Part Two: Cheating in DCPS

DC Education Reform Ten Years After, 

Part 2: Test Cheats

Richard P Phelps

Ten years ago, I worked as the Director of Assessments for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). For temporal context, I arrived after the first of the infamous test cheating scandals and left just before the incident that spawned a second. Indeed, I filled a new position created to both manage test security and design an expanded testing program. I departed shortly after Vincent Gray, who opposed an expanded testing program, defeated Adrian Fenty in the September 2010 DC mayoral primary. My tenure coincided with Michelle Rhee’s last nine months as Chancellor. 

The recurring test cheating scandals of the Rhee-Henderson years may seem extraordinary but, in fairness, DCPS was more likely than the average US school district to be caught because it received a much higher degree of scrutiny. Given how tests are typically administered in this country, the incidence of cheating is likely far greater than news accounts suggest, for several reasons: 

·      in most cases, those who administer tests—schoolteachers and administrators—have an interest in their results;

·      test security protocols are numerous and complicated yet, nonetheless, the responsibility of non-expert ordinary school personnel, guaranteeing their inconsistent application across schools and over time; 

·      after-the-fact statistical analyses are not legal proof—the odds of a certain amount of wrong-to-right erasures in a single classroom on a paper-and-pencil test being coincidental may be a thousand to one, but one-in-a-thousand is still legally plausible; and

·      after-the-fact investigations based on interviews are time-consuming, scattershot, and uneven. 

Still, there were measures that the Rhee-Henderson administrations could have adopted to substantially reduce the incidence of cheating, but they chose none that might have been effective. Rather, they dug in their heels, insisted that only a few schools had issues, which they thoroughly resolved, and repeatedly denied any systematic problem.  

Cheating scandals

From 2007 to 2009 rumors percolated of an extraordinary level of wrong-to-right erasures on the test answer sheets at many DCPS schools. “Erasure analysis” is one among several “red flag” indicators that testing contractors calculate to monitor cheating. The testing companies take no responsibility for investigating suspected test cheating, however; that is the customer’s, the local or state education agency. 

In her autobiographical account of her time as DCPS Chancellor, Michelle Johnson (nee Rhee), wrote (p. 197)

“For the first time in the history of DCPS, we brought in an outside expert to examine and audit our system. Caveon Test Security – the leading expert in the field at the time – assessed our tests, results, and security measures. Their investigators interviewed teachers, principals, and administrators.

“Caveon found no evidence of systematic cheating. None.”

Caveon, however, had not looked for “systematic” cheating. All they did was interview a few people at several schools where the statistical anomalies were more extraordinary than at others. As none of those individuals would admit to knowingly cheating, Caveon branded all their excuses as “plausible” explanations. That’s it; that is all that Caveon did. But, Caveon’s statement that they found no evidence of “widespread” cheating—despite not having looked for it—would be frequently invoked by DCPS leaders over the next several years.[1]

Incidentally, prior to the revelation of its infamous decades-long, systematic test cheating, the Atlanta Public Schools had similarly retained Caveon Test Security and was, likewise, granted a clean bill of health. Only later did the Georgia state attorney general swoop in and reveal the truth. 

In its defense, Caveon would note that several cheating prevention measures it had recommended to DCPS were never adopted.[2] None of the cheating prevention measures that I recommended were adopted, either.

The single most effective means for reducing in-classroom cheating would have been to rotate teachers on test days so that no teacher administered a test to his or her own students. It would not have been that difficult to randomly assign teachers to different classrooms on test days.

The single most effective means for reducing school administratorcheating would have been to rotate test administrators on test days so that none managed the test materials for their own schools. The visiting test administrators would have been responsible for keeping test materials away from the school until test day, distributing sealed test booklets to the rotated teachers on test day, and for collecting re-sealed test booklets at the end of testing and immediately removing them from the school. 

Instead of implementing these, or a number of other feasible and effective test security measures, DCPS leaders increased the number of test proctors, assigning each of a few dozen or so central office staff a school to monitor. Those proctors could not reasonably manage the volume of oversight required. A single DC test administration could encompass a hundred schools and a thousand classrooms.

Investigations

So, what effort, if any, did DCPS make to counter test cheating? They hired me, but then rejected all my suggestions for increasing security. Also, they established a telephone tip line. Anyone who suspected cheating could report it, even anonymously, and, allegedly, their tip would be investigated. 

Some forms of cheating are best investigated through interviews. Probably the most frequent forms of cheating at DCPS—teachers helping students during test administrations and school administrators looking at test forms prior to administration—leave no statistical residue. Eyewitness testimony is the only type of legal evidence available in such cases, but it is not just inconsistent, it may be socially destructive. 

I remember two investigations best: one occurred in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood with well-educated parents active in school affairs; the other in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Superficially, the cases were similar—an individual teacher was accused of helping his or her own students with answers during test administrations. Making a case against either elementary school teacher required sworn testimony from eyewitnesses, that is, students—eight-to-ten-year olds. 

My investigations, then, consisted of calling children into the principal’s office one-by-one to be questioned about their teacher’s behavior. We couldn’t hide the reason we were asking the questions. And, even though each student agreed not to tell others what had occurred in their visit to the principal’s office, we knew we had only one shot at an uncorrupted jury pool. 

Though the accusations against the two teachers were similar and the cases against them equally strong, the outcomes could not have been more different. In the high-poverty neighborhood, the students seemed suspicious and said little; none would implicate the teacher, whom they all seemed to like. 

In the more prosperous neighborhood, students were more outgoing, freely divulging what they had witnessed. The students had discussed the alleged coaching with their parents who, in turn, urged them to tell investigators what they knew. During his turn in the principal’s office, the accused teacher denied any wrongdoing. I wrote up each interview, then requested that each student read and sign. 

Thankfully, that accused teacher made a deal and left the school system a few weeks later. Had he not, we would have required the presence in court of the eight-to-ten-year olds to testify under oath against their former teacher, who taught multi-grade classes. Had that prosecution not succeeded, the eyewitness students could have been routinely assigned to his classroom the following school year.

My conclusion? Only in certain schools is the successful prosecution of a cheating teacher through eyewitness testimony even possible. But, even where possible, it consumes inordinate amounts of time and, otherwise, comes at a high price, turning young innocents against authority figures they naturally trusted. 

Cheating blueprints

Arguably the most widespread and persistent testing malfeasance in DCPS received little attention from the press. Moreover, it was directly propagated by District leaders, who published test blueprints on the web. Put simply, test “blueprints” are lists of the curricular standards (e.g., “student shall correctly add two-digit numbers”) and the number of test items included in an upcoming test related to each standard. DC had been advance publishing its blueprints for years.

I argued that the way DC did it was unethical. The head of the Division of Data & Accountability, Erin McGoldrick, however, defended the practice, claimed it was common, and cited its existence in the state of California as precedent. The next time she and I met for a conference call with one of DCPS’s test providers, Discover Education, I asked their sales agent how many of their hundreds of other customers advance-published blueprints. His answer: none.

In the state of California, the location of McGoldrick’s only prior professional experience, blueprints were, indeed, published in advance of test administrations. But their tests were longer than DC’s and all standards were tested. Publication of California’s blueprints served more to remind the populace what the standards were in advance of each test administration. Occasionally, a standard considered to be of unusual importance might be assigned a greater number of test items than the average, and the California blueprints signaled that emphasis. 

