D.C. Schools Chancellor Resigns After Jumping Daughter over 639 Students in High School Lottery

Antwan Wilson, the Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools, resigned yesterday afternoon after a scandal caused when he jumped his daughter over 639 other students in a competitive lottery for the exclusive Wilson High School.  His family chose not to send her to her neighborhood’s zoned high school, Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, one of Washington, D.C.’s lowest performing schools. Chancellor Wilson himself had created the policy that governed enrollment lotteries for the city’s selective schools to clean up cheating by the city’s powerful who have previously received the spaces they demanded in selective schools.

In their article last night reporting on Chancellor Wilson’s resignation, The Washington Post‘s Perry Stein, Peter Jamison and Fenit Nirappil describe the enrollment lottery policy for which Chancellor Wilson set new regulations early in his tenure: “The citywide lottery system allows families who are unhappy with their neighborhood schools to win a seat at a different D.C. public school or charter school, if there is excess capacity in that school.  But demand is great for the best-performing schools, where hundreds of families might compete for a handful of seats.  The notoriously competitive lottery system has been a long standing source of tension, and was mired in scandal not even a ear ago when investigators discovered that a previous chancellor allowed well-connected parents and government officials to evade lottery rules.”

Here is the Washington Post‘s editorial last Friday after Wilson’s action to privilege his daughter over others in the lottery became known: “SERIOUSLY? THAT has to be every Washingtonian’s reaction to the revelation that D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson bypassed the city’s competitive lottery process to place his daughter in one of the city’s most desirable public high schools. Did he forget the scandal—less than a year ago!—that surrounded his predecessor’s use of discretionary transfers to circumvent the lottery for parents with influence? Did he not read the regulation he himself signed in response to that scandal prohibiting D.C. officials from requesting special treatment for their children?”

This week’s scandal merely compounds an ongoing high school graduation scandal and builds upon the record of a test cheating scandal under former Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a scandal whose full investigation Rhee prevented that has been confirmed by now-retired PBS NewsHour education reporter John Merrow.

After Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, Wilson is the third in a string of corporate-reformer chancellors promising to raise school achievement and high school graduation in Washington, D.C., where the public and charter schools are managed as a “portfolio” under mayoral control.  Wilson, taught for a year in Raleigh, NC before serving as assistant principal or principal in Wichita, Kansas, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Denver,Colorado before earning a superintendent’s certificate from the unaccredited Broad Superintendents’ Academy.  He served as school superintendent in Oakland, California from July, 2014 until coming to Washington, D.C. on February 1, 2017.  As the Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reported on Saturday, “Wilson—who comes from the same education circle as Henderson and her predecessor as chancellor, Michelle Rhee—believes in testing and graduation metrics and supports the controversial evaluation system enacted by Rhee,which ties teacher bonuses and job security to the educator’s annual assessments. When he took over the school system last year, Wilson pledged to boost the four-year graduation rate to 85 percent by 2022, an ambitious goal he still stands by. The graduation rate—its validity thrown into doubt after the city-commissioned investigation—stood at 73 percent in 2017.”

After WAMU and NPR exposed a graduation scandal at the District’s Ballou High School last November, a situation in which students were being permitted to make up for sometimes weeks-long unexcused absences by doing an extra project and the school’s instituting slick and insufficient credit-recovery sessions after school, a study of graduation practices was undertaken across the District to determine if what had happened at Ballou might be widespread.  The Post‘s Perry Stein and Moriah Balingit describe findings of a report released on January 29: “Out of 2,758 students who graduated from D.C. public schools last year, more than 900 missed too many classes or improperly took makeup classes.” Perry Stein adds: “At Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington, nearly 70 percent of the 106 graduates last year received their diplomas despite violating some aspect of city policy—the worst violation rate among comprehensive schools in the city. At Ballou, the school whose mispractices spurred the investigation, 63 percent of graduates missed more classes than typically allowed , or inappropriately completed credit recovery… One of the most damning findings came from Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington. Teacher-centered attendance records at the school were modified from absent to present more than 4,000 times for the senior class, which numbered fewer than 200.” As the scale of the scandal has unfolded, Chancellor Wilson fired the District’s Chief of Secondary Schools and the principal and two assistant principals at Ballou High School.

