The Rev. John Thomas Decries Attack on Democracy in America’s Big City School Districts

The Rev. John Thomas, the retired President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes a blog on that institution’s website about issues of the day.  His prophetic post this week considers Democracy Under Attack in urban public education: “In 1785, John Adams wrote, ‘The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.  There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.’  In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance set aside one section of each township for a school.  Most of us grew up never calling into question these foundational principles of our American republic.  Today, these notions seem to be turned on their heads.  The whole people is barred from meaningful engagement in the education of the whole people, and the responsibility to bear the expense is increasingly scorned by those who view public dollars as a piggy bank for their private ventures.”

Thomas’ blog post couldn’t be more timely.  Just two days ago New York’s Alliance for Quality Education and several partner organizations released a report, Good for Kids or Good for Carl?, that begs for public scrutiny of the likely conflict of interest involving Carl Paladino, the Buffalo, New York real estate developer who ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 2010, and who subsequently has joined Buffalo’s board of education.  According to the Alliance for Quality Education, Paladino is making lots of money from the charter schools that benefit from his votes on the board of education. When questioned about this matter by the Buffalo News, Paladino defended his right to make a profit: “If I didn’t, I’d be a frigging idiot.”

The Alliance for Quality Education explains: “Carl Paladino is the chairman of Ellicott Development, one of the largest property developers focused on the Buffalo area.  Paladino’s companies are the leading charter school developers in Buffalo.  Ellicott Development has worked with the private operators of at least five Buffalo charter schools, either flipping property to the private operators of those schools or financing school construction through pricey ‘leaseback deals’…  As the preferred real estate developer for Buffalo’s charter schools, Paladino is well-positioned to secure more business for himself as a result of using his position on the school board to bring more privately run charter schools to Buffalo.”

The report accuses Paladino not only of profiting from his dual role as school board member and real estate developer but also of failing to honor his own promise to recuse himself from school board votes about the charter schools connected to his business.  “He has a conflict of interest.  Instead of recusing himself, Paladino actually is the most vocal proponent of charter schools on behalf of the majority of the school board.  He recently led the way when the majority members of the school board passed a resolution in support of immediate conversion of four public schools into privately-run charter schools and even offered an amendment that would set the stage to potentially convert all of Buffalo public schools into privately run charter schools.”

In his new blog post, the Rev. Thomas writes: “In city after city the story is the same. Control and management of our public schools is being systematically removed from parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens, and placed in the hands of mayors, their political allies in state legislatures and governor’s offices, their wealthy donors, the operators of charter schools, and politically well connected entrepreneurs and vendors eager to make money from contracts for things like technology or maintenance with the charters they themselves have invested in.”

Profits siphoned from tax dollars are a big part of this problem.  The story of Carl Paladino’s real estate ventures in Buffalo is only the latest in a long series of tales of business tycoons making money from the tax dollars flowing into poorly regulated charter schools.  Earlier this week this blog covered Baker Mitchell’s schools in North Carolina and the national charter management organization, Imagine Schools, that operates in 11 states and conducts a real estate profit scheme through SchoolHouse Finance, its own real estate subsidiary.  Then there is the enormous charter mess in Detroit that was exposed in a week-long investigation last summer by the Detroit Free Press.  And in Ohio, David Brennan of White Hat Management and William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT)—who has made over $100 million since 2001 from the two privately held companies he owns that provide all services for ECOT—have been very openly purchasing public policy.

But graft, corruption, and influence peddling are only part of what the Rev. Thomas is describing.  His greater concern is the threat to urban public education as a democratic institution.  Rev. Thomas describes Philadelphia, where an appointed School Reform Commission recently abrogated the legal contract the School District of Philadelphia had established with its teachers union. “Local school boards are vanishing and the collective bargaining rights of teachers, one of the few remaining countervailing power bases available to challenge the privatization of our schools, are under assault.”  He writes about New York City where Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy Charter School diva, has been able to turn “her wealthy friends loose on the governor and legislature” to ensure that New York City redirects public funds to pay for rent in the private market for her schools if there is no empty space that can be found to co-locate her schools into public school buildings themselves.  And he describes Chicago, where he has been watching as political maneuvering blocked “a non-binding referendum that would have provided the citizens of the city an opportunity to offer an opinion on whether Chicago should return to an elected school board.”  There are other examples.  There is Newark, New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie declared, “And I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools in Newark, not them,”  and where his appointed superintendent has imposed a massive choice plan on the school district while quashing public protests including the outcry of the mayor. There is New Orleans where the schools were seized by the state and charterized after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, and there is Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder has imposed state-appointed emergency managers with the power to abrogate union contracts, turn over school districts to charter management organizations, and even shut down whole school districts experiencing financial problems.

