Wednesday, March 13, 2013

SB 271 is a sneaky, last minute revision--of an already bad policy--literally written by Parents for Choice in Education with only one purpose: label schools as "failing" as an excuse for vouchers

The many topics this post touches on are all worthy of lengthy pieces that I don't have time for.  However, the links are excellent and the cut-and-pasting will be informative.

 1.  An overview of SB 271 and how it was purposefully held back until the end of the session in order to avoid most public scrutiny, especially the House Education Committee.  (A familiar tactic used with HB 477)

2.  The whole philosophy underlying the law--that lazy or bad teachers and administrators are the unique cause of public school problems, and that pressuring them through simplistic public "accountability" measures will make them work harder--is flawed.  Teachers are the most important school based factor in education, but school based factors are only 20% of the factors behind "student achievement."  The explicit message of laws like this is that the 60% of achievement explained by student and family background characteristics are only "excuses," and the low grades of poorer schools just show that those teachers and administrators are poor.

3.  The origins of school grading spring from Jeb Bush in Florida.  He then used his "non-profit organization" and ALEC to spread the practice as far as possible.  This has been touted as a great success by reform advocates.  To the surprise of no one, emails have been unearthed further demonstrating that Jeb Bush has been manipulating laws to funnel education money to connected companies (See Stephenson, Howard: Utah), including the absolute dependence on expensive standardized tests for school, teacher, and student data.  The proposals all have different details, but the school grades have not been successful in improving education in other states, including the original, Florida-- 1 and 2. See also Indiana...and note that the flawed grades there were leading to 22% D and F ratings of schools.  (Florida rated fewer than 10% of their schools as D or F.)  The PCE proposal in SB 271 would rate over 50% of Utah schools as D or F.  Does anyone not trying to make money off of miracle schools or software believe that?

4.  The statistical basis of comparison in both the current and proposed versions of school grading (see lines 52-56 & 89-112 of SB 271) is the Student Growth Percentile or SGP.  This has become a common measure to rate schools and teachers, but the creator of the measurement has declared that it is a measurement of student achievement not meant to make any determination of cause...such as what factors of the school or teacher caused that growth.  Here's the technical explanation of why that is (the context is rating teachers based on SGP's, and every problem exists equally at a school level ranking which is really an amalgation of teacher rankings according to SGP) as well as the source of that quote about the measurement.  And another by the same author, Rutgers professor and statistician, Bruce Baker.  Here's an illustrated version by another excellent education blogger.  The New Jersey evaluation in question has some differing details, but the core critique here is the same: that the compared sets of students matched by score independent of context actually condemn many excellent teachers working with difficult students and likely obscure some poorer teachers working with more advantaged students.

5.  It will be statistically impossible to compare scores for two years because of our new curriculum and testing, yet both plans will ram numbers into a formula and do it anyway.  Almost all schools have transitioned into teaching the new English and math cores this year, despite the fact we will still take the old CRT end-of-year tests this year.  That could be bad in English, but it is ridiculously bad for math.  The students have been sorted into Math 7, Math 8, and Math 9 classes independent of math skill, and they study parts of pre-algebra, algebra, and geometry each year.  Secondary math teachers have been working like first-year teachers again trying to keep up.  However, there are no tests to match what they are learning, so they will be given tests from the old classes.  An 8th grade class may have to take an algebra test, even though they may have only devoted 30% of their time to that subject. 

Comparing the scores of these tests to last year when the students were actually in those classes and taught that content to this year when they will NOT be able to study all of the same things is "educational malpractice" to quote Senator Stephenson.

Students will take the new computer-adaptive tests based on the new core in the spring of 2014.  These scores from a completely different test, with different questions and types of questions, and based on a different core will be compared to this year's tests based on the old core, but taken by students being taught the new core.

The comparisons and thus school grades will be invalid and actually misleading, but "educational malpractice" is only bad if it prevents legislative pet projects, not enables them.

6.  The "old formula" actually has never been used--it has been in the planning and working-out-kinks phase for two years--with frequent communication between the Utah State Office of Education and Senator Niederhauser.  The school grading was delayed last year specifically so the formula (as crappy as I think it is) could be further refined, as specifically stated by Senator Niederhauser.

7.  Parents for Choice in Education and Senator Adams are lying.   They claim that SB 271 is somehow a natural extension of the original school grades as understood and implemented over the last two years.  I hope Senator Niederhauser isn't fudging the truth too, but he may be.  I am very suspicious of his original intentions in passing the bill in 2011. 

Testimony at the March 8 meeting of the State School Board, along with Senator Niederhauser's quote above, explained that the formula had been worked on collaboratively for two years.

It seems to me that Senator Adams admitted that his bill is a new concept when he said, "This bill actually sets criteria that is more reflective of what school grading should be."

In two Urgent Action email action blasts sent two hours apart yesterday afternoon, PCE claimed very different facts about both the intentions of Niederhauser and the legislature and how the school grades about to take effect are "vague" and do not provide "accurate accountability."
Senator Adams, on behalf of President Niederhauser, is sponsoring SB271 - School Grading Amendments - making final technical changes to solidify the positive work the legislature has done to provide parents and citizens with clear accountability and transparency for the performance of all public schools.
The opposition is working hard to strip the standards of measurement out of the existing law, leaving it vague and creating a moving target on what signifies student growth from year to year. This would not provide accurate accountability for how our students are actually performing. 

President Niederhauser and Senator Adams believe that every child is capable of making a years worth of growth in a years worth of time. The original School Grading law and SB271 both recognize this and reward schools for both the number of students who are proficient as well as those who achieve a full year's growth! We cannot allow this principle to be undermined. The opposition favors a system that equally distributes how many schools get each letter grade, establishing a false measure of accountability that predetermines winners and losers rather than setting a standard whereby all schools can strive to achieve success!
We need School Grading to move forward as the legislature intended. The Senate has already passed SB271. We need the House of Representatives to approve this amendment! 
Please take a few minutes to contact your Representative right now! Tell them you support SB271 and ask them to fully support Senator Adams and President Niederhauser in bringing clear accountability and transparency to our public schools through School Grading.
They are blatantly lying that the punitive changes and last minute unveiling of SB 271 are just "technical changes" to move school grading forward "as the legislature intended."  But they may be telling the truth that they convinced Adams and Neiderhauser to run the bill this way in order for Niederhauser to avoid being the bad guy.  Niederhauser spoke in favor of the bill and said it just needed "tweaks" if the House was concerned.  He didn't mention working with any educators and their concerns.  I think the State Board of Education may have just been speaking diplomatically when they said they felt supported by Senator Niederhauser last week.

