NY Times Muddles Education Debate

Last week, Connecticut Judge Thomas Moukawsher released a school funding decision in the case, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell.  Judge Moukawsher found Connecticut school funding unconstitutional, but at the same time his decision was anything but clear.  The Connecticut Supreme Court had already recognized the state’s allocation of educational resources and their alleged deficiencies, and had remanded the case back to the lower court with the expectation that the judge would examine the evidence and determine to what degree Connecticut’s level of investment in the plaintiff school districts meets the adequacy standard.  Writing for the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker, an expert on school finance and an attorney with the Education Law Center, explains: “At trial, the CCJEF plaintiffs (had) put forth overwhelming evidence of severe resource deficiencies of inputs such as: academic and social intervention for at-risk students and students with special needs; guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, services for English Language Learners, music, art and other subjects; and reasonable class size. Judge Moukawsher’s charge was to examine the resources in the districts at issue in the case…. However, nowhere in the opinion does the judge systematically look at the actual resources present or absent in each district.” (On Tuesday, this blog commented on the Connecticut decision).

In his decision, the Connecticut judge also chose to range far beyond the funding issue at the center of the case.  In his decision, Judge Moukawsher condemns a range of policies and practices in education that have little to do with school finance. The decision is confusing and the NY Times, which has covered the decision, has neither identified nor explained the pertinent issues. Instead, praising the decision as A Holistic Ruling on Broken Schools, the NY Times Editorial Board declares: “These rulings have focused mainly on money. But a sweeping opinion issued last week by a state judge in Connecticut went beyond criticizing funding policies. He ordered the state to revamp major aspects of the system—including special education services, teacher evaluations and hollow requirements that ‘in some places have nearly destroyed the meaning of high school graduation and left children rising from elementary school to high schools without knowing how to read’…. The blistering ruling should shame lawmakers, who have for decades looked away from the problem of educational inequality… After seeing the vast gulf between achievement levels and graduation rates in poor and wealthy communities, the judge chastised the state for standing on the sidelines, ‘imposing token statewide standards’ that had no demonstrable, verifiable connection to student learning.”  Using a complex school funding decision as a springboard for a wide ranging education policy debate before clearly exploring the meaning of the decision itself is a dangerous press strategy as we shall see.

Yesterday, the NY Times continued with its attempt to use the Connecticut court decision to jump start a national discussion about education policy under a headline that screams, Is School Reform Hopeless?  Kirsten Moran introduces a series of short articles representing all sides of the education debate with the question, “Why is failure so widespread and persistent in poor districts and how can it be resolved?” In a series of short commentaries, experts respond to Moran’s question by promoting their particular areas of expertise and their particular biases. The newspaper is careful to achieve balance by sampling proponents from both sides of the education war:

  • Prudence Carter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, explains that school reform won’t come cheaply, that schools need in-school wraparound health and social services to serve children in poverty, and that, “Schools have to attract experienced teachers and leaders with the right sensibilities and training to educate youth from diverse social and cultural backgrounds.”
  • Elaine Weiss of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education advocates for support for teachers who face daunting obstacles, and for in-school wraparound health and social services.  “Effective teaching and leadership,” she writes,”are, for sure, critical to great education, but reforms can’t be focused on removing and replacing individual educators without acknowledging the reality that schools are complex ecosystems situated within larger systems—their surrounding communities.”
  • Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, the organization that promotes a school governance plan called “portfolio school reform”—marketplace school choice in which appointed school boards open and lose schools as though the district were a business portfolio.  Not surprisingly, Lake writes that we need to truly equalize funding “by having state and local money follow students”—students carrying their funding to their school of choice. “All families deserve choices…. Every school should be expected to grow, get support and intervention, or be replaced by another promising set of educators.”
  • Carola Suarez-Orozco, a professor at UCLA whose specialty is the needs of English language learners, declares: “Our current accountability mandate is predicated on standardized assessments, but those assessments were not designed with English learners in mind… We… must prepare our teachers and administrators to learn how to serve these students and their families.”
  • Ron Ferguson, who directs the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, notes that while participants in Harvard’s seminars in closing the achievement gap agree that, “People are overwhelmed by the complexity of the challenge” of raising achievement and narrowing gaps, “some inner city schools decode the complexity and work through it. They create orderly climates that facilitate learning. Through extraordinary acts of persuasion, persistence and sometimes even coercion, leaders assemble skilled and relentless teaching and counseling staffs….”
  • Marguerite Roza at Georgetown University explains that a focus on rewriting funding formulas hasn’t “reversed a general trend of rampant school failure in poor districts.  Schools with greater concentrations of poor students, by and large, still do poorly.” Current reforms have, she writes “produced  a compliance-orientation to schooling that leaves school leaders in a virtual straitjacket.” “School leaders need more control of spending.”

