U.S. Public Education Is Driven by High-Stakes Testing. Are the Proficiency Cut-Scores Legitimate?

Back in 2005, I worked with members of the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy to develop a short resource, Ten Moral Concerns in the No Child Left Behind Act. While closing achievement gaps seemed an important goal, to us it seemed wrong that—according to an unrelenting year-by-year Adequate Yearly Progress schedule—the law blindly held teachers and schools accountable for raising all children’s test performance to the test score targets set by every state. Children come to school with such a wide range of preparation, and achievement gaps are present when children arrive in Kindergarten.  At that time, we expressed our concern this way:

“Till now the No Child Left Behind Act has neither acknowledged where children start the school year nor celebrated their individual accomplishments. A school where the mean eighth grade math score for any one subgroup grows from a third to a sixth grade level has been labeled a “in need of improvement” (a label of failure) even though the students have made significant progress. The law has not acknowledged that every child is unique and that Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) thresholds are merely benchmarks set by human beings. Although the Department of Education now permits states to measure student growth, because the technology for tracking individual learning over time is far more complicated than the law’s authors anticipated, too many children will continue to be labeled failures even though they are making strides, and their schools will continue to be labeled failures unless all sub-groups of children are on track to reach reading and math proficiency by 2014.”

Of course today we know that the No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to motivate teachers to work harder to raise scores. Policymakers hoped that if they set the bar really high, teachers would figure out how to get kids over it.  It didn’t work.  No Child Left Behind said that all children would be proficient by 2014 or their school would be labeled failing. Finally as 2014 loomed closer, Arne Duncan had to give states waivers to avoid what was going to happen if the law had been enforced: All American public schools would have been declared “failing.”

Despite the failure of No Child Left Behind,  members of the public, the press, and the politicians across the 50 statehouses who implemented the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind continue to accept the validity of high stakes testing. Politicians, the newspaper reporters and editors who report the scores, and the general public trust the supposed experts who set the cut scores.  That is why states still rank and rate public schools by their test scores and legislators pass laws to punish  low-scoring schools and teachers. That is why on Wednesday this blog commented on Ohio’s plan to expand EdChoice vouchers for students in low-scoring schools and add charters in low-scoring school districts. The list of “failing” schools where students will qualify for vouchers will rise next school year in Ohio from 218 to 475. The list of charter school-eligible districts will grow from 38 to 217.

In response to the continuation of test-and-punish, I’ve been quoting Daniel Koretz’s book, The Testing Charade about the fact that testing cut scores are arbitrary and  punishments unfair:  “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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…  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.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

As a blogger, I am not an expert on how test score targets—the cut scores—are set, but Daniel Koretz devotes an entire chapter of his book, “Making Up Unrealistic Targets,” to this subject.  Here is how he begins:  “If one doesn’t look too closely, reporting what percentage of students are ‘proficient’ seems clear enough. Someone somehow determined what level of achievement we should expect at any given grade—that’s what we will call ‘proficient’—and we’re just counting how many kids have reached that point. This seeming simplicity and clarity is why almost all public discussion of test scores is now cast in terms of the percentage reaching either the proficient standard, or occasionally, another cut score… The trust most people have in performance standards is essential, because the entire educational system now revolves around them. The percentage of kids who reach the standard is the key number determining which teachers and schools will be rewarded or punished.”  (The Testing Charade, p. 120)

After emphasizing that benchmark scores are not scientifically set and are in fact all arbitrary, Koretz examines some of the methods. The “bookmark” method, he explains, “hinges entirely on people’s guesses about how imaginary students would perform on individual test items… (P)anels of judges are given a written definition of what a standard like “proficient” is supposed to mean.”  Koretz quotes from Nebraska’s definition of reading comprehension: “A student scoring at the Meets the Standards level generally utilizes a variety of reading skills and strategies to comprehend and interpret narrative and informational text at grade level.” After enumerating some of the specific skills and strategies listed in Nebraska, Koretz adds a qualification to the way Nebraska describes its methodology: “A short digression: the emphasized word generally is very important. One of the problems in setting standards is that students are inconsistent in their performance.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 121-122) (Emphasis in the original.)

