The Crumbling Tower of PISA

Every few years, the world holds a test for its 15-year-old students, in both private and public schools. The most recent results for that test, called PISA, show that in terms of its scores, the United States falls dead middle–while outspending a lot of other countries that score better.

In an article on the test results, the NY Times noted that

“Generally speaking, the smartest [sic] countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.”

So, let us talk about those vaunted practices and qualities in DC:

–“Making teaching more prestigious and selective”

As Cathy Reilly, DC public education advocate, testified at a recent council roundtable for the new DCPS chancellor, staff turnover for DCPS averages about 20% a year. From there, the attrition rates simply grow. Using data painstakingly compiled by DC public school analyst Mary Levy, Reilly noted that DCPS’s new hires alone leave at a rate of 25% per year, and staff leaving the 40 lowest-performing (and highest poverty) schools leave at an average rate of 33% per year. Moreover, since 2008, cohorts of staff average 33% attrition over 2 years; 41% over 3 years; 50% over 4 years; and 56% over 5 years–with new hire cohorts having even higher attrition rates over time.

As Reilly noted, this turnover comes in the wake of years of “education reform” efforts that place a strong emphasis on standardized tests—and when many DC public school students are already vulnerable to instability in their own lives through the dire effects of sustained poverty.

So much for “prestigious and selective.”

But wait, nearly half DC’s public school kids are in charter schools–surely, those schools are making teaching “prestigious and selective,” right?

Um, well, actually no one knows, because, as the National Research Council discovered when it literally wrote the book on DC public education reform last year, there are no such data for our charter schools.

(So much for “prestigious and selective,” take two.)

–“Directed more resources to the neediest kids”

Hmm: How many years will it take until our at risk kids—the neediest of the legions of needy children in DC—actually get the at risk dollars they are entitled to allocated correctly and most helpfully every single year? And how many years until we actually track those expenditures in charter schools to ensure that they are directed to “the neediest kids”?

Moving on:

–“Enrolled most children in high-quality preschools”

OK, we here in DC are not doing too badly on this front–well, if your measurement is the existence of public pre-school for most DC public school kids.

However, if you are not lucky enough to get a slot at your in-bounds school or another one, then you may have to wait until kindergarten.

Oh, let’s not forget before-care, aftercare, and summer school: As many people testified at the council hearing in October on at risk funding, those hours of the day and year are crucial for our most vulnerable children–and the funding simply isn’t there for all who need these services the most. (And that’s not even counting the the increase in costs this school year for aftercare contracted out in DCPS, due to rents, and security and custodial fees being (newly) charged by DCPS and DGS.)

–“Helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement”

Now, you could say convincingly that we here in DC have embraced “constant improvement” in our schools via our test-centered focus, which is at the heart of education reform efforts.

In fact, you would be utterly accurate in saying this constitutes a “culture.” Take these words of a DCPS middle school parent testifying last month before our state board of education during its hearing on ESSA:

“Because of the all-consuming focus on standardized tests, our kids are on computer test prep programs at the expense of genuine classroom instruction, project-based learning or enrichment. Once or twice a week, students spend a full period in science and social studies doing math test prep on iready instead of receiving instruction. During advisory class, when they are supposed to focus on community building and socio-emotional development, students instead spend their full advisory period on iready every morning. In staff meetings, the principal refers to students not by name, but by PARCC score numbers . . . . Because the school isn’t evaluated on its special education services, the SPED teachers are routinely diverted from providing special education services in order to do other administrative duties. Teachers who are gifted at building a love of learning, curiosity, and an enriching learning experience, have left the school in droves. . . . Many of those teachers were rated as highly effective in their IMPACT evaluations.”

Maybe embracing “constant improvement” in test scores doesn’t automatically mean “constant improvement” in anything else. But it’s certainly a DC culture.

–“Consistent standards across all classrooms”

Here, I wish to invoke a man whose excursions into public education and international business make him the intriguing center of this discussion: proposed secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.

In promoting the Common Core standards, Mr. Tillerson was quoted last year as saying that the business community is the “customer” of public schools, which are producing a “product”:

“What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation. . . . Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?”

Setting aside whether our children are products to be chosen by corporations (which may or may not be people, depending on what judge and court are ruling), this statement by Mr. Tillerson gets more curious every day.

Namely, as a man of international business, is he saying that when corporations move jobs overseas or make financial commitments in far-off lands, those corporations are endorsing the schools in those countries?

As an example: Let us say an air conditioner maker moves jobs from Indiana to Mexico. Does that move thus mean that the schools in Mexico are better than the ones here in the United States (or in Indiana?) because their “product” (Mexican citizens educated in Mexican schools) is more pleasing to the air conditioner corporation “customer” than the U.S.-educated “products”?

Now, what are we to make of the fact that Mexican students don’t do better on PISA than American students? How can the corporate “customers” be happier with the Mexican “product,” if that “product” is less, erm, capable of mastering desired qualities (at least vis a vis PISA)?

(By the way, this whole noun thing is confusing: I thought companies were not customers, but us consumers who were the customers. Or is it companies are people and we people are products? If so, who is producing us humans: schools or our parents or something/someone else? And does all this make our schools corporations? If so, are schools human?)

To go a bit closer to home:

What would Mr. Tillerson make of the fact that different DC public middle schools use different math PARCC tests? And that the scores of those different math tests are combined by our state superintendent of education into one score that doesn’t represent anything of any student’s performance on any set of tests? And that this one, fake, score is posted on the city’s own school websites, including that for the annual public school lottery, which has just started?

That is: How do these very DC practices comport with “consistent standards across all classrooms”?

And how does the fact that we have no such data for our DC charter schools at all comport with “consistent standards across all classrooms”?

It’s going to be a long year–and it hasn’t even started yet.

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