August 31, 2023

Thomas Ultican: A National Warning

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Thomas Ultican, retired teacher and education blogger, digs into current ed reform shenanigans in Delaware. It’s a warning for the rest of the country. Reposted with permission. 

An unholy alliance between neoliberal Democrats and education reform oligarchs is harming Delaware public education. This is a lesson for the rest of the nation.

A new charter school law introduced to reduce principal professionalism is the latest example. Data clearly shows for almost two decades, top-down education reform has been ineffective and seriously damaged a once, exemplary system.

In March, Delaware Professional Standards Board recommended charter school certification requirements match public school rules. Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, immediately responded, “All Delaware charter schools are led by highly qualified administrators.” She said charter school principals have a different role than public school leaders and need to be excellent marketeers to raise funds and drive enrollment.

Did she mean charter school principals don’t need to be professional educators?

For the Standards Board recommendation to take effect, adoption by the State Board of Education is required. Before they acted, Senate President Pro Tem David P. Sokola introduced senate bill 163 to relax certification rules for charter school principals.

The heart of Democrat Sokola’s legislation says:

“The bill creates new subsections in Section 507(c) of Title 14 of the Delaware Code to define the licensure and certification requirements more clearly within Chapter 5 of Title 14. Finally, the bill requires the Secretary of Education to work with the Delaware Charter Schools Network to create a qualified alternative licensure and certification pathway for charter school administrators engaged in the instruction of students (Instructional Administrators).”

Teachers’ union leader, Mike Matthews, wrote to the Senate Executive Committee:

“I was disheartened to see that SB 163 — a bill that will actually deprofessionalize the education profession — was introduced by Senator Sokola. I was even more disappointed — and concerned — to see it filed in the Senate Executive Committee instead of the Senate Education Committee where it belongs. Why was that?”

Bill was passed by the State Senate and is currently awaiting action in the House Administration Committee. The House Education Committee, like its counterpart in the Senate, is not involved.

Neoliberal Education Reform

A Delaware Live headline howls, School test scores dismal again despite new math, reading plans.” Two decades of 4th and 8th grade reading and math data on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) support the headline. NAEP is often referred to as the nation’s education report card. The above graphs beg the question, “what happened in 2010?”

Long-term NAEP data showed from 1971 until 2002, there was steady growth in math and reading. The steady growth ended concurrent with the adoption of the bipartisan Kennedy-Bush education reform, No Child Left Behind. The graphs illustrate this phenomenon.

Why did Delaware’s scores start falling?

In 2010 educator and blogger, Susan Ohanian, reported,

“Delaware and Tennessee came out on top in round one of RTTT: Delaware got $100 million (about $800 per student), and Tennessee $500 million (about $500 per student). Since these states radically changed their education strategies to receive what amounts to 7 percent of their total expenditures on elementary and secondary education, the feds are getting a lot of bang for the buck.”

The $4.5 billion dollar Obama era Race To The Top (RTTT) program was administered by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Grants were given to states that complied with three key elements: (1) Evaluate teachers based on student test scores (2) Close and turn into charter schools public schools that continue to get low test scores (3) In low-test score schools, the principal and half of the staff are to be fired and replaced. In addition, states were encouraged to create more privately-managed charter schools.

Education historian and former Assistant US Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch predicted the program’s utter failure when it was announced:

“All of these elements are problematic. Evaluating teachers in relation to student test scores will have many adverse consequences. It will make the current standardized tests of basic skills more important than ever, and even more time and resources will be devoted to raising scores on these tests. The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, because of the link between wages and scores. There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test. There will be more cheating, more gaming the system.”

