Thursday, February 16, 2017

The MTA’s myopic agenda

FRESH OFF A victory on Question 2, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, led by combative firebrand Barbara Madeloni, is pushing legislation to undermine key pillars of this state’s highly successful education-improvement effort. The MTA’s main bill takes aim at so-called high-stakes testing, under which students have at least five opportunities to pass the MCAS graduation exam. Even as it calls for hundreds of millions more in state education spending, the MTA wants a three-year moratorium on those tests, with the goal of nixing them entirely.

The bill would also rewrite school-turnaround legislation, dramatically limiting the powers that the law gives districts and the state to intervene with underperforming schools. And it would also prohibit districts from using student learning, growth, or achievement data in teacher evaluations. Meanwhile, the MTA is stepping up its “opt-out” push, an effort to persuade parents to keep their children from taking the statewide tests.

Senator Michael Rush, D-West Roxbury, the lead Senate sponsor of the MTA legislation, says he decided to file the bill based on conversation with teachers in his district. “A lot of these concerns I have had,” he said. “Largely, they feel students are being overtested.”

No surprise there. Teachers unions have long had an ambivalent stance on education reform, supportive of the additional resources but leery of the accompanying accountability. Still, a move to eliminate statewide standardized testing ignores the history of educational improvement in Massachusetts. Our best-in-the-nation status was achieved in large part because of the landmark education reform law of 1993, which married a big new infusion of resources to statewide standards and assessments. The 2010 follow-up law, meanwhile, gave the districts and state important new powers to intervene with underperforming schools.

Statewide tests have been an instrumental part of that improvement effort. Anti-testing partisans often assert that a student’s socioeconomic status is determinative of his or her academic performance, and that real improvement can’t be made unless poverty is eradicated. But the Massachusetts experience belies that contention. Since the advent of the MCAS, districts have been able to pinpoint and focus on students’ weaknesses and needs, improve instruction and tutoring, and dramatically boost passing and proficiency levels. Those test results have also led to a concerted focus on lagging urban schools.

“This bill begins to dismantle in large steps that framework, and that to me would be a tremendous mistake for the Commonwealth,” says Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester.

Yes it would, which makes it unfortunate that the legislation has attracted more than 100 cosponsors. Given that even Rush doesn’t exhibit a clear grasp of how the MTA’s legislation would change the school-turnaround process, it’s hard to think that most of his cosponsors do. These lawmakers need to undertake some serious homework about exactly how Massachusetts made it to the top nationally on education.

As for the opt-out: On its website, the MTA describes it as “the right of parents to opt their children out of state standardized tests” and makes it sound as though doing so carries no consequences, at least for non-high-school students. But there is no right to opt out; the tests are mandatory. And because school evaluations are based on a broad cross section of students, a school whose participation rate falls significantly could see itself drop a performance level. That happened with both Boston Latin School and the Roger Clap School in Dorchester last year. Further, parents miss a chance to see how their child is doing according to a uniform state standard.

The MTA’s legislation is self-interested and wrong-headed, but not particularly surprising, at least not in the Madeloni era. It deserves to die a quiet death in committee.

Encouraging families to opt their kids out of testing, on the other hand, is irresponsible, an attempt to use parents and students as pawns in the union’s anti-testing crusade. The MTA should know better than to lead families down that counterproductive path.


Education Reform Expert Recommends Shutting Down Department of Education

Vicki Alger, research fellow at the Independent Institute, delivered a speech at The Heartland Institute on February 1 about her new book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of American ‘s Children. You can watch her presentation here.

Alger ‘s research at the Independent Institute focuses on education reforms that provide a competitive education marketplace and increases parental control over their children ‘s education. The author of more than 40 education policy studies, Alger has advised the U.S. Department of Education on public school choice and higher education, and has also helped to advance educational reform in her home state of Arizona.

Alger ‘s research also inspired the introduction of the most school-choice bills in the history of California, five in all. Prior to her career in education policy, Alger taught college-level courses in American politics, English composition and rhetoric, and early British literature.