Koretz continues: “There is another, perhaps even more important, reason why performance standards can’t be trusted: there are many different methods one can use, and there is rarely a really persuasive reason to select one over the other. For example, another common approach, the Angoff method… is like the bookmark in requiring panelists to imagine marginally proficient students, but in this approach they are not given the order of difficulty of the items or a response probability. Instead panelists have to guess the percentage of imaginary marginally proficient students who would correctly answer every item in the test. Other methods entail examining and rating actual student work, rather than guessing the performance of imaginary students on individual items.  Yet other methods hinge on predictions of later performance—for example, in college. There are yet others. This wouldn’t matter if these different methods gave you at least roughly similar results, but they often don’t.  The percentage of kids deemed to be ‘proficient’ sometimes varies dramatically from one method to another.  This inconsistency was copiously documented almost thirty years ago, and the news hasn’t gotten any better.” (The Testing Charade, pp.123-124)

Koretz continues his warning: “However, setting the standards themselves is just the beginning. What gives the performance standards real bite is their translation into conrcete targets for educators, which depends on more than the rigor of the standard itself.  We have to say just who has to reach the threshold. We have to say how quickly performance has to increase—not only overall but for different types of kids and schools. A less obvious but equally important question is how much variation in performance is acceptable… A sensible way to set targets would be to look for evidence suggesting how rapidly teachers can raise achievement by legitimate means—that is, by improving instruction, not by using bad test prep, gaming the system, or simply cheating…  However, the targets in our test-based accountability systems have often required unremitting improvements, year after year, many times as large as any large-scale change we have seen.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 125-126)

Koretz concludes: “(I)t is clear that the implicit assumption undergirding the reforms is that we can dramatically reduce the variability of achievement… Unfortunately, all evidence indicates that this optimism is unfounded.  We can undoubtedly reduce variations in performance appreciably if we summoned the political will and committed the resources to do so—which would require a lot more than simply imposing requirements that educators reach arbitrary targets for test scores.” (The Testing Charade, p. 131)

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Education, Civil Rights, Civic and Child Advocacy Organizations Protest DeVos Action on School Discipline

Among the most important guarantees promised by public schools is the protection of children’s rights. Civil rights laws ban discrimination at school, and it is the established role of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to intervene when it can be shown that black and brown students or LGBTQ students or disabled students are being more severely punished and kicked out of school.  In late December, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker rolled back 2014, Obama era guidance (see here and here) that sought to eliminate very sizeable disparities in the number of out of school suspensions and expulsions by race, disability, and LGBTQ status.

Last week the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sent a powerful letter to DeVos and Whitaker, a letter endorsed by 75 national organizations and 45 state organizations protesting the scrubbing of these civil rights protections. The letter is signed by education organizations like the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and National Council of Teachers of English; civil rights groups including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Indian Education Association, Human Rights Campaign, National Disability Rights Network, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center; a wide range of children’s and education advocacy groups including the Children’s Defense Fund, Democrats for Education Reform, National Black Child Development Institute, National Center for Learning Disabilities, Stand for Children, and the Education Trust; and civic organizations including the American Association of University Women, People for the American Way, National Urban League, PFLAG National, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Union for Reform Judaism.

It is worth reading the letter, which describes our society’s legal promise that schools will protect each child’s rights. The letter explains the legal basis for the 2014, Obama-era guidance DeVos and Whitaker just scrapped: “The federal government’s role in ensuring schools are free from discrimination has been articulated and confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and by ED (the U.S. Department of Education) in regulations implementing the law.  ED and (the Department of Justice) DOJ are both civil rights agencies and are responsible for protecting students from discrimination on the bases of race, color, national origin; sex; disability; and age. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, ED is tasked with enforcing these laws in response to complaints of discrimination and through proactive compliance reviews, data collection, and technical assistance.”

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is also tasked with providing guidance to assist schools as they develop programming that complies with the law—in this case to assist them in establishing restorative and supportive in-school discipline: “All of the laws that ED and DOJ enforce require regulations, policy guidance, and oversight in order to provide their intended benefits to students.”  The 2014 guidance just rescinded by DeVos and Whitaker, “provides practical tools and guidelines for educators to create safe, healthy, and inclusive environments for all students. The guidance documents were created to help schools serve students more effectively by explaining the harms of pushing children out of school; reminding them that racial discrimination is illegal, including discrimination in school discipline; and providing recommendations and resources to reduce disparities in exclusionary school discipline and improve school climate.”

Here is the reason for the 2014 guidance policies just rescinded by DeVos and Whitaker: “Researchers estimate that suspensions, most of which are for minor behaviors, result in tens of millions of days of lost instruction.  Black students are three times more likely to receive an out of school suspension and twice as likely to be subjected to a school-based arrest; and Native American students make up 1 percent of all children in schools, but 2 percent of children referred to law enforcement. These racial disparities can also be seen for students with disabilities and LGBTQ students.  23.2 percent of all Black children with disabilities have been suspended out of school while only 8.4 percent of White children with disabilities have been suspended, and 47 percent of Black LGBTQ students and 44 percent of Latino LGBTQ students have been disciplined at school compared with 36 percent of White LGBTQ students… Multiple studies have shown several negative effects on suspended children, such as falling behind academically; being held back; dropping out of school; and interacting with the juvenile justice system, as well as harm to children when their peers are suspended.  All children are harmed when schools overuse punitive exclusionary discipline.”

