David Berliner: Why It Is So Dangerous When Governors and Legislatures Reduce Teacher Credentialing Requirements

As I watch legislators and the general public blame teachers for the way they teach history—or the books they assign—or the aggregate standardized test scores of the groups of students who spend 50 minutes each day in their English or math or social studies class, I find myself reflecting on how people think about what teachers do.

During the COVID pandemic, we have watched an epidemic of blaming teachers—for demanding that they and their students wear masks—for declining test scores as schools went online and students became less connected—for teaching the standard history curriculum which acknowledges that the Civil War was fought to eliminate slavery—for attending sensitively to the needs of students who may be wrestling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. The list goes on and on and on.

There are a lot of teaching positions available right now as we emerge from the pandemic. The shortage has culminated in governors and legislatures blaming professional teachers (as usual) by assuming required training for teachers is relatively worthless and, therefore, reducing the required education for people to qualify for teaching certification. In mid-August, The Tampa Bay TimesAna Ceballos described efforts by Florida’s Ron DeSantis to qualify a surprising number of people to fill the state’s classrooms: “After giving military veterans easier access to temporary teaching certificates, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said he wants state legislators to expand that same option for law enforcement officers and other first responders next year… He said the criteria will be the same as for veterans, who currently need to have a bachelor’s degree or complete at least 60 hours of college credits—the equivalent of an associate’s degree—with a minimum grade-point average of 2.5—and pass a Florida subject area examination and a background check.”

When I really think about it, I am forced to conclude that a lot of people—including powerful people like governors and legislators—imagine what teachers do by thinking about what teachers do for them—the important adults.  School teachers keep kids safe and busy—out of the way and out of trouble—while busy adults are at work—work that these adults consider important, in contrast to the work of schoolteachers.

I don’t think it even occurs to many people to imagine what it would be like to manage a classroom, or to help a shy kindergartner relax and become comfortable in a group of 22 children, or to be positive and encouraging to an angry adolescent at the same time that kid is insulting the teacher.

One of the best writers about teaching, the late Mike Rose published my favorite definition of excellent teaching: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

While in his book Possible Lives, Rose portrays much more of what teachers do to create such classrooms, a problem with Rose’s definition here is that he does not convey the difficulty which is part of the job. Rose depicts the classroom of an excellent teacher almost as though a classroom is a painting—the fixed beautiful and balanced creation of an artist.

For some hints about what is involved in day-to-day teaching, we can turn to David Berliner, who edited a new book from Teacher’s College Press, a book that includes biographies of the contributors including the editor: “David C. Berliner is Regents’ Professor of Education, Emeritus, at Arizona State University. He has also taught at the Universities of Arizona and Massachusetts, at Teachers College and Stanford University… He… was a past president of both the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Division of Educational Psychology of the American Psychological Association…. and has authored or coauthored over 400 articles, chapters, and books.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 319)

Right now, David Berliner is outraged at governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and state legislators who are passing laws to reduce the requirements for teachers to become certified. He grasps the complexity of what teachers must know how to do, and he describes what is necessary in a piece he published in August in Diane Ravitch’s blog.  Berliner believes that, like doctors, teachers need college courses on the methodology of practice as well as academic expertise. He also believes prospective teachers need extensive student teaching and mentoring just as medical students need extensive clinical practice:

“In fact, much of the knowledge needed for teaching and for successful medical treatment is clinical knowledge… not easily described and hard to teach to someone else. That’s why physicians have grand rounds and a lengthy apprenticeship. Their prolonged apprenticeship is what gets them started learning what it means to be a practicing physician—not a competent student of biology, chemistry, and pharmacology. Every clinician (psychologists, physicians, social workers, and teachers alike) knows that book learning can only teach a little slice of what it means to be a success in practice. The recognition of this fact is the quite sensible reason behind the requirement that teachers need to take teaching methods courses such as how to teach mathematics, how to teach phonics and comprehension skills, how science is learned and so forth. Course work in mathematics, English literature, and science have no more to say about the teaching of mathematics, literature, and physics than books on organic chemistry prepare a physician for their medical practice. Lengthy residencies are needed in medicine… and extensive student teaching is needed to become a competent teacher… Please—let’s keep untrained but good-hearted people out of classrooms until and unless they get some training in how to do that complex job well.”

Berliner continues, contrasting what a doctor does with what a teacher does: “A physician usually works with one patient at a time, while a teacher serves 25, 30 or in places like Los Angeles and other large cities, they may be serving 35 or more youngsters simultaneously. Many of these students don’t speak English well. Typically anywhere from 5-15% will show emotional and/or cognitive disabilities. Most are poor, and many reside in single parent families… Many patients seek out their physicians, choosing to be in their office. On the other hand, many students seek to be out-of-class, preferring the streets to classrooms that cannot engage them…. I always wonder how physicians would fare if 30 or so kids with the kinds of sociological characteristics I just described showed up for medical treatment all at once, and then left 50 minutes later, healed or not!  And suppose this chaotic scene was immediately followed by thirty or more different kids… also in need of personal attention. And they too stayed about 50 minutes…. Imagine waves of these patients hitting a physicians’ office five or six times a day!”

Teachers are expected to be alert to what is happening all day in a series of socially and emotionally complex situations. “(T)eachers have been found to make about .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.  Another researcher estimated that teachers’ decisions numbered about 1,500 per day.  Decision fatigue is among the many reasons teachers are tired after what some critics call a short work day, forgetting or ignoring the enormous amount of time needed for preparation, for grading papers and homework, and for filling out bureaucratic forms and attending school meetings. In fact, it takes about 10 years for teachers to hit their maximum ability, to produce the most learning from their students.”

Here is Berliner’s stunning conclusion: “Our society does identify ‘lesser’ humans, mostly the poor and therefore frequently racial minorities, where inexperienced physicians and teachers are allowed to develop their skills… The legislators, accrediting bodies, and chambers-of-commerce that endorse putting untrained or minimally trained teachers before poor children are hurting America, betraying the principles that Jefferson explicated 200 years ago. Jefferson, a slave-holder and not nearly as democratic as we might have wanted one of our founding fathers to be, did help to persuade his fellow founders of the nation that the poor have talent in equal degree as do the rich. Thus, the poor deserved the same education as the rich, in order to cultivate those talents, so they can be used in service of the nation. He believed that the best way to preserve an ever-fragile democracy was a system of free public schooling. Those who would allow unqualified teachers to enter the classrooms of the poor are traitors to Jeffersonian principles…  Most advocates for a free market in credentialing would never allow their own children to have an untrained novice, or an inadequately trained teacher, nor would they allow their children to attend schools that rely heavily on such teachers. The hypocrisy and traitorous actions of legislators, business leaders, and policy analysts who advocate allowing anyone to teach in a school that would have them as teachers, ensures that social class social membership will remain as it is—difficult to modify. Moreover, the children most likely to be assigned teachers who have little, or no training, are children of color. So, on top of all my other charges, we might want to raise the issue of racism with the advocates of little or no credentialing for teachers.”

