Texas School Districts Violated a Law Intended to Add Transparency to Local Elections

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune analyzed 35 Texas school districts that held trustee elections last fall and found none that posted all of the required campaign finance records.

by Lexi Churchill and Jessica Priest

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Last year, in an effort to bring greater transparency to local elections, the Texas Legislature mandated that school districts, municipalities and other jurisdictions post campaign finance reports online rather than stow them away in filing cabinets.

But many agencies appear to be violating the law that took effect in September.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune examined 35 school districts that held trustee elections in November and found none that had posted all of the required disclosures online that show candidates’ fundraising and spending. (Two of the districts did not respond to questions that would allow us to determine whether they were missing these reports.) And the agency tasked with enforcing the rules for thousands of local jurisdictions does not have any staff dedicated to checking their websites for compliance.

“The public not having access to those records because they’re not turned in or not posted in a timely fashion means that the public can’t make an informed decision based on where that candidate’s financial support is coming from,” said Erin Zwiener, a Democratic state representative from Driftwood who has pushed for campaign finance reform.

The interest in more transparency in local elections is bipartisan. “The local level has an amazing amount of funding and activity going through their respective districts, whether it be a school district, the city councils and the counties,” said Republican Carl Tepper, the state representative from Lubbock who authored the bill.

Of all the local government offices now required to upload campaign finance information online, the newsrooms focused on school boards because of the growing push by hard-line conservatives to reshape the elected bodies and advance vouchers as an alternative to public schools. Over the past several years, school boards across the country have shifted from traditionally nonpartisan bodies to increasingly polarized ones grappling with politically charged issues like mask mandates, book bans and bathroom policies for transgender people.

“If candidates are being pushed and funded to fight a proxy culture war in our school districts, I hope that that information can at least be public and easily available and that we can know how frequently that’s happening in Texas,” Zwiener said in an interview.

ProPublica and the Tribune contacted each of the school districts to ask about the missing documents. Some districts said they were aware of the mandate but still had not complied. Among their explanations: They did not receive enough instructions about the implementation and their websites were undergoing changes. A spokesperson for Lago Vista Independent School District, outside Austin, said simply, “Unfortunately, with the multitude of legislative mandates following the 88th session, this one got by us.”

Most often, school leaders said they had not known about the new law and subsequently uploaded the reports. The vast majority of districts, however, were still missing filings on their website because they never received or lost required reports from at least one candidate, actions that violate other parts of the state’s election law.

The newsrooms also found a handful of instances in which candidates or school districts hid donor names and parts of addresses, even though the law doesn’t allow for those redactions.

Had the late filings been submitted in one of Texas’ statewide races, they would have been flagged by the Texas Ethics Commission, the agency tasked with enforcing the state election laws, and the campaigns would have been automatically fined. For each of the 5,000 elected officials and candidates running for state office each year, the agency sends notices about upcoming filing deadlines, penalizes late filers and then considers their subsequent requests to reduce those fees. The commission also compiles all of their campaign finance reports into one searchable online database going back decades.

The agency does not follow any of these steps for local candidates. Instead, it investigates only when it receives a complaint.

None of the districts that responded to our questions sent a complaint to the commission. (The Texas Ethics Commission does not require them to do so.)

Matthew Wilson, an associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said it is reasonable to cut districts some slack for now because it’s a new requirement. But over time, without effective enforcement, local agencies won’t feel any pressure to comply with the new law.

“It’s one thing to have a law, but if it’s a law for the violation of which no one ever gets punished, you’re going to have a low level of compliance,” he said. “The ball is really in the court of TEC to decide whether this law is going to have teeth.”

The new law applies to elected officials and candidates seeking local positions across the state’s 254 counties, more than 1,000 school districts and roughly 1,200 cities and towns. In the past, their campaign finance details were kept on handwritten forms that offices were required to keep on file for two years before destroying them. They now have to be maintained online for five years.

Of the districts that uploaded their records after being contacted by ProPublica and the Tribune, most candidates raised a few thousand dollars or less, though the newsrooms found a few who had raised at least $10,000 or had the support of political action committees. Voters did not have easy access to this information at the time of the elections, which was the law’s intent.

One candidate in West Texas, Joshua Guinn, raised more than $30,000 in his run for Midland ISD school board. During a public forum in October, a few weeks before the election, Guinn said his large fundraising haul was attributable to “family, friends, just people that believe in me.” His filings showed that he spent more than $20,000 on advertising and consulting services provided by CAZ Consulting, a firm that the Texas Observer has connected to a widespread effort to support far-right candidates. Guinn ultimately lost his race to the former board president.

A spokesperson for Midland ISD said the district aims to be compliant with all legislative requirements but that it did not receive a specific notification from TEC or state education regulators about the new law. Christopher Zook Jr., president of CAZ Consulting, said in an email, “All campaign finance reports should be easily accessible to the public. Publicly available finance reports allow for greater transparency in the political process for everyone.”

In a Houston-area school district, Aldine ISD, campaign finance reports were not posted online for seven of the 10 candidates seeking a position on the board. Once the newsrooms reached out, the district uploaded a report from incumbent William Randolph Bates Jr. It showed that he raised more than $30,000, including $4,000 from two PACs. But the school district said Bates and six other candidates did not turn in their mandated filings before the election. Bates won reelection.

Neither Guinn nor Bates responded to interview requests.

And until we asked, Princeton ISD, about 40 miles north of Dallas, did not post the campaign finance reports for any of the four candidates seeking two at-large positions on the school board in November. This made it more difficult for voters to know who was behind a mailer sent by the Collin Conservatives United PAC. The two-sided pamphlet contrasted incumbent school board President Cyndi Darland, whom it said “we can trust,” against another candidate, Starla Sharpe, whom it claimed will encourage a “woke agenda,” won’t stop critical race theory and “won’t get rid of sexually explicit materials that harm our children.”

Sharpe said in an interview with the news organizations that the mailer contained false statements about her and that Darland told her she had nothing to do with the mailer. But when the district posted Darland’s report following our inquiries, it revealed that she contributed to the PAC behind the mailer.

“I absolutely think this would have been important for voters to be aware of and to see the caliber of the individuals that you are voting for and the integrity they have,” Sharpe said.

Darland declined a phone interview and did not answer questions by email because she said she had been in a car wreck and was in pain and on medication. Laura Dawley, treasurer of the Collin Conservatives United PAC, declined to comment. Darland and Sharpe won the two open seats.

Political activity within local races like school boards has not been a major concern until the last few election cycles, according to Brendan Glavin, deputy research director at OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that collects state and federal campaign finance data. Glavin said it is somewhat common for states to have local candidates’ filings remain at the local level, given those races historically do not generate a lot of money and were not considered overtly political.

“This is an area where the disclosure law is lagging behind what is becoming the political reality,” Glavin said, as these races become higher profile and attract money from outside the community.

Tepper, the Lubbock representative, began last year’s legislative session with a far more ambitious proposal to create a searchable database for all filings. But he quickly abandoned the idea once TEC officials told him it would cost around $20 million to maintain — a fraction of the cost of the state’s leading priorities like its $148 million program to bus newly arriving migrants out of state. Tepper told the newsrooms he thought the estimate was “a little outlandish” but decided to take “the path of least resistance” with his online posting idea instead.

Later that session, Zwiener alternatively proposed to require all local candidates and officeholders who raise or spend more than $25,000 to send their reports to TEC, but the Legislature did not move forward with that idea either.

TEC Executive Director J.R. Johnson said Tepper’s initial proposal would have increased the agency’s workload from 5,000 filers currently to nearly 50,000 filers each year if just two candidates ran for every local office.

Johnson would not comment on whether the agency has enough funding to keep up with its current tasks but instead referred the news organizations to the commission’s reports to the Legislature, which detail its rapidly increasing workload, “persistent staffing shortages” and practically stagnant budget.

The commission wrote that campaign finance reports have been “growing dramatically,” with statewide candidates’ average contributions quadrupling from $5.6 million in 2018 to $25.7 million in 2022. The resulting reports are lengthy — one surpassed 100,000 pages — and “have been testing the limits of the TEC’s server hardware for years,” the agency wrote. Yet when the commission requested funding to help the system run smoother in 2022, lawmakers denied the request. Shortly after, the servers failed.

All other regulatory agencies in the state receive more funding than TEC, the office wrote in a report to the Legislature, including the Texas Racing Commission, which oversees horse and greyhound races. “We were unable to find any state that invested less in its ethics agency on a per capita basis,” the report said.

The Legislature did increase the agency’s budget by about $1.2 million last year, which Johnson said has helped prevent turnover.

Johnson said the commission has made “significant efforts” to ensure that local authorities know about the new law, such as sending notices and presenting at the annual secretary of state conference for local jurisdictions, but that it can take time for entities to become educated about an updated requirement.

Tepper said he hopes the lack of compliance was due to the districts not knowing about the updated requirement and not flouting the law. He said in an interview that he appreciated the newsrooms “calling around and putting some spotlight on this so maybe they’ll be informed now and can comply with the state law.”

Methodology

The newsrooms aimed to examine compliance among all of the districts with November 2023 trustee elections, the first races since the new law went into effect in September. We reached out to more than a dozen statewide election and education agencies and associations to locate a calendar with all school board races dates, but none could provide one. In the absence of an official source, the Tribune and ProPublica pieced together our own list of November races through media clips and contacted 35 school districts.

Of those, we did not find any that were in full compliance with the state’s election laws. Two districts did not respond to questions that would allow us to determine whether they followed the rules. They are Spring ISD in north Houston, and Pleasant Grove ISD in East Texas.

Of the 33 districts we found out of compliance with state election laws, 21 had at least some reports on file but had not uploaded them, which broke the new regulation established by House Bill 2626. At least 16 of those districts were missing at least one report, though typically multiple reports, that they never received from candidates. Most of these districts have since uploaded their missing reports, though two districts have still not done so: New Caney and Shepherd ISDs, north of Houston.

The 12 other districts said they either never got any filings from candidates or they lost the records that should have been posted online. The ethics commission told the newsrooms this is not technically a violation of HB 2626, but it breaks other election laws that require candidates to file certain reports and mandate that districts keep them on file.

Posted in Ethics, information suppression, K-12 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Malfunction of US Education Policy: Elite Misinformation, Disinformation and Selfishness [book review]

“Many who work in America’s public schools, teacher preparation programs, school district offices, and other such places often marvel at how out-of-touch education policy seems and wonder why it ignores the basic problems facing those in the trenches. In a masterful work, Phelps suggests this disconnect stems from the misinformation, disinformation, and selfishness of policy makers. The book’s eight chapters address the view of education policy from 2001, the triumph of strategic scholarship, the education establishment cartel, linchpins of the cartel alliance, the education reform cartel, the dense web of Common Core confederates, the permanent education press, and the view from 2023. While many of these topics have been examined before, Phelps brings a fresh, piercing, and astute outlook. This book would be a superb complement for a class using Fullan’s Leading in a Culture of Change (Jossey-Bass 2020), Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise (Harper, 2004), or Duke’s Leadership for Low-Performing Schools (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). While essential for those interested in school leadership and change, the work will also be of interest to those interested in public policy, ethics, or the political process. Essential. Advanced undergraduates through faculty; professionals; general readers.”

— Choice Reviews

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The Malfunction of US Education Policy: Elite Misinformation, Disinformation and Selfishness [book review]

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, April 2023, 196 pages, ISBN 9781475869941

With scholarly precision, Phelps details the collection of actors that have driven and continue to propel U.S. education policy and preferred narratives. In doing so, he has laid out a web of collusion of an inter-connected “echo chamber” or, “mutual admiration society,” composed of education “non-profits,” various repetitively used sources, and education research “think tanks,” as well as funding sources for those policies and narratives that often lead back to just a handful of foundations, namely the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Phelps also draws a clear line between those funding sources and journalists, as well as the education reporting outlets they represent which promulgate the education fad du jour pushed by the aforementioned think tanks. This book is a must-read for anyone taking education reporting at face value – especially policymakers and elected officials.


