Local School Councils Persist, Inject Democracy into Chicago Public Schools

After today, this blog will take a short break for the rest of this holiday week and return on Monday, November 30.  Good wishes for Thanksgiving!

In 1988, after the sudden death of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the Illinois Legislature did something unusual. It created an experiment in truly democratic school governance in Chicago: the idea that parents, teachers, and community members would stand for election to local school councils whose members would have considerable power including the hiring of the school principal. When top-down school governance was instituted in 1995 by Mayor Richard M. Daley, who appointed Paul Vallas and then Arne Duncan to run the school district, the power of the elected local school councils faded. Arne Duncan brought Renaissance 2010, whose goal was to expand school choice, shutter so-called “failing” schools, and open 100 new schools—the very top-down school “reform” that has dominated Duncan’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education since 2009.

But the 25th Anniversary issue of Catalyst-Chicago features a retrospective examination of the elected local school councils that have persevered in many of the city’s schools: “Of all the reforms that have swept through Chicago Public Schools in the past 25 years, the creation of local school councils is one of the few that persists.”

Chicago’s local school councils have faced challenges from the beginning. Catalyst quotes Sokoni Karanja, an activist in the Bronzeville neighborhood who helped lead the movement to support and maintain what Chicago calls its LSCs: “In the first few years they were very effective and we saw major turnarounds at some schools.  And there are still diehard parents that maintain their commitment to the LSCs, although there has been continuous reductions in their power.”

Catalyst interviews Dion Miller Perez who chaired the Chicago office of what was the Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform and who was elected over the years to three LSCs: “There was a fickleness of funders supporting parental involvement in a grassroots way.  There used to be more foundation money for LSC training and parent involvement in general.  That doesn’t exist anymore.”

Elaine Allensworth, of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago comments on school improvement in the early 1990s, though she is hesitant to attribute the growth in test scores solely to direct democratic involvement of parents through the LSCs: “In that period just after decentralization, we do see improvements in a lot of schools.  A lot of schools did show improvements in student test scores, though it seemed to be related to the economic conditions in the community…. Then we start to see (scores) flatten out when mayor control came in.”

Catalyst ‘s anniversary issue features two parents who have been deeply involved through their LSCs.  These interviews expose not only the commitment of deeply involved parent leaders but also the challenges to parent involvement for schools in poor and working class communities.  Sabrina Jackson, part of the LSC at Perkins, Bass Elementary School in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, was involved to the degree that she could be as a parent employed full-time and attending community college through the years of her four children’s enrollment.  Jackson comments: “They say churches can be a stabilizing force in a neighborhood, but schools are too, especially if they’ve been in the neighborhood forever.”  At one point Jackson tried school choice but returned her daughter to Perkins, Bass when she wasn’t overly impressed with the receiving school and realized that, “Bass had been in my family for four generations.  It’s part of my heritage.”  Then the family moved to South Bend, Indiana, returning to Chicago and to the Bronzeville neighborhood when Jackson needed to care for her own parents.  In 2007 Jackson successfully ran for a position on the school’s LSC and helped interview more than two dozen candidates and eventually choose a principal.

Margarita Vasquez emigrated from Mexico to Chicago’s west side Belmont Cragin neighborhood.  She and her husband were employed full time as factory workers when her oldest children were enrolled in Hanson Park and Shubert elementary schools, but when her third child was born, she left work and became involved at Hanson Park, where she was elected to the LSC.  Catalyst describes Vasquez’s biggest concern: “‘The kids are crammed into that building,’ says Vasquez. Even so, she says, parents tend to keep their children at Hanson Park because they work and siblings have to walk them home.”  As an engaged parent, Vasquez’s interests have been connecting with parents who are, as she used to be, intimidated by the language barrier.  She has transcended her initial reticence, however, and articulately describes the challenges presented by the demand that the school keep its 96 percent attendance rate, especially as Hanson Park is a ‘cluster school’ for students with disabilities: “That’s a pretty high bar, especially when you add in the 80-some kids who are… medically fragile,who have trach tubes or feeding tubes or ventilators.  They miss a lot of days.”  She describes her own priorities on the LSC—improving the school climate and pressing the principal to improve evaluation of teachers.

The kind of top-down school reform brought to Chicago by Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan is touted by its proponents as efficient and innovative, buzzwords that sound impressive.  Granting parents, teachers, and community members power through the local school council is, by contrast, the essence of democracy. It is about engagement and about addressing the needs of a school from the bottom up, from the point of view of the families it serves.

