Last updated: September 24. 2013 11:08PM - 1073 Views

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Barring some last-minute technical meltdown, the state will publicly unveil its new online “School Performance Profiles” Monday, and you can expect copious coverage. But there are stories behind the scenes and in the periphery that are equally newsy.

The surface stuff: SPP replaces the “Adequate Yearly Progress” yardstick that schools and districts had to meet each year. While AYP focused on the percentage of students scoring “proficient” or better on math and reading tests, SPP looks at proficiency in those and the state science and writing tests, the new high school Keystone tests, SATs, ACTS and other competency tests such as those taken by students at career and technical centers.

SPP also puts a lot of stress on closing the gap between the percentage of students scoring proficient and those scoring below proficient. Schools will get a single building-level score. There’s even “extra credit,” a system that grants up to seven points for things like Advanced Placement scores.

Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq gave media a preview in a web conference last Wednesday, now online: Click PDE podcasts, then “Press briefing: School performance profile.”

The story beneath the surface:

It should have been William Harner, not Dumaresq, giving the briefing. Just a few weeks ago, it was Harner serving as acting secretary, with everyone expecting him to get the post full time. He even showed up when Bear Creek Community Charter School held a press conference announcing a big federal loan for a new building. But Harner resigned abruptly Aug. 26 and fell off the political face of the Earth.

What happened? No one’s saying. But Philadelphia Inquirer Harrisburg Bureau’s Angela Couloumbis reported Aug. 27 that three sources, under condition of anonimity, said that during his time running the Cumberland Valley School District Harner sent a male administrator an email “allegedly asking him how he looked in a Speedo bathing suit.” Couloumbis reports that the administrator was on vacation and filed a complaint later.

Salacious? You bet. Relevant to Dumaresq’s web press conference? Not directly, but worth pointing out. She was barely in the job that Harner had similarly barely been in when he resigned, and she was pitching the most dramatic change in the state’s education policies since No Child Left Behind itself. To her credit. she stuck well and effectively to her message about why this change made sense.

The story on the periphery?

Dumaresq gave her little presentation the day after the debut of education historian Diane Ravitch’s latest book, “Reign of Error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools.” While I haven’t finished reading the book as I write this, it is one of the most effective arguments against the types of education “reforms” being pushed by Corbett, including SPP.

One of the reasons it’s an effective argument is the author. Ravitch rose to public prominence as a member of President George H.W. Bush’s education cabinet. She spent years making the case for testing and accountability, but changed her tune recently, arguing the movement has been taken over and steered in the wrong direction by big business and big foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that pour hundreds of millions into education reform, skewing those efforts toward the donor’s ideology and away from what works.

Ravitch dubs it the “corporate reform movement,” heavily influenced by profit mongers who see big bucks in all those standardized tests and the related need for new curricula, books, teacher training and student preparation and assessment programs.

This “Corporate reform movement” succeeds by relentlessly insisting schools are in “crisis,” and that the only way to fix them is to have more “choice” and less restrictive controls on the hiring and firing of teachers. But Ravitch argues —and reality increasingly shows she’s right —that “choice” is code for “privatization,” either spending tax dollars sending kids to private schools or hiring private companies to run public schools.

“The transfer of public funds to private management and the creation of thousands of deregulated, unsupervised and unaccountable schools have opened the public coffers to profiteering, fraud, and exploitation by large and small entrepreneurs,” Ravitch writes in her first chapter.

“Reign of Error” has the potential — and the intent — to substantially reshape the debate on education reform. In Ravitch’s view, the real crisis is the headlong rush to implement reforms that her data — and she has a lot of it —shows either are already proven failures or have no evidence they work at all.

And while the new SPP system was not around when she wrote the book, I expect she would readily include it in her list of things that are simply wrong for our students.

Mark Guydish, a reporter for The Times Leader, can be reached at 570-829-7161 or email mguydish@timesleader com.

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