8.  The newly proposed formula in SB 271, intentionally held until the last 10 days of the session to avoid public comment and rush the bill through hurried votes, sets up a system with bars so high that almost all Utah schools will rank as "D" or "F schools."  (It also sets up two separate grading systems because of legal requirements and makes Utah the only state of those adopting school grades to put the exact measurements into law, making them extremely difficult to revise, even during the once-a-year legislative session. ) This negative labeling is intentional in PCE's bill because of their intense antagonism toward the public schools that educate the vast majority of Utah children.

9.  In the interim education committee meetings in 2011 after the original school grading bill passed, Senator Stephenson went public with his desire to identify and punish "F schools" by privatizing them, whether the measurements were accurate or not.  Senator Niederhauser certainly knew Senator Stephenson's intentions and that school grading had been used for this purpose in New York.  (They support schools with low grades in Florida with millions of dollars of assistance, while they just close down "bad schools" in New York and cross their fingers.  Guess which model Utah's law follows.)

10.  The intentionally impossible-to-reach standards for a school grade of "A,"  based completely on test scores set by SB 271, are meant to strengthen the propaganda that Utah schools are failing, and then give cover for school closings and transfers to private parties.  Senator Niederhauser voted for SB 271 as it now stands yesterday.  If he starts out his Senate Presidency with this underhanded betrayal of the collaborative work of two years with educators, he will confirm his true opposition to public ed in Utah and support of privatization and vouchers. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Urquhart's SB 279: Help me identify what company stands to benefit from $5,000,000 more taken from general education funds

My last three posts all deal with custom-made RFP's (Referrals to Friends of stePhenson) where legislators write the requirements of a public bid process so that only one company may win.  They even let the companies themselves help write the bill, especially if that company has made campaign donations.  If we're mad about Swallow, why aren't we furious about this??

Here's a new bill I just saw over the weekend via a legislator's update. The legislator spoke of SB 279 as if it were a done deal and going to pass.  This despite the fact the bill was kept secret until last week (the way we can't follow "boxcar bills" and just have to constantly check to see if they become active is a blow to transparency and maybe something I'll have to go into in a post-session complaint.) and rushed through a non-education Senate Committee with Stephenson on it.  It allocates $5,000,000 to an interactive math program with very specific requirements. 

There are 3 big problems I see:

1.  This seems written for a specific company AGAIN.  Why is Urquhart joining the likes of Stephenson, Stevenson, and Adams in this unethical practice?  Can anyone help me figure out what company this is intended for?  Does Imagine Learning have a new math program being unveiled?

2.  We are going to guarantee $5,000,000 to a company, but schools cannot "require" students to use this program, only provide it?

3a.  We are then going to measure "learning gains" from a weird subset of students using it in totally different ways and amounts and report that as accountability?  It is flat-out impossible to get good data from that.  I think Sen. Urquhart would know that.  Did the vendor write this bill too?

3b.This (non-)accountability report will likely be written by the vendor themselves if recent trends continue.  This seems to me like doubling down on a destructive practice. First, we give vendors custom written bills because they have curried the favor of only one or two legislators.   The vendor then self-reports learning gains, and the legislature uses that report to justify more money.  It worked for Imagine Learning.  I've been to various vendor sales pitches, and every one proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that their product would drastically raise student achievement.  I've never heard any claims of "mediocre learning gains" or "so-so achievement."  These practices are unethical even if the program ends up being great for the students.  That's very fortunate for the students, and may even be true of Imagine Learning, but it does not justify cronyism, political favors, pay-to-play, or not reporting useful data.

Here'e the language cut and pasted from the bill.

Custom RFP.  What company already knows this is coming?

 (3) In selecting a program, the board shall consider the following criteria:
             44          (a) the program contains a strong instructional component focused on problem solving,
             45      number sense, and basic skills;
             46          (b) the program provides explicit instruction with a strong focus on highly effective
             47      and evidence-based strategies and comprehensive resources to address learners in need of both
             48      strategic and intensive supports, including English language learners;
             49          (c) the program is self-adapting to respond to the needs and progress of the learner,
             50      including allowing for increasingly intense instruction and additional practice opportunities
             51      based on individual student needs;
             52          (d) the program provides opportunities for frequent, quick, and informal assessments
             53      and includes an embedded progress monitoring tool and mechanisms for regular feedback to
             54      students and teachers; and
             55          (e) the program is self-paced.
 Can't require??

 (4) The board shall make the program available to school districts and charter schools
             57      that apply for the program based on the number of students in kindergarten through grade 6.
             58          (5) A school district or charter school may:

             59          (a) provide the program to a student by scheduling additional instructional hours or
             60      other means; and
             61          (b) may not require a student to participate in the program.

But will report learning gains??  How?  Compared to what? 

62          (6) On or before November 1, 2013, and on or before November 1 each year thereafter,
             63      the board shall report final testing data regarding a program provided under this section,
             64      including student learning gains as a result of the program, to:
             65          (a) the Education Interim Committee; and
             66          (b) the governor.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

From the horses' mouths: SB 110 moves toward vouchers; SB 133, SB 82, and SB 257 are designed to gather all Utah students' data in one place and allow national vendors free access

SB 110 School-Based Budgeting

During the Senate Education Committee hearing, Stephenson says, "I believe we could empower school communities to actually take charge of their budgets."

Lisa Snell of the libertarian think tank, the Reason Foundation, says "This is not a new program. It’s not a crazy idea,"

Later, Stephenson says, "I’m fighting disinformation – they’re saying this is some kind of voucher bill, and it’s got nothing to do with vouchers.”