“We have always imagined our schools to be the formative institutions of our democracy,” writes the Rev. Thomas. “What happens to all of us when that is no longer the case?”  I urge you to read Rev.Thomas’ fine column.

What’s the Story in Los Angeles Unified School District?

John Deasy—the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second largest—resigned last week.  He had worn out his welcome through the notorious iPad scandal and a new fiasco involving a district-wide data system launched this autumn that left high school students sitting in study halls without the classes they would need to graduate and left the school district unable to create the high school transcripts students would need as part of their college applications.

News stories reported the superintendent’s resignation here and here, but the best analysis of Deasy’s story is by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post. She titles her piece, Leadership Mess in L.A. Schools Could Be a Movie—But You wouldn’t Believe the Plot.

All the reports claim that while test scores grew during Deasy’s tenure (though they were growing before he took over 3 1/2 years ago), he was abrasive and authoritarian.  A Broad Academy-trained school administrator, he testified for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that targeted due process for teachers in his own school district and he was an early pioneer in introducing evaluation of teachers based on students’ test scores.

The problems that brought down his tenure as superintendent, however, involved a succession of botched—and very expensive—purchases by the district of technology from private companies. First came the iPad scandal.  Many worried when Deasy made the decision to use capital improvement funds for the $1.3 billion iPad purchase, and there came to be many questions about his ties to Apple (that produced the hardware) and Pearson (that created the software on the iPads).  The purchase has been put on hold for re-bidding.

Then as school opened this fall, LAUSD launched an enormous information system supposedly designed to track student data from Kindergarten through 12th grade. “Instead,” reported Abby Sewell of the LA Times on October 11, almost two months into the school year, “the Los Angeles Unified School District’s student information system, which has cost more than $130 million, has become a technological disaster.  The system made its debut this semester and promptly overloaded the district’s database servers, requiring an emergency re-engineering.  In the days and weeks that followed, many teachers were unable to enter grades or attendance or even figure out which students were enrolled in class. Because of scheduling blunders partly stemming from the new system, students at Jefferson High School sat in the auditorium for weeks waiting to be assigned classes… But a quick fix to the problems plaguing the system is unlikely.  More than 600 fixes or enhancements are needed in the software, and there are ‘data quality and integrity issues’ that include grades, assignments and even students disappearing from the system, Supt. John Deasy acknowledged last week in a letter.  It could take a year to work out kinks in the system just to enter grades, he said.”

To be fair, the idea for such a system cannot be attributed to John Deasy.  A court mandated the creation of a student information system two decades ago, according to Sewell to keep careful records for students with IEPs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  However, Deasy presided over the most recent chapters in a story of design changes and  shifts in private contractors.  The LAUSD even sued one of its former vendors over delays and design flaws. Deasy was criticized by a judge just weeks ago, after complaints at Jefferson High School were the subject of a legal complaint. According to LA Times writer Howard Blume, “The judge also chided Deasy, saying ‘he does not admit to knowing’ about Jefferson’s scheduling problems or ‘describe any actual or anticipated efforts by LAUSD to remedy them.'”   Members of the school board expressed amazement that school district staff, including the superintendent, had not immediately addressed the scheduling problems at several high schools and instead waited for the court to require that they do what ought to have been their jobs.

Deasy is now gone, and according to Sewell, “While district Internet technology staffers work to fix the problems, school officials have resorted to work-arounds, including tracking grades and attendance the old-fashioned way: with paper and pens.”  Deasy made his name by being tough on teachers, but his administration became preoccupied with gadgetry and technology, not the kind of programmatic support teachers desperately need.

October Charter School Investigations—Tales of Fraud, Mismanagement, and Mis-Education

There is so much news from place to place about the financial and management scandals in particular charter schools and charter management organizations that it is hard to keep track. Schools are taking public money—and too frequently finding a way to make a profit—while failing to serve the children they enroll or neglecting to enroll particular groups of children with special needs.  All of this increases the burden on public schools and misspends tax dollars, thereby undermining the public good.  Here are just three examples that have surfaced during mid-October.