– A.P. Dillon, Education Reporter, North State Journal.

Posted in Common Core, Education Fraud, Education journalism, Education policy, Education Reform, information suppression, K-12, partisanship, research ethics, Richard P. Phelps, US Education Department | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mississippi: Progress Commanding Attention or Outright Miracle?

Due to comments from others about Mississippi, I thought it would be useful to post a short message with some of the data I have been looking at recently that tells me while Mississippi’s educational improvements are not in the miracle category, they are really notable and command attention. Let me provide some evidence.

The first attached jpg shows how Mississippi stacked up against other states in NAEP Grade 4 Reading in 2013, the year its reform legislation was enacted, and the latest 2022 results. This and the following jpgs were prepared using the NAEP Data Explorer, by the way.

Looking at the first jpg, there is no other way to consider this than a remarkable improvement for Mississippi.

First, note I have separately analyzed scores for white and Black students. If you only look at overall average scores, you won’t see what is really happening because by only looking at overall scores you wind up comparing a lot of kids of color in Mississippi to white students in a number of other states. Even the NAEP 2009 Science Report Card discusses this issue and you can check Page 32 in that report card if you want more on this topic.

Getting back to the first jpg, note that between 2013 and 2022, Mississippi has really jumped up in relative ranking for both white and Black students.

If we honor the statistical sampling errors present in all NAEP scores, Mississippi’s progress in NAEP Grade 4 Reading is still remarkable.

For example, in 2013, white students in 40 of the 50 states outscored MS’ whites. By 2022, only 2 states could claim they performed better after the NAEP sampling errors were considered.

Despite the general trend thanks to COVID, MS white scale score went from 222 to 230 between 2013 and 2022, as well. Consider what happened to 2013’s top-placed Maryland for a comparison. In 2013 Maryland’s whites scored 244. By 2022, Maryland only scored 232, which was statistically tied with Mississippi.

For Black students, in 2013, out of the 39 states that had Black scores in both years, 18 statistically significantly outperformed MS’ Black students. In 2022, no state in the nation statistically significantly outperformed MS’ Blacks. MS’ Black student scale score also rose from 197 to 204. Maryland was again the top performer in 2013, with a Black scale score of 214. By 2022, almost certainly thanks in part to COVID, Maryland had decayed to 202, which was not statistically significantly different from MS’ 204, but certainly wasn’t higher anymore.

A miracle? No. Darn attention-getting — YOU BET!

But, what about the claim it was all just due to MS retaining more students than any other state. Well, Fordham Institute actually put out a “Flypaper” claiming that back in 2019 (https://tinyurl.com/5dy47vam). But, if you look at it today, there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the article saying no, retention doesn’t explain away MS’ improvement. Fordham looked at some demographic data available in the NAEP Data Explorer which showed that MS always had high retention rates and the NAEP samples were always similarly impacted, so the change in performance could not be due to that. You can see that data Fordham talks about in the second jpg. This shows the percentages of students in the NAEP tested samples that were below, at, or above the modal age for Grade 4 NAEP, which is 9 years old. As you can see, things haven’t changed much all the way back to 1992, the first year State NAEP was given in Grade 4 reading.

Another factor could inflate NAEP scores — large exclusion rates of students. However, as various sections of Table 18 in the attached Excel spreadsheet show, from 2013 on MS has only excluded 1% of the raw sample NAEP wanted to test, the lowest rate for any participating state. So, that doesn’t explain away MS’ improvement either.

So, bottom line for me at this point is MS’ reading improvement in Grade 4 is real, and significant. Those who want to disregard MS are not conversant with all the data and/or are playing adult politics for other reasons (maintaining legacy, lucrative contracts, etc.).

But, what about the claim that the improvements in Grade 4 never showed up in Grade 8 NAEP.

Well, to be honest, since they only really showed in Grade 4 in 2019, it didn’t seem like there had been enough time for things to start improving in Grade 8. But, surprise! Take a look at the third jpg.

As of 2022, improvements in MS’ reading performance are starting to show up in Grade 8 NAEP, too! In 2013, whites in 43 states statistically significantly outperformed whites in MS. By 2022, only 5 states could make the same claim.

For Black students, out of 42 states with scores in 2013, Blacks in 27 states outscored MS’ Blacks. Flash forward to 2022, and Black students in only 1 state can make that claim!

For both whites and Black students, MS’ NAEP Grade 8 Reading Scale Score only increased 1 point, but in general scores declined elsewhere. For example, top-scoring Massachusetts scored 285 in 2013 but lost 10 points in the 2022 Grade 8 NAEP Reading results for whites. For Black students, top-scoring New Jersey in 2013 lost 11 points by 2022.

So, even in Grade 8, the Mississippi reform looks like it is starting to show notable progress.

Oh, the last jpg shows that retention doesn’t explain the Grade 8 results, either.

Those trying to deny this just don’t know the data or have other motives that are not in the best interests of students.

Posted in Curriculum & Instruction, Education journalism, K-12, math, Mathematics, Richard Innes, US Education Department | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The High Price of the Education Writers Association’s News

EWA’s Form 990 tax filings to the IRS for the five tax years 2015 to 2019 reveal the following:

Tax Year | Membership Dues ($000s) | Contributions (gifts, grants, etc.) ($000s)
2015 | 19.2 | 2,797.8
2016 | 20.6 | 3,419.6
2017 | 22.0 | 2,414.9
2018 | 21.4 | 3,088.9
2019 | 17.6 | 2,567.2

EWA’s income from contributions dwarfs that from membership dues by a ratio of about 150 to one (Internal Revenue Service, 2015–2019). Its contributors overwhelmingly supported Common Core.

As of 2019, EWA’s five “Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees, and Highest Compensated Employees” all enjoyed six-figure salaries.

Current Sustaining Funders:
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Foundation for Child Development, Funders for Adolescent Science Translation, The Joyce Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, Lumina Foundation, The Spencer Foundation, The Wallace Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

National Seminar Sponsors (2022):
ECMC Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, SXSW EDU, EGF Accelerator, Arnold Ventures, IBM, American Institutes for Research, GreatMinds, Lumina Foundation, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Collaborative for Student Success, Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, Flyover Zone, SAGA Education, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, University of California Riverside School of Education

Sponsorship Opportunities:
Website Messaging
Purchase announcement space on EWA’s website for four weeks.
• Run of site – $ 5,000
• Blogs – $ 2,000
• Jobs – $ 2,000
• Events – $ 1,200

Podcast Sponsorship
“EWA Radio produces a weekly podcast focused on journalism and the education beat. The EWA public editor hosts engaging interviews with journalists about education and its coverage in the media.”
• $ 3,000
Sponsorship Details
• Sponsorship of four EWA Radio podcast episodes
• Acknowledgment of sponsorship on promotional emails and materials
• Verbal acknowledgement of sponsorship by EWA representative during the podcast episode
• Acknowledgement of sponsorship on EWA website

Exclusive Newsletter Messaging
• $ 2,500
Details
• Four-week purchase
• Exclusive sponsorship of EWA e-newsletter sent on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday

Newsletter Messaging
• $1,000
Details
• Four-week purchase
• Space in EWA e-newsletter sent on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday

Print Messaging
• $1,000
Details
• Full-page, color announcement in printed program at topical/regional journalist-only seminar
• Available for any topic-based seminar. Previous topics include: higher education, Latino education, student safety and well-being, teacher training and evaluations, adolescent learning, student-centered learning, charters and school choice, assessments and testing, early education, and STEM education.

The registration fee for the Education Writers Association 2023 National Seminar in Atlanta:
$650/person (late fee $800)

References

Education Writers Association. (2023, March 27) EWA Today. Washington, DC: Author.

Internal Revenue Service. (2015). Form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax) for Education Writers Association. https://nonpartisaneducation.org/Malfunction/form990-237439790-education-writers-association-2016-09.pdf

Internal Revenue Service. (2016). Form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax) for Education Writers Association. https://nonpartisaneducation.org/Malfunction/form990-237439790-education-writers-association-2017-09.pdf

Internal Revenue Service. (2017). Form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax) for Education Writers Association. https://nonpartisaneducation.org/Malfunction/form990-237439790-education-writers-association-2018-09.pdf

Internal Revenue Service. (2018). Form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax) for Education Writers Association. https://nonpartisaneducation.org/Malfunction/form990-237439790-education-writers-association-2019-09.pdf

Internal Revenue Service. (2019). Form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax) for Education Writers Association. https://nonpartisaneducation.org/Malfunction/form990-237439790-education-writers-association-2020-09.pdf

Posted in Common Core, Education journalism, Education policy, Education Writers Association, K-12 | Leave a comment

The Malfunction of US Education Policy: Elite Misinformation, Disinformation, and Selfishness

Looks like ebook/kindle version is now available. “Look Inside” feature on Amazon shows Preface and Intro.

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-malfunction-of-us-education-policy-richard-p-phelps-founder-of-nonpartisan-education-review-author-and-editor-of-correcting-fallacies-about-educa/1142557816

https://www.amazon.com/Malfunction-Education-Policy-Misinformation-Disinformation/dp/1475869940/

Posted in Censorship, Common Core, Education journalism, Education policy, Education Reform, Education Writers Association, Richard P. Phelps | Leave a comment

This Private Equity Firm Is Amassing Companies That Collect Data on America’s Children



Vista Equity Partners has been buying up software used in schools. Parents want to know what the companies do with kids’ data



By: Todd Feathers



Originally published on themarkup.org



Over the past six years, a little-known private equity firm, Vista Equity Partners, has built an educational software empire that wields unseen influence over the educational journeys of tens of millions of children. Along the way, The Markup found, the companies the firm controls have scooped up a massive amount of very personal data on kids, which they use to fuel a suite of predictive analytics products that push the boundaries of technology’s role in education and, in some cases, raise discrimination concerns.



One district we examined uses risk-scoring algorithms from a company in the group, PowerSchool, that incorporate indicators of family wealth to predict a student’s future success—a controversial practice that parents don’t know about—raising troubling questions.



“I did not even realize there was anybody in this space still doing that [using free and reduced lunch status] in a model being used on real kids,” said Ryan Baker, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Learning Analytics. “I am surprised and really appalled.” 



Vista Equity Partners, which declined to comment for this story, has acquired controlling ownership stakes in some of the leading names in educational technology, including EAB, which sells a suite of college counseling and recruitment products, and PowerSchool, which dominates the market for K-12 data warehousing and analytics. PowerSchool alone claims to hold data on more than 45 million children, including 75 percent of North American K-12 students. Ellucian, a recent Vista acquisition, says it serves 26 million students. And EAB’s products are used by thousands of colleges and universities. But parents of those students say they’ve largely been left in the dark about what data the companies collect and how they use it. 



“We are paying these vendors and they are making money on our kids’ data,” said Ellen Zavian, whose son was required to use Naviance, college preparation software recently acquired by PowerSchool, at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md.



After growing concerned about the questions her son was being asked to answer on Naviance-administered surveys, Zavian and other members of a local student privacy group requested access in 2019 to the data the company holds on their children from the district under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). But to date, she has received back only usernames and passwords.



“Parents know very little about this process,” she said. 



The ed tech companies in Vista’s portfolio appear to operate largely independently, but they have entered into a number of partnerships that deepen the ties of shared ownership. PowerSchool and EAB, for example, have a data integration partnership aimed at “delivering data movement solutions that drive value and save time for Districts.”  The two companies also signed another deal last year that made EAB the exclusive reseller of some PowerSchool products. 



EAB did not respond to requests for comment.



To piece together the extent of the companies’ data collection, The Markup reviewed thousands of pages of contracts, user manuals, data sharing agreements, and survey questions obtained through public records requests. 



We found that the companies, collectively, gather everything from basic demographic information—entered automatically when a student enrolls in school—to data about students’ citizenship status, religious affiliation, school disciplinary records, medical diagnoses, what speed they read and type at, the full text of answers they give on tests, the pictures they draw for assignments, whether they live in a two-parent household, whether they’ve used drugs, been the victim of a crime, or expressed interest in LGBTQ+ groups, among hundreds of other data points. Each Vista-owned company doesn’t necessarily hold all the data points listed here.