The Trump administration’s approach to school discipline reflects the harsh philosophy of DeVos’s Federal Commission on School Safety, whose recent report recommends hardening schools. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the mass of organizations signing this letter condemn the recent action by DeVos and Whitaker to cancel the 2014 guidance on school discipline: “This administration has taken one action after another to make schools less safe for LGBTQ students, sexual assault survivors, immigrant students, students of color, students with disabilities, and any child who experiences systemic discrimination… And when the nation is focused on the importance of building safe and inclusive school environments, rescinding the guidance sends exactly the wrong message… We urge this administration to reverse course and provide educators and schools the resources and information they need to protect children and support their learning, development and success….”

Next School Year, Ohio Is Likely to Expand Vouchers and Charters Based on School Report Cards

For a long time the state of Ohio has used its school report cards, derived primarily from the aggregate standardized test scores from particular schools and school districts, as the measure of educational quality.  Ohio follows up with punitive measures for the low scoring schools and districts. Next school year, Ohio is likely to crack down and impose punishments on far more school districts.

In last Sunday’s Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell reported that after imposing tougher tests based on the Common Core Standards in 2015, Ohio created a “safe harbor” for school districts to adjust to the new tests. As the 2019-2020 school year begins, however, that safe harbor will expire.  O’Donnell warns about a radical expansion of school choice as the number of schools and school districts with low test scores jumps:

“Ohio has long made school choice options like charter schools and vouchers… dependent on how well a student’s home school district scores on state tests.  When the local public school scores poorly, Ohio law allows charter schools to start in the area and gives vouchers to kids to attend private, mostly religious, schools.  Now, Ohio’s attempts to hold students and schools to tougher academic standards are making tax-funded school choice much more available.”

The number of so called “failing” schools and school districts which will be affected is startling: “Over the last few years, students in 218 schools in Ohio (along with all Cleveland students who are eligible for a separate voucher program) could receive up to $5,000 a year in tuition aid to private schools because their regular public school was considered ineffective. Next school year, that list of ineffective schools balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year.  Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”

What if test scores are not really an accurate yardstick by which to measure school quality? What if the whole high-stakes testing regime is misconceptualized?  What if it merely rewards school districts whose student populations are homogeneously wealthy and punishes districts whose students are poor and working class?

Last week in the Washington Post, the director of the National Education Policy Center, Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explained:

“Here, we need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement.  A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities.

“Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty.  While schools are important—and can certainly be crucial in the lives of some students—policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism….

“But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.

“We need to acknowledge these two realities—seemingly in tension: (1) that education reforms can be very helpful, if they’re the right ones and if we’re patient and committed; but (2) we as a society are deceiving ourselves if we think we’ll transform educational outcomes without addressing economic inequality.”

Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz agrees with Welner and Daniel: “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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…  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.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

When Ohio ranks and rates school districts with the state report cards, the problem isn’t merely the inaccurate “A” or “F” branding of school districts. O’Donnell explains: “Local districts pay the voucher amount or state-mandated charter funding when students choose other schools.” Voucher programs and privately operated charter schools are parasites, sucking away essential funds needed to serve students in the public schools.

In a May 2018 report,  political economist Gordon Lafer shows how, when students leave a public school district and carry away state and local tax dollars, the local school district is left with overwhelming stranded costs: “(S)chool funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer adds:  “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

Finally, in a report for the Economic Policy Institute, the Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker warns that rapidly expanding marketplace school choice is destabilizing urban public school districts: “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, given the resources available… Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves.  They are policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light.”

Expansion of school choice has been an ideological priority in Ohio’s supermajority Republican legislature for years. It is time to recognize that redirecting funding out of the school districts which serve Ohio’s neediest children—instead of helping these public schools—is not a good idea.

The Meaning of the Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike

Yesterday 30,000 Los Angeles school teachers went on strike. The Los Angeles Unified School District is the nation’s second largest, with 600,000 students enrolled in 900 schools.

