Is it time to look at the role of standardized tests in schools?

Also: if teacher unions demand raises, they should say what to cut from education programs to pay for it

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UTMikeColLogoThe rising tide against Common Core continues to obscure a growing, but still under discussed debate about the value and quality of standardized testing in our schools.

While it seems increasingly likely that a passing grade on the Keystone tests will not end up being a graduation requirement for students in the class of 2017 — and maybe for some years to come — the back and forth over Common Core, much of it nonsensical, is obscuring the question of whether we focus too much time and effort on standardized tests.

To get the Common Core stuff out of the way, two things: first off, this was the genesis of a bunch of Republican governors and the Chamber of Commerce, which as we all know are noted left-wing terrorist organizations. Yes, that was a joke. The fact that I have to explain that it’s joke may be even sadder. That Jeb Bush is the last ex-governor tuned presidential candidate with the cojones to admit it he supported it is even sadder.

And yes, Chris Christie, it’s nice to see your willingness to stand up for what you said you believed in matches both your ethics and skill set at somewhere below zero, which nicely matches your poll numbers.

I’m a little stunned that there seems to be so much pushback against the concept that kids starting in school in Arkansas are getting approximately the same education at the same grade level as kids in Nebraska. Much of the arguments seem to come from the ignorant argument of states rights and sovereignty  — pretty much wiped out by the 1787 U.S. Constitution, all but ended after the nullification crisis and finally the Civil War — but from time to time again pop up only to beaten down by the courts and common sense.

Again: big business wants decently educated kids for its work force, not kids either poorly taught or filled with bogus non-science based stuff like creationism, just because some backwards state wants to teach it. We’re 90 years past the Scopes Monkey Trial, maybe it’s time to act like it.

If you want to argue the details of what should be taught and how, fine. But the U.S. is rapidly becoming a joke in the rest of the world because of how we’ve gutted our educational system — but it does seem like a lot of people are working passionately to turn us into a lame second-rate power (poor education, crumbling infrastructure and overpowered police forces — just like all the best banana republics) in the ironic name of patriotism, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

But, moving onto standardized testing and what we should be talking about. The tests aren’t new — I remember taking the California Achievement Test in the 1970s. What has changed is the focus and stakes of testing. As the parent of two middle school students, I can say they lost an entire month of traditional education in April to standardized testing. Was it worth it as an evaluation tool to lose about 12% of the school year?

I don’t think so. I support some sort of testing to allow schools and teachers to be evaluated but wonder whether we’ve gotten too focused on testing and less so on education. Like other educational issues, such of homework and school schedules, we should be able to have a reasoned debate and come to a consensus. But….what are the odds of that?

* * *

If you’ve been following the story coming out of the Avon Grove School District, it should be a cautionary tale for districts around the county. As tax revenue continues to be limited by state law, state funding lagging behind percentages of a generation ago and of course the pension mess, some area school districts are well beyond cutting fat or even muscle now, but cutting bone. Avon Grove plans to lay off five gym teachers at its Intermediate School — meaning a drastic reduction in physical education time for the district’s third, fourth, fifth and sixth graders.

While it’s wrong on so many levels, I’m not sure that the district or its board of education have a lot of other choices. When the state says you can only bring in so much money, yet fixed costs increase by a higher rate, you eventually hit the point where you have to cut program and staff.

While this hasn’t happened in the county’s elite school districts yet, the ongoing budget crunches in Avon Grove, Octorara, Coatesville and elsewhere are a canary in a coal mine. With the likelihood of the state legislature repealing Act 1 and/or doing something about pensions about the same as my winning the GOP nomination for president (I’m the only one behind Christie in the polls), districts are going to have to be hyper careful on spending.

Which brings me to a series of ongoing teacher contract negotiations under way right now in the county.

It seems from here that the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state teachers’ union, is a lot more interested in making political points and scoring “model contracts” than looking out for students, or dare I say it, teachers. This is the same group that bears no small amount of blame for the pension mess, having been bought off into a lousy, shortsighted deal in 2001 with self-serving legislators.

I can think of a couple of districts where teachers at the top of the pay scale are making more than $100K a year — and yes, I don’t begrudge them that. I know how hard they work, I know how well they work, I know how much they care. In those districts, local union leaders have been making a big deal about those top of the scale teachers not getting pay raises in recent years.

Well, here’s the problem: the tax base is a limited number. So dollars become a real zero-sum game. Dollars given to top of the scale teachers — and don’t forget the entire costs, between pension (an extra 30 cents on every dollar has to go to pensions) and the usual costs of employees (payroll taxes and FICA and such) — are dollars taken away elsewhere.

So the question becomes this: how bad do you want a raise? Bad enough to cause less senior teachers to be laid off? Bad enough to see programs such as art and music and gym cut from our schools?

