Betsy DeVos Has It Backwards: It Takes Public School SYSTEMS to Serve Individuals

I hope Betsy DeVos, our U.S. Secretary of Education, carefully studied the photo essay in yesterday’s Washington Post–the story of Mya Fourstar, the high school sophomore basketball player from Frazer, Montana. It is the sort of story DeVos prefers—about an individual, a gritty young woman determined to make something of herself: “‘It’s really hard for anyone to get off the reservation. You don’t see it happen a lot,’ Mya said. ‘I think about my future a lot more than you could imagine. I think about it all the time.'”

“Basketball is an escape from the troubles surrounding her, a core part of her American Indian identity, and the heartbeat of Frazer, where the sport is a lifeline…. But basketball also makes Mya put more pressure on herself, to be found where college basketball players aren’t often recruited, to stand out on these pale-yellow plains and leave the Fort Peck Indian Reservation…”

Jesse Dougherty, the reporter, explains that, “Frazer (population, 362) is a highway-side town at the southern end of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, 80 miles from the Canadian border and four-plus-hour drives from Billings to the southwest and Bismark, N.D. to the east.” Dougherty obviously brings a more national perspective to this story, as Billings and Bismark would not be likely to loom large on the mental map of a student from Frazer, located along U.S. Route 2—a little closer to Wolf Point (population, 2,621) than it is to Glasgow (population, 3,215).  One of Frazer’s basketball rivals is Scobey (population 1,017), 47 miles north of Wolf Point and 16 miles south of Canada.

I hope, if Betsy DeVos read this article, she picked up not only on the story of Mya, but also on the back story. Mya played basketball for her public middle school and now stars as a sophomore on her public high school team, whose games are played in the public school gymnasium where her grandmother—Fraser’s Headstart teacher, and her Aunt Sasha—Fraser’s mayor, cheer her on. Melanie Blount-Cole, Fraser’s public school superintendent, serves as the game’s scorer. When the Frazer Bearcubs girls’ basketball team travels, it is in a bus owned by the public schools.

Last July in a speech to the American Legislative Exchange Council, Betsy DeVos detailed her philosophy of education. It begins with parental choice (usually via privatized charters or vouchers to pay private school tuition): “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them…“This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

In Jesse Dougherty’s story about Mya Fourstar, it is pretty clear that school choice isn’t a realistic option. Mya’s high school serves 37 students this year, and it is far away from anyplace else: “The ride back after a game, in a boxy white bus with ‘Frazer Bearcubs’ striped across the side, cut down the middle of the reservation and through a peaceful night… Mya is accustomed to such late-night drives, surrounded by darkness aside from the few passing headlights, as Frazer travels at least an hour for most road games.”

Although it is true that Mya’s school can offer neither the advanced curriculum nor the range of activities and sports of an elite suburban high school, for Mya her public high school offers the best opportunity she has to begin carving a life for herself. The Montana constitution provides for and protects the provision of public education in Glasgow, Wolf Point, and even more remote places like Scobey and Frazer. Public taxes—in Frazer’s case on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, very likely federal impact funds—pay for the school and the gymnasium, the teachers and the coach, the books and school bus which are shaping Mya’s adolescence.

The only sort of privatization Betsy DeVos has promoted for a place like Frazer is an online charter—an e-school where students could study over the internet. But for Mya Fourstar the opportunity surely wouldn’t be the same. Mya’s possibilities as an individual are being shaped by the public school system established and supported by federal, state, and local governments.

Betsy DeVos has it backwards. This story about educational opportunity is the story of the public system that is necessary to serve individual students, parents, and families.

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Big Data, A.I., ‘Personalized’ Learning: A Solution for Eliminating Poverty and Improving Schools?

Tuesday’s NY Times featured a commentary whose author promotes artificial intelligence, big data, and “personalized” learning—algorithm-driven computer programs said to tailor learning to a student’s needs and interests—not only for reinventing education but for powering a new war on poverty. It is a glowing article framed as problem-solving: “Poverty, of course, is a multifaceted phenomenon. But the condition of poverty often entails one or more of these realities: a lack of income (joblessness); a lack of preparedness (education); and a dependency on government services (welfare). A.I. (artificial intelligence) can address all three.”