The school district has been merely inching up its offers to more fully staff the meager institutions teachers have been describing—huge classes, inadequate student support, and a lack of enrichment staff.  But the District’s offer remains paltry. California’s schools have been underfunded since 1978, when Proposition 13 froze property taxes, and the situation has reached a level parents and teachers in most middle class communities would not tolerate.  The Los Angeles TimesHoward Blume reported on Friday: “The latest offer would provide a full-time nurse at every elementary school and lower class sizes by about two students at middle schools.  It builds on a proposal from Monday, in which the district also offered a small decrease in class sizes.  In that first proposal, maximum class sizes in grades four to six would drop from 36 to 35, and in high school from 42 to 39… Also, every secondary school would get a librarian, which some middle schools lack now. And high schools would get an extra academic counselor.”

Although the Los Angeles Unified School District has claimed an average class size of 26 students, the executive director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson challenges the district’s numbers: “There is conflicting data on this, but suffice it to say that information on the LAUSD website supports the union’s position that average class sizes are probably far larger than 26 in every grade but K-3, with averages of more than 30 students per class in grades 4 through 8 and more than 40 in high school classes.  In addition a separate fact sheet prepared by the district says, ‘Nearly 60 percent of all Los Angeles Unified schools and 92 percent of the elementary schools have 29 or fewer students in each classroom.’ This means that 40 percent of Los Angeles public schools have 30 or more students per class on average.”

Haimson quotes a high school teacher, Glenn Sacks: “At my high school, for example, we have over 30 academic classes with 41 or more students, including nine English/writing classes with as many as 49 students, and three AP classes with 46 or more students.  One English teacher has well over 206 students—41+ per class.  A U.S. Government teacher has 52 students in his AP government class.  Writing is a key component of both classes—the sizes make it impossible for these teachers to properly review and help students with their essays.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published an open letter from fifteen award winning Los Angeles teachers explaining why they are striking. They list enormous class size; schools lacking a full-time nurse, a librarian, or adequate social-emotional support services for students; an over-emphasis on testing and test prep; career technical education teachers who lack a conference period; and “unregulated charter school growth, without requiring reasonable accountability and guidelines for charter school co-locations…”

While for 40 years California’s schools have suffered from the state’s stringent property tax freeze, in recent years the Los Angeles Unified School District has built up a reserve surplus of $2 billion, which the teachers say should be spent to improve conditions in the city’s public schools.  And, Howard Blume reports, the newly elected governor, Gavin Newsom has proposed a budget that would free up money by relieving school districts of some required pension payments.

A primary issue underneath the current impasse is lack of trust. Eli Broad, the corporate school reformer who founded the Broad Academy to train non-educators from the corporate world as school superintendents, has been investing for years in the political candidacy of charter school proponents to take over the Los Angeles school board.  In a piece published late yesterday by the NY Times, Miriam Pawel describes Eli Broad’s influence in Los Angeles school politics: “(T)he billionaire and charter school supporter Eli Broad and a group of allies spent almost $10 million in 2017 to win a majority on the school board.  The board rammed through the appointment of a superintendent, Austin Beutner, with no educational background.” Beutner was an investment banker and the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times. His only public administration experience was as deputy mayor of Los Angeles.  Today one in five students in Los Angeles attends a charter school. Pawel adds that students going to charter schools “take their state aid with them, siphoning off $600 million a year from the district.”

In a stunning article for California’s Capital & Main, and published jointly in The American Prospect, Danny Feingold explores the implications of what is happening in Los Angeles: “Sometimes strikes are exactly what they seem to be—over wages and working conditions…. But sometimes a strike is about something much bigger: a fundamental clash over vision and values, with repercussions that extend far beyond the warring parties.  Call it a meta-strike… On one side… are those who believe that public education as an institution should be preserved more or less in its current form with a greater infusion of money to address chronic underfunding and understaffing.  On the other side is an array of forces that want to radically restructure public schools, and who have made it clear they do not believe that the LA Unified School District in its current incarnation is worth investing in—or even preserving.”

Feingold adds that Superintendent Austin Beutner has already hired Cami Anderson, the notorious state-appointed overseer superintendent in Newark, New Jersey. Fired in 2015, Anderson had botched her attempt radically to restructure the school district by expanding charter schools.  Feingold explains the implications for Los Angeles: “Though Beutner has yet to unveil his proposal, he has tipped his hand in a big way with the hiring of consultant Cami Anderson, the former superintendent of Newark, New Jersey public schools.  In Newark, Anderson pushed through a disruptive plan called the ‘portfolio model’….  The changes in Newark included neighborhood school closures, mass firings of teachers and principals, a spike in new charters and a revolt by parents that drove out… Anderson.”