The latest crisis in the D.C. Public Schools leadership is certainly a matter of poor judgement by Chancellor Antwan Wilson. The alarming and much broader high school graduation crisis—ramping up the graduation rate by pushing students through graduation when then have not met the requirements or have missed weeks or months of the senior year of high school—is far more indicative of deep problems.  With their annual IMPACT evaluations and their jobs at stake, teachers have systematically been pressured to make it look as though the D.C. Public Schools are a school district miracle.  In the title of his new book, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz captures the reality of what’s been happening in D.C. and other places when miracles are proclaimed: The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.

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Gates Foundation Unable to Address Real Needs in Public Schools. When Will We Ever Learn?

Bill and Melinda Gates just released this year’s Gates Foundation’s Annual Letter on the foundation’s giving.

Here are some principles I fall back on when I sit down to read such a letter.

First I think about the serious warnings we’ve had over the years about the power of today’s mega philanthropies, larger and more far reaching than in previous decades in their efforts to insert themselves into public policy, but without democratic checks and balances of any kind. Here is Diane Ravitch in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: “(I)t is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations.  There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review…. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.” (pp. 200-201)

Second, foundations are not supposed to be overtly political; after all, the funds invested in foundations by their billionaire founders are deemed tax-free and charitable. As charitable gifts, the funds donated to foundations are not taxed, but these dollars have been too frequently privately invested by foundations to underwrite so-called pilot programs in public school districts, programs that have been overtly designed to shape public policy.

Third, foundation-funded projects are experimental but the foundations don’t have to take any responsibility when their experiments fail.  The school districts and schools at the heart of the experiment, however, and the students and teachers in those schools are often seriously negatively impacted when the experiment fails.  Back in 2011, in a much read article about the power of the venture philanthropies—the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, Joanne Barkan traced the history and consequences, for example, of the Gates Foundation’s small high schools experiment: “In 2000 the foundation began pouring money into breaking up large public high schools where test scores and graduation rates were low… The foundation didn’t base its decision on scientific studies showing school size mattered…. In November 2008, Bill and Melinda gathered about one hundred prominent figures in education at their home outside Seattle to announce that the small schools project hadn’t produced strong results. They didn’t mention that, instead, it had produced many gut-wrenching sagas of school disruption, conflict, students and teachers jumping ship en masse, and plummeting attendance, test scores, and graduation rates.  No matter, the power couple had a new plan: performance-based teacher pay, data collection, national standards and tests, and school ‘turnaround’ (the term of art for firing the staff of a low-performing school and hiring a new one, replacing the school with a charter, or shutting down the school and sending the kids elsewhere).  To support the new initiatives, the Gates Foundation had already invested almost $2.2 million to create The Turnaround Challenge, the authoritative how-to guide on turnaround. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it ‘the bible’ for school restructuring.” We now know, of course, the fate of the turnaround challenge as it was adopted by Duncan’s Department of Education—an example of mega-philanthropy driving public policy by producing and promoting the research adopted by the Secretary of Education as the basis for federal policy.

In 2009, the Gates Foundation invested in a teacher evaluation and merit pay experiment in Hillsborough County (greater-Tampa) Florida, an experiment designed around offering bonuses to reward better teaching.  The public school district certainly bought in to participating in the experiment that Gates launched; it did not, however, expect to be left holding considerable debt.  Here is the Tampa Bay Times‘ Marlene Sokol: “The Gates-funded program—which required Hillsborough to raise its own $100 million—ballooned beyond the district’s ability to afford it, creating a new bureaucracy of mentors and ‘peer evaluators’ who don’t work with students. Nearly 3,000 employees got one-year raises of more than $8,000. Some were as high as $15,000, or 25 percent. Raises went to a wider group than envisioned, including close to 500 people who don’t work in the classroom full time, if at all. The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teachers into high-needs schools. More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants. The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million… The district’s share now comes to $124 million… And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses—a major change in philosophy.”