Clearly the author, Elisabeth A. Mason, the founding director of the Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab, isn’t a fan of dependency on government programs to provide support for people trapped in poverty, and she believes big data and artificial intelligence can match people who are out of work to, “good middle-class jobs that are going unfilled.  Today there are millions of such jobs in the United States…. A.I can predict where the job openings of tomorrow will lie, and which skills and training will be needed for them.” Mason adds: “(B)ig data promises something closer to an unbiased ideology-free evaluation of the effectiveness of… social programs.”

Mason denigrates what she believes is our education system: “We bundle students into a room, use the same method of instruction and hope for the best.”  The solution?  A.I. tutors that, “can home in on and correct for each student’s weaknesses, adapt coursework to his or her learning style and keep the student engaged.”  The so-called tutors are computers—not human beings.  Mason continues: “Today’s dominant type of A.I., also known as machine learning, permits computer programs to become more accurate—to learn, if you will—as they absorb data and correlate it with known examples from other data sets. In this way, the A.I. ‘tutor’ becomes increasingly effective at matching a student’s needs as it spends more time seeing what works to improve performance.”

I am skeptical about Mason’s brave new world even though I acknowledge the value of social research that employs big data. Stanford’s Poverty & Technology Lab is tiny part of much larger collaborative, cross-discipline work at the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality, where sociologist Sean Reardon has been using big data to inform us about economic inequality and its effects on students’ educational achievement. My skepticism does not extend to Reardon, who has done more to help us understand the impact of poverty on children than perhaps any other social scientist. With the kind of big data Mason advocates, Reardon has found a way (here and here) to document nearly a half century of growing residential resegregation by family income across America’s metropolitan areas along with a widening academic achievement gap that reflects children’s segregation by income.  And recently, Reardon published a new study, once again based on big data, that teases out the impact of family and neighborhood factors in education from other indicators of the quality of a community’s schools. All this helps define the scope of our social problem of widening and deepening hypersegregation by race and poverty across America’s communities and schools, but so far, at least, it has helped us face neither the logistical challenge of what to do nor the moral problem of motivating our society to want to do something. Here in metropolitan Cleveland, Ohio, for many years I have been watching the growth of interstate highways that take the wealthy farther and farther into white, outer-ring suburbs. Reardon’s data helps me see the phenomenon in a new and more structural way, but so far nobody seems to know what to do or how to develop the political will to stop our economic segregation.

It would be helpful if big data and artificial intelligence could help us with a new war on poverty, but once again, the challenge is not so much a matter of the technical capacity to measure the problem. Despite that politicians today do not even mention poverty, its depth and growth are well documented. The Washington Post recently reported on a new study from the United Nations on U.S. poverty: “With welfare reform in 1996, poor single parents with children now have a lifetime limit of five years of assistance and mandatory work requirements… The number of families on welfare declined from 4.6 million in 1996 to 1.1 million this year.  The decline of the welfare rolls has not meant a decline in poverty, however. Instead, the shredding of the safety net led to a rise in poverty. Forty million Americans live in poverty, nearly half in deep poverty—which U.N. investigators defined as people reporting income less than one-half of the poverty threshold. The United States has the highest child poverty rates—25 percent—in the developed world… Declining wages at the lower end of the economic ladder make it harder for people to save for times of crisis or to get back on their feet. A full-time, year-round minimum wage worker, often employed in a dead-end job, falls below the poverty threshold for a family of three and often has to rely on food stamps.” Poverty in America remains politically and morally invisible despite the presence of big data.

And finally there is the proposal that our society can personalize education with A.I. tutors—computers driven by algorithms said to respond to children’s prompts with material that addresses their educational needs and feeds their interests. Yesterday this blog explored the education philosopher John Dewey’s 1897 pedagogic creed. Dewey believed that education is not merely for the kind of individual intellectual growth that is promoted by advocates for so-called “personalized” learning. The school, as the place where the student works with teachers and peers, is also instrumental for socializing human beings. The school and the family are the social institutions where, through relations with others, children learn to be moral beings and citizens: ” “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.  Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms.” “(E)ducation is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness.” “This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together… The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.”

