Class Warfare Blog

April 25, 2014

Why All of the Lies on the Right?, Part 2

When I wrote the post “Why All of the Lies on the Right?” (Part 1) a couple of days ago I left an important bundle of lies out because it would have made that post way too long, namely those were the attacks of the right going back several decades on public education. I believe that free and public education (of the people, by the people, for the people) is a cornerstone of our democracy and if we lose it, we might well be doomed as a viable political entity, so this is a very important topic.

So, what are these lies? Here is a partial list:

1. Student achievement in American primary schools has recently declined.

2.  American college students’ performance has likewise declined.

3.  The intellectual abilities including abstract problem-solving skills of American young people have recently declined.

4.  Schools in the U.S. come in far behind the performance of some schools in other countries.

5.  The U.S. spends a lot more money on schools than other countries do.

6.  Investing in schools has not brought success; actually there is no relation between spending and performance.

“Why are these lies being repeated over and over such that many people now believe they are true?”

7.  Recent increases in school spending have been wasted on administration and raises for teachers.

8.  The productivity of American workers is deficient which reflects the inadequate training they receive in our public schools.

9.  The U.S. produces far too few scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to meet its needs (the so-called STEM crisis).

10.  Our teachers aren’t qualified and/or are incompetent.

11.  Our textbooks teach immorality.

12.  Private schools are inherently better than public schools\13. Private schools outperform public schools.

13. Poverty is not an excuse, good teachers can overcome the effects of student poverty.

… there’re more, but I think my point has been made. All of the above statements are false (yes, even the STEM crisis one). I won’t go into why or how they are false as these can be easily researched with simple Google searches. I call them lies because these have been used over and over by politicians on the right, even after they have been discredited by studies. If you, as a politician, are going to advocate education policy, you damned well better know the facts.

Why are these lies being repeated over and over such that many people now believe they are true?

“How can a chronically underfunded non-profit effort (even more so because of the Great Recession) be made better by extracting profits from that enterprise?”

Since the effort is politically motivated, we must follow the money. There are billions and billions of dollars to be made by private entities (charter schools, private schools, textbook companies, testing companies, etc.) replacing public ones. This has already begun in several states when the public coffers have been opened wide to the raiding of corporations to solve problems that do not exist. Many of these efforts have been made immune to labor laws and public accountability laws (meaning they don’t have to account for the money they spend). And I have yet to hear a viable answer to my question: how can a chronically underfunded non-profit effort (even more so because of the Great Recession) be made better by extracting profits from that enterprise?

So, in the morality of conservatives includes “lies are fine as long as money can be made off of them” and “undermining our democracy is okay as long as a profit is made in doing so.” Maybe it is not the textbooks that are undermining the morality of our students, maybe it is the Conservatives.

August 27, 2013

The Role of Public Education in the Success or Failure of the U.S.

You are probably aware that the idea of a modern democratic state began with the foundation of the U.S.A. Prior to that, countries were ruled by monarchies or occasionally by oligarchies. A pillar of our experiment (and if you do not think it is an experiment, an experiment that can fail, you have not had your eyes open for the last forty years) was an equally novel idea—compulsory public education.

If, in the mid-18th Century when the U.S. was founded, there was a single country that thought it a good idea to educate all of its citizens, I am not aware of it. And this was not something that sprang out of the minds of the Founding Fathers and was implemented by fiat. Progress toward “compulsory” education was slow. Yes, there was and is a compulsion. (I can’t wait until the Tea Party gets wind of this. If they think compulsory health insurance is the work of the Devil, when they figure out that public education, including Evolution instruction, is compulsory, hoo boy!) You and your children were and are required to attend school until you reach a certain level of accomplishment or a certain age.

Our entire economy is dependent on having an “educated” workforce. Janitors, who were often illiterate in the not too distant past, are now required to read MSDS’s (Material Safety Data Sheets) that describe the hazards of the chemicals with which they clean their work sites. These are not written at a fourth grade level, folks. We think nothing of this ability of our janitors to read . . . now.

