a particular service, or tells you that you can recommend only services that are available in your building.
If you receive written directives, email them to me at or fax them to my office at 1-212-254-5579. In the meantime, I will work with our partners in the parent and advocacy community as well as our elected officials to stop the doublespeak from the DOE and bring true research-based reform to special education in New York City.

To boot, one should also notice that special education students get last priority in charter school seats.

Is it any wonder that parents are pushing to end mayoral control?
Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (Brooklyn) when speaking yesterday on WWRL AM radio cited parents, not the union (UFT), as the factor that has pushed her to introduce a bill in the New York State legislature to eliminate mayoral control.
Carl Campanile's story in the New York Post, excerpted:
Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblyman Keith Wright (D-Harlem) claim that the 10-year experiment giving City Hall sole power over educational matters has been a failure.
And Montgomery has won the support of the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Westchester), who has signed on as co-sponsor to the measure.

'There’s a lot of support for reversing mayoral control. This bill does that.’ — State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, whose push to repeal mayoral oversight of city schools has the approval of prominent Democratic state Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (above), a co-sponsor of the measure

The mayoral control law is not up renewal until June 30, 2015. But under their bills, the two legislators call for overhauling the law this year.
“There’s a lot of support for reversing mayoral control and creating a more independent board in terms of setting educational policy and hiring the chancellor. This bill does that,” Montgomery said.
. . .
But it’s precisely these changes that the lawmakers cite in fueling their bid to roll back mayoral control. Both Montgomery and Wright have opposed school closings and co-locating charter schools in facilities with traditional public schools.
“It’s been a very unpopular process having this top-down decision-making with no one able to weigh in. Having a singular authority with total power on all the decisions has not worked out for all of the children,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery’s bill would strip the mayor’s control over school policy by cutting his appointments to the 13-member citywide school board in half, from eight to four members. The City Council would appoint four members and the borough presidents one apiece.
And the board, rather than the mayor, would select the chancellor.

Read more at the Post.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

PBS interview: Pulitzer: Rampant School Violence Covered Up in Philadelphia

PBS News Hour Transcript (April 16, 2012) opening excerpt:


JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, the 2011 Pulitzer Prizes were announced this afternoon.
. . .
Among the journalism awards: David Wood of The Huffington Post won for national reporting. He chronicled the struggles of wounded war veterans when they return home. And the Public Service Award went to a team at The Philadelphia Inquirer that investigated pervasive violence in the city's schools.

And we're joined by one of the members of that team of reporters, Kristen Graham.

Kristen, first, congratulations.

KRISTEN GRAHAM, The Philadelphia Inquirer: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, set the scene a little bit for us. How did you and your colleagues first get on to this story?

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Well, we decided to do the story after an incident at a Philadelphia high school in December of 2009 when a group of Asian immigrant students were severely beaten. It was a racially motivated beating.

And the school district response really was very lukewarm at first. And advocates throughout the city were sort of saying, how could this happen? And we decided that we were going to devote resources into looking into a pervasive culture of violence in the Philadelphia School District.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, when you say pervasive culture of violence, tell us a little bit about that means. What kind of violence are we talking about, what ages of the students? What were you seeing?

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Well, in some cases, students as young as elementary school, even kindergartners, were both victims of violence and committing violent acts.

We really saw a lot of violence at the high school level. In one particularly disturbing case, there was a group of students who went basically from room to rooms looking for their victim. And this happened in plain sight. Teachers, principals all allowed it to happen. We also found widespread under-reporting throughout the system.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that, I gather, was an important piece of this, the unreported element of it. Why was that going on? I mean, was this about keeping the numbers down, or what did you find?

KRISTEN GRAHAM: In many cases, it was about keeping the numbers down.

There's really a disincentive. When we did the series, it was up to school officials to report their own violence. And, obviously, it didn't reflect well on them if they showed violence. And so we found that many officials were just not reporting incidents, that the district simply never found out about it. No one was ever punished.

So it was really quite an issue in many schools.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that includes the teachers not reporting anything in some cases. . .

KRISTEN GRAHAM: It was the responsibility of the administrators to report the violence. And now, since the series, that's changed. It's up to school police to report.

JEFFREY BROWN: So then the question became, I'm sure, for your readers whether authorities at all levels were doing enough to stop the violence.

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Absolutely. Absolutely.