In Washington, DC, the tests used in judging teacher performance were shorter, covering only some of each year’s standards. So, DC’s blueprints showed everyone well in advance of the test dates exactly which standards would be tested and which would not. For each teacher, this posed an ethical dilemma: should they “narrow the curriculum” by teaching only that content they knew would be tested? Or, should they do the right thing and teach all the standards, as they were legally and ethically bound to, even though it meant spending less time on the to-be-tested content? It’s quite a conundrum when one risks punishment for behaving ethically.

Monthly meetings convened to discuss issues with the districtwide testing program, the DC Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS)—administered to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. All public schools, both DCPS and charters, administered those tests. At one of these regular meetings, two representatives from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) announced plans to repair the broken blueprint process.[3]

The State Office employees argued thoughtfully and reasonably that it was professionally unethical to advance publish DC test blueprints. Moreover, they had surveyed other US jurisdictions in an effort to find others that followed DC’s practice and found none. I was the highest-ranking DCPS employee at the meeting and I expressed my support, congratulating them for doing the right thing. I assumed that their decision was final.

I mentioned the decision to McGoldrick, who expressed surprise and speculation that it might have not been made at the highest level in the organizational hierarchy. Wasting no time, she met with other DCPS senior managers and the proposed change was forthwith shelved. In that, and other ways, the DCPS tail wagged the OSSE dog. 

* * *

It may be too easy to finger ethical deficits for the recalcitrant attitude toward test security of the Rhee-Henderson era ed reformers. The columnist Peter Greene insists that knowledge deficits among self-appointed education reformers also matter: 

“… the reformistan bubble … has been built from Day One without any actual educators inside it. Instead, the bubble is populated by rich people, people who want rich people’s money, people who think they have great ideas about education, and even people who sincerely want to make education better. The bubble does not include people who can turn to an Arne Duncan or a Betsy DeVos or a Bill Gates and say, ‘Based on my years of experience in a classroom, I’d have to say that idea is ridiculous bullshit.’”

“There are a tiny handful of people within the bubble who will occasionally act as bullshit detectors, but they are not enough. The ed reform movement has gathered power and money and set up a parallel education system even as it has managed to capture leadership roles within public education, but the ed reform movement still lacks what it has always lacked–actual teachers and experienced educators who know what the hell they’re talking about.”

In my twenties, I worked for several years in the research department of a state education agency. My primary political lesson from that experience, consistently reinforced subsequently, is that most education bureaucrats tell the public that the system they manage works just fine, no matter what the reality. They can get away with this because they control most of the evidence and can suppress it or spin it to their advantage.

In this proclivity, the DCPS central office leaders of the Rhee-Henderson era proved themselves to be no different than the traditional public-school educators they so casually demonized. 

US school systems are structured to be opaque and, it seems, both educators and testing contractors like it that way. For their part, and contrary to their rhetoric, Rhee, Henderson, and McGoldrick passed on many opportunities to make their system more transparent and accountable.

Education policy will not improve until control of the evidence is ceded to genuinely independent third parties, hired neither by the public education establishment nor by the education reform club.

The author gratefully acknowledges the fact-checking assistance of Erich Martel and Mary Levy.

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Citation:  Phelps, R. P. (2020, September). Looking Back on DC Education Reform 10 Years After, Part 2: Test Cheats. Nonpartisan Education Review / Testimonials. https://nonpartisaneducation.org/Review/Testimonials/v16n3.htm


[1] A perusal of Caveon’s website clarifies that their mission is to help their clients–state and local education departments–not get caught. Sometimes this means not cheating in the first place; other times it might mean something else. One might argue that, ironically, Caveon could be helping its clients to cheat in more sophisticated ways and cover their tracks better.

[2] Among them: test booklets should be sealed until the students open them and resealed by the students immediately after; and students should be assigned seats on test day and a seating chart submitted to test coordinators (necessary for verifying cluster patterns in student responses that would suggest answer copying).

[3] Yes, for those new to the area, the District of Columbia has an Office of the “State” Superintendent of Education (OSSE). Its domain of relationships includes not just the regular public schools (i.e., DCPS), but also other public schools (i.e., charters) and private schools. Practically, it primarily serves as a conduit for funneling money from a menagerie of federal education-related grant and aid programs

What did Education Reform in DC Actually Mean?

Short answer: nothing that would actually help students or teachers. But it’s made for well-padded resumes for a handful of insiders.

This is an important review, by the then-director of assessment. His criticisms echo the points that I have been making along with Mary Levy, Erich Martel, Adell Cothorne, and many others.

Nonpartisan Education Review / Testimonials

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Looking Back on DC Education Reform 10 Years After, 

Part 1: The Grand Tour

Richard P Phelps

Ten years ago, I worked as the Director of Assessments for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). My tenure coincided with Michelle Rhee’s last nine months as Chancellor. I departed shortly after Vincent Gray defeated Adrian Fenty in the September 2010 DC mayoral primary

My primary task was to design an expansion of that testing program that served the IMPACT teacher evaluation system to include all core subjects and all grade levels. Despite its fame (or infamy), the test score aspect of the IMPACT program affected only 13% of teachers, those teaching either reading or math in grades four through eight. Only those subjects and grade levels included the requisite pre- and post-tests required for teacher “value added” measurements (VAM). Not included were most subjects (e.g., science, social studies, art, music, physical education), grades kindergarten to two, and high school.

Chancellor Rhee wanted many more teachers included. So, I designed a system that would cover more than half the DCPS teacher force, from kindergarten through high school. You haven’t heard about it because it never happened. The newly elected Vincent Gray had promised during his mayoral campaign to reduce the amount of testing; the proposed expansion would have increased it fourfold.

VAM affected teachers’ jobs. A low value-added score could lead to termination; a high score, to promotion and a cash bonus. VAM as it was then structured was obviously, glaringly flawed,[1] as anyone with a strong background in educational testing could have seen. Unfortunately, among the many new central office hires from the elite of ed reform circles, none had such a background.

Before posting a request for proposals from commercial test developers for the testing expansion plan, I was instructed to survey two groups of stakeholders—central office managers and school-level teachers and administrators.

Not surprisingly, some of the central office managers consulted requested additions or changes to the proposed testing program where they thought it would benefit their domain of responsibility. The net effect on school-level personnel would have been to add to their administrative burden. Nonetheless, all requests from central office managers would be honored. 

The Grand Tour

At about the same time, over several weeks of the late Spring and early Summer of 2010, along with a bright summer intern, I visited a dozen DCPS schools. The alleged purpose was to collect feedback on the design of the expanded testing program. I enjoyed these meetings. They were informative, animated, and very well attended. School staff appreciated the apparent opportunity to contribute to policy decisions and tried to make the most of it.

Each school greeted us with a full complement of faculty and staff on their days off, numbering a several dozen educators at some venues. They believed what we had told them: that we were in the process of redesigning the DCPS assessment program and were genuinely interested in their suggestions for how best to do it. 

At no venue did we encounter stand-pat knee-jerk rejection of education reform efforts. Some educators were avowed advocates for the Rhee administration’s reform policies, but most were basically dedicated educators determined to do what was best for their community within the current context. 

The Grand Tour was insightful, too. I learned for the first time of certain aspects of DCPS’s assessment system that were essential to consider in its proper design, aspects of which the higher-ups in the DCPS Central Office either were not aware or did not consider relevant. 

