Thursday, August 23, 2012

PISA and Poverty: Time for Both/And Solutions

Leans to the left....
The Program for International Student Assessment results have become a political football for crtics of our public education system.  The United States middle of the pack scores on these international benchmarks are said to be an indication of the "failure" of our public schools, and a threat to national security, a tired narrative that has been repeated since the ascent of neo-liberalism in the 1980's.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) describes PISA as follows:
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a system of international assessments that focuses on 15-year-olds' capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. PISA also includes measures of general or cross-curricular competencies such as problem solving. PISA emphasizes functional skills that students have acquired as they near the end of compulsory schooling. PISA is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of industrialized countries. Begun in 2000, PISA is administered every 3 years. Each administration includes assessments of all three subjects, but assesses one of the subjects in depth. The most recent administration was in 2009 and focused on reading literacy.
There are ways of considering these results that reveal that our public education system is first rate, and that our failures are not failures of education policy, but a colossal ethical lapse by a rich and powerful society that refuses to invest in its own future by failing to attend to the basic human needs of its youngest citizens.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) disaggregated the PISA results by poverty, with the metric being the number of students on free or reduced lunch. For example, when you compare US schools with free/reduced population of 10% or less with countries reporting less than 10% child poverty, the US schools outperform. Similarly, 10-25%. Over 25%, Mexico is the only comparable, and again, US schools outperform.
Frighteningly, the US is headed for a child poverty rate of 25%. And, even more amazingly, we have schools in this country with near 100% poverty. Where are the comps? Chad? Malawi? Looking at these results, its clear other developed nations don’t tolerate that sort of poverty among those who will be building their futures.
Poverty is a ball and chain on our education system. While as a professional educator I wholeheartedly support efforts to improve instruction, I have to ask can’t we at least move forward simultaneously on the problem of child poverty? This is not excuse making – its a both/and solution. We need a holistic approach to solving our nation’s problems, one which admits that economic upheaval, social dislocation, war, etc have an effect on education attainment, and also admits that educational success impacts our ability to address those other problems.
The Obama/Duncan approach tries to fix education by putting it in a silo – and worse, uses rhetoric which encourages people to believe that we can somehow educate our way out of systemic poverty. This burdens our education system with unrealistic expectations and distorts policy. Cut that ball and chain and the policies we would be looking at to improve education would be VERY different.
Compliance with testing mandates is not very high up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for people living under what for most of us would be unimaginable conditions. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Cooking the Books: Healthcare and Education

We count healthcare costs twice in policy discussions, once when talking about per capita health care costs and again when talking about any costs of government which have an employee health care component. A prime example is education funding: in calculations of per pupil spending there is a substantial component of healthcare costs for education workers and their dependents. By double dipping, and counting these costs once on the health care ledger, and again on the education ledger, we are inflating the costs of government and distorting the policy discussion.
This distortion plays into the radical right's push to "shrink government until it can be drown in the bathtub."  If we debate public policy on the basis of funny numbers, if we don't even acknowledge how the books have been cooked, we are not going to have decent outcomes.
How can we compare ourselves to countries like Finland, which pays for universal healthcare from a healthcare budget and universal education from an education budget?  Of course their per-pupil spending is going to be lower!  They don't use revenue raised for the purpose of educating children to pay for private health insurance for education workers and their dependents.  They don't use schools as a mechanism for keeping employees and their families healthy.  That makes so much sense.
As Pasi Sahlberg explains, you can't understand Finnish education outside of the context of their wraparound social democracy.  And a corollary must be that you can't understand American education and its successes and failures without taking into account our context.  This includes the growing momentum of the neo-liberal program which is systematically dismantling government and consigning public good to the for-profit sector.
There is another subtler distortion.  When you have a childhood poverty level approaching 25% (which no other advanced nation tolerates) the effectiveness of every dollar spent on education is diminished.  When children arrive at school suffering health, food, transportation, or housing insecurity, or when they arrive from families stressed by the threat of those things, they are not going to be as ready and able to learn.  Families under economic stress lack the capacity to effectively support children as learners.
A nation which heaps the inefficiencies of its own injustice onto its education system is going to have to pay a lot more for any type of educational outcome.  It doesn't mean that education has failed, just that we are asking unreasonable things.  You have to use the right tool on the right job.  You don't plow fields with a family sedan.  You don't cut boards with a hammer.  Yes, we need great public schools.  But we also need to provide those schools with comprehensive institutional supports so that children arrive ready to learn.
That would require acceptance of a concept of public good.  It would require us to accept that the health, education, transportation, nutrition and housing of individuals in our society is not just a matter of private interest to them, but also a matter of great public interest, because societal failure is the sum of vast numbers of personal tragedies.  JFK put it in positive terms: "A rising sea lifts all boats."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My Core Principles