Nobody ever really pinned down the meaning of Arne Duncan’s cliche that our schools must stop being “trapped in the 20th century.” John Dewey’s long life spanned the last half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. I hope nobody will try to tell me that Dewey’s wisdom is just so “yesterday.”

An Urgently Needed New Year’s Resolution for Those Who Care About Public Education

A worthwhile New Year’s resolution would be to honor educators—the people who feel called to help others realize their promise. We live in an era of attacks on the public schools and school teachers, and even on higher education in America’s world-renowned colleges and universities.

A resolution to honor educators would mean we consult educators about the public policies that shape our schools, but in recent years we have listened instead to politicians, philanthropists,  business leaders, and tech titans—Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Mark Zuckerberg, and Eva Moskowitz—or Eli Broad, Jeb Bush and Betsy DeVos.

As it happens, John Dewey—a professor of education, perhaps America’s most famous education philosopher, and an education psychologist as well—published a short, readable education creed in 1897. As an exercise for the new year, indulge yourself by comparing Dewey’s pedagogic creed to the ideas and principles that underpin today’s public education policy driven by business, philanthropy, the tech-savvy, and politicians. Imagine how different our schools might be if school teachers who have studied the philosophy and psychology of education were trusted by the education committees in Congress and across the statehouses.

Here are just four of the concepts explored in Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed.” Dewey’s thinking directly confronts what is happening in our schools driven by high stakes test and punish—charter schools dominated by no-excuses compliance—schools with unworkable ratios of students per teacher—schools oriented to college-and-career prep.

First, Dewey, the psychologist, explains that because all learning comes from within the learner, school must be child- or student-centered.  “I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe that they represent dawning capacities.  Accordingly the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator. I believe that these interests are to be observed as showing the state of development which the child has reached. I believe that they prophesy the state upon which he is about to enter. I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observation of childhood’s interests can the adult enter into the child’s life and see what it is ready for, and upon what material it could work most readily and fruitfully.”  Therefore, “The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.  Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative.”

Second, Dewey challenges the idea of school as career prep or college prep. “I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed.  The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation.  As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.” “But on the other hand, the only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions, is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers.  With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means to to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”

Third, what about the role of the teacher and the student’s peers?  “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.  Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms… For instance, through the response which is made to the child’s instinctive babblings the child comes to know what those babblings mean; they are transformed into articulate language and thus the child is introduced into the consolidated wealth of ideas and emotions which are now summed up in language.” “I believe that moral education centres about this conception of the school as a mode of social life, that the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of worth and thought… I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of the neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life.  I believe that the teacher’s place and work in the school is to be interpreted from this same basis.  The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

And fourth, all education must be social; it cannot happen merely in front of a computer screen. “I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness…” “This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together… The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.” “I believe that in the ideal school we have the reconciliation of the individualistic and the institutional ideals. I believe that the community’s duty to education is, therefore, its paramount moral duty… I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment to perform his task… I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.”

Beware Puff Piece in “The Atlantic” about Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy Charters

I thought just about everybody knew about Eva Moskowitz, the New York City queen of no-excuses charter schools. Moskowitz is awarded by her board (made up primarily of the city’s wealthy hedge funders) a salary of over $600,000 per year to run a 46-school chain of charter schools funded primarily with public dollars. She is the melodramatic enemy of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, a diva who regularly complains of persecution by de Blasio when she demands co-located space in one of the city’s crowded public schools.

During the holidays however, when I was out and about, I discovered people talking about Eva Moskowitz, and it became quickly apparent that most of these people had only recently become acquainted with Moskowitz in the fawning puff piece by Elizabeth Green that appears in the January-February, 2018 issue of The Atlantic. Several people, based on Green’s piece, told me I should take back my criticism of charter schools and learn about Eva Moskowitz.