While teachers who walked out last spring in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and other states and the teachers striking this week in Los Angeles are protesting huge classes and too-few counselors and nurses, in a commentary published in Forbes Magazine, teacher-writer Peter Greene observes something different this year: “In… virtually all strikes of the past, we could make one assumption safely—that… everyone wanted in their own way, to see the public school district remain healthy and whole…   Increasingly the agenda of many people taking positions of authority over public education is to dismantle public education and replace it with a network of private charter schools, a process often accelerated by starving public schools for funding in order to manufacture a crisis… Teachers in many school districts and many states across the country find themselves in the unusual position of working in an institution led by people who want to see that institution fail.  Back in the day, teacher strikes were about how best to keep a school district healthy… UTLA’s demands for smaller classes, more support staff, safer schools, community schools, and charter school oversight are not about making their working conditions a little better, but about keeping public education alive and healthy….   (M)any teachers will see it not simply as a local battle, but as a skirmish in a larger national fight.”

Last May, after the spring’s wave of walkouts by schoolteachers, Henry Giroux considered the meaning of the teachers’ actions: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy… Rejecting the idea that education is a commodity to be bought and sold, teachers and students across the country are reclaiming education as a public good and a human right….”

Decades of Academic Research Support Community Schools Strategy in New York City’s Renewal Schools

So-called “corporate” school reform has been defined by setting standards and testing students to see if they have met the standards.  Rewards and punishments follow for the teachers and schools said to have produced these results. The assumption has been that a school is a closed box that can turn around the lives of the enrolled students—all apart from the fact that students spend only six or seven hours of the day at school. Corporate school reformers said they would disrupt the stasis they thought defined bureaucratic public schools by offering rewards and punishments to motivate teachers to work harder and smarter. Many of these so-called education reformers came from the business schools and employed competition as their primary motivator. And the politicians who followed their advice brought us test score targets to be met and a promise quickly to make every child a winner.

We were warned in advance that this wouldn’t work as we planned.  Dr. James Comer at the Yale School Development Program created a multifaceted program to help schools support the most vulnerable children and to engage educators, parents and the community in this process of building trust and strong relationships.  In 1997, in his book Waiting for a Miracle, Comer described the results. While his staff and outside evaluators believed that the Comer schools had made important progress in improving the children’s education, Comer wrote: “Our best approximation suggests that after three years about a third of the schools make significant social and academic improvement, a third show a modest improvement which is often difficult to sustain, and a third show no gain.” (Waiting for a Miracle, p. 72) The Comer program suggested that seven years was a more realistic timeline to look for real school improvement.

One of the most artificial aspects of corporate school reform was the setting of achievement test targets and short timelines as a motivator.  No Child Left Behind established that all American children in public schools would be proficient by 2014 or their schools and teachers would be punished. As we moved closer to 2014, everybody began to realize that making all schools produce high scores wasn’t working.  When it became apparent that almost all American schools would fall behind in raising what was called each student’s Adequate Yearly Progress, Arne Duncan, then Secretary of Education, began issuing No Child Left Behind Waivers to states which would promise to meet his particular school reform priorities in exchange for his willingness not to declare that state’s schools “failing.”

Slowly it began to be admitted that students’ lives outside school affect their test scores, and that schools alone cannot solve the serious challenges resulting from concentrated poverty.  In 2012, Diane Ravitch described achievement gaps as a complex challenge in children’s lives—not merely the result of the quality of a particular school: “Such gaps exist wherever there is inequality, not only in this country, but internationally.  In every country, the students from the most advantaged families have higher test scores on average than students from the least advantaged families.” (Reign of Error, p. 57)

Last year, the Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz described the problems of demanding ever-rising test scores from every school on the same prescribed timeline: “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Here we are in 2019, when many educators have realized that something has to be done at school to address the needs of children living in communities where poverty is concentrated. A broad-based movement to make schools a social service and healthcare center for families and to add preschool and after school and summer programs at school has emerged.  These are called Community Schools. Here is how the Children’s Aid Society in New York City defines a Community School: “The foundations for community schools can be conceptualized as a Developmental Triangle that places children at the center, surrounded by families and communities.  Because students’ educational success, health and well-being are the focus of every community school, the legs of the triangle consist of three interconnected support systems: A strong core instructional program… expanded learning opportunities… and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.” (Building Community Schools: A Guide for Action, p. 1)

This week the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a new piece by the National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and Julia Daniel pleading with the New York City Schools not to give up on NYC’s 2014 expansion of Community Schools. When he made Community Schools the centerpiece of his Renewal Program for the city’s struggling schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested he would improve the schools rather than following his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s strategy of shutting down such schools.