Thank goodness, as Catalyst points out, many local school councils have hung on. The dogged persistence of so many of Chicago’s LSCs, despite many threats to their viability, is something to celebrate.

Educational Redlining: How Zillow’s School Ratings Help Segregate Communities

Heights Community Congress has just released Educational Redlining: How Zillow and GreatSchools Profit from Suspect School Ratings and Harm Communities,  a report on the practice by Zillow, the real estate website, and GreatSchools to guide home buyers to choose communities according to color-coded school ratings posted online. Heights Community Congress (HCC), founded in 1972, is Greater Cleveland, Ohio’s oldest fair housing enforcement organization.  For over four decades HCC has been conducting audits of the real estate industry to expose and discourage racial steering and disparate treatment of African American and white home seekers.  This blog covered HCC’s preliminary work on educational redlining here.

Ralph Day, author of HCC’s report, explains that GreatSchools, launched by the venture capital group, NewSchools Venture Fund, “arbitrarily divides schools into three categories—green, yellow, and red.”  In most states GreatSchools’ ratings merely represent the aggregate standardized test scores of each school’s students.  Day continues: “The act of coloring red whole communities of schools is an alarming reminder of mortgage redlining of recent past, which was declared illegal with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that many home seekers automatically exclude whole communities with ‘red’ labeled schools from their search.  And Zillow in its book (Zillow Talk) exacerbates this trend by cheerfully steering home buyers into the highest rated (highest income) GreatSchools areas they can afford.”

Day summarizes GreatSchools’ methodology:  “In most states, GreatSchools rates schools on their standardized test scores alone.  Schools of the same grade levels are ordered within their state from high scores to low.  Then a school’s rank is converted to a number 1 through 10, where 10 means the school is in the top 10 percent, 1 the lowest 10 percent, 5 and 6 about in the middle, and so on.”  Day continues: “In the past, mortgage redlining was practiced to systematically withhold financing from certain communities that lenders chose for disinvestment… Educational redlining recycles this pernicious idea by taking aim at schools, and discouraging home buyers from purchasing homes in moderate income communities.  Because school test scores have repeatedly been shown to highly correlate with a community’s socio-economic status, and GreatSchools ratings draw heavily on test scores, the effect of coloring certain schools red is to disinvest in moderate income communities by discouraging home buyers… This ignores the obvious, that many dimensions contribute to school quality, and… metrics can only begin to describe it.”  And, according to Day, “GreatSchools makes money by licensing its ratings to third parties like Zillow. It also apparently makes money by linking its viewers to Zillow.”

What do the ratings miss?  “GreatSchools’ ratings are simplistic.  They are almost useless for determining a school’s overall quality or its suitability for a particular child.  They do not begin to capture a school’s activities and specializations that matter to children and parents.  Furthermore, by focusing only on the average score, GreatSchools obscures the fact that a group of students may be doing very well, another group may be greatly improving (high value added), or that students in a specialized subject area are quite strong.”

Zillow’s invitation to home seekers that they look to buy in a school district with a “green” rating and avoid schools rated “red” surely exacerbates growing residential segregation by income across America’s metropolitan areas, a trend documented by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon.  Reardon has shown that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.

Heights Community Congress declares: “HCC realizes that the best defense against misinformation is an educated public… HCC believes that GreatSchools, its supporting foundations, and Zillow have a civic responsibility to refrain from actions that harm communities… GreatSchools must abandon the use of red, yellow, green colors… Zillow must clearly disclose how the ratings are calculated and what they mean… Zillow must state that there is no such thing as a single measure of school quality… Zillow must stop making judgments about school systems and drawing comparisons among school districts, actions that are inappropriate for a real estate business with no experience or expertise in education.”

In a speech at the Cleveland City Club last February, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute explained how—because test scores reflect primarily the aggregate economic level of the families in a community—rating and ranking schools drives segregation by income.  Rothstein speaks of the “A” through “F” letter grades that are frequently these days assigned to schools as they are rated and compared.  The “A” through “F” school “grades” function similarly to the red, yellow and green rankings used by GreatSchools and Zillow: “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools. And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools. Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F,’ where parents may be working the kind of contingent schedules I described earlier. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than the ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that. And so if you label schools with ‘A’-‘F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A’-‘F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

I urge you to read and consider HCC’s new report on educational redlining. Think about the report in the context of demographic trends you can observe across a metropolitan area with which you are familiar.