North Carolina ProPublica just published a major investigation of Baker Mitchell’s charters in North Carolina including Douglass Academy in Wilmington.  After he came to North Carolina in 1997, according to ProPublica, “Mitchell quickly connected with the state’s big political players, including conservative Kingmaker Art Pope.  By 2002, he was sitting alongside Pope on the board of the John Locke Foundation…. part of the State Policy Network, a Koch-supported group of think tanks whose agenda includes steering public funds away from traditional schools and toward charters, vouchers and tax credits for homeschoolers.”

Mitchell then established the same kind of racket that William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow has going in Ohio: he created a private, for-profit company owned by himself to provide all services for his charter schools. “The company, Roger Bacon Academy, is owned by Mitchell.  It functions as the schools’ administrative arm, taking the lead in hiring and firing school staff.  It handles most of the bookkeeping.  The treasurer of the non-profit that controls the four schools is also the chief financial officer of Mitchell’s management company.  The two organizations even share a bank account.”  Back in 2001 the Internal Revenue Service denied Mitchell’s management company  non-profit status, for, according to IRS, “Mr. Mitchell… controls both your management company and your lessor.  He has dual loyalties to you and his private, for-profit companies.  This is a clear conflict of interest for him.”  However, Mitchell’s board (on which he was serving actively as a member) protested and the IRS eventually capitulated based on promises by the board—promises never fulfilled, according to ProPublica.

Mitchell has also become involved in advocacy for privatization of education in North Carolina.  In 2011, he joined the state’s Charter School Advisory Council that helped eliminate the cap on the growth of charter schools.  In 2013 he was instrumental in helping push a bill through the legislature to remove oversight and regulation of charters and to provide a tax exemption “for landlords who, like Mitchell, rent property to charter schools.”

Adelanto, California: Bill Raden, a reporter for California’s Capital & Main, has investigated the first school in the nation to have undergone a “Parent Trigger” conversion.  The investigation tracks the operation of Desert Trails Elementary School during its first year of operation after it was seized by parents through a petition and subsequently charterized.  The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) disseminated model “parent trigger” legislation across the state legislatures.  According to Raden, “At least 25 states have considered parent trigger legislation and seven of them have enacted some version of the law, including Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas,” in addition to California.

Rapid turnover of teachers has plagued Desert Trails. Although its executive director has been paid a salary of $200,000, teachers are reported by Raden to be earning only $3,300 per month.  “During its first year, teachers say, the charter lost a principal (Don Wilkinson) and a director (Ron Griffin)—both before the Christmas break—and its vice principal, six classroom teachers and its behavioral specialist.  In addition only nine of Desert Trails’ first-year teacher roster—or 33 percent—are returnees this year.”  Several teachers or former teachers who agreed to be interviewed tell of personally spending hundreds of dollars for basic classroom supplies.  They explain that drinking fountains were turned off to prevent their freezing at night during the high-desert winter when the heat was turned off to save money.

While Desert Trails employed a special education coordinator and teacher, teachers say they were advised by Debra Tarver, the current executive director, not to tell parents about their right to services for children with special needs.  Raden describes instances when parents of children with special behavioral needs were advised that the school “was not a suitable environment to meet their needs,” while school administrators denied that the students had been suspended or expelled.

Teachers report they were subject to a succession of curriculum changes as the school’s administrators turned over.  All report, however,  that intense pressure grew throughout the year to focus on language arts and math, the two tested subjects, and to cut out social studies, science, and physical education.  Raising test scores became an obsession.

Columbus, Ohio: Catherine Candinsky and Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch examined real estate profit-making by Imagine Schools, a national charter management organization.  Candinsky and Siegel report that rent—paid to a real estate subsidiary of its national sponsor, Imagine Schools Inc.—is the highest expense for Columbus Primary Academy.  The school will pay rent of $700,000 this year to SchoolHouse Finance, a national Imagine-owned subsidiary, at the same time its expenditures for salaries and benefits will be only $614,000. “SchoolHouse buys the buildings, resells them typically for two or three times the purchase price, and then leases the facility from the new owner so it can rent the space back to Imagine.”  Policy Matters Ohio has highlighted that this arrangement yields profits for Imagine Schools “both at resale and as it collects rent.”