Clearly an admirer of results, Green loves Success Academies’ high scores on standardized tests.  She also likes Eva’s toughness:  “(T)eacher after teacher has reported that at Success, test prep always comes first, narrowing the kind of work students do.  Similarly, however, much as Moskowitz aspires to make Success Academy inclusive, in practice she and her staff sometimes tell families to look elsewhere for a school, because Success just isn’t the right fit. And while Moskowitz has fought to favor disadvantaged groups of students in the lottery, she has declined to fully adopt another policy that would open the schools’ doors wider, a practice known in the charter world as ‘backfilling’: When students leave partway through their schooling, other charters fill spots with kids from the lottery’s waiting list. Success backfills only in kindergarten through fourth grade. Any older than that, Moskowitz argues, and the students won’t be sufficiently prepared for the school’s rigorous academics.”

“Even many supporters hold Moskowitz at what can generously be called a careful distance, and I get it. Her acid tirades are legendary, and can get scathingly personal more quickly than I might have believed had she not once dressed me down after I wrote a story she didn’t like… Entrusting a person who has such an exceptional capacity for venom with the care of children can seem unwise. Which is just one reason I am more than a little terrified by the conclusion I’ve reached: Moskowitz has created the most impressive education system I’ve ever seen.”

Green’s laudatory piece contrasts with earlier reporting on abuses at Success Academies.  At the NY Times a year ago, Kate Taylor published a video of a teacher at the Cobble Hill Success Academy in Brooklyn berating a first grade girl for mistakes on her math paper, ripping up the paper, and publicly shaming the child. We learn that this technique has a name at Success Academies: “rip and redo.”

In recent weeks, Green’s article has, not surprisingly, drawn some pretty intense responses. On December 20, on his personal blog, John Merrow, the retired reporter for the PBS NewsHour, penned a scathing and very detailed condemnation of Moskowitz’s educational practices: Moskowitz and Mussolini.  Merrow writes: “Elizabeth Green’s endorsement of Success Academies and their approach to education in The Atlantic… is particularly disappointing… If she had contacted me, I could have introduced her to a Success Academy custodian who told us about regularly emptying student vomit from the wastebaskets.”

Merrow explains that Success Academies’ record of high test scores comes with a price: “The omissions in Green’s article (and, to be fair to Green, in most coverage of Moskowitz) are almost too numerous to mention: She does not tell her readers that Moskowitz drives away children—some as young as five—by excessive use of out-of-school suspensions. Banning kids from school for days at a time is an effective device for getting rid of children, particularly when the parents have jobs outside the home. And it’s easy to get suspended from Success Academy. On my blog, I published Success Academies’ draconian list of offenses that can lead to suspension, about 65 of them in all. ‘Slouching/failing to be in ‘Ready to Succeed’ position’ more than once, ‘Getting out of one’s seat without permission at any point during the school day,’ and ‘Making noise in the hallways, in the auditorium, or any general building space without permission’ can get a child an out-of-school suspension that can last as long as five days. The code includes a catch-all, vague offense that all of us are guilty of at times, ‘Being off-task.’ Let’s play out how this might work: When an out-of-school suspension is handed out the first time, maybe the Mom asks her mother to watch the child; the second time, maybe her sister can pitch in. But the third one… that’s probably when the Mom decides to seek another school for her first grader.” “Moskowitz has perfected a ‘sorting machine.’ Not only does she sort children by test sores; she also discards those who don’t measure up.”

Merrow explores the obvious goal of such policy and compares Success Academy schools to NYC’s public schools: “Green does not bring up an important question: what happens to the children who do not meet Moskowitz’s standards?  Whether they leave of their own accord, are pushed out, or are effectively thrown out, they have to go to school somewhere. If the Moskowitz model were to be widely accepted, which is what Green is endorsing, where would these children go to school?” Then there is the alarming rate of turnover among teachers at Success Academies. There is also the focus on intense test prep for the annual standardized test: “Because Moskowitz worships test scores, students at her schools spend an inordinate amount of time being tested or practicing for tests.  Moreover, they are rewarded for obedience and punished for drawing outside the lines and thinking outside the box.” “How many of Success graduates have done well enough to gain admission to New York City’s selective high schools like Bronx Science? Last time I checked, it was zero. And Green, a veteran reporter, must have heard stories about how Success kids, after years of regimentation, proved unable to handle a relatively unstructured environment.”

