An Open Letter To Senator Del Marsh

Dear Senator Marsh:

You were on APTV’s Capitol Journal last Friday night to talk about the RAISE/PREP bill.  It so happened that this was also April Fool’s Day and the longer I listened to you, the more I thought you were simply keeping in the spirit of April 1 by saying things that were basically unbelievable.

And the more I’ve thought about this, the more I think this had to be the case.  You are a smart guy and a successful businessman.  You don’t become President Pro Tem of the senate without being considered a successful politician.

Given this, there is no way you say some of what you said on TV and really believe it yourself.  You were pulling our leg weren’t you?

For instance, you talked about teachers getting a “big pay increase” and how you would have a problem supporting that without the PREP act being passed.  Surely you know that teachers have had only a two percent pay raise since 2008-09 school year and that the House has approved a four percent raise in their current education budget.  So this would be six percent in eight years.  No way you think this is a “big pay increase.”

And you do know about big increases because records show that your chief of staff has gotten $95,000 in raises in the last five years.

You also trotted out the very tired argument about Alabama NAEP scores, even though you seemed unsure of exactly what they are.  So let me explain.  NAEP stands for National Assessment of Education Progress.  This test is only given every two years to a small, random group of students.  This means we test about 2,500 students in Alabama in 4th and 8th grades.  Since there are 730,000 students in our public schools, we are judging all of them based on a sample of .003 percent of them.

You fussed that our scores dropped slightly in 2015.  They did. They went down two points in 4th grade reading and math in 8th grade math from 2013.  But guess what?  Scores also fell in 16 states last year in 4th grade reading and math and in 22 states in 8th grade math.  So Alabama was hardly an aberration.

But Senator Marsh, you know as well as I do that one test does not measure a trend.  It only measures that moment, just like the score at halftime does not tell us who won the game.

You and I both went to Auburn.  Remember the 2010 Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa?  Remember when Auburn fell behind 24-0.  Things looked bleak for our Tigers.  The final scores that day.  Auburn 28, Alabama 27.

Aren’t you glad we played an entire game, not just one half?

So why do you insist on looking at just part of the game regarding NAEP, instead of the entire game?  If you would, as I pointed out here and here, you would learn that Alabama GAINS in NAEP scores have gone up faster than the national average in both 4th and 8th grade reading and math since we began using this test in 1992.

Since I seriously doubt that you measured how your company did on just one day’s sales, you were obliviously just kidding when your suggested that’s what we do with NAEP.

You said on TV that you have been “amazed” at the pushback from educators about this bill and that this is being orchestrated by the Alabama Education Association. Now THAT IS news to me.  The Mobile County school board went on record opposing PREP.  How many of them belong to AEA?  State teacher of the year Jennifer Brown has been vocal in her opposition.  She is not a member of AEA.  Tallapoosa superintendent Joe Windle opposes this bill.  AEA does not push his buttons.  I have written a number of articles opposing RAISE/PREP.  I have never been an AEA member.  Neither am I on their payroll as some folks want to think, not do they tell me what to write about.

Again, I know that you must have been having some fun with the viewers by talking about NAEP and AEA.

Senator, educators oppose this legislation because it is BAD.  It is bad for students, teachers and schools.  It is an unfunded mandate that will once again take millions of dollars from local school systems to implement.

You continue to insist that teachers be evaluated with a system known as VAM.  The same one that the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association warn us about using.  The same one that has been litigated in state after state because it is unreliable.  The same one other southern states are now cutting back on using.

No way would you install a new process in your company that has this many red flags attached.

You told Don Dailey, the host of Capitol Journal, that the PREP teacher evaluation system “mirrors” the one being implemented by the state.  If that is the case, then why are you wanting to reinvent the wheel and duplicate it?  Your party is supposed to be for LESS bureaucracy–not more.

You also said that you wanted a “public outcry” about public education in this state.  Seems to me that is what you are getting.  Some 5,000 people opposing the RAISE act signed an on-line petition.  Seems like an outcry to me.  The problem is that you don’t want an outcry from folks who spend all their time in classrooms and actually know what they are talking about when it comes to education.

Instead, you go on TV and talk about how our “system is failing,” that we are getting a “dismal performance” from our schools and that you are not impressed that we now have the highest graduation rate in state history.

You said repeatedly that “only 15 percent of high school grads are ready for college.”  Yet you are apparently the only person privy to such information as I can’t find anyone in education who knows where this number comes from.

