Friday, August 15, 2014

NCCM Responds to Steven Pound


The August 3 2014 edition of the Portland Press Herald included a letter from Steven M. Pound, Ph. D., which opened with the sentence: "Peter Geiger's recent guest column on school standards is exactly right", referring to the editorial of the Chair of Maine's State Board of Education. (See our response to Mr. Geiger here.) Dr. Pound, who is a fellow member of the Maine State Board of Education ("SBoE"), stated that (emphasis added):
Enhancing Maine's current school standards to align with the common math and English standards will help improved [sic] educational rigor for our students; honors Maine's long tradition of local control over curriculum; is an open process welcoming input from parents and the public, and will provide new and improved testing so students, parents and teachers can better evaluate our students' achievement.
He offers not a shred of proof for these grandiose claims, relying, like his Board colleague SBoE Chair Peter Geiger, on nothing more than wishful thinking and logical fallacies. And, like Chair Geiger, he fails to identify his position on the Board and his association with Mr. Geiger. Once again, the members of our State Board of Education and Maine's citizens have been ill-served by our state's educational leaders.


Before we begin to address Dr. Pounds's comments in detail, we have to address a more serious question. One likes to think that a newspaper like the Press Herald avoids the sort of yellow journalism that has become so common these days, in which a paper publishes seemingly thoughtful independent comments to a story or editorial from a seemingly unbiased source, but in reality the collection is a coordinated effort to fool the public into believing a truly biased story. To do this, of course, the writers must hide their true (or at least full) identities lest their relationship becomes known. Often too, they must craft their language carefully to avoid terms that would direct most readers to their relationship. Sadly, Mr. Geiger's editorial and Dr. Pound's gushing supportive letter have these earmarks.

As we pointed out in our Response to Mr. Geiger, members of public boards have an ethical duty to identify their writings as either personal or on behalf of the board on which they serve. We found that Mr. Geiger failed to do this, and we see now that his colleague, Dr. Pound, has made the same lapse. Of course, the combination gives the outward appearance that an independent assessment and argument is supported by an equally independent letter, when in fact both men serve on the same board and participated in the board's decisions at issue in their writings. Although it is possible that both men simply don't understand, or are equally careless about, their obligations, the reality appears to be that the Chair and a fellow member of our State Board of Education are offering nothing but collusive propaganda in support of policies that are very much the opposite of everything they claim.

The latter possibility becomes still more relevant when we see that Dr. Pound refers to "common" math and English "standards". But common to what or to whom? The only time one encounters the words "common" and "standards" on the Maine Department of Education's Web site is in the phrase Common Core State Standards ("CCSS"... see here). Can Dr. Pound, whose biography describes him as having "earned a Ph.D. in Educational Administration, Master of Science, a Bachelors in education and a Bachelor of Science with certificates in International Trade Management, and Educational Fundraising", really be so obtuse as to not see the connection between these words, and not offer a clear distinction if he really intended to refer to two different sets of standards?

This evidence reasonably creates a worrisome impression that the two members of the Maine State Board of Education are being less than candid with the public about our state's education policies.

Regarding the content of Dr. Pound's letter, consider the following. Each of the claims made in the paragraph cited above has not a shred of supporting evidence and indeed is contradicted by hard facts.

  1. Regarding the claim that the CCSS will "improve the rigor" of Maine's schools (note that Dr. Pound doesn't define what he means by rigor"), there isn't any such evidence–nor can there be–to prove this, because the Common Core Standards and testing have never been tried before. We are not aware of even a comparison of the CCSS with the Maine Learning Results. This is just an empty assertion.
  2. As for the claim that the CCSS "honors" local control, as we pointed out in our Response to Mr. Geiger, we are not aware of any public discussion, legislative hearings, or school board votes before our Commissioner of Education signed the CCSS and SBAC Memorandums of Agreement and Understanding in 2009. How is that that honoring" local control?
  3. How can such a process, supported by what appears to be crypto-propaganda from two members of the SBoE, "be an open process welcoming input from parents and the public"?
  4. How can Dr. Pound claim that the SBAC tests are "new and improved" when they've never been used and have been heavily criticized by serious reviewers as we showed in our Response to Mr. Geiger?
The rest of Dr. Pound's letter shows the same lack of attention to logic and evidence. He complains of a skill gap" and that he and his business leader colleagues need strong, smart and nimble workers to replace the hundreds of thousands of current workers who will soon retire." Of course, Dr. Pound never describes what this alleged "skill gap" is, nor how he and his "business leader colleagues" have proven this. And if we need "strong, smart and nimble workers" to replace our current workers, then our current workers– you know, the ones not schooled under CCSS or SBAC– must be sufficiently "strong, smart and nimble" for our current jobs. So why do we need CCSS and SBAC?

That logical detail seems lost on the good doctor. Untroubled, he goes on to write that:
The needed skill set– mastery of core academic knowledge, the ability to think critically, communicate effectively, solve problems and collaborate well– is becoming harder to come by. Fewer than half of the executives surveyed in an American Management Association study nationwide rated their employees as above average in necessary skills.
Apparently, neither Dr. Pound nor the "fewer than half of the executives surveyed" by the American Management Association understands the difference between "needed", "mastery", and "above average". These are not comparable capacities. Worse, how can Dr. Pound think that a nationwide survey applies to Maine? How do these skills relate to Maine's curriculum, standards, and testing? And how are the American Manufacturing Association, a professional development organization and the surveyed executives— who have no clear connection to public education even qualified to make such claims? This is nothing but garbled logic based on empty assertions.

In this light, Dr. Pound's claim that "[i]f we simply maintain the status quo in our current education and labor trends, this challenge becomes greater and more urgent", just begs the question by trying to fool us into assuming that what Dr. Pound (and his colleague Mr. Geiger) want is the answer. This truly is hot air.

The same can be said for the equally sterile point Dr. Pound makes that "the Maine Legislature adopted a law stating that all publicly supported high schools must achieve a 90 percent graduation rate by the end of the 2015-2016 school year", which he claims we can achieve through higher standards, ongoing preparations for teachers to support their teaching "through higher standards, and increased access to innovative high school education models that provide students both the rigor and real-world relevance" so that "students will be better prepared for both college and careers."

While it's true that our publicly supported high schools must show a 90% graduation rate for the 2015-2016 school year, it rather boggles the mind to think that higher standards–i.e., standards that are more demanding than those we have now– will lead to higher graduation rates. The more likely result is a lower graduation rate and a true legal crisis in 2016. Even with the "preparations" and "access" Dr. Pound claims, anyone remotely familiar with classroom practice will see that such changes will take far longer than one year to show an effect. Right now, most teachers complain about confusion and uncertainty in the CCSS, testing, data collection, and evaluations Maine was forced to accept under Race to the Top. Facile statements such as Dr. Pound's only further show how remote he is from his subject.

And while we agree generally with Dr. Pound's conclusion that "when we give our students the highest-quality education, it will fuel our economy and build productive citizens", we note yet again the question begging by his merely assuming that the untested and questionable CCSS and SBAC could indeed provide the "highest quality education". As we explained in our Response to Mr. Geiger, the deep flaws in the processes by which the CCSS and SBAC were chosen, the equally flawed implementation, and the serious and unanswered questions about the Standards and tests themselves, all suggest that the policies Dr. Pound and Mr. Geiger appear to be propagandizing for will fail Maine's children.

NCCM Executive Committee

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