Setting aside the utility of this process (education has been proven over and over to be a boon for the economy) consider that we are currently reversing this trend without any kind of national debate or plan of action developed by and through the people.

In the mid-1800’s a large number of “land grant” colleges sprung up (particularly in the West) focused on training engineers, scientists, teachers, and other practical “middling” sorts. The elite universities of the East found this appalling that “Universities” would be teaching practical arts, to the extent that a Bachelor of Arts diploma was consider superior to a Bachelor of Science diploma (as some still do today). In the West, it is not surprising that the Bachelor of Science degree was considered superior (hey, it had higher requirements).

But the egalitarian nature of education was not at all complete until even a college education was available to most criticizes. When I entered college in 1964, my home state of California was opening a new community (two-year) college once a week for almost six months. Currently there are over 100 community colleges (often called junior colleges) in California, and virtually every citizen is within a reasonable commute distance to one of these colleges. They are not only in geographical reach but they used to be within financial reach, also. That has been the historical trend in our little experiment. More and more education to the point where most young people today assume they will be going to college as a good and necessary thing.

So, is our historic experiment in democracy and educating our citizenry at risk? I think so.

Setting aside the utility of this process (education has been proven over and over to be a boon for the economy) consider that we are currently reversing this trend without any kind of national debate or plan of action developed by and through the people. We are reversing this trend by increasing the cost of higher education at a pace that outstrips most anything else (even health care now). Simultaneously we have passed a law that disallows student debt from being discharged through bankruptcy. (Now who would sponsor such a bill against the will of politically weak students? I’ll ask the Church Lady. Church Lady? “Could it be . . . the Republicans?!” Got it in one, C.L.) The net effect is that total student debt exceeds total credit card debt in this country. (Think about that for a moment.)

Simultaneously, in the “Red States,” that is states in which Republicans control the state governments, and even in others there is a systematic starving of the public schools. The public school budgets get cut, schools get closed, while the states forgive business taxes unnecessarily and also fork over monies to private charters to run schools, which their own testing schemes show are no better than the public schools they replace. The apparent reason for these efforts is simply to extract profits from the public coffers. There seems to be no educational agenda behind these efforts (smokescreens and hidden agendas, but no real educational agendas).

So, is our historic experiment in democracy and educating our citizenry at risk? I think so. If you look at countries which are doing it right, for example Finland, when a college education became as necessary as a high school education used to be, they made a college education essentially free (as it was here when I took my degrees). They also gave perks to the best and brightest students to encourage them to go into teaching. We are going the other direction and there will be a price to pay. The monied interests are making sure that they do not pay that price, that “others” will. And do you know who that will be?

Church Lady?
“Aw shit, it’s us!”
Nailed it again, C.L.

July 15, 2013

Public School Teachers Unions: The Culprits?

In my last post I alluded to the belief that for conservatives, public education would be a lot better if we got rid of those damned teacher’s unions. I gave the example of a conservative pundit on Bill Maher’s show (Real Time), who blurted out that teacher’s unions are trying to keep our education system in a eighteenth century mode by insisting on a ten month calendar. This moron apparently doesn’t know that school calendars are set by state boards of education, which are closer to the centers of political power than they are teacher’s unions. Unions cannot bargain the number of days in the calendar, it is a nonnegotiable matter. But according to all true conservatives teacher’s unions oppose reforms and negotiate lavish salaries for teachers from limpwristed boards of education. Is there any support for this belief? (Take a wild-ass guess.)

My teaching career began in 1972 right around the time that my home state created a right to collectively bargain for public employees like teachers. So I decided to look back to see if there were any studies about the impact of the unions on teacher’s remuneration, working conditions, etc. I found a Rand Corporation Report by Linda Darling-Hammond produced in 1984 with the lovely title: Beyond the Commission Reports: The Coming Crisis in Teaching.

Here are a couple of quotations from that report:

“Although there is a common perception that teacher’s salaries have improved as a result of collective bargaining, average salaries for teachers actually declined by nearly 15 percent in real dollar terms between 1971 and 1981, even though the average experience level of the teaching force increased over that period, as did the average education level.” (italics are mine)

“As bureaucratization took hold in American schools, teacher salaries slipped from 49 percent of educational expenditures in 1972 to only 38 percent in 1982.”

