Bills Introduced in Congress to Limit Standardized Testing!

Dear Commons Community,

In the same week that the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held its first hearing on the issue of rewriting No Child Left Behind (NCLB), two separate groups of lawmakers introduced bills that would substantially change NCLB standardized testing requirements.   As reported in The Huffington Post:

“…as legislators continue to hammer out what a rewrite of NCLB might look like, two groups of politicians introduced bills that would change the role that law previously established for school standardized testing.

The first bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and introduced Tuesday, would empower states to reduce the amount of low-quality and redundant testing given to students. While it would not affect the number of federally mandated tests given in schools, it would allow states to use federal funds to audit their assessment systems.

“This commonsense legislation gives us the tools and resources to work with states and districts to reduce unnecessary assessments, especially by targeting redundant and low-quality tests,” Baldwin said in a statement Tuesday about the bill, known as the Support Making Assessments Reliable and Timely (SMART) Act. “As Congress begins what I hope is a truly bipartisan process to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, I’m proud to lead this effort to address one of the shortcomings of No Child Left Behind.”

The second bill, reintroduced by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Wednesday, takes a more extreme approach on the issue of standardized testing. The Student Testing Improvement and Accountability Act would allow states and schools to scale back federal testing so that a student would only be tested once every few years — once during grades three through five, once during grades six through nine, and so on. The bill was first introduced in 2014.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, Sinema explained that during her time as a school social worker, she noticed that increases in standardized testing also boosted the amount of “teaching to the test,” lessening the quality of instruction.

“My experience as social worker in Arizona schools for nearly a decade taught me the importance of empowering teachers and parents,” said Sinema in a press release. “Teachers should focus on the content they want their students to master — not simply material for an upcoming standardized test.”

The bills come amid much recent public skepticism about standardized testing from teachers and politicians alike. An NCLB rewrite draft recently circulated from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the HELP committee, includes an option that would give districts more freedom over the tests they use.”

The introduction of these bills is symbolically important because they indicate that there are both Republican and Democratic Congressmen who want to change education policy regarding standardized testing.   It remains to be seen whether the Congress and President Obama can agree on education or any  other new legislation.


Pope Francis Urges Families to Put Down their iPhones and to Talk to One Another!

Dear Commons Community,

Pope Francis is urging families to put aside their iPhones and Twitter feeds and learn to talk to one another again. As reported by the Associated Press:

“In his annual message for the church’s World Day of Communications, … Francis says media can both help or hinder family communication – helping far-flung members stay in touch but also enabling others to avoid one another.

“The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information,” Francis said.

The theme of this year’s message coincides with Francis’ two-year focus on families, which will culminate in October with a big meeting of bishops to hash out better ways to minister to families living with divorce, de-facto unions, gay children and other issues.

Francis said children first learn to communicate in the family, figuring out how to get along with people of different ages and experience “who did not choose one another yet are so important to one another.”

As a result, he said, families are the model for all communications since it is in the family where children first learn to forgive.

“A child who has learned in the family to listen to others, to speak respectfully and to express his or her view without negating that of others, will be a force for dialogue and reconciliation in society,” he said in the message.

“A perfect family does not exist,” he added. “We should not be fearful of imperfections, weaknesses or even conflict, but rather learn how to deal with them constructively.”

I have been impressed with Pope Francis and his positions on a number of issues including a church of inclusion, gay lifestyles, and evolution/creationism. He is providing sound advice to families here.


Senator Lamar Alexander Leads NCLB Hearing on Standardized Testing!

