Thursday, February 28, 2013

Fox Guarding Hen House: Mexican Govt Busts Teachers’ Union Boss for Corruption

The head of the Mexican teachers' union (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, has been arrested for embezzling over $156 million from union funds, according to a recent BBC report. Gordillo allegedly used the funds to purchase private property, private planes and plastic surgery.

If the allegations are true (and there is considerable evidence that they are), this would be an enormous amount of money stolen from the teachers, who earn less than $20,000 per year, on average. However, the prosecution of Gordillo probably has little to do with concern for the plight of the average Mexican teacher, for whom the ruling elite have little compassion (except possibly a few crocodile tears during election time). Rather, it is a strategic move meant to neutralize an individual and an organization that have stood in the way of private financial gain.

Gordillo has been an outspoken critic of the government’s free market reform agenda, thus slowing (ever so slightly) the juggernaut of privatization occurring in Mexico, as in public education systems throughout the world. While Gordillo, like her colleagues in the U.S. and other countries, has been relatively impotent in this endeavor, what little efforts she has made are still considered unacceptable to education profiteers who demand complete unfettered access to education tax dollars.  Her arrest is also likely meant to reduce the political influence of her union (she has repeatedly rallied her 1.5 million members to vote as a bloc and used their dues in political campaigns), and send a message to anyone critical of the government’s privatization agenda.

Had the government truly cared about the wellbeing of its impoverished teachers, it would have prosecuted Gordillo years ago. Indeed, she had repeatedly been accused of fraud and embezzlement over the years, but the government chose to ignore the accusations until now. It is curious that Gordillo was arrested only one day after the government enacted major new reforms to the education system.

According to the union, these new reforms could result in mass layoffs and the further privatization of the Mexican education system. One of the reforms, for example, will require teachers to undergo regular examinations in order to maintain their jobs. Considering that many teachers are poorly trained or under qualified, this clearly could result in massive layoffs.

The new legislation also strips away union influence over hiring and promotions and implements merit-based systems for both. According to Reuters, this was intended to halt a corrupt system in which teaching jobs were passed down through families or sold by the union, while veteran teachers were getting cushy paid positions within the union, calling in substitutes to fill in for them in the classroom, and continuing to receive paychecks for their teaching responsibilities. Gordillo was quoted by Reuters saying “either the government bureaucracy sells them [teaching jobs], or my bureaucracy sells them. . . “

The quality of public education in Mexico is not good. Mexican students perform near the bottom compared with other OECD nations. Reformers blame union corruption for the problem and argue that the new legislation will end this corruption, raise the standards of the teaching profession in Mexico and improve educational outcomes for students. However, without providing good quality free or inexpensive teacher training programs, the new legislation will merely throw people out of work without doing anything to get quality teachers into the classrooms. Furthermore, as in all merit-based programs, even the well-trained, honest teachers who show up every day and do an excellent job will be at risk of losing their jobs if student performance data (which is correlated much more with students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and other outside of school influences than it is with teacher quality) does not improve sufficiently.

Brown’s Budget Shuffle: Something From Nothing is Still Nothing

"Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice"—Gov. Jerry Brown, California (quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle)

Gov. Brown is correct—funding poor schools the same as affluent schools is not only unjust, it is pedagogically irrational.  Poor children have greater educational needs, while their parents have far less to donate to school fundraisers. Funding them equally only guarantees unequal outcomes. Yet his solution—reallocating revenues from wealthier schools to poorer school—is neither just nor rational.

None of California’s schools currently receives adequate funding. The state has slashed over $20 billion from K-12 education over the past five years and none of this will be restored under the state’s new “millionaire’s” tax. Furthermore, basic aid school districts (the so-called affluent districts that receive only the “basic” aid from the state because they have higher than average property tax bases) have already lost 90% of the funding they once received from the state. Therefore, taking away scarce resources from these schools only serves to make them more like the state’s low income schools.

While it is true that affluent schools have fewer needs than lower income schools, they were not receiving sufficient funding from the state or local property taxes even before the economic meltdown and draconian budget cuts that followed. Consequently, they have relied on fundraising to make up some of the difference, something they can do with greater ease and success than lower income schools, since the parents tend to be wealthier and have more disposable income. Yet even this hasn’t prevented basic aid schools from losing counselors, librarians and nurses; increasing class sizes to 35 students per teacher (or higher); imposing out-of-pocket fees on teachers for health insurance; and freezing or cutting wages. Furthermore, even within basic aid districts there are often low income schools with student demographics similar to poor, inner city schools. Reducing their funding because they happen to be in an “affluent” basic aid district would end up harming the lower income students Brown’s plan is intended to help.

