Please Testify in State Hearings on ESSA Plans: Point Out the Road Away from Test-and-Punish

This blog will take an end-of-summer break after today.  Look for another post on Monday, September 5, 2016.

Last December’s newly reauthorized federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, uses the power of the federal government to continue holding states and schools and school districts accountable for raising students’ test scores. However, Congress turned some of the control for how all this will work back to the states, who no longer have to follow so many federal prescriptions but who still have to present an accountability plan and tell the U.S. Department of Education what they are going to do to improve the lowest scoring schools. Gone are No Child Left Behind’s demands that schools make Adequate Yearly Progress; gone are mandatory turnarounds such as school closure and privatization for so-called “failing” schools; gone is the federal requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores as a substantial portion of formal teacher evaluations.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) demands that states come up with their own accountability plans which they must submit for approval to the U.S. Department of Education. What this means is that there is a window for change, but it must bubble up spontaneously across the 50 states. If public school supporters are to achieve any kind of policy that is more supportive and less punitive, we are going to have to organize and begin working for long-term change in the culture of punitive, test-and-punish accountability that has been normalized over the past two decades.

Where to start?  A good rule to remember, if you get a chance to testify to any kind of hearing on the plan ESSA says your state must develop, is that the hearing is a good place to present the core principles that underpin your understanding of the mission and importance of well funded and equitable public schools.  The U.S. Department of Education itself accepted comments, about 20,000 of them, until the beginning of August on the rules it is developing to implement the new Every Student Succeeds Act.  One of these comments, submitted by the Vermont State Board of Education, raises some of the most important concerns as states develop the plans they will be submitting.  Although we don’t yet even know whether the federal Department of Education will correct the Department’s draft rules to ameliorate the problems the Vermont letter identifies, Vermont’s State Board of Education models a way to speak to some of the most basic problems in current accountability-centered school policy.

The Vermont letter begins by attacking the very premises of test-and-punish school reform: “Our Board is proud to represent a state where the people support a strong state funding system, enjoy schools that foster high student performance and register narrow equity gaps as compared with the nation. Nevertheless, the opportunity gap is our most pressing concern and is the number one goal in our strategic plan. With these traditions and values in mind, we have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools. With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test scores gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools. Consequently, the continuation of a test-based, labeling and ‘assistance’ model (broadly seen as punishment) has not only proven ineffective, but has had a corrosive effect on the confidence of the people.  The encouragement of privatization has been harmful to local democracy, has further segregated a too fragmented nation and has diluted rather than focused valuable resources.”  No matter the politics of your state, and even if you think the people in your legislature or Department of Education are faithful testers-and-punishers, in the testimony you present you should repeat what the Vermont Board says here.  We must begin proclaiming these values and repeating them across every state.

What specific concerns with the Every Student Succeeds Act does the Vermont letter raise?

  • Education and Accountability is More Than Test Scores: The Narrowness of the Measures”  The Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states submit plans that continue to be grounded in standardized-test-based evidence of student achievement—emphasizing each school district’s graduation rate and test scores in two subjects: “The plan relies on what we can easily measure, rather than on what is important. By requiring that test scores in two subjects and graduation rates be given preferential weight, we discourage schools from supporting truly broad opportunities to learn and the skills necessary for a healthy society. In a world where violence and terrorism command the news, the education of our youth to participate in a strong civic life in a democracy is a fundamental skill.” ESSA requires an emphasis on test scores, but the law itself permits states to be creative in the way they comply with the requirement that they begin using multiple measures to evaluate school quality.  As part of their accountability plans, states must each choose one or more additional factors (in addition to reading and math scores and graduation rates) by which they will evaluate schools. Here are just some examples of indicators states might choose to report: students’ attendance rates, the percentage of students with access to advanced coursework, students’ access to counselors and other support staff, the school district’s provision of foreign language and fine arts courses, per-pupil expenditures, number of children in pre-Kindergarten, the percentage of English learners who become proficient, and evidence of substitution of restorative rather than no-excuses discipline programs.
  • Summative Labels/Ranking Schools by a Single Score—ESSA requires states to inform the public on the state of education…. But the proposed federal rules propose combining all measures into a single score.  The result is an invalid measure with a false precision claiming to be transparent… (D)angerously, with this single measure being so highly test-based, the interaction of test scores with background factors systematically and invalidly penalizes the disadvantaged. The result is that our neediest children are stigmatized through negative labels while we deny them the essential resources… Limiting our vision to scalable attributes, risks the danger of not measuring valuable and important school factors.” It is to be hoped that widespread opposition to the Department of Education’s proposed draft federal rule that required a single summative score—despite the absence of such a requirement in the law itself—will soon have pushed the federal government to amend its draft rule. But single summative ratings are already the norm in many states which award schools and school districts a single grade—A, B, C, D, or F.  The states with school district grading systems are already in the habit of awarding “A” ratings to their richest suburban school districts and “F” ratings to poorer urban and rural schools. The statewide ESSA hearings are an important place to protest the use—in federal and state policy—of one overly simplistic and invalid summative rating or letter grade as a way to rate and evaluate schools.