Dear Commons Community,

On Wednesday, parents, teachers, congresswomen and congressmen, and interested others overflowed a meeting of the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee,  on the merits of  rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 law signed by President George W. Bush that expanded the federal government’s footprint in public schools. NCLB required annual standardized testing in reading and math, as well as punitive action toward schools based on those raw test scores. The law expired in 2007, yet it remains in effect and many of its stipulations have continued with Race to the Top programs sponsored by the Obama administration.  The U.S. Department of Education has offered states waivers from the law’s toughest components since 2011 in exchange for agreeing to implement administration-favored education reforms, such as teacher evaluations that take test scores into account.  Nearly every committee member in the overflowing hearing room said the burden of standardized testing must be reduced.  As reported in The Huffington Post:

“Since NCLB’s implementation, a growing chorus of teachers, parents and advocates have maintained that the law relies too heavily on standardized testing. Most politicians agree on that point, but vary on how they want to change the law. NCLB, they say, is statistically flawed because it makes funding decisions based on raw test scores that compare different populations from year to year, as opposed to changes in scores that could show how much individual students are learning.

But the fiercest opponents of testing, such as historian Diane Ravitch and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, say the requirement’s deleterious effects are far worse: They unfairly penalize poor students; they reduce children to the sum of a single score; and they discourage teacher creativity.

Those left-wing critics are now finding a voice through congressional Republicans. Last week, newly minted HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who has said he wants to drive a bipartisan rewrite, circulated the draft of a bill that would temper the federal government’s authority over America’s public schools. It would require the federal government to present research before intervening in underperforming schools, and would offer two choices on testing. One option would allow districts to use almost whichever tests they want, and the other would keep the annual testing requirements.

Alexander told his committee members that they must be sick of him talking about the federal government’s overextension as a “national school board.” So he quoted a letter from Carol Burris — a high school principal of the year in New York who opposes many Republican education policies — that was sent in response to his bill. “The unintended, negative consequences that have arisen from mandated, annual testing and its high-stakes uses have proven testing not only to be an ineffective tool, but a destructive one as well,” she wrote.”

As the NCLB rewrite evolves, it is clear that one of the major players on education policy in this country will be Lamar Alexander.  He comes with a lot of experience and understanding from his work in Tennessee and as a former U.S. Secretary of Education.  He is showing a good deal of leadership on the issues.


Berkeley Plans to Build a New Global Campus, 10 Miles From Home!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that the University of California at Berkeley is planning to open a global campus just 10 miles from Berkeley’s main campus.  Under the plans, partner universities from around the world would set up academic programs at the new campus.  As reported in The Chronicle:

“The Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay, campus officials say, will offer a “global citizenship” curriculum—with a focus on topics like governance, ethics, health, and sustainability—for graduate students from the United States and abroad.

By situating the campus nearby—an unusual move in an era when many American institutions are building abroad—Berkeley hopes to establish partnerships with universities from around the world while preserving full academic freedom for its faculty.

It’s a hefty undertaking. The campus’s development manager, Terezia C. Nemeth, said it will take years—possibly decades—and hundreds of millions of dollars to fulfill the university’s vision. It’s unclear where the money will come from. Nils Gilman, an associate chancellor at Berkeley, said the university is pursuing a range of options, including philanthropic donations and federal and state funds. Partner universities would also bring their own money to the project.”

… Berkeley officials argue that there’s a compelling reason to put the global campus on American ground: the chance to create a true safe harbor with protections for academic freedom, human rights, political activism, and intellectual property.

Many overseas branch campuses have, in fact, been dogged by concerns over the academic freedom of their faculty members. In one high-profile example, professors at Yale University objected to an overseas partnership with the National University of Singapore, passing a resolution that expressed “concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights” in Singapore.”

This is an interesting idea and maybe more practical than some of the branch campuses that other American colleges have developed in foreign countries.



NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State Address – Education a Priority!

Dear Commons Community,

As part of his State of the State address yesterday, Governor Andrew Cuomo outlined a $142 billion spending plan on Wednesday that has a heavy focus on education policy. His  two-hour speech combined both his State of the State and budget presentation.

“It is now the great discriminator. The truth is we have two systems: We have one for rich and one for the poor. And the greatest symbol of disparity is our failing schools,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo’s education plan would raise the statewide cap on charter schools from 460 to 560. Per pupil tuition spending would be increased at charters as well. For teachers, a more stringent evaluation law that would be tied to teacher tenure would be in put place.

“We propose tenure to only be granted when a teacher achieves five consecutive years of effective ratings and once we have a fair evaluation system we can incentivize performance,” he said.