Once again, reality and the conservative world view don’t seem to connect. As a participant in the fray and a teacher who started out as quite anti-union and ended up a union president and chief negotiator, I can say it was quite the opposite. Union members were all for innovations that we could not get through the powers that be. For bureaucrats, change is more work for the same pay—teachers were good to go, but administrators not so much.

And as far as the argument that teachers have gotten fat at the public trough, I don’t think you can support that notion. Here is a chart from that report and I guarantee you things have not gotten better.

Rand Report The Coming Crisis in Teaching (1984)_Page_20

Teachers start at lower salaries than just about any other profession and then continue to fall behind from there. When I reached full salary as a teacher I was making 50% of what someone with my academic credentials made working in my chosen field (chemistry). We knew that going in but we also bargained for substantial, but not extravagant, pension plans because of the lack of salary. My pension (from California) is rock solid, because everybody (me, my school districts, and the state) all met our obligations. I now live in Illinois, a state which decided that they not only didn’t have to meet their obligations to their pension funds, but they felt it was okay to give less than 50% of what they were required by law to give year after year. Anyone who understands compound interest knows that it is impossible to catch up from that, even from a year or two of that. So, now in Illinois there are criticisms of teacher’s pension programs based on a huge state government obligation that it cannot now pay and which would not exist if they had met their obligations like California did. (I obviously cannot hold up my home state as a paragon of state government responsibility as everyone now knows, but they did meet their mutually agreed upon obligations and teacher’s pensions in California are rock solid even with the financial mess of the past three decades.)

So, unions are a problem in public education? Uh, no, but hating unions is a conservative meme. Look a conservative in the eye as say the word “union” and step back. After the vitriol subsides, ask them if they have ever done any business with a union. Most will say “no,” which means their knowledge is second hand and I can tell you that this comes from the fact that you cannot hang around conservatives and utter anything pro-union. You will be shunned completely. Consequently, if you want to fit into a crowd of conservatives, you have to toe the conservative line and loudly state “all unions are bad, really bad” even when you have no evidence or the evidence, as in often the case, is entirely the other way.

The Corporatization of Public Education Lacks Reality, Logic, Sense, . . .

The latest wave of public education reformers have pushed an agenda that “business models” and “market driven models” are to be pursued to “rescue” the “failed” public education system.

It is debatable whether the public schools have failed. Certainly some individual schools have, but there are public schools that are spectacularly successful, so clearly there is a range of success. Why some fail and others do not is a legitimate point of discussion.

But reality and facts aren’t needed here as conservatives are in charge of this effort. A recent study of the school reform efforts in Washington, D.C. (Michelle Rhee’s old district), Chicago (Arne Duncan’s old stomping grounds), and New York (Mayor Bloomberg’s bailiwick). These were chosen to study as they had accessible data to compare and were touted as “success” stories. Apparently “success” to the conservatives means “we changed everything” not “everything got better.”

Here are some of the findings of  The Broader Bolder Approach to Education’s study:

  • Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in “reform” cities than in other urban districts.
  • Reported successes for targeted students evaporated upon closer examination.
  • Test-based accountability prompted the ranks of experienced teachers to diminish, but not necessarily bad teachers.
  • School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.
  • Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students.

Many of the claims made by politicos proved to be quite outlandish, for example N.Y. Mayor Bloomberg claimed that his reforms had cut the black-white achievement gap by 50%. The reality: the gap declined by 1%.

Reality is not something conservatives do well with, especially when it conflicts with their cherished beliefs. The logic behind a “business model” for public education is appallingly vacant. What is the basis of the competition? Do schools compete over test scores? Only students get test scores (except in Michelle Rhee’s districts where her administrators changed incorrect responses to correct responses to get the results desired) so what is their motivation to score better? I understand why high school athletes want to shine on the athletic fields, but what is the payoff for testers? The answer is there is none, so there is no competition and without competition, there is no basis for introducing models based on competition. Conservatives are playing a word association game. “Business” = good, “union” = bad, etc. On Bill Maher’s show Friday night, a panelist blurted out that teacher’s unions are trying to keep our education system in a eighteenth century mode by insisting on a ten month calendar. Hello? This moron apparently doesn’t know that school calendars are set by state boards of education, which are closer to the centers of political power than they are teacher’s unions. Unions cannot bargain the number of days in the calendar, it is a nonnegotiable matter. But “public schools” are bad, “unions” are bad, therefore. . . .