The group of visited schools represented DCPS as a whole in appropriate proportions geographically, ethnically, and by education level (i.e., primary, middle, and high). Within those parameters, however, only schools with “friendly” administrations were chosen. That is, we only visited schools with principals and staff openly supportive of the Rhee-Henderson agenda. 

But even they desired changes to the testing program, whether or not it was expanded. Their suggestions covered both the annual districtwide DC-CAS (or “comprehensive” assessment system), on which the teacher evaluation system was based, and the DC-BAS (or “benchmarking” assessment system), a series of four annual “no-stakes” interim tests unique to DCPS, ostensibly offered to help prepare students and teachers for the consequential-for-some-school-staff DC-CAS.[2]

At each staff meeting I asked for a show of hands on several issues of interest that I thought were actionable. Some suggestions for program changes received close to unanimous support. Allow me to describe several.

1. Move DC-CAS test administration later in the school year. Many citizens may have logically assumed that the IMPACT teacher evaluation numbers were calculated from a standard pre-post test schedule, testing a teacher’s students at the beginning of their academic year together and then again at the end. In 2010, however, the DC-CAS was administered in March, three months before school year end. Moreover, that single administration of the test served as both pre- and post-test, posttest for the current school year and pretest for the following school year. Thus, before a teacher even met their new students in late August or early September, almost half of the year for which teachers were judged had already transpired—the three months in the Spring spent with the previous year’s teacher and almost three months of summer vacation. 

School staff recommended pushing DC-CAS administration to later in the school year. Furthermore, they advocated a genuine pre-post-test administration schedule—pre-test the students in late August–early September and post-test them in late-May–early June—to cover a teacher’s actual span of time with the students.

This suggestion was rejected because the test development firm with the DC-CAS contract required three months to score some portions of the test in time for the IMPACT teacher ratings scheduled for early July delivery, before the start of the new school year. Some small number of teachers would be terminated based on their IMPACT scores, so management demanded those scores be available before preparations for the new school year began.[3] The tail wagged the dog.

2. Add some stakes to the DC-CAS in the upper grades. Because DC-CAS test scores portended consequences for teachers but none for students, some students expended little effort on the test. Indeed, extensive research on “no-stakes” (for students) tests reveal that motivation and effort vary by a range of factors including gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, the weather, and age. Generally, the older the student, the lower the test-taking effort. This disadvantaged some teachers in the IMPACT ratings for circumstances beyond their control: unlucky student demographics. 

Central office management rejected this suggestion to add even modest stakes to the upper grades’ DC-CAS; no reason given. 

3. Move one of the DC-BAS tests to year end. If management rejected the suggestion to move DC-CAS test administration to the end of the school year, school staff suggested scheduling one of the no-stakes DC-BAS benchmarking tests for late May–early June. As it was, the schedule squeezed all four benchmarking test administrations between early September and mid-February. Moving just one of them to the end of the year would give the following year’s teachers a more recent reading (by more than three months) of their new students’ academic levels and needs.

Central Office management rejected this suggestion probably because the real purpose of the DC-BAS was not to help teachers understand their students’ academic levels and needs, as the following will explain.

4. Change DC-BAS tests so they cover recently taught content. Many DC citizens probably assumed that, like most tests, the DC-BAS interim tests covered recently taught content, such as that covered since the previous test administration. Not so in 2010. The first annual DC-BAS was administered in early September, just after the year’s courses commenced. Moreover, it covered the same content domain—that for the entirety of the school year—as each of the next three DC-BAS tests. 

School staff proposed changing the full-year “comprehensive” content coverage of each DC-BAS test to partial-year “cumulative” coverage, so students would only be tested on what they had been taught prior to each test administration.

This suggestion, too, was rejected. Testing the same full-year comprehensive content domain produced a predictable, flattering score rise. With each DC-BAS test administration, students recognized more of the content, because they had just been exposed to more of it, so average scores predictably rose. With test scores always rising, it looked like student achievement improved steadily each year. Achieving this contrived score increase required testing students on some material to which they had not yet been exposed, both a violation of professional testing standards and a poor method for instilling student confidence. (Of course, it was also less expensive to administer essentially the same test four times a year than to develop four genuinely different tests.)

5. Synchronize the sequencing of curricular content across the District. DCPS management rhetoric circa 2010 attributed classroom-level benefits to the testing program. Teachers would know more about their students’ levels and needs and could also learn from each other. Yet, the only student test results teachers received at the beginning of each school year was half-a-year old, and most of the information they received over the course of four DC-BAS test administrations was based on not-yet-taught content.

As for cross-district teacher cooperation, unfortunately there was no cross-District coordination of common curricular sequences. Each teacher paced their subject matter however they wished and varied topical emphases according to their own personal preference.

It took DCPS’s Chief Academic Officer, Carey Wright, and her chief of staff, Dan Gordon, less than a minute to reject the suggestion to standardize topical sequencing across schools so that teachers could consult with one another in real time. Tallying up the votes: several hundred school-level District educators favored the proposal, two of Rhee’s trusted lieutenants opposed it. It lost.

6. Offer and require a keyboarding course in the early grades. DCPS was planning to convert all its testing from paper-and-pencil mode to computer delivery within a few years. Yet, keyboarding courses were rare in the early grades. Obviously, without systemwide keyboarding training in computer use some students would be at a disadvantage in computer testing.

Suggestion rejected.

In all, I had polled over 500 DCPS school staff. Not only were all of their suggestions reasonable, some were essential in order to comply with professional assessment standards and ethics. 

Nonetheless, back at DCPS’ Central Office, each suggestion was rejected without, to my observation, any serious consideration. The rejecters included Chancellor Rhee, the head of the office of Data and Accountability—the self-titled “Data Lady,” Erin McGoldrick—and the head of the curriculum and instruction division, Carey Wright, and her chief deputy, Dan Gordon. 

Four central office staff outvoted several-hundred school staff (and my recommendations as assessment director). In each case, the changes recommended would have meant some additional work on their parts, but in return for substantial improvements in the testing program. Their rhetoric was all about helping teachers and students; but the facts were that the testing program wasn’t structured to help them.

What was the purpose of my several weeks of school visits and staff polling? To solicit “buy in” from school level staff, not feedback.

Ultimately, the new testing program proposal would incorporate all the new features requested by senior Central Office staff, no matter how burdensome, and not a single feature requested by several hundred supportive school-level staff, no matter how helpful. Like many others, I had hoped that the education reform intention of the Rhee-Henderson years was genuine. DCPS could certainly have benefitted from some genuine reform. 

Alas, much of the activity labelled “reform” was just for show, and for padding resumes. Numerous central office managers would later work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Numerous others would work for entities supported by the Gates or aligned foundations, or in jurisdictions such as Louisiana, where ed reformers held political power. Most would be well paid. 

Their genuine accomplishments, or lack thereof, while at DCPS seemed to matter little. What mattered was the appearance of accomplishment and, above all, loyalty to the group. That loyalty required going along to get along: complicity in maintaining the façade of success while withholding any public criticism of or disagreement with other in-group members.

Unfortunately, in the United States what is commonly showcased as education reform is neither a civic enterprise nor a popular movement. Neither parents, the public, nor school-level educators have any direct influence. Rather, at the national level, US education reform is an elite, private club—a small group of tightly-connected politicos and academicsa mutual admiration society dedicated to the career advancement, political influence, and financial benefit of its members, supported by a gaggle of wealthy foundations (e.g., Gates, Walton, Broad, Wallace, Hewlett, Smith-Richardson). 