Some of those data fields were recorded in the traffic between students’ computers and PowerSchool servers when students used their accounts. The Markup reviewed the accounts with students’ permission. Other data fields were listed in districts’ data privacy agreements with PowerSchool and the data library—a list of all available data fields—for one district’s PowerSchool database. Our review offers a more detailed picture of the company’s data operations than PowerSchool publicly discloses, but it is likely an incomplete portrait.



According to its contracts with school districts, PowerSchool has the right to de-identify the data it holds on their behalf—by removing fields such as names and social security numbers—and use it in any way it sees fit to improve and build its own products. 



In some districts, such as Miami-Dade County Public Schools, recent PowerSchool contracts have exceeded $2.5 million for a single year, according to copies of the deals obtained through public records requests.



“It’s hard for me to understand how PowerSchool would not be paying for the privilege” of extracting so much student data, said Alex Bowers, a professor of educational leadership at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “You don’t pay the oil company to come pump oil off your land; it’s the other way around.”



PowerSchool declined to answer specific questions about the data it collects and how it uses that information.



“At PowerSchool, ensuring student equity, privacy, and access to good quality education is our top priority and is foundational to everything we do,” Darron Flagg, the company’s chief compliance and privacy officer, wrote in a brief statement to The Markup. “PowerSchool strictly and proactively follows legal, regulatory, and voluntary requirements for protecting student privacy including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), state regulations, and the Student Privacy Pledge. PowerSchool customers own their student and school data. We do not sell student or school data; we do not collect, maintain, use, or share student personal information beyond what is authorized by the district, parent, or student.”



A Cautionary Tale: Elgin, Illinois



Many of PowerSchool’s newer product lines, including its predictive analytics tools and personalized learning platform, require troves of student data to train the underlying algorithms. But experts who reviewed The Markup’s findings said that some of the data being used for those purposes is bound to lead to discriminatory outcomes.



Consider School District U-46 in Elgin, Ill., which was the only district—out of 27 we submitted public records requests to—that provided a complete list of the data PowerSchool warehouses on its behalf. The district also provided documents detailing how PowerSchool’s predictive analytics algorithms draw on some of that data to influence students’ educational journeys.



U-46’s PowerSchool database contains nearly 7,000 data fields about Elgin students, parents, and staff, according to a copy of the data library The Markup obtained.



As early as first grade, algorithms from the company’s Unified Insights product line start generating predictions about whether students are at low, moderate, or high risk of not graduating high school on time, not meeting certain standards on the SATs, or not completing two years of college, among other outcomes. The district’s documents describe dozens of different predictive models available via PowerSchool, although U-46 says it does not use most of them.



The district begins displaying student on-time graduation risk scores to teachers and administrators beginning in seventh grade, according to Matt Raimondi, Elgin’s assessment and accountability coordinator.



Free and reduced lunch status—a proxy for family wealth—and student gender are among the most important factors in determining that risk score, according to the documents. At one point, Elgin’s models—developed by a company called Hoonuit that was acquired by PowerSchool in 2020 and rebranded as Unified Insights—also incorporated student race as a heavily weighted variable. 



Flagg, from PowerSchool, said race was removed from the models in 2017 before the company acquired Hoonuit.



The predictive models also draw on data points like attendance, disciplinary history, and test scores.



Learning analytics experts told The Markup that the use of demographic data like gender and free and reduced lunch status—attributes that students and school officials can’t change—to predict student outcomes is bound to encode discrimination into the predictive models.



“I think that having [free and reduced lunch status] as a predictor in the model is indefensible in 2021,” said Baker of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Learning Analytics. Baker has consulted with BrightBytes, a competitor of PowerSchool in the K-12 predictive analytics space.



“Unified Insights does provide the option for school districts to include free and reduced lunch status to enable districts to reduce dropout risk associated with economic hardship and identify additional social service supports that may be available to impacted students,” Flagg, from PowerSchool, wrote in an email. 



“Including these things that are not within the control of the family or the school is highly problematic,” said Bowers, from Columbia University Teachers College, because even the best-intentioned school cannot change all the systemic gender and wealth disparities that affect a particular student. Basing the risk scores so heavily on those factors therefore obscures the impact of other factors a school may be able to influence, he said.



Raimondi said U-46 has chosen not to use many of the predictive models PowerSchool makes available because of their reliance on immutable student characteristics



“Especially down at the early grades, we don’t even make it visible to any users besides myself and a programmer,” he said. “The models at the lower grades, they’re not that accurate and they rely a lot more heavily on demographic-type data.”



Each year, Elgin’s dropout risk model misses about 90 students in each grade level, out of 3,000 students per grade, who do not go on to graduate on time, according to a presentation prepared by a PowerSchool data scientist and obtained by The Markup.



“We have no comment on the sensitivity/specificity of the models,” U-46 spokesperson Karla Jiménez wrote in an email.



The Markup has previously reported on a similar dropout prediction tool EAB sells to colleges and universities. Some of those schools incorporated race as a “high impact predictor” of success, and their algorithms labeled Black students “high risk” at as much as four times the rate of their White peers, effectively steering students of color away from certain majors. After our reporting, Texas A&M University dropped the use of race as a predictive variable. 



The Data Empire Is Growing



Vista Equity Partners has been expanding its reach in the educational software industry for years. Along with that expansion, it’s put together a portfolio of companies that amass data and effectively track kids throughout their educational journeys. 



Since 2015, when Vista first purchased PowerSchool from Pearson for $350 million, Vista has been on a spending spree, acquiring other ed tech companies that collect different kinds of student data.



In 2017, PowerSchool bought SunGard K-12, which provided human resources and payroll software for schools. In 2019, it purchased Schoology, a widely used learning management system that served as the digital backbone for many schools’ curriculum and lesson plans. It acquired Hoonuit, which provides the predictive risk scoring used by districts like Elgin, in 2020. 



Last March, it completed the purchase of the college preparatory software Naviance, and in November it purchased Kickboard, a company that collects data about students’ behavior and social-emotional skills. In presentations to investors, PowerSchool officials have said more acquisitions are a key part of the company’s growth plan.



EAB has been on a similar purchasing spree, acquiring companies like Wisr, YouVisit, Cappex, and Starfish that are used for college recruitment, advertising, and tracking students on campus. It also announced the creation of Edify, a “next-generation data warehouse and analytics hub” designed to “break down data silos.”



Last June, Vista also acquired a co-ownership stake in Ellucian, which sells a variety of educational technology products. The company claims to serve more than 26 million students across 2,700 institutions.



That consolidation of data and power has triggered a backlash from privacy-minded parents, some of whom have been trying, unsuccessfully, to find out what the deals mean for their children’s sensitive data.



Piercing the veil of secrecy can be difficult, even when parents turn to privacy laws designed to increase transparency.



Illinois, for example, has a state law that requires school districts to post specific information about the ed tech vendors they use, including all written agreements with vendors and lists of the data elements shared with those vendors.



Despite that, districts like Chicago Public Schools have yet to post any of the required material pertaining to PowerSchool and Naviance. CPS has, however, posted data use disclosures for other vendors. Across Illinois, 5,800 schools use PowerSchool software, according to the company.



FERPA has also proven of little use for some parents.



Cheri Kiesecker, a Colorado parent of two, said that she requested her children’s records under the law from PowerSchool earlier this year after it completed the Naviance deal. 



“Each school district owns and controls access to its students’ data, Flagg, from PowerSchool, wrote in an email to The Markup. “Any requests from parents for access to their children’s data must be managed through their respective school districts.



PowerSchool instructed Kiesecker to request the records through the school, which she did. When PowerSchool did not comply with the school’s subsequent request by the statutory 45-day deadline, her school’s attorneys sent a legal demand to the company, which The Markup reviewed. To date, Kiesecker said, she has still not received her children’s complete records, although PowerSchool has provided partial documentation.



Deborah Simmons, a Texas parent, said she began looking into the Vista-owned companies after discovering that her school had automatically uploaded her child’s data into Naviance. She filed public records requests and grievances with her school but still doesn’t know the full extent of the data the companies hold or who else it’s been shared with.



“These tech companies want to eliminate the data silos and merge and streamline all of this stuff, but no, our children aren’t products,” Simmons said. That’s what they do, they treat our children like products. They’re human beings and they deserve privacy and freedom.”


This article was originally published on The Markup and was republished under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.

Posted in Ethics, FERPA, K-12, privacy | Leave a comment

Iowa Academic Standards Hold Teachers Hostage

By Joye Walker

I retired more than a year ago, giving me many months to process the discomfort I felt in my last few years of teaching. It was a difficult time for many reasons, but one big reason stands out: a problematic curriculum that holds teachers hostage.

The Iowa Academic Standards is a set of “Clear and rigorous learning standards educators use to ensure all students are college, career, and future ready.” They are “required for all students by state law.” (https://educateiowa.gov/iowa-academic-standards)

While the intentions of the Standards are admirable, the administration of actually delivering a curriculum that satisfies these Standards is fraught with problems. Teachers are required by state law to deliver a curriculum that consists of topics strictly outlined by grade level in the Iowa Academic Standards. Teaching math is an art that requires great flexibility on the part of teachers. Most administrators do not understand what is involved in teaching mathematics or how mathematics should be taught. Within a single classroom, students demonstrate a wide range of abilities and degrees of mastery of content previously taught to them. Teachers are faced with the monumental task of figuring out how to present content in order to bring each student forward in learning new concepts.

The Iowa Academic Standards consist of some major content domains, and within each domain are found specific standards. This is a simplistic view of school mathematics. It implies that mathematics can be reduced to a finite list of topics to be taught at each grade level. Realistically, mathematics is a complex intertwining of all math and other studies learned since elementary school, including reading, science, and social studies. Mathematics builds upon previously learned skills, including reading skills, language skills, computational skills, and logic skills. At any given grade level, the Iowa Academic Standards are written with the assumption that all students have some mastery of previously taught math standards. The reality is that no two students are at the same place in terms of concept mastery, in any given classroom. The skill of teaching is to bring students along, weaving previously learned skills and concepts with new ones.

Mathematics learning is a continuum. It makes no sense to have a finite list of standards to be taught one at a time when students encounter many skills and concepts that appear within a single problem. A teacher needs to determine where students are deficient in their skills and figure out how to address such deficiencies, which vary greatly within a given classroom. It should be the teacher’s call how to determine when this is accomplished and when they are ready to go on. School administrators frown upon reteaching concepts and skills for which students have incomplete learning, with the argument that such skills are below grade level and have already been taught. A teacher knows that not all students learn at the same pace and not all students master all topics. In fact, sometimes students struggle with a first exposure to a concept, but come to understand it much better after several more encounters with that same concept. Then, mastery can and will follow. The fact that students learn at different rates should not be a problem in school math classes, but teachers are discouraged from providing necessary remediation. Teachers also have to hurry students to learn more concepts when they have had woefully insufficient practice, most particularly with basic computation including with fractions and decimals.

To just say that students should be learning grade level standards while ignoring the fact that many students are not prepared to do this is not going to help. Administrators believe that teachers should be focused on grade level standards and, if necessary, choose only those that are most important. To most math teachers, it makes no sense to try to select those topics that are most important because they ALL are important! If we must do this, then we must not pretend that students who only studied a few topics are getting a full course in algebra or geometry or precalculus and we must not pretend that they are prepared for college math or entry into a STEM field.

Administrators also discourage the use of textbooks, encouraging teachers to use online or other sources. A good textbook is written in a sequence that develops new concepts by leading students from what was previously learned to new and related concepts. Development is carefully done in coherent textbooks, and also happens with good teaching, so that students can move forward in their learning. If, instead, teachers merely look at the list of standards relevant to their course and select materials about this topic or that one from various sources, there is no guarantee of a logical and sequential progression. Instead, a choppy, seemingly unrelated hodgepodge of topics ensues with the absence of extremely careful, time-consuming and technical consideration by the teacher. Students are left confused and are often unable to make connections among seemly random topics.