Then Lisa Snell, co-author of Reason Foundation's Annual Privatization Report,  says on March 5th "student-based budgeting or backpack funding is both all about vouchers AND part of a movement toward a totally new public education system.
"The growth of student-based budgeting in school districts and a few states mirrors a national trend toward more decentralized school funding where the money follows the child. In the United States, we are in a transition period, moving from funding institutions to funding students. K-12 education funding is moving closer to the funding model for higher education, where the money follows students to the public, private or nonprofit school of their choice."  (Underline and bold text mine)

SB 82 Student Achievement Backpack and SB 257 Personalized Educator Evaluation Technology with SB 133 School Performance Report Amendments as an enabler making sure all of the data, every student's test score in every classroom of more than 10 students, is legally accessible.

In the Senate Education Committee, Jerry Stevenson says about SB 82 ""It adds transparency to what our education system is doing,"

Judi Park of the State Office of Education says, ""It's going to be much more costly than what the fiscal note would suggest."

Howard Stephenson says, ""I just support this bill 100 percent, and I think what we're hearing in opposition to it are excuses for not wanting parents to receive this information," he said. "Parents have a right to all the information in the most easily accessible way."  So it's all about the parents and their rights.

I say, "Every parent in every district in the state can log into a website and see their student's grades, test scores, records, etc.  This unnecessary bill,SB 82, is a transparent ploy for some other goal."

Just before the South by Southwest (SXWE) educational technology conference this week, educational technology salesman and advocate, and friend and presenter at Parents For Choice in Education conferences, Tom Vander Ark, says,
The Ed-Fi solution extracts student information from a variety of educational data systems, and then standardizes, integrates and communicates it to educators and other parties through Web-based dashboards, reports and other applications.  Ten states license the Ed-Fi solution directly and four additional states benefit from partnerships with inBloom, which uses Ed-Fi XML interchanges to support states’ and districts’ adoption of personalized learning tools....

Digital Learning Now! created a 10 element state policy framework that embraces the potential of digital learning–all 10 elements rely on a great longitudinal data system.  DLN is releasing a Smart Series paper every month on critical digital learning topics.  The second paper Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles detailed next steps for states. 

 States should:
Adopt the Ed-Fi standards and join the Ed-Fi Alliance.

District and school leaders should:
 Encourage your state to adopt the Ed-Fi solution to ease transfer of gradebook data and use of common dashboards and reporting tools.
Work with a vendor on a super gradebook and expanded learner profile.
 (underlining mine)
So Ed-Fi = inBloom = massive database of student data for vendors.
SB 82 = "super gradebook" necessary to "ease transfer of gradebook data" to Ed-Fi/inBloom

During SXSW, Tom Vander Ark says,
Data is Beautiful.  inBloom is everywhere at SXSW with briefings, receptions, and parties. Along with the subtler Ed-Fi Alliance launch, data plumbing, policies and tools are all the rage in Austin.
 Marketing as education policy...

The paper mentioned above, Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles, outlines the goals and connected programs of this "Big Data" (their words) push.

To paraphrase the paper: It's hard to see your student's records with fees and forms.  [Is this true anywhere in the US in 2013?] Data is in a "patchwork" of systems. [That's an obvious buzzword of the paper. Turn it around and say "States and districts have insisted on autonomy when choosing data and grading programs.]

To quote from pgs 5-6:

"This expanded Learner Profile
must represent a holistic view of the
student’s unique learning preferences,
such as his or her best learning modality
(such as, “does the student learn best
through visual representations in some
cases and with hands-on learning in
others?”) and learning environment
(such as, “does the student perform
better in small-group or whole-class

Next-generation digital
tools, services, platforms, and systems
now give us the opportunity to collect
and classify information down to the
individual keystrokes of comparable
students in parallel situations.
(Underline mine)

Pg. 2 and 12: Make a new official transcript called the student backpack, specifically to enable the data (the uncomfortably specific data detailed above) to be shared with the inBloom database and mined by vendors.

Pg. 11 sidebar: BloomBoard is the designated "personal teacher professional development plan" program  SB 257 designed to be compatible with the new super gradebook SB 82.

The dots have been connected.  I half apologize to Common core conspiracy theorists.  You got part of the scheme right; you just missed who was perpetrating it.  Bill Gates and a bunch of unethical education technology profiteers want to eliminate student privacy and destroy neighborhood schools in order to enable a voucher system that funnels money to the best advertisers. 

Howard Stephenson, Stuart Adams, and Parents for Choice in Education shill for legislation in behalf of these national organizations who do not care what the majority of Utah parents want for our children.  Their words talk about "students, not systems," but their actions show that their motive is just to force students into a different system meant to exploit them for the profits of connected individuals and companies.

Has EVERY educational technology company that made political donations in Utah gotten a state contract? Open question, but I think the answer is yes.

How do you win a statewide contract to provide educational software for schools in Utah?  You could spend time pitching your wares to individual schools and districts--I've sat through a number of demonstrations myself.  "If you use whatever program for a whole bunch of minutes each week, it will drastically improve an important skill x in the students.  We will then print reports showing that they improved."

But why waste your time thinking small?  Only 1 or 2 of our state legislators taught public school, and they hold the purse strings to much larger sums of money than the districts with much wider latitude on how to spend it.  Convince them that your product is a silver bullet--but making sure to repeat "I'm not saying this is a silver bullet"--as you hand them "research-based" reports showing your program drastically improved test scores in that one district in that one state.

Those legislators can then write a bill with a Request For Proposals (RFP's).  Those requests can be for "personalized teacher professional development plans," "special education specific reading software,"  "handheld reading devices to give reading tests,"  "reading software for preschoolers on a laptop with a dashboard," or whatever.  These open Requests for Proposals are supposed to open up a competitive bidding process that ensures the taxpayer-funded school system has the latitude to purchase the best product at the best price.  However, just Imagine the potential power in helping determine the specific wording and feature requests for one of these "open" proposals...  I've taken to calling them Referrals to Friends of stePhenson.