Then, of course, there has been the Gates Foundation investment in the Common Core—investment in the development of national standards and support for the development of the Common Core tests. Last June the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times quoted the Gates Foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman on this failure: “Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well equipped to implement the standards… We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators—particularly teachers—but also parents and communities, so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.  This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”  The LA Times editorial adds, however that Gates “is now working more on providing Common Core-aligned materials to classrooms, including free digital content that could replace costly textbooks.”  Gates has not given up on the Common Core, despite widespread unpopularity.

In this year’s 2018 Annual Gates Foundation Letter, Bill Gates describes the purpose of the Gates Foundation’s investment in education as “ultimately about helping low-income students and students of color get the same opportunities as everyone else… The issues of economic mobility in America are deeply intertwined; education, employment, race, housing, mental health, incarceration, substance abuse.”  You will notice, however, that Gates Foundation investments have not, so far, been aimed at addressing the nexus of poverty and education in the United States. Instead Gates has experimented with technocratic governance changes, standardized curriculum, and teacher evaluation and merit pay.

What does Bill Gates claim the Foundation has accomplished?  Well it isn’t really about addressing the root causes of educational inequality. In the new letter Bill Gates describes drawing attention to a flaw in the calculation of high school graduation rates, supporting small new secondary schools, and improving the quality of teaching by helping “educators understand how to observe teachers, rate their performance fairly, and give them feedback…”  He claims to have learned “that it’s extremely hard to transform low-performing schools.” Finally, he emphasizes: “For any new approach to take off, you need three things. First you have to run a pilot project showing that the approach works. Then the work has to sustain itself. Finally, the approach has to spread to other places.” So far most Gates’ experiments have failed the first test.

Bill and Melinda Gates claim that in the future, the Foundation will be driven more directly by input from teachers: “We will work with networks of middle and high schools across the country to help them develop and implement their own strategies for overcoming the obstacles that keep students from succeeding. We will help these networks with the process: using key indicators of student success like grades and attendance to drive continuous learning and improvement… We’re acutely aware that some development programs in the past were led by people who assumed they knew better than the people they were trying to help. We’ve learned over the years that listening and understanding people’s needs from their perspective is not only more respectful—it’s also more effective.”

After over fifteen years of investing in what, it is now clear, are failed interventions in education, it is nice that the Gates Foundation plans to work more closely with the teachers in the public schools. Ultimately, however, due to a long history of educational inequality exacerbated in the past decade by reduced state and federal funding, the greatest challenge for public schools today involves lack of resources—particularly for the schools in the poorest communities.  When the Gates Foundation talks with teachers, its staff will likely discover they cannot provide what is needed—especially in the poorest school districts serving student populations where poverty is concentrated.  Although more tax dollars would enable our society to buy smaller classes or more school nurses or counselors or psychologists or the addition of advanced curriculum or enrichments like school music, foundations are not set up to undertake ongoing operating expenses. Neither Gates nor any other foundation is set up to be responsive to these basic operating needs that teachers will surely identify.

School Ratings Not Only Tell You Little about Schools, They Contribute to Economic Segregation

Jack Schneider, a professor and education historian at the College of the Holy Cross and director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, points out that the school district in Boston, Massachusetts encourages parents to choose from among the public schools across the district.  In a short commentary,  State School Rankings ‘Virtually Worthless,’ Schneider explains that many parents make that choice pretty much based on overall school ratings assigned by the state.

