Monday, January 18, 2016

Julie Goes to Washington with Jamy, Marla, and Melissa

Last Monday, the US Department of Education held the first of two public testimony hearings on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This hearing was held in Washington DC. The next will be in California. Short notice, with release just before the holidays, felt like timing was meant for parents and teachers to miss it. I was not off to a warm and fuzzy feeling about it. 

I didn't see the agenda for the day until after I checked in at USDOE. The speaking order and the approximate times for each of the three sessions were listed. The list of speakers was, predictably, the who's who of education reform -- just off the top of my head, several hundred million dollars or so in Gates funded associations. Disheartening to say the least. From what I can gather, only one other "just a parent" spoke that day and three actual teachers, two from New York (Jamy Brice-Hyde and Marla Kilfoyle) and one from New Jersey (Melissa Tomlinson). 


It really was difficult to decide what aspect of ESSA to discuss. From a special ed point a view, ESSA makes NCLB look lenient. The 1% cap on alternate assessments for students with disabilities is particularly cruel. It's also the fuel needed to continue to encourage opting out of these stupid tests. 

I decided, though, to talk about Social Impact Bonds. Sorry if you're getting bored with this topic, but I don't think it can be argued against enough. An experiment, which requires a negative outcome (NOT classifying students) to be considered a success, has no business sitting in the middle of a federal education law. 

Here is my testimony: 
11 January 2016

Testimony on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to US Department of Education  
My name is Julie Borst and I’m resident of Bergen County, New Jersey. I am a mother to a 17-year-old student with a disability. I am a parent advocate and an organizer for Save Our Schools New Jersey, Opt Out NJ, and for BATs in Special Education. My comments today are my own. 
I have to admit, it was difficult deciding which section of ESSA to address today. While many are cheering the change from No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I’m feeling much more cautious. As a family, we have not had good experiences under NCLB. It was clearly in serious need of revision, and I don’t believe that ESSA really aleviates the myriad problems with NCLB, particularly for students with disabilities. 
Among the worst, the onerous standardized testing continues. More students with disabilities will be required to take irrelevant, developmentally inappropriate tests. Local districts will continue to waste precious dollars on infrastructure to support these tests, and for what? That’s a conversation that could go on for weeks. Let’s just say, that from where I sit, as a parent and advocate, the tests are a waste of time and money. Well trained, dedicated professional educators are what’s needed. Not more tests. 
However, the reason I’ve come here today is to talk about Social Impact Bonds, otherwise known as Pay For Success (PFS)1, ESSA page 797, line 17. The current landscape in special education is a dire one. In states like New Jersey, it has become increasingly difficult for parents to get appropriate identification, classification, and services for their children. OSEP and OCR have become yet another roadblock to appropriate services.
I believe the root of that difficulty is money. IDEA is poorly funded, as it has been since its inception. Money now is spent on everything related to high stakes testing – prep, massive curricula changes, computers, infrastructure, and teacher professional development geared to use of that technology instead of honing the skills of their profession.

In New Jersey, there is a more formalized process, Response to Intervention (RtI), on the horizon. A program that will make it even less likely for a student with a disability to get timely identification, classification, and services. There appears to be little, actual focus on identifying learning disabled students as early as possible and doing something about it. 
Preschool, “high quality” preschool, has become the new mantra in that vein. Studies show that high quality preschool can reduce the percentage of the students who go on to kindergarten and are then classified for special education. Those percentages are anywhere from a reduction of 10% to 50% of students who would have otherwise needed special education services. The impact is clearly a positive one. 
It does makes sense to support high quality preschool. What doesn't make sense is for private investors or Wall St. to fund those preschool programs with the aim of making money off students NOT being classified. 
Pay For Success is use of private money invested into public programs, in this case public preschool. The program, first tested in Utah and now in Chicago, was funded by Goldman Sachs. The program in Utah was claimed to have a 99% “success” rate. 109 of the 110 students identified as “at risk” or possibly needing special education, out of a group of 600 preschoolers, did NOT require special education. Goldman Sachs received money back for every one of those 109 students and will continue to do so for every year those 109 students are NOT classified for special education, through 6th grade. 
To be perfectly frank, this raises a lot of questions. What was the starting criteria for those students? What diagnostic tests did they use? Medical history? Demographics? How many students would have likely had to have special education if they didn't have the "high quality" preschool experience? How many would they expect to classify even with the experience? What is "high quality" preschool? What does "high quality" preschool cost? How much does Utah spend on preschool? What is the threshold that has to be met for Goldman Sachs to earn its money back? Who would have covered the costs is the program “failed”? 
In Utah’s case, only one test, PVVT, was used. It’s not normally used, especially by itself, to identify students for learning disabilities. English language learners typically do not do well on this test because it is vocabulary based. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have a disability. From the outset, the criteria presumed all 110 “at risk”-identified children were going into special education without the high quality preschool. That is not a valid presumption.
There is also the issue of cost. High quality preschool costs are general 3-4 times what Goldman Sachs invested per student. It’s still not clear how the “high quality” label was actually executed, as some of the students were apparently placed in daycare.  
Utah set the rubric, but they also would have had no preschool at all without the program. Why were they allowed to set the bar so low and so obviously skewed to have this as a win for Goldman Sachs? Perhaps more importantly, what is Utah doing to ensure those “success” students were, in fact, properly NOT identified for special education? 
I understand that on the surface Pay For Success sounds wonderful. Public money, that is already so lacking, will not have to be used to fund preschool programs. However, “success” based on a negative outcome of our most vulnerable students demonstrates the loss of our moral compass. 
Pay For Success has no business being in a federal education law. There are too many unanswered questions. Too many ways for this program to go very wrong for our most vulnerable students – especially in the current environment. There is no magic pill to cure learning disabilities, but there are many well-documented, teacher-driven practices to address identification, classification, and delivery of services. We should be concentrating on those, not on making Goldman Sachs richer at our children’s expense. 
1 p. 797
18 term ‘pay for success initiative’ means a perform-
19 ance-based grant, contract, or cooperative agreement
20 awarded by a public entity in which a commitment
21 is made to pay for improved outcomes that result in
22 social benefit and direct cost savings or cost avoid-
23 ance to the public sector. Such an initiative shall in-
24 clude—
p.7981 ‘‘(A) a feasibility study on the initiative de-
2 scribing how the proposed intervention is based
3 on evidence of effectiveness;
4 ‘‘(B) a rigorous, third-party evaluation
5 that uses experimental or quasi-experimental
6 design or other research methodologies that
7 allow for the strongest possible causal infer-
8 ences to determine whether the initiative has
9 met its proposed outcomes;
10 ‘‘(C) an annual, publicly available report
11 on the progress of the initiative; and
12 ‘‘(D) a requirement that payments are
13 made to the recipient of a grant, contract, or
14 cooperative agreement only when agreed upon
15 outcomes are achieved, except that the entity
16 may make payments to the third party con-
17 ducting the evaluation described in subpara-
18 graph (B).’’;