I was put back on this horse when I was contacted by a blogger in Arizona, a retired high school English teacher, who had read my posts on Imagine Learning and Waterford's political spending and custom RFP's.  A state senator there is running a bill opening up a $30 million RFP for reading software with a suspiciously specific list of requirements.  This teacher and his commenters tracked down the company posed to benefit from this custom bill, Utah's Imagine Learning.  He broke down the specific language of this year's bill and a past proposal to show how it was specifically crafted for Imagine Learning.  Then he posted about the fact that Imagine Learning is a paying member of ALEC and then linked to my posts about Imagine Learning's political donations in Utah that of course had nothing to do with their statewide contract.

Statewide funding to Imagine Learning was first authorized in 2008.  I obviously suspect it was in SB 2, the omnibus, but I can't find it.  Here is my post about Imagine Learning's political donations in 2009.  The system has been updated since I first wrote that, and the political donations actually started in 2008, including money given to Becky Lockhart, Carl Wimmer, Aaron Tilton, and a candidate for the Canyons School Board. 

Imagine Learning has kept up the pattern of political donations in 2010, 2011, and 2012, only with a larger net.  They have spent over $57,000 (Is part of the return on that advocacy at the ALEC conferences from the Utah legislators?) over 3 years, donating principally to powerful Republicans (Herbert most of all, Jenkins, Hughes, Urquhart, Bramble, Osmond, many others), but plenty of Democrats too, especially strong education advocates. (Carol Moss, Marie Poulson, Karen Morgan)  None of the legislators were even up for election in 2011 when Imagine Learning cheerfully donated $18,000 to various campaigns.  They also donate money to groups that are code for donations to legislators, but they don't have to put their name on the forms.  Donating to the Utah County Legislative PAC is giving money to Speaker Lockhart's control. Donations to the Utah Taxpayers Association are a donation to Howard Stephenson that he doesn't have to report either.

Imagine Learning has also partnered with the Utah State Office of Education to sponsor teams to a popular road race run in teams, Ragnar, in both 2012 and 2013.  There's nothing inherently bad about helping teachers run in a race, but any connection to learning or K-3 Reading is tenuous at best (healthy teachers is a good goal...except any teachers participating in this long race already run anyway...). I believe the firm is just cultivating influence wherever it can.  Does buttering up the USOE decrease criticism of the political nature of their contract?  I have to say the answer is possibly, "Yes."

The program was reauthorized in 2010 in HB 2.  The language is for reading software, but it apparently just continues the existing Imagine Learning contract.   Imagine Learning received $8,400,000 over 2010, 2011, and 2012, which is really a nice return on investment for their $57,000 in contributions. The amount the legislature gave the company detailed in their "accountability" report which I will discuss more in a moment.

I searched the entire list of corporate donors in Utah, and only one additional education company has donated any money since 2008.  (The big national virtual school company, K-12, had a folder, but appears to have not donated since at least 2008.) 

That one other company out of thousands of educational technology companies, iSchool Campus, spent almost $10,000, all donated to Republicans, in 2012, and...wait for it...they won a state wide contract too!  It was even publicly acknowledged that they got to help write the bill, and several representatives from iSchool accompanied the sponsor to the legislative committee presentation.  No, I am not making this up.  The bill sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, insisted the process was "fair". Sure they helped write it; sure I had them with me when I advocated for the bill; but they beat out three other vendors for an RFP they wrote, "fair" and square.

So the only two companies listed as making political donations, Imagine Learning and iSchool, got what are essentially no-bid contracts despite proposals from other companies. And Waterford paid an unknown amount of money to a contract lobbying firm headed by an ex-state senate president which in turn spent an unknown amount on gifts, meals, and other methods of lobbying the legislature via various loopholes, leading to Waterford's software being bought for individual preschoolers around the state, via last minute inclusion in an omnibus education bill.

All three companies, Imagine Learning, Waterford, and iSchool arrange for "news" articles that basically serve as free advertising with no investigation of their claims:
Imagine Learning

However, NO data has been released publicly on the performance of Imagine Learning or Waterford.  (iSchool just started last fall)   There have been some hyperbolic statements made by school choice people and legislators about how great they are, or anecdotal fluff like the articles above, but no proof of the software's quality or worth. There have been reports made to the legislature, but you probably haven't heard anything about them.  Howard Stephenson doesn't insist that letter grades about his expensive pet programs be mailed to every home like he does for those lazy teachers.

Here is Stephenson's Utah Taxpayers Association Newsletter from Sep. 2012.

Stephenson opines on technology in schools on pages 2 and 3.  You can see his disdain for backward teachers who don't realize that iPads are smarter than them.  The 3rd to last paragraph features his specific references to Imagine Learning and Waterford, just not by name, and his claim that they "improved student performance."  But no evidence.  That's just for socialistic reading teachers and the PTA.

The next paragraph details the "best new" iSchool pilot program.  He literally claims ALL students are on task ALL the time as they rotate on and off of the iPads.  It's magic!  And make sure you realize he had to have written this at the end of August/very beginning of September when school had been in for at most a couple of weeks in the first year of this pilot program. 

He has been finding tangentially related reasons to repeat how wonderful these schools are in every committee or floor hearing he can during the entire session. I would love to hear in the comments or via email from any teachers or staff at the three iSchool pilot schools. I listened to Stephenson during one of the first education appropriations committee meetings of the session, and on the radio, wax on about how these students were ALL glued to the screen with no disruptions all the time.  He made it sound like he was a frequent observer, while I bet he went to one of the schools one time in August.

Technology doesn't magically "personalize" and accelerate learning.  It's often handy, and students do like using iPads, but it is not a silver bullet for better reading, writing, and thinking, especially not higher level skills.  The "personalization" consists of ranking the students on a scale according to how many multiple choice questions they answer correctly, and then giving them a different ranking after the next test according to whatever unique and proprietary system of measurement that particular program develops. 

Senator Urquhart, although I frequently disagree with him, is usually someone I find willing to talk and reason with those in opposition to his bills.  But he came down hard on education officials during another educational appropriations officials, saying something to the effect that "All the elementary reading gains in Utah are due to Imagine Learning."  Really?  Based on what evidence?