For more than a century, brilliant educators have been skeptical of top-down coerced education reform like those from Duncan, Obama, Bush and Kennedy. Alfred North Whitehead published his essay, “The Aims of Education,” in 1917, stating:

“I suggest that no system of external tests which aims primarily at examining individual scholars can result in anything but educational waste.” (Page 13)

“But the first requisite for educational reform is the school as a unit, with its approved curriculum based on its own needs, and evolved by its own staff. If we fail to secure that, we simply fall from one formalism into another, from one dung-hill of inert ideas into another.” (Page 13)

Former McKinsey Consultant and Democrat with neoliberal inclinations, Jack Markell, was elected Delaware Governor in 2009. His first major victory was winning the RTTT grant. He said:

“What’s really important today is where we go from here; whether we have the will to put our children first and move forward with reforms to improve our schools so that Delaware children can successfully compete for the best jobs in an increasingly competitive global economy. That won’t be easy, but we have proven in these past few months that it can be done.  I would like to thank all those who worked with us in support of our application and look forward to moving ahead to improve our schools.”

Markell praised then Senate Education Committee Chair, David Sokola, for his work on the RTTT grant proposal, the same Senator who just introduced legislation to soften certification requirements for charter school principals.

Since the RTTT announcement, Delaware has gone from consistently scoring above the national average on all NAEP testing to dropping well below.

Science of Reading is NOT the Answer

Delaware Live reported that because of the relative drop in reading scores, the state is implementing the “science of reading.” The article stated, “Today, after a decade of emphasizing training teachers in the science, Mississippi students handily outperform Delaware’s, which has dropped below the national average.”

While the scoring drop in Delaware looked real, the success in Mississippi was a mirage. The graphs to the left plot 2002, 2011 and 2022 NAEP scoring data for 4th and 8th grade reading. Delaware is graphed in red, Mississippi in green and National Public in blue. The 4th grade Mississippi data looked amazing but in 8th grade, they returned to being significantly below national average.

The anomaly is explained, in part, by Mississippi retaining all third graders who did not pass the state reading test. It made the 4th grade NAEP data look good but the 8th grade data indicated no earth-shaking advancement to emulate.

In 2021, Delaware’s Department of Education doubled down on oligarch-driven education reform. Monica Gant, Ph.D. from the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE), presented their strategy to accelerate learning in March 2021.

Under the heading “Literacy Professional Learning,” Professor Grant noted, “Participants will have a chance to apply their learning of the Science of Reading either through their district HQIM or utilize free OER (Open Education Resources) HQIM for this work.”

HQIM and OER are both programs financed by Bill Gates, Laurene Powell Jobs and other billionaires.

To guide Delaware public schools’ literacy program, DDOE has turned to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) who advocates the “science of reading”, to validate Delaware’s programs. IDA is leading the effort to monetize dyslexia and establish state-mandated science of reading curriculum, purchased from specified vendors.

While jurisdictions throughout the US saw a tick down in 2022 NAEP reading scores, Delaware’s scores, after a year of “science of reading”, were one the largest drops in America.

Final Observations

The reform movement in Delaware is still being pushed in a destructive direction. Senator Brian Pettyjohn, a Republican from Georgetown and member of the Senate Education Committee, commented on recent testing results:

“Our state must do more to hold school districts responsible for students’ academic success. The current mechanism in place for holding schools accountable is ineffective, and it is time for the state to establish a new system that recognizes school districts for their accomplishments and holds them responsible when they fall short of their objectives.”

The concern is understandable but his solution is wrong-headed. More mandates from politicians who do not understand education are not likely to be helpful.

There appears to be a privatization-promoting organization in Delaware called First State Educate. They just hired Julia Keleher as Executive Director. Serving as Secretary of Education in Puerto Rico, Keleher, who is not Puerto Rican, secured a new law allowing for charter schools and vouchers, as well as, the closure of hundreds of schools.

At a San Juan rally, protesters chanted, “Julia go home!”

Things went sideways for Keleher. December 17 2021, a federal judge in Puerto Rico sentenced her with six months prison, 12 months house arrest and a $21,000 fine. She pled guilty in June to two felony counts involving conspiracies to commit fraud.

Today she is another voice in Delaware, pushing for top-down reform and privatization of public education.

Delaware schools were most successful when local educators and school leaders took charge. Since then, after standards were imposed and teacher accountability mandated, school performance suffered. Alfred North Whitehead was right in 1917.

Give autonomy back to schools and professional educators. Politicians at state capitals have little understanding of local school needs or good pedagogy.

Empower teachers and Delaware education will shine again.

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