New U.S. Census Report Shows Why Congress Must Permanently Expand the Child Tax Credit & Make It Fully Refundable in Year-End Legislation

This blog has strongly advocated that Congress should enact legislation to make permanent last year’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit. New research confirms the urgency of Congressional action on the Child Tax Credit this year.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Census reported* a stunning drop in poverty among U.S. children in 2021, largely thanks to the Biden Administration’s action—temporarily for 2021 alone—to expand the Child Tax Credit and make it fully refundable under the American Rescue (COVID-relief) Act.  That expansion of the Child Tax Credit ended in 2022.  Now it is apparent that unless Congress acts to restore what was a temporary reform to the Child Tax Credit, millions of American children will fall back into poverty.

The U.S. Census created a new measure of poverty in 2011, the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which reflects how government programs like SNAP, school lunch benefits, and refundable tax credits supplement family income and reduce poverty. The Census Bureau’s new report explains: “The SPM (Supplemental Poverty Measure) extends the official poverty measure by accounting for many of the government programs that are designed to assist low-income families but are not included in the official poverty measure. The SPM also includes federal and state taxes and work and medical expenses… Though the SPM does not replace the official poverty measure, it provides a different metric of economic well-being that includes resources from government programs and tax credits to low income families.”

In their September 13 report, using the SPM measure, U.S. Census Bureau researchers documented an extraordinary reduction in child poverty during 2021: “The SPM child poverty rate fell 46 percent in 2021, from 9.7 percent in 2020 to 5.2 percent in 2021, a 4.5 percentage-point decline. This is the lowest SPM child poverty rate on record.” “The decline in the SPM rate for children was largely driven by stimulus payments and the refundable Child Tax Credit, which led to increased resources for families with children.”

To review: In the American Rescue (COVID-relief) Act passed in the spring of 2021, Congress made several significant changes in the Child Tax Credit: raising the maximum Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per child through age 5, and $3,000 for children age 6-17; allowing families to receive a Child Tax Credit for 17-year-olds; sending the payments monthly instead of once a year, and making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for the year 2021.  Making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable was an extremely significant reform. While, since 1997, families with comfortable incomes have qualified for the full Child Tax Credit, until the American Rescue (COVID-relief) Act, families with such small incomes that they pay little income tax received only a partial credit and not the full amount. Families without any income (who do not pay federal income tax) could not qualify at all for the tax credit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained in a November 2021 report:  “Prior to the Rescue Plan, 27 million children received less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most. The American Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.”

When the new Census data came out on September 13, the President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sharon Parrott, immediately released a statement interpreting the significance of the drop in U.S. child poverty: “The data for 2021 show that the nation knows how to reduce poverty, broaden opportunity, and expand coverage. Temporary measures drove progress… The new data show that due chiefly to the Child Tax Credit, child poverty fell sharply in 2021 and reached a record low of 5.2 percent, as measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM)…. As recently as 2018, 13.7 percent of children were below the SPM poverty line.”

Parrot scrutinizes the meaning of Congress’s temporary action last year to reduce American child poverty: “The Child Tax Credit expansion drove the large reduction in child poverty between 2020 and 2021…. In the absence of the expansion, child poverty would have fallen to 8.1 percent, rather than 5.2 percent, and some 2.1 million more children would have lived in families with incomes below the poverty line. The year-to-year decline in the child poverty rate was the largest on record (4.5 percentage points). Child poverty rates plunged widely across racial and ethnic groups…. For Black non-Latino children, the poverty rate fell to 8.3 percent in 2021 from 17.2 percent in 2020…. This is stunning progress—in 2018 nearly 1 in 4 Black children lived in families with incomes below the poverty line.  In 2021, fewer than 1 in 10 did… In 2021, poverty among Latino children fell to 8.4 percent and for American Indian and Alaska Native children it fell to 7.4 percent.”

Washington Post columnists, Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent believe Congressional action permanently to expand the Child Tax Credit would redefine our society morally: “We can choose to make our economic arrangements fairer. We can make collective decisions that children shouldn’t be disadvantaged at a very young age through no fault of their own. Making the choice to alleviate poverty early in people’s lives… puts children on a path to becoming healthier, happier, more fulfilled, more productive adults.”

Why is eliminating child poverty so significant in the life of each child?  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reviewed the consequences in an urgent new report last Friday: “For children, poverty can mean unstable housing, frequent moves, inadequate nutrition, and high levels of family stress, and other problems. These in turn have been linked with lower reading and math scores, more emotional and behavioral problems, fewer years of completed education, lower earnings, higher likelihood of being arrested, and poorer health in adulthood, a 2019 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report on reducing child poverty found.”

Although Congressional opposition has blocked the inclusion of an expanded Child Tax Credit in economic legislation so far in 2022, there is still time for Congress permanently to expand the Child Tax Credit before the end of the year.  In last Friday’s report, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities declared that the need is critical: “Congress and the Biden Administration now face a stark choice: whether to expand the Child Tax Credit or allow all of the gains against child poverty made over the last two years to evaporate, with millions of children needlessly falling back below the poverty line… Without the Child Tax Credit expansion, some 2.1 million more children would have been in poverty in 2021—including 752,000 Latino children, 649,000 white children, 524,000 Black children, 89,000 American Indian and Alaska Native children, and 56,000 Asian children…. Moreover, the Child Tax Credit expansion improved conditions for children of all races and ethnicities and narrowed differences in poverty rates between them.”

Many of us had feared that action on the Child Tax Credit was a lost cause in Congress this year, but it appears there is still hope. Economists at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explain that right now Congress is under pressure to reduce corporate taxes. They declare: “Policymakers should not put corporate interests ahead of the interests of children. That means that… (a) corporate tax cut related to research and experimentation expenses—or any other business tax cut—should not move without an expansion of the Child Tax Credit. Some policymakers have already made clear that they do not support moving ahead with a corporate tax break without an expansion in the Child Tax Credit. For example, in response to the Census report, Senators Bennet, Brown, and Booker and Representatives DeLauro, DelBene, and Torres said that Congress should not enact corporate tax provisions in year-end legislation without expanding the Child Tax Credit.”

