Monday, May 4, 2015

Thank you, John Oliver!

When Jon Stewart took a break from "The Daily Show" to direct a movie, John Oliver took over for him. He did such an amazing job that HBO offered him his own show on Sunday night, "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver."

Viewers quickly realized that Oliver was not only providing laughs, he also devoted about 18 minutes of each show to investigative journalism. He manages to make "60 Minutes"-like pieces both informative and funny at the same time.

This week, he took on standardized testing and hit it out of the park! Here is that piece. (Warning: It is HBO so you may hear a swear word now and then. The piece is a little silly for the first 2-3 minutes, but by the end you'll be looking for ways to share it.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Premise is Wrong!

The "opt-out" movement of the last few weeks has poked the school reform tiger in the eye. That tiger has sharp teeth in the form of deep pockets and a political and media machine that has bought into a bad solution to a problem that has been badly misunderstood. It's not too dramatic to say that public education is fighting for its life.

We need to be able to explain what's wrong about the school "reform" movement in simple terms. No educational jargon. We need to be able to explain this--clearly and simply-- to our angry uncle, friend or neighbor.

We'll begin with the problem as "everyone knows" it. Simply stated, our educational system is failing. Our students today don't know as much as those of 50 years ago, and our students do poorly on international tests when compared with other wealthy nations.

Here's the rub: What "everyone knows" is not the case!

I did several posts a year or so ago using Diane Ravitch's book, Reign of Error, to establish this. Let me refer you to these:

1) For a general introduction to the "everybody knows" arguments, check this post: There's Only One Problem with this Narrative.

2) "Everybody knows" that we have a dropout problem and graduation rates are falling. In addition, "everybody knows" that students today don't know as much as those 50 years ago. Sorry, not true! Check this post for details:  Public Schools in Crisis? Check the Facts.

3) The movie "Waiting for Superman" claimed that 70% of 8th graders cannot read at grade level. "Reformer" Michelle Rhee makes the same claim. Sorry, not true! Check this post for details: "Superman" and Rhee Blew it.

4) As for how the USA performs on international tests, begin by checking out this post: Let's Look Inside the International Test Results. Then come back here for further discussion.

The key to the misunderstanding of our international test results is this: If Bill Gates walks into your local homeless shelter, the average person there becomes a millionaire.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals has done a nice job of making this clear. They looked "inside" the numbers and found something very interesting. Using the overall average score for all U.S. schools, we are "middle of the pack." We fall behind Korea, Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Estonia, and Switzerland. We Tie with Poland and Iceland while beating Sweden, Germany, Ireland, France, Denmark, United Kingdom, Hungary, Portugal, Italy, Slovenia, Greece, Spain, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Israel, Luxembourg, Austria, Turkey, Chile, and Mexico.

But, our poverty rate (21.7%) is much higher than other nations. If one "levels the playing field" and compares U.S. schools with poverty rates of 10% or less with other nations with poverty rates of 10% or less (Finland, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland, France, Denmark and the Czech Republic) USA schools are #1!. That's right, we're the best in the world!

Making the same comparison with USA schools with poverty rates between 10% and 24.9% with other nations in this poverty range (Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Poland, Germany, Ireland, Hungary, United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Austria) the USA is #1.

It should be noted that the USA poverty rate of 21.7% is far above that of any other nation tested. In case you're wondering, USA schools with poverty rates between 25% and 49.9% are #10 when compared with all tested nations.

The conclusion drawn by the NASSP is "It's poverty not stupid!"

It is clear that the USA has lots of world-class schools. That is, those in low poverty areas. We also have schools--those in high poverty areas--with problems.

But, school "reformers" claim that all our schools are failing and in need of massive "reforms." That obviously is not true, yet it has become the public perception.

"Reformers" make the claim that poverty is only an "excuse." If only we could bypass teacher unions and replace the ineffective teachers in high-poverty schools, all would be well. A simple experiment should prove whether this is true. Pick some high-performing, well-resourced schools and swap faculties with nearby high-poverty schools.