Apparently the only evidence these conservatives can offer about the failing of our public schools is their complete lack of the ability to make a coherent argument above a third-grade level.

 

 

July 6, 2013

Will We Ever Get to Rational Decision Making?

In my last post I re-posted a blog (Reflections on the Purpose of Education and the Manufactured Crisis) which addressed how we are actually doing vis-à-vis public education as compared to how the “reformers” say we are doing. Part of that post was a list of educational performances (in reading) by country. Here it is again:

Average score, reading literacy, PISA, 2009

  1. Korea 539
  2. Finland 536
  3. Canada 524
  4. New Zealand 521
  5. Japan 520
  6. Australia 515
  7. Netherlands 508
  8. Belgium 506
  9. Norway 503
  10. Estonia 501
  11. Switzerland 501
  12. Poland 500
  13. Iceland 500
  14. United States 500
  15. Sweden 497
  16. Germany 497
  17. Ireland 496
  18. France 496
  19. Denmark 495
  20. United Kingdom 494
  21. Hungary 494
  22. OECD average 493
  23. Portugal 489
  24. Italy 486
  25. Slovenia 483
  26. Greece 483
  27. Spain 481
  28. Czech Republic 478
  29. Slovak Republic 477
  30. Israel 474
  31. Luxembourg 472
  32. Austria 470
  33. Turkey 464
  34. Chile 449
  35. Mexico 425

[Note: data can be gleaned at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/pisa2009highlights.asp ]

Actually, I restructured this list a tad and put it in the form that the critics of public education use it. I reaggregated all U.S. scores and then listed them by place in the “competition.” According to this listing, the U.S. isn’t even in the top ten! And since we know that we are No. 1 in all things, there is something terribly wrong. Obviously our educational system is letting us down, and since we absolutely must have a scapegoat, it is the teachers, no it is the teacher’s unions that is the problem!

“According to this listing, the U.S. isn’t even in the top ten!
And since we know that we are No. 1 in all things, there is something
terribly wrong. Obviously our educational system is letting us down!

Let’s look at the list as it was originally posted:

Average score, reading literacy, PISA, 2009
[United States, Asian students 541]
Korea 539
Finland 536
[United States, White students 525]
Canada 524
New Zealand 521
Japan 520
Australia 515
Netherlands 508
Belgium 506
Norway 503
Estonia 501
Switzerland 501
Poland 500
Iceland 500
United States (overall) 500
Sweden 497
Germany 497
Ireland 496
France 496
Denmark 495
United Kingdom 494
Hungary 494
OECD average 493
Portugal 489
Italy 486
Slovenia 483
Greece 483
Spain 481
Czech Republic 478
Slovak Republic 477
Israel 474
Luxembourg 472
Austria 470
[United States, Hispanic students 466]
Turkey 464
Chile 449
[United States, Black students 441]
Mexico 425
[Note: data can be gleaned at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/pisa2009highlights.asp ]

Here the scores of U.S. students were disaggregated into a number of subsets: Asian-Americans, Whites, Hispanics, and Blacks. Note that Asian-American kids did better than Korean kids or Japanese kids. Where do these Asian-American kids go to school? There surely must be a network of private schools catering to them for their performance to be that good. Actually, I think you will find that the Asian-American kids are going to our public schools. Consequently, the education afforded them, at least when it comes to reading, is as good as anywhere else in the world.

So the real question is: why aren’t whites, Hispanics, and Blacks doing as well?