How does Massachusetts calculate its school ratings?  “Each year, the state classifies schools into one of five levels, with the ‘highest performing’ designated Level 1. This practice, though distinct in its details, is in keeping with what is done in the vast majority of states. The theory behind such rankings, whether devised as numerical scores, A-F grades, or narrative labels, is that parents and communities want a clear and simple indicator of school quality. Unfortunately, there are… flaws that make these levels virtually worthless. The first and most obvious problem with state-issued ratings of schools is that they are based primarily on a flawed measure: student standardized test scores.”

Schneider believes such school “grades,” “report cards” and rating systems show parents very little about the quality of schools. Schneider explains all the factors about school quality that test-based ratings omit: “Last fall, MassINC conducted a poll of Boston parents and found that more than two-thirds of them identified as ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’ all of the following: the quality of the teachers and administrators; school safety and discipline; the school’s academic programming; college and career readiness; class sizes; facility quality; the values promoted by the school; the school’s approach to discipline; and the diversity of the teachers and administrators. These critical dimensions of school quality are mostly ignored in the vast majority of statewide rating systems….”

Also, explains Schneider, “(S)chools are not uniformly good or bad. As most of us know from experience, schools—as structures, organizations, and communities—have different strengths and weaknesses. Schools that are struggling in some ways may be thriving in others. And schools with illustrious reputations often have a lot to work on.”

And finally, Schneider names the reality that school ratings are shaping our society: “Perhaps most importantly, ratings shape the decisions parents make about where to live and where to send their children to school.”  Although Schneider does not explore the details of this important observation,  academic research demonstrates the reasons why school ratings are likely to reinforce growing housing segregation by family income.

Over a half century of sociological research (dating back to the landmark 1966 Coleman report) demonstrates a strong correlation between overall school achievement and aggregate family income. When states rate schools by their aggregate test scores, the schools whose students are wealthy tend to get an A, and the schools serving very poor children too frequently get a D or an F.  Here are academic experts discussing how test scores reflect a community’s aggregate economic level, not school quality.

In 2011, the Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon showed here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Based on Reardon’s research, in a 2016 report from the National Education Policy Center warning against the continued reliance on No Child Left Behind’s strategy of testing children, rating schools by scores, and punishing the schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo caution policymakers: “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries.  We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our highest scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board. We must also deal with governmentally determined housing patterns that segregate our children… One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality. This has not happened. Shining a light does not provide the social and educational learning essentials for our neediest children.”

William Mathis and Kevin Welner, in another 2016 National Education Policy Report, summarize what was misguided about school accountability policy imposed by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act: “As policymakers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty. Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding. The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less. This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.”

How does this relate to test-based school accountability?  Last fall, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz explains: “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) Policymakers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124)

Test-and-punish accountability since 2002, when No Child Left Behind was enacted, has condemned as “failing” the poorest schools and school districts whose test scores, according to academic research, are undermined by the economic circumstances of their communities and families. In lock-step, states have bought in to holding schools accountable and exacerbated the problem by ranking schools with numerical rankings or letter grades—again based on standardized test scores—that encourage wealthier families who can afford it to move to affluent communities that brag about A-rated schools and to abandon the schools in poor communities. For sixteen years, school accountability policies mandated by federal and state governments have been contributing to the economic resegregation of America’s metropolitan areas.

The Federal Budget and Public Education: What Do Current Trends Mean?

President Donald Trump released his 2019 budget proposal on Monday.

Perhaps—for very good reasons—the federal budgeting process is confusing to you.  You may remember that in the wee hours of the morning last Friday, February 9, 2018, Congress finally passed a 2018 budget deal and raised spending caps for 2018, although lawmakers still have more work to do to finish up budget appropriations for this year. What is supposed to happen is that the President releases his budget proposal in mid-February; then Congress considers and modifies it and is supposed to pass a final budget for the following year by September 30.  For months now, due to Congressional disfunction, the federal government has been operating on a succession of continuing resolutions—with threatened government shutdowns.