And while it’s easy for union leaders to point fingers at school boards and administrations, it’s not fair. Districts can’t magically make more money appear — even if they wanted to — and you can thank the state legislature and, yes, the PSEA for that.

You see, the PSEA has been woeful in supporting pro-education state legislative candidates — often backing some of the state legislators behind Act 1. They don’t put real money in races, don’t organize, canvass or do much of anything. And teachers in districts have largely sat on their hands (yes, I know of a few exceptions — but I’m talking about the rank and file) when it comes to election time. And of course, now they act surprised when things are the way they are.

I’d be a lot more willing to listen to PSEA and its various locals if they hadn’t been part of the problem for the past decade instead of part of the solution.

But again, I’d like to hear from teachers: what (or who) should be cut to pay for bigger pay raises?

* * *

Speaking of our no-account state legislature, I’d like to congratulate them on simultaneously raising taxes (in a stealthy way) and aggressively cutting public volunteerism, with a new law that takes effect July 1.

I’m speaking, of course, of the new fingerprinting requirement for youth volunteers. Aside from being likely in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it is an onerous, expensive and useless rule passed in panic in wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Ironically, it would have done not one thing to stop Sandusky.

From youth sports leagues to our schools, you will see volunteers, already in short supply, dwindle further. For those adults who step up, the extra $47 is an unreasonable burden, and yes, a tax increase. So — you may want to remind your local legislator of this and urge them to fix this, ASAP.

Without changes, we could literally see the end of parent chaperones on field trips — meaning higher costs (and yes, higher taxes) for school districts or doing away with field trips. For youth leagues, it could mean a drastic drop in coaching volunteers and those folks who volunteer at the snack shack. That will mean less kids on playing fields and more kids staring at their iPads.

This law was passed in a rush by a legislature seeking to do anything, no matter how lousy and pointless, to show they would protect kids from predators.

This needs to be fixed, now.

* * *

Just when you thought folks couldn’t be any more self absorbed, short-sighted — and lets be honest, moronic — I bring you the story of Upper Uwchlan and the county emergency radio tower.

The residents of the area — apparently about 1,100 of them — say building the 326-foot radio tower near Fellowship Road will lower property values. Okay, it’s going next to an existing 300-foot tower and a waste-water treatment plant — hardly the French Riviera. Of course, they managed to get a property appraiser to say that having a tower nearby would lower property values.

They didn’t, however, ask those same appraisers whether having houses burn down because emergency responders might be hampered or the fact that you’d have a lot of knuckleheaded neighbors would have an even bigger impact on property values. I’m betting it would.

In fact, as we’ve seen in other similar cases, the negative publicity has probably already driven down prices in the neighborhood.

What ever happened to doing things for the common good? This is a clear need and folks need to get over themselves.



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  1. TE RES says:

    We just don’t see a whole lot of difference in student achievement that correlates with who the superintendent happens to be,” says Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. He’s a co-author of what’s likely the first broad study to examine the link between superintendents and student achievement.

    Chingos and his co-authors, Grover Whitehurst and Katharine Lindquist, analyzed student test score data from Florida and North Carolina over a 10-year period. His conclusion: Hiring a new superintendent made almost no difference in student success.


    We’re paying Supts. and Admin. CEO and Executive level pay and studies are showing that the Supt. makes no difference in student success.

  2. Mike E says:

    Ramblings of a pathetic, self-hating liberal filled with straw man arguments and uninformed opinion.

    • Keith Knauss says:

      This reader would appreciate well thought out, detailed counter arguments rather than an ad hominem attack.

  3. Voice of Reason says:

    Public Sector Millionaires
    Posted on March 10, 2012 by vofreason

    $4 million. That’s how much you need in your 401k plan to retire at the same annual retirement pay as a typical police officer, teacher, or transit worker manager in the northeast.

    However you slice it, teachers (in the Northeast) and police officers and many government workers are millionaires.

    I’m not talking about exceptions. I’m talking about millionaires made up of every single police officer, teacher, transit worker at a manager level, and most bureaucrats in New York (assuming they work 25 years or more).

    We need Public Sector worker compensation and benefits to match private sector worker compensation and benefits. I think teachers are great. They work hard, but so do private sector workers who fund public sector worker pay and benefits but don’t get the same for themselves. We can’t keep this up. It makes no sense. The middle class is going to implode on itself. And Admini. pay and benefits are tied to teacher pay and benefits. It really hurts the cause when Admin. pay is increased at outlandish rates.

    I agree with Mike. What or who should we cut for your raises? Will your demands stop? You already make more than those with comparable jobs in the private sector and you get better benefits and more vacation time than any worker I know.

    • Anonymous says:

      You make the argument that public sector retirement should mirror private sector. Could the reverse not be said? If more pension plans and better retirement systems were set up in the private sector, wouldn’t there be less need for safety nets for the elderly such as social security and Medicare? Wouldn’t more jobs be created for the young adults because those in their 60s and 70s would retire instead of continuing to work? I find it interesting how often people want to take things away from workers.

