Friday, July 21, 2017

A Few Thoughts on the New AzMERIT Scores

Posted By on Fri, Jul 21, 2017 at 5:30 PM

  • Courtesy of PhotoSpin
We've been given a first look at the new AzMERIT results from the tests students took in spring. They haven't been broken down in granular detail, but we know how students scored at each grade level in math and language arts. The numbers look reasonably good. Basically, they're a little better than they were the year before. No question, up is better than down, but does that mean Arizona students have improved in math and language arts? It's not an easy question to answer. Let me throw out a few ideas without trying to arrive at any solid conclusions.

This is the third year the state has given students the AzMERIT test as a replacement for AIMS, and that means it's the second year teachers have been able to teach to the new test. The first year, teachers didn't have much of an idea what the test was like, so when it came to test prep, they were like generals fighting the last war. They had been teaching to the AIMS test for years, and they didn't know how to change their strategies to help their students with AzMERIT. The second year they knew more about how the new test was structured and what kind of questions the students would be asked, so they made an effort at tailoring their test prep to the task. The third year, with the previous year's experience under their belts, they refined their test prep technique a bit more. Which begs the question: do this year's higher scores reflect an improvement in students' achievement or their teachers' test prep proficiency?

Whenever students are taught how to take a specific test, the results are thrown into doubt. Are students learning the concepts behind the test questions, or have they simply become more adept at answering the questions? Our obsession with yearly results on high stakes tests means the results people value so highly don't mean much. Worse, the tests distort students' educational experience by making teachers focus on narrow sections of the curriculum at the expense of equally important areas which aren't on the test. You can't blame teachers for spending an inordinate amount of time on what will be tested, even when they know their overemphasis on the tested material does their students a disservice. Their individual evaluations and the state grades their schools receive hang in the balance. The scores are too damn important to let giving their students a comprehensive education get in the way.

If we want to monitor students to get a sense of how they're doing on their basic math and language skills, a better way is to test student achievement every few years in selected grades — and separate the scores from funding and school grades.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Dr. Word Says: Trump Tries His Hand at Poetry

Posted By on Wed, Jul 19, 2017 at 4:41 PM


Squeezing a message into a 140 character tweet sometimes results in what might be referred to as poetic compression, but rarely does the product qualify as poetry. More commonly, the compressed phrase is awkward, even confused. However, sometimes one finds a gem. Take as an example the last sentence in a recent tweet by Donald J. Trump.

"The Dems scream death" is a pithy, well-turned phrase, combining both the act of screaming the word "death" and the scream which can accompany death. Those words are followed immediately by the phrase "as OCare dies," repeating the death image while simultaneously referencing the Republican assertion that Obamacare is in a death spiral. The word "OCare" has an antique, almost Elizabethan quality which adds to the poetic resonance of the passage. A rich, complex interplay of words and images is contained in those seven deceptively simple words.

Did Trump intend the sentence to have a poetic ring, or was his phrasing borne of the necessity of keeping the message to 140 characters, which happens to be the exact length of the tweet? One might as well ask, is an especially evocative Haiku beautiful because the poet intended it to be so, or is the beauty of the poem an accident caused by the constraints of the seventeen syllable, five-seven-five form? Since I readily grant the author of a splendid haiku credit for the work, who am I to deny our president similar credit for the felicity of his phrasing?

Now, let's take this analysis a step further and look at the rhythmic form of the eight syllables. The line, it turns out, is written in perfect iambic tetrameter—four iambic feet.

An iamb contains two syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed. A well known example of a poem written entirely in iambic tetrameter is Joyce Kilmer's Trees. Here is the opening couplet of the poem.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree. 

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Monday, July 10, 2017

T.H.R.E.A.T. Watch: The Frog Pot Heats Up

Posted By on Mon, Jul 10, 2017 at 2:45 PM

It's been awhile since my last T.H.R.E.A.T. (Trump Human Rights Erosion And Termination) Watch post. That's because things haven't deteriorated as rapidly as I feared in the areas that worry me most: the suppression of free speech, including suppression of the press, and the targeting of minority groups and immigrants. All kinds of other things have gone to hell, but the press has risen to the challenge and spoken truth to power instead of cowering behind weak condemnations and false equivalencies, and the courts have blunted Trump's assault on immigrants. Things could be much worse.