Good teachers would be rewarded with a $20,000 bonus, while it would be easier to fire bad teachers.

These proposals put him at odds with the New York State United Teachers union, which blasted the address.  “I’m inviting the governor to drop the rhetoric of his hedge-fund pals who hate public education and come visit a real New York City public school,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers.  Mulgrew’s hedge-fund comment is in reference to campaign contributions made to Cuomo by individuals, organizations, and companies supporting charter schools.

The devil will be in the details especially when his proposals are negotiated with the NYS Assembly and State Senate.  This will be very interesting given that the Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, may be arrested any day now by federal authorities on corruption charges.



President Obama’s State of the Union – America is a Much Better Place than Six Years Ago!

Dear Commons Community,

President Obama gave his State of the Union last night.  He was upbeat in talking about an America that is a much better place than six years ago.  The economy is better, unemployment is the lowest it has been since before the Great Recession, the United States has shaken off its dependency on foreign oil, and the combat mission in Afghanistan is over.  He then called on Congress to work with him on a number of new initiatives.

“We have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth,” “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”

He called on his adversaries to “appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears,” and he said he longed for a political reality free of “gotcha moments or trivial gaffes or fake controversies.” He said a better politics would allow Republicans and Democrats to come together on reforming the criminal justice system in the wake of shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.

Mr. Obama highlighted potential areas of collaboration with Republicans. He called on Congress to approve a business tax overhaul, the granting of authority to strike trade deals, and a major initiative to repair crumbling roads and bridges.

He also vowed to push forward with policies that have generated Republican opposition. He called for aggressive action to fight climate change and said he would not back down on changes to the nation’s immigration system. He repeated his support for new regulations on Internet providers and for overriding state laws that limit competition for high-speed service.

Of particular importance to readers of this blog, the President repeated his offer of free community college for millions of students, paid leave for workers and more generous government assistance for education, child care and retirement savings for the middle class, all of which are to be financed in large part by $320 billion in tax increases over the next decade on higher income earners as well as a fee on large financial institutions.

Media analysts afterwards likened Obama’s enthusiasm to his first year as president.  However, with a Congress controlled by the Republican Party, much of what he proposed will have a tough going.



Richest 1% of the Population Will Control More Than 50% of the World’s Wealth by 2016!

Dear Commons Community,

A new report released yesterday by the anti-poverty group, Oxfam, warns that deepening global inequality is unlike anything seen in recent years.

Using research from Credit Suisse and Forbes’ annual billionaires list, Oxfam was able to determine that the richest 1 percent of the world’s population currently controls 48 percent of the world’s total wealth.

If trends continue, Oxfam predicts that the most-affluent will possess more wealth than the remaining 99 percent by 2016, The New York Times reported.

Drill down the numbers even more and you’ll learn that the 80 wealthiest people in the world possess $1.9 trillion, which is almost the same amount shared by some 3.5 billion people at the bottom half of the world’s income scale.

Thirty-five of the lucky 80 were Americans with a combined wealth of $941 billion. Germany and Russia shared second place, with seven uber-rich individuals apiece.

Not surprisingly, the richest were titans in the finance, health care, insurance, retail, tech and extractives (oil, gas) industries, and they paid fortunes to lobbyists to maintain or increase their riches. Seventy of the world’s wealthiest were men. And 11 members of the elite 80 simply inherited their wealth.

“Do we really want to live in a world where the 1 percent own more than the rest of us combined?” Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima said in a letter. “The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering and despite the issues shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast.”


We Remember Martin Luther King, Jr.!

Martin Luther King 2015

Dear Commons Community,

Today, we  remember with affection and gratitude, the contribution of Martin Luther King, Jr. to our country.  His messages of peace, racial understanding, and caring for children in poverty are as important today as five decades ago. We need a Martin Luther King, Jr. to help ease racial tension in our cities in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. We need a Martin Luther King, Jr. to help us deal with the horrific violence against innocents by terrorists at home and abroad. We need a Martin Luther King, Jr. to remind us of our commitment to poor children, the majority of whom live in poverty here in the richest country the world has ever known.