If you compare President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal for the Department of Education to what has Congress has actually discussed, you’ll see that Congress has not considered appropriating funding for many of the President’s and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s priorities from last year.  For example, Congress did not even take up the proposal to expand school choice. Neither has Congress de-funded the federal after school program for poor communities, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

Before examining what is in Trump’s 2019 budget proposal for education, it is therefore important to consider the warning of Andrew Ujifusa, one of Education Week‘s two federal education reporters: “(H)ow seriously should you take this budget blueprint anyway?  If history’s any guide, it won’t go anywhere in Congress, where lawmakers are not in the habit of just rubber-stamping presidents’ spending plans… And the last plan’s signature initiatives—three different school choice expansions—have been all but ignored.”

On the other hand, the proposal is a good indication of the priorities of the Trump administration as far as education goes, and the picture isn’t encouraging.  Even though last week Congress lifted the spending caps Congress imposed on itself several years ago, the President’s 2019 budget proposal significantly cuts funding for the Department of Education.  Here is Sheryl V. Cohen, Executive Director of the Committee for Education Funding: “The President’s budget flies in the face of Congress’s action last week to raise investments in domestic priorities that matter to American families and communities. Even though Congress just reached a budget deal that increases non-defense funding for next year by $68 billion, the President’s budget slashes FY 2019 funding for education by $3.6 billion (5.4 percent) below current levels.  The President’s budget echoes his previous request, outright eliminating many needed programs—such as programs that hire and train teachers and principals, provide safe after school learning environments, improve literacy, and help the poorest students attend college.”

The President’s proposed 2019 budget flat-funds the Department of Education’s two largest K-12 public school programs, Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act despite the enormous need across America’s school districts for increases to these programs that support schools serving concentrations of poor children and children with special needs. Once again, Trump proposes eliminating Title II teacher grants and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers; Ujifusa points out that the elimination of these two programs adds up to $3.1 billion of the $3.6 billion of proposed cuts to the Department of Education. Trump also proposes adding a $1 billion school choice “Opportunity Grants” program.

More concerning than any particular budget line in the President’s new proposal is the fact that federal education funding is already low and this budget does nothing to increase it.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out in a November 2017 report that, “Federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools—is down 6.2 percent since 2008, after adjusting for inflation.”

Sheryl Cohen of the Committee for Education Funding examines long term cuts in more detail: “Education funding is already low—Congress has eliminated 50 education programs since 2010, and federal education spending is currently below the 2011 level (it’s even farther below in inflation-adjusted terms).  In fact, only two cents of every federal dollar is spent on education even though we know education investments pay dividends.”

One must consider the new budget proposal in the context of the huge tax cuts for the wealthy that Congress recently passed. It would appear that the President hopes to offset the lost revenue resulting from tax cuts with reductions in vital programs for the most vulnerable Americans to help offset a growing federal deficit.

The executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Robert Greenstein describes the overall impact of current budgetary policy: “The budget comes just weeks after the President and Congress enacted a top-heavy tax cut, one that the Tax Policy Center estimated will give those who make more than $1 million a year an average annual tax cut of $70,000…. Nevertheless, the budget calls for slashing one program after another that provides basic assistance for large numbers of Americans of modest means…. It proposes once again to repeal the ACA’s coverage expansions and gouge Medicaid deeply on top of that…. It proposes deep cuts in basic nutrition, housing and income assistance for millions of Americans below or close to the poverty line… For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program alone (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps)—which research shows produces important long-term benefits for children—would be slashed a stunning $213 billion (or nearly 30 percent) over ten years.”