But we have to be wary of the "frogs in a pot of water" scenario where we don't notice a gradual increase in heat until we find ourselves up to our necks in boiling water. Over the past few weeks, I've felt a gradual, worrisome temperature increase, and it's not from the Tucson heat wave.

The media has not only been standing its ground against the assaults from Trump, it's been going the extra mile, doing what the press is supposed to do. It's been a watchdog, scrutinizing the daily outrages of the Trump administration and putting extra staff on investigative duty, trying to ferret out possible/probable wrongdoings by the Trump campaign and the possible/probable coverups of the wrongdoing now that he's president. Recently, however, Trump has stepped up his attacks on the media, which worries me because I've seen how quickly members of the press can go from brave to bullied when they're hit by a flood of negative pressure. Trump reached back to the haemophobic [fear of blood] attack he used against Megyn Kelly, this time targeting Morning Joe's Mika Brzezinski with a despicable tweet. Days later Trump retweeted a video of him putting a body slam on CNN. In a July 3 tweet, he predicted that the press will praise him at some point, tellingly using the verb "forced":
At some point the Fake News will be forced to discuss our great jobs numbers, strong economy, success with ISIS, the border & so much else!
"Forced." Trump would love to have the power to force the press to bend to his will. He hasn't figured out how to do it, but he's trying harder with each passing day. Whether he thinks the walls are closing in on him with the latest revelations in the Russia probe or he's just pissed, he's growing increasingly aggressive toward the press. Members of the media are standing their ground, but that can change.

Trump's ban on people traveling to the U.S. from six predominantly Muslim countries has finally begun, though in a limited form. The courts have said he can only keep people out who don't have a "bona fide relationship" with someone in the U.S., so his administration is using the most restrictive and punitive definition of "bona fide relationship" it can, excluding, among others, grandparents, aunts and uncles. People from the six banned countries tend to have strong extended family ties which go well beyond the nuclear family. The Trump administration's limits on what is considered a bona fide relationship are culturally insensitive and insulting, which, I imagine, is the point. And a future Supreme Court ruling favorable to a complete travel ban for those six countries is always a possibility, given the conservative makeup of the court.

Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants in this country are feeling an escalation of the pressure being put on them and their families. Detentions, arrests and deportations are becoming increasingly frequent and arbitrary, even for people who have been here for years and haven't done anything to make them likely targets for deportation. Picking your child up from school, driving in a car and going to the courthouse all put undocumented people at increasing risk. Even picking up a child from a detention center can lead to arrest. And at any time, a knock on the door can be the signal that a family member will be taken into custody, tearing a family apart. It's not simply the number of people being picked up. It's the randomness of the events. One purpose of terrorism is to make people feel unsafe. "At any moment, without warning, I could be next." Random roundups of undocumented immigrants, and stopping of people who look to the immigration police like they could "illegals," are designed to strike terror in the hearts of communities where undocumented immigrants live.

Things could be worse, but things definitely aren't good. The damage Trump has wrought on the nation has been slowed by the courts, the media and his low approval ratings. But no question, it's getting hotter out here.

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Friday, July 7, 2017

DeVos Delays Loan Relief For Students Ripped Off By For-Profit Colleges

Posted By on Fri, Jul 7, 2017 at 10:00 AM

  • Courtesy of PhotoSpin
For-profit colleges have been ripping off the federal government and defrauding students for years. The systematic fleecing of the Feds and the students was reported as far back as 2009, but the government was slow to take action. In 2015 due to pressure from the Obama administration, the Corinthian College chain and ITT Tech Institute closed their doors and other colleges like the University of Phoenix saw their enrollments plummet when they were outed for illegal practices.

Last October, the Obama administration created a program known as borrower defense whose purpose was to compensate students burdened with loans from schools offering minimal education. It was scheduled to start July 1. A Hillary Clinton administration would almost certainly have followed through, but Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education, has put on the brakes. The reason for the delay, she claims, is a suit filed by an association of for-profit colleges, but that appears to be a ruse. The Trump administration started looking for a way to delay the program before the lawsuit was filed.