Finally, you said that if PREP isn’t passed you will spend your time preaching about the problems we have in education in this state.

Here is our mutual friend Jennifer Brown’s response to this.  “If the PREP bill is passed in its current form, I will spend my time preaching about the problems we have in in Montgomery which I hope lead to a public outcry so we can make significant changes at the Statehouse.”

You ended your appearance on TV last Friday by saying you want to have a debate.  Great idea.  I suggest you call Don Dailey and schedule one between yourself and Jennifer on his program.  His number is: 334-694-5874.

Now, April Fools or not, that is one show I would love to watch.



One Of PREP’s Fatal Flaws

In south Alabama we sometimes refer to someone as “the real deal.”  In other words, they know what they are talking about.  Dr. James Popham is in this category.  Professor emeritus at the graduate school of education and information studies at UCLA, he is a past president of the American Educational Research Association.

Having heard many discussions about how we are misusing student test scores these days, when I happened upon an article in Education Week by Dr. Popham titled The Fatal Flaw of Educational Assessment, I stopped to take a look.

Here is some of what I found:

“America’s students are not being educated as well these days as they should be. A key reason for this calamity is that we currently use the wrong tests to make our most important educational decisions. The effectiveness of both teachers and schools is now evaluated largely using students’ scores on annually administered standardized tests, but most of these tests are simply unsuitable for this intended purpose.

(Sounds as if he is talking directly to those who drafted the RAISE/PREP Act.)

“When we use the wrong tests to evaluate instructional quality, many strong teachers are regarded as ineffective and directed by administrators to abandon teaching procedures that actually work well. Conversely, the wrong test scores often fail to identify truly weak teachers—those in serious need of instructional assistance who don’t receive help because they are thought to be teaching satisfactorily. In both these instances, it is the students who are shortchanged.

“Today’s educational tests are intended to satisfy three primary purposes, to compare, to instruct, and to evaluate.

“Comparison-focused educational tests permit us to identify score-based differences among individual students or among groups of students. The resulting comparisons often lead to classifications of students’ scores on a student-by-student basis (such as by using percentiles) or on a group-by-group basis (such as by distinguishing between “proficient” and “nonproficient” students).

“A second purpose is instructional—that is, to elicit ongoing evidence regarding students’ levels of achievement so that better decisions can be made about how to teach those students.

“A third purpose is evaluation—determining the quality of a completed set of instructional activities provided by one or more teachers. These evaluations often focus on a lengthy segment of instruction, such as an entire school year.

“The trouble is that one of these purposes—comparison—has completely dominated America’s educational testing for almost a century.

“However, tests built chiefly for comparisons are not suitable for purposes of instruction or evaluation of instructional quality in education. These tests provide teachers with few instructional insights and typically lead to inaccurate evaluations of a teacher’s instructional quality.

“The time has come for us to abandon the naive belief that an educational test created for Purpose X can be cavalierly used for Purpose Z. Too many children in our schools are harmed by these methods because educators are basing their decisions on inaccurate information supplied by the wrong tests. We must follow the up-to-date advice of the measurement community and demand the use of purposeful educational testing.”

One of the key components of RAISE/PREP is using student test scores to determine how good their teacher may, or may not, be.  But as Dr. Popham points out, we are trying to force a round peg into a square hole.  And as we say again in south Alabama, “that makes no sense.”



You Don’t Have To Be From Alabama To Know RAISE/PREP Is Bad

For reasons no one can seem to understand, our supermajority legislative leadership appears fixated on education advice from those, as we like to say, “ain’t from around here.”  Which explains why they have allowed so much input on the RAISE/PREP bill to come from StudentsFirst, a group based in California.  Or why the proponents of this bill had someone from the National Council on Teacher Quality from Washington testify at the March 8th hearing.

OK.  If you have to be at least 100 miles from home to be an expert on education policy, I offer Jim O’Neill who spent 40+ years in New Jersey schools with experience as a teacher, a superintendent and about every job in between.  Jim, who retired to Mobile, penned this op-ed for a few days ago.

Here is some of what he had to say:.

Long before politicians meddle in the evaluation of teachers and other aspects of education they have some fundamental obligations both legal and moral. Parents, their children and teachers are entitled to us fulfilling the social compact each generation has with the next to provide a viable, if not exemplary public education system. They are also entitled to the resources being directed at public education to be used wisely. We do not need to follow the framework laid out by a conservative think tank that purports to have simple answers to complex questions.