Decades of research demonstrate that concentrated poverty affects children and, in the aggregate, is correlated with low school achievement. Thankfully, Congress has finally reauthorized the Children’s Health Insurance Program, but food stamps and Medicaid are also essential programs that families count on to survive. In fact Medicaid has become a lifeline for public schools themselves.   Kaiser Health News describes the programs Medicaid currently pays for in public schools—programs that may be threatened with the kind of cuts President Trump proposes in his 2019 budget outline: “Medicaid, created in 1965 to provide health insurance to the poor, now functions as a lifeline for millions of American students… as well as hundreds of school districts across the country…. The public insurance program has evolved so that it now finances myriad education-related services, including transportation for kids with disabilities, school clinics and counseling for children from turbulent backgrounds… Medicaid will reimburse districts for in-school vision and hearing exams, occupational therapy for special-education students, even diabetes and asthma management.  It covers wheelchairs and other medical devices so a student can attend class, and… mental health services.”

DeVos Locks Out Teachers Demanding that Education Department Address Inequity, Protect Civil Rights

Last week Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, marked her first year in office with a news conference where she announced that her greatest accomplishment has been diminishing the role of her department.

For the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit reports: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proclaimed Wednesday that her proudest accomplishments in her first year in office were shrinking he role of the agency, rolling back Obama-era initiatives and erasing outdated regulations… She rolled back key regulations and guidance documents intended to protect transgender students, student borrowers and victims of sexual assault in the name of reining in a department whose role she believes had grown too large.  She used budget cuts and buyouts to reduce the size of the agency.  ‘Some of the most important work we’ve done in this first year has been around the area of overreach and rolling back the extended footprint of this department to a significant extent,’ DeVos said… She is a rarity among education secretaries, having never worked in public schools before her appointment.”

Worse, last Thursday, DeVos locked the doors of the U.S. Department of Education and left Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association (NEA) and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), along with teachers and parent activists, standing on the sidewalk outside. Eskelsen Garcia, Weingarten and a group of pro-public schools activists had tried to make an appointment personally to deliver 80,000 report cards rating DeVos’s accomplishments this year as a failure.

The report cards were created by a coalition of education, civil rights, community organizing, religious and labor organizations—The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. The Alliance released its report card in conjunction with a strong statement about DeVos’s failure to implement the Department of Education’s defined mission to rectify economic and racial justice in the nation’s 90,000 K-12 public schools. School teachers and school support professionals in public schools around the country had added personal comments on the 80,000 report cards Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten attempted to deliver. Together NEA and AFT represent the majority of the nation’s more than 3 million public school teachers.

By rejecting a meeting with leaders of the nation’s school teachers and other public school supporters, DeVos lost the opportunity to listen to the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools’ substantive critique: “To assess the Secretary’s leadership, we reviewed the U.S. Department of Education’s mission and purpose statements and identified four specific roles in public K12 education on which to review her work…

  • “Supplementing state and local resources for schools and districts, particularly those serving low-income students and students of color…
  • “Ensuring access and equity in public schools for all students…
  • “Protecting students’ civil rights…
  • “Promoting evidence-based strategies for school improvement.”

The Alliance explains: “We give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos an “F” for failing to pursue the mission of the U.S. Department of Education.” “In each area, it is clear that the Secretary, far from leading the agency to fulfill its mission, is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. This is not based on incompetence, but on a fundamental disdain for the historic role of the federal government in ensuring access and equity to public education for all children.”

The Alliance’s most serious charge is the Department’s failure to fulfill the mission of Title I and the Department’s Office for Civil Rights: “(A)cross the country, we continue to invest more in schools serving white children than in schools serving African American and Latino children. And as the number of students living in poverty has risen in the U.S., state and local funding for public education has decreased in the past decade, deepening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Two critical and historic roles of the U.S. Department of Education are to address these disparities, and protect students from discrimination in their educational experience. But over the past year, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has deliberately refused to fulfill this mandate.”