The Iowa Academic Standards is not a set of performance standards. In other words, it does not spell out the level of mastery that students must demonstrate in the form of concrete examples. Take for example, standard A-REI.B.3, which states:

“Solve linear equations and inequalities in one variable, including equations with coefficients represented by letters (For educators, mathematics DOK 1)”
(https://educateiowa.gov/standard/mathematics/algebra)

{DOK is an acronym for Depth of Knowledge, and has levels 1-4 with 1 being the lowest. It is a measure often used in test development by organizations such as ACT.}

If the Iowa Core would give examples of what is meant by a standard or the DOK designation, teachers might find it easier to use. For example, offer something like “Students should be able to solve a linear equation that contains variables on one or both sides, including numbers that may be fractional or decimal, such as − 3x − 5 = 7x + 3 or ax + b = c or 0.4x − 6(3x + 0.1) = 7 − 1/2x .” However, the Iowa Academic Standards are not presented this way, so it can be a mystery to determine what exactly is required of a student to demonstrate mastery of a given standard.

Instead, parents (and of course, teachers), reading the description above as stated in the Iowa Academic Standards in an effort to determine whether their child is being taught this particular standard, must first understand what is meant by linear and what is the meaning of the word coefficient.

Next, it is necessary to determine what is meant by DOK 1. Here is the description linked from the standard A-REI.B.3:

“Math Level 1 (Recall) includes the recall of information such as a fact, definition, term, or a simple procedure, as well as performing a simple algorithm or applying a formula. That is, in mathematics, a one-step, well defined, and straight algorithmic procedure should be included at this lowest level.”
(https://educate.iowa.gov/depth-knowledge-levels-descriptions-mathematics)

Not clear, is it?

Here are a few equations that are linear in the variable x:

x + 3 = 5

2x + 3 = 5

2x + 3 = 5x + 7

2x + 3 − 8x = 4(3x − 2) + 5

2/3 (4x − 9) = 1/4 (5 − 7x)

4ax − 3bx = cx + d

Which of these equations are DOK 1, according to the description provided above?

The first equation sets a pretty low bar. The second one isn’t much tougher. Where does this list cease to offer equations of DOK 1? I have been in rooms with seasoned educators who cannot agree on what constitutes DOK 1. And therein lies the problem. It is not clear to what expectations students are (or should be) held. I would expect my students to manage all of these equations in a high school algebra class. As you can see, the fifth equation requires fraction manipulation, as well as calculation with negative numbers. The student who did not master fraction computation or rules for combining negative numbers in previous grade levels is going to struggle at this point. Anyone who has taught algebra has seen this time and time again, yet such under-prepared students continue to be placed in algebra. However, if it is deemed that the first two equations are sufficient to satisfy the standard for algebra students in high school, then I do not hold out much hope for their success in post-secondary education math or other quantitative courses and most certainly, no hope for STEM field entry.

Even if all students in one school district are held to common expectations, there is absolutely no guarantee that all students in the next school district will be held to the same ones, due to the nebulous descriptions offered in the Iowa Academic Standards. One problem that teachers all over the nation face is dealing with the movement of students from one school district to another. Part of the art of teaching is figuring out how to catch students up if they enter a school with higher performance expectations. Requiring teachers to use Standards, then, does not ensure an equivalent educational experience from school district to school district or even from building to building within a school district. It requires great skill on the part of the math teacher to properly place and take care of incoming students. School administrators want to place students with their age group, regardless of deficiencies that would inhibit success in any given course.

My last point is about honors mathematics classes, which are falling out of favor in many circles. The idea is that honors classes are not clearly defined and because of this, should not be offered. It is acceptable to have vague curriculum descriptions, but somehow, great precision is required in describing honors level classes. “Elitist” and “biased” are words used to describe honors classes. I wonder how it is that coaches are allowed to select the starting team without being accused of having implicit bias, but teachers are not deemed professional enough to select the students who can handle a much higher level of study taken at a faster pace.

Today, a great many disparate levels of capability exist in our math classes. For teachers, it is very difficult to work with so many levels in one classroom. Teachers need to keep their most able students learning and progressing at high levels while simultaneously addressing sometimes profound deficiencies of students in the same class. Factor in the Iowa Academic Standards, and it becomes a study in frustration.

Mathematics has been my passion for decades, and it was an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to teach students of all levels for twenty-three years. My experiences both in the classroom and in life have given me many perspectives on the application of the math that I so enjoy. I was once told by a high-ranking school administrator in Iowa that veteran math teachers should not be trusted to teach math right, and that they should all teach from scripts. If you haven’t been bothered by anything else I have written here, this should bother you.

Teaching has been reduced to a robotic kind of job that does not involve creativity, decision making, or professionalism. It is a micromanaged kind of work that stifles passionate teachers and takes away their opportunities to provide students with curricula that make sense. Teachers are kept from holding all students to high standards, academically and behaviorally. If we are to educate generations of people who must tackle increasingly difficult problems, then we should be providing our students with tools – the highest level of education that we can possibly offer. High level education includes opportunities to learn vocational and technical skills that are so valued in our workforce. Such skills can be infused into our daily classes. However, the Iowa Academic Standards hold teachers hostage as they prescribe a curriculum, which may not be the best one for everyone. High quality education should also include the expectation of adherence to deadlines, regularity of attendance, respectful behavior, and clarity of requirements for earning various grades, including failing grades. Teachers need to be able to have expectations in place, backed by administrative support for those expectations. It’s time to rethink what we are doing to our children, and start expecting the very best education that we can offer.

Posted in Common Core, Curriculum & Instruction, Joye Walker, K-12, math, Mathematics, STEM | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The absolute worst “real world” problem I have ever encountered

by Joye Walker

It was in the UCSMP Algebra 2 book and I encountered it during my first year of teaching. Here was the opening linear programming example.

***

Stuart Dent decided to investigate one of his typical meals, fried chicken and corn on the cob. He compiled the data in the following table

 Vitamin APotassium(mg)Iron (mg)Calories
Fried chicken10001.2122
Corn3101511.070


Stu let f= the number of pieces of chicken and e= the number of ears of corn. After deciding the minimum amounts of each needed from this meal he wrote the system:

f>=0
e>=0
100f+310e>=1000 (at least 1000 units of vitamin A)
151e>=200 (at least 200 mg potassium)
1.2f+e>=6 (at least 6 mg iron)
122f+70e>=600 (at least 600 Calories)

***

The point was to find the cheapest diet for a healthy life. One could argue that we are not talking about healthy foods here, but let’s not bog down with that. The objective function is C=0.90f+0.75e where a piece of chicken costs $0.90 and an ear of corn costs $0.75. Let’s also not bog down about whether those prices are reasonable, even back when UCSMP algebra was written, probably the early 1990s. The vertices of the feasible region, rounded to the nearest hundredth when necessary, are (0, 60/7), (3.76, 2.01), and (5.89, 1.32).

1. No one eats 5.89 pieces of chicken and 1.32 ears of corn. Instruction is needed (but not provided in the example) to help students find the lattice points nearest the vertices of the feasible region, but that are contained in the feasible region. Recall that this is the opening example of linear programming.

2. I sketched the feasible region on graph paper, taking great pains to use a ruler and be accurate. The inequalities were not pleasant to graph. I used the two-intercept method to graph each line, but when one of the boundaries is y=200/151, it took a bit of hand waving to make a good graph.

3. If a student is inclined to work through the examples in the book (I was always that student, and over the years of my career, I taught many such students), it is extremely tedious to get it graphed with such nasty coefficients in the inequalities, and it takes some pretty good precision to graph such that identified intersections are indeed vertices of the feasible region.

4. Opening examples should not contain nasty numbers. Students need to learn the concepts first. The tedious calculations can come later. We don’t start teaching students to multiply 1.96 times 6.7789. We start with multiplying 2 times 7 first. We get more sophisticated when they can handle it.

5. Students who are not good at following examples such as linear programming for the first time, are not going to stay with this one. They will tune out and not have a clue how to tackle their homework.

6. I completely rewrote that section of the textbook (my first year of teaching) and shared my lessons and problems with colleagues. I did use “real-world” problems in the sense that, for example, a farmer had a certain amount of acres to plant in corn and beans, and used information that gave reasonable vertices and objective functions. I completely avoided the nasty numbers because, while they can appear in higher level exposures to linear programming, they shouldn’t appear in the very first examples when students have to translate the given problem into a system of inequalities.

I absolutely refuse to ask my students to work problems that were unnecessarily cumbersome and where the numbers took away from the concepts being explored. I’m sure they were thrilled when I retired last year.

Posted in Curriculum & Instruction, Joye Walker, K-12, math, Mathematics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Do We Still Need Public Schools?

Sandra Stotsky, April 2022

Do we still want a chief policy maker in in the Department of Education with little classroom teaching experience beyond grade 5 who has never administered a middle or high school? No particular ethnicity or race or gender seems to have worked. We’ve tried using all these sociocultural criteria for selecting top education administrators, especially in our major cities. But no sociocultural criterion has led to an effective policy maker.

Are recent nation-wide riots, looting, and arson all expressions of frustration with seemingly failed or ineffective educational institutions? We haven’t tried yet to make other institutions for public health or safety responsible for educating the nation’s children. There are several questions we should ask to try to understand the basis for the many waves of rioting in our major cities.

1. Why haven’t our educational institutions found effective remedial strategies for low achievers by now, over 50 years after the first federal grants to low-income schools and communities in 1965 or so under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)?
2. Do children of low-income parents in other countries perform similarly on the TIMSS, PIRLS, and PISA tests? These have been the chief international tests available for our states to participate in.

Maybe education researchers have not asked the right questions, such as:

1. How much reading or other homework do teachers assign their students in K-12?
2. How many parents check how much their children read or practice every day?
3. Why have pre-schools on average, or after-school programs extending school teaching hours, failed to create equity among demographic groups in the K-12 school population in this country?
4. Why has the use of literary texts and curriculum-aligned textbooks whose subject matter and vocabulary have been reduced in difficulty (such as recent Afrocentric curricula like Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, located at the New York Times) failed to boost scores of children deemed marginalized?
5. What untried but new educational policies would their parents support?

Perhaps all parents would agree that an effective policy maker in the U.S. Department of Education knows well at least one of the subjects typically taught in K-12 and has read a lot and writes well. All parents might also agree that it would be useful to have a policy maker in Education who is familiar with beginning reading and arithmetic research as well as with the features of successful high schools like the old Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.

Why hasn’t a regularly increasing amount of federal and state money in over fifty years hasn’t helped low-income students in education? Why hasn’t Congress targeted the areas of influence on school achievement noted in the 1966 Coleman Report and the 1965 Moynihan Report, the two most comprehensive reports on differences in academic achievement in this country? They both found social factors more important than educational interventions. The Coleman Report also noted that the teachers of non-black students had greater knowledge and verbal skills than did the teachers of black children. Wouldn’t all students, not just low-achieving students, benefit from academically stronger teachers? Recent information on the benefits of academically strong teachers can be found in https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2020144.

Unfortunately, whatever our public schools have done since WWII in the name of equity hasn’t increased general achievement in low achievers. Some scholars have even argued that no increase in achievement was ever intended. https://www.jamesgmartin.center/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/The-Politicization-of-University-Schools-of-Education.pdf

In recent years, many educators have promoted school choice, especially via charter schools, as ways to strengthen low achievers. But school choice is useful only if curriculum choices and the portability of funds for individual students are allowed. As a Harvard economist found when he had an opportunity to design his own intervention program for thousands of Houston, Texas, students, trying to implement the features of effective charter schools doesn’t necessarily lead to much higher academic achievement.