This is not a complicated question and it has been answered. The answer is not complicated. The major components to the answer to this question are: lack of hard work, poverty, and low expectations. Virtually every high school in the U.S. “tracks” students. If nothing else, higher performing students are encouraged to take more difficult classes. Lower performing students are encouraged to take less difficult classes. (Think of the large numbers of college athletes who major in sociology. Expectations of their performances on the athletic fields are high, in the classroom, not so much. In my four years of college athletics, I was the only chemistry major participating in varsity sports in those schools that I could see.)

There is no faster way to lower performance than to expect less from your students. Most of you know that I am a former teacher. In retirement, I spend much of my time coaching (archery) and it is axiomatic that if expectations are too high or too low, performance suffers. Similarly if there is too little practice, performance suffers. If my athletes can’t afford proper nutrition or proper equipment, performance suffers. This is true in all sports. There is no disagreement.

So, Asian-Americans come out on top in our U.S. educational system because of: very hard work, their families make sure they have what they need to succeed (food, sleep, safety, a place to study, computers, etc.), and they have very high expectations for their children. Children of poverty often have only one parent at home who often works more than one job but still can’t afford all of the physical, emotional, and intellectual support their children need to succeed at high levels. Then the schools inflict the ultimate insult: low expectations.

There are other influences, but these are all that are need to explain gross performance disparities.

So, if these were to be removed? What then?

Let me tell you a story about an actual experiment. A mathematics professor at University of California, Berkeley, one of the most prominent universities in the world, was looking for an educational project to research. His name was Uri Treisman. He decided to explore why the performance of Black students in Calculus classes was so poor. Their average grade and failure rates were, he thought, way out of line. But, you see, the Black students going to U.C. Berkeley and taking Calculus were no slouches. They had high GPAs (they got into the University on merit). They were generally from upper middle class families. In other words, they had no excuses.

So, Dr. Treisman started by asking the faculty why they thought there was such a disparity between the Asian and Black students. The answers he got ranged from “socioeconomic factors” to veiled racism (yes, in the liberal bastion of Berkeley). This still didn’t make sense, so he launched an investigation. He actually tracked the behaviors of Asian and Black students and discovered that the main difference was that Asian students studied in groups while Black students studied alone. (Consider that no “street cred” comes from hanging out in the library.) Students who study alone have no support group, no peer pressure, and have to do everything for themselves. It is a real handicap.

So, Dr. Treisman launched a study group project for Black Calculus students. To avoid the stigma of other “remedial” support groups, he called it an honors project and required attendance and extra work. The Black students attending were placed in groups, coached on how to work in a group, and were given lots of extra work to do.

Three years into the project, the Black student’s GPA in Calculus was the same as the Asian students. (These students did not have to contend with either poverty or low expectations, just working harder and smarter.) If that weren’t enough, he repeated the project with Hispanic students, and with a few tweaks, got the same result.

People, there is no mystery here. Public education ain’t broke. Could it be better? Yes. What couldn’t be. Could teachers be better? Yes, who couldn’t be. So, shouldn’t teachers be evaluated frequently and their pay be based on their success, like everybody else? No. Because everybody else’s pay is not determined that way (another conservative meme), so neither should teachers. The Quality Movement has shown us that you don’t improve quality by increasing the number of inspections. This is the equivalent of expecting the programming on television to become more intelligent because you turned up the “brightness.” You improve quality by investing in processes and empowerment of employees to do a better job.

So, when will we get to a rational discussion of our “issues,” a discussion that includes reality, including the motives of “for profit” agencies criticizing the public sector and a discussion of the motives of certain “reformers?” In this era of debates consisting of countering ideological claims lobbed from the trenches and facts be dammed, I am not holding my breath.

July 4, 2013

Reflections on the Purpose of Education and the Manufactured Crisis

Regular readers of this blog know that I rarely reblog things. This is an exception. It is actually a comment made on Diane Ravitch’s blog and it addresses the corporate attack on our educational system. (Now why would they want control of our education system, hmmm? Could it be they just want control of all of the proles?)

Please read this, especially note the reading test scores that show Korean Americans outscore all of the other countries in the world … and those Korean kids are attending the same schools our other kids are. (And if you don’t know why Korean-Americans score better, it is simple—they work harder.)

Reflections on the Purpose of Education and the Manufactured Crisis

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