Last week Politico‘s Kimberly Hefling and Caitlin Emma reported that Betsy DeVos has been taking lessons from the prominent “Republican messaging expert” Frank Luntz—“to figure out how to talk about conservative educational policies without sparking protests from teachers and liberals.”  Hefling and Emma report that a notation appeared on DeVos’s calendar last June: “Frank has a 60-slide deck of the words to use, and the words to lose, regarding parental choice, vouchers, charter schools, teacher pay and all the other issues in education reform.”  According to  Politico, DeVos wants to avoid explicit mentions of school choice and instead talk about “coming together and finding solutions’ with words like “innovation” and “blended learning.”

Politico‘s reporters describe recent speeches in which DeVos uses softer language: “The new message was… on display during a January speech at the American Enterprise Institute, when she said her job is not to be the country’s  ‘choice chief.’  Rather, she said it was time to ask questions, such as  ‘Why do we group students by age?’ and ‘Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?’  ‘We must answer these questions… We must acknowledge what is and what is not working for students.'”

Hefling and Emma continue: “DeVos herself described her focus on ‘rethinking school’ and innovation as a ‘broadening of the message’ during a roundtable with reporters Wednesday.  And expanding school choice options is one way to shake up education, she said. ‘We have to keep changing and getting better at doing school for kids, and helping kids learn in the way they’re wired up to learn,’ she said.  ‘We have far too many places and way too many examples of doing things repeatedly and continuing to double down on doing something the same way and expecting different results.'”

If DeVos wanted seriously to engage such issues, she would have responded to the questions for which NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia has been demanding answers as the condition for setting up a conversation with the head of the National Education Association.  You’d think she might also have politely received Weingarten, Eskelsen Garcia, and their group of pro-public schools advocates when they tried to make an appointment to talk with her on Friday about the Alliance’s serious critique.

That DeVos locked the building to avoid meeting with Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia last Thursday sends a perfectly clear message that cannot be obscured by Frank Luntz’s fuzzy linguistic framing. Betsy DeVos considers the nation’s teachers unions her enemies.

That’s too bad because, while Betsy DeVos herself has never worked in a public school, the NEA and the AFT represent the millions of professionals who are devoting their lives to that very endeavor. They might have some things to teach our inexperienced U.S. Secretary of Education.

Public Schools Alliance Releases One Year Report Card for DeVos: She Gets an F

Did you remember that today is Betsy DeVos’s first anniversary as U.S. Secretary of Education? One year ago, on February 7, 2017, the U.S. Senate confirmed DeVos’s nomination by the barest margin. Mike Pence, the Vice President, had to be brought in to cast the deciding vote.

Today, in honor of DeVos’s first anniversary as Education Secretary, a coalition of education, civil rights, labor, religious, and community organizing groups—the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools grades DeVos on the quality of her work to implement the K-12, public schools mission of the U.S. Department of Education.

Here is how the Alliance defines its rubric for evaluating DeVos’s performance: “To assess the Secretary’s leadership, we reviewed the U.S. Department of Education’s mission and purpose statements and identified four specific roles in public K12 education on which to review her work…

  • “Supplementing state and local resources for schools and districts, particularly those serving low-income students and students of color…
  • “Ensuring access and equity in public schools for all students…
  • “Protecting students’ civil rights…
  • “Promoting evidence-based strategies for school improvement.”

Overall, the Alliance comments: “We give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos an “F” for failing to pursue the mission of the U.S. Department of Education.” “In each area, it is clear that the Secretary, far from leading the agency to fulfill its mission, is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. This is not based on incompetence, but on a fundamental disdain for the historic role of the federal government in ensuring access and equity to public education for all children.” “In her first year at the Department, DeVos has proven to be disinterested in, or actually hostile to her agency’s mission. Instead of taking steps to strengthen public schools, and to ensure equity and access, she has proposed slashing budgets. Instead of fighting to protect students, she has hamstrung her own Office for Civil Rights’ ability to conduct thorough investigations of claims of discrimination and has eliminated scores of civil rights regulations. Instead of promoting what works, she has declared her allegiance to one thing only: privatization.”  In the Alliance’s statement, the details explain how DeVos has undermined the Department’s capacity to carry out its mission in each of the four areas.

