Yes! Rethinking the Value of Testing and of Graduation Tests, Ohio Joins More Progressive States

At its meeting on Tuesday, the Ohio State Board of Education discussed ways to reduce standardized testing along with the urgent need to amend the state’s current demand that high school students pass an overly tough set of end-of-course exams in order to qualify for high school graduation. The board had already eased the graduation requirement for the class of 2018. Now its members have agreed to ask the legislature to add an alternative path to graduation for students in the classes of 2019 and 2020.

The Plain Dealer‘s education reporter Patrick O’Donnell explains: “Statewide requirements that students score well on state tests in order to earn a diploma took effect with the class of 2018, this year’s senior class. But worries about a graduation ‘apocalypse’ or ‘trainwreck’ because of low scores led the board and state legislature to ease the requirements earlier this year, just for the senior class… After debate the last few months, board members now want to extend the same exemptions for the classes of 2019 and 2020… Those include graduating, even if state test scores are poor, by reaching some career training goals, having strong attendance or classroom grades as seniors, doing a senior capstone project or working at a job or on community service.”

On Tuesday, the Ohio State Board of Education also discussed ways to reduce the overall heavy test burden on students and teachers: “The state school board is asking the Ohio legislature to wipe out three items that add a testing burden to teachers and students—the high school English I exam, WorkKeys tests for some career training students, and requirements that some tests be given just to evaluate teachers.  State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and an advisory panel he appointed recommended these and other changes to the board in June, after statewide outcry over the time spent on standardized testing in schools… Board members voted nearly unanimously for the three reductions Tuesday afternoon… (T)he board and DeMaria agreed that the state needs only the high school English II exam, usually given to sophomores, to meet the federal requirement for an English test in high school. They also agreed strongly with DeMaria’s recommendation to wipe out tests that are given just to measure the effectiveness of teachers.  Districts often give a pre-test at the start of the year, then another at the end of the year, to see how much a teacher taught over the year.”

O’Donnell adds that State Superintendent DeMaria recommends eliminating a number of other tests considered extraneous by his advisory panel.

Ohio’s beginning steps to cut back on the standardized testing that has dominated schools since 2002, when No Child Left Behind became federal law, reflect a broader trend, according to Monty Neill and Lisa Guisbond of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest).  FairTest just released a major report, Test Reform Victories Surge in 2017: What’s Behind the Winning Strategies?, which summarizes the effects of broad public opposition to over-testing and some relaxation of federal pressure now that No Child Left Behind has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act: “Widespread opposition to the overuse and misuse of standardized testing is producing a marked shift in attitudes about high-stakes assessments and, increasingly, state and district practices… The drumbeat of concerns includes: the amount of testing; the time it consumes; the outsized consequences for students, teachers and schools attached to test scores; the negative impacts on educational equity for low-income and minority students; and the damage to teaching, learning and children’s futures from the testing fixation.”

FairTest’s report is particularly scathing about the damage for young adults when failure of state-mandated tests denies them a high school diploma: “For tens of thousands of students who don’t drop out but stay in school and complete their other high school graduation requirements, exit exams unjustly confer the status and diminished opportunities of high school dropouts. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement but have raised the dropout rate. Since 2012, the number of states that had or planned to have standardized high school exit exams has plunged from 25 to 13.”

FairTest adds that “seven states have made their elimination of graduation testing retroactive,” creating the opportunity for students previously denied diplomas in Georgia, South Carolina, California, Alaska, Arizona, Texas, and Nevada to apply for the diplomas they were denied as long as they successfully completed all other graduation requirements.

Public opinion has been changing as it has been more widely understood that “passing” cut scores on standardized tests are in many ways aspirational, not realistic. Cut scores that determine children’s futures have not been based on some kind of scientifically determined amount of knowledge children must master; instead they have been set by politicians for the purpose of driving teachers to work harder and faster.  High stakes standardized testing has been particularly punitive for students who start much farther behind.