Real estate profit-making by Imagine Schools  is not merely an Ohio phenomenon: “The upshot is that the complex deals are diverting hundreds of thousands of public dollars to one of the nation’s largest charter-school operators, Imagine Schools Inc., and its affiliates.  Imagine operates 67 charter schools in 11 states and the District of Columbia.  At least three states and Washington, D.C, are investigating Imagine for real-estate maneuvers like those in Ohio, and a fourth state, Missouri, already has shut down several Imagine schools.”

As such investigations continue to turn up violations of the public trust, one wonders whether any kind of oversight is likely to be imposed by state legislatures.  Candinsky and Siegel conclude their Columbus Dispatch expose on Imagine Schools with a reflection on this very issue.  They describe the power of financial contributions for shaping public policy, in this case the political investments by Ohio’s two largest for-profit charter operators:  “David Brennan of White Hat Management and William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, have combined to give $2.25 million since 2009 to state political parties, lawmakers and statewide officeholders, mostly Republicans.  That includes a combined $320,000 to the House GOP caucus and Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina; $223,000 to Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, and his caucus; and $71,000 to (Governor) Kasich.  The likely top two leaders of the House starting next year got a combined $104,000 since 2009.”

Report: State School Spending Less Than 2008; Yellen: School Spending Disparities Increase Inequality

At a Federal Reserve Conference on Economic Opportunity & Inequality in Boston last week, Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve Chair, delivered a speech on inequality in which, according to Bloomberg Business Week, she said,  “public education spending is often lower for students in lower-income households than for students in higher-income households,” and described inequality in public education funding as a primary factor that blocks opportunity.  Comparing the United States to other nations, she continued, “A major reason the United States is different is that we are one of the few advanced nations that funds primary and secondary public education mainly through subnational taxation.”

The Business Week reporter sought comments on Yellen’s address from school finance experts including Rutgers professor Bruce Baker, who declared that in recent years, even in states like New Jersey and Massachusetts whose formulas have historically done a pretty good job of allocating additional state assistance for poorer school districts, “There’s been a substantial decline in state aid to schools for funding equity.”

Last week, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) updated its research on the decline in overall spending for public education since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008.  The new study, Most States Still Funding Schools Less than Before the Recession, is the latest in what is becoming a discouragingly long series of reports on what CBPP describes as the propensity of more than half the states to deal with ongoing fiscal crises by reducing public school services rather than raising taxes.  Earlier reports are here, here, and here.

The new report examines state funding-per-pupil during the 2014-2015 school year, when 30 states provided less per student than prior to the 2008 recession, with 14—Oklahoma, Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Wisconsin, Kansas, North Carolina, Utah, Maine, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, and South Carolina— reducing funding by more than 10 percent.  According to CBPP, while many states have in fact increased state funding for education during the past year, even with the added money, more than half have not yet reached the amount they were spending back in 2007-2008 (in inflation-adjusted dollars).

States have reduced spending on K-12 public education and also reduced funding for state universities and colleges despite that “there are about 725,000 more K-12 students and 3.2 million more public college and university students than there were in 2007-2008.”  At the height of the recession, public school districts were forced to cut 330,000 teachers and other staff.  While by 2012, districts had been able to restore some of those positions, a total of 260,000 school staff positions had been lost due to budget cuts.

Spending for K-12 public education is made up, on average of 46 percent state funding and 10 percent federal funding with the rest raised through local taxation.  Despite that federal funding is only a tiny slice of the funding pie, that small piece has been reduced at the same time states have cut back.  The federal reductions have further cut programs that poor school districts count on: “For example, since 2010, federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools—is down 10 percent after adjusting for inflation, and federal spending on disabled education is down 8 percent.  These cuts include the automatic, across-the-board cuts known as sequestration and the additional cuts also resulting from the budget Control Act of 2011.”

CBPP reports that, “Between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, states closed 45 percent of their budget gaps through spending cuts and only 16 percent of their budget gaps through taxes and fees (they closed the remainder of their shortfalls with federal aid, reserves, and various other measures). Not only did many states avoid raising new revenue after the recession hit, but recently some have enacted large tax cuts, further reducing state revenues.”

For a number of reasons, explains CBPP, local school districts have been unable to raise enough in local taxes to make up for reduced state funding: “Property values fell sharply after the recession hit, making it difficult for local school districts to raise significant additional revenue through the property tax…. Property values have improved since then but remain below pre-recession levels nationally.  Further, property tax revenue in most states has not yet fully captured the property value increases that have occurred. (There’s generally a significant time lag between when home prices rise and when property tax assessments register the increase.) Local school districts can pursue property tax rate increases, but those increases usually are politically difficult and sometimes legally restricted.  For all these reasons, property tax revenue growth nationwide has been modest….”