For over a decade, The Ed Reform Club exploited DC for its own benefit. Local elite formed the DC Public Education Fund (DCPEF) to sponsor education projects, such as IMPACT, which they deemed worthy. In the negotiations between the Washington Teachers’ Union and DCPS concluded in 2010, DCPEF arranged a 3 year grant of $64.5M from the Arnold, Broad, Robertson and Walton Foundations to fund a 5-year retroactive teacher pay raise in return for contract language allowing teacher excessing tied to IMPACT, which Rhee promised would lead to annual student test score increases by 2012. Projected goals were not metfoundation support continued nonetheless.

Michelle Johnson (nee Rhee) now chairs the board of a charter school chain in California and occasionally collects $30,000+ in speaker fees but, otherwise, seems to have deliberately withdrawn from the limelight. Despite contributing her own additional scandalsafter she assumed the DCPS Chancellorship, Kaya Henderson ascended to great fame and glory with a “distinguished professorship” at Georgetown; honorary degrees from Georgetown and Catholic Universities; gigs with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Broad Leadership Academy, and Teach for All; and board memberships with The Aspen Institute, The College Board, Robin Hood NYC, and Teach For America. Carey Wright is now state superintendent in Mississippi. Dan Gordon runs a 30-person consulting firm, Education Counsel that strategically partners with major players in US education policy. The manager of the IMPACT teacher evaluation program, Jason Kamras, now works as Superintendent of the Richmond, VA public schools. 

Arguably the person most directly responsible for the recurring assessment system fiascos of the Rhee-Henderson years, then Chief of Data and Accountability Erin McGoldrick, now specializes in “data innovation” as partner and chief operating officer at an education management consulting firm. Her firm, Kitamba, strategically partners with its own panoply of major players in US education policy. Its list of recent clients includes the DC Public Charter School Board and DCPS.

If the ambitious DC central office folk who gaudily declared themselves leading education reformers were not really, who were the genuine education reformers during the Rhee-Henderson decade of massive upheaval and per-student expenditures three times those in the state of Utah? They were the school principals and staff whose practical suggestions were ignored by central office glitterati. They were whistleblowers like history teacher Erich Martel who had documented DCPS’ student records’ manipulation and phony graduation rates years before the Washington Post’s celebrated investigation of Ballou High School, and was demoted and then “excessed” by Henderson. Or, school principal Adell Cothorne, who spilled the beans on test answer sheet “erasure parties” at Noyes Education Campus and lost her job under Rhee. 

Real reformers with “skin in the game” can’t play it safe.

The author appreciates the helpful comments of Mary Levy and Erich Martel in researching this article. 

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The best way to re-open the economy is to defeat the virus. Not by yelling slogans.

By Alex Tabarrok and Puja Ahluwalia Ohlhaver in the Washington Post

May 15, 2020 at 10:06 a.m. EDT

With the unemployment rate at its highest level since the Great Depression — 14.7 percent and climbing — many Americans are clamoring to reopen the economy, even if it means that thousands of daily covid-19 deaths become part of the backdrop to life. It’s time to move on as “warriors,” President Trump has said, because “we can’t keep our country closed down for years.” We, too, favor markets and share the president’s eagerness to stop economically ruinous shutdowns. But the choice between saving lives and saving the economy, the latter of which Trump has endorsed implicitly, is a false one.

In fact, framing the issue that way could kill many Americans and kill the economy.

The dangers of reopening without disease control — or a coronavirus vaccine or therapeutic breakthrough — are illustrated by events at the Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. Smithfield offered workers a bonus if they showed up every day in April. Normally, bonus pay would increase attendance. But in a pandemic, encouraging the sick to haul themselves into work can be disastrous. The plan backfired. Hundreds of Smithfield employees were infected, forcing the plant to shut down for more than three weeks. If we stay the current course, we risk repeating the same mistake across the whole economy.

The economy consists of people who have hopes and fears. As long as they are afraid of a lethal virus, they will avoid restaurants, travel and workplaces. (According to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll last week, only 25 percent of all Americans want to “open businesses and get the economy going again, even if that means more people will get the coronavirus.”) The only way to restore the economy is to earn the confidence of both vulnerable industries and vulnerable people through testing, contact tracing and isolation.

As covid-19 spreads through Nebraska meat plants, workers feel helpless and afraid

There is already a bipartisan plan to achieve this; we helped write it. The plan relies on frequent testing followed by tracing the contacts of people who test positive (and their contacts) until no new positive cases are found. It also encourages voluntary isolation, at home or in hotel rooms, to prevent further disease spread. Isolated patients would receive a federal stipend, like jurors, to discourage them from returning to workplaces too soon.

But our plan also recognizes that rural towns in Montana should not necessarily have to shut down the way New York City has. To pull off this balancing act, the country should be divided into red, yellow and green zones. The goal is to be a green zone, where fewer than one resident per 36,000 is infected. Here, large gatherings are allowed, and masks aren’t required for those who don’t interact with the elderly or other vulnerable populations. Green zones require a minimum of one test per day for every 10,000 people and a five-person contact tracing team for every 100,000 people. (These are the levels currently maintained in South Korea, which has suppressed covid-19.) Two weeks ago, a modest 1,900 tests a day could have kept 19 million Americans safely in green zones. Today, there are no green zones in the United States.

 

What antibody tests can teach us about potential coronavirus immunity

Most Americans — about 298 million — live in yellow zones, where disease prevalence is between .002 percent and 1 percent. But even in yellow zones, the economy could safely reopen with aggressive testing and tracing, coupled with safety measures including mandatory masks. In South Korea, during the peak of its outbreak, it took 25 tests to detect one positive case, and the case fatality rate was 1 percent. Following this model, yellow zones would require 2,500 tests for every daily death. To contain spread, yellow zones also would ramp up contact tracing until a team is available for every new daily coronavirus case. After one tracer conducts an interview, the team would spend 12 hours identifying all those at risk. Speed matters, because the virus spreads quickly; three days is useless for tracing. (Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., are all yellow zones.)

 

A disease prevalence greater than 1 percent defines red zones. Today, 30 million Americans live in such hot spots — which include Detroit, New Jersey, New Orleans and New York City. In addition to the yellow-zone interventions, these places require stay-at-home orders. But by strictly following guidelines for testing and tracing, red zones could turn yellow within four weeks, moving steadfastly from lockdown to liberty.

 

Getting to green nationwide is possible by the end of the summer, but it requires ramping up testing radically. The United States now administers more than 300,000 tests a day, but according to our guidelines, 5 million a day are needed (for two to three months). It’s an achievable goal. Researchers estimate that the current system has a latent capacity to produce 2 million tests a day, and a surge in federal funding would spur companies to increase capacity. The key is to do it now, before manageable yellow zones deteriorate to economically ruinous red zones.

 

States can administer these “test, trace and supported isolation” programs — but Congress would need to fund them. The total cost, we estimate, is $74 billion, to be spent over 12 to 18 months. That sum would cover wages and training for contract tracers, the cost of building voluntary self-isolation facilities, stipends for those in isolation and subsidies to manufacture tests.