Yes, Imagine Learning donated  a relatively small amount of money to his campaign.  And yes, Sen. Urquhart is also running a bill, SB 260 First Substitute, giving more money to Imagine Learning based on their claims of results. In fact, the bill allocates just over $5,000,000 to Imagine Learning for 2013-2014, which is $2,000,000 more than they've ever received in a past year.  Please look at the two-page accountability report given to the legislature which is apparently the basis of Senator Urquhart's and Stephenson's claims of increased student achievement. 

The Imagine Learning report is basically useless.  It is not an independent report generated by the users of the product, the schools or Utah State Office of Education.  It is two pages provided by the vendor detailing how they fulfilled their contract and their claims of student achievement.  They report that they fulfilled their contract by having friendly customer service, installing the program, and delivering headphones.  Then they provide a table of student skill mastery data as measured by themselves.  There is no context to understand it.  80% mastery of those concepts as defined by Imagine Learning in an unknown number of exercises would correspond with what CRT, DIBEL, or anything?   The 4th column reports much higher percentages of students with skills mastered than I get from dividing the second column of total students by the first column reporting how many students mastered at least 80% of the skills per area.  What numbers and context are missing?   This is data by the vendor to show that the vendor's program worked.  What was the chance of those numbers showing low achievement?  0%?  The data just seems cherry-picked to appear high with further results available "on request."  Take a guess how many legislators requested any more specific data... Or take a guess how many times Howard Stephenson ranted about "funding inputs" in relation to Imagine Learning's intrepid providing of headphones.

I have only done a cursory read through the extensive Waterford 3-year evaluation data.  This at least gives the appearance of rigorous comparison with the state's scores, but I have not put the necessary time in to dig through this all and see if it's valid.  This was presented by a Waterford Rep. and the first page is another mini-sales pitch. There is a claim that a test given halfway through kindergarten shows that children who used the Waterford software program score higher on a reading test than those students who did not take the test.  There are still many questions about that test, whether the difference is meaningful and will still be there in first grade, and whether the degree of any positive effects justify the cost.

Or put differently, could we accomplish the same and more by spending that money somewhere besides to one well-connected company? And why didn't Stephenson or the legislature talk publicly about this or past reports they assumably received about the Waterford UPSTART program?  There is often no real attempt to negotiate with educators about the best use of funds when Stephenson determines a software vendor can do something better than teachers. 

I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn't have been, that both "accountability" documents were written up by the vendor themselves.  The claims to "increased student achievement," merited or not, were apparently carried through the ALEC network to Arizona as well, where Imagine Learning is trying to repeat the same pattern by winning education contracts from politicians rather than educators. 

Howard Stephenson has a record believing marvelous "21st century" claims of vendors and then shilling for specific companies. (That last link has so many revealing underlined quotes.  Read and see Stephenson's numerous comments.)  A Utah district got suckered by a vendor I have had some experience with, Plato Learning, into spending over $75,000 on worthless learning "games," that last I heard are boxed up and ignored after less than a year of use.  I've attended various sales pitches in our district and a lot of them are solutions looking for problems...and really broad problems like "reading" where they can claim "It's only one piece of the process" if scores do not go up, but claim to be the definitive cause of any improvement.

Software can be an important tool, but programs are receiving state contracts via custom RFP's because they can convince or donate to one or two key legislators, or just based on the ideology that technology can more cheaply accomplish something as complex as educate a child. 

Howard Stephenson and his buddies, along with Parents for Choice in Education, are running vendor specific bills cloaked in language of open RFP's.  We know those who have openly donated in the past; we will find out more in months to come when 2013 political donation reports are due; and we may never learn if some companies are members of ALEC or the Utah Taxpayer's Association, where their payments are merely a "private transaction" rather than a bribe.  It's an open secret that is just as bad as anything John Swallow did.

It should be illegal.  It certainly isn't ethical.  And in contrast to all of their rhetoric, it is certainly not about helping kids learn.  It's all about directing easy chunks of taxpayer money to political cronies. 

Just a few 2013 vendor bills:

SB 133, SB 82, and SB 257 which are a package deal literally meant to enable a private database of individual, identifiable information of every student in Utah so vendors can use the data to sell us stuff. SB 82 and SB 257 have specific vendors already chosen by the bill sponsors.

SB 260 More money for Imagine Learning as detailed above.

SB 175 requires the state contract with an ACT Prep software company with a strangely specific $150,000 cost, leading me to believe Stephenson already knows a company will make that bid. Even though the official ACT site already has as many free test questions and study materials as I think most students need, the official ACT purchasable online prep program may be the target company here.  Its buzz words match the prewritten RFP in the bill very well. (Lines 229-258) But at $19.95 a pop, that would only cover 7500 students, not nearly enough.  This one even makes it law that districts have to "encourage" the use of the program.  No micro-managing here.

SB 79 Makes an RFP for a "consultant" to guide the state and schools in creating "blended learning models." Money can also be granted with no oversight to buy software or online curriculum material.  Who does Stephenson know who consults and has a handy set of online materials ready for purchase?

HB 343 tried to ban schools from purchasing paper books....Well why don't you try our lovely daily online reading program?

SB 284  More money for iSchool? A 1-to-1 device to student ratio pilot?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Connect the dots: Stephenson & Adams want to give away public ed. money to connected companies…and enable a national database of Utah students to be mined for profit??

                                      (UPDATE AT BOTTOM OF POST 3-9-13)
I’ve got a lot to say about custom RFP’s (Referrals to Friends of stePhenson) this session and in the past (Imagine Learning, iSchool, Waterford, etc.), but I’ll have to limit my focus tonight. Senator Stuart Adams had become PCE’s admitted newest waterboy over the last couple of sessions, and I’m fairly certain they coordinate and spread around which of their legislator friends will carry certain bills.

1. Senator Howard Stephenson wants to make sure all legal obstacles to accessing and publishing teacher data—student scores grouped by teacher—are removed with his SB 133. He claims the public will benefit from teachers being ranked and compared by standardized test scores. All questions of population and demographics, and the inevitable screwing over of special ed., ELL, and other poor students, are waved off: “There will be plenty of context.” (The simple fiscal note also took a month to be returned, resulting in this bill being slightly hurried in the second half of the session.)

As a separate caveat that will be important further down, remember that all of this supposed “teacher data” is more accurately a bunch of individual student test scores. The scores of actual Utah students attached to records containing names, grades, and social security numbers.