Schools with chiefly low-income students or low achievers are considered high-performing if their test results are higher than expected. One of their characteristics, we are told, is “excellence in teaching and leadership.” According to a report on “strategies to improve low-performing schools” issued by the Center for American Progress in 2016, the phrase has been used by Roland Fryer, a prominent economist known for his attempt to inject seemingly successful charter school practices into “traditional” schools. According to the Center’s report, the vast school-improvement program he helped to design in 2010 for Houston “implemented the following best practices of high-performing charters” based on Fryer’s research on effective schooling models: (1) data-driven instruction; (2) excellence in teaching and leadership; (3) culture of high expectations; (4) frequent and intensive tutoring, or so-called high-dosage tutoring; and (5) extended school day and year.

The long-term results of Houston’s massive Apollo program, which Fryer designed, have been described as “statistically significant” gains in mathematics but “negligible” gains in reading. Moreover, “high-dosage tutoring” seems to be the source of the mathematics gains. For Fryer’s account of the Houston program and its results, see his 2011 or 2014 article. Houston’s results left policy makers with a conundrum. Low achievers seemed to respond to intensive math tutorials (all Houston students had regular math classes; only some had tutorials, too). On the other hand, it wasn’t clear that targeted and intensive tutoring could achieve more than immediate higher test results. In other words, tutoring didn’t seem to lead to lasting gains in both reading and math.

There is another problem that Houston educators needed to consider. Rice University’s evaluation report recommended not only more math tutorials but also tutorials in reading for the future. What could the statistical effectiveness of math tutorials in Houston tell teacher -preparation programs and professional developers to focus on? In this study, statistical significance likely reflects the large number of students in the Apollo program. And teacher -preparation programs and professional development do not typically show teachers how to do tutorials in any subject. A master’s degree program in remedial reading might show teachers how to do one-on-one clinical work in reading, but that is not the same thing as a tutorial in reading.

But school choice may be the best strategy now, as Thomas Sowell noted in his recent book titled Charter Schools and Their Enemies. Letting public money be used in every state for children in schools their parents want them to attend (whether private or secular schools), without mandates to use particular standards, tests, textbooks, and teachers, may finally enable school choice to be the motivational mechanism its supporters envisioned.

To ensure civic equity, however, we need to nationalize the one subject where it would make sense to ensure that all students share common historical and contemporary knowledge, such as the basic political principles embedded in the United States Constitution.

Some educators have strongly supported the use of some of the questions on our naturalization quiz as the basis for a high school graduation test. That is one way to ensure similar knowledge in diverse groups of graduating high school seniors. To ensure diverse voices in history and geography at the classroom level (in addition to what is taught about the Constitutional Period), teachers should invite the parents of students in their elementary or middle school classes to recommend or provide good ethnic stories/poems to discuss in class, with close relatives invited to attend and participate.

The road to effective education is paved with local financial control and parent choice. All students do not want to go to college. High schools could establish several sets of standards rather than a single set of academic standards and let students take course sequences that appeal to them. For a discussion of effective standards and K-12 curricula and tests, listen to Ingrid Centurion’s interview with Sandra Stotsky on education: https://youtu.be/14yBwwWNPwU. Centurion was a candidate for public office in South Carolina and doesn’t want public schools closed down. Stotsky was the chief administrator in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2000 and was considered responsible for the state’s new or revised state standards and licensure regulations in 2000/3 that led to the “Massachusetts Education Miracle.” With parent-supported reforms, schools of choice can give all students the schools they want: https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2021/03/the_case_for_closing_public_schools_indefinitely_.html

Posted in College prep, Curriculum & Instruction, Education Reform, K-12, math, reading, Sandra Stotsky | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

In Praise of Memorization

by Pearl Leff

I once worked at a small company of insanely productive engineers. They were geniuses by any account. They knew the software stack from top to bottom, from hardware to operating systems to Javascript, and could pull together in days what would take teams at other companies months to years. Between them they were more productive than any division I’ve ever been in, including FAANG tech companies. In fact, they had written the top-of-the-line specialized compiler in their industry — as a side project. (Their customers believed that they had buildings of engineers laboring on their product, while in reality they had less than 10.)

I was early in my career at the time and stunned by the sheer productivity and brilliance of these engineers. Finally, when I got a moment alone with one of them, I asked him how they had gotten to where they were.

He explained that they had been software engineers together in the intelligence units of their country’s military together. Their military intelligence computers hadn’t been connected to the internet, and if they wanted to look something up online, they had to walk to a different building across campus. Looking something up online on StackOverflow was a major operation. So they ended up reading reference manuals and writing down or memorizing the answers to their questions because they couldn’t look up information very easily. Over time, the knowledge accumulated.

Memorization means purposely learning something so that you remember it with muscle memory; that is, you know the information without needing to look it up.

Every educator knows that memorization is passé in today’s day and age. Facts are so effortlessly accessible with modern technology and the internet that it’s understanding how to analyze them that’s important. Names, places, dates, and other kinds of trivia don’t matter, so much as the ability to logically reason about them. Today anything can be easily looked up.

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to understand that memorization is important, much more than we give it credit for. Knowledge is at our fingertips and we can look anything up, but it’s knowing what knowledge is available and how to integrate it into our existing knowledge base that’s important.

You Can’t Reason Accurately Without Knowledge

You know a lot of things.



A lot of life involves reasoning: taking this information you have and making hypotheses that connect different pieces in a way that provides a deeper understanding of them.


The more information you have muscle memory for, the more you can use to reason about.


But you can’t draw connections between things you don’t know exist, or don’t have a good “feel” for.

The problem with not memorizing is that you’re limited by the lack of data points, or nodes that you can make connections between. In short, you’re limited by your lack of understanding of what to look up.

Here’s a small illustration.

Many would argue that there is no point for kids to memorize the world map today. But if you know basic geography, you will hear all kinds of political analysis that only works because the person arguing it doesn’t have any idea where anything is on a map. This is the problem with not making school kids learn basic geography. You can look up any country on Google, but if you’ve never had to memorize approximately where they are, either voluntarily or in school, you’ll never get a sense of why things are the way they are.

Here are some examples that show how that works.

Why does Oman have so much power in today’s Middle East – enough power that it can stay neutral in the various regional conflicts and still be a dominant political player?

This is why:

Oman controls the Strait of Hormuz, the only water-based entry to the Persian Gulf. Any country that messes with Oman risks being denied access to the Persian Gulf.

A second example: at the time of the writing of this article, Russia was a month into an invasion into Ukraine. This is not the first time in even the decade that Russia has tried to take over its neighbor: in 2014 Russia illegally invaded and annexed Crimea, and it is still controlled by Russia today. Why does Russia want to control Crimea so badly? If it’s a power play, why not threaten Belarus or Latvia, which also border Russia and would be easy to take over?

This is why:

Crimea’s Port of Sevastopol is a highly-desired prize for Russia: it gives Russia control over the Black Sea and trade access to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia has only two warm-water ports that don’t freeze during the winter: Vladivostok, which opens to the Pacific, and St. Petersburg, which opens to the Baltic. There are other factors as well, obviously, but Russia’s pursuit of warm-water ports is a frequently recurring theme in its history.

This may seem basic, but many people have never thought to look up these places on a map. If you were trying to just think of the answers you could easily miss them entirely. But if you memorized the map at some point, you knew where those places are and probably could have thought of the answer.

Or try a basic historical example: if you know that the printing press was invented in 1450, you can make the connection between that and the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

The point is that memorizing data gives you a bank of material to run through when forming and testing a hypothesis. When you rely solely on analysis as a form of knowledge-synthesis, you’ll often reach the wrong conclusions simply because you do not have good data to base your deductions on. Of course you can and should research, but you’ll be much more accurate much more quickly when you’ve got the information in your head at hand.

Chances are, you won’t naturally remember all these facts, and that’s where the memorization comes in.

To paraphrase a saying that LessWrong readers will recognize, your map is not the territory. Your job is to add as many features to your map as you can to make it resemble the territory as closely as possible. The more detailed the features on your map, the closer you will be to having an accurate idea of the territory.

Memorizing Organizes Your Knowledge

You know that feeling when you’ve got a lot of information about something, but it’s all jumbled and confusing and fragmented? You might feel this way about car parts, or historical events. Did the Babylonians come before or after the Persians? Did Frederick William I of Prussia come before or after Frederick I? Or William I?

When you look up every fact you want to know independently of its context, you risk it being jumbled and vague and fuzzy in your head. For example, if you heard that Daylight Savings Time started in 1916, you’d likely quickly forget the date.

But if you have key checkpoints of information memorized, new data has a solid place to lodge itself in your mind. If you know that World War I started in 1914 and ended in 1918, and someone mentions that Daylight Savings Time started in 1916, you’ll quickly deduce that they are related. You’ll also remember the approximate date that Daylight Savings Time began: sometime during World War I.

Imagine you’re an engineering manager. Who would you rather hire: the person who knows exactly what features are available in PHP 7 and which are only available in PHP 8, or the one who will figure it out by trial-and-error while writing each application and seeing what fails? Of course, the second engineer certainly may produce quality work. But the first one unquestionably has a comprehensively organized framework of the tools he has at his disposal.

Memorizing information gives you a concrete organizational scaffolding and context in which to put new information. Memorizing an organized set of facts means that new information can be inserted in an orderly way, sandwiched or enhancing other facts in an organized framework.

It Stays With You

My high school completely eschewed memorization as a way of learning. Because of that, students were outraged when, in tenth grade, an older teacher tried to require the class to memorize the equivalent of about four sentences of poetry for a test. All hell broke loose. Being asked to memorize forty words was slightly less outrageous than being asked to memorize the collected works of William Shakespeare. The students brought articles in proofs they had found online that memorization isn’t a good way to learn, that it would doom us all to a life of lifeless brain-dead chanting of facts, that it would cause all their neurons to flop over and die from the effort. If I remember correctly, they even tried to get parents involved.

But the school stood behind the teacher, and the teacher stood firm, and ultimately we had to be able to repeat back the lines of the poem via a fill-in-the-blank section on the test.

Over the years those lines have come back to me many times, and I understand them on a much deeper level. There’s no way I’d ever look them up, but having them accessible has made my life immeasurably richer.

Subconsciously, when you learn a piece by heart, its message penetrates deep inside you. It lies at your fingertips, ready for you to make use of it. Many cultures have long understood this. In Islam, people who memorize the entire Koran are given the special title of hafiz, or guardian. In a secular equivalent, I know people who have memorized Rudyard Kipling’s poem If— to give them a moral helping hand at times of crisis.

Even if you don’t really understand it the first time, memorizing information and literature gives you the opportunity to come back to it. In the words of a college professor of mine, the point of a liberal arts education is to give you what to think about. Having literature, poetry, or even just quotations at the tip of your fingers makes for a more vivid, vibrant, and resonant life.

*Originally published at Pearl Leff’s blog: http://www.pearlleff.com/in-praise-of-memorization

Posted in constructivism, Curriculum & Instruction | Leave a comment

Reading Before Writing

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
8 September 2018

The extra-large ubiquitous Literacy Community is under siege from universal dissatisfaction with the Writing skills of both students and graduates, and this is a complaint of very long standing.

The Community response is to request more money and time to spend on sentence structure, paragraphing, voice, tone, and other mechanical Writing paraphernalia.

It never seems to occur to them that if students read more, they would know more, and in that way actually have some knowledge they wanted to write about. But reading and knowledge never seem to find their way into discussions of Literacy in Our Schools.

When teaching our students to write, not only are standards set very low in most high schools, limiting students to the five-paragraph essay, responses to a document-based question, or the personal (or college) essay about matters which are often no one else’s business, but we often so load up students with formulae and guidelines that the importance of writing when the author has something to say gets lost in the maze of processes.

On the one hand writing is difficult enough to do, and academic writing is especially difficult if the student hasn’t read anything, and on the other hand teachers feel the need to have students “produce” writing, however short or superficial that writing may be. So writing consultants and writing teachers feel they must come up with guidelines, parameters, checklists, and the like, as props to substitute for students’ absent motivation to describe or express in writing something they have learned.

Samuel Johnson once said, “an author will turn over half a library to produce one book,” the point being, as I understand it, that good writing must be based on extensive reading. But reading is just the step that is left out of the “Writing Process” in too many instances. The result is that students in fact do not have much to say, so of course they don’t have much they want to communicate in writing.