Of course it is important to provide low income schools with additional funding, over and above what the affluent ones receive, because of their greater needs. However, this must be accomplished through increased tax revenues, not by ripping off other schools. Yet increased school funding, alone, will not solve the myriad ways in which poverty impacts educational outcomes. To really close the achievement gap, poor kids in poor schools need relief from their poverty so they aren’t coming to school hungry and suffering from stress and untreated medical conditions. Their parents need relief from poverty before they even have children, since poverty increases the chances children will be born premature, with low birth weight, and suffer from stress, malnutrition and environmental toxins, each of which contribute to cognitive impairment and learning disabilities.

Short of this, low income schools need large infusions of cash—far more than they would receive under the Brown plan. They need enough revenue to lower class sizes and hire extra teachers and reading specialists. Low income schools need full-time nurses or on-site clinics to care for uninsured children and reduce the amount of class time lost to treatable and preventable illnesses. Low income schools need staff and resources to provide adult education and English language support for parents. They need extra funding for after school programs so that children aren’t watching television or getting into trouble or hurt when classes end. They need mental health specialists to help students suffering from stress, anxiety and other common mental health problems that often go undiagnosed or treated in poor children.

If the schools truly are public, then parents should not have to pay more out of pocket for fundraisers and benefits, in addition to what they contribute through their taxes. If they were adequately funded, there would be much less need for this.

This is another major problem with school finance. Affluent families are affluent, in part, because they can shelter much of their income from taxation (e.g., deductions and write-offs) and many do not want to pay a penny for the education of other people’s children. By maintaining tax rates at their current levels (which are far lower than they were during the Reagan era and earlier), the affluent can continue amass great quantities of wealth, while getting an excellent free education for their children at the exclusive public schools in their wealthy enclaves. They can then supplement their schools’ mediocre budgets with tax deductible donations that further lower their tax liabilities, while increasing the education quality gap to the benefit of their own children. Thus, they (and their legislators) are unlikely to accept Brown’s proposal (or the tax increases necessary to put a serious dent in the problem).

Today in Labor History—February 28

February 28, 1921 – Shoemakers won their strike for higher wages, leading to a government crackdown. (From the Daily Bleed)

February 28, 1986 - The entire workforce of the 3M factory in Elandsfontein, South Africa, went on strike in support of the 450 members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union being laid off at a 3M plant in New Jersey. The South African worker, all of whom were black, were among the hundreds of thousands of union members whose militancy helped bring down the apartheid system. (From Workday Minnesota)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lies and Damned Lies: U.S. Test Scores Actually Near the Top

For years, free market education reformers have claimed that the U.S. public education system is broken—some have even called it a threat to our national security (Reagan’s Nation at Risk report, 1983). They have used this “crisis” to justify everything from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top to attacks on teachers’ seniority, tenure and due process rights. It has led to a decade of accountability and testing mania that has eaten up instructional time and replaced activities that foster creativity and critical thinking with rote memorization. It has taken away billions of dollars that could have been used for teacher training, recruitment and remuneration, and transferred it into the pockets of test and textbook publishers, private charter school operators, and online curriculum producers.

The claims that America’s schools are failing are grossly exaggerated, if not utterly false. For example, the number of students attempting and passing SAT and AP exams has been growing every year and in every ethnic and social group (see here and here). Furthermore, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, for the first time in history, more than 30% of Americans aged 25 or older—56 million people—have bachelor's degrees, while only 5% did 70 years ago—something that would be impossible if K-12 education was not successfully preparing its graduates for college. According to Good Education, more than one-third of these degrees are now in STEM fields. The data also indicates that gender and ethnic disparities are closing, with 30% of women now holding degrees (compared to 31% of men), while the percentage of Hispanic degree holders increased 80% over the past decade, with over 14% now holding degrees.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics
Free market reformers love testing because it seems objective and scientific (plus they can massage the statistics to suit their needs). Most people lack the time and expertise to disaggregate the numbers, examine the methodology, and identify biases and experimental errors that can skew the data and influence the validity of their conclusions. Consequently, the media typically report test results without such analyses, proliferating misconceptions and inaccuracies like the notion that U.S. students’ test scores are substantially lower than those in other wealthy nations (as measured by the PISA test).