Marla's Testimony:
Testimony of Marla Kilfoyle
Thank you for allowing me to offer my recommendations and advice on Title 1 of ESSA
My name is Marla Kilfoyle.  I have been a public school teacher for 29 years.  I have taught in Rural, Urban, and Suburban school districts.  I have a Masters in Education and am National Board Certified.  My proudest role, however, is  that I am a mother of a child with disabilities enrolled in public school in New York. 
Here are my recommendations and advice:#1 We need to fund Title 1 with more money.  We have seen, over the last decade, more and more of our children living in poverty.  I applaud that the bill increases funding for key formula grant programs. The increases overall of funding by 2 percent each year in 2018-2020 is hopeful. Increases in Title I ($1.2 billion over the 4 years of the authorization), a more than a 20 percent increase. We applaud the increase in authorizations for Title III (English Language learners), Title VI, American Indian and Alaska Native programs and Impact Aid are excellent. Increases in the Mckinney Vento leave us hopeful that our homeless children will be serviced and supported but we will need more.
#2 I have concerns that “personalized learning “ will be a vehicle for students to be placed in front of a computer screen all day or have them moved out of their public school to a school that is not housed in their community.  This school could be an online learning center or a charter school; both which have been proven not to be beneficial over a strong public neighborhood school.    Why should children have to move out of their community school to be educated?  We need to support strong sustainable public schools in the communities that our children live.
#3 I  am vehemently opposed to testing children each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  We are the only nation that demands this of our children.  Grade span testing by random sampling will allow more time for learning.  We have done this successfully using NAEP.  Testing has depleted much needed funds for our children in need.  The only people that testing every year benefits are the testing companies.
#4 I also do not agree that our ENL/ELL populations should be subject to multiple statewide interim assessments during the academic year.  This, once again, results in more testing and less learning for our non-English speakers.  What we are seeing for our ELL students is less time with their ELL teachers in instruction to teach them to speak/acquire the language.  The drive to get them ready for a test at the end of the year that they are not yet ready to take, due to lack of language, is abusive and inappropriate.  Although pushing them into classes with their English speaking peers is excellent, there must also be a balance of making sure that we are giving them the instruction that they need to acquire the English language.  This has been taken away from them in many districts across the nation.
#5 I am opposed to computer adaptive assessments listed in the Act.  I feel that testing and technology companies put together inferior products, sell them to districts to make money and now districts are left with inferior assessments and no money.  I am also opposed to the idea of  ‘innovative assessment system', as outlined in Part B Title 1, that could be used as assessments in school districts.  As educators, we have seen technology companies and testing companies pillage the coffers of public education with products that are inferior and do not enhance teaching and learning.  This is not what America wants for its children.  We do not want our classrooms to become places in which children sit in front of a computer for several hours a day and the teacher becomes just a facilitator.  We see a need for technology and to make sure that our students are using it to enhance learning but it should not replace the human interactions that they need in the classrooms to become productive global citizens.  
 #6  Finally from Part A of Title 1 I feel that allowing alternative routes to certification will only guarantee that our neediest children will get the least trained, for example, Teach for America.  We should require every teacher, in every classroom to be fully licensed and accredited from a strong college education program. 
In closing I would like to take a few moments to also address the letter that the USDOE sent on Dec. 22nd  to the Chief School Officers in states that had high test refusal rates.  The letter, which threatened to withhold Title 1 money for states with high test refusal rates, was absolutely deplorable.  As Mr. King knows from his tenure in NYS, standing between a parent and the decisions that they choose to make for their children is not a good idea.   To create conditions where a local school district must pressure parents into making decisions they do not want for their child is not good for the positive relationships that school districts need to create in order to work cooperatively with parents. 
Thank you again for your time and consideration. 

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