Another Incisive Critique of Venture Philanthropy

This post is about today’s venture philanthropy, a world so foreign to most of us that I think we need a frame to help us get our bearings.  Here with some familiar principles is the gifted preacher, and longtime pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church, the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin:

“The way we are cutting taxes for the wealthy and social programs for the poor, you’d think the greedy were needy and the needy were greedy.” (CREDO, p. 61)

“One of the attributes of power is that it gives those who have it the ability to define reality and the power to make others believe in their definition. Thus it is that private property in America has come to be considered all but sacred. Obviously this makes its redistribution difficult, even through taxation.” (CREDO, p. 60)

“Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable.  Charity, yes always; but never as a substitute for justice.” (CREDO, p. 56)

These statements speak to the operations of today’s mega-foundations, the recipients of the fortunes of the super-rich.  Donations to philanthropic foundations are tax-free, the counter-democratic idea being that the rich can define, with the assistance of the staff they employ, what’s good for the rest of us. These days mega-foundations are defining the “solutions” to some of the world’s greatest challenges—global agriculture, global health, and in our own country, public school reform—in ways that many of us do not understand.  Foundations are defined as charities, but increasingly they influence the legislation that shapes our primary institutions and they drive the policies of international agencies like the World Health Organization.  According to Lindsey McGoey’s new piece in the fall Jacobin magazine, The Philanthropy Hustle, they blur the lines between between charity and business.  McGoey’s subject is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s biggest philanthropy, whose endowment is $42 billion, and which every year makes grants of $3 billion.

“(M)ore and more, corporate philanthropy is not about corporations giving money to charity,” explains McGoey. “Corporate philanthropy today is about private, tax-exempt donors such as the Gates Foundation giving their charity to corporations.”  McGoey continues: “(I)t’s not true that foundations must direct grants only to charitable entities.  They are free to offer donations to for-profits that fulfill the foundation’s charitable mission—an extremely permissive criterion that donors such as the Gateses are interpreting in novel and unprecedented ways.” Much of McGoey’s  discussion is unrelated to education—the Gates’s Foundation’s gift of $11 million in 2014 to Mastercard to create a wireless payment system in Kenya—gifts to international organizations that encourage the use of expensive hybridized seeds in the developing world, seeds that may be unaffordable for farmers.

Then there are the “gifts” to for-profits that have been shaping what has become understood in the United States as “corporate education reform.”  “In 2010, the Gates Foundation offered $1.5 million to ABC News and a little over $1.1 million to NBC in 2011 ‘to support the national education summit.’  The following year, the Gates Foundation gave another million to NBC, this time for the more vague purpose of ‘inform(ing) and engag(ing) communities.'”  McGoey reports that in 2011 the Gates Foundation granted Scholastic $4,463,541 to support “‘teachers’ implementation of the Common Core State standards in Mathematics.” Gates donated $817,468 in 2012 to Tutor.com, a large on-line tutoring company that charges school users for its services, “to create an ‘on-demand’ professional development system geared at math training for middle and high school teachers.” Gates has granted more than $3.5 million to BetterLesson Inc., which “circulates free online lesson plans to teachers but charges schools a service fee.” All of this is justified because these services are said to help teachers implement the Common Core Standards across the nation’s public schools, a Gates priority, but at the same time Gates is directly supporting the bottom line of these businesses.

McGoey wonders whether all this matters: “Obviously, a number of Gates Foundation’s grants have directly benefited private companies, their management teams, and their shareholders.  The question is, even if this contravenes IRS private benefit rules, does it really matter?  On the one hand, the money going to for-profits is a lot less than grants geared to non-profit organizations—the foundation has given away over $33 billion to date, and the vast majority has gone to non-profits.  On the other hand, it’s not just about the money—it’s the precedent.  If a grant to Scholastic or Mastercard can be justified as charity—then why not a tax-deductible donation to Goldman Sachs or News Corp or Monsanto?”

McGoey concludes her piece with a hundred-year-old warning from the Guilded Age about philanthropy’s limitations: “‘I can conceive of no greater mistake,’ commented William Jewett Tucker, a theologian who went on to to become president of Dartmouth College, ‘than that of trying to make charity do the work of justice.'”

I encourage you to read McGoey’s article.  Here are posts on this blog on the subject of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Youngstown Legislators Engage Community to Push Back Against Youngstown Takeover

Senator Joe Schiavoni, Ohio’s Senate Minority Leader, and State Representative Michele Lepore-Hagan spent the summer holding community meetings throughout Youngstown, Ohio to develop strategies to amend the Ohio legislature’s autocratically imposed Youngstown school takeover.  Their goal: develop political will in Youngstown to demand that the Youngstown plan be bent to support the needs of Youngstown’s children and families.  I had the privilege of talking with these two community leaders last week.

