In Open Letter, Network for Public Education Asks Joe Biden to Be a Champion for Public Schools

Yesterday, Diane Ravitch, President of the Network for Public Education (NPE) and Carol Burris, NPE’s Executive Director published an open letter pressing Joe Biden, as a candidate for President, to provide strong leadership for justice in public education: “Our public schools and their students desperately need a champion.  We hope you will be that champion.  For two decades our schools and their teachers have been micromanaged by misguided federal mandates that require states to judge students, teachers, and schools by standardized test scores, as though a test score could ever be the true measure of a child, a teacher or a school.”

Ravitch and Burris remind Biden of his promise on December 14, 2019, when seven candidates for the Democratic nomination for President appeared at a Public Education Forum 2020.  The meeting, sponsored by the Alliance for Educational Justice; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the Center for Popular Democracy Action; the Journey for Justice Alliance; the NAACP; the National Education Association; the Network for Public Education Action; the Schott Foundation for Public Education-Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; the Service Employees International Union; and Voto Latino, was one of the most inspiring events I have attended.  It followed a series of Presidential debates all fall in which not one of the candidates had been asked to speak to the complex and fraught political implications of two decades of test-and-punish school reform.  The sponsors had brought more than 1500 teachers, organized parents, and public school students on a winter day to a convention center overlooking the Allegheny River. I don’t think I have ever been part of a crowd that was so wonderfully diverse. I found myself sitting next to a woman who has been serving for 30 years in a public school on the Navajo Nation as a special education teacher.

Now that he will be this year’s Democratic nominee for President, Ravitch and Burris admonish Biden to remember his promise on that winter day in Pittsburgh: “NPE Board member Denisha Jones asked you whether you would commit to ending standardized testing in public schools. You did not hesitate when you said, ‘Yes. You are preaching to the choir… Teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know.’ You explained that what is most important is building a child’s confidence and you referred to evaluating teachers by test scores as a ‘big mistake.'”

In their letter, Ravitch and Burris ask Biden to commit to three principles:

First:   End mandated high-stakes, standardized tests.  “Former supporters of President Obama’s Race to the Top program will whisper in your ear to persuade you to double down on failed policies. They will try to convince you that testing is a ‘civil right.’  It is not.  In fact, standardized testing has its roots in eugenics—it was used for years as a means by which to shut out immigrants, students of color, and students who live in poverty in order to reserve privilege for affluent students, who more typically excel on standardized tests.”

Second:   Fully fund schools to support the work of teachers and their students. “(W)e fully support your plan to triple Title I funding while giving educators voice in how that money should be best spent.” “All children deserve a well-resourced public school filled with high-quality educational experiences. All children deserve experienced and well-prepared teachers. All children deserve schools that have counselors, social workers, librarians, and nurses.  All children deserve a full curriculum, with science labs and arts programs… Research consistently demonstrates that increases in funding make a difference in the educational outcomes of children… We are pleased that you support Community Schools as a pathway for school improvement.”

Third:   End the federal subsidy for the expansion of charter schools.  “We are glad that you endorse district public school improvement instead of embracing the expansion of what has become a competing alternative system whose growth has drained funding from public schools. Banning for-profit charter schools is not enough. There are only a handful of for-profit charters, and they exist only in Arizona. There are, however, many for-profit charter management companies as well as nonprofit charter management companies whose CEOs enjoy exorbitant salaries, far exceeding the salaries of district school superintendents. These charter chains hide their lavish spending on travel, marketing, advertising, rental payments to related companies, and administrative salaries from community, state and federal taxpayers even as they claim to be public schools.”

In their letter to Joe Biden, Ravitch and Burris target their charter school critique to the federal government’s role since 1994 in promoting the expansion of charter schools. Because charter schools have always been authorized in state law and much of the oversight of these publicly funded but privately managed schools falls to the states, Ravitch and Burris emphasize the problems in the federal Charter Schools Program, a program the Network for Public Education had researched and condemned (see here and here) for the egregious failure by the U.S. Department of Education to oversee the states’ administration of the federal grant money, to prevent fraud in the Charter Management Companies, and to ensure any level of quality of the charter schools receiving federal grants. NPE has demonstrated that over 37 percent of the schools receiving funding either never opened or are now closed.

In their new letter, Ravitch and Burris ask Biden to end the federal Charter Schools Program: “Although the policies of the states regarding charter schools are beyond your control, the Federal Charter Schools Program is not. A once modest program intended to spark innovative community-led charter schools is now a program that sends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to corporate charter school chains… It is time to eliminate the federal Charter Schools Program….”

Are NPE’s three priorities—end high-stakes testing, fully fund public education, and end the federal Charter Schools Program—the right priorities?  I think so. 

I would expand a bit, however, on the first goal, ending high-stakes testing. There are two parts of the test-and-punish education policy that has dominated our schools for decades: There is the problem of ubiquitous testing and additionally there are the extremely damaging high-stakes punishments.

High-stakes testing has come to dominate the school year and to narrow and drive the curriculum. Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains why attaching high stakes to the testing invalidates the tests themselves and at the same time undermines the education process. Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)  The attachment of high stakes has most severely undermined the education process in the schools where children are farthest behind—schools where teachers have been forced to try to catch children up with their more privileged peers by teaching to the test and falling back on deadly drilling.

I would also urge Biden to address the second problem with test-and-punish. The goal of No Child Left Behind was to threaten punishments as a way to motivate educators into finding a way quickly to raise test scores. The punishments embedded in No Child Left Behind and Race to the top used aggregate student test scores as the basis for the following sanctions for low scoring schools: threaten low scoring schools with closure; threaten to fire school principals; threaten schools with state takeover; threaten low scoring schools with takeover by Charter Management Organizations; and threaten teachers by evaluating them by their students’ aggregate test scores.  No Child Left Behind failed across the United States when scores did not rise during the period of its operation over more than a decade.  But the failure to raise scores did not directly affect public schools in affluent communities where economic privilege is known to raise scores.

In poor communities, however, the threatened punishments went into effect.  As a result, in Chicago, school closure was one result; 50 neighborhood schools were shut down in June of 2013, causing widespread community grieving for the loss of essential neighborhood anchors. The number of charter schools across American cities has grown enormously, and their growth is financially devastating the public school districts where they are located. For example, in a stunning report, political economist Gordon Lafer demonstrates that charter schools are draining $57.3 million every year out of the Oakland (California) Unified School District.  In Ohio, the sanctions have led to school privatization, to the closure of public schools in the poorest neighborhoods, to the damaging state report cards that brand schools and school districts in poor communities with “F”ratings. These school report cards have also been the basis for the astronomical expansion of private school tuition vouchers at the expense of local school districts. (See here and here.)

It is, of course, true that under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, states were required to adopt these sanctions into their own state laws. These are no longer federally mandated policies which can be eliminated by Congressional action or federal fiat. But strong federal leadership will be necessary to challenge what has become the conventional wisdom in too many state legislatures about about the necessity of high-stakes testing.

I add these last paragraphs merely to probe more deeply some of the politically fraught complexities of two decades of the kind of test-and-punish, business-driven school accountability launched by the federal No Child Let Behind Act and Race to the Top.  If Vice President Joe Biden were to launch the agenda Ravitch and Burris urge him to adopt, he will reset the direction of federal policy and the new direction will move us much closer to eliminating the dangerous punitive policies that still operate across many of our states.

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