Eighteen states filed a lawsuit against the Education Department for the delay.
“Since day one, Secretary DeVos has sided with for-profit school executives against students and families drowning in unaffordable student loans,” said Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, who led the multistate coalition. “Her decision to cancel vital protections for students and taxpayers is a betrayal of her office’s responsibility and a violation of federal law.”

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

More On the Free College Tuition Front: The Pay It Forward Plan

Posted By on Wed, Jul 5, 2017 at 11:50 AM

  • Bigstock
Calls for free or nearly free college tuition are gaining momentum. That's not surprising given the increasing cost of college and the skyrocketing level of student loan debt. In 2009, Americans owed $150 billion in student loans. In 2017, it's up to $1.3 trillion. And that number will keep climbing as interest rates go up. Student loan interest is tied to the rate on treasury notes, which just took a jump. That means a seven-tenths of a percent hike on student loan rates.

What to do? Tennessee, Oregon and New York are experimenting with different ways of making college tuition free, at least for community colleges. Arizona gubernatorial candidate David Garcia has made the gradual move toward free tuition beginning at the community college level and eventually expanding to state universities part of his campaign platform. This year, our universities are piloting an Arizona Teacher Academy which will be tuition free for students willing to commit to teaching in high-need schools. It's a good first step, but this first year, it will help only 200 students, mainly seniors. It's hard to imagine our legislature giving the universities enough money to expand the program.

My favorite semi-utopian-but-plausible notion for free tuition is usually called income-share, though I'm fond of the name some people have given to a program Oregon is looking into: the Pay It Forward plan. The basic idea is, college is tuition free when students attend, then they pay for it after they leave. However, unlike loan programs where people have a fixed amount of debt they have to pay off, students pay a percentage of what they earn over a ten to twenty year period. In Oregon, the proponents say the program would be self sufficient if graduates pay back 3.5 to 4 percent of their earnings over twenty years. At Purdue University in Indiana where they're trying out the idea, the payments are spread over ten years. The percentage graduates pay is determined by the amount of their tuition they defer.

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Friday, June 30, 2017

Huppenthal, History and Ethnic Studies

Posted By on Fri, Jun 30, 2017 at 3:45 PM

The Mexican American Studies trial is a trip down memory lane for me, especially with former Education Superintendent John Huppenthal on the stand. Back when he was using his two aliases, Thucydides and Falcon 9, to comment on blogs across the state, my posts were on the receiving end of much of his anonymous wit, wisdom and, well, idiocy. After all, I write mostly about education, and dozens of my posts were about TUSD's Mexican American Studies battles, so it was natural for his alter egos to defend his corporeal self against what I was writing.

I looked back through some of my old posts and came across something I wrote in 2010 when Huppenthal first ran for superintendent. He was in Tucson for a candidates' forum, and I was there with my recorder. One of his favorite subjects on the stump was the evils of the Mexican American Studies program, a topic he inherited from his predecessor Tom Horne. Huppenthal talked about his experience sitting in on an MAS class.
"My first-hand classroom encounter clearly revealed an unbalanced, politicized and historically inaccurate view of American History being taught."
He said he was upset that MAS classes gave students a distorted view of people like Ben Franklin, who was condemned for owning slaves. Then he gave his own rendition of Franklin's bio, one of those classic Huppenthal fact-and-fiction tossed salads I read so often in his blog commentaries.
"Ben Franklin . . . was the president of the Abolitionist Society in Pennsylvania, he led the fight against the slave trade, successfully stopping the slave trade. He freed all of his own slaves, and not only freed them but gave them positions of responsibility so that they could grow into leaders."
Huppenthal's depiction of Franklin revealed his own unbalanced, politicized, historically inaccurate view of history. I'm sure he derived a great deal of satisfaction from his portrayal of Franklin. It was history told by winners for historical winners like himself. Bits and pieces of his thought stream are accurate. Franklin was the president of Pennsylvania's Abolitionist Society (he was 82 at the time), but that was years after the state ended its slave trade. Franklin freed his slaves, but he kept them and profited from their labor for years after he took up the abolitionist cause. As for giving them "positions of responsibility so that they could grow into leaders," well, Franklin advocated for education of black people. He believed they had as much intellectual potential as whites. But so far as I can tell, Huppenthal's protestation that Franklin gave his ex-slaves positions of responsibility so they would grow into leaders is his own construct designed to transform Franklin into the untarnished, heroic Founding Father Huppental wants him to be.