In her speech at the Conference on Economic Opportunity & Inequality in Boston last week, Janet Yellen named public spending on education as a primary “building block for expanding opportunity.”   A pattern of continued tax cutting and austerity budgeting across state governments is instead deepening inequality.

Newark Mayor, Ras Baraka, Pleads for Federal Civil Rights Intervention in City’s Schools

Newark’s mayor, Ras Baraka, has an op-ed in this morning’s NY Times that condemns New Jersey’s 19 year state control of Newark’s public schools and the  malfunctioning school reform plan imposed this fall by Governor Chris Christie’s overseer superintendent Cami Anderson.  Baraka pleads for federal intervention to restore authority for Newark’s schools to the mayor temporarily, and as soon as possible, “to return control to an elected school board with full powers.”  Newark has an elected school board, but under state control, the locally elected school board lacks any authority to govern the district.  Cami Anderson has refused for several months even to attend its meetings.

Last spring Governor Christie publicly insulted the parents and citizens of Newark when he declared, “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.”

Baraka describes how poorly schools have functioned this fall since Anderson’s One Newark school choice plan was launched: “Consider the reports I’ve received of Barringer High School (formerly Newark High School).  Three weeks into the school year, students still did not have schedules.  Students who had just arrived in this country and did not speak English sat for days in the school library without placement or instruction.  Seniors were placed in classes they had already taken, missing the requirements they’d need to graduate.  Even the school lunch system broke down, with students served bread and cheese in lieu of hot meals.”

Neither did One Newark school choice work as promised: “Under One Newark’s universal enrollment scheme, a secret algorithm determined what school was the ‘best fit’ for each child.  Often, this ended up placing each child in a family in a different school, none of which was the neighborhood school the parents chose… To cap it all, last year the school system operated with a deficit of $58 million.”

Baraka reports that he has “written to the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights in support of the lawsuits that parents, students, advocates and educators in our city have brought, requesting that the federal government intercede.”

Meanwhile early last week, Superintendent Cami Anderson delivered a two-hour state-of-the-schools presentation to defend the launch earlier this fall of One Newark and to brag about what she says is improved student achievement.  However, the New Jersey Spotlight reports that, “the details to back up her arguments and claims have been more elusive. Anderson was repeatedly asked Tuesday for actual data, including the district’s latest results on the state’s testing for 2013-14. She said those results are available on the district’s website, but despite requests to provide the links, nothing has been forthcoming from her office two days later.”

The New Jersey Spotlight also explains that Anderson, “has been at odds with her locally elected school board since her arrival in 2011. Last month, after no-confidence votes and calls for her resignation, the board voted almost unanimously to freeze her pay and block other initiatives. She hasn’t attended a public board meeting in months.  Meanwhile, protests continue from activists and student groups opposed to the “One Newark” reorganization plan, including one on Monday in support of a federal civil-rights complaint alleging that closing and consolidation of schools disproportionately hurt black and Hispanic students and families.”

Ras Baraka was elected mayor by an overwhelming margin last spring after a campaign whose central issue was return of democratic control of the school district to Newark’s citizens.  Before he ran for mayor, Baraka was a much respected high school principal in Newark.

I urge you to read Mayor Baraka’s commentary in this morning’s NY Times.  This blog has extensively covered the state’s autocratic imposition of Cami Anderson’s One Newark school choice plan on the city’s schools herehere , hereherehere, here, herehere, and here.

Backlash Against NCLB-Mandated Testing Grows, But Movement Has A Long Way to Go

Yesterday in the Washington Post, Lindsey Layton summarized what seems to be a growing backlash against the standardized testing that has kept mushrooming since 2002, when annual testing of all children (and comparing scores of subgroups of children and schools) was mandated by what Jonathan Kozol has called “the federal testing law” No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  While Congress continues to delay a reauthorization of the law, the Obama Administration’s Department of Education has said that to escape from some of the other punitive consequences of NCLB, states can secure federal waivers (from the U.S. Department of Education, not Congress) if states will promise to use the standardized tests required by NCLB as part of the way the states evaluate teachers.  And then the Obama Administration has also said that to secure waivers, states must promise to adopt “college-and-career-ready standards.” The easiest way to do that is to adopt the Common Core Standards, which come with their own tests developed by big companies who are in it to make a profit.