Vermont’s additional comments relate to the way ESSA’s rules will affect its homogeneous population and very small rural school districts.

There is one important issue in ESSA’s rules which the Vermont State Board does not address, but which ought to be part of any testimony on your state’s ESSA plan. ESSA formally eliminates the federal policy, imposed via No Child Left Behind waivers, that states had to agree to rely on students’ standardized test scores for a significant percentage of formal evaluation of teachers. To get their waivers, states agreed to this provision by passing their own state laws that now need to be amended or overturned. We must testify against state laws that persist in tying our state teacher evaluation systems to standardized test scores even though the federal government no longer makes test-score-based teacher evaluation a requirement.

The American Educational Research Association and the American Statistical Association have both declared the “value-added model’ algorithms for evaluating teachers to be unreliable and unstable from year to year. There are many factors that affect growth in standardized test scores beyond any one teacher’s work. Test score-based evaluation of teachers has also served as a perverse incentive that drives good teachers in the poorest school districts to move to more affluent places where they will be said to be able to “produce” higher scores. There are far more effective ways to evaluate teachers including well established peer assistance and review programs. Teacher evaluation cannot be merely mechanical and must involve efforts not only to judge teachers but also to help them be more effective. There is wide agreement that plans to support and evaluate teachers must involve coaching, mentoring, time for collaboration, and support and evaluation by strong school leaders.

Consider the following definition of teaching by a seasoned trainer of teachers and a writer about education, Mike Rose: “Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics. Teaching begins with knowledge of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development. But it’s not just that teachers know things. Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others… Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity. You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly, and from that reading make decisions to slow down or speed up, stay with a point or return to it later, connect one student’s comment to another’s. Simultaneously you are assessing on the fly Susie’s silence, Pedro’s slump, Janelle’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness. Students are, to varying degrees, also learning from each other, learning all kinds of things, from how to carry oneself to how to multiply mixed numbers. How teachers draw on this dynamic interaction varies depending on their personal style, the way they organize their rooms, and so on…. So teaching Hamlet or The Bluest Eye, the internal combustion engine, photosynthesis, or the League of Nations involves knowing these topics and bringing them into play in one of the more complex cognitive and social spaces of our culture.”

If we get an opportunity to offer testimony to try to help shape our state’s response to the new federal school accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, we ought to try move our society beyond a reductive obsession with test scores and blame to the kind of more human understanding Mike Rose describes of the meaning of education for our children, our teachers, and our society.

Portfolio School Reform and Unregulated Charters Harm Ohio as School Year Begins

On Monday, children in Cleveland, Ohio began the 2016-2017 school year, but problems in a one-party Republican state whose legislature has warmly embraced “corporate school reform” will affect their education this year.

First of all, as the school year began on Monday, the Cleveland Teachers Union presented the school district with the required 10-day notice of a strike, to begin on the Friday before Labor Day unless the district and the teachers union can reach agreement on a long-running problem.  Teachers, who have been without a contract since early July, are wearing blue t-shirts that proclaim, “I don’t want to STRIKE, but I will!”

Why begin the school year with such conflict? Actually it isn’t a new problem. In 2012—with support from the Cleveland business establishment, the philanthropic sector, and the mayor and his appointed school board—the Ohio legislature passed a portfolio school reform plan (Manage the district like a business portfolio with a marketplace of school choice including rapid expansion of charters that receive local tax dollars.) and imposed it on the Cleveland schools.

Plain Dealer reporter Patrick O’Donnell explains that the Cleveland Transformation Plan also has affected salaries for teachers, and continues to affect contract negotiations four years later: “Negotiations on this contract are more complicated than in most districts, thanks to the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools…. That Plan called for a teacher pay plan ‘based on performance,’ instead of the traditional teacher salary schedule other districts use. That made Cleveland the only district in Ohio that no longer gives raises for years of experience and degrees that teachers earn. But the district and union have failed for four years to create the full pay plan called for in law and in the last teacher contract, reached in 2013. Though the sides agreed in their last contract that teachers would receive raises for multiple reasons, the district is only awarding them when teachers receive strong ratings on annual evaluations.  Ignored, so far, are contractually-agreed items like teaching in hard-to fill jobs or undesired schools; completing pre-approved courses and training that directly affect teaching; and taking steps to develop as a mentor and leader. That leaves raises entirely based on ratings, which are greatly affected by student test scores. ‘We have an over-reliance on using these standardized tests to evaluate teachers,’ (David) Quolke said.”  Quolke is president of the Cleveland Teachers Union.

Quolke has said the union does not desire a strike but has no other option. After all, the district has a crucially important local school levy on the November ballot. In Ohio, a state that brags there are no unvoted tax increases, school districts must take requests for local property tax millage directly to the voters.  Quolke has declared, “It is our hope that the CMSD (Cleveland Municipal School District) and the Mayor will commit to using the next two weeks to resolve the contract. It is essential that we invest in our schools and in our students, and we provide more, not fewer opportunities for students; and it is essential that we settle this contract and begin working to pass the Cleveland school levy.”