Merrow’s analysis of Moskowitz’s schools is a must read, but several other thoughtful pieces have been recently published as well: Andrea Gabor’s More Breathless Praise for Success Academy; And Why We Should be “Terrified”; and Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker profile, Success Academy’s Radical Educational Experiment (along with this blog’s response to Mead’s profile, Success Academies: Can No-Excuses Charter Schools Be Called Progressive?).

Finally, please don’t miss Lisa Miller’s scathing, NY Times book review of Eva Moskowitz’s recently published memoir. Miller wonders: “How would Eva Moskowitz have fared as an impudent young girl in one of her own charter schools?  This is just one of the many unplumbed questions prompted by her new memoir. Founder of the extensive Success Academy charter-school chain, former New York City councilwoman, mother of three, Moskowitz has famously made a virtue—one might even say a brand—of her defiance. New York City’s public-school system has been her proving ground, and she has devoted herself to reforming what she sees as its bureaucratic idiocies and its codified inefficiencies, refusing to submit to any authority that she deems insufficiently worthy.” But at Success Academy charters, “Children, called ‘scholars,’ are expected to understand that ‘following the rules is a condition of being in school.’ Every teacher is required to follow Success’s pedagogical formula and ‘not create chaos by marching to the beat of her own drum.’ And yet this double standard—in which Moskowitz celebrates her own feisty disobedience while attributing the success of the students in her schools to their dutiful compliance—is never explored, leaving a reader to puzzle over whether Moskowitz has noticed it at all. The question of who in this tinderbox of a society is valued for their anti-authoritarian moxie and who for their obeisance is difficult, and charged, but it is one that the founder of a chain of 46 schools, which educate mostly poor children of color, might be expected to consider.”

EXTRA: A Teacher’s Summary of What Proficiency Might Mean

Here, in The Insufficiency of Proficiency, Oklahoma teacher, Rob Miller speculates on what proficiency might mean. His essay specifically explores any of a number of kinds of complex (or simple) understanding that we might be aiming for—but really cannot measure—when we test “reading proficiency.”

His post is far deeper, however—about the meaning for all of us of more than 15 years of nationally mandated standardized testing. This is a fascinating essay about making educational policy based on a reductive theory of human learning.

Miller begins with a seasonal theme:

Twas the week before Christmas, when all thro’ the state
All the children were stirring, eager to learn their fate;
Their test scores from April would soon be delivered,
I hope I’m proficient the children all quivered;
The wait’s been soooo long…my hands are all sweaty
I need to know now … am I college and career ready?

His piece is also a seasonal reflection for the new year. How many more years will it take us to recognize the limitations of test scores for measuring what we really want children to know?

Revisiting Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”

Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle who oversees provisions for the poor in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, complains: “We have given away… a matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a half, this very blessed afternoon, and yet them paupers are not contented… Why here’s one man that, in consideration of his wife and large family, has a quartern loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight. Is he grateful, ma’am? Is he grateful? Not a copper farthing’s worth of it!  What does he do, ma’am, but ask for a few coals; if it’s only a pocket handkerchief full, he says! Coals! What would he do with coals? Toast his cheese with ’em, and then come back for more. That’s the way with these people, ma’am; give ’em a apron full of coals to-day, and they’ll come back for another the day after to-morrow, as brazen as alabaster.”

Disdaining dependency.  That was the attitude Dickens exposed 180 years ago.

That same attitude is driving social policy in the United States today.  Only now that the tax overhaul is all but a done deal have we begun to read about why our Republican House and Senate and President seem so little worried about tax cuts that, simple arithmetic tells us, we cannot afford. All month we have been reading about the size of the tax cuts and the plutocrats who will benefit, but there has been very little honest reckoning about what will be the most serious human consequences.

Now, however, are we learning the reason. The real goal is eliminating dependency by punishing the poor for being poor.

In a short update, Chye-Ching Huang of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us: “The congressional budget resolution that Congress approved in October, which created the process and set the parameters for the tax bill, also calls for $5.8 trillion in budget cuts over the coming decade, including deep cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, and other health care programs; basic assistance including food assistance through SNAP (formerly known as food stamps); and non-defense discretionary funding, the part of the budget that funds education and training, transportation and other infrastructure, medical research, child and elder care, and other important priorities.”