The new Youngstown takeover, which expands what has for 10 years been state involvement in the Youngstown City Schools, prescribes that the district be managed by an appointed Distress Commission instead of the local school board.  The takeover was sprung on an unsuspecting public at an afternoon hearing in late June when Senate Education Committee chair Peggy Lehner introduced a 66-page amendment to a bill with widespread popular support—to expand Community Learning Centers in Ohio. (“Community Learning Center” is Ohio’s term for what the rest of the country calls full-service, wraparound “Community Schools” that locate health and dental clinics, social service coordination, afterschool programs, Head Start and Early Head Start, and summer enrichment programs right in school buildings. Cincinnati has been experimenting very successfully with expanding the number of these schools. The Children’s Aid Society in New York City has been developing this model for 20 years now.)  When Senator Lehner introduced to the Community Learning Center bill her amendment  for the Youngstown takeover—along with the state takeover in the future of any school district with three years of “F” school ratings—the amendment had been written and polished for several months by staff in Governor John Kasich’s office and the Ohio Department of Education, working secretly with a handful of carefully selected community “leaders” from Youngstown.

The goal of the takeover was always to turn the district or particular schools over to a charter management organization.  Not coincidentally, the Youngstown takeover was the centerpiece of a charter school expansion grant proposal submitted by the Ohio Department of Education in July to the U.S. Department of Education and subsequently funded. The Youngstown takeover amendment states that an Academic Distress Commission, in consultation with the State Superintendent, may create an entity to act as a “high-quality school accelerator” to promote new charter schools.  The CEO of the Distress Commission may abrogate or renegotiate any contracts and collective bargaining agreements.

State takeovers always happen in very poor, often desperate communities—New Orleans, post Katrina—Detroit—Newark, New Jersey.  In his 2013 book The Unwinding, George Packer traces the story of Tammy Thomas, a proud Youngstown resident who describes what has happened to Youngstown during her lifetime: “I grew up in a place where you could sit on my front porch and you could smell the sulfur in the air… And everybody in that community was working.  We were a hundred fifty thousand people at that time… One day, the jobs left. September of ’77, the mills stopped working. We lost over fifty thousand jobs within a ten-year time frame.  I was fortunate enough as an adult that I was able to get a job at Packard (Electric). Eleven thousand jobs in its heyday, down to three thousand jobs, and when we all left it had less than six hundred jobs. I just want to let you know that story of Youngstown is the epitome of any older industrial city across the United States.” (p. 412)

In the most recent 2010 data I could locate, 86.68 percent of the students in Youngstown’s public schools qualify for the federal free lunch program. To qualify for free lunch, a child’s family must have annual earnings under 130 percent of the federal poverty level ($24,250 in 2015 for a family of four), less than $31,525.  The percentage of Youngstown’s school children qualifying for free-or-reduced-price lunch, 90.38 percent, is only slightly higher.  The fact that so many children fall into the free-lunch category means that Youngstown’s schools serve a student population living in highly concentrated poverty.  Last week Senator Schiavoni explained that Youngstown already has an open enrollment program that permits children to transfer to surrounding school districts or charter schools and Youngstown’s children qualify for Ohio’s private school vouchers.  He speculates that the Youngstown schools are serving approximately 50 percent of the children who live in Youngstown and that many of the children who have left are those whose parents are able to be most active advocates.  The children enrolled in Youngstown’s public schools are the city’s most vulnerable.

Although many poor children can and do thrive at school, the aggregate test scores in our nation’s poorest cities are primarily a reflection of the concentrated poverty of the residents.  In Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, Christopher Tienken and Yong Zhao explain: “(A)s a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112)  State takeovers that impose privatized school governance in impoverished communities ignore the correlation of test scores and family poverty and blame the schools and their teachers.

After the legislature’s sudden seizing of the governance of Youngstown’s schools, Senator Schiavoni and Representative Lepore-Hagan immediately set up a town hall to hear the community’s response to the state takeover and then scheduled meetings across the city during the remainder of the summer to listen to the needs of parents, students and residents of Youngstown.  Senator Schiavoni reports that, “One of the most common critiques from the stakeholder meetings was the disconnect in communication between parents, the community and the schools.  Parents want to be involved as partners as the plan moves forward.” Schavoni and Lepore-Hagan have introduced a bill (companion bills in the Ohio Senate and Ohio House) to amend and modify the plan.  Their bill demands transparency from the members of the Distress Commission that has just been appointed and from the CEO the Distress Commission will appoint.  Their proposed bill reflects parents’ wishes that promising existing practices not be thrown out as a new experiment is instituted—programs that pair Youngstown State University tutors with second graders, and model afterschool programming and community partnerships with churches, the United Way,  the YMCA, and the university.  Lepore-Hagan explains that the proposed amendment to improve the Youngstown Plan requires that the CEO meet personally each month with an eleven-member School Action Team from each of the city’s schools.