Like many school districts in Ohio, Cleveland is also being affected by the statewide scandal over reimbursements to charter schools which are sucking money not only out of state reimbursements to school districts but in many cases also redirecting local funds. In the news all year has been the scandal of reimbursements to the notorious online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), where evidence has emerged that many students whose education is being underwritten by tax dollars are not really actively pursuing an education. ECOT is reported to be sucking over $7 million every year out of Cleveland’s public schools.

The problem is in the legislature, which has failed to address a long-running problem of tax funding paid to ECOT for students who have signed up for ECOT but who fail to participate regularly. ECOT has been reaping over $100 million each year, tax dollars that feed the profits of the two privately held management companies owned by ECOT operator William Lager: Altair Learning Management and IQ Innovations.

We have known that ECOT has hidden attendance records and has asked the courts to block the Ohio Department of Education from checking up. The courts have instead ordered ECOT to present attendance records to the Ohio Department of Education. Now it has become clear that, although ECOT students are said to spend a lot of time in offline activities that further their education, ECOT has not kept records of these activities at all. While there are minimal computer log-in reports—a preliminary audit indicates students are averaging an hour per day in logged participation— The Columbus Dispatch recently reported that Ohio State Auditor David Yost signed what is called “an agreed-upon procedures engagement” that did not require ECOT to keep detailed logs of its students’ activities.

Dispatch reporters, Jim Siegel, Catherine Candisky and Bill Bush explain how Ohio’s sketchy attendance rules for the full-time, online charter schools evolved: “Today’s legal battle potentially involving hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars paid to online charter schools in Ohio began more than 15 years ago with an audit, an unusual agreement and a mysterious scrawled signature—followed by years of legislative inaction… Back in 2002, state officials weren’t thinking about checking for 920 (annual) hours of attendance or tracking students’ computer log-in durations. Few rules and regulations governed new online schools, and attendance concerns were much more basic: Were students getting computers and could they actually log into the fledgling Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s system?”

The Dispatch reporters have tracked the name of the official with the illegible signature: “David Varda, then associate superintendent at the Ohio Department of Education, who signed the odd funding agreement with ECOT in January 2003.”  Varda, who is now quoted as believing that better documentation would help the state oversee ECOT, says the agreement he signed in 2003 was intended to provide “documentation that they (students) were actively engaged.”  The Dispatch adds that some people were concerned back at the time charters were being launched across the state: “Then-state Auditor Jim Petro’s office identified the problem almost immediately: In a special audit of ECOT’s first few months of operation in fall 2000, his office found the school billed the state for thousands of students but could document that only seven logged into the ECOT computer classroom. ECOT was sending a bill for every student who signed up, the investigation found.”

How have all these years passed with ECOT collecting millions of taxpayer dollars?  ECOT founder William Lager is among Ohio’s most generous political contributors. Between 2010 and 2015, Lager gave more than $1.2 million in disclosed campaign donations to legislative Republicans.

The ECOT scandal, along with Ohio’s charter school funding in general, affects Ohio’s public school districts directly. While much of the funding for charter schools comes from the state—the $5,900 state basic per-pupil allocation plus additional weights when students have needs for special education, economic disadvantage, and career tech—the money is not paid to charter schools out of the state budget. When a student leaves for a charter school, the charter reimbursement is directly deducted from the budget of the school district where the student resides (a budget that includes the state and local funding for that school district). After all the formulas and charge-offs have been applied to state funding, students very often carry more to charters from their local district than the original state funding received by the district.

ECOT sucks millions from Ohio’s largest school districts—over $7 million per year from Cleveland’s schools, $11.5 million from Columbus’ schools, and over $3 million from Dayton’s schools, for example. Recent evidence shows that much of this money—which could be supporting the education of children living in poverty is being sent to ECOT for phantom students. This blog has extensively covered ECOT here.

Uganda Will Close For-Profit Schools Pushed by Gates, Zuckerberg, US, UK, and World Bank

In a statement to the Ugandan parliament last week, Hon. Janet Museveni, Ugandan Minister for Education and Sports, explained that the ministry will close 63 private primary and nursery schools at the end of the term due to problems with licensing, safety and sanitation.  The schools are operated by one of the world’s largest private, for-profit education companies.

As this blog reported in April, Bridge International Academies is funded by the World Bank; American venture capitalists, New Enterprise Associates and Lean Capital; and philanthropists including the Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Pierre Omidyar.  Bridge is associated with the publishing and testing giant, Pearson.  It has also been supported by the United Kingdom Department for International Development.  Justine Greening, a Conservative Party member of the British Parliament who headed up the Department for International Development before being appointed earlier this year as British Secretary of State for Education, has been influential in promoting Bridge Academies.

According to its website, Bridge International Academies has expanded rapidly in Africa.  It opened its first school in Nairobi, Kenya in 2010 and operated 130 schools in Kenya by 2013.  In 2014 it prepared to expand into Uganda and Nigeria—operating seven academies in Uganda by February, 2015. Bridge currently operates 63 schools in Uganda. Now it is expanding into Liberia and India.