Administrators, who already have to be experts at multi-tasking, get exponentially more to do without the manpower to do it. More observations, conferences and evaluations take more time.

Principals and others already responsible for teacher evaluations in addition to student and teacher schedules, discipline, record keeping grade calculations, test administration, staff morale, parent conferences, state reports and anything else assigned by the superintendent are already pressed to get everything done every day.  This does not take into account the excessive amount of time that might be spent dealing with drugs, alcohol or student conflicts. We also expect them to be experts in student safety and to have proper procedures in place in case the school is threatened by violence.

Do we think for one minute there is any chance there will be more funding for administrators to lighten the load or at least to make it more likely it can get done to a high standard?  No indeed, we all know this is going to be more to do without additional personnel or resources. This alone will marginalize the benefits. It will also precipitate retirement rates and more inexperienced staff will fill vacancies.

The dynamics of a school is an example of what you do not know will not hurt you but might be damage others. A good elementary principal knows the strengths and weaknesses of the teaching staff. Some teachers are great with students who have difficulty adjusting to school and are most likely to be discipline problems.

For years the principal has assigned students according to who will most benefit from this teacher but now that will be unfair so we will spread those students out, they will not perform as well or we will put them all with that teacher we know they should be with and thereby insure she will fail. But the following year all teachers with her students will benefit. Is this an ethical/academic dilemma educators should be forced to make? The answer is an emphatic no. Student lives lie in the balance.

Students grow up in dramatically different homes. Some are traditional, some broken or violent or characterized by substance abuse. Some homes have the financial resources to provide students with enriched environments, trips to museums, shows, national parks and exciting vacations; other students have none of these. Some parents have difficulty helping with homework because it is in a language they do not understand. When these diverse children come to school in vastly different communities, across the state do we really think it is reasonable to hold teachers to the same test scores for their students? It is entirely unreasonable.

I don’t know Mr. O’Neill.  Nor do I know much about New Jersey.  But it is obvious to me that you really don’t “have to be from around here” to recognize bad education legislation.

A Day In The Life Of RAISE/PREP

All day long March 23 was kinda sorta like the due date for your first child.  Will it really be today?  Do we at long last get to see if it is a boy or girl?  What color will the infant’s eyes be?

Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh had hinted that the infamous RAISE/PREP bill might come up for a vote today.  He was trying to count votes, which is sometimes like catching a handful of smoke.  Early in the day he was telling some senators that the State Department of Education has agreed to a newer version of the bill.

Well, not exactly  They had agreed to certain changes in the bill–but certainly not all.  A phone call was placed to State Superintendent Tommy Bice, who was in Mobile, to set the record straight.  He did this and followed up with an email to Senator March at 11:00 a.m that stated in part, While progress has been made, we continue to oppose PREP in its current form and the latest substitution.

At one point a Birmingham senator contacted Jennifer Brown, state Teacher of the Year and an active participant in the legislative battle, to see if she was on board with the latest draft.  She politely told him that she had not seen a copy of the bill and was not in favor of something she had not seen.

I got a copy in early afternoon and immediately turned to the definition of STUDENT GROWTH MODEL on page 8, which said: “A statistical growth model used to isolate the effect and impact of a teacher on student learning, controlling for preexisting characteristics of a student including, but not limted to, prior achievement.”

This was the exact language used in the last version, language that defines the Value Added Model (VAM) process of evaluating teachers based on student test scores that has proven to be unreliable in many states.  Teachers and researchers have spoken out repeatedly against using VAM.

However, as Dr. Brittany Larkin of Auburn University pointed out, two pages later language was tweaked to read: “Districts may choose to also include other examinations or measures approved by the department that measures student growth, including examinations developed at the local level, standardized benchmark assessment administered at the local level, or student learning objectives, if applicable.”

Brittany then made a couple of very important points.  “Why do we need legislation to tell us to do what the state department of education is already doing?”

And, “This bill serves no point.  It will only make changing the evaluation process that much more difficult and painful because if passed it’would take a legislative act to make any changes to a process that should be responsive to need.

In other words, why is Senator Marsh trying to legislate education process?  To me this is like passing a bill that says a college football coach should check with the legislature as to whether he should try a field goal or punt the ball.

Stop a minute and think about all the time, energy and resources that have now been spent by the education community in trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.  And why?  Simply because some lawmakers refuse to consult with Alabama educators before they jump on board an idea being pushed by someone from outside the state.

At the end of the day when the gavel closed the final session before the legislature goes on Spring break, RAISE/PREP never made it to the delivery room.