And we heard from many readers and, you know, certainly most poignantly from victims of violence that they felt enough wasn't being done. There's a new administration in the School District of Philadelphia. And they've taken a more serious approach to school violence. They have come out with some different regulations. And so they say they're taking it more seriously than their predecessors.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that -- I noted the Pulitzer citation said that your team's reporting -- quote -- "brought reform and improved safety for students and teachers."

So, tell us a little bit about how that happens. You do a series. It sparks debate and controversy in the city. And what happens? What happened in your case?

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Well, in our case, shortly after -- a few months after the series came out, there was a new administration in Philadelphia. And so the new school reform commission -- they're the governing body of the School District of Philadelphia -- came in and put in some reforms.

The district had put in reforms after the series came out as well, so it was really kind of in parts. It didn't happen immediately, but it's happened incrementally. And we hear anecdotally that things are improving.

Read complete interview with Kristen Graham of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Thursday, April 12, 2012

It's Christmastime in Apr. with Money Showers on Charter School Administrations

Budget tightening? On equipment, supplies, staff in the regular public schools?

No fear. That cannot hold back the spending spree on charter schools and their administrative costs. And guess what?: they spend more on administration and less per pupil than do regular district schools. How's that "working free of bureaucratic strings" workin' for ya?

Mary Ann Giordano, writing "Study Finds Higher Charter School Spending on Administration" in the New York Times, April 11, 2012 reported:

Critics of charter schools have been raising more questions lately about the financial aspects of the schools and the networks that run them. An analysis of the mayor’s proposed budget for the next school year seems to indicate that the city will spend $51 million to open more than two dozen new charter schools, even as the city Department of Education faces a deficit that will result in cuts to other services and, at the very least, flat spending for city schools.

Now comes a study of charter school spending in Michigan, as Sean Cavanaugh reports in his Charters & Choice blog in Education Week, that indicates elevated spending on administrative costs in charter schools.

The study, released by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, at Teachers College, Columbia University, examines school spending in Michigan and concludes that charter schools spend more per-pupil on administration and less on instruction than traditional public schools, even when controlling for enrollment, student populations served, and other factors.

Specifically, “they found that charters spend $774 more per pupil on administration, and $1,140 less on instruction, than do traditional publics.”

Why? The authors of the study speculate that charters spend less on teacher salaries than do public schools, which are usually unionized. Their teaching staff is often less experienced and therefore has lower salaries.

“Charters’ outsized administrative spending … is simultaneously matched by exceptionally low instructional spending,” the study says. “If one were searching for a contemporary reform to shift resources from classroom instruction to adminiitration, it is hard to imagine one that could accomplish this as decisively as charter schools have done in Michigan.”

The study is likely to energize the critics of charters in the city, especially as the budget process moves forward and the actual costs of opening more charters becomes more clear.

Gotham Schools picked up on a city news release on Tuesday, reporting that:

One of the Department of Education’s longest-serving top deputies is leaving — but he won’t be going far.

The city announced late Monday that Michael Best, the department’s chief lawyer since 2004, would return to City Hall, where he was a top deputy to Mayor Bloomberg at the beginning of the mayor’s tenure. Now, he will be counselor to the mayor, a position that is being vacated by the new pick for president of New York Law School.

Best’s replacement at the DOE, Courtenaye Jackson-Chase, has been at the department for more than half a decade. Chancellor Dennis Walcott promoted her to become Best’s second in command last May during a slew of leadership appointments a month into his tenure.

See last Wednesday's April 11, 2012 New York Times Schoolbook page to get the full article with all of its links.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Shock Doctrine, Manufactured Education Crisis and Media's Distorted Portrayal of American Education

Naomi Klein wrote one of the last decade's classics and so doing, coined a term, "shock doctrine." In her book of that title she wrote of policy makers' manufactured crises which they ratchet up in the effort to push a particular policy. While she wrote of the shock doctrine to shock polities to support aggressive neo-liberal fiscal policies, the concept can apply to other contexts as well. Take, for example, the media-drumbeat for war, with the false charge of Iraqi responsibility for the September 11 attacks and the false charge of the stock-piling of weapons of mass destruction.
The shock doctrine applies to the current "education crisis." Step one: relentlessly paint a portrait of utter failure in education. Cast public educators as the culprit in the problem. Sept two: irresponsible journalists fail to ask probing questions to confirm the veracity of the claim of such an education crisis. Step three: journalists and media play a public theater performance of acting as though they are so astute in discerning an education crisis, and that they are doing the public a favor of informing them of the alleged crisis, and they parrot the politicians' prescriptions for private, "market-based" remedies for the so-called crisis.