But lately De Blasio is being criticized because the school turnarounds have not been quick enough.  In October, Eliza Shapiro, writing for the NY Times, suggested, “New York knew some schools in its $773 million plan were doomed. They kept children in them anyway.” The New York Schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, responded by affirming  De Blasio’s original goal: “Four years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a bold—and correct—investment in 94 of New York City’s most underserved schools.  Rather than giving up on these students and schools, the city invested in them… The Renewal graduation rate has climbed from 52 to 66 percent.  Attendance has increased from 84 percent to 89 percent.  Chronic absenteeism has fallen from 47 to 36 percent.  Suspensions have decreased by 54 percent… While we have not yet decided the future of the Renewal initiative, we will never stop investing in the kinds of programs that have allowed us to improve so many schools that would have closed under prior administrations.”

In their new piece, New York City Offers Some Unpleasant Truths about School Improvement, Kevin Welner and Julia Daniel defend Mayor de Blasio’s plan for Community Schools, although they point out that the Renewal School program underestimated the amount of time it takes to build the kind of trust and relationships James Comer wrote about and to address the challenges poverty poses for children: “The Renewal program—which also supports schools in the city’s larger Community Schools Initiative (CSI)—assists schools by increasing supports, training, and resources for students and teachers. The CSI increases family and community engagement and creates collaborative structures and practices…. These approaches—extended learning time, family and community engagement, collaborative leadership, and integrated student supports—are fundamental to community schools models and informed by decades of research showing that out-of-school factors have an overwhelming influence on student outcomes.  In turning to this evidence-based approach, the mayor should be applauded.”

Welner and Daniel recognize that a three year timeline isn’t enough: “Fortunately, with the initial (three-year) results now in, we do see encouraging improvements… Yet as is the case with all major reform efforts, there have also been challenges that must be addressed….  For example, these schools have been hampered by high levels of principal turnover.  Further, a quarter of the initial Renewal schools have been closed for not meeting the program’s ambitious goals.”

The National Education Policy Center’s purpose is to bring the peer-reviewed research of the academy to bear on the policy that shapes public schools.  Welner and Daniel starkly assess the impact of child poverty on school achievement and the optimal ways schools can address these challenges:

“Here, we need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement.  A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities.

“Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty.  While schools are important—and can certainly be crucial in the lives of some students—policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism….

“But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.

“We need to acknowledge these two realities—seemingly in tension: (1) that education reforms can be very helpful, if they’re the right ones and if we’re patient and committed; but (2) we as a society are deceiving ourselves if we think we’ll transform educational outcomes without addressing economic inequality.”

Finally, Welner and Daniel recommend that in New York City, “De Blasio should remain committed to the Renewal program—a program based on decades of rigorous research and already showing meaningful benefits for underserved students… When we look across the nation and see other leaders chasing silver bullets, or ignoring educational inequity altogether, we should rejoice that New York and its mayor are engaged in the demanding yet essential work of partnering with communities to address basic needs….”

Teachers in Los Angeles Delay Strike Till Next Week; District Faces Long and Catastrophic Fiscal Crisis

After months of failed negotiations, the United Teachers of Los Angeles had scheduled a strike beginning today. They have now postponed the strike until Monday, January 14th. The problems in the district that have driven teachers to strike are complex; their situation is impossibly simple. Their pay has not risen adequately and the conditions in the city’s schools for children and for teachers are deplorable. For the NY Times, Jennifer Medina and Dana Goldstein report: “Some classes have as many as 45 students… and school nurses, art and music teachers must serve thousands of students by traveling to multiple schools.”

We are told that, with its huge economy, California is unlike the other states where teachers walked out last spring. They were Red states for the most part—exemplars of supply-side, tax cutting and promoters of marketplace choice through charter schools. Instead, we are told, California is a Blue state.

A long, long time ago, California had Blue-state education funding, but that was from 1959 to 1967, under Jerry Brown’s father, Governor Pat Brown. For forty years, however, California has, in reality, been the primary exemplar of Red-state school funding and school privatization.  In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, the state law that began the state-by-state, anti-tax slide which has undermined public school funding across the country.  In 2012, with Proposition 30, California Governor Jerry Brown pushed through new taxes for education, but they have not been enough to undo the impact of Proposition 13.

