Angry About Drag Racing, Town Bans Jaywalking

Bizarro, Nevada, October 1–In a powerful response to hordes of young adults using Main Street for drag races “day and night,” an angry City Council voted to impose $250 fines and 30-day jail terms for jaywalking. “These damn hot rodders are endangering our citizens, and the only way to stop them is to keep our citizens out of the streets.”

Well, OK, that didn’t happen. There is no town of Bizarro, Nevada, and I hope no one would pass laws to punish the victims…but that’s what came to mind when I read a Wall Street Journal report about schools’ beefing up test security, headlined Schools’ Test: Beat the Cheat.

The gist of the article: Because no school district wants to be “the next Atlanta,” where intense pressures from leadership led to massive cheating by some principals and teachers, they are investing heavily in security measures to keep students and teachers from cheating. But the Journal article says nothing about addressing the cause of widespread cheating, the pressure from leadership to produce high test scores. It might have at least raised the question of whether districts were treating symptoms, not causes.

Here’s an analogy: Imagine you are sitting on a bed of nails and screaming in pain–and, to cure the problem, someone gives you strong pain pills and then stuffs a gag in your mouth to stop you from screaming. Problem solved, right?

The reporting is flawed in another important way. The Journal cites as the leading authority on cheating prevention the founder of Caveon Security, John Fremer. Clearly no one did a simple background check. If they had, they would have learned that Caveon’s track record includes some significant failures, starting with Atlanta. That’s right: Caveon was hired by the Atlanta School Board to investigate allegations of cheating…and its investigators found nothing wrong!

“Caveon couldn’t find its ass with either hand,” said one of the two lawyers who led the subsequent investigation demanded by Georgia’s governor; that’s the one that found the cheating, identified the alleged cheaters, and produced the indictments. (The trial began on September 29th.)

Caveon had been hired by the (so-called) “Blue Ribbon Committee” established to look into allegations of cheating in Atlanta. Caveon looked–and reported finding nothing wrong in what turned out to be the epicenter of cheating by adults on standardized tests. Dr. Fremer told me that while he ‘knew’ there was widespread cheating going on, that was not mentioned in his final report. “We did not try to find out who was cheating,” he said. “Our purpose was to rank order the schools beginning with those with the most obvious problems (of unbelievably dramatic score increases), in order to make the task of investigating more manageable.” In other words, Caveon produced a list!

Dr. Fremer admitted that he knew some Atlanta teachers were lying to him, but he said his hands were tied because he didn’t have subpoena power.

Georgia’s investigators are contemptuous of Caveon’s efforts, labelling it a ‘so-called investigation.’ Richard Hyde, one of the three leaders of the investigation, told me that “either by coincidence or design, it was certain to fail.” Mr. Hyde denied that Caveon needed subpoena power because its investigators were representing a governmental agency, and under Georgia law it is a felony to lie to someone representing the government. What’s more, Mr. Hyde said, Caveon had a fundamental conflict of interest–it was investigating its employer, at least indirectly, because the “Blue Ribbon Commission” (which Mr. Hyde dismisses as “The Whitewash Commission”) included a deputy superintendent of schools.

Robert Wilson, another leader of the Georgia investigation, is even blunter. Of course Caveon didn’t find cheating because “Caveon couldn’t find its own ass with either hand,” he scoffed. Why anyone would hire Caveon was, he said, beyond him–unless they didn’t want to find out anything.

Dr. Fremer seemed hurt and offended by the criticism. “We try to be non-emotional,” he said, acknowledging that “People who listen only to the law enforcement side do not respect us.”

Caveon also conducted two deeply flawed ‘investigations’ into allegations of cheating in Washington, DC, again finding nothing of consequence.

For the full story:

Penetrating the Smokescreen
Michelle Rhee and the Washington Post
Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error

Having failed to tells its readers of Caveon’s track record of failure in Atlanta and Washington, DC, the Journal then reports–without irony–that security providers like Caveon are enjoying a huge upsurge in business. Mr. Fremer says that Caveon’s revenue has grown by 40% every year for the past three years.

Failure pays! There’s a lesson for Wall Street Journal readers.

In another interesting omission, the Journal reporters do not cite Washington as a place where cheaters prospered. Houston and Philadelphia get mentioned but not our nation’s capital, where then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee handed out large bonuses to principals whose schools had made ‘unbelievable’ gains on the city’s standardized test….and where student answer sheets were discovered to have an inordinately high rate of ‘wrong to right’ erasures.