* John Creamer, Emily A. Shrider, Kalee Burns, and Frances Chen, Poverty in the United States: 2021, U.S. Census Bureau, September 13, 2022, pp. 1-2.  The link would not import into WORDPRESS.  You may enter the following in any search engine: Poverty in the United States: 2021, September 13, 2022 .

Public School Closures in Oakland: Another Example of Failed School Reform and Charter School Expansion

I am grateful that last Sunday the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson recounted the long, sad story of the school closings in California’s Oakland Unified School District. Oakland has universal school choice, and this fall, students in two of Oakland’s now shuttered public schools had to find new schools elsewhere in the school district—with five additional public schools to be closed at the end of the current school year.  As Wilson explains: “The district has… been whiplashed over the years, by education trends and population changes, leaving many schools under annual threat of school closure.”

We have been watching this story develop for years.  Wilson reports: “By 2003, with the district facing a roughly $35 million budget deficit, the state Department of Education took over the operation of Oakland’s public schools, laying off hundreds of teachers and eventually shuttering more than two dozen schools. The state’s day-to-day management ended six years later, but the education department still has what is effectively veto power over fiscal decisions.  At the time of the takeover, the state extended the district a $100 million line of credit, which has yet to be paid off entirely. The district’s uncertain finances and poor performance also opened the door for experimentation from wealthy, mostly White philanthropists with no ties to Oakland. One initiative was the ‘small schools’ movement, financed in large part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The idea was to break up big campuses into more intimate places for learning. The money—about $25 million before it ran out—helped open about two dozen schools. But the state administrator at the time closed 14 others over several years.”

Wilson continues: “More lasting was the charter school movement. At the time, billionaires Mike Bloomberg and the late Eli Broad spent tens of millions of dollars promoting charter schools nationally, including large sums in Oakland… But in a state that funds districts by student, every pupil who enrolled in a charter school meant money lost to the broader public education system.”

Gentrification is also implicated.  Today’s school closings—two this year and five before school begins next school year are all located in poorer African American neighborhoods. Wilson explains: “Here in Oakland… the school discussion implicates race…. White gentrification hovers over the East Bay…. The traditional dividing line—Interstate 580—splits wealthy Oakland hills from the struggling ‘flatlands’ where Parker and other affected schools are located.”

All of these problems have been visible for years. Jerry Brown was Mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007 and he served as Governor of California from 2011 to 2019. Brown remains an unabashed supporter of charter schools. In fact he started two charter schools himself. Here is EdSource‘s Luis Freedberg: “Brown is unique among California’s governors—and probably governors anywhere—in that he is the founder of two charter schools, the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School for the Arts.  He told us he has raised ‘millions and millions of dollars’ to start them and keep them going.” EdSource asked Brown if charter schools don’t pose a funding problem for a school district’s public schools. Freedberg recounts Brown’s answer: “Brown opposes that notion, even in places like Los Angeles and Oakland, which in his words have ‘so many charter schools, and they don’t have enough funds.’ He acknowledged that is a ‘troublesome problem.’ Nonetheless, he said, ‘because I think charter schools are challenging, I’ve resisted more onerous rules that quite frankly are designed to reduce charter schools in the guise of making them more accountable.'”

So how much fiscal pressure do charter schools pose for the public school districts where they are located?  In a huge, 2018, study for In the Public Interest, economist Gordon Lafer documents the annual $57.3 million loss of public school funding to the charter schools in the Oakland Unified School District: “(W)ith a combined district and charter student population of over 52,000 in 2016-17—(Oakland) boasts the highest concentration of charter schools in the state, with 30 percent of pupils attending 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…  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 describes the consequences of marketplace school choice in the Oakland Unified School District: “You have a system where the neediest and most expensive kids to educate are concentrated in traditional public schools.”

California blogger Tom Ultican has documented the investment and influence of wealthy philanthropists promoting the expansion of charter schools in Oakland: “The map of charter schools in Oakland and proposed school closings shows that both are… in the minority dominated flats (the low lying area between the bay and the hills).  With all of these closings, residents in the flats may no longer have a traditional public school serving their community.  Much of this can be laid at the door step of the six billionaire ‘education reformers’ living across the bay—Reed Hastings (Netflix), Arthur Rock (Intel), Carrie Walton Penner (Walmart), Laurene Powell Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Doris Fisher (The Gap).  Reed Hastings established America’s first charter management organization (CMO) in Oakland. There are now six Aspire charter schools serving Oakland families.”  Ultican adds: “Along with these billionaires, New Yorker Michael Bloomberg and Tulsa billionaire Stacey Shusterman have joined in the spending to sway Oakland’s school board elections.”

It is not as though nobody has investigated the impact of widespread public school closings on the neighborhoods where safe and long treasured institutions are shut down.  In Chicago, Rahm Emanuel’s administration closed 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year. Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 school reform project had driven a decade-long explosion in the number of charter schools. An important difference, however, is that in Chicago the school district did try to protect the students whose neighborhood public schools were closing by designating specific welcoming schools.  In Oakland, families are left to find their own schools due to universal school choice.

Despite Chicago’s efforts to manage the school closures, however, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.” “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

In a profound 2018 book,  Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of school closures across Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood—the meaning for teachers, grandparents, and students.  Ewing contrasts their love for storied community institutions with the technocratic arguments of school district officials: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”  Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-159)

New Ohio School Report Cards Rate Schools on 5-Star System Instead of Letter Grades, But the Results Still Fail to Recognize What Schools Do

In mid-August, this blog posed the following question: “How has standardized, test-based school accountability changed the way we understand public schooling?” Here is how that post answered the question: “The most basic critique of accountability-based school reform is that its frame is entirely quantitative. School accountability based solely on aggregate standardized test scores fails to measure the qualitative process of education as experienced by students and practiced by teachers.”

Despite the growing critique of high stakes, test-based school accountability, the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, requires states to rate their schools and intervene in the schools where aggregate student test scores have not risen significantly.  For years, Ohio has assigned “A” through “F” letter grades for each school and school district, based primarily on standardized test scores.  Last Thursday, however, Ohio released a new state report card evaluating each of the state’s 610 school districts and each individual public school by substituting a five-star system for the letter grades.

Because the U.S. Department of Education has relaxed—during and immediately following the pandemic—the demand that states develop correction plans to turn around the lowest scoring schools, Ohio will grant schools another year of the pandemic-driven reprieve on the imposition of state-imposed improvement plans. Neither will the state aggregate the school ratings into one overall summative score for each school and school district during this year. The Plain Dealer’s Laura Hancock reports, “This year the Ohio Department of Education is not offering an overall rating for each school and district, due to the reprieve on sanctions. In future years, there will be an overall star rating.”