In a profound 1998 book, Paradise Lost, about what happened in California, Peter Schrag, the long-time editorial page director of the Sacramento Bee, defines the principles that have dominated California school funding since 1978: “Proposition 13 and the initiatives that followed in its wake—the tax and spending cuts, the growing constraints on both state and local government and the accompanying shift from a communitarian ethic to a market ethic—have in fact had a profound effect in lowering expectations and in blurring the vision of what good government and a high standard of public services could be like. In recent years, as revenues have grown, the California political debate about the support and quality of its public services has inadvertently confirmed the effects of twenty years of Mississippification:  even in the midst of prosperity, that debate has not been about… any ideal of quality; it has been focused, rather, on the question of how far behind the national average the Golden State still finds itself, and how long it will take to catch up.  It has been a dispute about how to get to mediocrity.” (Paradise Lost, p. xiii)

Proposition. 13 froze local property taxes. Schrag explains: “What the taxpayers gained the tax collector lost. Overnight, property tax revenues for local agencies declined between $6 and $7 billion annually. (They would lose more later.) This amounted to roughly 27 percent of all revenues for cities, 40 percent of all county revenues, nearly half (on average) of what school districts had been getting, and up to 90 percent for some fire districts.”(p. 154) “The cumulative effect of those measures was not only the massive transfer of control from local government to Sacramento… but a massive constriction of the power of all government to manage revenues.” (p. 162)

Medina and Goldstein report that today, in 2019 Los Angeles: “The impending strike highlights the fact that despite California’s reputation as a center of liberal policy, it spends relatively little on public education. School spending levels, about $11,000 per student in 2016, are far below those in other blue bastions; for example, California spends about half as much as New York on the average child… More than a fifth of public school students in California are… learning English, the highest percentage in the country… With many wealthy and white families opting to choose charter or private schools, or move to other surrounding school districts, the Los Angeles school district is disproportionately African-American and Latino. A study from U.C.L.A.’s Civil Rights Project found that Latino students in Los Angeles are more segregated than anywhere else in the country.”

In its 2017 report, Charters and Consequences, the Network for Public Education examines the impact of the expansion of charter schools in a number of states. Here are some facts about California: “California has the most charter schools and charter school students in the nation. In 2000, there were 299 charter schools in the Golden State. By 2016 there were 1230… While most are brick and mortar schools, 20% of California’s charters are either online schools or schools where students drop by to pick up work. Such schools are often fronts for for-profit corporations. In general, their results are dismal.”

In a May 2018 report for In the Public InterestBreaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, political economist Gordon Lafer describes the devastating fiscal impact in California for a local public school district of the expansion of charter schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” Imagine the impact in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district with 900 schools and roughly 600,000 students.

U.C.L.A. education sociologist, Pedro Noguera published a commentary in the Los Angeles Times earlier this week to situate the pending strike in the context of the long and devastating fiscal challenges faced by the Los Angeles Unified Schools District: “In 2015, then-Supt. Ray Cortines assembled a blue-ribbon committee to conduct an objective analysis of the district’s finances and to make recommendations for how projected deficits should be addressed. The report’s conclusions were stark: ‘The expanding gap represents a serious challenge to the LAUSD’s financial stability in the near term, one that insists upon immediate action today.’  It warned that immediate and difficult measures would be required if the district hoped to continue adequately serving its students beyond the 2019-20 school year, noting that ‘failure to do so could lead to the insolvency of the LAUSD….’ ”

Noguera explores the school district’s complex fiscal realities: “The district, as the teachers union has pointed out, does have a reserve fund of close to $2 billion. These funds could definitely help in reaching a settlement with the union. However, the existence of the reserve can’t make up for the fact that LAUSD currently spends about half a billion dollars more each year than it takes in… Without painful corrective action, its financial situation will worsen considerably over the next few years.” “The potential strike by teachers must be understood in this larger context. The teachers and their union have raised important and legitimate concerns, and the fiscal condition of the district does not negate the validity of their demands. The district must invest in its schools and its personnel if it hopes to have a future… In addition to providing education to nearly 600,000 students, the school district is also the city’s largest employer.”

As he wraps up his column, however, Noguera defines a much deeper problem lurking underneath the district’s long term funding crisis and the issues over which teachers plan to strike: “A few months after moving to Los Angeles I was invited to speak to a group of influential Angelenos about the need to invest in high quality after-school programs to support the well-being and development of children.  During my remarks, I asked those present how many had attended a Los Angeles public school themselves. Most of those in the audience raised a hand.  I then asked how many of them had children or grandchildren who were enrolled at district schools. Only a few hands went up. This is a huge problem. When those with power and influence are disconnected from the school system and more concerned with making preparations for the 2028 Olympics than they are with schools that serve most of the city’s children, we are in serious trouble.”

The Serious Implications of the New Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety

On December 18, buried in the pre-holiday news was the release of a report from Betsy DeVos’s Federal Commission on School Safety.  This blog reported last week on its most troubling recommendation—the one that was immediately enacted when DeVos’s department rescinded Obama-era guidance designed to reduce racial disparities in school discipline.  It is worth exploring more broadly the implications of what was in the Commission’s report.