The Global Campaign for Education and a number of international education and human rights organizations released a statement at the end of last week supporting Ms. Museveni’s decision to close all Bridge International Academies in Uganda.  Respecting Ms. Museveni’s decision to close the schools based on immediate problems with licensing and hygiene, these international advocates for public education as a human right examine much deeper problems in the schools: “Bridge International Academies is a for-profit commercial chain of low-cost private schools backed by investors such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Pierre Omidyar (eBay), as well as the World Bank, and the U.S. and British Governments. It aims at providing education to 10 million pupils by 2025 and already runs over 450 schools in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and soon Liberia and India. The company has been particularly criticised for using a non-transparent system of entirely scripted and standardised curriculum mostly designed in the USA, delivered by untrained teachers reading the script from a tablet, while selling this scheme as ‘world-class education’ to poor people in developing countries in a bid to seek profits.  The decision to close BIA schools (in Uganda) follows several statements from United Nations (UN) human rights bodies as well as a report from a UK parliamentary watchdog that criticised BIA, suggesting that the development of these schools may lead to human rights breaches.”

The Global Campaign for Education’s press release quotes Frederick Mwesigye, Executive Director of the Forum for Education NGOS in Uganda: “The Ugandan education system suffers from many shortcomings. However, it does not mean that any investors can come in and make profit out of the situation by delivering low-quality education while disregarding national authorities and standards.”

Bridge International Academies released its own statement responding to the Ugandan government’s plan to close its schools.  In the statement Bridge declares that it will continue to operate through the semester, as Ms. Museveni has said the Ugandan government will permit.  During that period the company plans to, “work with the relevant educational authorities to uphold our commitment to our parents and communities to provide a world-class education to their children.”  Clearly the company hopes to be able work out its problems with Ugandan regulatory agencies.

In her  2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the response of the global marketplace to natural catastrophes and any kind of widespread failure of government services in the developing world: “I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (p. 6)

Klein argues that rapid expansion of privatization worldwide, like the emergence of Bridge International Academies—supported by the World Bank, the U.S. and British governments, and venture philanthropists like Gates and Zuckerberg—is a form of colonialism that perfectly exemplifies neoliberal ideology:  “(T)he ideology is a shape-shifter, forever changing its name and switching identities. (Milton) Friedman called himself a ‘liberal,’ but his U.S. followers, who associated liberals with high taxes and hippies, tended to identify as ‘conservatives,’ ‘classical economists,’ ‘free marketers,’ and, later, as believers in ‘Reaganomics’ or ‘laissez-faire.’  In most of the world, their orthodoxy is known as ‘neoliberalism,’ but it is often called ‘free trade’ or simply ‘globalization’….  All these incarnations share a commitment to the policy trinity—the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations, and skeletal social spending….” ( pp. 14-15)

Noticing and Helping Our Poorest Children and Their Public Schools

If you take a driving vacation and you use a laptop instead of a smartphone, you soon learn that the best place to find Wi-Fi in little towns is in the parking lot of the public library.  You don’t have to arrive during the hours when the library is open, and you can even sit in your car to check your e-mail or the news as long as you park very near the building, because the library’s Wi-Fi service is accessible beyond the walls of the building. I know this from long experience looking at e-mail in public library parking lots from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Red Lodge, Montana, to Laurelville, Ohio.  In our family, of course, we have broadband service at home and we need to use the library parking lot only on special occasions. But what about the people who lack this basic service?

In the New York Times last week, Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library wrote about internet access as a necessity. He explains that last year, the Federal Communications Commission declared: “Access to broadband is necessary to be a productive member of society. In June, a federal appeals court upheld the commission’s authority to regulate the internet as a public utility.”  But Marx, writing from New York City, describes what life is like for children in families who cannot afford the internet: “Here in the world’s information capital, New Yorkers are still scrounging for a few bars of web access, dropped like crumbs from a table. With broadband costing on average $55 per month, 25 percent of all households and 50 percent of those making less than $20,000 lack this service at home.”  Marx describes New York City’s children from his perspective at the library: “All summer, kids have been hanging out in front of the Morris Park Library in the Bronx, before opening hours and after closing.  They bring their computers to pick up the Wi-Fi signal that is leaking out of the building, because they can’t afford internet access at home. They’re there during the school year, too, even during the winter—it’s the only way they can complete their online math homework… People line up, sometimes for hours, to use the library system’s free computers. Go into any library in the nation and you’ll most likely see the same thing. They come to do what so many of us take for granted: apply for government services, study or do research, talk with family or friends, inform themselves as voters, and just participate in our society and culture—so much of which now takes place online.”

I thought about Marx’s column in conjunction with two other articles in the New York Times last week.  In The Millions of Americans Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Barely Mention: The Poor,  Binyamin Appelbaum explains that the presidential candidates’ “platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, (but) the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs; neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.”  Appelbaum quotes Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond: “We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda.”