“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. December 25, 1957


Maureen Dowd, Selma, and the Depiction of President Lyndon Johnson!

Dear Commons Community,

Maureen Dowd comments about the movie, Selma, in her column today.  I saw the film last week.  The major controversy is how director Ava Du Vernay depicts President Lyndon Johnson as an obstacle to the Voting Rights Bill proposed by Martin Luther King. The film concludes with Johnson putting forth the bill only after the bloodshed of  the Selma marches in 1965. Dowd comments:

“The horrific scene of the four schoolgirls killed in the white supremacist bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church stunned the audience…

DuVernay sets the tone for her portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as patronizing and skittish on civil rights in the first scene between the president and Dr. King. L.B.J. stands above a seated M.L.K., pats him on the shoulder, and tells him “this voting thing is just going to have to wait” while he works on “the eradication of poverty.”

Many of the teenagers by me [in the movie with Dowd] bristled at the power dynamic between the men. It was clear that a generation of young moviegoers would now see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens.

And that’s a shame. I loved the movie and find the Oscar snub of its dazzling actors repugnant. But the director’s talent makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.”

Duvernay has dismissed the criticism of her depiction of Johnson as:

“In an interview with Gwen Ifill on P.B.S., DuVernay dismissed the criticism by Joseph Califano Jr. and other L.B.J. loyalists, who said that the president did not resist the Selma march or let J. Edgar Hoover send a sex tape of her husband to Mrs. King. (Bobby Kennedy, as J.F.K’s attorney general, is the one who allowed Hoover to tap Dr. King.)

“This is art; this is a movie; this is a film,” DuVernay said. “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.”

The “Hey, it’s just a movie” excuse doesn’t wash. Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season.

There was no need for DuVernay to diminish L.B.J., given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him. Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy.

… the truth is dramatic and fascinating enough. Why twist it? On matters of race — America’s original sin — there is an even higher responsibility to be accurate.

DuVernay had plenty of vile white villains — including one who kicks a priest to death in the street. There was no need to create a faux one.”

I was a teenager in 1965 in high school and while I remember the Selma marches, I did not follow Washington politics closely enough. I have read Robert Caro’s biography of Johnson as well as Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice about Brown v. Board of Education where Johnson is depicted as a major ally in the Civil Rights Movement. However, it appears that DuVernay’s comments confirm that she took artistic license with the depiction of Johnson. As Dowd concludes, this is problematic because millions of people will see the film and it will establish Johnson as one of the obstacles in advancing civil rights in this country when he probably did more for the  cause than any other U.S. president with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.



School Children in Poverty Surpasses 50% for First Time: Shame of a Nation!

Children in Poverty 2015 II

Dear Commons Community,

For the first time since records have been kept, more than half of U.S. public school students live in low-income households, according to a new analysis from the Southern Education Foundation.

Overall, 51 percent of U.S. schoolchildren came from low-income households in 2013, according to the foundation, which analyzed data from the National Center for Education Statistics on students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Eligibility for free or subsidized lunch for students from low-income households serves as a proxy for gauging poverty.  As reported in The Huffington Post:

“The report shows the percentage of schoolchildren from poor households has grown steadily for nearly a quarter-century, from 32 percent in 1989. “By 2006, the national rate was 42 percent and, after the Great Recession, the rate climbed in 2011 to 48 percent,” says the report.

Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, told The Washington Post that the analysis shows poverty has reached a “watershed moment.”

The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years,” McGuire said. “It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people.”

The analysis shows the highest percentages of poor students in Southern and Western states. Mississippi had the highest rate of low-income students — 71 percent. New Hampshire had the lowest, at 27 percent.

“No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low income students simply a matter of fairness,” the report says. “… Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future.”

During the past fourteen years since No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the U.S. Department of Education has focused every new program on initiatives designed to  support the testing industry, national databases, Common Core, and teacher evaluation and practically nothing to address the needs of children in poverty.

It is the shame of our nation.