Here is Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University professor whose new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, exposes the damage inflicted by high stakes testing: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

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As Vouchers Expand, Researcher Explores Textbooks Being Used in Unregulated Voucher Schools

In Ohio, State Rep. Kyle Koehler’s bill to expand school vouchers may soon move to a vote of the state’s House of Representatives.  Koehler’s proposed legislation would consolidate three of Ohio’s school voucher plans into one bigger program and at the same time increase the number of students who are eligible

Here is Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer: “A plan to expand Ohio’s private school tuition voucher program to more middle class families could soon go to vote in the Ohio House, despite stalling out in the Senate earlier this year. House Bill 200, just like the earlier proposal in the Senate from State. Sen. Matt Huffman, would combine the three voucher programs Ohio has now—one with strict income requirements, one for students in ‘failing’ schools and one for only Cleveland residents—into a single program.  The new ‘Opportunity Scholarships’ would give families a state subsidy toward private school tuition, regardless of where in Ohio they live, regardless of the rating of their local public school, and with relaxed income restrictions. If the bill passes, families would receive $5,000 in state tax money to help pay tuition—almost always at religious schools—for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and $7,500 for high school students.”

O’Donnell reports that Andrew Brenner, chair of the education committee in the Ohio House, hopes to pass the bill out of committee and bring it to a vote on the House floor within weeks.  If it passes, Senator Matt Huffman says he will bring the issue back before Ohio’s senate.  O’Donnell reports that the new law would make school vouchers available to about 60 percent of families in Ohio, as their children could qualify for a full voucher if their family income is 200 percent of poverty or less and a partial voucher if their income is 300 percent of poverty.

On Sunday, the Plain Dealer‘s editorial board condemned the plan for robbing the state of money desperately needed for public schools: “An Ohio House committee may soon approve a bill rewriting and expanding Ohio’s school-voucher programs—even though the estimated cost is a ridiculous $48 million a year to start, and sure to rise because of built-in escalators based on demand.  If the legislature wanted to spend that money on improving public schools that would be one thing.  But underwriting a small number of private and parochial schools—at the expense of the state’s public ones—is not something Ohio can afford to do.”

The editorial board points out that the bill sets a limit of 60,000 vouchers in the first year to be distributed among 846,000 eligible students.  Other states have proven, however, that once a program is established, caps and limits are easily lifted by future legislatures sympathetic to privatization.

Just as Ohio considers expanding its tuition voucher program,  an in-depth report complied by Rebecca Klein appeared this week in the Huffington Post.  Klein cautions about the curricula being used in many voucher supported, religious schools across the country.  While the majority of Ohio students carry their tuition vouchers primarily to Catholic and Lutheran parochial schools and Jewish Day Schools, Klein’s in-depth report this week surveys the curricula adopted in private evangelical Christian schools nationwide where students are paying tuition with public tax dollars.

Here is how Klein conducted her investigation: “Several months ago, HuffPost set out to create a database of every private school in the country that receives taxpayer funding.  We also tracked the religious affiliation of each school and looked at how many taught from… evangelical Christian textbooks… Our analysis found that about 75 percent of voucher schools across the country are religious—usually Christian or Catholic, with about 2 percent identifying as Jewish and 1 percent identifying as Muslim… Since a plurality of schools in these programs (42 percent) are non-Catholic Christian schools, we dove deeply into researching the curriculum of those schools.  We searched their websites for information on curriculum sources and sent out emails to school leaders if they did not make their academic plan public.  We did not assess Catholic schools, which made up 29 percent of Christian schools, since there is already a large body of research on the outcomes of students who go to these schools. Evangelical Christian schools are newer—many popped up only a few decades ago—and remain less scrutinized.  Indeed, we found many of the non-Catholic Christian schools (32 percent) were using Abeka, Bob Jones or ACE textbooks in at least one subject or grade.”

Here is what Klein discovered about Abeka, Bob Jones and ACE textbooks: “A HuffPost analysis of Abeka, Bob Jones, and ACE textbooks confirms…. these materials inaccurately portray events in Muslim and Catholic history while perpetuating anti-Semetic stereotypes.  The materials speak disparagingly of Native Americans and Native culture… A Bob Jones high school world history textbook portrays Islam as a violent religion…. In the same textbook, when describing the Catholic Reformation, Catholic leaders are described as failing ‘to see that the root of their problems was doctrinal error.’  When describing the concept of Manifest Destiny, the term used to describe America’s 19th century expansion westward, an ACE textbook referred to the movement essentially as spreading the gospel..”  Klein’s report is worth reading as it traces the development of these curricula and their publishing houses. Klein also interviews students who read these textbooks at school and who were exposed to mainstream scientific principles only after they finished school.

What we remember as we read Klein’s report is that as we direct tax dollars to private schools in the form of tuition vouchers or tax credit vouchers, the public loses any public control over what is taught.  Klein quotes Kathleen Wellman, a professor of history at Southern Methodist University who is conducting research on the textbooks used in many of Christian religious schools:  “I want parents to know their children might be coming home with a book that looks like an ordinary textbook but the messages are not what people would ordinarily learn… Many universities don’t require history education, so for many Americans this will be their last exposure to history. And many students say they didn’t realize at the time how thoroughly they were being indoctrinated.”