Then there was Susan Dynarski’s piece that explores the way our society uses imprecise data to measure poverty among students at school: “A closer look reveals that the standard measure of economic disadvantage—whether a child is eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch in school masks the magnitude of the learning gap between the richest and poorest children.  Nearly half of students nationwide are eligible for a subsidized meal in school. Children whose families earn less than 185 percent of the poverty threshold are eligible for a reduced-price lunch, while those below 130 percent get a free lunch. For a family of four, the cutoffs are $32,000 for a free lunch and $45,000 for a reduced price one. By way of comparison, median household income in the United States was about $54,000 in 2014… The National Assessment of Education Progress, often called the Nation’s Report Card, publishes students’ scores by eligibility for subsidized meals. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, districts have reported scores separately for disadvantaged children, with eligibility for subsidized meals serving as the standard measure of disadvantage.”

Dynarski is a professor at the University of Michigan, and she describes student poverty in her state: “In Michigan, as in the rest of the country, about half of eighth graders in public schools receive a free or reduced-price lunch. But when we look more closely, we see that just 14 percent have been eligible for subsidized meals every year since kindergarten. These children are the poorest of the poor—the persistently disadvantaged… (I)n fact, there is a nearly linear, negative relationship between the number of years of economic disadvantage and math scores in eighth grade… It appears that years spent eligible for subsidized school meals serves as a good proxy for the depth of disadvantage. When we look back on the early childhood of persistently disadvantaged eighth graders, we see that by kindergarten they were already far poorer than their classmates.” Dynarkski recommends that we find a more accurate way to identify the children whose needs are greatest.

In his introduction to an issue of the  Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences that focuses on severe deprivation in America, Matthew Desmond aims to be more precise in defining degrees of poverty in our society: “Poverty is qualitatively different from ‘deep poverty’ (half below the poverty line), which in turn is a world apart from ‘extreme poverty’ (living on $2 a day)… There is poverty and then there is poverty… By ‘severe deprivation,’ we mean economic hardship that is (1) acute, (2) compounded, and (3) persistent.” Desmond adds that most of our public policy to address poverty was developed so long ago that it fails to address today’s realities: “Most research is rooted in theories now a few decades old…. developed before the United States began incarcerating more of its citizens than any other nation; before urban rents soared and poor families began dedicating the majority of their income to housing; before welfare reform caused caseloads to plummet….  In recent years, the very nature of poverty in America has changed, especially at the very bottom.”

Susan Dynarsky is not the first researcher to explore the importance of accurately measuring and addressing extreme poverty in public schools.  In the 2010 book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research studied Chicago’s public schools to locate the particular schools that serve many children who are experiencing what Dynarski and Desmond describe as persistent and severe deprivation. Here are the characteristics of the 46 schools they identified in Chicago that were far more severely challenged than surrounding schools (many of which serve relatively poor neighborhoods). Truly disadvantaged schools were 90-100 percent African American. “These schools served neighborhoods characterized by extreme rates of poverty.  On average, 70 percent of residents living in the neighborhoods around these 46 schools had incomes below the poverty line, and the median family income in 1990 was only $9,480.  In 6 out of 10 of these schools, more than 50 percent of the students lived in pubic housing.” The schools featured what the researchers call a “consolidation of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.”  “Many confronted an extraordinary concentration of student needs, including students who were homeless, in foster care, or living in contexts of neglect, abuse, and domestic violence.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp 23-24)

So… what are today’s federal prescriptions for such schools—the schools in every city that serve the very poorest children?  For the past two decades the demanded reforms have included closing the school and turning it over to a charter school or a management company, firing the principal and many teachers, and considering the students’ test scores as a good part of the formal teacher evaluation mechanism.  Many of these same punishments have become the accepted strategies for school reform across our big cities, and are likely to continue even though in the Every Student Succeeds Act the federal government is stepping back a bit from dictating mandatory prescriptions.

As Susan Dynarski explains, despite our capacity now days to make education data-driven, we haven’t even instituted a precise way to measure childhood poverty. And as Matthew Desmond points out, our public policies are not designed to address the real crisis of today’s childhood poverty.  A discussion of these very painful and controversial matters is not really part of the political agenda of either of our major political parties.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research outlines very concrete school improvement strategies to support the people working in the most stressed schools.  Many school districts are also expanding the number of full-service, wraparound Community Schools designed to house medical, dental, and mental health services, after school enrichment for children, job training for parents—social and medical services—right in the school building. We need to recognize that these are an excellent beginning.

But we also need to recognize that local institutions like public libraries and public elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are struggling to support children trapped in a level of poverty invisible to many of us unless we happen to walk by a public library where, at 7 o’clock in the morning, children are sitting on the steps trying to finish their homework with the Wi-Fi access they can find right outside the library.