 

That amount is a lot, but not compared to the cost of a crippled economy. In Congress’s latest relief package, $75 billion went to struggling hospitals alone, $380 billion to help small businesses and $25 billion toward testing. But hospitals and businesses will continue to hemorrhage money and seek bailouts as long as they can’t open safely. Not spending on disease control means new waves of infection followed by chaotic spikes in disease and death, followed by more ruinous cycles of economic openings and closures. Economists talk about “multipliers” — an injection of spending that causes even larger increases in gross domestic product. Spending on testing, tracing and paid isolation would produce an indisputable and massive multiplier effect.

 

States have strong economic incentives to become — and remain — green zones. Nations that have invested the most in disease control have suffered the least economic hardship: Taiwan grew 1.5 percent in the first quarter, whereas the United States’ gross domestic product contracted by 4.8 percent, at an annual adjusted rate. (Taiwan was fortunate to have its vice president, Chen Chien-Jen, a U.S.-trained epidemiologist; under his guidance, the island acted quickly with masks, temperature checks, testing and tracing.) The second quarter will be worse: The projected decline for U.S. GDP, at an annualized rate, is an alarming 40 percent.

 

Looking forward, we will see stark economic contrasts across states, depending on their investment in disease control. With $74 billion, Congress could close the gap between states and relieve pressure on state budgets hamstrung by collapsing revenues. In the spirit of federalism, states would then become laboratories for discovering the best ways to implement testing, tracing and isolation. States might choose to form interstate compacts that pool and move testing resources across state lines as the disease travels and surges; county health officials might tap firefighters or other municipal workers to build regional contact-tracing workforces (as is happening in Tyler, Tex.). When local and state governments become accountable for adopting strategies that work, we can expect more innovation.

 

How do we know that testing, tracing and supported isolation would work? It already has worked in New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan — where there have been few to no new daily cases recently. Taiwan never had to shut down its economy, while New Zealand and South Korea are returning to normal. It would work here, too. Since March, Congress has passed relief bills totaling $3.6 trillion to support an economy devastated by a virus — and $3 trillion more is on the table. We should attack the disease directly so we can stop spending to alleviate symptoms. Following this road map, we can defeat the coronavirus and be celebrating life, liberty and livelihood by the Fourth of July.

Perhaps a slight downward trend in new COVID cases?

Prompted by a former colleague, I did some tedious work at the CDC site on the numbers of COVID-19 cases each day, going back to January. I found what looks like a weekly up-and-down oscillation pattern that might have to do with whether offices are open and whether reports are made promptly, or might have to be delayed until the end of the weekend. However, it does appear to me that there might be a slow, but real, downward trend over the last few weeks — mostly because the vast majority of us are practicing self-isolation. Here is the graph I made:

new covid cases in the US, per day

Clearly, we are no longer seeing either a steady increase in the number of new cases each day as we were seeing from week 6 to week 10 nor (God forbid!) exponential growth as we were seeing back in March. If we were having exponential growth, it would show up as a horizontal line in the graph below.

daily rate of increases

However, if we stop the social distancing, if we all stop wearing masks and washing hands, if we all start going to movies and restaurants and museums and bars as if this is all over, and if kids go play on playgrounds and go back to school as normal, then exponential growth will raise its ugly, feverish head, and perhaps millions will die.

By the way, I cannot easily find equivalent data on the CDC website for daily deaths; just new diagnosed cases. The COVID death data may be there, but it’s really difficult to dig out. Maybe someone has a source?

I got tested!

I finally got COVID- tested today. It took quite a lot of phone calls, and leads from a bunch of people, and searches through clinics until I hit pay dirt. Mine was through Kaiser Permanente, our medical plan. I probably could have done it through the DC government as well, again for free.
A few days ago I got a form reply to a request I had made to my KP GP for a test; the reply said that I didn’t fit the profile of someone who needed one. I found a number of places where I could spend $150 to $2200 for one out of pocket.
Today I talked to my doctor, and I checked off enough boxes in the questionnaire he gave me to qualify: 70 yo, Crohn’s disease, immunosupressant (infliximab./Remicade) and plus I had sniffles and a stomach ache…
My reason for testing is to go help with grand-toddlers in NC while my son and DIL are trying to keep their business afloat remotely and – hopefully – reopen in a week or two if all goes well.
I don’t remember whether I got the antigen test or the antibody test, but I guess I’ll find that out tomorrow. on Monday the 18th. EDIT: It was the antigen test.
The testing procedure itself was very efficient: I had a 12:30 appointment. There were several parking spaces set aside with cones, in front of a huge medical van, on 2nd St NE in DC, on the street opposite Kaiser’s Capitol Hill center. I drove in, showed my ID at a distance to somebody in a mask on my right, on the sidewalk; he went back to the van, and less than a minute later a nurse (I guess) in full PPE came out, took a closer look at my face and my ID, checked that against the printout she had; then she stuck a long Q-tip into each nostril, and then she told me I was all done.
That sort of efficient testing is what Trump and Brix promised would happen ‘next week’ when he declared on March 13 a national emergency, for anyone. It’s still only for some people, TWO MONTHS LATER.
Such a fine job. Not.
=========================================================================
EDIT:
I just got the results this morning (5/18/2020) for the antigen test, and it was negative. As I strongly suspected.

The Pandemic Is Far From Over

While the rate of increase per day in the number of deaths is generally down, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. In general, more people are still dying each day in the US from this disease than the day before, as you can see from this data, which is taken from the CDC. The very tall bar on day 27 is when New York City finally added thousands of poor souls who had in fact died from this virus. (Day 27 means April 9, and Day 41 means April 30, which is today.)

Opening up the economy and encouraging everybody to go back to work, play, and school will mean a rebirth of exponential growth in deaths and in diagnosed cases after about 2 weeks, since this disease takes about that long to be noticed in those who have been exposed. And once everybody is back on the streets and in the stores and schools, the disease WILL spread exponentially. Opening wide right now, when we still can’t test or follow those who may be infected, would be a huge mistake.

us covid deaths per day

Only somebody as clueless as our current Grifter-In-Chief and his brainless acolytes could be recommending something so irresponsible, against the advice of every medical expert. Maybe they think that only the poor, the black, and the brown will get this disease. Wrong.

How do we fix the CV19 testing problem? By re-testing everybody who tested positive!

I guess I’ve re-discovered a form of Bayes’ Theorem  regarding the problem that is posed by the high numbers of false negatives and false positives when testing for the feared coronavirus.  What I found is that it doesn’t really even matter whether our tests are super-accurate or not. The solution is to assume that all those who test negative, really are negative, and then to give a second test to all those who tested positive the first time. Out of this group, a larger fraction will test positive. You can again forget about those who test negative. But re-test again, and if you like, test again. By the end of this process, where each time you are testing fewer people, then you will be over 99% certain that all those who test positive, really have been exposed.

Let me show you why.

Have no fear, what I’m gonna do is just spreadsheets. No fancy math, just percents. And it won’t really matter what the starting assumptions are! The results converge to almost perfect accuracy, if repeated!

To start my explanation, let’s start by assuming that 3% of a population (say of the US) has antibodies to CV19, which means that they have definitely been exposed. How they got exposed is not important for this discussion. Whether they felt anything from their exposure or not is not important in this discussion. Whether they got sick and died or recovered, is not going to be covered here. I will also assume that this test has a 7% false positive rate and a 10% false negative rate, and I’m going to assume that we give tests AT RANDOM to a hundred thousand people (not people who we already think are sick!) I’m also assuming that once you have the antibodies, you keep them for the duration.