Stanford’s Sean Reardon Suggests A Better Way to Measure What Schools Contribute to Learning

These days, based on schools’ aggregate standardized test scores, states brand schools as “failing.” Some school districts shut down or charterize schools that have, according to their test scores, been marked as “failing.” Some states still use their students’ test scores to constitute 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations. States publish school district report cards that award “A” grades to mostly wealthy school districts (because high test scores tend to correlate with family income) and penalize with “F” grades the poorer districts that tend to post lower overall test scores—a system that is condemning the schools in poor communities and driving segregation across metropolitan areas.

Now Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist of education who is best known for tracking the resegregation of our society by income and the implications for public schools, has published a new study showing that annual standardized test scores cannot accurately measure the quality of a public school system.

Here is Reardon describing his new study: “I use standardized test scores from roughly 45 million students to construct measures of the temporal structure of educational opportunity in over 11,000 school districts—almost every district in the U.S.  The data span the school years 2008-09 through 2014-15.  For each school district, I construct two measures: the average academic performance of students in grade 3 and the within-cohort growth in test scores from grade 3 to 8.  I argue that average test scores in a school district can be thought of as reflecting the average cumulative set of educational opportunities children in a community have had up to the time when they take a test.  Given this, the average scores in grade 3 can be thought of as measures of the average extent of ‘early educational opportunities’ (reflecting opportunities from birth to age 9) available to children in a school district.  Prior research suggest that these early opportunities are strongly related to the average socioeconomic resources available in children’s families in the district.  They may also depend on other characteristics of the community, including neighborhood conditions, the availability of high-quality child care and pre-school programs, and the quality of schools in grades K-3.”

Test scores in grades 3-8 are, according to Reardon’s hypothesis, more reflective of the quality of the public schools: “The growth in average test scores from grades 3 to 8 can likewise be thought of as a measure of the average extent of  ‘middle childhood educational opportunities’ available to children in a school district while they are roughly age 9 to 14.  Given the prominence of schooling in children’s lives at these ages, these middle childhood opportunities may depend in large part on the quality of the local elementary and middle schools. They may also depend on average family resources, of course, as well as other conditions, including neighborhood characteristics and the availability of after school programs.”

Reardon continues: “I find that the two measures are largely uncorrelated; early and middle-grades opportunities appear to be distinct and separable dimensions of local educational opportunity structures… (A)lthough both dimensions of opportunity are positively associated with district socioeconomic conditions, the correlation is much weaker for the middle grades growth dimension. There are many low-income school districts with relatively high measures of growth and many affluent districts with relatively low growth.”

Reardon cautions that because the variables are enormously complex, his study cannot provide simple answers: “It is tempting to think of growth rates in test scores as a rough measure of school district effectiveness. This is neither entirely inappropriate nor entirely accurate.  The growth rates better isolate the contribution to learning due to experiences during the school years… But that does not mean they reflect only the contribution of schooling.  Other characteristics of communities, including family resources, after school programs, and neighborhood conditions may all affect growth in test scores independent of schools’ effects… And although poverty is systematically associated with low opportunities to learn in early childhood… poverty very clearly does not strictly determine the opportunities for children to learn in the middle grade years.”

Emphasizing that achievement gaps are likely to remain, Reardon adds: “That said, it is not clear from the patterns here that an effective school system alone can make up for low opportunities in early childhood.  The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low and higher-SES (socioeconomic status) districts are so large that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

Reardon condemns the current practice in a number of states of rating and ranking schools and school districts by their students’ aggregate standardized test scores.  He hopes that the conclusions of this current research will help to diminish the rapidly growing trend his own research has identified (here and here) of nearly half a century of residential resegregation by family income: “(A)ny information system that makes average test scores publicly available to parents in the hopes that a market for high test score districts will emerge and drive school improvement may instead simply create a market for high-SES districts, increasing economic segregation without improving school systems. To the extent that pubic information about school quality affects middle-and high income families’ decisions about where to live, information on growth rates might provide very different signals, perhaps leading to lower levels of economic residential and school segregation”

More School Closures Planned in Chicago

Last week the Chicago Public Schools announced a massive plan for school mergers and closures.  Here is Juan Perez, Jr. for the Chicago Tribune: “(F)our South Side schools would close over the summer and the district would send hundreds of displaced students to surrounding schools. One building would be demolished to make way for a new high school, and privately operated charter schools would take over two other sites… Students at two predominantly African American elementary schools near downtown would merge with more diverse campuses.  One of those buildings, in the growing South Loop area, would gradually convert into a new high school.  In addition, Hirsch, one of the city’s lowest-enrolled high schools, would share space for a privately run charter school program that’s backed by a local megachurch and a foundation headed by hip-hop artist Common… The proposals will be the subject of public hearings in January ahead of a Chicago Board of Education vote.”