So we are left to dangle some more and to continue to oppose a bill that should be killed on principle alone.  And to wonder how in the world is any of this helping our children going to public schools.



Who Is StudentsFirst And Why Is Senator Marsh Listening To Them?

Once upon a time a young girl in Ohio graduated from a private high school, then got degrees from Cornell and Harvard, neither of them in the field of education.  She then joined Teach for America which means she had a five week crash course before becoming a teacher at a Baltimore elementary school for three years.

Her name was Michelle Rhee.

In 1997 she became CEO of The New Teacher Project, a non-profit set up to supply urban school systems with teachers.  She was selected by Washington D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007 to run his 50,000 student school system, even though her only real experience in education was three years in that Baltimore classroom..

To say the least, her style was “slash and burn.”  How else do you explain someone who invites John Merrow of PBS to film you as you fire a principal?  She was so controversial that the mayor who hired her lost his re-election in 2010  She resigned shortly afterwards.

Today the D.C. school system remains one of the worst in the country with scores far below those of Alabama schools–even though they have had charter schools since 1996 which we are told are the salvation for struggling systems.

What does Michelle Rhee have to do with Alabama?  A good bit actually.

After she left the nation’s capital, she started an organization named StudentsFirst, announcing on the Oprah Winfrey Show that she would get one million members and raise one billion dollars to change education across the nation

While no one knows how much money this non-profit has raised since they do not reveal their donors and file no paperwork with the Alabama Secretary of State, we do know that some has been spent in Alabama.  At least $200,000 was spent on political campaigns in 2014.

Senator Del March, the author of the Alabama Accountability Act, the charter school bill and the RAISE bill got $20,000.  Rep. Terri Collins, who chairs the Education Policy Committee in the House, got $8,000.  Charlotte Meadows of Montgomery, who now works for StudentsFirst and ran for the State House in 2013, got $20,000.

But the contribution that catches the eye is the $60,000 given to the Foundation for Accountability in Education.  It is listed on the IRS 990 form filed by StudentsFirst for 2013-14.

This is a group set up by Senator Marsh to promote the benefits of the Alabama Accountability Act. They spent $18,000 on ads supporting AAA.

StudentsFirst has six lobbyists registered with the Alabama Ethics Commission.  Three are registered out of Sacremento, CA and three are “contract” lobbyists.  One of them is Josh Blades, former staffer for governor Bob Riley and former chief of staff for Speaker Mike Hubbard.  Blades also lobbies for BCA.

(Editor’s note: Supposedly Rhee is no longer involved with StudentsFirst and runs a group of charter schools started by her husband in Sacramento, CA.  However, the organization is still active.)

From all indications StudentsFirst has been a major player in the development of the RAISE/Prep Act.  I was watching APTV’s Capitol Journal when Senator Marsh said that he had been consulting with them.

All of which leaves us to ask WHY?

Why is a group based in California with no recognizable ties to Alabama education even in the picture when it comes to setting policy for our children and our schools?  Where is their dog in this fight?

What is their goal?  Has anyone associated with the organization ever darkened the door of a school in Bayou La Batre or Bridgeport or anywhere in between?

Or did they just buy a seat at the table with campaign contributions?


Mobile School Board Takes A Stand Against RAISE/PREP Bill

The Mobile County school system is the largest in Alabama with 59,000 students and 7,500 employees.  After a thorough review of the proposed RAISE/PREP legislation earlier this week, this system’s board decided it did not serve the needs of either students and employees and passed a resolution  AGAINST the bill.

A news release by the system states:

“I think this would definitely have a negative effect on teachers and teaching in Alabama,” said board President Don Stringfellow.

The PREP Act is a rewrite of the previously proposed RAISE Act, which was greatly criticized.

Stringfellow said that though the PREP Act reads differently, “in reality it’s not different.”

Critics of the PREP Act – which is heading to the Senate – have said teachers should not be evaluated based on how students perform on a standardized test. Outside factors play a role in student performance, including poverty and family life.

Also, some have said the PREP Act would make it difficult for schools that are considered hard-to-staff or that are under-performing to hire and keep teachers.

The Act, proposed by Sen. President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, would provide a signing bonus to teachers at poor or failing schools. But the state would only providing funding for that bonus in 2017, making the PREP Act an unfunded mandate.

Another unfunded mandate in this bill is the cost of employing and training scores of evaluators.  This is estimated to cost local systems at least $15 million statewide.

Go here to read the compete resolution.