For the Washington Post, Laura Meckler reported: “President Trump’s Federal Commission on School Safety, formed after a mass shooting at a Florida high school, recommended… that school systems consider arming personnel and advised against increasing the minimum age requirement for gun purchases.”

For Politico, Kimberly Hefling wrote: “A Trump administration school safety panel hardly touched on the role of guns in deadly school shootings in its wrap-up…. But the panel instead encouraged more coordination between schools and law enforcement that could include programs that arm highly trained school personnel.  It said local communities should consider incentives that encourage military veterans and those with a law enforcement background to work in schools.  It also endorsed the adoption by states of ‘extreme risk protection orders’ designed to temporarily restrict access to firearms by individuals found to be a danger to themselves or others and encouraged Congress to modernize privacy laws.”

For the NY Times, Erica Green and Katie Benner explained: “Almost immediately, the commission turned away from guns and instead scrutinized the Obama administration’s school discipline policies, though none of the most high-profile school shootings were perpetrated by black students.”

The National Association of School Psychologists responded: “Certainly NASP is pleased that the Commission’s report acknowledges some of the recommendations for improving school safety that were shared in writing and at the Commission hearings…. These include the importance of: providing comprehensive school mental health services… creating a positive school climate and fostering trusting relationships among students and staff, and using multidisciplinary teams (and the important role of the school psychologist) to develop systems that promote trauma-informed practices and… help identify and intervene with students who need support…. However, the Commission has largely ignored equally important and almost universal recommendations related to helping schools meet current challenges associated with improving school safety and the clear request for additional policies and resources… Schools and districts, who already struggle with how to meet competing priorities with limited resources, will be hard pressed to make any significant improvement without additional supports. Yet the Commission did not call for any increased Federal resources or offer specific directives necessary to help states, districts, and schools expand their efforts.”

Not only will increasing the number of armed School Resource Officers likely undermine schools’ capacity to employ additional counselors and school psychologists, but also increasing police in schools has been shown to move additional students into the juvenile justice system.  Harold Jordan of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union describes, “a contradiction: on one hand, an emphasis on ‘hardening’ schools with police, building security, and new protocols, and on the other hand, acknowledgment that more school-based student support services are necessary and that schools need staff who can work with young people, get to know them, and help them manage emotional and behavioral issues.  Why are these contradictory?  Because the hardening measures consume a disproportionate amount of resources in already understaffed schools, while exposing more young people—who neither threaten nor attempt to carry out a shooting—to the justice system.  In many schools, having more police in schools means more arrests or summary citations against students for noncompliant behavior.  In other words, some of the measures taken to secure schools may end up damaging the lives of many students, without preventing shootings.”

The greatest concern about the Commission’s report is its recommendation, already enacted in late December by the Secretary of Education, to rescind Obama-era guidance aimed at reducing out of school suspensions and expulsions and eliminating long-running racial disparities in the number of students suspended and expelled.  In making this recommendation in its report, the Commission on School Safety rejected a long-accepted civil rights legal concept—disparate impact.  The Commission’s failure to recognize the importance of “disparate impact” is so serious that the NY Times editorial board addressed it last Friday.

The editorial board explains the history of the principle of “disparate impact”:  “Reaffirming that ‘much progress remains to be made… in moving the nation toward a more integrated society,’ Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2015 that it was appropriate for the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to let discrimination be measured by its ‘disparate impact’ on minorities even if there was not proof of intentional discrimination.  The reason, as he noted, is that discrimination doesn’t just happen overtly, that governments and private actors sometimes take actions that fall hardest—or have a disparate impact—on people of color or other groups.”

The Times editorial board continues: “Federal voting rights and employment statutes, as well as the Fair Housing Act, recognize the use of disparate impact to find discrimination in those areas, and Donald Trump would need Congress to rewrite such laws if he wants to do anything about that.  But regulations and what the administration likes to call ‘sub-regulatory guidance’ that accept the use of disparate impact may be changed or scrapped by administrative action—as Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, did last month when she did away with school discipline guidelines the Obama administration issued to curb the disproportionate punishment of black and brown children.”

The Times editorial board concludes: “What the Trump administration is doing is nothing new. Republicans and conservative legal theorists have long set their sights on the disparate impact principle, claiming that the only true evil that needs to be rooted out under law is intentional discrimination… In reality, discrimination is often subtle and systemic, and Congress and the courts over time have recognized that by bolstering, not weakening, the use of disparate impact in a broad spectrum of civil rights protections…  As the nation continues its long march toward equality, it would be outrageous to destroy such an important means of advancement—one the civil rights bar still depends on to make its case in court.”