Layton adds, “In addition to the federally required tests, states have layered on more assessments, with many requiring exams such as an exit test to graduate high school.  Local school districts and individual schools often administer more tests.  The result is that, on average, students in large urban schools districts take 113 standardized tests between pre-K and 12th grade, according to data being collected by the Council of Great City Schools.”

But push-back is growing according to Layton, “The standardized test, a hallmark of the accountability movement that has defined U.S. public education since 2002, is under growing attack from critics who say students from pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade are taking too many exams.  Four states have repealed or delayed graduation testing requirements in the past two years.  Four others, including Texas—where the idea of using tests to hold schools accountable for educating children first began—have cut the number of required exams or reduced their consequences.  Boycotts, such as when 60,000 students refused to take exams this year in New York, are on the upswing.”

The backlash among teachers is raging, and the local press has begun to pay attention.  Myra Blackmon of the Athens Banner-Herald (GA) published a scathing commentary on the implications for teachers and children of too much testing and the implications for taxpayers of profits piling up for the big testing companies:  “Georgia will pay CTB/McGraw-Hill, which bills itself as ‘one of the nation’s leading educational assessment partners’ more than $100 million over the next five-years to develop the yet-another-new-testing-scheme called Georgia Milestones.  That’s $20 million each year for a system that many don’t believe will last a year beyond the end of the contract.  We’ll likely be on to another magical testing scheme by 2019.”   She concludes: “High-stakes testing is not about measuring ‘student growth’ or helping teachers do a better job.  It is actually a new blunt instrument, used to bludgeon schools to spend limited funds for no good reason, to beat teachers until they are ready to quit and to abuse millions of school children who have little choice.”

Concern about too much testing even began to creep inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway this week with meetings to discuss the problem—the first co-sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council for the Great City Schools, and a second event, “The Need for Better, Fairer, Fewer Tests,” sponsored by the Center for American Progress.  There seems to be absolutely no consensus at this point about how to cut back, cut out, or even just control the growth of testing, though grade span testing—testing once between K-5, once in middle school and once in high school—has at least been mentioned by one or two people as an alternative to testing all students every year.  And Valerie Strauss, in her Answer Sheet blog, printed one proposal for a three-year moratorium nationwide on standardized testing.  Education Week published three columns this week on the seepage of the anti-testing backlash inside the Beltway, here, here, and here.

In this same week—along with articles about the rage over too much testing of the wrong kind and the profits flowing to the big companies that publish and grade the standardized tests—the education writer Mike Rose posted on his blog a reflection on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his classic book, Lives on the BoundaryLives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievement of America’s Educationally Underprepared considers the needs of students being left behind—the very same issue supposedly addressed by the federal testing law called No Child Left Behind.  But Rose’s idea about how to help struggling students is very different than what is happening in our current test-driven schools.  In his new blog post, Rose writes, “The stories have a purpose beyond their particular events and characters: to question educational practices that don’t serve underprepared students well, and, more broadly, to explore the complex relation between education and social class in our country.”

Rose explains that after a quarter of a century he continues to receive letters of gratitude from readers who feel affirmed by Lives on the Boundary.  Rose is a teacher whose concern is improving the experience of education for children who feel left behind and affirming each student’s worth—the very antithesis of test-and-punish accountability.  Rose writes: “I think that Lives on the Boundary makes particular and palpable the feeling of struggling in school, or not getting it, of feeling out of place, but conveys that welter of feeling within an overall narrative of possibility.  This possibility is actualized through one’s own perseverance and wit, but also through certain kinds of instruction, through meaningful relationships with adults, and through a particular set of beliefs about learning and teaching.  The book conveys the sense that a difficult life in school is not unique to you, not odd or freakish, that there are reasons for such a life, that though difficult, the difficulty is not necessarily of your making.  You are a legitimate member of this place, and your struggles and successes are important.”