      • Voice of Reason says:

        If “more pension plans were set up in the private sector” companies would go bankrupt and workers wouldn’t even have a job. That’s why pension plans for “workers” were eliminated years ago.

        You definitely work in the public sector. You have no idea how the market works. Go to a luxury retirement community. Many there are retired teachers, because their “pensions” are really deferred compensation that no one in the private sector gets and only they can afford to live there. Retired teachers are the one’s traveling, spending, living high, because others, who pay for it, don’t get the same.

        • Anonymous says:

          1) I am not, but nice try.

          2) Having recently toured a step down facility for my parents, I can say that there are people from all backgrounds in these places and not “just teachers.” Perhaps these are all people who invest wisely in their retirement. Many today do not. What will happen when people who did not invest or plan we’ll decide to leave the workforce?

          I find your use of rhetoric without details, support, or experience to be one of the major problems with having discussions on these topics. Everyone thinks they know everything when few really di.

          • Voice of Reason says:

            A new study by the National Association of State Retirement Administrators finds that Pennsylvania has the second most underfunded pension plan in the United States. (Shutterstock)
            Christian Alexandersen | By Christian Alexandersen |
            Email the author | Follow on Twitter
            on March 12, 2015 at 10:10 AM, updated March 12, 2015 at 11:05 AM
            Pa budget 2015

            A new study by the National Association of State Retirement Administrators finds that Pennsylvania has the second most underfunded pension plan in the United States.

            The study, published this month, analyzes state retirement plans and their annual required contribution from 2001 to 2013. Over that time period, New Jersey had the most underfunded pension plan with Pennsylvania in a close second place.

            “For both states, the chronic underfunding began when required contributions had dropped to very low levels by historical standards, including to as low as zero for some plans, chiefly as a result of strong investment gains experienced from 1995 to 1999,” the study said.

            “When required contribution rates rose… the states experienced great difficulty in restoring the stream of pension funding payments that had previously been in place.”

            For years, Pennsylvania legislators have worked to find a solution to its underfunded pension program for state employees. With little in the way of reform, the state has built up a $50 billion pension debt.

            I don’t think I know everything, but I think the above this says it all.

          • Mike McGann says:

            I think a couple of things should be made clear here:

            No one argues that the fund is wildly underfunded. This happened for two reasons, an expansion of benefits and the decision to under pay the fund in the years following 2001. By increasing the amount of money going out and decreasing the amount coming in, the predictable result: a giant fiscal hole (and yes, there are other lessons about similar governance attempts in both state and federal government that did exactly the same thing with exactly the same result).

            So, assuming that everyone agrees that its a problem (and no, not everyone does, but it seems kind of evident from here), how do you fix it?

            Moving everyone into a 401K style fixes the problem. In 30 years. But not before bankrupting the system, leading to massive tax-payer funded buyouts and a statewide fiscal tsunami.

            Everyone repeat after me: if no money goes into the pension fund, where do the benefit dollars come from?

            So, no, a 401k style plan would be a disaster, at least as the sole plan.

            A hybrid plan, where some retirement benefits go to the pension plan, and others go into a 401K might work, but the devil is in the details — and again, it would be a very, very slow solution.

            It is virtually impossible to cut the benefits — and arguably immoral — for those in the system now, especially as they’ve actually paid their share all along. Were a private company to try such a tactic it would be one of two things: Chapter 7 bankruptcy or fraud.

            Basically, the state and school districts used the pension fund like a credit card. The payments are due. A dedicated tax to bulk up the system could help, along with reforms and changes to the system going forward, but the fixes will be slow, expensive and painful.

          • Voice of Reason says:

            The Bigger Pension Picture

            Unfortunately, Hostess and its employees are not alone.

            There was a time when the concept of a career meant working for a single employer from graduation through retirement, with a lifetime pension and a gold watch awaiting you when you were through. These days, a mere 11 of the Fortune 100 companies offer pensions to new hires, down from 90 as recently as 1998.

            In recent years, airlines like Delta (DAL), United (UAL), and US Airways (LCC) have turned pensions over to the PBGC as part of their bankruptcy proceedings. All told, the PBGC manages payments for around 4,500 plans in total. During its Fiscal Year 2012 alone, the agency took over for more than 150 pension plans

            With the hopes of a pension dwindling, that leaves you with two tools for your retirement planning: Social Security and your own savings.

            Make That One-and-a-Half Tools

            On average, Social Security covers around 40 percent of a person’s pre-retirement income. That’s a government-guaranteed payment, at least until the money in the Trust Fund runs out.

            Plenty of companies have filed for bankruptcy and pensions were a big reason

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