Why this announcement now?  WBEZ‘s Sarah Karp reports, “Chicago Public Schools has lost 32,000 students over the last five years, nearly the same enrollment drop as in the 10-year period leading up to the closures of 50 elementary schools in 2013.  Those missing students could fill 53 average-sized Chicago schools.  This massive enrollment decline comes as a self-imposed five-year moratorium on school closings lifts in 2018… The school system must announce by Dec. 1 any proposed closures for its more than 600 schools.”

Karp, who covered the Chicago Public Schools for Catalyst before the magazine’s closure, explains that expansion of charter schools has exacerbated enrollment decline in the traditional public schools: “But the district has contributed to its capacity problems by greenlighting new schools in recent years. Since 2013, a total of 39 new schools serving 16,000 students have opened, and 29 of them serve high school students. This includes several new charter high schools and 15 alternative high schools for dropouts. Those alternative schools are mostly in neighborhoods with the most severely under-enrolled high schools… When CPS closed 50 schools in 2013, high schools were spared amid fears that consolidations could spur violence among students forced to cross gang lines.  High schools, then, are among the most underutilized today.  Seventeen have fewer than 270 students.”

In a special report for the Chicago Tribune, Juan Perez, Jr.  describes what has happened at Tilden High School on Chicago’s South Side:  “Over the last decade, the district has expanded the number of high school options families can choose from, with the growth of independently run schools such as charters and of selective enrollment programs… At the same time, enrollment has plummeted. From 2006-2015, overall CPS enrollment declined by more than 21,000 students. Since the start of the 2015-16 school year, the district has lost close to 21,000 additional students.  District officials blame much of the enrollment loss on falling birthrates, slower immigration patterns and the well-documented flight of residents from the city’s South and West sides. The numbers have left Tilden and many other schools facing a slow death.”

Parents and activists in Chicago blame the school district for under-investing in the high schools the new plan slates for consolidation or closure. One of the ways the district has accelerated the demise of some schools is through a policy Karp describes as zero-enrollment. After the district stops assigning students to a school, eventually so few students are left that the school is no longer viable. But public officials respond by blaming what our society has come come to call the “failing” school itself. Perez Jr. identifies another issue: the way Chicago allocates funding.  In Chicago, the money follows the student, which means that schools with dwindling enrollment can afford fewer teachers and fewer programs that might attract students.  It is a downward spiral.

In a report published just a year ago, Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, challenges school districts like Chicago, where, despite the trend of smaller families and despite ongoing enrollment decline from out-migration, officials promote privatization and competition via rapid expansion of charter schools: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Here is a similar analysis in a report published in March, 2017, from Roosevelt University in Chicago: “CPS’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system. While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”

House Republicans Release Proposal for Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

Last Friday, as the U.S. Senate was debating and passing its version of the tax overhaul, House Republicans introduced a major bill—a proposal for reauthorization of the 1965 Higher Education Act.  Just as it took longer than the recommended five years to reauthorize the K-12, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (from  passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 to passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015), Congress has delayed updating the Higher Education Act, which was supposed to expire in 2013. Everyone predicts months of debate on the issues proposed in the new House bill.

The bill is 542 pages long, which makes it impossible to summarize comprehensively.  Recent reports from Benjamin Wermund at POLITICO Morning Education, from Daniele Douglas-Gabriel at the Washington Post, from Andrew Ujifusa at Education Week, and from Douglas Belkin, Josh Mitchell and Melissa Korn at the Wall Street Journal do, however, indicate the bill’s overall direction—rejecting regulation of for-profit colleges established in the Obama Department of Education—changing the federal student loan program—and emphasizing the connection of higher education to the needs of employers. The liberal arts are underappreciated in this bill, named by its sponsors “The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act”—the PROSPER Act.