A new five-star rating system is the key change this year. Ohio has rated schools with up to five stars in six categories.  According to Hancock, “The Ohio Department of Education created a 17-page guide to understanding the report cards, which shows how stars will be used….”  Here are the six categories on which schools are being rated and the method for computing the rating, according to Hancock:

  • “Achievement: This component represents whether student performance on state tests met previously established thresholds. It also considers how well students performed on tests overall…
  • “Early Literacy: This area measures reading improvement and overall proficiency scores for students in kindergarten through third grade.
  • “Graduation: This measurement looks at the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate and the five-year cohort graduation rate…
  • “Progress: This measurement looks at the growth students are making based on their past performances…
  • “Gap Closing: This component measures the reduction in educational gaps for student subgroups based on income, race, ethnicity, or disability.
  • “College, Career, Workforce and Military Readiness: This component looks at how well prepared Ohio’s students are for future opportunities, whether training in a technical field or preparing for work or college. This is a relatively new measurement and the full data won’t be completely reported until the 2024-2025 school year. There also won’t be a star ranking for this area.”

In its new rating system, the Ohio Department of Education leaves in place a system based on the assumption that school quality can be measured accurately and summarized with a quantitative methodology. Interestingly, four of the six categories in Ohio’s new system depend on a school’s or a school district’s aggregate test scores, which have for years been highly correlated with a school population’s overall family income. The new five-star method is assumed to be better than the assignment of letter grades even in our age of emojis, where people are quite comfortable with inferring a clear meaning from a visual display of symbols like stars.

A serious problem with the new ratings is that it is utterly unclear whether and how the ratings in any way measure what educators are doing differently from district to district. I looked at the 17-page guide to interpreting the scores.  In the section describing the “Early Literacy” measure, the guide explains: “The Early Literacy Component measures reading improvement and proficiency for students in kindergarten through third grade.”  It is based on students’ third-grade “Language Arts Proficiency” test score, how many students are promoted to fourth grade, and “two consecutive years of data to evaluate how well schools and districts are doing at providing supports needed to help struggling readers become on track with their reading.”

The 17-page guide does not acknowledge the research of Sean Reardon, the Stanford University educational sociologist, who comments on the opportunity gaps that come to school with children as they enter Kindergarten: “We examine… test score gaps because they reflect… differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… (D)ifferences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

There is nothing in the guide to the Early Literacy measure on the new Ohio State School Report Card that acknowledges the early gaps in preparation for reading that children present as they enter Kindergarten. Surely the new Ohio School Report Card’s Early Literacy measure is as much a measure of young children’s experiences outside of school—parents who read with them, and exposure to enriched child care, Pre-Kindergarten, and public library story hours—as it may be to their in-school experiences before they take the third-grade Language Arts Proficiency test that is so key to this measurement.

There are several reasons the Ohio Department of Education chose not to create one overall summative rating for each school and school district this year. The pandemic affected school districts differently with some districts forced to use more online services during COVID-19 upswings and with widely disparate access to the internet and home computers among the state’s children.  State officials imply that they want this year’s five star ratings to be a helpful guide for school districts. But a reporter, grasping the public’s hunger for comparisons, found a way to rank the districts in order merely by adding up each district’s total number of stars and publishing the state’s school districts in order from top to bottom.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter begins his report: “While the new Ohio school report card gives a star rating to various performance categories, there is no overall performance grade assigned for this year. So cleveland.com calculated the total score for all 607 districts… to show which schools scored the best across the board.”

I predict that, even without assigning an overall letter grade for schools and school districts, Ohio’s new, much touted five-star rating system will continue to promote educational redlining across Ohio’s metropolitan school districts.  Prospective home buyers will read the five-star system the same way they have been reading the “A” through “F” letter grade school district rating system. They will continue to want to live in the school districts with the most stars, and the system will, thereby, exacerbate economic and racial segregation as people who can afford it continue to move to pockets of privilege in exurbia. After all, in a follow-up report, the Plain Dealer‘s Jeremy Pelzer notes that “‘suburban, higher-income districts in Northeast Ohio and around the state, not surprisingly, generally received higher report-card ratings…. A dozen school districts in Ohio received perfect scores across the board, including four in Northeast Ohio: Aurora City School District, Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools, Highland Local Schools in Medina County, and Solon City Schools.”  All are higher-income exurbs.

Ohio’s new school rating system appeared just a week after the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published an overall critique of school accountability as measured quantitatively primarily by a district’s aggregate standardized test scores.  Strauss reminds readers that, “For several decades now, education policymakers have been obsessed with data-driven accountability—usually with standardized test scores as the key metric. The approach has failed to achieve any of the goals supporters have championed, such as closing the achievement gap, and has instead brought us things like pep rallies to get students excited to take standardized tests and methods to evaluate teachers based on the scores.”

Strauss publishes a piece written by two Northwestern University researchers, both sociologists, who have been evaluating our society’s obsession with ranking and rating.  Simone Ispa-Landa and Wendy Espeland declare: “We are a nation obsessed with lists and rankings, not just for dishwashers and other consumer products. We track our steps, rate our sleep, and go to hospitals with the ‘best ratings.’… In our research, we find that, across institutions, school leaders are pressured to devote enormous time and energy to ‘improving the numbers,’ even when this comes at the expense of making changes that, in private, they acknowledge would be far more impactful for students. Because rankings and other measures change how school leaders do their work and make decisions, current accountability policies have far-reaching implications for school discipline and student mental health at a moment of intense national crisis in child and youth well-being… We should acknowledge that one-size-fits-all metrics do not fairly measure what matters most in many schools…. We should reward schools for innovation, for creating programs that will take time to evaluate. Simple numbers promote simple solutions and can prevent promising programs with long-term positive implications from taking root. Before we head into another school year, let’s look at dismantling the ranking systems that are burdening our administrators… and preventing authentic improvement.”

Ohio’s brand new school report cards—still based largely on each school’s aggregate standardized test scores—neglect to reflect the experiences created by fine educators who meet students where they are and help them experience educational opportunity in classes that are respectful, challenging and emotionally safe.

Far-Right Organizations Work With Ohio Legislators to Privatize Public Education

Ohio is overrun with far-right advocates pushing the privatization of public education through the expansion of both vouchers and charter schools and with people spreading alarm about public school teaching of divisive subjects. This should not be surprising in our notoriously gerrymandered Republican state legislature. Here are some of the extremist organizations whose lobbyists counsel our legislators, help them draft legislation, and make political donations.