Enter the guidelines. Students are told to write a topic sentence, to express one idea per paragraph, to follow the structure of Introduction, Body, Conclusion, to follow the Twelve Steps to Effective Writing, and the like. This the students can be made to do, but the result is too often empty, formulaic writing which students come to despise, and which does not prepare them for the serious academic papers they may be asked to do in college.

I fear that the history book report, at least at the high school level in too many places, has died in the United States. Perhaps people will contact me with welcome evidence to the contrary, but where it is no longer done, students have not only been discouraged from reading nonfiction, but also have been lead to believe that they can and must write to formula without knowing something—for instance about the contents of a good book—before they write.

A nationally famous teacher of teachers of writing once told me: “I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much…” This is a splendid example of the divorce between content [reading and knowledge] and process [techniques] in common writing instruction.

Reading and writing are inseparable partners, in my view. In letters from authors of essays published in The Concord Review since 1987, they often say that they read so much about something in history that they reached a point where they felt a strong need to tell people what they had found out. The knowledge they had acquired had given them the desire to write well so that others could share and appreciate it as they did.

This is where good academic writing should start. When the motivation is there, born from knowledge gained, then the writing process follows a much more natural and straightforward path. Then the student can write, read what they have written, and see what they have left out, what they need to learn more about, and what they have failed to express as clearly as they wanted to. Then they read more, re-write, and do all the natural things that have always lead to good academic writing, whether in history or in any other subject.

At that point the guidelines are no longer needed, because the student has become immersed in the real work of expressing the meaning and value of something they know is worth writing about. This writing helps them discover the limits of their own understanding of the subject and allows them to see more clearly what they themselves think about the subject. The process of critiquing their own writing becomes natural and automatic. This is not to deny, of course, the value of reading what they have written to a friend or of giving it to a teacher for criticism and advice. But the writing techniques and processes no longer stop up the natural springs for the motivation to write.

As students are encouraged to learn more before they write, their writing will gradually extend past the five-paragraph size so often constraining the craft of writing in our schools. The Page Per Year Plan© suggests that all public high school Seniors could be expected to write a twelve-page history research paper, if they had written an eleven-page paper their Junior year, a ten-page paper their Sophomore year, and a nine-page paper their Freshman year, and so on all the way back through the five-page paper in Fifth Grade and even to a one-page paper on a topic other than themselves their first year in school. With the Page Per Year Plan©, every Senior in high school will have learned, for that twelve-page paper, more about some topic probably than anyone else in their class knows, perhaps even more than any of their teachers knows about that subject. They will have had in the course of writing longer papers each year, that first taste of being a scholar which will serve them so well in higher education and beyond.

Writing is always much harder when the student has nothing to communicate, and the proliferating paraphernalia of structural aids from writing consultants and teachers often simply encumber students and alienate them from the essential benefits of writing. John Adams urged his fellow citizens to “Dare to read, think, speak and write” so that they could contribute to the civilization we have been given to enjoy and preserve. Let us endeavor to allow students to discover, through their own academic reading and writing, both the discipline and the satisfactions of reading and of writing carefully and well.

In 1625, Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading maketh a Full man, Conference a Ready man, and Writing an Exact man.” These benefits are surely among those we should not withhold from our K-12 students.

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Posted in Curriculum & Instruction, Humanities, K-12, Reading & Writing, Will Fitzhugh | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Rate Busters

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
1 September 2021

Back in the day, when Union contracts specified the number of widgets each worker was expected to produce during a shift, that number was called “the rate.” Anyone who produced more than that number was called a “rate-buster,” and was subjected to pressure, sanctions, and the like, from fellow union members, until their production was once more within the agreed rate for that job.

There are “rates” in education as well, for students. In general, if they are assigned nonfiction papers, many high school students are asked to write only 3-5 pages. The International Baccalaureate asks for Extended Essays of 4,000 words (16 pages) at the end of a candidate’s time in the program, but that is quite out of the ordinary.

In 2014 a Junior at one of the most prestigious (and most expensive) New England preparatory schools expressed an interest in preparing a paper to be considered by The Concord Review, where the published history research papers now average 9,000 words (30 pages), but she was concerned because her teachers limited history papers at that school to 1,000 words or less (4 pages).

When The Concord Review started calling for history research papers by secondary students in 1987, the suggestion was that papers should be 4,000-6,000 words (or more), (16-24 pages) but students have been sending in longer papers. One 20,000-word paper on the Augustan Reforms in the Roman military (c. 65 pages) was submitted by a student in Singapore whose English curriculum would limit him to 2,000 words. He wanted to read more and write more about the topic. (He will be going to Oxford.)

He is a rate-buster, eager to go beyond the common expectations for what high school students are capable of in writing serious history research papers. In his introduction to the first issue of The Concord Review, (1988) Theodore Sizer, former Dean of the School of Education at Harvard, and former Headmaster at Andover, wrote:

Americans shamefully underestimate their adolescents. With often misdirected generosity, we offer them all sorts of opportunities and, at least for middle-class and affluent youths, the time and resources to take advantage of them.

We ask little in return. We expect little, and the young people sense this, and relax. The genially superficial is tolerated, save in areas where the high school students themselves have some control, in inter-scholastic athletics, sometimes in their part-time work, almost always in their socializing.

Not much has changed since Dr. Sizer wrote that in 1988. Our schools continue to find ways to limit the amount of nonfiction writing our students do, with the result that they do not get very good at it. But no matter how much college professors and employers complain that their students and employees can’t write, our “union rules” at the k-12 level ensure that students do very little nonfiction writing.

This is not the result of a union contract on rates, but it does come in part from the fact that, for instance in some public high schools, history teachers can have 150 students. This provides a big disincentive for them in assigning term papers or even book reports. They must consider how much time they have to advise students on papers and to evaluate them when they are submitted. But the administration and the school committees do not want nonfiction writing to get, for example, the extra time routinely given to after-school sports, or band and cheerleading.

In addition, some significant number of teachers have never written a thesis, or done much serious academic writing of their own, which makes it more comfortable for them to limit their students to the minimum of nonfiction writing in school (or none).

The Concord Review has published 130 issues with 1,427 history research papers by secondary students from 46 states and 43 other countries, so there are some “rate-buster” students out there, even in our public high schools. It is even clearer, from the number of excellent “independent study” papers we now receive, that many more students, when they see the exemplary work of their peers, follow the rule that says “Where there’s a Way there’s a Will,” and they take advantage of a journal that does not tell them what to write about, nor does it limit the length of the papers they want to write. When we see the number of these fine history papers, it should make us regret all the more everything we do to press our potential student “rate-busters” to do less than they could. We don’t do that in sports. Why in the world do we do it in academics?


“Teach with Examples”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987] tcr.org
TCR History Camp [2014]
Varsity Academics®

Posted in College prep, Curriculum & Instruction, History, Humanities, K-12, Reading & Writing, Social Studies, Will Fitzhugh | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Cheating in the Classroom: We all have a choice

I was naive about cheating as a student, so I was also naive as a professor. Then one day a student complained to me about cheating during my exam.

That put me in an awkward position.

The culture of my university was not friendly toward “policing” the students, so I was not eager to be an “enforcer.” But the student noticed my ambivalence and said, “Looking the other way is not fair to students who do the work.”

She was unassailably right, so I decided to act. To define a course of action, I discussed it with colleagues. Their hostility was surprising. They said they could not interfere with students’ “access” to a degree. I heard almost the same words over and over: “I’m not a policeman. It’s their decision if they want to learn.” The tone of moral superiority implied that I was doing wrong by noticing the evidence.

But I couldn’t go back to that mindset because I had children of my own. I didn’t want their teachers to be “tolerant” of cheating, so I had to hold myself to that standard.

I decided to focus on prevention.

I spaced students out during exams and distributed different versions of the test. Some students pretended not to hear the rules, and if I turned a blind eye, I would be rewarding cheaters again. I had to take charge. Imagine all 5’2” of me standing at the front of a large auditorium instructing students on how to leave an empty seat on all four sides of them.

During the exam, I stared constantly into the room, even though it felt awkward, and I’d rather have been reading. But it wasn’t enough. Students reported cheating on one side of the room when I was patrolling the other. I started bringing a student assistant to help.

But cheating is like roaches: the more you look, the more you see. I kept stumbling on new evidence of cheating, and I devised new prevention methods.

Then a new wrinkle appeared. My university ruled that cheating charges could not be brought unless the syllabus defined cheating and enforcement policies. The administration believed that many students came from a culture that did not define it as cheating because their learning is cooperative. My colleagues agreed that such cultures are superior to our unhealthy individualism, and that anti-cheating measures undermine cooperative learning with a climate of fear. But I went ahead and defined cheating in my syllabus.

I felt shamed because I knew I was being “judgmental” from the perspective of campus culture. But the taxpayers of California were paying me to make judgments. I felt like I was doing the minimum necessary to collect my salary in good conscience.

My strength came from having tested the Rousseauian view of learning in my own home. I was taught that “learning is fun,” so children will naturally learn if you leave them alone. I tried this on my kids, and it didn’t work. I’d tried it on my students, and it didn’t work. I noticed that many faculty members had children who did not learn the way the theory suggested.

My colleagues insisted that having “books in the home” was the difference between students who learn and those who don’t. So, their children’s failure to learn proved the flaws of this theory. We professors tell the world how to raise “our children,” but it’s not working on our children! I lost faith in Rousseau, and in social science.

I started asking students for opinions about cheating. One answer froze me in my tracks. The student said that some professors organize “so you didn’t have to cheat.” I asked what he meant, and he said they give you a one-page sheet that you can memorize, and that gets you an A even if you do nothing else.

A cheat sheet! I was horrified.

I felt trapped in a system that was just going through the motions. Ironically, the same thing had happened to me in an earlier career. I wanted to work in foreign aid, but during my first few field assignments, I had no work to do because project funds had been stolen. Everyone pretended nothing was wrong while they did nothing at work each day. No one dared to seem “judgmental.” I decided this was not the career for me and went into in teaching.

I didn’t like being at odds with the culture around me but didn’t like living a lie even more. Whenever I needed strength, I remembered the comment of the student who started it all— a “mid-career” student about my age.

Looking the other way is not fair to students who do the work.

===============

Loretta Breuning, PhD, Inner Mammal Institute


Posted in Curriculum & Instruction, Education Fraud, Ethics, K-12, Testing/Assessment | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Rare Books

There is a general consensus among EduPundits that teacher quality is more important than student academic work in producing student academic achievement. That is mistaken. There is a general consensus among Social Studies educators that High School students are incapable of reading one complete History book and writing one History research paper each year. That is also wrong. 


We are not surprised that our High School students can take two years of calculus and three years of Mandarin, among other challenging courses, yet we still believe that they are not intellectually strong or diligent enough to make their way through one complete History book. We don’t seem to think they can write a decent research paper either, which has led to all the college expository writing courses which have sprung up over the years to repair their lack of preparation for college work, but that is another topic. 


As a test of this theory that secondary students are unable read a History book and discuss it until they reach college (if then), the TCR History Seminar has just concluded an 8-week online course of the reading and discussion of actual complete History books, not by High School students, but by Middle School students. Middle School students from the U.S., Hong Kong, and China met online with two seminar leaders to read and discuss: The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough, Churchill, by John Keegan, Miss Leavitt’s Stars by George Johnson, and Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife.


The results of this test indicate that the EduPundits and Social Studies educators are quite wrong in their low opinion of the capability of secondary students to read and discuss complete History books. David McCullough is easier than either Calculus or Mandarin.


So long as the English Departments in the schools, with their preference for fiction and personal writing, have a monopoly on standards and assignments for reading and writing, the benefits of this daring test might possibly be lost. It will be up to History and Social Studies educators to take up the challenge, and to ask their students to read complete History books (not brief excerpts and chapters from the textbook) and discuss them. Not only are they likely to be happily surprised by the capabilities thus revealed, but students will actually be on their way to better preparation for reading college books and writing college term papers. They will also have more knowledge and understanding of History and a better appreciation of the civilization they are inheriting. 