Easing Regulations on For-Profit Colleges

It is clear that for-profit colleges would once again prosper under the PROSPER Act. The bill would eliminate regulations instituted during the Obama Administration to regulate these institutions, particularly those whose career training programs are so weak that graduates are not qualified for subsequent employment.  Here is POLITICO‘s Wermund: “Much of the proposal is aimed at scrapping Obama-era regulations—and making sure they stay gone.  Those regulations include ‘gainful employment’ and ‘borrorower’s defense to repayment’ rules, which cut off federal funding to career college programs that produce graduates with large debt loads and provide debt relief to defrauded student loan borrowers, respectively.”  Colleges like Corinthian and ITT Technical Institute were put out of business through Obama-era regulation. The PROSPER Act would prohibit the Education Secretary from creating such rules in the future.

The PROSPER Act also eliminates the 90-10 Rule, which sets an already very liberal 90 percent cap on the amount of revenue any higher education institution may receive from Title IV federal student aid.  The 90-10 rule has been used to try to regulate the for-profit colleges which depend for virtually all of their revenue on federal student loans—with a high default rate when students discover their subsequent income is so meager they cannot repay their loans.

Student Loans

With a hold-harmless to protect students already in the program, The PROSPER Act would eliminate the opportunity for graduates to have student loans forgiven after ten years if they have made payments for 10 years and worked in jobs that benefit the public sector.  Here is the Washington Post‘s Douglas-Gabriel: “The plan, much like the White House budget (proposed but never as yet enacted), would do away with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that wipes away federal student debt for people in the public sector who have reliably made payments for ten years. The program, enacted in 2007 under President George W. Bush, was designed to encourage college graduates to pursue careers as social workers, teachers, public defenders, or doctors in rural areas.”

The PROSPER Act would collapse eight current federal loan programs into two and set limits on federal borrowing: $39,000 for undergraduates (up from $31,000 today), $150,000 for graduate students, and $56,250 for parents.  According to Douglas-Gabriel, “As it stands, people can opt to have their monthly loan payments capped to a percentage of their earnings, with the remaining balance of the debt forgiven after 20 or 25 years. The House plan would eliminate that loan forgiveness, but cap the interest payments on the loan after 10 years.”

Emphasizing Career Prep

Without explicitly castigating the liberal arts and the sciences, rhetoric about the PROSPER Act emphasizes career preparation—even as the bill eases regulations on for-profit colleges with shoddy programs that have left graduates ill-prepared for the jobs the colleges promise.  The Wall Street Journal reporters describe, “Rep. Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce which drafted the proposal, (who) lamented that so much of higher education was considered ‘irrelevant’ by employers.  She hopes to better harness technology by pushing accreditors to lean on schools to accept more creative alternatives to higher education: ‘Since the last bill came out, we had a big recession and tremendous technological changes,’ she said. ‘We have a shortage of 6 million skilled workers. What we want to do is help colleges provide students with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.’  The PROSPER Act aims to expand apprenticeships and competency-based education along with more ‘learn and earn’ opportunities, said Rep. Foxx, a former community college president.”

The WSJ reporters predict that The PROSPER Act will be extremely unpopular with leaders of traditional colleges and universities.  Belkin explains: “The act focuses on ensuring students don’t just enroll in school, but actually graduate with skills that the labor market is seeking.” They quote Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation: “You will get nontraditional actors like companies that provide coursework for apprenticeships.”

Surely it is advantageous for graduates of any program to be employable, but higher education has additional important goals. Mike Rose, the UCLA professor who has explored the role of education in general and of community colleges in particular, recently suggested in his personal blog that the debate about college vs. vocational education rests on how we define the purpose of education: “Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into—and are shaped by—a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life.”

I urge you to read Rose’s reflection on the many purposes of college, graduate school, and post-secondary career training.  The debate about the role of  higher education is complex. It will be much debated in what will likely be months or maybe years of wrangling before the Higher Education Act is eventually reauthorized.

Success Academies: Can No-Excuses Charter Schools Be Called Progressive?

An important piece by Rebecca Mead in this week’s New Yorker takes us into Eva Moskowitz’s very controversial Success Academy charter schools in New York City. Mead explains the point of her piece: “For all the controversy, one question has, surprisingly, been overlooked: What are the distinguishing characteristics of a Success Academy education?”