Schiavoni and Lepore-Hagan emphasize one provision of the takeover and the original bill to which it was amended—for wraparound Community Learning Centers.  Their proposed bill insists that at least one Community Learning Center (what the rest of the country calls  a Community School) be established in Youngstown.  “The CEO should implement a CLC model in at least one of the school buildings in the district.” “The CEO should work to expand much-needed mental health, drug treatment, dental, and physician services and other community programs…. The CEO should employ a Resource Coordinator for the District to assist in the development and coordination of programs and services for the District Community Learning Centers.”

The flavor-of-the-day in school reform across so many statehouses is for autocratic takeover and charterization of the poorest school districts.  State takeovers have not succeeded anywhere they have been tried.  Ohio’s Senator Schiavoni and Representative Lepore-Hagan are pushing back with a plan that models democratic engagement.

Congressional Compromise to Reauthorize Federal Education Law Rebukes Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan will leave at the end of December, turning over the leadership of the U.S. Department of Education to John King, an acting superintendent whose name will not even be submitted to Congress for confirmation as secretary.  King will likely be a caretaker through the end of the Obama administration.  The Obama Department of Education has accomplished its work.  So why is Congress taking the trouble to try to pass a reauthorization of the federal education law with a laser focus on diminishing the role of the department and its secretary?  There are many things the compromise Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) proposal will not do; refocusing on the law’s original 1965 purpose of driving equity in school opportunity, for example, isn’t being considered.

But reducing the power of the Secretary of Education is front and center.  Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post explains: “The deal would significantly reduce the U.S. Department of Education’s authority, prohibiting the secretary from influencing state academic standards and assessments, requiring teacher evaluations or using grant programs to influence state education policy.”  Think about that.  The law will prohibit the Secretary of Education from using departmental rules to press states to buy into college and career-ready standards (a requirement of Race to the Top and receiving a No Child Left Behind waiver), which means, in practical terms, prohibiting the Department from creating incentives to adopt the Common Core; from requiring states to demand that teachers be evaluated by their students’ test scores (a condition for applying for Race to the Top and receiving a No Child Left Behind Waiver); and from using grant programs to influence state policy (requiring states to meet particular federally prescribed conditions before the states can even apply for Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants).  In other words, Congress plans to ensure that the power over local school policy that Arne Duncan seized from the states will be nullified.  It is, of course, true that some conservative, states-rights-believing members of Congress have always wanted to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education because it has been involved with dismantling segregation, and other members of Congress, government employees all, advocate for cutting government itself for budgetary reasons.  But what is happening in Congress this week is much more specifically targeted toward Arne Duncan’s Department of Education.

Two reports released by the Department of Education last week help explain what has happened.  Not only have programs like the teacher evaluations mandated through the waivers been unworkable and inaccurate in their judgements on teachers (See the new statement from the American Education Research Association warning about use of Value-Added Model algorithms for evaluating teachers.) and not only have the Common Core Standards and the associated standardized tests created a firestorm of protests, but also, according to critiques of these new reports, core policies of the Obama Department of Education—Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grants—have cost a lot of money, and they haven’t significantly expanded opportunity for the students who have been left behind.

Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown of the Washington Post add up the cost over several years—$7 billion for School Improvement Grants and $4 billion for Race to the Top.  Layton and Brown sum up one of the problems with Race to the Top: “Any school accepting a grant had to agree to adopt one of four strategies: Replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff; close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school; close the school and reopen it as a charter school; or transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques.  The vast majority chose the last option; it was the least disruptive.  The U.S. Department of Education did not track how the money was spent, other than to note which of the four strategies schools chose.”