Buried deep in the WSJ article is one person’s expression of concern that schools are overcompensating, spending money on testing security that ought to be spent on art, music, teaching and learning. But that person is Randi Weingarten, familiar to WSJ readers as the strident president of a teachers union.

For a newspaper that focuses on financial matters, the article is notably short of numbers. We don’t learn how much money any district is spending on enhanced security. That dollar figure would be useful to have, because it could then be translated into terms we can understand: number of assistant teacher positions, number of counselor slots, and so forth.

Even deeper in the article is one parent’s complaint that her child’s school now resembles a prison.

There’s stuff going on in the testing arena that might also have been part of the Journal’s coverage. (Perhaps it will come up in future pieces.) I’m referring to growing evidence of a ‘great awakening’ about the impact of test-based school reform.

Consider Massachusetts, for example:

The new chair of the state Board of Education raised concerns about the focus on standardized test preparation in Massachusetts schools, as board members on Tuesday discussed whether some districts give too many practice tests to prepare students for the MCAS.

Board chairwoman Margaret McKenna said some schools test students 20 to 25 days per school year, including practice and pre-tests. Board members said some school officials are blaming the state for the test prep focus.

“What I keep hearing is the districts keep saying it’s the state; the state keeps saying it’s the districts,” said McKenna, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Deval Patrick in August.
McKenna said the intention of the test seems to have gotten lost.

“I think it’s time for the state to say, ‘Wait a minute here, that is not the intention.’ We’ve got to figure out a way to make sure people are not teaching to the test,” said McKenna, who spent 22 years as president of Lesley University in Cambridge.

And in Florida:

The Lee School Board struck down the district’s proposed testing calendar at its Tuesday night meeting, effectively eliminating 68 tests from grades kindergarten through fifth grade and putting assessment decisions back in teachers’ hands.

The motion passed 3-1 with Cathleen Morgan in opposition and Chairman Tom Scott absent due to illness after school board members deliberated the necessity of district-mandated tests.  ….

(Board member Mary) Fischer said the amount of testing in recent years have been a form of “child abuse.”

“We’re supposed to have a learning environment for kids that is safe, and makes them ready to learn,” Fischer said. “So when they’re coming in afraid of the testing, and you tell them they’re failing and parents are stressed out, it negatively impacts children in a psychological way.”

Two well-placed political types recently told me that legislators in their states (one eastern, one western) were hearing one message from constituents: ‘Too much testing.’

The left is salivating about what it sees as–and hopes is–a growing revolt against ‘excessive’ testing. FairTest publishes a weekly scorecard, an example of which you can find here. Regular updates are at fairtest.org.

The proper adjective for the right might be “concerned.” Some stalwarts have published a Guiding Principles statement headlined “An Open Letter On School Accountability To State Superintendents of Education and Governors.” While you may be interested to see who has signed it, and who has not, please don’t let that keep you from reading what they have to say about the dangers of overreacting to the pressure to dial back on accountability.

But the canary in the mine–real evidence that test-based accountability may be counter-productive–is this year’s Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education. Every year I can remember there have been four or five finalists, but this year only two of the 75 eligible districts were deemed to be doing well enough to be considered for the Prize. The judges use a ‘green, yellow, red’ grading system in a bunch of categories; one judge told me that, of the 20 semi-finalists, most scored ‘yellow’ or ‘red’ in most categories. It was, he said, a cause for concern.

Ben Weider of the blog 538 does a wonderful job of deconstructing the issue here, in a piece entitled “The Most Important Award in Public Education Struggles to Find Winners.” The headline may suffer from hyperbole, but the article is well-reasoned and sourced.

The key point: the NAEP scores of most of the Broad Prize winners have been flat for years. These are the districts that have been living and dying by test scores, and it’s not working.

Mixing clichés, the canary in the mine {{1}} is also the elephant in the room. It is an issue we cannot afford to ignore, because, if things are so bad that only two of 75 urban districts are making significant progress, then we shouldn’t be doubling down on that approach to schooling. Rather, those who are concerned about urban education should examine general practices in urban districts. I’d suggest starting by questioning the frequency of bubble testing, their purposes and the use of their results {{2}}.