Mead’s subtitle names a contradiction at the center of Moskowitz’s educational theory: “Inside Eva Moskowitz’s Quest to Combine Rigid Discipline with a Progressive Curriculum.” Even as Moskowitz defends the rigid and punitive discipline for which her schools are famous (In Mead’s piece, Moskowitz is quoted as defending the suspension of young children out of school as an important way of impressing a lesson on children and their parents.), Moskowitz claims John Dewey, the father of progressive education, as a guide to what happens in her schools. Moskowitz describes her curriculum as an example of progressivism—“circle time on the classroom rug; interdisciplinary projects that encompass math, science, social studies, and literacy.”  The question that underlies Mead’s analysis is whether it is possible to run a progressive school with no-excuses discipline.

While on one level Mead entertains Moskowitz’s rhetoric about progressivism, Mead seems puzzled by the circle time on the classroom rug: “In the second-grade classroom in Queens, the gridded rug seemed less like a magic carpet than like a chessboard at the start of a game. Within each square there was a large colored spot the size of a chair cushion.  The children sat in rows, facing forward, each within his or her assigned square, with their legs crossed and their hands clasped or folded in their laps. Success students can expect to be called to answer a teacher’s question at any moment, not just when they raise their hand, and must keep their eyes trained on the speaker at all times, a practice known as ‘tracking.’  Staring off into space, or avoiding eye contact is not acceptable.”

Like students at progressive schools (and all kinds of public schools, actually), students in Success Academies go on field trips.  And Mead visits a room where Kindergardeners are taken to play with blocks: “The school has dedicated a special classroom to the activity, and shelves were filled with an enviable supply of blocks. The walls of the room were decorated with pictures of architectural structures that the students might seek to emulate, from the Empire State Building to the Taj Mahal. There was also a list of rules: always walk; carry two small blocks or hug one large block; speak in a whisper.” Unlike free-play at progressive early childhood centers—with dolls, and blocks, and easels and paint, and clay or PlayDoh—block time at the school Mead visits is a specific activity provided by the school in a “block” room to which the entire class of children is led for an assigned period.

For older students there are what Moskowitz likes to consider seminar-type discussions in which children explore ideas. Here is Mead considering one of the class discussions: “The teacher, after establishing that the story’s genre was realistic fiction reminded the class of the necessary ‘thinking job’ required in approaching such a text: to identify the character, the problem, the solution, and the ‘lesson learned.’…  Success Academy students are required to speak in complete sentences, often adhering to a script: ‘I disagree with X’, ‘I agree with X,’ and ‘I want to add on.’… But the lesson seemed to be as much about mastering a formula as about appreciating the nuances of the narrative. When the students were called to ‘turn and talk,’ they swivelled, inside their grids (on the rug), to face a partner, and discussed the section of the text that had been examined collectively. The exchanges I heard consisted of repeating the conclusions that had just been reached rather than independently expanding them. Some students seemed to be going through the motions of analysis and comprehension—performing thought… Nor was there time for more imaginative or personally inflected interpretations of the text—the interrogation of big ideas that happens in the kinds of graduate seminars Moskowitz held up as a model.”

These descriptions of what happened in the Success Academy schools Mead visited sent me to First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, a book published just last year by Steve Nelson, the recently retired head of the Calhoun School, a well-known progressive private school in New York City. What follows are just three of the many characteristics of progressive education that Nelson explores in this book:

  • On the difference between discovery and being taught: “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.”'(p. 11)
  • On progressive education growing from and enhancing the curiosity of students rather than being driven by adults: “In a conventional school, students are seen as vessels into which authoritative adults pour ‘content.’  In a progressive school, students are seen as unique individuals, partners in learning, with their own important ideas, values and experiences.  While there are many shades of grey, conventional schools tend to value and insist on compliance and conformity, while progressive schools encourage skepticism and originality.” (p. 12)
  • On intrinsic motivation—not rewards and punishments—as essential to progressive education: “Extrinsic motivation, especially in education, is driven by systems of rewards and punishments… Intrinsic motivation is driven by factors that emanate from within, such as self-satisfaction, desire for mastery, curiosity, fulfillment, pleasure, self-realization, desire for independence, ethical needs, etc.  Intrinsic motivation is a powerful innate characteristic of all human beings across all cultures and societies… (I)ntrinsic motivation declines as extrinsic structures dramatically increase.” (pp. 160-163)

Contrary to what Nelson identifies as the kind of child-centered, intrinsically motivated, experiential learning that defines progressive education, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies are rigid, relentlessly adult-driven, test-prep factories. Mead explains that to compensate for high turnover among teachers, “Teachers do not develop their own lesson plans; rather, they teach precisely what the network demands. Like the students in their classrooms, Success’s teachers operate within tightly defined boundaries…”

According to their purpose, Success Academy charter schools are are successful: “(T)hey get consistently high scores on standardized tests administered by the state of New York. In the most recent available results, ninety-five percent of Success Academy students achieved proficiency in math, and eighty-four percent in English Language Art: citywide, the respective rates were thirty-six and thirty-eight percent.”  There are, of course, extenuating circumstances: Success Academies do not replace students who drop out after fourth grade; Moskowitz has shamelessly admitted that students who do not fit the Success culture and expectations are encouraged to leave. Public schools, of course, must accept all children. In 2014, Success Academies opened its first high school, which last spring presented diplomas to seventeen students, whose “pioneering class originated with a cohort of seventy-three first graders.”