But as Paul Farhi wrote in "Flunking the Test," in the February/March edition of the American Journalism Review, this idea of an education crisis is a mythic one. And many in the media are gullibly asking too few questions of the so-called conventional wisdoms.

Flunking the Test, Fri., March 30, 2012.
The American education system has never been better, several important measures show. But you’d never know that from reading overheated media reports about “failing” schools and enthusiastic pieces on unproven “reform” efforts.
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi ( is a reporter for the Washington Post.

Fareed Zakaria is worried about the state of American education. To hear the CNN host and commentator tell it, the nation's schools are broken and must be "fixed" to "restore the American dream." In fact, that was the title of Zakaria's primetime special in January, "Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education." Zakaria spent an hour thumbing through a catalog of perceived educational woes: high dropout rates, mediocre scores by American students on international tests, inadequate time spent in classrooms, unmotivated teachers and their obstructionist labor unions. "Part of the reason we're in this crisis is that we have slacked off and allowed our education system to get rigid and sclerotic," he declared.
This is odd. By many important measures – high school completion rates, college graduation, overall performance on standardized tests – America's educational attainment has never been higher. Moreover, when it comes to education, sweeping generalizations ("rigid and sclerotic") are more dangerous than usual. How could they not be? With nearly 100,000 public schools, 55 million elementary and secondary students and 2.5 million public school teachers currently at work in large, small, urban, suburban and rural districts, education may be the single most complex endeavor in America.

Zakaria's take, however, may be a perfect distillation of much of what's wrong with mainstream media coverage of education. The prevailing narrative – and let's be wary of our own sweeping generalizations here – is that the nation's educational system is in crisis, that schools are "failing," that teachers aren't up to the job and that America's economic competitiveness is threatened as a result. Just plug the phrase "failing schools" into Nexis and you'll get 544 hits in newspapers and wire stories for just one month, January 2012. Some of this reflects the institutionalization of the phrase under the No Child Left Behind Act, the landmark 2001 law that ties federal education funds to school performance on standardized tests (schools are deemed "failing" under various criteria of the law). But much of it reflects the general notion that American education, per Zakaria, is in steep decline. Only 20 years ago, the phrase was hardly uttered: "Failing schools" appeared just 13 times in mainstream news accounts in January of 1992, according to Nexis. (Neither Zakaria nor CNN would comment for this story.)

Have the nation's schools gotten noticeably lousier? Or has the coverage of them just made it seem that way?

Some schools are having a difficult time educating children – particularly children who are impoverished, speak a language other than English, move frequently or arrive at the school door neglected, abused or chronically ill. But many pieces of this complex mosaic are quite positive. First data point: American elementary and middle school students have improved their performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995; they are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something that few news reports mention). Second data point: The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse. All told, America's long-term achievements in education are nothing short of stunning.

As the son and husband of schoolteachers, I can't say I'm unbiased on this subject. But as a journalist, I can't help but see the evident flaws in some of the reporting about education – namely, a lack of balance and historical context, and a willingness to accept the most generic and even inflammatory characterizations at face value. Journalists can't be faulted for reporting the oftentimes overheated rhetoric about educational "failure" from elected officials and prominent "reformers" (that's what reporters are supposed to do, after all). But some can certainly be faulted for not offering readers and viewers a broader frame to assess the extent of the alleged problems, and the likelihood that the proposed responses will succeed.

Check out some of the 544 articles that mentioned "failing schools" in January; they constitute an encyclopedia of loaded rhetoric, vapid reporting and unchallenged assumptions. In dozens and dozens of articles, the phrase isn't defined; it is simply accepted as commonly understood. "Several speakers said charter schools should only be allowed in areas now served by failing schools," the Associated Press wrote of a Mississippi charter school proposal. The passive construction of the phrase is telling: The schools are failing, not administrators, superintendents, curriculum writers, elected officials, students or their parents.

The running mate of "failing schools" in education stories is "reform." The word suggests a good thing – change for the sake of improvement. But in news accounts, the label often is implicitly one-sided, suggesting that "reformers" (such as proponents of vouchers or "school choice") are more virtuous than their hidebound opponents. Journalists rarely question the motives or credentials of "reformers." The Hartfort Courant hit the "reformer-failing schools" jackpot when it reported, "Like most people seeking education reform this year..the council wants policies that assure excellent teaching, preschool for children whose families can't afford it, and help for failing schools."