(The whole concept is wrong because of important technical and practical considerations, as well as questionably moral. Here is a one link to the posts on VAM (Value-Added Measurement) by an educational statistician at Rutgers, with a large focus on New York where this has already happened and been demonstrated inaccurate and harmful to teachers AND thus students. )

2. Senator Jerry Stevenson is now running SB 82, Student Achievement Backpack.  This bill’s original non-public drafting was requested by Howard Stephenson, and the numbered bill was listed under his name until a few days ago. Somehow the bill got switched to another senator; I suspect this was in order to diffuse the concentration of educational software bills being promoted by Stephenson. (This bill was not revealed to the public until late February and then was held in committee for two more weeks, ensuring that it will not have to go through the House Education Committee and face more testimony from the public. It will instead be rushed right to the House Floor Calendar if it passes the Senate. The public may not comment on the floor, unless they have the legislators’ personal cell numbers to text like the lobbyists do.)

I believe every school district in Utah has an online portal where parents can access their student’s records, seeing their current grades and past test performance. I could be wrong about some rural district, but I doubt it. All parents have to do is log in. In keeping with local control and budget priorities, the contracts for providing these online services are handled by the individual districts. When students switch schools, the records with grades and test scores are sent on with the student, with a slight delay while the new school requests the record from the old one.

So the bill really is pointless. Half a million dollars this year and $110K a year to duplicate what already exists, but centralized and controlled by the state. However Stephenson was vehement in his support for the concept and criticism of the educators who were explaining this to the Senate Education committee. All of the concerns about duplication and wasting scarce education fund money were only “excuses for not wanting parents to receive this information.”  It’s all about the children you selfish teachers! (Notice that the sponsor has chosen not to make the fiscal note public. Does it contain any concerns that the claimed costs are too low?) PCE’s spokesperson perpetuated the misconception that having access to your student’s records was some new innovation.

3. Stephenson certainly has a specific company, who may or may not be one of the Utah Taxpayers Association’s secret clients, in mind to design and administer this database. He has demonstrated in the past that he has no qualms about tailoring RFP’s (Requests For Proposals) in order to ensure that a favored contractor wins the government contract.

4. There’s a larger playing field of educational philosophy these bills are being positioned on. Both bills are based on and tacitly strengthen the assumption that teachers are the only variable that matters in education, and that their interests are opposed to students. There are many horrible teachers lazing around, and if we only pressure them more by centralizing this newly available data on teachers and students, we’ll quickly and innovatively find magic silver bullets to educate poor students that are cheap AND effective! (One of those assumptions is actually true, and leads to substantial profits for those involved…)

Both also lay the ground for a largely privatized system of “backpack” funding, the euphemistic term for vouchers, where students are constantly switching schools or “voting with their feet” in a competitive arena of variously priced schools. Of course, continually jumping back and forth between schools and losing most neighborhood schools, except those still educating the very poorest and most disabled students, won’t harm the students academically or socially.

4. Having all Utah students’ data in one expensive, redundant database at the state would I guess allow for slightly easier transfers in such a scenario. Charters often struggle a little bit more sending information in a timely fashion as they don’t always have the same staff and experience with the paperwork as the districts, but it still seems a bit weird to be pushing this so hard.

5. So now look at Senator Adam’s other seemingly unconnected bill which was the most out-of-the-blue bolt of technological wonder in a session full of software that will save education, SB 257, Personalized Education Evaluation Technology.  (This bill wasn’t revealed to the public until the last day of February. It too will skip public comment in the House Education Committee.)

Wow. What a concept! We’ll push the total dismantling of district economies of scale and teacher contracts with SB 110, mandating a huge increase in principals’ budgeting and HR responsibilities, but then pilot a way to have a computer program replace their evaluations of teachers. Maybe it makes a strange kind of sense. If you plan on making the principal do what a staff of accountants and HR people previously handled at the district level, he or she will not have time for the unimportant work of observing and mentoring teachers. It’s a great way to spend $70,000 this year before expanding the program next year and claiming that this isn’t taking away local control. “21st Century local control” means you get to turn the computer on yourself.

I don’t for a second believe Senator Adams (or even Senator Stephenson) came up with this chestnut alone. Who in the world is pushing this solution searching desperately for a problem?

6. While my head was spinning from the ridiculousness of this newest way to claim technology can replace teachers and principals (ridiculousness that passed the Senate Education Committee on a 5-1 vote earlier today), I saw a bunch of tweets from some national education people I follow about the Gates Foundation’s national student database. I continue to be very “meh” on the Common Core, but have largely dismissed the conspiracy theorists claiming the national takeover. It was hard for me to swallow their hypocritical denunciations of the Gates Foundation funding and backing, when they accepted their money and theories, as well as other out-of-state millions from Walmart channeled through Parents for Choice in Education, when they backed their pet proposals for merit pay or vouchers.

But this new information about what the Gates foundation is doing along with Fox New’s educational software company, Amplify, and others, is something that may unite varied groups in Utah against national student databases. It’s not the government gathering student data into one place to exploit our children; it’s educational software companies...

A few excerpts from a Reuters article from the SXSWedu technology conference going on right now in Texas:

But the most influential new product may be the least flashy: a $100 million database built to chart the academic paths of public school students from kindergarten through high school.

In operation just three months, the database already holds files on millions of children identified by name, address and sometimes social security number. Learning disabilities are documented, test scores recorded, attendance noted. In some cases, the database tracks student hobbies, career goals, attitudes toward school - even homework completion.

Local education officials retain legal control over their students' information. But federal law allows them to share files in their portion of the database with private companies selling educational products and services.

Entrepreneurs can't wait.

The database is a joint project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided most of the funding, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and school officials from several states. Amplify Education, a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, built the infrastructure over the past 18 months. When it was ready, the Gates Foundation turned the database over to a newly created nonprofit, inBloom Inc, which will run it.

Schools do not need parental consent to share student records with any "school official" who has a "legitimate educational interest," according to the Department of Education. The department defines "school official" to include private companies hired by the school, so long as they use the data only for the purposes spelled out in their contracts. 