As is noted on the back cover of Alger’s book:

For nearly 100 years the federal government left education almost entirely in the hands of the citizenry and state and local governments, but in 1979, with the creation of the US Department of Education a sprawling bureaucracy with 153 programs, 5,000 employees, and an annual budget of approximately $70 billion, the federal government intruded itself into almost every area of education.

Accordingly, Alger reveals in her book that 1) federal involvement in education has been a failure, and 2) assesses, identifies, and articulates the best strategy for success.

Alger further explains how and why U.S. students are mediocre achievers in math, science, and other subjects when compared to many other nations – despite America’s schools being the most costly in the world. In her presentation, Alger debunked the common misconception that this nation was once a world leader in elementary and secondary education. We never ranked at the top. America can’t get back to the head of the class because we never were at the head of the class. In fact, we have always scored at, or near, the bottom of the rankings. But with effective educational reforms, the academic performance of American students could improve significantly.

For those who are advocates of school choice, Alger presents strong arguments for giving more power to parents and students.

Evolution of Department of Education

The original Department of Education was created in 1867 – and downsized to an office the following year – to collect information on schools and teaching that would help the States establish effective school systems. While the agency’s name and location within the executive branch have changed over the past 130 years, this early emphasis on getting information on what works in education to teachers and education policymakers continues down to the present day.

When debate opened in the House on June 5, 1866 about a national channel of communication among school officers of different states and the federal government, there was neither mention nor desire to utilize the federal treasury to fund any educational programs. There was no hint that the department would do anything other than collect statistics. In short, the department was to be an educational statistical service located in Washington, D.C. The department, which started out with four employees, acted as a clearing house of data for educators and policymakers.

Democratic Rep. Samuel Moulto from Illinois had this to say about his version of a Department of Education – which has come to pass in America today, but which was never sanctioned by our Constitution:

Now, sir, in order to make education universal, what do we want? What is the crying necessity of this nation today? Why, sir, we want a head. We want a pure fountain from which a pure stream can be poured upon all the States. We want a controlling head by which the various conflicting systems in the different States can be harmonized, by which there can be uniformity, by which all mischievous errors that have crept in may be pointed out and eradicated.

Present-day Department of Education

There is no traditional or historical basis for The Department of Education. The department represents a political agenda administered from Washington DC. The department was moved here and there during its history, and went through some name changes, but in whatever form it has taken it has failed to improve education – such as in 2016, when the department spent $200 billion.

In 1976, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter promised to create a Department of Education, and is immediately endorsed by the National Education Association. This is first time the NEA endorsed a presidential candidate in more than a century of existence.

In 1979, after much opposition, Congress narrowly passed legislation to split off a new Department of Education from the existing Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers provided powerful lobbying support for the creation of the new department. The Department of Education began operations in 1980 with 6,400 employees. When campaigning for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan calls the Department of Education “President Carter’s new bureaucratic boondoggle” and promised to abolish it – a promise, obviously, he could not keep.

The Department of Education was created to improve management and efficiency, but as Alger noted in her talk at Heartland, the department represents just one more piece of government with lots of bureaucrats. By her count, Alger said just 6 percent of Education Department programs are effective. Although the department is getting more expensive to operate, children have not been better-educated after three decades of massive funding.

The theme that ran throughout Alger’s book presentation was that it’s time to eliminate the Department of Education. As she remarked: “Education doesn’t get any better like a fine wine.”

According Alger, student achievement has been flat since the late 60s up to today. It is fair to ask how can this is so when American schools are among the most costly in the world? Yet American students experience only mediocre achievements in math and science, in contrast to students who excel in countries that spend far less per student. Alger puts some of the blame on the resistance to school choice and competition.

Concern about the achievement gap in America versus other countries in the world led to the school-reform movement of the 1980s. Improving student achievement became all-important, so reforms began exploring how the federal government count partner with the states – a tactic that went against how education policy had been viewed in the past, one driven primarily by the states.

Standard-based Education Reform explored in the 1980’s

Standard-based education reform began with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 which eventually led to Common Core.