I have two principles which drive my actions in the political/policy sphere: citizen voice and democratic engagement.  It is very useful to have principles which inform decision making, if for no other reason than that the existence of principles tends to confuse bad actors, who tend to be un-principled.  They don’t understand what makes you tick.
Principles also provide a filter to evaluate policy.  When examining education or union policy, I have a two part test: 1) Does this empower teacher voice?  2) Does this enhance democratic engagement of teachers and other stakeholders such as parents and students?  If something can pass this test I’m all ears.  If not, it’s time for push back.
The development of voice means helping others grow a capacity for advocacy and activism.  This can mean learning to speak in public, to write for publication, to make phone calls, to knock on doors – the nuts and bolts take many forms. 
Democratic engagement looks like people simply taking interest, acting with passion and commitment about the issues which affect their lives.  Cynicism and disengagement, the sense that nothing can be done, that bad policy is inevitable and must be suffered silently, is a path to totalitarianism.
The beauty of this approach is that it is relatively content neutral.  I don’t worry so much about what your voice advocates because it is more important that you are engaged.  Engagement is critical to great public policy because it brings information to the table.  Decisions based on incomplete or degraded information tend to have negative consequences.
Of course if you advocate a Grover Norquist style drown-the-government nihilism you don’t have a place at the table because you are trying to burn it.  You are a vandal.
While I am a denizen of the political left, I appreciate real old-fashioned conservatives, the ones who advocate for great policy from the perspective of individual freedom, personal responsibility and sound fiscal management.  I share those values too – I just have different beliefs about how they should play out.  There is common ground.
The cacophony of a democratically engaged citizenry is messy and inconvenient.  Sort of like a Vermont town meeting.  Too bad.  Get over it.  Great public policy requires the participation of the public.  As it says in The Declaration of Independence:
“….Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….” 
What principles guide your actions?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Whose Voice is it Anyway?

Just back from a convening of some 20 "teacher voice" groups, I was struck by the extent to which teachers so crave the opportunity to make a larger impact that they will donate their expertise to these groups for, at best, the price of a plane ticket and a hotel room.  Those teachers, as Nancy Flanagan might say are "on the make," so to speak, and are creating artifacts of great value for all sorts of organizations up to and including the national unions, and not receiving value for their expertise.

However the people who run these organizations - often non-educators, or "former teachers" whose shelf life expired long ago, don't do it for free - and are often compensated handsomely.  They inhabit a shadowy revolving door world of government, academia and consulting which can be quite lucrative by teacher standards.  There is a built in soft corruption in this enterprise.

Two problems: first, "teacher voice" groups have so little skin in the game that it becomes easy to discard or marginalize dissenting opinion, especially when that opinion might jeopardize the status of the group in the competition with similarly constituted groups.  There are few costs to groups to behave this way, since there is little investment in the human capital, and it so cheap and easy to cultivate a new "teacher voice" to replace the troublesome one.

Second, it is fine for these groups to use teachers to further institutional aims, but when teachers begin to figure it out and begin to use these entities to further their strategic goals (as opposed to their careers) the landscape shifts.

I witnessed a teacher who was beginning to think strategically about her policy goals and surf on top of this world.  Suddenly she found herself getting the cold shoulder from one such group.  What we need is a lot of people willing to behave this way (and I believe there are a fair number out there) but the personal cost in terms of stress and lost income can be high.

When one begins to use these groups instead of being used, the worry is that the perks (such as they are) and access can be jeopardized.  Perhaps the only tool we have to combat this tendency is our integrity.

The real question before teacher leaders is this: what does one want, a career or fantastic public policy which speaks to real professional aspirations?  And why does one have to choose?