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Education Mon Mar 28 2011

Investigation Demonstrates Problem with Competition Model for Schools

An investigation into high-stakes testing results in DC schools has helped narrow the already skimpy body of evidence on which supporters of school privatization build their case. More telling, the results of the investigation lend vivid credence to a primary concern of skeptics, that the measures used to analyze schools and teachers simply compel sleight-of-hand:

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.


In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.

On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.

"This is an abnormal pattern," says Thomas Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who has studied testing for 20 years.

A trio of academicians consulted by USA TODAY -- Haladyna, George Shambaugh of Georgetown University and Gary Miron of Western Michigan University -- say the erasure rates found at Noyes and at other D.C. public schools are so statistically rare, and yet showed up in so many classrooms, that they should be examined thoroughly.

Being concerned about a proposed reform is not necessarily defending the status quo; objecting to it doesn't mean you're cleaved to some interest. Both sides of the aisle would do well to give up that argument angle, because all it does is sink us into the muck, unable to move the discussion forward. You'd think conservatives in particular would understand this impulse, given their skepticism of social engineering--I think many do. But there are those obstinate ones, more properly neoliberals (in both parties) than conservatives, who are stubborn in their belief that certain things must work because they must.

There's no question in my mind that competition between organizations or institutions generally leads to improvement of services or products. Not always, though. For example, in areas where the good or service is hard or impossible to analyze, or where the consumer can't really make a rational timely choice. One tenuous example would be health care; a stronger example is education.

The results of the investigation by USA Today show why the concerns of us privatization skeptics are not just rhetoric meant to serve our overlords in the mighty juggernaut teachers unions that are so omnipotent they have cleverly allowed hundreds of thousands of their members to suffer layoffs, turnarounds, and firings across the country in the last few years, and devilishly permitted pensions to go unfunded for a decade or longer while expertly orchestrating a federal program that is built on demonizing them.

Some quantitative measure that allows school executives and parents to compare schools is essential to undergird the larger program of voiding collective bargaining and privatizing school systems in part or whole. Otherwise how can you choose which school is "better" and deserving or funding or better for your child?

High-stakes standardized testing, and to a lesser degree graduation rates, have emerged as the leading measures. Skeptics like myself have argued that putting such immense pressure--a survival pressure--on schools and teachers without proper safeguards merely creates an incentive for schools and teachers to juke the stats or game the system or both. Particularly when, lacking protection of progressive discipline and grievance procedures found in collective bargaining agreements, teachers are unable to systematically object to any gaming or juking policies or instances. Unable to so object, teachers as at-will employees are at the mercy of charter school operators whose very survival depends on such juking and gaming--cheaper of course than attracting the most experienced (and expensive) teachers, and available to every operators as at the very least a last-chance measure.

An analogy can be drawn to the arguments that raising corporate income tax rates doesn't actually increase revenue, but just creates an incentive for corporations to use clever paperwork to offshore their profits. The behavior is economically rational and the safeguards lacking, so the result is predictable. The same problem exists here.

Particularly given that D.C. has been propped up as the model of this type of school reform, the nation's elites feting former Superintendent Michelle Rhee for her "fearless" program of agreeing with everything privatizers advocated and demonizing her political and policy opponents, this news is not trivial.

Even if the results of the investigation speak to some other cause: say, extra vigilance by teachers to make sure students went back and checked their work, there is the problem of just how accountable the schools were after the fact:

Parents and some State Board of Education members say they were never told which schools had high erasure rates or other irregularities.

Zell Foster, whose daughter Paige is an eighth-grader at Noyes, says that even if the school district didn't find any violations at the school in 2009, parents should have been informed that an investigation was underway. She says neither the school nor the district sent home notices about the erasures.

"It's not fair. It's our children," Foster says. "We shouldn't be in the dark."

Unlike your decision to buy a laptop or who does your company's payroll, this is not a good or service that after proving it is defective at some point during the process can merely be substituted with another supplier. Kids only go through education once, and by the time such deficiencies in their supplier are identified, it is not as if that child can simply be put back through the school year. Education is not a commodity or service that obeys the right market logic. That doesn't mean markets are inherently evil or whatever imputation privatization supporters make of skeptics: it is just a very reasonable objection to the program they're putting forth, and one that has more and more evidence cropping up even as its still in its infancy.

None of this means that charter schools shouldn't exist as laboratories in school districts, that tenure or teacher performance analysis shouldn't be reformed, or that there shouldn't be comprehensive reform of some kind. It just means that privatization, or at least the program now used to implement it, is not sophisticated enough to protect against the very behaviors that would undermine its purpose. Meanwhile, privatizers are full-throttle trying to implement their program piecemeal, and howling that their opponents are somehow opposed to any change because they don't buy their specific change.

It'd behoove everybody involved in the debate to take these problems seriously, rather than just shrug and say any change is equivalent to positive change, or try to point elsewhere to distract from the problem.

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Amy / March 28, 2011 4:15 PM

This is another example to demonstrate that testing and the pros and cons associated with it have gone too far. We as a society need to think about the purpose of testing as well as how we can determine that students have learned material. If it is true that all of these students have been instructed to change their answers on tests, what type of message are we sending them about honesty, values, and learning as a foundation for future learning and success?

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