As these experts speak briefly and superficially to their own specialties and sometimes their ideologies, we are not helped to put their comments into any sort of frame or context.  And we are left with the sense that problems in public education today are broad, confusing and hopeless. I do not believe our challenges are hopeless, but I do believe they must be sorted out and addressed clearly and directly.

Of course our education system is complex: Public schools serve 50 million children across a broad range of cities, suburbs, towns and rural areas.  Some students bring the challenges of their families—divorce or abuse; others bring the challenges of poverty. Some bring the need to learn English. Others need to learn despite physical and mental disabilities. A startling example of overwhelming need in the hometown of the NY Times is documented in a report released in August about the 82,000 homeless children enrolled in the public schools of New York City. Here are just a couple of facts from that report: “Forty percent of homeless elementary students living in shelters transferred (from one school to another) during the school year compared to just 9% of their housed peers.” “Across grade levels, homeless students living in shelters had higher rates of chronic absenteeism…. More than one in seven homeless students (15%) missed 40 or more days of school—roughly 20% of the school year.” Clearly there are no clear-cut, one-dimensional solutions to the mass of challenges facing our nation’s over 90,000 public schools.

What is very clear is that the Connecticut school funding decision is not the ideal lens through which we should examine American public schools’ many challenges.  Not only does the judge’s decision fail proactively to define how to remedy the shortfall in resources in Connecticut’s poorest school districts, but Judge Moukawsher wanders into other issues in which his decision raises thorny problems.  Attorneys at the Connecticut firm of Pullman & Comley LLC published an analysis: “The judge, however, did not stop at the funding issues. Judge Moukawsher reviewed not only the State’s school funding system but also the ‘major policies’ carrying these resources into action.  Finding many of these policies to be unconstitutional, the judged ordered the State—by March 7, 2017—to undertake the following additional actions…. submit an objective and mandatory statewide high school graduation standard…. submit a ‘rational, substantial, and verifiable definition of elementary education’… submit plans for a ‘rational’ system for evaluating and compensating education professionals…. submit new standards which ‘rationally, substantially, and verifiably link special education spending with elementary and secondary education’…. Finally the judge also appeared to order the State ‘to assume unconditional authority to intervene in troubled school districts’ and ‘redefine the relationship between the state and local government in education.'”

The analysis from Pullman & Comley LLC concludes: “This post cannot do justice to the significant issues raised by this decision…. That a judge has now ordered the legislature to address the State’s educational funding system as a result of this case may not be a surprise; the changes the judge has ordered (without any corresponding increase in the aggregate amount of spending) may lead to numerous school districts receiving significantly less state funding, some of which may not be ‘rich’ districts. Equally as important, the judge has mandated a veritable revolution in almost every aspect of public education, which could eviscerate many state laws and result in both intended and unintended consequences.  The orders with respect to the teacher evaluation and compensation system would lead to massive changes in the collective bargaining and teacher tenure systems… In special education, school districts may eventually be placed in the position of receiving less state funding for expensive out-of-district placements, but still facing the prospect that in the course of interpreting and applying federal and state special education laws, special education due process hearing officers will continue to order such placements… Finally, the judge’s ruling appeared to place a higher premium on high stakes testing at a time that there is a backlash against such testing.”

I suppose it is understandable that such a decision may be viewed in some newsrooms as an opportunity not only to consider the perennial topic of adequate school funding, equitably distributed, but also to seize the judge’s wide-ranging critique as grounds for posing the provocative debate prompt, “Is School Reform Hopeless?”  I believe, however, that the choice by the NY Times to use the controversial Connecticut school funding decision as a springboard for discussion in what is already a highly charged and polarized policy environment can only confuse.

The importance of educating our children requires precise, reasoned, and informed reporting.

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5 thoughts on “NY Times Muddles Education Debate

  1. Pingback: Jan Resseger 2: The New York Times Confuses the Public About What Schools Need | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. Smoke screens and shell games. This, actually, is what has kept a non-stop punitive school “reform” going for years, now, in our large inner-city district. No one is ever sure what’s going on; no one can see through the endlessly “wandering” smoke.

  3. Hello Jan, I simply love reading your blog. Because of the information you write about the privatization of public schools, I have read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Samual Abrams’ Education and the Commercial Mindset. I am in the process of starting a blog and wanted to ask your permission to quote you and link your blog to mine when I begin writing content. I am a retired English teacher with 20+ years in public education, and I am appalled at the neoliberalism demagogues passing legislation privatizing public schools and earning huge profits off the backs of poor children. My primary focus will be on the new law, Achievement School Districts, passed by the North Carolina General Assembly this year. Thank you again for all you do for public education. Diane Howdeshell

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