From the Washington Post‘s Caitlin Dewey we learn that Trump-appointed officials in the Department of Agriculture are considering major limitations within the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): “SNAP is America’s largest anti-hunger program, providing an average benefit of $125 per person each month to 42 million Americans.  The majority of SNAP recipients are children or seniors, though participation rose sharply across all demographic groups during and after the recession, peaking in 2013 at 47.6 million.”  Officials are considering “new restrictions on purchases of soda and candy,” but also considering more significant cuts: “The agency is also considering a proposal to allow states to reduce payments to some groups of people, including undocumented immigrants’ citizen children…  The secretaries’ proposals would allow states to significantly change how they offer nutrition assistance.  Through the use of the waivers, the USDA could unilaterally enact the proposals on a state-by-state basis without further congressional action….”

Why are these proposed changes so utterly devastating?  Here is Harvard University ethnographer Kathryn Edin—from her (2015) book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America—reporting on the collapse of welfare programs after passage in 1996 of the welfare reform law and the subsequent shift of responsibility for welfare programs from the federal government to the states, which have provided very unevenly for poor families: “Starting in 2001, more and more families with children who were receiving SNAP began to report that they had no other source of cash income to live on—not from work, not from public assistance.  By 2006, the number of such families had grown 143 percent from a decade before. By 2012, 1.2 million families on SNAP told eligibility workers they had no other income.” (pp. 30-31)

Earlier this week POLITICO published a scathing indictment of planning that has been going on in federal departments to reduce federal services once tax reform has been enacted: “The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress are hoping to make the most sweeping changes to federal safety net programs in a generation, using legislation and executive actions to target recipients of food stamps Medicaid and housing benefits.  The White House is quietly preparing a sweeping executive order that would mandate a top-to-bottom review of the federal programs on which millions of poor Americans rely. And GOP lawmakers are in the early stages of crafting legislation that could make it more difficult to qualify for these programs… Federal health officials are encouraging states to impose work requirements on able-bodied adults on Medicaid—a major philosophical shift that would treat the program as welfare, rather than health insurance. The Agriculture Department said last week that it would soon give states greater control over the food stamp program, potentially opening the door to drug testing or stricter work requirements on recipients of the $70 billion program long targeted by fiscal conservatives… The president is expected to sign the welfare executive order as soon as January, according to multiple administration officials, with an eye toward making changes to health care, food stamps, housing and veterans programs, not just traditional welfare payments… Although the effort to reshape the country’s welfare system is all but guaranteed to produce powerful political backlash, it appears to have broad backing from conservative congressional Republicans, who are already coordinating with the White House on a legislative agenda to complement expected executive actions.”

Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who, for years, has proposed his own miserly federal budget plans, is quoted by POLITICO: “We have a welfare system that’s basically trapping people in poverty and effectively paying people not to work, and we’ve got to work on that.” Not considered in all this planning is whether jobs are available and whether people using programs like SNAP are able to work.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize winning economist and regular columnist for the NY Times, is one writer who has highlighted what all this will mean for our society and our children. As an economist, Krugman believes cuts in programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and welfare programs like SNAP—programs that, incidentally, help children be able to thrive at school—are economically foolish. He also deplores what such cuts to social programs say about the decline in our society’s ethic of social responsibility: “Children who get adequate care are more likely to be healthier and more productive when they become adults, which means that they’ll earn more and pay more in taxes. They’re also less likely to become disabled and need government support… By the way, broadly similar results have been found for the food stamp program: Ensuring adequate nutrition for the young means healthier, more productive adults, so that in the long run this aid costs taxpayers little or nothing. But such results, while interesting and important, aren’t the main reason we should be providing children with health care and enough to eat. Simple decency should be reason enough. And despite everything we’ve seen in U.S. politics, it’s still hard to believe that a whole political party would balk at doing the decent thing for millions of kids while rushing to further enrich a few thousand wealthy heirs.  That is, however, exactly what’s happening.”

If you wonder what all this commentary about planned cuts to social service and health and nutrition programs is doing in a public education blog, consider these previous posts—about sociologist Sean Reardon, writing about the impact of poverty on education—about Harvard’s Daniel Koretz examining how poverty affects test scores—about author Jack Schneider reflecting on poverty and public education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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