Do try it! We should not keep students away from complete ordinary History books by treating them as if they were Rare Books to be locked away in the Library—too precious for ordinary students to read. For more information contact: Steven Lee at steven@TCR History Camp <steven.lee@tcr.org>.

===============



“Teach with Examples”
Will Fitzhugh [Founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Academic Coaches [2014]TCR History Camp [2014]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022
www.tcr.orgfitzhugh@tcr.org
Varsity Academics®
tcr.org/bookstore
www.tcr.org/blog

Posted in College prep, Curriculum & Instruction, History, Humanities, K-12, Reading & Writing, Social Studies, Will Fitzhugh | Leave a comment

Hershey Profits Fund $17 Billion Endowment for Nonprofit School, but Board Member Says It Won’t Let Him See Financial Records

(This story was originally published by ProPublica.)

by Bob Fernandez, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Charlotte Keith, Spotlight PA

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

For over a year, lawyer Bob Heist, then-chairman of the Milton Hershey School’s board, says he sought internal financial records detailing the spending history of the $17 billion charity, which has a mission to educate low-income students for free.

He now says he is being denied records he needs as a board member charged with overseeing the Pennsylvania boarding school’s operations, and earlier this month he sued the school to obtain the documents. It’s an extremely unusual step for a sitting board member, taken against an extremely unusual institution: The Milton Hershey School is the wealthiest pre-college educational institution in the United States. It controls 80% of the Hershey Co. candy giant’s voting shares, and reaps profits from the sale of Hershey chocolate bars, Reese’s peanut butter cups and SkinnyPop-brand snacks sold in thousand of U.S. retail stores.

The dispute is the latest in a series of legal entanglements involving the nonprofit Milton Hershey School and the members of its governing board. Two previous financial controversies raised questions about whether the school’s spending was serving the needs of its roughly 2,100 students, as required by law and enforced by the state attorney general’s office.

The suit also raises anew questions about board oversight of the vast Milton Hershey fortune, donated by the candy company’s founder to help poor and at-risk children. For months, The Inquirer, Spotlight PA and ProPublica have investigated this and other issues, including whether school leaders and board members have fulfilled that mission to a degree commensurate with the charity’s vast resources. The publications will share their findings in upcoming stories.

For years, critics have argued that the school, and the endowment that funds it, could be spending hundreds of millions more than it does. Because of Milton Hershey’s restrictive deed on the endowment, the charity cannot dip into any of its principal, now worth $16 billion. (That’s roughly the size of the endowment of the University of Pennsylvania, which is not subject to those constraints.) It can spend the income earned from those holdings, but it only spends part of that each year and has amassed about $1 billion in unspent income. The school recently received court approval to use some of those funds to build and run six preschool centers around the state that, in five years, will serve 900 impoverished children, a potentially significant expansion of its mission.

By far the nation’s richest private school, Milton Hershey currently spends about $139,000 per child each year in total costs. The residential school vigorously screens its applicants, and it offers rigorous academics as well as medical, dental and social services to students, many of whose families are below the federal poverty line.

A spokesperson for the school, Lisa Scullin, said in a statement that it has provided Heist with “extensive financial information and will continue to respond to any reasonable requests in his capacity as a board member.”

Heist said in the suit that the financial information provided didn’t include everything he was asking for and contained inconsistencies. Ricardo Meza, Heist’s lawyer and a former federal prosecutor in the Chicago area, said, “We are going to let the complaint speak for itself.”

Heist, who lives in Chicago and is a Hershey graduate himself, said he needed the records to ensure that school funds were not being “wasted,” to find out whether the school reported accurate information to the IRS, and to determine if consultants “exerted undue influence in order to receive funds.”

A spokesperson for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, when asked whether the office plans to look into the issues raised by Heist, said the office had been “made aware of the petition and will monitor it, as we do with all legal filings against charitable entities across the Commonwealth.”

Because the nonprofit school doesn’t rely on public donations or accept funds from federal and state agencies, it operates with little public oversight. And as a charity, it pays no federal or state income taxes. In exchange for the tax breaks, Milton Hershey School is required by law to serve the public good by fulfilling its charitable mission — lifting low-income children out of poverty — a responsibility overseen by the state attorney general’s office and its charitable trust section.

If the attorney general’s office learns of practices or decisions that appear to harm the interests of Hershey students or waste trust assets, its staff can investigate and seek reform. It has done so at least twice in the past decade when disputes such as Heist’s have erupted among board members overseeing the school.

Such was the case in 2010, when The Inquirer revealed that Milton Hershey School purchased a money-losing golf course for $12 million, more than double what it was worth according to the school’s own appraisal. The deal quietly tossed a financial lifeline to local investors, including Richard H. Lenny, chief executive officer of the Hershey Co. at the time and a member of the board that approved the purchase. After acquiring the private course, board members spent an additional $5 million to build a Scottish-themed clubhouse, with a restaurant and bar, and opened it to the public.

Then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican who later became governor, immediately began an investigation into the potential conflicts of interest and possible waste of charitable assets with the purchase of the foundering golf course.

Additional fuel was added to that investigation in February 2011, when Robert Reese, a board member and the president of the Hershey Trust Co., sued the charity and fellow board members. He alleged they were violating their fiduciary duties to wisely spend the charity’s assets to benefit poor children. As part of his 20-page suit, Reese claimed that there was “no financial analysis done by the trustees and its officers to support the $12 million price” for the golf course and that compensation for Hershey board members had tripled since 2002 — from $35,000 for a year of service to between $100,000 and $130,000.

The state-chartered Hershey Trust Co., a for-profit community bank founded by Milton Hershey, exists primarily to manage the billions of dollars in the Milton Hershey School’s endowment. It has no retail banking products, and its directors, who are paid at least $112,000 a year, are the same individuals as the school’s board.

Reese, grandson of the inventor of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, later dropped his lawsuit, saying his deteriorating eyesight made it impossible for him to carry it on. The charity denied his claims.

In a settlement with the attorney general in 2013, school leaders and board members agreed to get approval from the attorney general’s office for any real estate purchases over $250,000, tightened board policies to avoid conflicts of interest, and placed limits on how much board members could pay themselves. The charity also promised to use “best efforts” to appoint board members with expertise in “at-risk/dependent children” and “residential childhood education.” The attorney general’s office concluded that the board members had not violated their fiduciary duty.

Shortly after the settlement, the school announced that it would use the golf course for new student housing.

In 2016, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General opened a new investigation into the charity’s board for apparently violating the 2013 agreement, along with lavish travel, board infighting and new allegations of conflicts of interest.

A leak of internal reports and travel expenses detailed the board’s behavior. In July 2016, the charity entered another settlement with the state attorney general’s office. The charity agreed to reconstitute its board, with several board members retiring and others limited to serving for a maximum of 10 years, and the attorney general gained the power to approve new board members, in hopes of ushering in a new period of good governance. The charity’s chairperson said she was “satisfied with the outcome.”

Heist’s petition is highly unusual, experts said, because directors of a charity typically have access to financial documents.

“A director of a nonprofit corporation in Pennsylvania is fundamentally allowed to see the books and records of the organization to determine whether the funds are being spent properly,” said Don Kramer, chairman of the nonprofit practice at Philadelphia law firm Montgomery McCracken.

Heist, who specializes in commercial law and litigation, would seem an unusual legal adversary for the institution.

A 1982 graduate of Milton Hershey School, he served as chair of the alumni association before being elected a member of the school’s board in 2011. In 2018, Heist took over as chairman of the school’s board and president of the Hershey Trust Co.

He took the recent legal action “reluctantly and only after numerous unsuccessful efforts” to obtain spending details from school officials, according to the April 2 filing. Heist has been trying to access this information since September 2019, the petition says, including issuing no fewer than five requests this year alone to the current board chair, M. Diane Koken, a former Pennsylvania insurance commissioner.

Reached by phone, Koken declined to comment, referring a reporter to Scullin, the school’s spokesperson.

Heist is seeking detailed financial documents — invoices, purchase orders, payment confirmations — covering five years of spending on six budget line items, including documents from the office of school president Pete Gurt.

Heist said in the suit that he needs them to assess whether “substantial and significant multi-million dollar School operations budget variances” are in keeping with the school’s mission.

The Heist dispute is spilling into public view after what had appeared to be a period of reform and relative calm for the charity. In a letter late last year announcing that he would step down as board chair, Heist cited the board’s improved relationship with “our regulators,” saying they were working closely with officials “so they have a better understanding of our activities and are not caught off-guard by future announcements.”

The school has until May 3 to file a response to Heist’s complaint. A hearing on the case is set for later this summer.

Posted in Ethics, information suppression, K-12 | Leave a comment

Mary Byrne’s letter to US Education Department regarding information collection under FERPA

This is a response to ED’s questions regarding the proposed extension of a currently approved information collection under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as posed in the Federal Register, January 5, 2021:

(1) Is this collection necessary to the proper functions of the Department?

No. Despite the fact there is no Constitutional authority for a federal department of education, Congress justified creating the Department in “Department of Education Organization Act” (1979) as promoting “the general welfare of the United States.” That same act stated in Sec. 101 (3) parents have the primary responsibility for the education of their children, and States, localities, and private institutions have the primary responsibility for supporting that parental role; (4) in our Federal system, the primary public responsibility for education is reserved respectively to the States and the local school systems and other instrumentalities of the States.” ED is not authorized by the U.S. Constitution or the Act establishing its existence to collect Personally Identifiable Information (PII) of individual students for the “general welfare” of the United States. Furthermore, it has no need to do so as explained in an ACLU letter to ED dated May 23, 2011 stating aggregated data allows for accountability while protecting student privacy. In sum, aggregated data is sufficient for the purposes of a national level ED.

Overreach of the federal government in monitoring the education activities of individual students was supposed to be limited by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). Two purposes of FERPA were to protect students’ PII and allow parents to access their children’s education records. In 2008, however, President G.W. Bush’s administration quietly rewrote the regulations governing FERPA to allow states, school districts, and schools to share students’ PII with any third party company from school records without parent consent. A simple change of the definition for “school official” enabled non-employees of the district to access students’ private information. Then, in 2011, FERPA regulations promulgated by the Obama administration further weakened PII protections by greatly expanding the universe of individuals and entities who have access to the student data (including prospective employers), broadening the definition of programs that might generate data subject to this access, and by eliminating the requirement of express legal authority for certain governmental activities.

The proper function of the Department as described in its founding statute does not include data collection and access to student data by non-governmental entities through processes that circumvent parents’ informed consent.

(2) Will this information be processed and used in a timely manner? (3) Is the estimate of burden accurate? (4) How might the Department enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected?

These questions control the narrative about PII protections, and assume that only enhancement of currently collected information (as endorsed by Big Tech-funded organizations such as Data Quality Campaign) is necessary. ED asks how it should “enhance” its current data collection activities rather how it should enhance PII protections demonstrates an ongoing lack of responsiveness to Americans’ concerns about Big Tech’s control of federal policies. This question assumes continuance of the status quo that is not consistent with the constitutional purpose of the federal government which is to protect individual rights – including the right to privacy as implied in the 14 Amendment.

Unfortunately, these questions continue a pattern of powerful influences to thwart attempts of lawmakers to update—or totally overhaul FERPA, to increase PII protections. In 2015, Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) reintroduced their 2014 “Protecting Student Privacy Act.” The bill would have prohibited the use of students’ personally identifiable information for advertising and marketing purposes and minimize the amount of such information that is transferred from schools to private companies, among other changes.

That same year, Senator David Vitter filed his “Student Privacy Protection Act” that would have expanded the types of student information covered under FERPA, require educational institutions to obtain prior consent from parents before sharing that information with third parties, outlaw a host of data-sharing practices that have become commonplace over the past decade, and require educational agencies and private actors who violate FERPA to pay cash penalties to individual families. Consistent with the role and authority of parents over children’s education as described in the “Department of Education Organization Act,” Vitter said, “Parents are right to feel betrayed when schools collect and release information about their kids. This is real, sensitive information —and it doesn’t belong to some bureaucrat in Washington D.C. We need to make sure that parents and students have complete control over their own information.” Regrettably, the questions posed above demonstrate that protecting the rights of individual students and their families is not the priority of the Department. ED’s questions imply ED is only interested in enhancing the violations to personal privacy conducted under the current iteration of FERPA.