The Department’s report on Race to the Top covers only first-year, 2010, competition winners, including 11 states and the District of Columbia. Although the report is glowing, critics have quickly pointed out what the contractor hired to evaluate the program, Synergy Enterprises, left out.  The report begins: “Race to the Top represented an unprecedented approach to competitive grant-making by giving states and districts the opportunity to build on their successes and innovate across their schools to improve outcomes and expand opportunities for millions of students… The goal of the program was ambitious: to bring together leaders from every level of school governance… to develop plans that would help prepare students for success in an information-and innovation-driven job market…. Race to the Top invited state leaders to put forward plans to improve not one or two isolated elements of their schools but to develop and implement comprehensive statewide plans to improve entire systems… Race to the Top empowered visionary leaders to put forward bold plans for change…. While the greatest change was expected to occur in states that were awarded funds, the competition encouraged broad-based, systemic, educational improvements even in states that did not win Race to the Top funding.  States across the country saw an extraordinary surge of legislative activity aimed at improving education.”  What this last statement means is that even to earn the right to submit a proposal for the competition, states had to change their laws to reflect the the Department’s conditions for application.  For example states were required to pass laws to remove caps on the launch of new charter schools in any one year.

The report on Race to the Top brags about consistent but modest increases in the high school graduation rates in Race to the Top-winning states and some improvement in college-going rates, though it is difficult to be sure such changes happened because of the state’s receipt of a Race to the Top grant.  It also alleges that Race to the Top grants changed the culture within state departments of education: “State leaders and superintendents forged an unprecedented and wide range of partnerships with principals, teachers, local officials, nonprofits and other stakeholders… State education agencies (SEAs)… moved beyond their traditional role of monitoring district compliance to driving comprehensive and systemic changes to improve teaching and learning across the state… States and districts are working with teachers and leaders to implement and refine new evaluation and support systems designed to, among other things, provide meaningful feedback to improve teaching and learning—and guide efforts to retain and reward effective teachers and principals.”

Cutting through the rhetoric, Andrew Ujifusa, writing for Education Week, is clear and concrete in his estimation of the report and what it leaves out: “(N)early all of the Race to the Top states struggled with crafting teacher evaluations that took into account student outcomes.  And many experienced serious political blowback to the (Common Core) standards, in some cases with major consequences for state leaders… The Education Department sunk $360 million into two (Common Core) testing consortia, Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  Although PARCC and Smarter Balanced weren’t part of the Race to the Top grants discussed in the new report, they were funded through a separate Race to the Top grant, and are tightly linked to the work the states in question did with respect to standards… (I)t’s worth stressing that (teacher) evaluations were perhaps the biggest conflict many states have faced, both internally and with the Education Department. Many have argued that tying student test scores to teacher evaluations at the same time that states were shifting to new standards and assessments was misguided…  The report does acknowledge ‘significant challenges’ posed by these new evaluations systems, as well as the more general remark that some states were ‘not initially well positioned to make rapid changes.”

What about the other report the Department released last week about another competitive grant program, School Improvement Grants? School Improvement Grants were intended to improve school achievement in the lowest scoring 5 percent of the nation’s schools. The report explains that like Race to the Top, the School Improvement Grant program required school districts to “turnaround” schools by using one of the four prescribed methods:  turnaround— replace the principal and at least half of the staff;  closure—close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school;  restart—close the school and reopen it as a charter school;  or transformation—transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques. Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown explain that the biggest problem with the new report on the School Improvement Grant program is that it tracks only about half of the schools that received School Improvement Grants: “Almost 1,400 schools received grants from 2010 to 2013, but the report does not include data from about half of those schools.  Federal officials blamed the gap on several factors, including the fact that some states switched to new tests during the study period, making it impossible to compare student test scores over time.  Meanwhile, the analysis does not include performance statistics from the two most recent school years.”  According to the new report, test scores in reading and math have increased modestly with the earliest schools in the program improving math scores most and those recently undergoing the prescribed reforms initially lagging in test scores.  Reading scores have increased modestly but less than math scores, and grown the most in the schools whose turnarounds were imposed several years ago.  The graduation rates in School Improvement Grant  schools have improved more rapidly than the average national rate of growth in graduation rates, but graduation rates in these schools remain very low compared to the national average.

Writing for Education Week, Alyson Klein reviews the data in the new report: “Only a little more than half of the schools that received a third round of the newly revamped SIG grants… improved, while the other half saw stagnant student achievement, or actually slid backward.  That’s not as strong a showing as the first two years of the Obama administration’s revamped SIG program, which saw gains on state math and reading tests among about two-thirds of the schools that got three-year turnaround grants…. Still, the latest results from SIG schools are consistent with those from other public schools nationally, over the same time period.  About 54 percent of SIG schools that got grants in the 2012-2013 school year saw gains in their first year of turnaround, compared to about 45 percent for all schools across the country…. And about 46 percent of SIG schools stayed in the same place, or slid backward, compared to about 56 percent nationally.”