Politicians Shift Blame to Chicago Teachers for a School Funding and Pension Crisis

It is really, really hard to parse out the problems in the Chicago Public Schools less than a month from the beginning of the school year. What is clear is that all the years of financial shenanigans in the school district’s management including long-running borrowing from the teachers’ pension fund to pay for the district’s operating expenses, and the budget crisis in Illinois as Governor Bruce Rauner made the state go through last fiscal year without a budget, and the rapid expansion of a charter school sector that has sucked even more students (and state aid) out of neighborhood schools in a school district with an already declining population—all this—is falling on the backs of school teachers. They have been working without a contract for a year and they want a reasonable raise.  And 500 of them just got laid off because school budgets have been cut across the board.

Here is Chicago Sun-Times’ reporter Andy Grimm summarizing the problem: “The financial woes of the Chicago Public schools ha(ve) provided the city’s principals with a deep pool of experienced applicants for teaching jobs.  CPS last week sent layoff notices to 500 teachers as principals across the cash-strapped district cut their budgets for the (2016-2017) school year. Another 500-plus non-teaching staff were also laid off. Social studies teacher Robert DiPrima carried a sheaf of resumes—and a heavy heart—to a CPS job fair…. His talks with principals were encouraging, but DiPrima still was shocked at being cut from the faculty at Jane Addams Elementary after 16 years at the South Side school… District officials have said they expect many of the teachers who lost jobs at one school will find new spots among the 1,000 teacher vacancies expected across the district… The budget crunch in CPS makes DiPrima wonder if, despite his master’s degree and National Board certification, his experience wouldn’t be a liability when budget-conscious principals are weighing him against younger candidates who are lower on the CPS pay scale.”

Part of all this, of course, is a threat to make the Chicago Teachers Union agree to a contract with teachers’ accepting a major sacrifice to keep the district afloat. The union and the district are in the midst of contract negotiations. Juan Perez, writing for the Chicago Tribune, explained the implicit threat last week: “Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool on Tuesday warned that cuts to the classroom would be necessary if teachers don’t agree to concessions in a new contract. Claypool ratcheted up pressure on the Chicago Teachers Union a day after the district unveiled a budget that assumes teachers will accept contract terms similar to those that were rejected in February by a union bargaining team. ‘The alternative is cuts to the classroom,’ Claypool said during a meeting with the Tribune Editorial Board. ‘We don’t believe its the right thing to do, and we’re hopeful that upon reflection the teachers union will understand that’s not the right thing to do either.’ Claypool said classroom budgets would be cut if state lawmakers don’t come through with $215 million to prop up the district’s budget. That money hinges on agreement on pension reforms in Springfield.”

The Chicago Teachers Union turned down a contract last winter that would have provided a raise for teachers and at the same time seized back much of that raise to increase the teachers’ contributions to their own pensions. The district is now again presenting to teachers the same terms they have previously rejected. The union has threatened to strike. Added to all this is a real financial crisis, according to Perez: “The district said its proposed operating budget is $232 million smaller than last year’s and covers a $300 million shortfall that still existed after the state passed education funding measures in June.”

The teachers’ pension fund has been in crisis for years, and it is clear that the pension crisis is not the fault of the teachers, who have paid their individual contributions. Last summer, Maureen Kelleher, writing for Catalyst Chicago, explained that it stems from 1995, when the state created mayoral control that included sweeping financial changes: “The biggest revenue shift came from combining several property tax levies—including one earmarked to pay for teacher pensions—into one fund that could be used to pay current operating expenses. That year, $62.2 million was diverted from pension payments to operating expenses.”  And the school district has persistently failed to pay its full contribution to the fund and diverted pension funds for school operating expenses—basically borrowing out of the teachers’ pensions to run the district.  Last summer Kelleher concluded that unfunded liabilities in the pension fund totaled $10 billion.

There is no doubt that the state—which is known for an inequitable school funding formula that fails adequately to fund the school districts serving many children in poverty—is at fault.  There is no doubt that there are massive problems in the pension fund.  There is no doubt that the school district has been further undermined by children carrying funding to charter schools while the traditional public schools are left to provide expensive services for English learners, children experiencing deep poverty, and students with serious disabilities.

Salaries in any school district make up 80 percent or more of the budget.  What is very sad is that politicians in Springfield and the Chicago mayor and his appointed school district manager find it convenient once again to blame teachers, lay off teachers, and threaten not to pay for the teachers’ services to Chicago’s children. Layoffs in August leave almost no time for those who have been riffed to find new jobs. Widespread layoffs undermine relationships and weaken school climate. Even if laid-off staff are picked up by other principals, the churn within the teaching staff will make it difficult for principals to create a collaborative and supportive school culture. All of this destabilizes relationships between teachers and students and families.

The narrative of financial crisis in the Chicago schools has been turned by everyone into an attack on the school teachers who have chosen to support themselves and their families by teaching Chicago’s children.

Research Summarizes the Public School Advantage

A book like Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms from the National Education Policy Center—a compendium of two decades’ of academic research on today’s public school ideology, policy, and trends—is invaluable even for a non-expert, citizen-reader who just wants to get informed. After all, most academic research is published in the paywalled academic journals, and more specialized books are unlikely to appear in smaller, regional libraries.  There is a lot that I miss, even though I do a lot of searching around in books about education.