However, as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) correctly points out in a new report (that you can read here), lower income students in every country perform more poorly on the tests than affluent students. However, because economic inequality is greater in the U.S. than in virtually every other country with which we are compared, our national average appears comparatively low. To make matters worse, there was a sampling error in the most recent PISA test, resulting in an over-representation of students from the most disadvantaged U.S. schools, thus further depressing the average U.S. scores.

When EPI re-estimated PISA scores, adjusting for the disproportionate number of economically disadvantaged students in the U.S., it found that average U.S. scores in reading and math were substantially higher than the official numbers. Using EPI’s corrected numbers, the U.S. moves to sixth in reading (up from the officially reported 14th) and 13th in math (up from the officially reported 25th) compared with other OECD countries.

Although U.S. students still performed worse than those in the top three countries (Canada, Finland and Korea), the difference was markedly narrowed when adjusted for socioeconomic differences. Perhaps more significantly, economically disadvantaged students in the U.S. performed better than their social class peers in most other countries, including in these three top scoring countries.

Thus, while U.S. educational outcomes appear worse than those of its trading partners (due mostly to its greater levels of social inequity), it is actually doing a better job than its trading partners at boosting the test scores of its poorest students. Furthermore, the performance of the poorest U.S. students has been improving over time, while the performance of poor students in other similar countries has been on the decline, suggesting that U.S. schools are doing a better job addressing the needs of their economically disadvantaged students.

Today in Labor History—February 27

Guards' cannon dragged to Montmartre During Paris Commune (contemporary sketch)

February 27, 1871 – The Paris Commune began when regular soldiers, sent to confiscate cannon from the National Guard militia in Paris, were confronted by the crowd and then decided to fraternize with them. (From the Daily Bleed)
Cartoon showing US Socialist Presidential candidate, Eugen V. Debs, who ran from in prison in the 1920 election.
 February 27, 1875 – Eugene V. Debs became a charter member and secretary of the Vigo Lodge, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. By 1880, he had become grand secretary of the national Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and editor of the Locomotive Fireman's Magazine. He later led the bitter Pullman strike. (From the Daily Bleed)

February 27, 1902 – John Steinbeck was born on this date in Salinas, California. Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, wrote numerous novels from the perspective of farmers and the working class, including The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Tortilla Flats, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row & East of Eden. (1952). (From the Daily Bleed)

February 27, 1912 – “The Times" of London published a lead story about a "conspiracy" of unions to take over ownership of British coal mines. The piece was based on a pamphlet, "The Miner's Next Step," which had been printed in Tonypandy, a scene of recent bloodshed between strikers and police. The pamphlet, written by the South Wales Miner's Federation, called for direct action and industrial solidarity. (From the Daily Bleed)

February 27, 1933 – Berlin's Reichstag parliament building was torched. The Nazi's tried to blame it on communists as a ploy in their steady consolidation of total power. (From the Daily Bleed)

Jarama Valley, Woody Guthrie
February 27, 1937 – Lincoln Brigadiers attacked Pingarrón Hill ("Suicide Hill") in Jarama Valley, Spain. Of the 500 who fought in this infamous battle, over 300 were killed or wounded. The Lincoln Brigade was made up of Americans who went to Spain (in violation of U.S. law) to help fight Franco and the fascists. (From the Daily Bleed)

February 27, 1939 - Following a decade of sit-down strikes, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sit-down strikes were illegal. (From Workday Minnesota)

February 27, 1942 – The Seattle School Board accepted the forced resignation of Japanese-American teachers. (From the Daily Bleed)

February 27, 1943 – A mine disaster killed 74 workers at Red Lodge, Montana. (From the Daily Bleed)

February 27, 1973 – 300 Oglala Sioux American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) activists liberated and occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota (the site of the 1890 massacre of Sioux by the U.S. cavalry), in response to a campaign of terror by tribal and FBI officials. From the Daily Bleed)

February 27, 2001 – Seattle ACORN workers went on strike. Their office shut was down after their employer refused to recognize Public Interest Workers IU 670 union of the IWW. From the Daily Bleed)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Academic Performance is Contagious

I Hope I Catch Some of Her Smarts (Image modified from Flickr image by Kodomut)

The Bowl Curve Syndrome
I once observed that the test scores and class averages in many of my low income classes produced graphs with a shape very different than the stereotypical bell curve, with a majority of students earning C’s (the top of the bell) and fewer students earning A’s, B’s, D’s and F’s (the sides of the bell). In my classes, the curves were shaped like inverted bells, or bowls, with very few C’s, slight higher numbers of A’s and B’s, and much higher numbers of D’s and F’s.