One reason schools seem to be "failing" so often in news accounts is that we simply know more than we once did about student performance. Before NCLB, schools were measured by averaging all of their students' scores, a single number that mixed high and low performers. The law required states to "disaggregate" this data – that is, to break it down by race, poverty and other sub-groups. One beneficial effect of the law is that it showed how some of these groups – poor children and non-English speakers, for example – lag children from more privileged backgrounds. But rather than evidence of a "crisis," this new data may simply have laid bare what was always true but never reported in detail.

What or who was responsible for the poorest performing schools? Quite often, news media accounts have pointed the finger at a single culprit – teachers. In late 2008, Time magazine featured the District of Columbia's then-School Chancellor Michelle Rhee on its cover wielding a broom to symbolize her desire to sweep out underperforming instructors. The magazine endorsed her approach not just as prudent but as scientific: "The biggest problem with U.S. public schools is ineffective teaching," wrote reporter Amanda Ripley, citing "decades of research." This view – a favorite of wealthy education "reformers" such as Bill Gates and real estate developer Eli Broad – was also a theme in the critically adored documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which featured Rhee.

But like "failing schools" and "crisis," the phrase "ineffective teachers" has become media shorthand (it appeared 136 times in news accounts during January alone, Nexis says). And given the many factors that affect learning, it also looks like scapegoating. NPR's Tovia Smith, for example, concluded her story in early March about a program that holds back third graders who are having trouble reading this way: "As another academic put it: This policy flunks kids for failing to learn, but given how widespread the problem is, maybe it's the school that should flunk for failing to teach."

The notion that education is in "crisis" – that is, in a moment of special danger – is another journalistic favorite. While few reporters ever mention it, anxiety over the nation's educational achievement is probably older than the nation. Zakaria's concern that American students aren't being prepared for the modern workforce echoes the comments of business leaders at the turn of the century – the 19th century. Then as now, they worried that schools weren't producing enough educated workers for an economy undergoing rapid technological change.

Nor are the fears that international competitors are bypassing us without precedent. Five months after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in October 1957, Life magazine contrasted the rigorous academic workload and extracurricular activities of a Moscow teenager (physics and chemistry courses, chess club) with the carefree lifestyle of a Chicago schoolboy (sock hops and soda shop dates with his girlfriend). The cover line: "Crisis in Education." Cold War worries gave way to fears that Japan was gaining on us in the 1980s; the Reagan-era education reform manifesto "A Nation at Risk" warned that "a rising tide of mediocrity" was threatening "our very future as a nation and a people."

"The idea that we have a crisis in American education, that there is pervasive failure, starts with policy makers," says Pedro Noguera, the eminent education researcher and New York University professor. "This is the line we hear in D.C. and in state capitals. There are certainly areas in which we're lacking, but when you report it that way, it doesn't at all acknowledge the complexity of the situation [and] where we're doing quite well. The discussion is quite simplistic. I'm not sure why exactly. My suspicion is that the media has trouble with complexity."

Noguera praises some of the journalism about education, such as work by the New York Times and NPR, two outlets that have full-time, veteran reporters covering the subject. He also noted a "Dan Rather Reports" program on the little-seen HDNet channel last year that explored the link between school performance and poverty, a subject often ignored or noted only in passing in many stories about academic achievement.

The news media's general portrayal may help explain a striking disconnect in public attitudes about public education. Since 1984, a year after the publication of "A Nation at Risk," the Gallup Organization has asked parents to assess their local schools, and the public to rate schools generally. In 2011, the percentage of parents who gave their children's school an A grade was at its highest ever (37 percent), whereas only 1 percent of respondents rated the nation's schools that way. Why the disparity in perceived quality? Gallup asked people about that, too. Mostly, it was because people knew about their local schools through direct experience. They only learned about the state of education nationally through the news media.

The leading, or at least most widely viewed, source of education reporting is NBC News, which covers the topic on multiple programs and platforms – "NBC Nightly News," the "Today" show, MSNBC and Telemundo, among others. It is the only commercial broadcast network to employ a full-time education reporter, Rehema Ellis. NBC is so devoted to education reporting that in 2010 it began branding its coverage under its own banner, "Education Nation." It has also gone beyond mere reporting by hosting an annual education "summit" that last fall brought together 10 governors, former President Bill Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush, educators and other dignitaries at its Rockefeller Center headquarters to discuss ways to improve education.