If the "reformers" are correct, the high-poverty students will flourish while the low-poverty students will fall on their faces. Somehow, I don't think that would be the result!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

This time, it's personal.

In March, 2014 I made what I thought would be the last post to this blog. I was wrong.

You may have noticed in recent weeks that inservice teachers in NYS have poked a tiger. They are at war with the governor, state education department and the Regents. The legislature has passed incredibly punitive legislation and many parents have opted to remove their children from the language and/or math statewide tests currently being given.

Inservice teachers really need the help of those of us who are retired. We are generally respected members of our communities who come from the time before teachers were viewed as the greatest- known threat to western civilization, and we have the time to socialize with others in our communities.

We can be a great force to help others understand just how messed up things have become in today's schools at the hands of those in positions of power who have no experience with attending or teaching in a public school.

We need to be able to explain to others--as simply as possible--what has gone wrong. I see my job as getting this information-- in easy-to-understand form-- into your hands. That begins with my next post.

The title of this post indicates that I have a personal stake in this matter. I have two grandchildren who attend NYS public schools, one of whom is autistic. My daughter is a special ed. teacher in a NYS public school. They make this very personal for me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The last post.

I know, you haven't heard from me in over 3 months. That's because I've just about run out of things to say. And so this will be my last blog post.

I began this blog in 2011 with this purpose stated in the first post: "Public employees in general--and teachers in particular--are currently under attack. It is the purpose of this blog to give teachers some hard ammunition with which to fight back against the "everybody knows" arguments wielded by those who don't bother to actually get the facts, but simply rely on biased news outlets, accepting their "talking points" as proven facts delivered from the hand of God."

And that's just what I tried to do, for 216 posts. In each post, I tried to include something other than just opinion. When that annoying neighbor or relative began the refrain about how "public employees with their lavish salaries and pensions were destroying our economy," I saw my job as providing you with the well-researched facts to cram down their throats.

You've been with me as we covered the facts about a variety of topics of interest to retired educators: The fake "crisis" in public education; Health care in the USA; our looming retirement crisis; the fight to bring down public employee unions and many more topics.

Back in 2011, the fight against public employees had just begun in Wisconsin. It was flying under the radar. That's now changed. Those of us in the public sector are well aware of what is happening, and we're fighting back.

Around the same time, a fake "crisis in public education" was being ginned up, with teachers--and their unions--identified as the reason our public schools were in decay. Now, people are beginning to see that this is mainly an effort to privatize public education for profit. To some, this sounds like a good idea. Privatizing prisons used to sound like a good idea too. Check out how that has worked out!

Those 216 posts contain a lot of useful information. To make it more useful, I will be spending a few weeks organizing these posts by topic and turning them into pdf files with a table of contents. Expect an email from me--containing a link--when this project is complete. (I will also put up the link as a final blog post.)

The blog will not disappear. All 216 posts can still be reached by going to

Oh, one more thing. Most of you know that we made the move to Florida about 18 months ago. Most readers are retired and have probably thought about moving as well. I will pass along what we have learned about moving to Florida in a future email.

Thanks for reading these posts. I've enjoyed every minute spent writing them!

Dick Steinfeldt

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Let's look inside the international test results.

Over the last 3 blog posts, we've been looking at the performance of American public schools in light of the current "the sky is falling" push to "reform" schools. Along the way, we've learned that HS graduation rates are up, not down. We have also learned that, over time, results as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have been going up, not down and that, in fact, students today know far more than students 25 or 50 years ago.

But then there is the matter of international test scores. The PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test, administered every 3 years, measures performance in reading, math, science and problem-solving skills. While the U.S. has maintained its score level over several administrations of the test, other countries score higher. The conclusion the "reformers" reach is that we are not keeping up with our international competition. Our public schools are "failing" and drastic changes are needed.

Sorry, but that's only true if you compare apples to oranges!

The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) has done a very nice job of looking inside the numbers for the PISA test. They have a nice analysis, and you might be very surprised at where the USA really stands when apples are compared with apples. Please take a few minutes and click here to read their piece, then come back here when you are done.

Welcome back! Let's review:

• U.S. students in schools with 10% or less poverty are the number one country in the world.