One book that I have always felt I ought to read is The Public School Advantage, by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois. Here in NEPC’s new compendium is a chapter from the Lubienskis’ book—“Reconsidering Choice, Competition, and Autonomy as the Remedy in American Education,” (pp. 365-391 in NEPC’s compendium). The Lubienskis conducted an enormous study of the practices and student achievement in public, private and privatized schools. Their finding: “Despite what many reformers, policy makers, media elites, and even parents may believe, public schools are, on average, actually providing a relatively effective educational service compared to schools in the independent sector.” The Lubienskis continue: “(O)ur analyses indicate that public schools are enjoying an advantage in academic effectiveness because they are aligned with a more professional model of teaching and learning.” One reason people turn away from the public schools, they write, is simply that many believe that if people are willing to pay for private schools, they must be the superior model.

Other reasons people desire school choice?  “Obviously, some parents will prioritize safety…. Many parents consider extracurricular options or perceived pedagogical fit…. (F)or many families, finding a school that reinforces their values may be more important (religious schools)…. Some children enroll in schools that their friends are attending or where other families look like they do.”

What about the belief that expanding charters and school vouchers is a good way to boost achievement for the children our society has left behind?  “Although marketists believe that choice will open up opportunities for disadvantaged children, the data show that private and independent schools under enroll such students… (D)isadvantaged and minority students who are in most such schools are on average, no better served then they are in public schools, diminishing hope that private sector-based strategies have much potential to reduce achievement gaps between groups… Once we account for the SES (socioeconomic status) differences between the populations of students served in the different sectors, it is clear that the variables that differ between sectors are not significant predictors of achievement… The extended infatuation with vouchers for private schools, for instance, or the nationwide effort to expand charter schools, regardless of the thin empirical basis for these policies, speaks to the power of… belief to guide policy.”

The Lubienskis summarize a half century of economic theory and the role of organizations representing economists’ ideas to normalize assumptions about the benefits of privatization—Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and their neoliberal philosophy, and free-enterprise organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute. “When the traditionally centrist Brookings Institution began producing pieces favorable to private/independent models, as with Chubb and Moe’s seminal 1990 work, the agenda really moved into the political mainstream.  Now advocacy groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and the Alliance for School Choice actively promote evidence that they see as favorable to private and independent models.”

Philanthropists—notably Gates, Broad, and Walton—“have been instrumental in shaping the policy climate around education issues by providing political and financial support for pilot programs, stipulating particular policies from grantee districts, and underwriting researchers and research organizations that are predisposed toward their agendas.”  These philanthropies are underwriting think tanks that mask themselves as academic departments at major universities: “(T)hese major funding agencies have also directed strategic support to individuals and units at respected institutions, such as the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard or the Hoover Institution at Stanford.  In this way, they are able to capitalize on recognizable institutional brands in adding legitimacy to their policy claims, regardless of whether or not the rigor of research coming from these institutions merits the weight that is given to the studies in media and policy-making circles… The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to the PEPG at Harvard, which is run by a stable of pro-voucher scholars and public figures on its board. Similarly, the Walton Family Foundation was instrumental in creating the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which is led by a PEPG associate and staffed with pro-voucher theorists and researchers.”

What are the assumptions underneath the movement to privatize public education?  First is the belief in public sector failure.  Second is the belief that consumer choice ought to be a right: “This recasts the beneficiaries of public education from the wider community to a focus on more immediate chosers…. Fundamental to the theory is that parents are wise and informed consumers acting on behalf of their children, and many are.  However, much evidence suggests that many parents do not have access to useful information on school options.. and that such information—and the tendency to use it—is unequally distributed, with children most in need of better quality options least likely to have parents willing or able to effectively advocate for their children.”  The third assumption is that competition spurs school improvement. In response to this third assumption, the Lubienskis recognize a reality that is neither acknowledged nor examined by proponents of school choice: precisely because of their public mandate, public schools cannot cut costs to be competitive or emphasize the mere elevation of overall test scores as their sole mission. “(M)arket theory misses the fact that the multiple responsibilities placed on public schools as institutions created to serve common, nonmarket goals often require that they be shielded from the competitive pressures of the market.”

For me, the Lubienskis’ most important critique of privatization is their attack on the privatizers’ contention that school choice will expand opportunity by offering power to families and children who have heretofore been left behind. The Lubienski’s remind us that research documents the impact of peer effects on children’s school achievement: “Regardless of school type, having a child in a school with students from more affluent families with higher academic aspirations can have a beneficial impact on that child. Yet, choices based on such criteria can also lead to greater social sorting… As policy makers increasingly seek to shift students en masse from public to private or independent schools, or to privatize public schools, our analyses and the analyses of others indicate that such efforts can create a less effective (and more socially segregated) system of schooling.” “Even when they are working well markets can lead to inequitable outcomes, since those with resources are better positioned to use markets to increase their advantages and pass them on to their children.”  This gets at the ethical dilemma in competition-based school choice, a problem pointedly described by the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

NEPC’s inclusion of this chapter from the Lubienskis’ book motivates me to locate and read The Public School Advantage.