Public school districts shouldn’t be spending time, energy and money on strategies to prevent cheating. Those resources ought to be devoted to creating a more challenging curriculum that gives students more control over their own learning and engages them in the deeper learning of project-based classes. Technology, when ‘blended’ with (and by) skilled teachers, allows students to dig deeper and soar higher, and that’s what our young people need to experience when they go to school. More ‘rigorous’ training in regurgitating information (and passing tests) is a flawed strategy, and all the expensive security measures in the world will not obscure that truth.

—-

[[1]]1. Speaking of a canary in the mine, I was struck by Geoff Canada’s comments at the Broad Foundation Award event on Monday.  Mr. Canada, the creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is well-known for his anti-union stance, his role in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” and his alliance with Michelle Rhee, but on Monday he went way ‘off message’ to criticize excessive testing. We often test without purpose, he said, giving tests in March or April but not getting results until late August.  If I heard him correctly, he was saying that we test too much and trust teachers too little.  Mr. Canada was responding to my tweeted question, but I wasn’t the moderator and so could not push him on what he was saying. But if an educator with the following and stature of Geoff Canada is questioning testing, something is happening.[[1]]

[[2]]2. The US uses test scores to evaluate, rate, punish and (sometimes) reward teachers. Most advanced countries use testing and assessment to assess students![[2]]

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4 thoughts on “Angry About Drag Racing, Town Bans Jaywalking

  1. The amusing thing about this article is that this is precisely the problem with school reform efforts. They look at the symptoms – inadequate learning and poor performance on the part of students — and the remedies are always directed at everything but the autocratic environment. No one who works in education has any intention on surrendering their power, so schools will always be prisons where children waste their time and learn precious little other than how to cope with subjugation. The objections to testing are really trivial in the grand scheme, but I appreciate the analogies invoked.

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  2. John makes critical points about what the Wall Street Journal (and other papers) missed. The obsession indicates that people in charge of schools don’t know how to get off the speeding train even though they have to know it will crash. The only hope seems to lie with parents who opt their kids out, though I don’t know how one opts out when the whole school curriculum seems designed around getting ready for the test.

    New Yorker writer Rachel Aviv gets at the heart and soul of what happened in Atlanta in her “Wrong Answer
    In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school made a shocking choice.”
    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/07/21/wrong-answer

    She shows how good people who were doing good things with and for children were forced to live data, sleep data, eat data. “All decisions have to be made by data–you have to be baptized in it.” The cheating became so obsessive, and really, so crazy that you almost laugh as you read the details. But the reality stops that laughter.

    Yes, people made choices. But I regard Atlanta as a tragedy of ruined lives, and I blame the Feds who, never having taught a day in their lives, brought NCLB and RTTT down on the schools. I blame the governors who signed on and who, in the face of the ruin of schools, refuse to pull out.

    I blame people who still call for more rigor.
    I’ll think about rigor (though I’ll never use that word) when the parents of children in our public schools receive a living wage.

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  3. Why is it that the “test and punish” method of school reform is the only intervention we should be devoting gobs of time and money too? If things aren’t working why aren’t we trying many different models? Other countries that score higher than the US on NAEP (if that’s even an important benchmark) don’t test, test, test and hold teachers accountable that way. Why aren’t we looking into what “successful” countries do and try that? Why this laser focus on testing for accountability as though it is a “known to be successful” intervention when12 of more years of it have had little to no impact on student learning? It’s like trying to find a cure for all cancers and only funding and supporting laser surgery – no chemo, no other surgery but laser, no looking into causes, no lifestyle changes including nutrition. Seems beyond short-sighted.

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  4. Education in America was designed to intergrate farmers and immigrants into an urban/industrial culture. It was meant to change the way they viewed their place in life. It often involved physical as well as emotional and behavioral punishment. I guess in some ways that worked during the industrial revolution. We are still using the same model today. We don’t seem to be able to break out of the mold, the same way we can’t stop putting our children/students into designated boxes/classrooms. There are plenty of studies available about how the brain works, how people learn, and how learning is used, but the education system can’t seem to get beyond rote memory and bubble testing. I believe there are many teachers in the system who know how to teach, know how to excite their students into learning, but nobody listens to them. Those who are listened to are too often data driven administrators and politicians who have lost, or never had, any actual knowledge of learning and how to effectively bring learning about. It is no wonder that the faulty methods we are currently using to measure “learning” have not worked in the last twelve years. One, we are not measuring learning. At best we are measuring memory. And, two, we are not using what we know about the brain and learning to grow the learning of our children. In many cases we are actually do the reverse- making actual learning very difficult.

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