During the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, two standards-based programs were set in motion: No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Both program failed. Nevertheless, the Obama administration was able to sneak Common Core State Standards beneath the radar of the American people by peddling the program to states, sight unseen, through the offer of money to cash-strapped states.

Ze’ev Wurman, former U.S. Department of Education official, called Common Core standards mediocre. In no way were they to be considered a proper preparation for college.

Alger ascribes the failure of Common Core to Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who was plucked from Chicago, where he served as superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2009. It was Duncan’s mission to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America so this nation had only one system of learning.

‘Strategic Dismantling’ of the Department of Education

Alger’s two-step process to eliminate the Department of Education follows:

Shutter up. Eliminate 19 program offices to reduce and overhaul cost. This would save $14 billion.

Return control of managing programs back to the states, citizens, and school districts. This would save $216 billion. (Programs remain operable from three to five years. As programs expire, discontinue them.)

As related by Alger:

Schools rely on federal funding to the amount of 10 cents on a dollar. The new mandate for Common Core required more money for schools to implement than did No Child Left Behind, yet schools were told to rip up the No Child Left Behind mandate to replace with Common Core.

Arizona, a Leader in Charter Schools

Alger was instrumental in her home state of Arizona in approving charter schools, an achievement that is now celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Charters faced steep opposition in Arizona, with critics predicting doom. But the sky did not fall in Arizona because of charter schools, nor were public schools starved. Instead, Arizona has more top high schools than any other state, yet Arizona spends $5,000 less on the average than the average state. (Illinois has no top high school, other than possibly some of Chicago’s magnet schools.) Black students in Arizona, meanwhile, have made the highest math gains on the nation’s latest report card. Why should children be kept in schools that don’t work for them?

Alger supports publicly funded vouchers, and particularly Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), because every dollar follows the child. Algar said she has helped five states implement ESA programs directed by the state, not the federal government.

Q&A with Vicki Alger

Concerning Betsy DeVos? Vicki Alger believes Betsy DeVos, even though she endured a tough nomination fight, will be a strong leader for Trump. Hopefully, Alger said, DeVos will do away with the disaster of Common Core, which in the process will demolish the ESSA Act – through which parents are bullied and threatened about their child’s graduation unless the test associated with Common Core is taken.

Concerning budget of U.S. Department of Education established in 1979? Out of the $200 billion spent to operate the department, only about 10 percent is sent back to the states. That means it takes $130 billion just to administer the distribution of money back to the states, certainly a massive political boondoggle.

Mustn’t some standards exist to measure how students are progressing in subject matter, although Common Core is a failure? California, Alger said, has little else going for it, but it does have a good state testing program. There is no shortage of basic state skill tests if a parent wants to know where there kids are on basic skills, but don’t trust the state to administer the test.

Don’t parents want to know what their child knows at the beginning of a school year and at the end? Vicki Alger believes the focus should be more on parents having choices rather than testing standards.

In closing

So often the battle seems insurmountable, but those of us who are sick of top-down federal control of education on both sides of the aisle outnumber those who wish to keep the status quo.

Thirty-seven years after the modern Department of Education was established under Jimmy Carter, students are not better off. Now is the time to sever the partnership of education with the federal government by abolishing the Department of Education. Let President Trump and your legislators hear from you as a necessary component toward Draining the Swamp.


Petition to fire Berkeley teacher garners 500 signatures

A petition to oust a Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School teacher who was involved with a counter-protest against a white supremacist group in Sacramento has gathered more than 500 signatures

The middle school teacher’s involvement at the protest prompted threats of violence against students at King.

Yvette Felarca — the middle school teacher and a member of the group By Any Means Necessary, which says it’s “building a new civil rights movement” — was filmed in Sacramento on June 26 taunting and hitting a neo-Nazi attending a rally led by the Traditionalist Worker Party, a white nationalist extremist group. The violent altercation made headlines across the U.S. after seven people were stabbed and 10 hospitalized during the pandemonium.

Robert Jacobsen, a former student at King Middle School, launched a petition drive on after learning about Felarca’s involvement in the Sacramento altercation. The petition demands that the Berkeley Unified School District fire Felarca. It argues that citizens of the U.S., regardless of their political views have the right to free speech. Felarca’s interference with those rights are grounds for dismissal, according to the petition.