Even from Its Deathbed, Michigan State-Takeover EAA Continues to Rob Detroit District

Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, has done everything he could to privatize and take over and bankrupt the state’s poorest school districts.

Since 2012, Muskegon Heights and Highland Park were turned over to Mosaica and the Leona Group, private, for-profit charter management organizations. Both went broke and abandoned these projects. The state has also intervened in other poor districts like Inkster and Buena Vista and Pontiac with closures and takeovers and privatization the only result. Then there have been the governor-appointed austerity emergency managers, put in place to cut costs.  In Detroit a succession of these so-called fiscal managers burdened the Detroit Public Schools with a staggering long-term debt of $3.5 billion. Then there has been the out-of-control charter school sector that has sucked students and money out of Detroit’s public schools, but even as the legislature passed a plan in June to restructure and ameliorate the district’s debt, lawmakers left out the proposed Detroit Education Commission, which had been designed to provide some oversight of school choice district-wide.

On top of all this, there has been Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a state takeover district created by the Snyder administration back in 2012 in collaboration with Eastern Michigan University and modeled on Louisiana’s Recovery School District.  Its supporters said state takeover would improve Michigan’s lowest-achieving schools through the imposition of state management.  The Education Achievement Authority never did well enough to expand beyond the 15 Detroit schools it originally seized. John Covington who was brought in as EAA’s chancellor, purchased from a private contractor the expensive, ineffective electronic BUZZ curriculum that, it turned out, was still in the development stage and not fully functional. Covington was forced out after a scandal about his personal expenses. EAA was always unpopular with Eastern Michigan University’s board of regents, who finally voted last February to pull out, effectively setting an 18 month sunset for EAA.  It’s final demise is guaranteed by the new legislative rescue plan for Detroit’s schools.

But the damage wrought by the Education Achievement Authority continues to surface even as its demise is guaranteed. Early this week it emerged that the EAA owes Detroit Public Schools millions of dollars. Here is reporter, Shawn Lewis in the Detroit News: “The Education Achievement Authority owes Detroit Public Schools $14.8 million in unpaid rent for the use of former DPS classroom buildings, plus information technology and safety services for fiscal years 2015 and 2016….”  Lewis adds that last February, the EAA’s current state-appointed chancellor, Veronica Conforme, asked then-Emergency Manager Darnell Earley (of Flint water notoriety) for relief from the debt.

All this emerged as internal e-mails were made public this week, including one that was sent by Thomas Saxton, of the State Treasury Department, to officials in the governor’s office: “In February, the EAA (Veronica) approached Darnell at DPS with a request for relief from the aforementioned debt through an amendment to the lease agreement which would forgive all of the EAA rent debt… I advised Darnell not to sign it.  I have spoken to Veronica once about this and it has come up in conversation(s) with Steven Rhodes (the emergency manager who replaced Darnell Earley).  Darnell did not sign the amendment before he left and now Veronica has requested Judge Rhodes to sign it…. While we understand forgiving this debt would clear up the EAA’s books, it would be detrimental to DPS.”

Lewis writes that the debt being discussed in this e-mail conversation included $6.5 million for rent in 2016, $1.5 million for IT (information technology) services and $400,000 for safety services.  Lewis adds that on Monday of this week, Ms. Conforme announced that the EAA will pay the full amount for safety and police services, while EAA continues to negotiate with the Detroit Public Schools about the rent owed by EAA.

In a follow-up, Detroit Free Press reporter, Ann Zaniewski adds that EAA’s Chancellor Conforme believes the Detroit rescue legislation, adopted by the Michigan legislature in June, erased EAA’s debt to the Detroit school district for rent: “EAA officials told the Free Press that Conforme told state officials in the spring that the EAA was building its budget around the lease debt being eliminated… At an EAA board meeting in June, an EAA official said the annual fees the district is supposed to pay for using DPS buildings dropped from $6 million to $1 million because of recent education reform legislation.”

It’s not yet clear whether Detroit Public Schools, struggling to crawl out from under massive debt, will be able to recoup back rent from the state that is supposed to be involved in the negotiated financial rescue of the Detroit Public Schools.  What is clear is that the Education Achievement Authority, a state takeover imposed by the Snyder administration that was supposed to be another way the state would help some of Michigan’s poorest children by improving their schools, has just been one more drain on the budget of the Detroit Public Schools along with being an educational failure.

Here is the analysis of Thomas Pedroni, a professor of education at Wayne State University: “The revelation of the $14.8 million debt, which exists at Snyder’s pleasure, comes at a time when DPS children have faced a siphoning off of classroom dollars that might have been used to alleviate ballooning class sizes, repair dilapidated and dangerous buildings, and attract and retain high quality certified teachers in the district… Snyder’s control of the EAA, much like his control of Flint, has always been about enriching business opportunities whatever the cost to the health and wellbeing and future lives of Black children.”