"We've really tried to put a very bright spotlight" on this topic, NBC News President Steve Capus said in an interview. "We felt the subject matter was important, and it wasn't getting as much attention as it deserved." Result? Capus, who used to cover school board meetings in the Philadelphia area as a young stringer, proudly points to an Aspen Institute study showing that one in five Americans has heard of "Education Nation" and almost one in 10 has seen some of its reporting.

But while "Education Nation" occasionally escapes the "crisis-in-education" paradigm, its gaze is squarely on perceived flaws and, yes, failing schools. "America's public school students are struggling," said Ellis, beginning a "Nightly News" story during the NBC-sponsored summit in September. The segment included an NBC-commissioned poll showing widespread public dissatisfaction with public schools. Gallup's multiyear findings on the same topic weren't mentioned.

In the past six months, NBC has done "Education Nation" stories on online public schools; on the success of Shanghai's students on an international exams; on "unschooling" (a less structured version of home-schooling); and on a "wave" of new "parent trigger" laws that allow parents to petition for dramatic changes in "troubled" local schools, including firing teachers (in fact, only three states have enacted such laws).

Yet NBC and "Education Nation" have rarely looked closely at the effect of poverty and class, the single greatest variable in educational achievement. Academic research has shown for many years that poor children, or those born to parents who are poorly educated themselves, don't do as well in school as better-off students. More recent work by, among others, Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University, suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children has grown wider since the 1960s, reflecting in part the nation's growing economic disparity. The problem is vast – some 22 percent of American children live in poverty, the highest among Western democracies.

Instead, NBC has concentrated on initiatives favored by self-styled education reformers. The network has been particularly generous to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting teacher merit pay proposals and privately run charter schools – an agenda strongly opposed by many public school teachers, labor unions and educators. (Zakaria also featured Bill Gates on his CNN special.)

During its first "Education Nation" summit in 2010, for example, "NBC Nightly News" aired a profile of a Gates Foundation initiative, "Measures of Effective Teaching," which seeks to create a database of effective teaching methods. The reporter was former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. During the second summit last fall, Brokaw showed up on "Today" with Melinda Gates to discuss the same Gates initiative. Turning from reporter to advocate, Brokaw told host Natalie Morales, "So what Bill and Melinda have done, and it's a great credit to them, and it's a great gift to this country, is that they have taken the kind of episodic values that we know about teaching and they've put them together in a way that everyone can learn from them. So that's a big, big step."

Brokaw also put his gravitas behind Gates and other billionaire education reformers in a syndicated column that appeared in newspapers during the NBC summit in 2011, writing that "Entrepreneurs and captains of industry such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, home building tycoon Eli Broad, hedge fund billionaires in New York's Robin Hood Foundation, have put education reform and excellence at the top of their personal and financial agenda." Brokaw didn't mention the objections to these "reforms" from teachers, nor ask why billionaires should be accorded expert status on education policy in the first place.

(An NBC spokeswoman declined to make Brokaw and Ellis available for comment, saying that the story sounded "negative.")

NBC News does more than just report on the "reform" movement; it's also in business with those who are promoting it. Among the corporate sponsors of its "Education Nation" summits are the for-profit education company University of Phoenix, the book publisher Scholastic Inc. and...the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Remember that Aspen Institute study showing broad public awareness of NBC's "Education Nation" efforts? It was funded by the Gates Foundation.

Capus says such a relationship doesn't pose a conflict of interest for the network's journalists because an editorial "firewall" prohibits sponsors from influencing coverage. Nevertheless, representatives of each of these sponsors, including Melinda Gates and Scholastic Senior Vice President Francie Alexander, have appeared repeatedly on "Today" and "NBC Nightly News" to discuss various education proposals and ideas (their financial connection to NBC News has never been disclosed on the air, according to a Nexis search). Meghan Pianta, an NBC spokeswoman, defended using the billionaire couple as a news source because of their "prominence and importance in the education debate."

Some teachers, on the other hand, can't help feeling that the network has stacked the deck in favor of the "reform" agenda. NBC's approach "is beneficial to those who promote privatizing schools, those who peddle tests and tests to prepare for tests, and curriculum based on tests to prepare for tests," wrote Randy Turner, an English teacher in Joplin, Missouri, on The Huffington Post last fall, as he watched the network cover its own summit. "It is also beneficial to those whose chief goal is to eliminate unions of all kinds, including those representing teachers."