My interpretation of these results was that I had very few students who were academically and socially ready for college-preparatory level biology (the A’s, B’s and C’s) and a majority of students who were not ready (the D’s and F’s). Indeed, this hypothesis was supported by other data (e.g., high percentages of my students were reading far below grade level, failing other courses, and/or deficient in graduation credits). Furthermore, the students with D’s and F’s had significantly higher rates of absenteeism and were less likely to complete their assignments.

While my hypothesis made a lot of sense, it did not explain why there were fewer C’s than A’s or B’s. However, I did observe that many of these C students ebbed and flowed depending on who they were teamed up with in the class. When grouped with higher performing students, they tended to rise to the occasion and do better in the class, while the opposite occurred when they were grouped with lower performing students.

This was not just a case of riding on their peers’ coat tails or putting their names on a “group” activity that was completed mostly by the higher performing students. Rather, their tests scores, lab reports and other individual assignments began to improve. It was if their peers’ self-efficacy and optimism inspired and motivated them (e.g., “if they can do, maybe I can, too, with a little more effort”). In contrast, when surrounded by students who were struggling and failing, it appeared to them as if no one was succeeding and the system must therefore be rigged and impossible, so why bother?

Academic Success is Infectious
My hypothesis was recently confirmed by research led by Hiroki Sayama, director of the Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems research group at Binghamton University in Binghamton, N.Y. and published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS).

Sayama’s research team asked students at Maine-Endwell High School in Endwell, N.Y. to rank their classmates as either a “best friend,” a “friend,” an “acquaintance” or someone they didn’t know. They then examined their grade point averages and how these changed between January 2011 and January 2012, finding a linear relationship between students’ grades and those of their peer group. For example, if a student’s grade were initially higher than their peers’ grades, the student’s grade tended to decline over the course of the year until it was more in line with the peers. Likewise, if the student’s initial grades were lower than their peers’, their grades tended to rise over the year. They also found a correlation in happiness, obesity and other traits between students and their peer groups. The correlations were strongest at the “friend” level, and much less significant at the “best friend” and “acquaintance” levels.

There were a number of variables and biases in the experiment that are worth noting. The sample size was relatively small (only 158 students and only one school were examined). Consequently, the results may have been skewed due to the small sample size or the possible concentration of students of similar socioeconomic background (e.g., they were predominantly white and suburban). Also, the social networks were constructed based on self-reporting by students. This could also skew the data, as people do not always respond truthfully or accurately on self-reporting surveys. Furthermore, the categories to which students assigned their peers (e.g., best friend, friend, acquaintance, etc.) are subjective and difficult to quantify. One other significant bias inherent in this research is that students may be choosing their “friends” based on preexisting similarities in behavior, academic readiness, motivation and attitudes about school. Thus, a correlation in academic achievement could be explained by behaviors that were coincidental rather than influential.

Take Home Message: Desegregate Schools and Classrooms
While the research indicates that “friends” had a greater influence on students than did acquaintances, my own experience has been that even acquaintances can have a measurable influence. The problem is that grouping students with “friends” or “acquaintances” will have a negative effect if the “friends” and “acquaintances” are performing more poorly. Thus, the solution should be to surround each low performing student with more successful peers. However, in low income schools, which have higher percentages of low performing students, this would be impossible.

One way around this dilemma is to desegregate schools based on socioeconomic background and academic performance (i.e., reassigning students across a school district such that all schools have similar numbers of low performing and high performing students). Of course, this would have little effect in a district that is composed entirely of lower income students. However, in cities like San Francisco, where there are wide socioeconomic, ethnic and achievement gaps between schools within the same school district, such a reassigning of students could go a long way toward increasing the ratio of successful students per classroom and thus the chances that a lower performing student is grouped with or makes friends with a higher achieving student.

Of course this is much easier said than done, as San Francisco has discovered each time it has attempted to (and failed) desegregate its schools.