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Friday, June 23, 2017

'Repeal and Replace' Cuts Schools' Medicaid Funding

Posted By on Fri, Jun 23, 2017 at 10:03 AM

  • Courtesy of wikimedia
The numbers aren't in, so we don't know how much the Senate "repeal and replace" healthcare bill plans to cut from Medicaid, but the bill passed by the House takes an $880 billion bite out of the program over ten years, and indications are the Senate bill bites down even harder. Both bills cut health care for our most vulnerable citizens while giving the richest Americans huge tax cuts. (For the first million you make, you get a tax cut the size of the median U.S. income.) Most Democrats are alarmed, and some Republicans, especially governors in states that went with the Medicaid program, like Arizona, are concerned as well. If Ducey is urging caution, you know there's something to worry about.

Schools would be affected by the cuts. Medicaid is used to cover some special education costs to schools which are above and beyond funds states supply to take care of those students' needs. It also covers some of the costs of vision and hearing screening for children, along with part of the salaries for nurses, psychologists and other health care professionals. If Medicaid funding is cut and schools have to compete for limited funds with services for children provided outside of school in hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices, children will inevitably lose vital services at the expense of their health and their educations.

Here is how it's explained on the Arizona Department of Education website.
Medicaid School-Based Claiming (MSBC) is a joint federal and state program that offers reimbursement for both the provision of covered medically necessary school-based services and for the costs of administrative activities, such as outreach activities to identify eligible students and enroll them in the program, that support the Medicaid school-based program. . . .

Many children receive covered Medicaid services through their schools. Medicaid will reimburse schools for documented medically necessary services that are provided to children who are both Medicaid eligible and who have been identified as eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 34 CFR §300.306. Currently, schools can receive reimbursement for physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, nursing services, health aides, certain transportation, and behavioral health services. . . .

Schools are often involved in informing families of their potential eligibility for Medicaid or in helping them arrange medical appointments for children. These activities are considered Medicaid outreach and are administrative costs.
There's no money in  the state budget to pick up the tab for services the Republican bill will cut. Children will go without health care, but lots of millionaires and billionaires will get healthy tax cuts amounting to tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars. Somehow in the conservative mindset, that's a good trade-off.

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

How's the New 'Anyone Can Teach in Arizona' Law Working Out So Far?

Posted By on Thu, Jun 22, 2017 at 1:00 PM

In 2008, Ed Supe Tom Horne had a great idea to get more science and math teachers in the classroom. Why not have businesses let some of their STEM-based employees teach one high school class a year as part of their job? Brilliant! After Horne's announcement, did you see the stampede of people rushing from the private sector to be volunteer teachers? No, neither did I. I never heard of anyone taking him up on his offer.

The legislature this year had a better idea: let anyone with a bachelor's degree in a subject taught in middle or high school teach, no training, no education classes, no subject matter testing required. And if they've spent time working in a STEM field or teaching in a post-high school institution, the college degree isn't even a requirement.

So how's that working out? It's a little early to tell, but at this point, it looks like people aren't beating down school districts' administration building doors demanding teaching applications.
A highly-touted law passed by the legislature earlier this year was supposed to help add candidates to the teaching pool. It loosens credentials needed to become a teacher and paves the way for qualified professionals in certain fields to get easier access to classrooms.

Wing said the impact of the law appears minimal so far.

“The Washington Elementary School District has received just a few contacts from some of those related to those certification changes,” said [Justin] Wing, who is now the human resources director for the Washington Elementary School. “From what I hear from other human resource professionals in other school systems, they have not received waves of candidates because of that new law. In my opinion, it didn’t address the root cause of the teacher shortage.”
It's early yet. The word may not have gotten out, and when it does, school districts may still have the opportunity to fill some of their empty classrooms with unqualified, unprepared teachers. But wouldn't it be something if the legislature threw the teacher certification doors open wide and nobody showed up? Teaching in Arizona may be so underpaid and undervalued, broadening the applicant pool won't be much help. Maybe, if the legislators really care about addressing the state's crisis-level teacher shortage, they'll have to try some other ideas, like, say, increasing salaries and improving working conditions . . . if—and it's a big "if"—they really care about addressing the state's crisis-level teacher shortage,.

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