This table represents that situation:

math of CV19 testing

If you do the simple arithmetic, using those assumptions, then of the 100,000 people we tested, 3%, or three thousand, actually do have those antibodies, but 97%, or ninety-seven thousand, do not (white boxes, first column with data in it).

Of the 3,000 folks who really do have the antibodies – first line of data – we have a false  negative rate of 10%, so three hundred of these poor folks are given the false good tidings that they have never been exposed (that’s the upper orange box). The other 90% of them, or two thousand seven hundred, are told, correctly, that they have been exposed (that’s the upper green box).

Now of the 97,000 people who really do NOT have any antibodies – the second line of data – we have a false positive rate of 7%, so you multiply 0.07 times 97000 to get six thousand, seven hundred ninety of them who would be told, incorrectly, that they DID test positive for Covid-19 – in the lower orange box. (Remember, positive is bad here, and negative is good.) However, 90,210 would be told, correctly, that they did not have those antibodies. (That’s in the lower green box.)

Now let’s add up the folks who got the positive test results, which is the third data column. We had 2,700 who correctly tested positive and 6,790 who wrongly tested positive. That’s a total of 9,490 people with a positive CV19 antibody test, which means that of that group of people, only 28.5% were correctly so informed!! That’s between a third and a fourth! Unacceptable!

However, if we look at the last column, notice that almost every single person who was told that they were negative, really was negative. (Donno about you, but I think that 99.7% accuracy is pretty darned good!)

However, that 28.5% accuracy among the ‘positives’ (in the left-hand blue box) is really worrisome. What to do?

Simple! Test those folks again! Right away! Let’s do it, and then let’s look at the results:

math of CV19 testing - round 2

Wowser! We took the 9490 people who tested positive and gave them another round of tests, using the exact same equipment and protocols and error rates as the first one. The spreadsheet is set up the same; the only thing I changed is the bottom two numbers in the first data column. I’m not going to go through all the steps, but feel free to check my arithmetic. Actually, check my logic. Excel doesn’t really make arithmetic errors, but if I set up the spreadsheet incorrectly, it will spit out incorrect results.

Notice that our error rate (in blue) is much lower in terms of those who tested positive. In fact, of those who test positive, 83.7% really ARE positive this time around, and of those who test negative, 95.9% really ARE negative.

But 84% isn’t accurate enough for me (it’s either a B or a C in most American schools). So what do we do? Test again – all of the nearly three thousand who tested positive the first time. Ignore the rest.

Let’s do it:

math of CV19 testing - round 3

At this point, we have much higher confidence, 98.5% (in blue), that the people who tested ‘positive’, really are ‘positive’. Unfortunately, at this point, of the people who tested negative, only about 64% of the time is that correct. 243 people who really have the antibodies tested negative. So perhaps one should test that subgroup again.

The beautiful thing about this method is that it doesn’t even require a terribly exact test! But it does require that you do it repeatedly, and quickly.

Let me assure you that the exact level of accuracy, and the exact number of exposed people, doesn’t matter: If you test and re-test, you can find those who are infected with almost 100% accuracy. With that information you can then discover what the best approaches are to solving this pandemic, what the morbidity and mortality rates are, and eventually to stop it completely.

Why we don’t have enough tests to do this quickly and accurately and repeatedly is a question that I will leave to my readers.

Addendum:

Note that I made some starting assumptions. Let us change them and see what happens. Let’s suppose that the correct percentage of people with COVID-19 antibodies is not 3%, but 8%. Or maybe only 1%. Let’s also assume a 7% false positive and a 10% false negative rate. How would these results change? With a spreadsheet, that’s easy. First, let me start with an 8% infection rate and keep testing repeatedly. Here are the final results:

Round Positive accuracy rating Negative accuracy rating
1 52.8% 99.1%
2 93.5% 89.3%
3 99.5% 39.3%

So after 3 rounds, we have 99.5% accuracy.

Let’s start over with a population where only 1% has the antibodies, and the false positive rate is 7% and the false negative rate is 10%.

Round Positive accuracy rating Negative accuracy rating
1 11.5% 99.9%
2 62.6% 98.6%
3 95.6% 84.7%
4 99.6% 30.0%

This time, it took four rounds, but we still got to over 99.6% accuracy at distinguishing those who really had been exposed to this virus. Yes, towards the end our false negative rate rises, but I submit that doesn’t matter that much.

So Parson Tommy Bayes was right.

More on the “false positive” COVID-19 testing problem

I used my cell phone last night to go into the problem of faulty testing for COVID-19, based on a NYT article. As a result, I couldn’t make any nice tables. Let me remedy that and also look at a few more assumptions.

This table summarizes the testing results on a theoretical group of a million Americans tested, assuming that 5% of the population actually has coronavirus antibodies, and that the tests being given have a false negative rate of 10% and a false positive rate of 3%. Reminder: a ‘false negative’ result means that you are told that you don’t have any coronavirus antibodies but you actually do have them, and a ‘false positive’ result means that you are told that you DO have those antibodies, but you really do NOT. I have tried to highlight the numbers of people who get incorrect results in the color red.

Table A

Group Total Error rate Test says they are Positive Test says they are Negative
Actually Positive 50,000 10% 45,000 5,000
Actually Negative 950,000 3% 28,500 921,500
Totals 1,000,000 73,500 926,500
Percent we assume are actually positive 5% Accuracy Rating 61.2% 99.5%

As you can see, using those assumptions, if you get a lab test result that says you are positive, that will only be correct in about 61% of the time. Which means that you need to take another test, or perhaps two more tests, to see whether they agree.

The next table assumes again a true 5% positive result for the population and a false negative rate of 10%, but a false positive rate of 14%.

Table B

Assume 5% really exposed, 14% false positive rate, 10% false negative
Group Total Error rate Test says they are Positive Test says they are Negative
Actually Positive 50,000 10% 45,000 5,000
Actually Negative 950,000 14% 133,000 817,000
Totals 1,000,000 178,000 822,000
Percent we assume are actually positive 5% Accuracy Rating 25.3% 99.4%

Note that in this scenario, if you get a test result that says you are positive, that is only going to be correct one-quarter of the time (25.3%)! That is useless!

Now, let’s assume a lower percentage of the population actually has the COVID-19 antibodies, say, two percent. Here are the results if we assume a 3% false positive rate:

Table C

Assume 2% really exposed, 3% false positive rate, 10% false negative
Group Total Error rate Test says they are Positive Test says they are Negative
Actually Positive 20,000 10% 18,000 2,000
Actually Negative 980,000 3% 29,400 950,600
Totals 1,000,000 47,400 952,600
Percent we assume are actually positive 2% Accuracy Rating 38.0% 99.8%

Notice that in this scenario, if you get a ‘positive’ result, it is likely to be correct only a little better than one-third of the time (38.0%).

And now let’s assume 2% actual exposure, 14% false positive, 10% false negative:

Table D

Assume 2% really exposed, 14% false positive rate, 10% false negative
Group Total Error rate Test says they are Positive Test says they are Negative
Actually Positive 20,000 10% 45,000 2,000
Actually Negative 980,000 14% 137,200 842,800
Totals 1,000,000 182,200 844,800
Percent we assume are actually positive 2% Accuracy Rating 24.7% 99.8%

Once again, the chances of a ‘positive’ test result being accurate is only about one in four (24.7%), which means that this level of accuracy is not going to be useful to the public at large.