The article interviews several software executives who will use this database to “personalize” programs for students as they sell them. Then it interestingly moves on to professional development for teachers.

Companies with access to the database will also be able to identify struggling teachers and pinpoint which concepts their students are failing to master. One startup that could benefit: BloomBoard, which sells schools professional development plans customized to each teacher.

The new database "is a godsend for us," said Jason Lange, the chief executive of BloomBoard. "It allows us to collect more data faster, quicker and cheaper." 

What a fortunate coincidence! Read the “open” RFP for software in SB 257 lines 55-76.  This program must contain “personalized professional development plans” with a “reporting dashboard,” a “free observation tool,” and a “free online library of professional development. ” Now go to Bloomboard’s website and see what three features are offered on the front page:

• Free observation & evaluation tools for districts

• Individualized learning plans & personalized support recommendations for teachers

• An open marketplace of workshops and resources for professional development

Next, scroll down one page to watch the handy video, remembering that lines 64-66 of the bill require the program to tell you the most effective resources according to “data on the implementation of professional development activities.” Another lucky break! This program happens to claim that exact function. (1:13-1:26 in video.)

Very convincing.  Evaluations are hard!

One page below, the sample dashboard with three tabs is even more convincing. The very non-generic evaluation and goals under the “Coach” tab are powerful, and the “Connect” tab shows an “online library of professional development” complete with articles and videos of classroom games, all apparently categorized on Levels 1 to 4. You just plug in a teacher’s test scores and a video, and this program, based on a proprietary collection of data that is 100% trustworthy, will give us personalized weblinks to other peoples’ educational training that we never could have googled ourselves. The program will pay for itself because now we can stop paying teachers to meet together for professional development. They will just go home and on their own time read a few links of “online resources” that are “more personalized” than face-to-face training. It’s brilliant!

7. And the key to making this marvelous miracle of 21st Century education work…a database with all of the students’ scores, identified by teacher and class, gathered to one central location.

This would normally seem an insurmountable obstacle in a state devoted to protecting its children.  However, in *another* fortunate coincidence, SB 133 allows the necessary data to be made available, and SB 82 unnecessarily gathers it into one central database. SB 257’s coincidental match with Bloomboard’s specifications will then not be in vain, and BOTH school choice AND school profits will be enabled. And all for the children.

Life is just full of surprises.

UPDATE:  Well, I found some smoking guns of a sort.  There is no more need to only infer what is happening from the non-coincidental program links.  I have quotes from those organizing the massive database, inBloom or Ed-Fi. The dots have been connected.  They make a cute picture of a dollar sign: $ :which is now hanging on Bill Gates' refrigerator. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

PCE wants pro voucher State School Board candidates by Thursday for flawed elections, and UEA "monopolizes" the caucus??

Parents for Choice in Education (PCE) appealed to supporters today to file and run for the State School Board. They realize informed advocates of public education on the board often intelligently oppose PCE initiatives to weaken public education and want a majority of sympathetic votes.

The Parents for Choice in Education PAC operates on extremely large out-of-state donations from anti-public ed. organizations and individuals. They literally have no grassroots financial support in Utah. They reported over $209,000 dollars sitting in their PAC account on their August 2011 report, which is the most recent posted at the Lt. Governor's website. This money came from large donations in the election years of 2010 and 2008. (The state switched systems in 2008, and the reports showing the millions of out-of-state money received during the voucher fight in 2007 and the systematic support of pro-voucher candidates in 2004 and 2006 do not show up. I know there's some way to link to the old system. I would be grateful if anyone could post a link in the comments.)

The PCE PAC received $179,000 in 2010. $4000 was from the Conservative Caucus of Utah politicians; the other $175,000 came from two national anti-public education organzations: All Children Matter, founded by the DeVos and Walton families, and The American Federation for Children, a new group (with the same founding board as the National Alliance for school Choice) founded by the same people apparently to avoid the bad publicity from All Children Matter being fined $5.2 million for hidden illegal campaign contributions in Ohio. (It looks like PCE was one of the final recipients of All Children Matter funds before it became defunct) The AFC is apparently also closely affiliated with ALEC and its proscriptive model bills to weaken public education. In 2008, the PAC received just over $342,000. $175,000 came from All Children Matter; $164,000 came from Patrick Bryne, the CEO who contributed millions in 2007 to the voucher campaign and continues as one of the only 3 sponsors of Howard Stephenson's Red Meat Radio program; the other $3424 was donated by the Board Members of PCE.

PCE has poured tens of thousands into State School Board elections before, and appears to be ready to enter the fray this year again. They are looking for candidates in all districts having an election this year: 1, 4, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 15. Here is part of PCE's plea:
Dear School Choice Supporter,

If we want to empower parents with quality school choice options, both public and private, we absolutely must recruit like-minded candidates for the State Board of Education. The innovation and reform necessary to improve our public school system will require a majority of supportive board members - something we currently do not have. This upcoming election provides us with a rare opportunity to change this!

We urge you to please consider becoming a candidate for fthe Utah State Board of Education. If, we ask you to help us recruit good candidates to run for the 9 spots up for election this year.

We need committed individuals to serve who understand how critical it is that we find solutions for an outdated public school system that will better meet the diverse learning needs of our students. 21st century innovation has the power to transform our one-size-fits-all system. The State Board of Education and the legislature have the most direct influence on our state's K-12 education. We can't expect change unless we are willing to get involved!
The whole process for State School Board elections is literally run by special interests, as a committee of industry lobbyists and then the governor get to select which candidates the public gets to vote on in this non-partisan election. This is detailed here, here (with more links to the 2008 vote), and here. (Gov. Herbert has expressed his desire for an open election, but the latest in many attempts to un-rig the elections, HB 331, appears to have had a weird provision for the primary date, increasing costs, and was killed by the House Education Committee without a hearing)

In 2008, there were shenanigans in my State School Board district 13, where the election winner resigned the day the election was certified because he suddenly "discovered" that he didn't live in the district, ensuring that the BYU Education professor who would have otherwise been eligible to contest the seat had no opportunity. The erstwhile winner, C. Mark Openshaw refused to answer opinion surveys and emails while campaigning, literally putting up no signs and making no campaign appearances. His family's blog said he didn't even want to win!