Klein continues: “Experts are divided on whether SIG… has helped or not.  But nearly everyone who has studied the program points to big limitations in the department’s data.  States, districts, and schools need far more specific information from the feds about what worked for turnaround schools and what didn’t…. ”  She adds that the Education Department’s Institute for Education Sciences will release a more comprehensive report next year.

In the meantime, if Congress passes the compromise Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization its members have begun considering, the role of the U.S. Department of Education will be much diminished.

Colleen Grady Questions Evolution, Is New Policy Adviser in Ohio Education Department

According to the website ballotpedia.org, 24 states have all Republican government, with governor, senate and house all dominated by Republican majorities.  Seven states are dominated by the Democratic Party.  In the recent November 3 election, Kentucky moved closer to all-Republican status, with the election of a Republican governor, but its Democrat-dominated state assembly prevents it’s falling into what ballotpedia calls a Republican trifecta state.  These numbers demonstrate that across state governments, more than half the states have lost the checks and balances provided when both political parties are viable.  Ballotpedia adds, “In addition to having a trifecta, it is also worth exploring which states have supermajorities. The supermajority allows a party in power to further exert its influence over the minority party.” Ohio is one of the states with a Republican legislative supermajority.

In Ohio, education policy is one of the areas where the impact of one-party, supermajority political domination is apparent.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized on Sunday about the problems that have arisen in the leadership of state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dick Ross, who has resigned as of the end of 2015 now that a series of problems have been so relentlessly exposed in the press that his leadership has become an embarrassment.  Ross was hired, as state superintendents in Ohio are, by a state board of education that is also dominated by politics: “The 19-member Ohio school board is nominally Ross’ boss, but it’s long been virtually invisible in state education policy.  Further, the governor (John Kasich) can usually call the shots at the board, since he or she gets to appoint eight members (the other 11 are elected)… Kasich holds most cards in the search to replace Ross.”

The Plain Dealer‘s editors summarize some of what has happened under Ross and Kasich’s tenure: “Observers… were stunned to learn that David Hansen, then the director of school choice for the Ohio Department of Education, had illegally omitted the F grades of online charter schools in evaluating charter school school sponsors—who, in Ohio, include some deep-pocketed donors to the GOP and Gov. John Kasich… But the even more curious part of this episode was that Ross claimed to have known nothing about Hansen’s actions.  At the very least, that raises questions about Ross’ attention to detail… In the wake of the charter school grading scandal, the U.S. Department of Education rightly raised questions about the quality of Ohio’s charter-school oversight, potentially putting in jeopardy $71 million in federal grants intended to underwrite the creation of more high quality charter schools in Ohio. In another disturbing recent case, Ross clearly had a hand in the secret state takeover of the Youngstown schools without the knowledge of either the state school board or most of the community—a legislative move that could affect other struggling school districts.”

The Plain Dealer‘s recent editorial declares that with Ross’s recent resignation, Ohio has, “an opportunity to find a superintendent who can do what Ross failed to do: be an independent, transparent and unbiased leader.”  But one recent action by the State Board of Education portends education leadership from the Kasich administration that is neither independent nor less biased.  The State Board, very likely with the approval of Governor John Kasich, just hired controversial former state board member Colleen Grady as its senior policy adviser.

Patrick O’Donnell, a rising star at the Plain Dealer as its education reporter, penned an article that also appeared in Sunday’s paper to describe Colleen Grady and report on her resume: “Grady left her $80,000-per-year post as senior policy adviser of the House Republican Caucus on Friday to take the same position at ODE (Ohio Department of Education) on Monday.  In her new position, she will report directly to the superintendent.”

O’Donnell continues: “Grady has been a major figure in education issues for several years.  Once a member of the Strongsville school board, she served on the state school board representing much of Northeast Ohio from 2005-2008… She has… taken strong positions on several controversial issues involving education…. She is a former lobbyist for the White Hat charter school network and took the lead in pointing out issues with the Senate’s version of House Bill 2, the state’s recently passed charter school reform bill.”  In other words, in her position as senior policy adviser to the House, she likely advised House leaders to try to weaken the senate bill which, thanks to massive press coverage of Ohio’s egregiously weak oversight of charter schools, the legislature was embarrassed into passing. The House did not prevail, and Grady can’t be pleased with the new bill to regulate charters, despite that it focuses on only the most outrageous problems with previously unregulated charters.  For example, the new bill does prevent a charter school from hopping to a new sponsor if the current authorizer tries to put the school out of business due to academic failure or fraud. The new law makes it illegal for a charter management company to suggest board members for a new charter school—board members who will then be responsible for hiring a management company—a practice that White Hat has been known to practice and that is replete with conflicts of interest.  And the new law makes illegal the kind of contract that White Hat had with several charters that eventually closed, a contract that left all the furniture and computers to the management company rather than returning assets of the closed schools to the public whose tax dollars had purchased them.