Mead reports that the high school has struggled with students’ learning styles formed in Success Academy elementary schools: “There was to be a lot more free time, in which students would be the stewards of their own studies.”  But, “Students accustomed to second-by-second vigilance found it difficult to manage their time when left unsupervised.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, tells Mead that a Success Academies education is the very opposite of progressive: “They have a philosophy that, to create a context for learning, it’s necessary to build a total institutional culture that is very strong, enveloping, and quite authoritarian. This produces a level of compliance from children that allows for pretty much any approach to instruction, and eliminates many of the typical challenges of classroom management. There is a reason why there is a continuing pull in human organizations toward authoritarian approaches. You can get a lot done. But what kind of citizens are you producing?… Can you educate children in an authoritarian context and also empower them to be active agents in their own lives, who think critically and question injustice in the world around them?”

Public Education, Medicaid, CHIP, Food Stamps—A Bake Sale Is Not Enough

Three decades ago, I was sucked into public education advocacy as a mom with children in a school district whose local school tax was in danger of failure at the polls. School levy elections are gut-wrenching experiences for parents in my state, where we have scanty and unequal state investment in our schools along with a local property tax freeze that can be overcome only when a school district’s residents vote for an increase. In the years when my children were in elementary and high school, school finance seemed at the heart of what mattered—the size of the Kindergarten class—reading enrichment specialists to help children catch up before they fell hopelessly behind—the high school orchestra—guidance counselors with small enough case loads to guide adolescents through the college application process—advanced lab science classes and the Calculus class.

At a community meeting, someone once asked me, “Can you tell me another way we can fund public schools instead of through taxes?” I still remember looking at the woman and biting my tongue to hold back my own question: “Were you thinking of a bake sale?” Did she misunderstand the scale of the endeavor of a public education system that must serve over 50 million children?  Did she think of education and other programs that serve children as a charity that can be paid for with a few dollars donated during the holiday season?

Now that the Senate—like the House last month—has passed its version of tax reform and House and Senate will reconcile their versions in the conference committee, we are familiarizing ourselves with the details of what it will mean, including some specifics affecting public schools.  Tax bills passed by the House and the Senate both adhere to the theory of supply-side, trickle-down economics; they tilt heavily toward benefits for corporations and the extremely wealthy, on the assumption that benefits will trickle down to the rest of us.

Specifics that will directly affect K-12 public education are summarized by Moriah Balingit and Nick Anderson for the Washington Post:

  • Both Senate and House bills cut what is now a federal tax deduction for taxes paid to state and local governments, although Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa reminds us the Senate bill does preserve a deduction for state and local property taxes up to $10,000. Advocates worry that cutting this deduction will make it harder for states and school districts to increase desperately needed taxes for education.  Today state and local taxes raise 92 percent of the cost of public schools.
  • Both Senate and House bills make it possible for parents to use 529 savings plans—that can now be used only for the payment of college tuition—for private K-12 school tuition. A 529 plan enables parents to invest after-tax dollars into savings plans for college, but when the investments in the 529 plan appreciate, the increase will not be taxed.  Clearly this provision will affect only wealthier parents who can afford to make sizeable investments.
  • The Senate plan doubles what is currently up to a $250 tax deduction for teachers spending their own money for for classroom supplies. While the Senate plan increases the amount a teacher can deduct annually up to $500, the House version eliminates it altogether.