The Buckeye Institute

Sourcewatch describes this Ohio organization: “The Buckeye Institute…  is a right-wing advocacy group based in Ohio. It is a member of the $120 million-a-year State Policy Network (SPN), a web of state pressure groups that denote themselves as “think tanks” and drive a right-wing agenda in statehouses nationwide.”  Sourcewatch further describes the State Policy Network: “SPN groups  operate as the policy, communications, and litigation arm of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), giving the cookie-cutter ALEC agenda a sheen of academic legitimacy and state-based support.”

On Tuesday of last week, The Buckeye Institute released a new report outlining its strategy for helping students “regain lost learning” during the pandemic:  “In its new policy report… The Buckeye Institute outlines how empowering parents, funding students first, and enhancing school choice can counteract the ill effects the pandemic had on learning loss for Ohio’s K-12 students.”  While The Buckeye Institute claims to focus on individual students in its response to the past two years of COVID disruption, the new report doesn’t mention students at all. There is nothing about giving students extra attention in smaller classes or more enrichments and activities to make school exciting or more counselors and mental health support. Instead the report addresses the more abstract issues of school ownership and governance. In essence universal marketplace school choice via vouchers is the solution: “The report offers four commonsense policy solutions that will improve the K-12 academic experience:

  • “Broad-Based Education Savings Accounts: Create a broad-based ESA initiative to reform Ohio’s education system and its long-standing government-run education monopoly…
  • “Universal Open Enrollment: Make it easier for all families to send students to their school of choice by requiring all Ohio public schools to participate in inter-district open enrollment.
  • “Expanded Tax Credit Scholarships: Increase the maximum tax credit from its current $750 limit to $2,500 to make it easier for grant organizations to offer larger scholarships (vouchers) to more students in need.
  • “Enhanced Spending Transparency: Require all public school districts to operate more transparently by sharing their spending data with parents in Ohio Checkbook.”

The Center for Christian Virtue

The Center for Christian Virtue recently purchased an office building across the street from the Statehouse in Columbus to bring the organization right into the center of power in Ohio. One of the Center for Christian Virtue’s new initiatives is to help locate private religious schools in churches—schools that qualify for tax-funded EdChoice vouchers. For the Statehouse News Bureau, Jo Ingles reports: “A new, private school has been commissioned in Columbus, but it’s not like many others… Inside the walls of the Memorial Baptist Church on the west side of Columbus, classrooms normally used for Sunday church services are being readied for kindergarten through second grade students who have been going to local public schools. That’s according to Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, a conservative Christian organization. He said seven churches came together to create this new model school. This is a pilot project for the Center for Christian Virtue. And the group said it’s just the first of many that will use church facilities for a private Christian school.”  “Children who enroll in the school this year can use state money through Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program to pay for their tuition because they will fit the income or school attendance area guidelines… Other Christian-based schools are now receiving money from the EdChoice Scholarship program.”

Ingles adds that, “Baer’s organization is leading the charge for majority Republicans state lawmakers to adopt a bill, commonly called the “backpack” bill, that would expand the Ed Choice Scholarship even more to allow any student, regardless of income or where they live, to use public money for private schools. ”

For the Ohio Capital Journal, Zurie Pope reports that the Center for Christian Virtue has gone farther than merely supporting HB 290, the Backpack Bill.  Members of the Center for Christian Virtue’s staff helped write the language of the bill: “(D)ocuments obtained by the Ohio Capital Journal through a public records request reveal CCV’s involvement in HB 290 has been more extensive than previously known, and included the advice and promotion of outside groups like Heritage Action and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This past February, a legislative aide for McClain (one of the bill’s sponsors) emailed a draft of the bill to CCV legislative liaison Nilani Jawahar and CCV lobbyist and Ohio Christian Education Network Assistant Director Corine Vidales.”  The Ohio Capital Journal‘s report also names so-called academic research the drafters of the Backpack Bill considered as they were drafting the bill: “Both studies were created by EdChoice, an Indiana-based think tank that advocates for school choice. Ohio’s private school voucher program is also called EdChoice.” Finally, explains Zurie Pope, of the Ohio Capital Journal, the executive director of the Ohio Christian Education Network, Troy McIntosh, “sent a draft of the bill to Stephanie Kruez, a regional director for Heritage Action, the policy arm of the right-wing think tank, The Heritage Foundation.”

The Thomas Fordham Institute

The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben reports that the Thomas Fordham Institute has joined a lawsuit pushing to overturn reasonable and sensible new rules recently imposed by the U.S. Department of Education to improve oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program. The Fordham Institute functions not only as an Ohio think tank, but also as an approved sponsor of its own Ohio charter schools. Tebben explains: “An Ohio group that supports charter schools has joined in a lawsuit fighting against what they say is ‘hostility’ in rule-making by the U.S. Department of Education. The D.C. and Ohio-based Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, spoke as a ‘charter school sponsor’ for the state of Ohio, arguing that rules regulating enrollment and use of charter schools… will ‘disadvantage some or all of the charter schools sponsored by Fordham’… The part of the rule that charter school advocates have a problem with states charter schools would need to prove public schools are over-enrolled, and encourage but don’t require ‘community collaboration’ with fellow school districts.”  The lawsuit Fordham joined claims: “The most successful charter schools are those that provide educational alternatives to under-enrolled schools, not those that simply house excess numbers of students.”  Ohio’s Fordham Institute is supporting the idea that charter schools should operate in competition, not collaboration, with the public school districts in which they are located.  Neither does Fordham worry about the areas in Ohio where too many low quality charter schools with fancy advertising are sucking essential dollars from the public schools that serve the majority of the community’s students.

The Fordham Institute’s Aaron Churchill recently published a detailed set of priorities the Fordham Institute will be advocating this winter when the legislature begins to debate Ohio’s FY 2024-2025 biennial state budget.  Churchill explains that Fordham will lobby to expand the charter school funding formula, expand special targeted assistance for charter schools, raise the facilities alliance to cover building costs, and support a credit enhancement to make building restoration and construction more affordable for charter schools. Fordham will also lobby to make EdChoice vouchers available for all students living in families with income up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level and allow brand new private schools to receive publicly funded vouchers from students even in a private school’s first year of operation. To its credit, Fordham will push to make the academic quality of private schools accepting vouchers more transparent by requiring, for the first time, private schools to release standardized test scores. Fordham will also lobby to make interdistrict public school choice universal across all the districts in the state, removing discretion for local school boards to decide whether to participate.

Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative

In the first of an important three-part expose for SALON last spring, Kathryn Joyce outlined the fast-growing initiative of Michigan’s conservative Christian Hillsdale College to disseminate its Classical Academy curriculum—which is Christian as well as classical—nationwide by encouraging charter schools to incorporate its model curriculum: “Hillsdale is not just a central player, but a ready-made solution for conservatives who seek to reclaim an educational system they believe was ceded decades ago to liberal interests. The college has become a leading force in promoting a conservative and overtly Christian reading of American history and the U.S. Constitution. It opposes progressive education reforms in general and contemporary scholarship on inequality in particular… Across the nation, conservative officials from state leaders to insurgent school board embers are clamoring to implement Hillsdale’s proudly anti-woke lesson plans, including the ‘patriotic education’ premises of its recently released 1776 Curriculum, or add to its growing network of affiliated classical charter schools.”

The NY TimesStephanie Saul explains the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative’s name: “Hillsdale’s charter school operation… began in 2010 with a grant from the Chicago-based Barney Family Foundation, endowed by Stephen M. Barney, a financial industry executive.  Saul continues: “The Hillsdale charter schools are neither owned nor managed by Hillsdale. Instead, the schools enter agreements to use the Hillsdale curriculum and the college provides training for faculty and staff, as well as other assistance—all free of charge.”

The number of Hillsdale Classical Charter Schools is growing in Ohio.  I currently count four either in operation already or getting set to open: the Cincinnati Classical Academy; the Northwest Ohio Classical Academy in Toledo; the Heart of Ohio Classical Academy in Columbus; and the Southeast Ohio Classical Academy in Athens.  Another Hillsdale Classical Academy is a private school, the Columbus Classical Academy, which, I’m sure, accepts vouchers which have been permitted for religious schools since 2002 under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Zelman v. Simmons Harris.

Four of these schools, however, are charter schools—which Ohio considers public schools.  As schools with an explicitly Christian curriculum, these charter schools, deemed public by Ohio law, raise obvious questions about church-state separation.  After the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carson v. Makin, a Maine school voucher decision which affirmed the constitutionality of publicly funding schools that explicitly teach religion, perhaps these Ohio Hillsdale charter schools will ultimately be tested with further litigation.

2022 Scores on NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card, Help Define the Meaning of the Pandemic

When fourth grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released last week, the NY Times headline writer informed us: “the pandemic erased two decades of progress in math and reading,” as though a long trend of public school improvement has now been set on a downward trajectory.

What happened instead is that schooling was utterly disrupted for the nation’s children and adolescents, just as all of our lives were interrupted in so many immeasurable ways. During COVID, while some of us have experienced the catastrophic death of loved ones, all of us have experienced less definable losses—things we cannot name.

I think this year’s NAEP scores—considerably lower than pre-pandemic scores—should be understood as a marker that helps us define the magnitude of the disruption for our children during this time of COVID. The losses are academic, emotional, and social, and they all make learning harder.

Schools shut down and began remote instruction in the spring of 2020, and many stayed online through the first half of last school year. While most public schools were up and running by last spring, there have been a lot of problems—with more absences, fighting and disruption, and overwhelming stress for educators. It is clear from the disparities in the scores released last week among high and low achievers that the disruption meant very different things to different children. It is also evident that the pandemic was a jolting shock to our society’s largest civic institution. It should be no surprise, then, that the attempt to get school back on track was so rocky all through last spring.

What is the National Assessment of Educational Progress?  The Washington Post‘s Donna St. George explains: “NAEP testing is done at public and private schools across the country that are randomly sampled, according to the National Center for Education Statistics… Test takers are randomly sampled, too—14,800 students in all, from 410 schools. More than 90 percent of schools were sampled in both 2020 and 2022.”

The NY TimesSarah Mervosh adds: “The National Assessment of Educational Progress is considered a gold standard in testing.  Unlike state tests, it is standardized across the country, has remained consistent over time and makes no attempt to hold individual schools accountable for results, which experts believe makes it more reliable. The test results (released last week) offered a snapshot for just one age group: 9-year-olds, who are typically in third or fourth grade.  More results, for fourth graders and for eighth graders, will be released later this fall on a state-by-state level.”

What do this year’s scores show us about the impact of the pandemic on public schooling in America?

While the NAEP is traditionally used to gauge the trajectory of overall educational achievement over time, and while the trajectory has been moderately positive over the decades, the results released last week cannot by any means be interpreted to mean a change of the overall direction of educational achievement.

Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz asked Stanford University professor Sean Reardon (whose research tracks the connection of poverty and race to educational achievement) whether “it will take another 20 years to raise scores once again.”  Reardon responded: “That’s the wrong question…. The question is: What’s going to happen for these (9-year-old) kids over the next years of their lives.” Schwartz describes more of Reardon’s response: “Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds, will be back to normal relatively soon, Reardon said. Instead, he said, we should look to future scores for 13-year-olds, which will present a better sense of how much ground these current students have gained.”

Schwartz reports: “Students at all levels lost ground during the past two years, but lower-performing students saw the biggest drops.”  The test does not in any way measure the factors that contributed to the drop in scores for students who were already struggling, but the results shouldn’t be surprising.  Some children live in families with internet access and enough computers that each of several children in the family could access online instruction simultaneously, while other children’s parents had to drive them to public library or fast food outlet parking lots to find any internet access at all. Some parents had sufficient time at home to supervise children and provide assistance during online instruction, while in other families, older siblings supervised younger siblings while trying to participate themselves in online instruction. Some children and adolescents simply checked out and neglected to log-on.

Diane Ravitch highlights another lesson we can very likely learn: remote instruction is an inadequate substitute for going to school.  Decades of research show that education is relational:

“The moral of the story is that students need to have human contact with a teacher and classmates to learn best. Virtual learning is a fourth-rate substitute for a real teacher and interaction with peers… The pandemic isolated children from their teachers. It caused them to be stuck in front of a computer… They needed human interaction. They needed to look into the eyes of a teacher who encouraged them to do better, a teacher who explained what they didn’t understand. The NAEP scores are a wake-up call. We must treasure our teachers and recognize the vital role they play in educating the next generation.”

New Articles Affirm the Public Purpose of Public Education

The school year has begun all across the country. My husband and I just returned from driving to and around Montana, where in small towns and tiny rural communities we observed children walking to school, waiting for the school bus, or playing at recess on the playgrounds of public schools—usually the best built and best maintained buildings in the area.  As this school year begins, after two COVID years and a wave of far-right attacks on public schools and schoolteachers, there has been a recent outpouring of important commentary in the press about the essential role of public education in America. Here are some samples.

