By Stephen Stollmack
First, there is the ubiquitous pay issue: the school board promised teachers a 4 percent increase in pay which the mayor is pressuring them to rescind. Of several other issues at stake, including a demand for strong provisions to reinstate teachers in other schools when the school they teach at is closed (for whatever reason) the stickiest and most difficult area is the Mayor’s demand (in keeping with Obama’s education initiatives) that student test scores count heavily in evaluating a teacher’s performance relative to promotion, demotion or retention in addition to determination of eligibility for pay increases.
The union in Chicago insists (and much of the Education Statistics literature agrees) that student tests (the questions) often have sketchy or no proven validity and that test scores are too unreliable (because of the impact of random uncontrolled factors) for judging a student’s knowledge or potential much less to be used as a measure of teacher performance. The validity of using student test results for judging the teacher’s knowledge, commitment and ability would depend on the area of knowledge being tested and the way questions are worded to tie into the curriculum. This will vary with the subject area and so far the government has only provided standards for Mathematics and ELA (English Language Arts), the latter area being by far the most controversial with respect to validity.
Pressuring Teachers and A Short Background of NCLB (‘No Child Left Behind) and RttT(Race to the Top)
In addition to the above noted key areas, what we are seeing – with this strike – is a reaction to several years of pressuring local school systems – mostly by the federal government and private foundations – who have been claiming that our schools are failing because teachers (and teachers’ unions) are more interested in increased pay than student education. This negative movement was virtually started back in the last decade of the 20th century by the Business Roundtable (BR) under the guise of “Advocating for education reform to better prepare U.S. students for the 21st century workplace”. The BR began calling attention to what they called “fast facts” which showed, for example, that the percentage of US citizens between 25 and 34 with postsecondary degrees had fallen from 1st to 14th in the world and that half of U.S. employers report a sizeable gap between their current needs and the skills of their employees”. From this point, a movement has grown that seems intent to convert primary and secondary schools into education-factories for producing graduates with the skills American-based Industries identify as being needed for them to remain the best and most competitive in the world.
From these conceptual beginnings, came volumes on the failures of American Education – even blaming corporations’ ‘need’ to outsource millions of jobs (which lead to the current recession) on the lack of preparedness of current graduates and this, in turn, was blamed on the selfishness and greed of American teachers and unions. Teachers and unions were caught off guard and parents succumbed to shock that their children might not be able to get the education they needed to survive, resulting in more and more concessions being made to the forces of privatization. Once representatives of American Industry established themselves as valid critics of Public School Systems, the logical next step was to open up operation of schools to private businesses. This later movement resulted in huge increases in the amount of public money used to pay American Businesses – such as Pearson, Inc. – for development and implementation of standardized tests and also to pay for private companies to run charter schools or for vouchers that children, displaced by closing schools, could use to pay for education provided by private schools.
That atmosphere prevailed when President George Bush started his war on Public Education by introducing a plethora of changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – the legislation that provides formula grant money for states to use to support their school systems — which he renamed as NCLB ‘No Child Left Behind’, you can’t say the man did not have a grandiose self-image.
NCLB mandated that certain percentages of students had to pass tests based on state standards each year — with the goal that 100% had to pass by 2014 – and that monetary penalties are imposed if such levels were not met. There were two major problems: first, the percentage-passing goals were recognized as being totally unrealistic; and second, each state had its own standards and tests which they could change according to the apparent difficulties students had with demonstrating passing grades. There were many additional problems such as the development of the practice of teaching to the test and blatant cheating by teachers and school-administrators under pressure from the government.
By the time President Obama took office, parents were worried, teachers were feeling more and more pressured and a consensus had already been reached that the goals set by NCLB for state education programs were totally unrealistic. Obama appointed Arne Duncan as head of USDOE. Duncan had been head of Chicago schools where he had been a strong advocate for charter schools and performance pay for teachers. With Obama’s support, Duncan created the Race to the Top (RttT) initiative which made hundreds of millions of discretionary dollars available to states in a competitive grant process. The grant guidelines reflect a lot of thought about how change can be affected down to details regarding the relationships between state and county governments, LEAs, School Boards and teachers unions and other stakeholders. Without going into detail, there are three major areas where requirements for an RttT award has met with substantial opposition; they are 1) the requirement that states commit to using Common Core Standards (that are still under development) and that they redesign (modify) their standard tests to conform to the new standards; 2) that data from these standardized tests be used to evaluate teachers, principals, and even schools; and 3) that regulations restricting promulgation and use of Charter schools be relaxed.
The Mystery and Lies about Standardized Testing in Arizona
Accountability testing started in 1965 as authorized by that part of Title I of the ESEA that allocated federal funds to improve the academic achievement of children from low-income families.