The really serious consequences that will follow whatever tax overhaul House and Senate reconcile in upcoming weeks are more complicated, however, and until recent days little discussed. On Friday, in a column for the Washington Post, Jeff Stein reported on what he’s been hearing now that members of Congress feel more confident about the passage of their tax plan. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been predicting what it has dubbed “a tax reform two-step“: cuts in taxes followed by cuts in government programs. Stein quotes members of Congress admitting they intend to cut spending once tax reform passes: “High-ranking Republicans are hinting that, after their tax overhaul, the party intends to look at cutting spending on welfare, entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and other parts of the social safety net. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis) said recently that he wants Republicans to focus in 2018 on reducing spending on government programs… While whipping votes for a GOP tax bill on Thursday, Senate Finance committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) attacked ‘liberal programs’ for the poor and said Congress needed to stop wasting Americans’ money. ‘We’re spending ourselves into bankruptcy,’ Hatch said. ‘Now, let’s just be honest about it: We’re in trouble. This country is in deep debt.  You don’t help the poor by not solving the problems of debt, and you don’t help the poor by continually pushing more and more liberal programs through.'”

Is there any evidence that supply-side, trickle-down economics generates needed revenue by growing the economy? Governor Sam Brownback in Kansas called his tax cuts a real life experiment in supply-side economics. Explosive economic growth, he predicted, would follow the tax cuts. Here is Michael Tomasky, writing for the NY Times about how the experiment turned out: “Kansas, under Gov. Sam Brownback, has come as close as we’ve ever gotten in the United States to conducting a perfect experiment in supply-side economics. The conservative governor, working with a conservative State Legislature, in the home state of the conservative Koch brothers, took office in 2011 vowing sharp cuts in taxes and state spending…. The taxes were cut, and by a lot. The cumulative cut was forecast to be $3.9 billion by 2019… The cuts came. But the growth never did… The experiment has been a disaster… Finally, even the Republican Kansas Legislature faced reality.”  Last June, after the state’s supreme court had presented an ultimatum to the legislature to improve school funding by June 30, or school could not open in September, both houses of the Kansas legislature  voted to overturn several years of Governor Sam Brownback’s tax cutting and at the same time to eliminate a special taxing innovation that reduced business taxes on pass-through income. The tax increases in Kansas last June have begun to restore solvency to the state.  The AP‘s John Hanna reports: “Kansas is reporting that it collected $8.5 million more in taxes than anticipated in November…. Tax collections this year are 11.7 percent ahead of last year’s collections. Lawmakers increased income taxes earlier this year to help balance the budget.”

Then there is Ohio, where Nick Pittner, the litigator of Ohio’s long-running but ultimately disappointing DeRolph school funding case recently concluded: “Ohio still lacks a school funding formula that meets the requirements set forth in the DeRolph decisions.”  One reason “is the ‘T’ word. School funding reform in the traditional sense cannot be done within the confines of existing revenue…. The prevailing political agenda in Ohio, as in many other states, has been to do everything possible to cut taxes….”

This past Sunday, Brent Larkin, former director of the Plain Dealer‘s editorial page, applied the lesson from Ohio to his analysis of Congress’s current tax overhaul based on trickle-down: “Then there’s the preposterous notion the tax cuts will generate so much economic growth they’ll pay for themselves.  It’s the same specious argument Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the legislature used to sell the huge cuts in Ohio’s income tax—cuts that spurred little growth but left the state with a budget crisis that required it to curtail worthwhile investments in the state’s future and essential funding for children.”

Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz confirms Larkin’s skepticism: “The sordidness of all this will be sugarcoated with the hoary claim that lower tax rates will spur growth. There is simply no theoretical or empirical basis for this…. ”

Finally, another Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman describes his concerns about the tax reform plans Congress will be reconciling: “This time around, much more clearly than before, the goal seems to be to favor wealth, especially inherited wealth, over work. And buried in the legislation are multiple measures that would make it much harder for the children of the middle and working classes to work their way up… Suppose that a child from a working-class family decides, despite limited financial resources, to attend college, probably taking out a loan…. Under the House bill, that interest would no longer be deductible… What if you’re working your way through school and your employer contributes toward your education expenses?  The House bill would make that contribution taxable income. What if your parent is a university employee, and you get reduced tuition as a result? That tuition break becomes taxable income. So would tuition breaks for graduate students who work as teaching or research assistants. So what we’re looking at here are a variety of measures that will close off opportunities for children who weren’t clever enough to choose wealthy parents.  Meanwhile, funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers more than eight million children, expired a month and a half ago—and so far, Republicans have made no serious effort to restore it. That is surely the shape of things to come…. So this isn’t just ordinary class warfare; it’s class warfare aimed at perpetuating inequality into the next generation. Taken together, the elements of both the House and the Senate bills amount to a more or less systematic attempt to lavish benefits on the children of the ultra-wealthy while making it harder for less fortunate young people to achieve upward social mobility.”

This blog has covered the 2017 tax overhaul here and here.