The centerpiece of a NY Times series of essays on the public schools is by Anya Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio. Kamenetz describes the role of Horace Mann’s formulation of the idea of public schooling as America’s ideal democratic institution: “For the majority of human history, most people didn’t go to school. Formal education was a privilege for the Alexander the Greats of the world, who could hire Aristotles as private tutors. Starting in the mid-19th century, the United States began to establish truly universal, compulsory education. It was a social compact: The state provides public schools that are free and open to all. And children, for most of their childhood, are required to receive an education. Today, nine out of 10 do so in public schools. To an astonishing degree, one person, Horace Mann, the nation’s first state secretary of education, forged this reciprocal commitment.” “An essential part of Mann’s vision was that public schools should be for everyone, and that children of different class backgrounds should learn together… The consensus on schooling has never been perfect… But Mann’s inclusive vision is under particular threat right now…  Meanwhile, a well-funded, decades-old movement that wants to do away with public school as we know it is in ascendance. This movement rejects Mann’s vision that schools should be the common ground where a diverse society discovers how to live together.”

The Washington Post recently published a reflection by Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. Zimmerman believes our understanding of ourselves as a society underpins the way we think about our public schools: “We don’t have a shared story of America’s past anymore — and that’s a problem.” “(O)ur battles over history now blaze as never before. Over the past two decades, historians and activists have raised new questions about the larger purpose and meaning of America. Instead of simply bringing new actors into the same triumphal story, they have asked whether the story is a triumph — and for whom. This isn’t just a matter of what Jefferson would have liked. It’s instead a question of whether we should like Jefferson, a man who enslaved human beings and fathered children by one of them. Such challenges sparked predictable outcry from Republicans, especially after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Claiming — falsely — that Obama was born in another country, the tea party movement and other conservatives rallied to defend “American exceptionalism” in schools. In practice, that often meant purging textbooks of material about slavery, Native American displacement and anything else that seemed to put the nation in a negative light. All of these tensions exploded during the presidency of Donald Trump.”  Zimmerman concludes: “American history is far muddier than either side will admit. It combines the noble ideals that the right wants to emphasize and the oppressive reality that the left insists upon including. Good history teaching involves both perspectives, and — most of all — it requires students to make sense of them. That’s not to say we must give “equal time” to Holocaust denial or other plainly false claims. But we do need to acknowledge that equally reasonable people use the same facts to come to different views of our shared past.”

In another profound piece for the Washington Post, Paul Waldman captures all the ways the privatizers and other far right ideologues are working to undermine confidence in the public schools by exploiting the fears of American parents who worry that they’ll lose their children to somebody else’s values: “The conservative campaign against education is many things. As a political matter, it’s about intensifying the culture war so moral panic drives Republican votes. As a policy matter, its long-term goals include dismantling public education. As a personal matter, it’s often motivated by fear that the American system of education is a threat to people’s children — that the wrong ideas, even ideas themselves, are impossibly dangerous. On that last point, conservatives are absolutely right: Education is indeed a threat to many things they believe.”  “(T)he more conservative you are, the more likely it is that education will lead your kids toward experiences and beliefs that differ from yours — not because your kids are being victimized by propaganda, but just because of the nature of becoming educated… The threat is real. Conservatives can’t keep their kids from having their minds opened forever. And they know it.”

The Washington Post recently featured a piece from Adam Laats, professor of educational history at the State University of New York in Binghamton. Laats examines the history of school culture and curriculum wars to offer a more hopeful perspective on today’s battle to ban so-called “divisive topics,” what far-right ideologues call Critical Race Theory, and any reference to sexual identity: “These tactics — extreme as they are — are only the latest in a century-long conservative effort. Since the 1920s, conservative boycotters have pledged that no tactic is too extreme to keep children safe from school curriculum.”  Laats recounts the story of the explosive 1974, Kanawha County, West Virginia school battle over so-called controversial books being assigned for classroom reading. Despite threats to the superintendent and school board, “In the end, despite all the heat and anger, the protests failed. For one thing, families were not willing to keep their children out of school. By the third week of September, almost all students were back in school. When it came down to it, most families — even ones who might have considered themselves fairly conservative — valued school more than they valued activists’ pleas to boycott the books…. Conservative leaders seemed authentically surprised. They had assumed that their views about literature, racism and sexuality were shared by the vast majority of Americans… To their chagrin, Moore (the instigator) and her allies learned the hard way that they, in fact, were the ones who were out of touch with mainstream thinking…Right-wing anger was real. Conservative anxiety was powerful. And the resulting threats were dangerous. But conservative assumptions were out of step with reality.”

In “School Is for Making Citizens,” part of the recent NY Times series, Heather McGhee and Victor Ray, professor at the University of Iowa—both authors of recent books on the importance of honestly confronting our history—argue convincingly for the importance of resisting today’s far-right attacks on honest teaching and inclusive curriculum: “Why do we have public schools? To make young people into educated, productive adults, of course. But public schools are also for making Americans. Thus, public education requires lessons about history — the American spirit and its civics — and also contact with and context about other Americans: who we are and what has made us. That broader purpose is currently under attack… Fortunately, our shared American history offers models of the kind of education that can unite students and communities to produce a solidarity dividend — a positive public good that we can create only by working together across racial and socioeconomic lines. Black people in Jim Crow Mississippi lived under racial authoritarianism so strict and violent that it is hard to imagine today. But lies and omissions about history were essential to the program of Jim Crow subjugation. Lost Cause mythology, which downplayed slavery as a cause of the Civil War, replaced factual history. Students, regardless of race, were taught that Black people were inferior. And many white employers thought Black people should learn only enough for proficiency in menial Jim Crow jobs. That’s why the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sent volunteers to the Mississippi Delta during the 1964 Freedom Summer, to found schools in poor Black communities that offered a truthful education that was explicit about racial oppression and the denial of political rights…. The broader civil rights movement helped transform the nation — in ways that even benefited the white Southerners who were so deeply opposed… (C)ivil rights gains helped create more robust economies and local democracies, benefiting all citizens. These gains were possible precisely because people learned how to confront the nation’s failures…  Every student deserves the kind of myth-shattering and empowering education that the Freedom Schools provided. Such education doesn’t shy away from America’s ugly truths and contradictions”

Heather McGhee and Victor Ray affirm inclusive public schools which improve opportunities for all children and expose students to the complexity of a diverse society. Their writing harks back to the ideals of Horace Mann, who understood public schools as the institution which can best form individuals capable of grasping and undertaking the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.

It is important that today’s attacks on public schools, on school curriculum, and on the honest teaching of history have drawn such a response from historians and experts on the institution of public education in America.  Please take some time to read and consider these important resources.

How Has Standardized Test-Based School Accountability Changed the Way We Understand Public Schooling?

Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, Frederick Hess, head of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas Fordham Institute, have been arguing this summer about whether public school reform based on test-and-punish school accountability is dying. For decades, these three men have been central to defending the changes embedded into federal law by the 2002, No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and into state laws across the United States as Arne Duncan’s Department of Education made states comply with these educational theories to qualify for federal Race to the Top grants in 2009.

While these three proponents of accountability-based school reform disagree on where this movement stands today, they all agree on what it is. Petrilli remembers how he defined school reform back in 2006: “There is now a Washington Consensus in education. It has been entrenched since the middle of the Clinton Administration, was integral to the crafting of NCLB in 2001, and for the most part remains intact today. It embraces three big ideas. First, that the nation’s foremost education objective should be closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Second, that excellent schools can overcome the challenges of poverty. And third, that external pressure and tough accountability are critical components of helping school systems improve.”

Petrilli explains further how these ideas coalesced: “These ideas took shape as a series of federal mandates, most visibly enshrined in NCLB. States had to set academic standards in English language arts, math, and science; to test students annually in math and reading and regularly in science; and to create accountability systems that would not only report results, but also intervene in chronically low performing schools in very specific ways—the law’s ‘cascade of sanctions.’ Meanwhile, as NCLB was debated, enacted, and implemented, the charter school movement expanded rapidly….”

Finn and Hess add: “This early 21st-century focus on accountability and choice signified a pair of important shifts in Americans’ understanding of K-12 education. In the era before A Nation at Risk, people generally gauged school quality on the basis of inputs, resources, and reputation, not student-learning outcomes… Yet by the time Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, a ‘good ‘ school had come to mean one with high reading and math scores… (and) the right of parents to select their child’s school was increasingly taken for granted.”

Finn and Hess trace a retreat from the heavy hand of the federal government as the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind. They believe the “school choice” strand of school reform is definitely thriving today, but the focus on test-and-punish school accountability has faded.  Importantly they admit that this kind of school reform did not achieve its stated goal of closing achievement gaps as measured by test scores: “Did the movement do any good while it lasted? It certainly yielded unprecedented transparency regarding student achievement. It produced a massive expansion of charter schooling and parental choice. And it pushed educational outcomes to the center of the national conversation about opportunity and economic growth. Yet there’s scant evidence that it improved student outcomes, especially in the upper grades. Meanwhile, by enlisting Uncle Sam as the nation’s school superintendent, reformers helped entangle education fights with broader clashes over politics and culture. Along the way, they narrowed school curricula, dismissed the concerns of middle-class parents, and defined success using a race-centric notion of achievement gaps.”

Petrilli reaches a very different conclusion: “Let’s take a look at the real world shall we? The charter school sector continues to grow, energized by the lackluster response of traditional public schools to the pandemic. The Common Core standards remain in place in a majority of states, even if they go by different names. Annual testing is still here—with better, tougher tests than we had a decade ago. High-quality instructional materials aligned to the standards continue to gain market share. And that’s not to mention the explosion of private school choice (mostly supported by Republicans) or the progress on school funding equity (mostly supported by Democrats)…. Energizing grass-roots support for standards-based reforms would be fantastic….”

Finn and Hess are correct that the wave of support for technocratic school accountability has utterly faded from the national political conversation. But, while Petrilli’s allegation about a wave of high-quality instructional materials over the past two decades is highly questionable, and although there is abundant evidence that public school funding equity has not thrived under the “school reformers” agenda, I think MIke Petrilli has a point. Even while what he calls “the Washington Consensus” has faded, the consequences of test-and-punish school accountability are still very much with us. Our kids in public schools still have to be tested every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and the federal government still forces states to rate and rank public schools by their aggregate test scores.

The most profound long term impact of the whole school reform agenda is deeper, however, than Mike Petrilli acknowledges. The meaning of standardized test-based school accountability is best captured by rhetorician Robert Asen in recent book, School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy. Asen believes that the school reformers significantly changed the way America thinks, imagines, and talks about public education: “In a bipartisan manner, accountability and standards functioned analogously to the roles of central banks and other regulatory market institutions in establishing common measures of educational value and exchange. Various actors, from state education officers to individual families, could participate in educational markets confident that they could exchange with others through commensurable means. Testing and test scores served as market valuations and currency. Individual schools, local districts, and states could market themselves to individual and institutional investors as sound opportunities. Test scores also provided market actors with the information they needed to make comparative choices among various education providers.” (School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, p. 81)

The era of test-and-punish set the stage for thinking of education as a consumer marketplace.

Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff would explain that the movement for school accountability based on standardized test scores changed the frame in which we conceptualize our public schools: “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or a bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out our policies… You can’t see or hear frames. They are part of what cognitive scientists call the ‘cognitive unconscious’—structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences: the way we reason and what counts as common sense. We also know frames through language. All words are defined relative to conceptual frames… Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense.” (Don’t Think of an Elephant!, p. xv)

The most basic critique of accountability-based school reform—whose impact is currently being debated by some of its strongest adherents—Finn, Hess, and Petrilli—is that its frame is entirely quantitative. School accountability based solely on aggregate standardized test scores fails to measure the qualitative process of education as experienced by students and practiced by teachers. Here we can turn to the late Mike Rose, a professor of education and a discerning writer.

Rose considers students’ lived encounters with schooling: “I’m interested… in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind. The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it. Yet it is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it, the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are.” (Why School?, p. 34) “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity? Certainly one feels a sense of possibility, of hope. But it is hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal.  And all this takes place with people who interact with you in ways that affirm your hope.” (Why School?, p. 14)

What about the school reformers’ quantitative attempts to measure and evaluate the quality of teachers? (Reminder: A central requirement for states to qualify for a Race to the Top grant was that states evaluate teachers  based on their students’ aggregate standardized test scores.)  In an important 2014 article, Rose challenged this technocratic frame based on his qualitative observations of teachers when he visited their classrooms: The “classrooms (of excellent teachers) were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

Although many of us, if asked, will qualitatively describe our own schooling or our children’s schooling from our values and personal experience, aren’t we still likely to cling to the frame of test-based accountability when we think broadly about American public education?  As we read Mike Rose’s descriptions of what really matters in students’ experience and in the practices of their teachers, aren’t many of us tempted to wonder if his thinking isn’t old fashioned? Could most of us even conceptualize a society without quantitative evaluation and the ranking of schools and school districts even though we know that No Child Left Behind’s policies failed to equalize educational opportunity and leave no child behind? I wish I did not fear that, as a society, we are a long, long way from being able to reject the worn out school accountability frame brought to us by the likes of Checker Finn, Rick Hess, and Mike Petrilli.