· U.S. students in schools with 10-24.9% poverty are third behind Korea, and Finland.

· U.S. students in schools with 25-50% poverty are tenth in the world.

· U.S. students in schools with greater than 50% poverty are near the bottom.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton: It's the poverty, stupid! Poverty matters because it's more difficult for kids who are homeless or live in a shelter to learn. It's more difficult for kids who are hungry to learn. It's more difficult for kids who are scared about getting to/from school--or just about being in school--to learn.

Poverty is not an excuse, it's a fact of life and the USA has a greater percentage of kids living in poverty than any other country in the world.

To quote the NASSP: "When it comes to student achievement and school improvement, it's poverty not stupid! Researchers report that perhaps the only true linear relationship in the social sciences is the relationship between poverty and student performance. While there is no relationship between poverty and ability, the relationship between poverty and achievement is almost foolproof. To deny that poverty is a factor to be overcome as opposed to an excuse is to deny the reality that all educators, human services workers, law enforcement officers, medical professionals and religious clergy know and have known for years.... regretfully, poverty impacts test scores."

"We count on our leaders to provide focus and direction. Sadly, our education leaders don't trust us enough to tell us the truth. The problem is that we will never solve a problem that our leaders refuse to admit even exists. The comparison of PISA scores by poverty clearly identifies our strengths and challenges as a nation. Our schools with less than 50% poverty are some of the best in the world. Our extremely high-poverty schools, with over 50% poverty, are among the poorest performing internationally."

"Instead of labeling all schools as failing, we must find a way to raise the performance of our students in under-resourced schools. Instead of looking to low-poverty countries like Finland for direction, we should be looking to take what we already know about educating students in high-performing, high-poverty schools like our Breakthrough Schools and scaling up their successes across the nation. We continually look for gold in other countries when, all along, we are sitting on acres of diamonds."

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Superman" and Rhee blew it!

My last two posts (There's only one problem with this narrative and Public schools in Crisis? Check the facts) began looking at education expert Diane Ravitch's new book, Reign of Error. Ravitch maintains that there is no "crisis in American education" and backs up her assertion with hard facts.

One of the claims of the "reformers" is that today's students don't know as much as their counterparts from 25 or 50 years ago. In this post we will examine this claim.

According to Ravitch, the U.S. has only one way to measure student performance over time. It is called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP is run by an independent, bipartisan board consisting of "teachers, administrators, state legislators, governors, businesspeople and members of the general public." Ravitch was appointed to this board by Pres. Clinton and served on the board for 7 years.

According to Ravitch: "NAEP is central to any discussion of whether American students and the public schools they attend are doing well or badly. It has measured reading and math and other subjects over time. It is administered to sample of students; no one knows who will take it, no one can prepare to take it, no one takes the whole test."

NAEP reports scores in two ways. The first is a "scale" score which is simply a number on a scale with a maximum of 500. This scores reflects "what students know and can do." Its purpose is to establish a trendline over time.

The second is "achievement levels." Ranging from "advanced" on the high end to "proficient," "basic," and "below basic." Misunderstanding of what each of these achievement levels represents can lead, and has lead, to misrepresentation of the state of our public schools.

The following definitions are all direct quotes from Ravitch: "Advanced" represents a superior level of academic performance. In most subjects and grades, only 3-8 percent of students reach that level. I think of it as A+. Very few students in any grade or subject score "advanced."

"Proficient" represents solid achievement. The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) defines it as "solid academic performance for each grade assessed. This is a very high level of academic achievement. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter." From what I observed as a member of the NAGB who reviewed questions and results over a seven-year period, a student who is "proficient" earns a solid A and not less than a strong B+.

"Basic," as defined by the NAGB, is "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade." In my view, the student who scores "basic" is probably a B or C student.

"Below basic" connotes students who have a weak grasp of the knowledge or skills that are being assessed. This student, in my understanding, would be a D or below.

With this background, you will be able to see how "reformers" fudge the numbers to create a "crisis." Again, I quote Ravitch directly.