Final set of assumptions: 3% actual positive rate, and excellent tests with only 3% false positive and false negative rates:

Table E

Assume 3% really exposed, 3% false positive rate, 3% false negative
Group Total Error rate Test says they are Positive Test says they are Negative
Actually Positive 30,000 3% 45,000 900
Actually Negative 970,000 3% 29,100 940,900
Totals 1,000,000 74,100 941,800
Percent we assume are actually positive 3% Accuracy Rating 60.7% 99.9%

Once again, if you test positive in this scenario, that result is only going to be correct about 3/5 of the time (60.7%).

All is not lost, however. Suppose we re-test all the people who tested positive in this last group (that’s a bit over seventy-four thousand people, in Table E). Here are the results:

Table F

Assume 60.7% really exposed, 3% false positive rate, 3% false negative
Group Total Error rate Test says they are Positive Test says they are Negative
Actually Positive 45,000 3% 43,650 1,350
Actually Negative 29,100 3% 873 28,227
Totals 74,100 44,523 29,577
Percent we assume are actually positive 60.7% Accuracy Rating 98.0% 95.4%

Notice that 98% accuracy rating for positive results! Much better!

What about our earlier scenario, in table B, with a 5% overall exposure rating, 14% false positives, and 10% false negatives — what if we re-test all the folks who tested positive? Here are the results:

Table G

Assume 25.3% really exposed, 14% false positive rate, 10% false negative
Group Total Error rate Test says they are Positive Test says they are Negative
Actually Positive 45,000 14% 38,700 6,300
Actually Negative 133,000 10% 13,300 119,700
Totals 178,000 52,000 126,000
Percent we assume are really positive 25.3% Accuracy Rating 74.4% 95.0%

This is still not very good: the re-test is going to be accurate only about three-quarters of the time (74.4%) that it says you really have been exposed, and would only clear you 95% of the time. So we would need to run yet another test on those who again tested positive in Table G. If we do it, the results are here:

Table H

Assume 74.4% really exposed, 14% false positive rate, 10% false negative
Group Total Error rate Test says they are Positive Test says they are Negative
Actually Positive 38,700 14% 33,282 5,418
Actually Negative 13,300 10% 1,330 11,970
Totals 52,000 34,612 17,388
Percent we assume are really positive 74.4% Accuracy Rating 96.2% 68.8%

This result is much better, but note that this requires THREE TESTS on each of these supposedly positive people to see if they are in fact positive. It also means that if they get a ‘negative’ result, that’s likely to be correct only about 2/3 of the time (68.8%).

So, no wonder that a lot of the testing results we are seeing are difficult to interpret! This is why science requires repeated measurements to separate the truth from fiction! And it also explains some of the snafus committed by our current federal leadership in insisting on not using tests offered from abroad.

 

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

EDIT at 10:30 pm on 4/25/2020: I found a few minor mistakes and corrected them, and tried to format things more clearly.

People are Not Cattle!

This apparently did not occur to William Sanders.

He thought that statistical methods that are useful with farm animals could also be used to measure effectiveness of teachers.

I grew up on a farm, and as both a kid and a young man I had considerable experience handling cows, chickens, and sheep. (These are generic critter photos, not the actual animals we had.)

I also taught math and some science to kids like the ones shown below for over 30 years.

guy teaching  deal students

Caring for farm animals and teaching young people are not the same thing.

(Duh.)

As the saying goes: “Teaching isn’t rocket science. It’s much harder.”

I am quite sure that with careful measurements of different types of feed, medications, pasturage, and bedding, it is quite possible to figure out which mix of those elements might help or hinder the production of milk and cream from dairy cows. That’s because dairy or meat cattle (or chickens, or sheep, or pigs) are pretty simple creatures: all a farmer wants is for them to produce lots of high-quality milk, meat, wool, or eggs for the least cost to the farmer, and without getting in trouble.

William Sanders was well-known for his statistical work with dairy cows. His step into hubris and nuttiness was to translate this sort of mathematics to little humans. From Wikipedia:

“The model has prompted numerous federal lawsuits charging that the evaluation system, which is now tied to teacher pay and tenure in Tennessee, doesn’t take into account student-level variables such as growing up in poverty. In 2014, the American Statistical Association called its validity into question, and other critics have said TVAAS should not be the sole tool used to judge teachers.”

But there are several problems with this.

  • We  don’t have an easily-defined and nationally-agreed upon goal for education that we can actually measure. If you don’t believe this, try asking a random set of people what they think should be primary the goal of education, and listen to all the different ideas!
  • It’s certainly not just ‘higher test scores’ — the math whizzes who brought us “collateralization of debt-swap obligations in leveraged financings” surely had exceedingly high math test scores, but I submit that their character education (as in, ‘not defrauding the public’) was lacking. In their selfishness and hubris, they have succeeded in nearly bankrupting the world economy while buying themselves multiple mansions and yachts, yet causing misery to billions living in slums around the world and millions here in the US who lost their homes and are now sleeping in their cars.
  • Is our goal also to ‘educate’ our future generations for the lowest cost? Given the prices for the best private schools and private tutors, it is clear that the wealthy believe that THEIR children should be afforded excellent educations that include very small classes, sports, drama, music, free play and exploration, foreign languages, writing, literature, a deep understanding and competency in mathematics & all of the sciences, as well as a solid grounding in the social sciences (including history, civics, and character education). Those parents realize that a good education is expensive, so they ‘throw money at the problem’. Unfortunately, the wealthy don’t want to do the same for the children of the poor.
  • Reducing the goals of education to just a student’s scores on secretive tests in just two subjects, and claiming that it’s possible to tease out the effectiveness of ANY teacher, even those who teach neither English/Language Arts or Math, is madness.
  • Why? Study after study (not by Sanders, of course) has shown that the actual influence of any given teacher on a student is only from 1% of 14% of test scores. By far the greatest influence is from the student’s own family background, not the ability of a single teacher to raise test scores in April. (An effect which I have shown is chimerical — the effect one year is mostly likely completely different the next year!)
  • By comparison, a cow’s life is pretty simple. They eat whatever they are given (be that straw, shredded newspaper, cotton seeds, chicken poop mixed with sawdust, or even the dregs from squeezing out orange juice [no, I’m not making that up.]. Cows also poop, drink, pee, chew their cud, and sometimes they try to bully each other. If it’s a dairy cow, it gets milked twice a day, every day, at set times. If it’s a steer, he/it mostly sits around and eats (and poops and pees) until it’s time to send  them off to the slaughterhouse. That’s pretty much it.
  • Gary Rubinstein and I have dissected the value-added scores for New York City public school teachers that were computed and released by the New York Times. We both found that for any given teacher who taught the same subject matter and grade level in the very same school over the period of the NYT data, there was almost NO CORRELATION between their scores for one year to the next.
  • We also showed that teachers who were given scores in both math and reading (say, elementary teachers), there was almost no correlation between their scores in math and in reading.
  • Furthermore, with teachers who were given scores in a single subject (say, math) but at different grade levels (say, 6th and 7th grade math), you guessed it: extremely low correlation.
  • In other words, it seemed to act like a very, very expensive and complicated random-number generator.
  • People have much, much more complicated inputs, and much more complicated outputs. Someone should have written on William Sanders’ tombstone the phrase “People are not cattle.”