O’Donnell adds another detail about Grady: “As a member of the state board in 2006, she backed two attempts to have science teachers encourage debate about evolution, instead of teaching it as a fact.”

While I am delighted to see the editors of the Plain Dealer editorialize for a superintendent of public instruction in Ohio who will be “an independent, transparent and unbiased leader,” I don’t imagine we are going to get this kind of education leadership in our Republican dominated, one-party, supermajority state.

ESEA Compromise Lacks Attention to Equity, Will Move to Conference Committee This Week

It looks as though, before the end of 2015, Congress will try to vote on a reauthorization of the federal education law we now call No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Alyson Klein, reports for Education Week, “It’s official: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-VA., on Friday announced that they have a framework for moving forward on a long-stalled rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The next step: a conference committee which could kick off in coming days. The goal is to pass a bill to revise the ESEA—the current verson of which is the No Child Left Behind Act—for the first time in 15 years, by the end of 2015.”

Klein reports that action will begin immediately: “Expect the conference to kick off next Tuesday night (tomorrow) and conclude by Thursday. And expect the bill to be on the floor of both chambers after Thanksgiving recess.  That will give enough time for rank-and-file lawmakers to read it and make sure they understand what’s in it before they have to vote on it.”

The compromise, according to Klein’s report for Education Week, will prohibit “the education secretary from interfering with state prerogatives on teacher evaluation, testing, standards, school turnarounds, and more.  That part of the bill seems to be a direct rebuke to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has used waivers to push big changes, especially when it comes to teacher evaluation.”

Klein explains the details of the Senate-House compromise that will be presented to a joint conference committee this week. Annual testing of all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and math will continue to be required along with disaggregating and reporting the scores.  States will also be required to identify their bottom-scoring 5 percent of schools along with schools that graduate less than two-thirds of their students in four years. However, the compromise bill requires the states themselves to decide what to do: “States would also have to identify and take action in schools that aren’t closing the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers. But importantly, the bill doesn’t say how many of those schools states would have to pinpoint, or what they would have to do to ensure that they are closing the gaps—the bill allows state leaders to figure all that out.”

The bill consolidates a number of federal education programs into block grants, continues the 21st Century Learning Center after school program, adds more investment in early childhood education (though these programs would be housed at the Department of Human Services), and keeps some commitment to full service, wraparound Community Schools.

The bill does not increase the role of Title I, the centerpiece of the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a key program of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the program designed to drive federal funds to schools serving a high number or high percentage of children living in poverty. Neither does the compromise bill change the distribution formula for Title I. Congress’s goal in establishing Title I was to try to compensate for vastly unequal investment in public education from state to state and school district to school district.   Fortunately, omitted from the compromise is the Title I portability provision that was included in the House version of a reauthorization.  The Title I portability provision would have allowed a poor child to carry her Title I funds with her as a public school voucher if she left a school district where poverty was concentrated and moved to a wealthier school district.  Title I portablity would have further undermined the federal government’s capacity to address what is a rapidly growing trend in many cities—the concentration of very poor children in particular neighborhoods and schools. Many had also worried that public Title I portability vouchers would have been the top of a slippery slope toward Title I private school vouchers that would have further drained funding from poor urban school districts.

But beyond avoiding Title I portability, Congress will neither incentivize states to fund schools more fairly nor expand federal programs to ensure opportunities for children whose schools have been persistently under-resourced.  As this blog pointed out a week ago, the Education Law Center recently challenged Congress to consult a 2013 report of the Equity and Excellence Commission that Congress itself chartered, a report that declared, “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

While some have tried to frame No Child Left Behind’s accountability measures—annual standardized testing and reporting of disaggregated scores—as a civil rights initiative because test scores expose achievement gaps, NCLB has never significantly helped school districts overcome vast opportunity gaps that derive from three interwoven realities: racial segregation; increasing economic segregation and concentration of poverty; and unequally distributed and inadequate school funding dictated by policies across the states.  The ESEA compromise that Congress will begin considering this week fails to address the tragic reality posed by these conditions for our poorest children, their teachers and their schools.