(5) How might the Department minimize the burden of this collection on the respondents, including through the use of information technology?

Again, the assumption of the question is that the privacy of individuals is subordinate to the goals of Big Tech. The question should be stated in a manner that reduces the burden of individuals to protect their PII from agencies such as ED, rather than enhance the collection of PII using information technology for the convenience of unidentified third parties.

Posted in Education policy, FERPA, Mary Byrne, privacy | Leave a comment

The Sabotage of Public Education

By Bruce Deitrick Price

Genuine rigorous testing of educational ideas is rare in America. Why? Because practical testing usually goes against what the professors want to do. Their impractical ideas don’t perform well in the real world.

For example, Operation Follow-Through was the biggest, most systematic testing in American education, continuing for ten years, 1967 to 1977. This research showed absolutely that common sense, often called Direct Instruction, works best. Quite simply, that’s where a teacher teaches, and students learn. Honest educators would say, okay, that’s what works best. Let’s use it.

Our educators said no such thing, which is shocking. After all, Follow-Through was a government project. It should have been conducted in an honorable way. But the professors in charge reneged on their promise that the method that won the ten-year competition would be implemented across the country. Education professors further launched a nasty campaign defaming Direct Instruction and its creator, Siegfried Engelmann (1931–2019).

The chart accompanying this article should be studied by everybody interested in fostering better schools and more efficient classrooms. You’ll see there were nine groups of experts, each trying to prove the superiority of his favored method. (If helpful, use reading glasses or a magnifying glass. God is in the small print.)

Engelmann and Direct Instruction, described in the first column on the left, won overwhelmingly. The color bars (dark blue, sky blue, and deep red) show results in three categories: basic academic skills, problem-solving skills, self-esteem. You can see at a glance that Direct Instruction was far superior to the others, which in many cases underperformed relative to traditional methods by great margins.

Engelmann’s competitors emphasize behavior analytics, self-esteem, cognitive curricula, problem-solving, long-term retention, and almost anything but whether children are learning knowledge. For example, the sponsors of the Tucson Early Education Model explain that “there is relatively less emphasis on which items are taught and on the transmission of specific content, and more emphasis on ‘learning to learn.'” It was safe to predict that students learning to learn would not learn very much.

The overall pattern is clear. The methods that might commonly be called Progressive or Modern are failures. It’s as if these educators wanted to perfect methods sure not to work. Don’t underestimate their subversive tendencies. They had already put sight-words in public schools to defeat phonics; in 1962, these people had introduced New Math as a way to keep children from learning arithmetic (both conclusions based on this writer’s research). So we can sense they thought they were on a roll, and all they had to do was promote anything but Direct Instruction. Unfortunately for their takeover plans, Engelmann’s ideas prevailed by margins too great to be ignored.

When the competition ended, the professors submitted after-action reports. Basically, they tried hard to discredit Engelmann’s victory. The most vocal critique was by Professor House et al. (1978). Their article — along with several rebuttals from the original evaluation team and other researchers — was published by the Harvard Educational Review in 1978. The authors were extremely dissatisfied with the pronouncement of the evaluators that the basic skills models (i.e., Engelmann) outperformed the other models. The authors complained that basic skills are decidedly just that — basic. The authors imply that basic skills are only taught through “rote methods” — a pejorative term.

Engelmann has identified the impasse here. “Fundamentally,” he commented, “these people are looking for magic.” They want children to learn through talk and projects, not through systematic study, immersion in academics, or memorization.

Progressive ideas tend to be soft and abstract; it’s as if a class of teenagers spent a year discussing their feelings about tennis but never played tennis. But what works, according to Engelmann, is learning the simplest facts and then building on them. Wikipedia notes, “According to the program sponsors, anything presumed to be learned by students must first be taught by the teacher.” That requirement is both radical and witty. Progressives like to suppose that children pick up knowledge from the air or drinking water — that is, magically. That’s why there is now so little emphasis on spelling, vocabulary, and grammar — that is, the basics.

John Dewey was the grandfather of most Progressive ideas. He seemed to believe that children are delicate and should not be forced or disciplined. He said before 1900 that he didn’t want punishment in his ideal school. Decades later, the Summerhill school in England proposed that children should be allowed to study whatever they want each day. No rules. (Bank Street Model, the middle one on the chart, promotes the same philosophy.) Hippie communes tend to like this thinking. It might work for mature, self-directed children. But even they are likely to end up with a very uneven education. It’s the job of parents and teachers to suggest what should be primary, secondary, and lower, based on the experience of human civilization over thousands of years.

Siegfried Englemann’s educational philosophy is simple genius. Teach facts in an orderly, systematic way. As the years go by, your students will become educated people. No magic required. Just common sense.

Coda:

The U.S. has had three giants in education: John Saxon in the teaching of math, Rudolf Flesch in the teaching of reading, and Siegfried Engelmann in routine instruction across all subjects. The fascinating pattern throughout K–12 is that the Education Establishment expends vast energy and budgets trying to con Americans into accepting what is clearly inferior.

Posted in Bruce Dietrick Price, constructivism, Curriculum & Instruction, Education Fraud, information suppression | Leave a comment

Comments of Mary Byrne to Springfield, MO public schools board on critical race theory

Mary R. Byrne, Ed.D.
December 8, 2020
______________________________________________________________

I’d like to address Focus Area 5, Goal 1 of the 2019-2020 Strategic Plan End of Year Report that will be presented tonight specifically with regard to the following language:

Facing Racism training objectives included but were not limited to:
■ Prepare leaders to understand cultural consciousness and how to be aware of the impact of cultural differences
Introduce the components of critical race theory
■ Understand the historical role of racism and systems of oppression.

If you as board members are not intimately aware of what Critical Race Theory is or how it is applied in your professional development required content, then please educate yourself on how you are spending our tax dollars.

First, please be advised, if you are not aware already, that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is rooted in Critical Theory developed at the Frankfort School in Germany, and is the foundational philosophy of Marxism. The race conscious approach of CRT undermines liberalism which is the philosophy on which the U.S. Constitution is based is a contributing factor to the undermining of U.S. history.

Second, please be advised that proponents of White fragility identify academic content such as the scientific method which includes objective, rational linear thinking, cause and effect relationships, and quantitative emphasis (i.e., mathematics) as an aspect of White Culture in the United States as indicated on the table I have provided as an attachment to this cover page. The table, “Some Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States,” was developed by Judith H. Katz, a consultant on diversity education.

In addition to a cornerstone of science and medicine being categorized as “White,” the nuclear family, including a father, mother, and multiple children as a basic social unit is targeted for dissolution by groups that promote social change based on Critical Race Theory such as Black Lives Matter, Inc. Note that this position aligns with a goal of the Communist Manifesto and is antithetical to the religious teaching of a large number of churches in this school district, specifically, those who teach the 5th Commandment described in the Book of Exodus – Honor thy father and mother.

Finally, the racist nature of anti-racism education, was widely publicized in several national publications this past summer. I have attached an article Jonah Goldberg published in the New York Post last July. Goldberg critiqued the white fragility content imposed on school personnel as professional development stating, “This nonsense works on the assumption that mainstream, bourgeois norms — hard work, delayed gratification, punctuality, etc. — have no intrinsic or extrinsic value separate and apart from white culture and white privilege. That’s not only insane, it’s harmful, because it gives people permission to reject these norms as “structures of oppression” . . ..”

I can assure you, that the lack of personnel focus on academic content and how to teach it and the deliberate undermining of American history has contributed to the decline in academic achievement by students in this district. Consider well the effects of your decision to continue this line of professional development as you consider the impact they will have on SPS students, their parents, and on community support for SPS from all groups represented in this district.

Posted in Curriculum & Instruction, History, Humanities, K-12, Mary Byrne, Social Studies | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

K–12: The Life and Death of the Mind

By Bruce Deitrick Price

The life of the mind. This lovely phrase states what education is supposed to be about.. All things bright and cerebral. Play chess. Write a story. Devise a plan for any goal. Weigh evidence for and against any proposal. Note that you could be perfectly still. These activities occur inside the brain.

Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) wrote a book about the contemplative life, about thinking itself. Her title was The Life of the Mind. The phrase provides an elegant way to gauge the success of our public schools. Good schools enlarge the life of the mind. Bad schools do the opposite.

Perversely, and to a startling degree, our K–12 schools encourage the death of the mind. The strategy is straightforward. Discredit and eliminate the traditional basics — reading, arithmetic, knowledge, and the discipline to use them.

Reading is taught in confusing and counterproductive ways. Similarly, arithmetic is undercut by dismissing mastery and memorization. Foundational information, including geography, history, and science, is scattered about like parts from an IKEA project you don’t know how to assemble.

Allen Tate, a famous poet, said: “The purpose of education is … the discipline of the mind for its own sake; these ends are to be achieved through the mastery of fundamental subjects which cluster around language and number[.]”

Progressive educators seem to have reached a deep insight.. If they can limit “language and number,” everything else is limited. Taking no chances, they also seem intent on limiting fundamental knowledge. There are now hundreds of videos on the internet where people on the street are asked simple questions, a quick way of showing how ignorant our society has become. Look at a half-dozen videos by Jay Leno, Jesse Watters, Mark Dice, Jimmy Kimmel, and a new one called “my world is getting dumber.” Yes, it is.

The life of the mind has become disconnected from the life of children in our public schools. It’s like talking about the athletic life of people confined to their beds. The death of the mind may be more commonplace than the life of the mind.

One literary metaphor might be a neighborhood built on toxic waste. But the malignancy in public schools seems more intentional and personal. Imagine homes built on an Indian burial ground. Angry spirits roam the neighborhood. They are malevolent — grabbing at your feet, pulling you down. The professors who design classroom methods seem hostile toward children, academic achievement, and their own country.

If there are constraints on all things cognitive, mental, intellectual, or academic, what happens to the life of the mind? It shrivels.

The best way to prepare children to do all these things is simply to do them, every day, starting early. If you want your children to ski, put their boots on and take them to a beginner’s slope. Kids should start with the simple version of everything. If they cannot play chess, they play checkers. If they can’t play checkers, they play tic-tac-toe. School should feel easy for children. That’s how you entice them into learning, unlike Common Core, which tricks them into giving up.

The pretenders in control of our public schools start with elaborately difficult things. Or they don’t start at all. There you have the secret for destroying the life of the mind.

The Education Establishment can get away with its intellectual infantilization because there’s little criticism. There is only an all-enveloping silence and apparent acceptance of what the ideological extremists demand. Foundations, universities, and the media appear to agree. Well, you know what liberals used to say: if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. That’s especially true in the case of our newspapers and other media.

This article is intended to help everyone pretend you are a child in our public schools. You have been taught very little.. You can hardly read. You cannot multiply and divide.. Academically, you’re the walking wounded. Finally, the life of the mind is a half-life. How does it feel?

The Education Establishment fills the air with new verbiage, new programs, new initiatives, new goals, new jargon, new marketing plans. These people really do seem to hate clarity and transparency. Their ideas have nothing to do with curing the problem; their ideas are the problem.

They should stop doing the same counterproductive things they have been doing for years. From now on, do what the song suggests: teach the children well.

Here are some examples of how it probably feels to have no life of the mind: extreme forgetfulness. Dementia. Near drowning. Alcoholism. Amnesia. Oxygen deprivation. Traumatic brain injury.

Concussion — it’s probably a lot like that. The best people never tire of lamenting the violence of football even as they support educational policies that achieve the same results.

Bruce Deitrick Price’s new book is Saving K–12: What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?

Posted in Bruce Dietrick Price, Common Core, constructivism, Curriculum & Instruction, information suppression, K-12 | Tagged , , | Leave a comment