Arizona has been administering the AIMS (Arizona instrument to measure standards) tests in grades 3-8 since 2004 but tests were given in grades 3 and 8 before that and all the tests are based on standards that were developed in 1996. AIMS HS was first administered in 2004. Revised standards were implemented in reading and mathematics in 2003, writing and science in 2004, and social studies in 2005 (all in response to the revised education act (ESEA) or what is known as NCLB).
In January of 2012, Arizona was awarded a $250 million RttT grant with the condition that it develop tests that tracked to the new Common Core Standards (CCS); the purpose of these new tests were to develop data (test scores) that would be used (with statistical procedures worked out with specified test developers – Arizona subcontracts with Pearson, Inc. for this) to evaluate teachers, principals, and schools. A teacher’s ‘value added’ score is derived from differences between their students’ actual scores for the year and their ‘expected’ scores (estimated by projecting trends from past-years’ tests into the current year). This usage is at odds with that of the AIMS tests which “is to provide teachers with information to help students learn (Pearson Report: Guide to Test Interpretation).
The CCS was only approved in the past year and that was only for Math and ELA (English Language Arts). So, most observers would conclude that Arizona would have to develop all new tests because the AIMS tests have a different purpose and they are based on standards that date back to 1996. Another fact that led me to believe this is that Arizona is partnering with 10-15 other states to develop a standard PARCC test that has the same stated purposes as the AIMS but is focused more on HS and College entrance.
So, AIMS becomes AIMS-PARCC and new RttT tests are evidently under development, right? I confirmed this in a face-to-face with Superintendent Huppenthal (Superintendent of Public Instruction) at a meeting of the ARIZONA READY EDUCATION COUNCIL 2012 which is charged with tracking changes being made in our education systems. “No”, he said, “you have it wrong; there will only be one test”. The AIMS-PARCC or whatever they will call it. How can you design one test with two distinctly different purposes? Nonetheless, it is my impression that testing is being ramped up already and I know that database design and development is pretty far along.
At this point, you might be thinking this sounds a little too confusing and if the state can’t explain it and the feds can’t explain how to do it (create valid questions for the ELA tests) then maybe you should save your children from the stress and opt them out of the testing. So you might want to check how to do that. I checked Education.com and on their FAQs page I found the following:
Question: Can my child “opt out” of the AIMS DPA or can I request that my child not take the test?
Answer: No. A.R.S.15-741 and federal law mandate that every child in a public/ charter school in Grades 3-8 participate in the state’s AIMS DPA.
Next, I pulled up and read A.R.S.15-741 and found that no such ‘mandate’ was listed or mentioned. Furthermore, the part of the statement referring to a “federal law mandate that every child … participate in” some or any state program is absolutely outrageous and ridiculous. The federal government would be exceeding the constitutionally assigned powers by attempting to do this. Just think about it: if the feds could compel citizens to participate in a state program it would also be able to grant citizens the right to refuse to participate – what a mess that would create. In fact, there are several SCOTUS decisions criticizing states for attempting to interfere with a parent’s right to “direct the … education of their children”.
So, How Does This Affect Us?
Have you ever discovered that you have been mischarged on one of your accounts or charged for some service you thought you had cancelled? Do you recall being annoyed when the person you called blamed the error on “the computer”? Well, think about how you might explain to one of your children that his or her favorite teacher had been “let go” because the computer gave him or her low score because of the way you and your classmates scored on the standardized tests. Trust me, your children will know about how the system works. Would you even want your children to feel that kind of responsibility or to know that they have that kind of power? On the other hand, would you want your children’s teachers to feel that they need to fear the children that they are responsible for teaching? Do you want your children to feel like the reason they lost their play time or their art class was because they did not score well enough on the tests. Or, if you were the teacher, how hard would you try to drum ‘the facts’ into your students’ heads.
Well, maybe you don’t have school-age children or grandchildren in this state. Nonetheless, you ought to be concerned because it is your tax money that is being used to fund these RttT grants and other changes being made to the Education System. I was concerned so I set off to find out just what was happening especially in terms of these new tests.
There is something seriously wrong with this picture. School and learning ought to be fun not a burden.
This is much more than a fight for better schools; it is a fight to keep the last vestige of community-based life alive on this planet; to keep corporations from taking over everything. Like, what is wrong with us? Have we lost the ability to think for ourselves? What do corporations do? They fight among themselves until only a few remain (like 5 corporations left that own virtually all the media operations in the country). Think about 5 to 10-years from now when 5 super education companies own all the previously public k-12 schools. When they own the schools they will own our communities. They will own the food supply for school lunch and they will own HS sports teams and charge you to watch your own children compete. Where is your mind, America?
I am demonstrating in support of the Chicago Teachers’ Strike because we are headed for the same destiny where private corporate forces have converted schools into adjuncts to Human Resource departments of major International corporate conglomerates. I am afraid but I really don’t know because regardless of Gov. Brewers showy “Arizona Ready Education Report Card”, it is still difficult to find out exactly what is going on.