It appears Mr. Openshaw is running again from the state candidate website (Scroll to the bottom), and unopposed, though his paperwork is not linked like the others as of this moment. What kind of school board member was he the last 4 years? I have no idea. Maybe I would actually love his representation on the board, but I have no easy way of knowing. I saw his name mentioned one time in the paper with a lukewarm comment about the upcoming school grading system. The State School Board needs to get some sort of public vote display up on their website showing official votes of each individual on proposals. That would be positive all around and give voters better information on which to base their votes.

Two of the districts, 10 and 12, have no candidates filed today, two days before the deadline. The positive thing is that if only two candidates file for a district race, they get to completely avoid the flawed lobbyist selection board and governor narrowing. The scary thought is that some of these candidates might run unopposed. Who will sign up for an automatic State School Board seat on Thursday afternoon? We'll see how it shakes out.

PCE also encouraged supporters to run for delegates at the caucus with this comment:
The teacher's union works hard to monopolize the caucus system, ensuring their powerful stronghold and dominance over our taxpayer-funded, public school system. YOU can make sure this doesn't happen! Get involved in the legislative process and become a Delegate.
After years of barely fighting off destructive voucher proposals and other bad policy, I only wish public education supporters had more "dominance" PCE. I only wish. If more teachers would run and become delegates, maybe we could get support for more legislators in Utah Valley who value public education like the silent majority does. Our "taxpayer-funded, public school system" needs to continue to serve the public, not the whims of out-of-state multi-millionaires.


Friday, March 9, 2012

The education related items the legislature resolved to study before the 2013 session

SJR 13 is the Master Study bill for the interim. There were 155 items to study before a last minute bunch of at least 19 additions. They are all under line 431 with letters in the current draft of the bill to explain how it will look when I list some below.

There is not even a miniscule iota of a chance that all of these items will get looked at by the legislature and their staff during the entire next year, let alone in the 8 or 9 interim meetings the legislators will have.

I am going to list below the study items that have to do with education. Who decided which ones will they actually study? I'm betting Stephenson's priorities won't be skimped on, such as items 25, 30, 32, 34, and 431w.

The elections will be over, and it will be the year to push more strident anti-public ed. stuff in the off year. He's already stated his intention of pushing in 2013 Sen, Reid's destructive constitutional amendment to eliminate the State Board of Education, replacing them with the Governor and an appointed Secretary of Education. After the best year I can remember for public ed. (thanks to the House stopping some bad Senate bills), I predict 2013 will be rocky.

Education Related Study Items
23. Academic Achievement Gaps - to study high quality preschool impacts on academic achievement gaps for at risk students.
24. Alternatives to GED - to study whether to issue high school diplomas to adults and those who do not graduate with the class instead of awarding a GED, to study the relative value between a high school diploma and a GED in the employment marketplace, and to study how to eliminate the GED in Utah and give diplomas instead, to give these students a higher value.
25. Charter School Local Replacement Funding - to study whether school districts should contribute an amount equal to per pupil district property tax revenues for each resident student enrolled in a charter school.
26. Charter School Mission and Online Education - to study whether a charter school student should be denied permission to take an online course through the Statewide Online Education Program because the charter school's mission is inconsistent with the online course.
27. Concurrent Enrollment - to study the current program structure, cost, delivery, and coordination of public education and higher education.
28. Credit for Teacher Professional Development in Technology - to study options for giving credit on the pay scale for teacher professional development in technology unrelated to college credit.
29. Education Interim Committee Reports - to study whether one or more reports required to be submitted to the Education Interim Committee should be discontinued.
30. Enhanced School Calendar Incentives - to study how to encourage school districts and charter schools to utilize their buildings year round to extend calendars, and how to offer teachers a 50% pay raise with no additional costs to taxpayers, with added benefits like paid vacations, holidays, and class room aids.
31. Financial Literacy - to study ways to promote financial literacy.
32. K-3 Class Size Reduction - to study caps on K-3 class sizes and class size reduction line item accountability (S.B. 31).
33. Necessarily Existent Small Schools - to study the current distribution formula, review cost differentials between small and isolated schools and other schools, and determine the best funding mechanism.
34. Pay for Performance Impact on Student Achievement - to study the impact of teacher pay for performance on student achievement and performance gains.
35. Professional Development Classes - to study the impact of enabling professional development classes or tracks under "lanes compensation" schedules.
36. Public Education Funding - to study and carefully review the formulas currently in use and determine if they are meeting the needs of the current education environment.
37. Public School Funding Criteria - to study how money is distributed to public schools based on prior year enrollment, and whether public schools could receive funding based on current year enrollment instead.
38. Quality Teacher Incentive - to study an incentive program to retain quality teachers in the public schools.
39. School District and Charter School Postemployment Benefits - to study how school districts and charter schools are addressing any continuing liability to provide postemployment benefits to employees (H.B. 460).
40. School Funding - to study long term funding options for public education.
41. Sex Education Through Online Video Components - to study in collaboration with the State Board of Education the delivery of online sex education through video components in lieu of in-class instruction, with each component to be approved by the parents before the student has access to the materials.
42. Specialized Student Counseling - to study ways to provide specialized career college counseling, focusing on admissions and scholarships, for high school students (H.B. 65).
43. Student-based Budgeting - to study whether to require a school district to distribute certain revenues to schools in accordance with a weighted student formula and to require a principal to determine how to use revenues available to the school to meet student needs (H.B. 158).

115. Trust Lands Issues - to study and receive a report on school and institutional trust lands issues from the Children's Land Alliance.
116. Utah Land and School Trust Funds - to study the protection of Utah lands and school trust funds (1st Sub. H.B. 209 and amendment #2).

118. Allocations to Schools - to study school allocations measured by property tax (H.B. 507).
119. Computer Software Exemption - to study whether to provide a sales and use tax exemption for certain computer software.

137. School District and Charter School Postemployment Benefits - to study how school districts and charter schools are addressing any continuing liability to provide postemployment benefits to employees.

431o. Comprehensive overview of the WPU in public education

431w. School funding - study of the statewide equalization of school funding.