"The film Waiting for Superman misinterpreted the NAEP achievement levels. Davis Guggenheim, the film's director and narrator, used the NAEP achievement levels to argue that American students are woefully undereducated. The film claimed that 70 percent of eighth-grade students could not read at grade level. That would be dreadful if it were true, but it is not. NAEP does not report grade levels (grade level describes a midpoint on a grading scale where half are above and half are below). Guggenheim assumed that students who were not "proficient" on the NAEP were "below grade level." That is wrong. Actually 76 percent on NAEP are basic or above, and 24 percent are below basic. It would be good to reduce the proportion who are "below basic," but it is 24 percent, not the 70 percent Guggenheim claimed."

Ravitch points out that "reformer" Michelle Rhee, makes the same mistake--equating NAEP "proficiency" with "at grade level"--in her writings.

The full details can be found in chapter 5 of Ravitch's book, but here is the simple truth. "NAEP data show beyond question that test scores in reading and math have improved for almost every group of students over the last two decades: slowly and steadily in the case of reading, dramatically in the case of mathematics. Students know more and can do more in these two basic skills subjects now than they could twenty or forty years ago."

"Why the difference between the two subjects? Reading is influenced to a larger extent by differences in home conditions than mathematics. Put another way, students learn language and vocabulary at home and in school; they learn mathematics in school....their starting point in reading is influenced more by home and family than in mathematics."

"So the next time you hear someone say that the system is "broken," that American students aren't as well educated as they used to be, that our schools are failing, tell that person the facts. Test scores are rising."

Well, that may be so, some will say, but the real problem is that our students stink when compared with those in other countries. We'll deal with that in the next post.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Public schools in crisis? Check the facts.

In our last post --There's only one problem with this narrative.--we began to look at Reign of Error, a new book from education scholar/historian and former Asst. Sec. of Education Diane Ravitch.

Dr. Ravitch maintains that the current "sky is falling" narrative claiming a "crisis" in our public schools is simply not true. All one needs to do, according to Ravitch, is look at the facts. Ravitch handles this in a straightforward manner by devoting a chapter to each of the claims of crisis made by "reformers."

Chapter 8, for example, examines the claim that "the nation has a dropout crisis and high school graduation rates are falling." Ravitch counters with the "reality" that "High school dropouts are at an all-time low, and high school graduation rates are at an all-time high."

According to Ravitch: "Not until 1940 did the high school graduation rate reach 50 percent. The graduation rate dropped during World War II, as young men went into the armed forces, but rose to 70 percent by 1970. By 1990, the four-year graduation rate reached 74 percent and remained virtually flat until 2010. In 2012, the Department of Education announced that the four-year graduation rate had reached to 78.2 percent in 2010, the first significant increase in three decades."

Ravitch continues: "The U.S. Department of education uses the four-year completion rate as the gold standard; this method produces the lowest possible graduation rate. It does not account for students who take more time to graduate or who earn a GED....When their numbers are added to the four-year graduates, the high school graduation rate is 90 percent."

What about the dropout rate? "The dropout rate is trending downward....The dropout rate has actually been cut by 40 percent overall between 1972 and 2009 and reduced even more for blacks and Hispanics, the groups that are most at risk for dropping out."

"Well, so what," I heard someone mutter in the back of the room. Everybody knows that kids today don't learn as much as kids did 50 years ago. We may be graduating a higher percentage but they aren't as well prepared as graduates when we went to school. Ravitch devotes chapter 5 to this subject.

According to Ravitch: "Critics have complained for many years that American students are not learning as much as they used to or that academic performance is flat. But neither of these complaints is accurate."

According to Ravitch: "We have only one authoritative measure of academic performance over time and that it the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAPE (pronounced "nape")."

"Critics may find this hard to believe, but students in American public schools today are studying and mastering far more difficult topics in science and mathematics than their peers forty or fifty years ago. People who doubt this should review the textbooks in common use then and now or look at the tests then and now. If they are still in doubt, I invite them to go to the NAEP website and review the questions in math and science for eighth-grade students."

We will talk a little more about NAPE in the next post, and we will address the question of how American students rank with respect to other nations.