After reading Rose’s new blog post, I pulled Lives on the Boundary off my shelf, and re-read the “afterward” Rose wrote for the 2005 edition.  In his “afterward,” Rose captures a primary reason for today’s growing frustration with the domination of standardized testing in the lives of children and teachers.  He surmises that “one of the things people respond to in Lives on the Boundary is the depiction of education as a complex lived experience.  Calculating, writing, solving a problem, or recalling information takes place in a field laden with feeling—satisfaction or embarrassment, uncertainty, pushing oneself, and a thousand tiny brushes with others. And it all takes place someplace with its history and culture, its economic and political context—which can have a profound effect on what goes on in a classroom. All of this may well get reflected in a set of (test) scores…. But the scores are many levels of abstraction away from daily life in the classroom, the place where one’s identity as a student is formed.” (Lives on the Boundary, pp. 246-247)

Charters in Chicago Underperform Traditional Neighborhood Schools Says New Report

In his new book, Losing Our Way, journalist Bob Herbert traces in broad strokes several trends that he believes define our society.  He examines the decay of our infrastructure; the collapse in employment—especially for young adults; the wars we fight—who does the fighting and how we care for the injured; and our evolving approach to educating our more than 50 million children and adolescents.  You can read excerpts from Herbert’s book here and here and listen to Bill Moyers interview Herbert about his book.

Tracing the development of public policy in education, Herbert declares that charter schools have not fulfilled the promises of their proponents: “Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish…. President Obama praised charter schools as ‘incubators of innovation’ and made their expansion a central component of his Race to the Top initiative.  States that did not make it easier to increase their stock of charter schools could not share in the Race to the Top billions.  Corporate leaders, hedge fund managers, and foundations with fabulous sums of money at their disposal lined up in support of charter schools, and politicians were quick to follow.  They argued that charters would not only boost test scores and close achievement gaps but also make headway on the vexing problem of racial isolation in schools.  None of it was true.  Charters never came close to living up to the hype.  After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools.” (Losing Our Way, p. 210)

Earlier this week, thanks to a major report from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School, there is new evidence to confirm Herbert’s judgment.  Charter Schools in Chicago: No Model for Education Reform begins with a summary of primary conclusions: “Charter schools have become the cornerstone of school reform in Chicago and nationally.  Arne Duncan, who led Chicago schools and was a strong proponent of charters, became secretary of Education.  As Secretary Duncan has championed policies to dramatically expand the use of charters throughout the United States, Chicago… remains one of the nation’s lowest performing school districts.  Sadly the charter schools, which on average score lower than the Chicago public schools, have not improved the Chicago school system…. Further, charters, which are even more likely to be single race schools than the already hyper-segregated Chicago school system, have not increased interracial contact…. Finally, the fact that Chicago charters use expulsion far more often than pubic schools deserves further study.  In the end it is unlikely that the Chicago charter school experience provides a model for improving urban education in other big city school districts.”

Here are specific findings.  After controlling for “the mix of students and challenges faced by individual schools,” the researchers conclude that “Chicago’s charter schools actually under-perform their traditional counterparts” as measured by passing rates on tests of reading and math, by growth rates among students as measured by tests, and by high school graduation rates.   This is despite what the researchers call  “selection bias” in charter schools.  “The way that parents and students select charters virtually guarantees that, as a group, charter students have greater parental concern for and participation in their education than do students in traditional, assigned schools.  By definition, charter parents cared enough to go to the trouble of enrolling their kids in a school other than one assigned to them by the school district.  While many parents of kids in traditional schools care and participate just as much, you can’t say that they have all demonstrated the same level of concern.  What this means is that we should expect student achievement to be greater, all else being equal, in charter schools, even if charters do no better at educating kids.” (emphasis in the original)

Despite that enrollment in Chicago’s charter schools has grown rapidly, from 5,400 in 2000 to 48,700 in 2013, traditional neighborhood schools continued to serve 76 percent of Chicago’s students in 2013, with charter schools serving 12 percent.  The remaining students are enrolled in selective, gifted,and magnet programs operated by the school district.  The Minnesota researchers express concern that “the overwhelming majority of charters essentially serve a single racial or ethnic group…” “Only 7 percent of charters (all of which were predominantly non-white) were not single race schools.”

Of special concern is the apparent use of expulsion in charter schools.  “The average expulsion rate is more than 10 times greater in charters than in traditionals.”

The researchers worry that, “Chicago’s charter system continues to grow rapidly despite the fact little evidence supports the claim that students perform better in charter schools than in traditional counterparts.”  The researchers recommend a three-year moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools while an impact study is conducted to evaluate “how charter school policy has affected the district as a whole.”