Interesting fact: Jason Kamras was considered to be the architect of Value-Added measurement for teachers in Washington, DC, implemented under the notorious and now-disgraced Michelle Rhee. However, when he left DC to become head of Richmond VA public schools, he did not bring it with him.

 

“Slaying Goliath” by Diane Ravitch

I wish I could write half as well as, or as much as, Diane Ravitch manages to do, every single day. I also admire her dedication to fighting the billionaires who have been dictating education policy in the USA for quite some time.

If you are reading this post, you are no doubt aware that only ten years ago, Ravitch did a 180-degree turn on major education issues, admitted she had been wrong on a number of points, and became one of the major forces fighting against the disruptive education-privatization agenda of the billionaires.

Since that time, she has been documenting on her blog, several times a day, nearly every day, the utter failures of the extremely wealthy amateurs who have been claiming to ‘reform’ education, but who have instead merely been disrupting it and failing to achieve any of the goals that they confidently predicted would be won, even using their own yard-sticks.

IMG_6217

I found DR’s most recent book (pictured above) to be an excellent history of the past 37 years wherein certain billionaires, and their well-paid acolytes, have claimed that the American public school system is a total failure and needed to be torn down and rebuilt through these steps:

  1. Pretending that American students were at one point the highest-scoring ones on the planet (which has NEVER been true) and that the fact that they currently score at middling levels on international tests like PISA is a cause for national alarm;
  2. Claiming that student family poverty does not cause lower student achievement (however measured), but the reverse: that the schools that have students from poor and non-white populations are the CAUSE of that poverty and low achievement;
  3. Fraudulently assuming that huge fractions of teachers are not only incompetent but actively oppress their students (particularly the poor, the brown, and the black) and need to be fired en masse (as they were in New Orleans, Rhode Island, and Washington, DC);
  4. Micromanaging teachers in various ways, including by forcing all states to adopt a never-tested and largely incomprehensible ‘Common Core’ curriculum and demanding that all teachers follow scripted lessons in lockstep;
  5. ‘Measuring’ the productivity of teachers through arcane and impenetrable ‘Value-Added’ schemes that were devised for dairy cows;
  6. Mass firings of certified teachers, particularly African-American ones (see #2) and replacing them either with untrained, mostly-white newbies from Teach for America or with computers;
  7. Requiring public and charter schools (but not vouchers) to spend ever-larger fractions of their classroom time on test prep instead of real learning;
  8. Turning billions of public funds over to wealthy amateurs (and con artists) with no educational experience to set up charter schools and voucher schools with no real accountability — the very worst ones being the online charter schools.

One great aspect of this book is that Ravitch points out how

  1. All of those claims and ‘solutions’ have failed (for example, a study in Texas showed charter schools had no impact on test scores and a negative impact on earnings (p. 82);
  2. Teachers, parents, students, and ordinary community members have had a good deal of success in fighting back.

I will conclude with a number of quotes from the book in random colors.

“How many more billions will be required to lift charter school enrollment to 10 percent? [It’s now about 5 percent] And why is it worth the investment, given that charter schools, unless they cherry-pick their students, are no more successful than public schools are and often far worse? Why should the federal government spend nearly half a billion dollars on charter schools that may never open when there are so many desperately underfunded public schools?” (p. 276-277)

“Any movement controlled by billionaires is guaranteed […] to preserve the status quo while offering nothing more than the illusion of change.” (p. 281)

“There is no “Reform movement.” The Disrupters never tried to reform public schools. They wanted to disrupt and privatize the public schools that Americans have relied on for generations. They wanted to put public school funding in private hands. They wanted to short-circuit democracy. They wanted to cripple, not improve, the public schools. They wanted to replace a public service with a free market.” (p. 277)

“Our current education policy is madness. It is madness to destroy public education in pursuit of zany libertarian goals. It is madness to use public funds to put young children into religious schools where they will learn religious doctrine instead of science. It is madness to hand public money over to unaccountable entrepreneurs who want to open a school but refuse to be held to high ethical standards or to be held accountable for its finances and its performance. It is madness to ignore nepotism, self-dealing, and conflicts of interest. We sacrifice our future as a nation if we continue on this path of de-professionalizing our schools and turning them over to businessmen, corporate chains, grifters, and well-meaning amateurs. We sacrifice our children and our grandchildren if we continue to allow them to be guinea pigs in experiments whose negative results are clear.” (p. 281)

Ravitch proposes a number of things that billionaires could do that would be more helpful than what they are currently doing. She suggests [I’m quoting but shortening her list, found on page 280] that the billionaires could …

  • pay their share of taxes to support well-resourced public schools.
  • open health clinics to serve needy communities and make sure that all families and children have regular medical checkups.
  • underwrite programs to ensure that all pregnant women have medical care and that all children have nutritious meals each day.
  • subsidize after-school programs where children get exercise, play, dramatics, and tutoring.
  • rebuild the dramatics programs and performance spaces in every school.
  • lobby their state legislatures to fund schools fairly, to reduce class sizes, and to enable every school to have the teachers, teaching assistants, social services, librarians, nurses, counselors, books, and supplies it needs.
  • create mental health clinics and treatment centers for those addicted to drugs.
  • underwrite programs based on “the Kalamazoo Promise.”
  • They could emulate the innovative public school that basketball star leBron James subsidized in Akron, Ohio.

She also quotes Paymon Rouhanifard, who was a “prominent member of the Disruption establishment [who] denounced standardized testing when he stepped down as superintendent of the Camden, New Jersey, public schools […]. He had served as a high-level official on Joel Klein’s team in New York City […] Upon his arrival of the impoverished Camden district [….] he developed school report cards to rank every school mainly by test scores. But before he left, he abolished the school report cards.” She quotes him directly: “[…] most everybody in this room wouldn’t tolerate what I described for their own children’s school. Mostly affluent, mostly white schools shy away from heavy testing, and as a result, they are literally receiving an extra month of instruction […] The basic rule, what we would want for our own children, should apply to all kids.” (p.271)

“Disrupters have used standardized testing to identify and take over or close schools with low scores, but they disregard standardized testing when it reveals the failure of charters and vouchers. Disrupters no longer claim that charter schools and inexperienced recruits from Teach for America will miraculously raise test scores. After three decades of trying, they have not been successful.

“Nothing that the Disrupters have championed has succeeded unless one counts as ‘success’ closing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of community public schools in low-income neighborhoods. Ths Disrupters have succeeded in demoralizing teachers and reducing the number of people entering the teaching profession. They have enriched entrepreneurs who have opened charter schools or developed shoddy new products and services to sell to schools. They have enhanced the bottom line of large testing corporations. Their fling with the Common Core cost states billions of dollars to implement but had no effect on national or international test scores and outraged many parents, child advocates, lovers of literature, and teachers. “

Fortunately, the resistance to this has been having a fair amount of success, including the massive teacher strikes in state after state. As Ravitch writes (p. 266):

“The teachers taught the nation a lesson.

“But more than that, they taught themselves a lesson. They united, they demanded to be heard, and they got respect. That was something that the Disrupters had denied them for almost twenty years. Teachers learned that in unity there is strength.”

 

 

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