“Felarca is a 7th- and 8th-grade Humanities teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley,” reads the petition. “Among her responsibilities is teaching the students under her tutelage about the Bill of Rights. Someone who does not believe in free speech should not teach kids about their constitutional rights.”

“Felarca’s activity would get a student expelled at best, or jailed at worst. And yet she’s meant to be a role model for students. She has repeatedly advocated the use of militant, violent tactics to shut down opponents of her personal political pack, By Any Means Necessary (BAMN).”

Jacobsen told Berkeleyside via email that he had nothing against Felarca personally, and that she never taught classes while he attended King. Jacobsen said he filed the petition because he doesn’t believe that it’s fair that a “militant agitator like Felarca mold impressionable students,” and that a teacher who “manipulates teenagers into joining their group should teach teens.”

Berkeleyside has not uncovered evidence that Felarca conveys her political views in the classroom.

A video posted to YouTube depicts a woman matching Felarca’s description confronting a demonstrator, yelling in his face, “Get the fuck off our streets,” punching him several times in the stomach, and pulling his backpack. Moments later another protester pulls him to the ground. Thus far, no charges have been filed against Felarca, according to the Sacramento DA’s office.

Referring to both the Sacramento prosecutor’s office and the school district, Jacobsen called the response from the government thus far “lackluster,” and added that if there was ever a reason to fire a teacher, “assaulting a man for exercising his right to free speech” should be grounds to do so.

Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Donald Evans told Berkeleyside via email that Felarca is still employed but declined to go into further detail. “Because this involves an employee, everything is confidential,” wrote Evans.

Jacobsen said the school district isn’t planning to oust Felarca because “they can’t discipline anyone for what they do in their private life.”

The California Highway Patrol is conducting an investigation into the violence at the protest but did not return several phone messages requesting comment. Typically, law enforcement does not comment on ongoing investigations.

In the aftermath of the protests, King Middle School was flooded with anonymous emails demanding Felarca be fired. One of the emails threatened “that if certain actions were not taken against the teacher within the week, someone would come to King with the intent to harm students,” according to the school district.

The FBI determined the email threat was “low level,” but Berkeley police stepped up patrols around the school and assigned an additional officer to patrol the campus at 1781 Rose St. The school district relocated two programs that were running at King over the summer, said Evans.

The controversy and threats of violence, as well as Felarca’s involvement, have frustrated some parents with children at King.

“I don’t want to blame the teacher — but I also wonder about her judgment,” one parent told Berkeleyside. Referring to the white supremacist group in Sacramento, the parent continued: “She’s dealing with a group known to hate minorities and with a history of violence. She may be putting children in danger. I support free speech, but as a parent, I’m upset that she’s getting involved with crazy people.”

Felarca (right) was among the leaders of the December 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Yvette Felarca (right) was among the leaders of the Dec. 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Felarca did not respond to email messages and phone calls seeking comment. However, in a Facebook post, Felarca thanked her supporters and said she held the presumptive Republican nominee for president Donald Trump responsible for the threats. “His politics of racist demagoguery and hate is inciting these vile threats of violence, even against children,” she wrote. “It exposes why Trump and his racist, Nazi, and KKK supporters need to be defeated — and it shows us what Donald Trump’s vision for America really is, and why we need to keep building the movement.”

Activism is nothing new to Felarca. She has, in the past, taken an active role in teachers’ union politics and continues to be politically active with BAMN.

BAMN was formed in 1995 and has been embroiled in controversy over its militant stances ever since. For example, in a 2015 action, BAMN won a victory of sorts as its members mobilized in support of a UC Berkeley student who was allegedly raped. As part of the campaign, BAMN printed more than 100 posters bearing a photo of the young man accused by another student and the word “Rapist” in large bold type. BAMN also held rallies and ultimately the young man was suspended from the university until 2019.

Prosecutors declined to file charges after determining there was insufficient evidence to prove rape beyond a reasonable doubt.


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