Monday, February 08, 2010

Racing to the Top, Wherever That Is

Arne Duncan's Race to the Top is coming under increased scrutiny because improprieties keep springing up faster than test scores.

Late last year, Pro-Publica published an article asserting that education funding was being appropriated for "Phantom School Districts" - a phrase that could be synonymous with a money laundering operation.
In Kansas, 11 school districts that no longer exist are on the U.S. Department of Education’s distribution list for stimulus funds. They are set to receive nearly $600,000.

We found these school districts when Kirby Ross, managing editor of the Phillips County Review in Phillipsburg, Kan., alerted us that our county-by-county stimulus tracker [1] included two districts in his area that didn’t exist. That prompted us to do some more digging.

We checked more states and found that other consolidated or dissolved districts were on the list. In Missouri and Iowa, a handful of closed districts were listed as receiving stimulus funding.

That doesn’t mean stimulus checks will be arriving to empty buildings. In instances where money is allocated to a closed district, it typically is divvied up among the districts where the students now attend.

States must notify the Department of Education when districts are dissolved or merged. We asked the Department of Education why the list of districts receiving stimulus funds included closed districts, but we did not hear back. We’ll let you know when we do.

I don't need to remind you that this is the same Federal government operation that wants to control every aspect of our schools.

Also late last year, the neo-con dirty tricks campaigns against public education started floating sensational news stories emphasizing how illiterate our high school students are. Nate Silver at the FiveThirtyEight blog examined one such claim in Real Oklahoma Students Ace Citizenship Exam; Strategic Vision Survey Was Likely Fabricated.
It turns out that I was not the only person who had doubts about the survey. So did Ed Cannaday, the State Representative from Oklahoma's 15 House District.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Cannaday told me he was shocked when he heard of the results, which had received widespread media attention. "When I saw the statistics, I was just flabbergasted and said it cannot be true," he told me.

There were two items in particular that sent up warning flags for him: the one claiming that only 23 percent of the students knew the identity of George Washington, and another that claimed that about one in every ten students had listed the two major political parties as "Republican and Communist".

"Given the dialog of today, if they had said Republican and socialist, then maybe," Cannaday told me. "But communist -- that's just not something that you throw out there any more. I don't think Sarah Palin even used that term."

Cannaday, age 69, would be in a position to know. Before entering the State Legislature three years ago, he had spent decades in education, first as a teacher in a large public school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and then in Oklahoma where he set up an alternative school. After a stint in private business, Cannaday returned to classroom, first as a teacher and then as a principal, and then -- finding he missed the one-on-one interaction with his students -- as a teaching principal at a small school in House District 15. He now serves on the House's education committee in Oklahoma City, and continues to pay regular visits to the schools in his district. "Most schools like to have me once a month," he says, to talk about legislation pending before the state.

Cannaday therefore had little difficulty setting up an experiment: he arranged to have all the seniors in the 10 secondary schools in his district take the Strategic Vision/OCPA survey. Cannaday tried to replicate the Strategic Vision survey to the greatest extent possible. The same exact questions were used, and as in the case of the original survey, the answers were open-ended rather than multiple choice. The survey was administered to a total of 325 seniors, including special education students.

Cannaday's survey however, found his students doing just fine: They answered an average of 7.8 out of the 10 questions correctly. By comparison, the high school students that were purportedly surveyed by Strategic Vision had gotten just 2.8 out of the items correct. 98 percent of the students on Cannaday's survey -- not 23 percent -- knew that George Washington was the first President. 81 percent -- not 14 percent -- knew that Thomas Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence. 95 percent -- not 43 percent -- knew that the Democrats and Republicans are the major political parties. There was just no comparison between the two.

The entire article is worth a read. The assault on public education in the name of accountability, closing achievement gaps, and school profiteering is not lost on students who are learning at their own expense that the game is rigged against them.

And that brings us to the latest scandal, transparency in Arne Duncan's Department of Education.

Alexander Russo's blog at Scholastic, This Week in Education raises a number of disturbing questions.
I have now heard the same thing from three independent credible sources - the fix is in on the U.S. Department of Education's competitive grants, in particular Race to the Top (RTTT) and Investing in Innovation (I3). Secretary Duncan needs to head this off now, by admitting that he and his team have potential conflicts of interests with regard to their roles in grant making, recognizing that those conflicts are widely perceived by potential grantees, and explaining how grant decisions will be insulated from interference by the department's political appointees.

Over the last several months a national education reporter, a senior manager at a national education research organization, and the head of a national nonprofit working in the field all volunteered that the Department's senior officials know exactly who they want to get RTTT and I3 money - in brief, the new philanthropies' grantees and the jurisdictions where they work.

These three hold positions of some responsibility. None have been prone to exaggeration in the past. They are not colleagues. They run in entirely different circles, live in entirely different parts of the country, and work in very different parts of the K-12 education space. They all relayed conversations with colleagues about the problem.

We do know that the Secretary benefited from a strong relationship with the new philanthropy in Chicago. We know that the Secretary is high on charter management organizations and the new teacher development programs that benefited from the new philanthropy. We know that RTTT czar Joanne Weiss was senior staff member at New Schools. We know that Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton was a senior program education officer at the Gates Foundation and NewSchools. We know that both managed investments in the organizations' Duncan favors.

Anyone who remembers the Reading First fiasco is familiar with the pattern.

There's more at the link. And Frederick M. Hess writing in The Enterprise blog of The American Enterprise Institute adds,
The larger issue here, of course, is not merely whether Duncan should have announced the identity of the judges (though the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli offers a terrific explanation of why he should, from the perspective of a Department of Education veteran). The larger question is how the department is proceeding on RTT. Let’s remember to keep that question in context. The administration has unprecedented discretion due to the $787 billion stimulus package, more than $100 billion of which is directed to education. Given the control over this kind of money, as well as the terrific intuitions that undergird RTT, it’s essential that the administration does everything possible to reassure observers that it is operating in a credible, non-political fashion. Part of having unprecedented sums of money is the need to embrace unprecedented levels of transparency. That includes reaching out to skeptics and moving with particular thoughtfulness when it comes to the process. In fact, for all the criticism that the Department of Education justly received under Bush for insularity and a lack of transparency, the names and affiliations of the growth model pilot peer reviewers and the differentiated accountability pilot peer reviewers were disclosed prior to the reviews taking place.

Yet, after President Obama’s assurances that “politics won’t come into play” in the RTT process, after Duncan’s claims about how he’d recruit “disinterested superstars” to judge RTT, and after comments from RTT chief Joanne Weiss on the “unprecedented level of transparency” of the process, the reality has been otherwise. Last summer, the 19(!) RTT priorities appeared pretty much out of nowhere—with the dictate that states would not be rewarded for successes in data systems or teacher quality alone, but would be required to check all 19 boxes in sprawling applications if they were to seek funds. The advisers for the RTT evaluation were named and secretly convened last fall. The 58 reviewers were selected from 1,500 applicants in a process that was never made clear. The department has never explained what constitutes a “conflict of interest” for potential reviewers. The department never announced that reviewers had been named or when or how they’d be trained. Indeed, it took Education Week’s intrepid Michele McNeil to finally leak that story, before Duncan responded (and not in an official department announcement, but in a blog post!).

Again, the link version offers many more references and should be used for further exploration.

What's already clear to every school child in the country should be becoming clear to all of us, the race is gamed. And its not gamed for the benefit of anyone we know.

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