On a more prosaic level, veteran education reporters say they face a simple yet profound barrier to doing their job: It's hard to get inside a classroom these days. They say administrators are wary about putting potential problems on display, particularly in the wake of No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration's initiative, Race to the Top.

"School systems are crazed about controlling the message," says Linda Perlstein, author of two books about schools and, until recently, public editor of the Education Writers Association. "Access is so constricted." As a result, she says, "There's great underreporting of what happens in classroom, and it's just getting worse."

Perlstein spent three school years in classrooms to report a series about middle school for the Washington Post in 2000, and for her books, "Not Much Just Chillin'" (about middle schoolers in Columbia, Maryland) and "Tested" (about high-stakes tests). But Perlstein says other reporters were never able to gain similar access to other schools, including those in Washington, D.C., where the reform efforts of former Schools Chancellor Rhee attracted national attention.

Even with a cooperative principal or school superintendent, few reporters could make the lengthy commitment that Perlstein did in her reporting. That means journalists don't get to see the very thing they're reporting about. Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally. Some districts even forbid teachers from speaking to the media on the record outside the classroom.

What to do? "You rely more and more on talking heads and less on what a school looks like," Perlstein says. She adds, "That matters." Ironically, superintendents and administrators "always tell me that the media gets it wrong. Well, how can we get it right when they won't talk to us?"

This compels education journalists to talk to secondary sources: administrators and bureaucrats, labor leaders, politicians and the occasional billionaire. Not necessarily a bad thing, since at the moment, there are perhaps a dozen ideas (tenure reform, vouchers, charter schools, teacher accountability, etc.) floating around and plenty of disagreement about how or whether to implement them.

But pronouncements and policy nostrums often don't get the checking they deserve. "Some reporters don't do enough to synthesize and explain the wealth of peer-reviewed research available on the proposals being batted around," says Jessica Calefati, an up-and-coming education reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark. For example, if a school district or a state is pushing for teacher merit pay, it behooves a reporter to point out that few studies link merit pay with increased student achievement, she says. Some reporters, says Calefati, "gloss over the nuance."

Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss goes much further, giving her media colleagues an F for legwork. "The mainstream media has failed to do due diligence [on the school reform agenda] for over a decade," she says. "They bought into the rhetoric of school reform and testing" mandated by No Child Left Behind. As for President Barack Obama's proposed Race to the Top initiatives, Strauss faults the news media for failing to ask whether "the rhetoric matches the practice. There's nothing new under the sun. Some of the things that didn't work 30, 40 or 50 years ago still don't work....We've taken as truth whatever Bill Gates says."

Strauss points out that leading Democrats, such as Obama, and Republicans have both embraced school choice and charter schools to some degree. This unusual political comity has led some mainstream outlets to position "reform" as a centrist, bipartisan idea, she says. There are a few consistently skeptical voices – she mentions New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip, and I'd mention Strauss – but for the most part, she says, the media have romanticized reform figures like Gates and Rhee, and the KIPP Schools, the darlings of the private charter movement.

"The mainstream media hasn't been digging," Strauss asserts. "Generally, reporters have gone along with the reform of the day. Well, I've got news for you: It's much more complicated than that."

4.5.12 – Teachers for Trayvon this Thursday

Thursday April 5th

Trayvon Martin’s tragic killing has brought thousands into the street to demand justice for his family. Justice for Trayvon Martin means justice for all who are targeted because of the color of their skin.

In New York City schools, our students know racial profiling all too well. Many of our students, just by being Black or Latin@, are treated like criminals every single day – in stores, on the street and increasingly in our schools.
We must stand up against racism before it’s too late.

This Thursday, New York City teachers are calling on educators to:

wear hoodies to work this Thursday,

wear stickers that stand up to injustice; and/or

speak with co-workers and students about Trayvon Martin and the larger issues surrounding his tragic story.

Encourage members of your school community to do the same.

Facebook Event Page:

Click on the following links for slogans for your stickers that you can use:

TeachersforTrayvonStickers (pdf)

Teaching about Trayvon:

NYCoRE opened up a wiki page on its teaching and learning page specifically for addressing these issues. We are seeking out more examples from the community. If you want to add a lesson, resources, or description of what you did in your own communities please become a member of the wiki page, or email