Be wary of foundation's motives

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By Scott McLeod

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Whenever an organization from outside Iowa tries to tell us what to do with our education system, my alerts go up. When it comes to the Foundation for Educational Excellence, we Iowans should be extremely wary of its motives.

Records requests by public interest groups show that FEE is using its national visibility and deep pockets to lobby legislators in numerous states in ways that are intended to benefit its corporate backers. Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation, has been at the heart of many of these controversial activities.

In Rhode Island, for example, Levesque asked state officials to encourage integration of the communications program SendHub into their schools. Her boss, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has invested tens of thousands of dollars in the messaging startup company.

In Maine, Colin Woodard’s award-winning special report in the Portland Press-Herald exposed substantial entanglements between Gov. Paul LePage and FEE, who jointly wrote legislation to expand online learning in K-12 schools. That expansion would have greatly benefited K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, two online providers — and FEE donors — who were lobbying for a greater presence in the state. Levesque is touting at the governor’s education conference the same school grading and assessment schemes that she proposes for Iowa.

In Florida, Levesque helped write laws to increase use of the FCAT, a proprietary test for K-12 students that is exclusively administered by Pearson, another FEE donor.

Not only are their motives questionable, what Levesque and FEE are proposing is educationally unsound for Iowa children. Indiana is scrapping the school letter grade system that Levesque proposes because it’s so flawed. School letter grades in Florida rise or fall depending on how the winds blow in the state capital and where the state department of education decides to set the benchmark each year.

Levesque wants Iowans to assess teacher quality based on standardized test scores, but the National Research Council, the American Educational Research Association, and other groups strongly condemn the practice because there’s too much year-to-year instability. Teachers who are rated excellent one year are rated terrible the next. Under such schemes in Florida and New York, Teachers of the Year are being given unsatisfactory ratings, sometimes even though they have no students that take any of the tests. Proponents like Levesque say that test scores should be only one of multiple measures used to evaluate teachers, but that one measure has been shown repeatedly by researchers to be statistically invalid, operationally unreliable, and disproportionately impactful. Iowa teachers deserve better.

Finally, those 4th-grade NAEP reading score gains in Florida that Levesque touts as justification for her proposed policies have been proven to be artificially enhanced by the state’s policy of holding back 20 percent (or more) of 3rd-graders. Those gains also disappear in later years. Florida’s 8th-graders rank only 36th in reading, below both Iowa and the national average; its 12th graders also do worse than Iowa and the national average.

This is the Florida miracle that Levesque asks Iowans to adopt?

We Iowans have a long history of excellent schools and sound educational decision-making. We don’t need FEE and other national lobbying groups with questionable motives to make unsound policy for us.

Scott McLeod, of Ames, is an educational leadership professor who serves as the Director of Innovation for Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency. Comments: dr.scott.mcleod@gmail.com

 

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