Identifying the one most urgent concern for our nation’s children and for the public schools that serve them, the Alliance comments specifically on DeVos’s failure to ensure that the Department addresses wide disparities in the opportunity to learn for poor children and especially children of color.  Title I, the Department’s oldest and largest program, was designed in 1965 to address the needs of vulnerable children and their schools; DeVos has ignored the need to strengthen Title I.  The Alliance addresses Title I not as a single issue, but speaks to the principles that were the foundation for the original 1965 federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act:

“Public schools are the vehicle through which we guarantee all children a free education from kindergarten through 12th grade. In our collective interest, we promise that poor children and rich children, students with disabilities, students of color, immigrant and non-immigrant will have access to an equitable, quality public education, paid for by taxpayers and controlled by local communities.  Yet across the country, we continue to invest more in schools serving white children than in schools serving African American and Latino children. And as the number of students living in poverty has risen in the U.S., state and local funding for public education has decreased in the past decade, deepening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Two critical and historic roles of the U.S. Department of Education are to address these disparities, and protect students from discrimination in their educational experience.  But over the past year, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has deliberately refused to fulfill this mandate.”

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is a coalition of the following national organizations: Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, American Federation of Teachers, Center for Poplar Democracy, Gamaliel Network, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, NYU Metro Center, People’s Action, Service Employees International Union, and Schott Foundation for Public Education.

On this first anniversary of DeVos’s confirmation, please read the Alliance’s very thoughtful assessment of DeVos’s work and the condition today of the U.S. Department of Education.

New D.C. School Cheating Scandal: This Time It’s About Graduating Students Who Didn’t Do the Work

Last November, right after Thanksgiving, National Public Radio and WAMU in Washington, D.C. exposed a scandal at the District’s Ballou High School.  Last May the school had made headlines for graduating all of its seniors and getting every one admitted to college.  You would think we’d have caught on about such promised miracles by now, but apparently we are a gullible society when we want to believe.

Here is what WAMU reported: “An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences.  WAMU and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a DCPS employee shared the private documents.  The documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present—missing more than 90 days of school… Another internal e-mail obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows that two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation requirements, community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.”

You’ll remember that an earlier Washington, D.C. cheating scandal was exposed during Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s tenure. In March of 2011,  USA Today broke the story about teachers erasing and correcting students’ answers on standardized tests. The problem was never fully investigated because Michelle Rhee controlled the contractor she hired to do the investigation, but John Merrow, the education reporter for the PBS NewsHour eventually confirmed that massive cheating had occurred under Rhee.

While Rhee was never held accountable, the impact on the D.C. public schools is well known—both the long repercussions of Rhee’s leadership style and of the IMPACT plan she instituted for formal teacher evaluations. Despite that Rhee left D.C. in 2012, the IMPACT evaluation plan and promises for rapid school improvement have been maintained by her successors—first Kaya Henderson and now Antwan Wilson.  Last week in the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit, Peter Jamison and Perry Stein reported that Kaya Henderson announced she would raise graduation rates by 22 points in five years, and Wilson, her successor made a similar commitment when he was hired.

In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss recently reviewed the history of Rhee’s influence on the D.C. public schools: “On Oct. 28, 2015, the D.C. Public Schools district put out a statement lauding itself with this headline: ‘D.C. Public Schools Continues Momentum as the Fastest Improving Urban School District in the Country.’  For years, that has been the national narrative about the long-troubled school district in the nation’s capital: After decades of low performance and stagnation, the system was moving forward with a ‘reform’ program that was a model for the nation. The triumphant story included rising standardized test scores and ‘miracle’ schools that saw graduation rates jump over the moon in practically no time.  Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary for seven years, called it ‘a pretty remarkable story’ in 2013…  Policymakers and school reformers—in the District and across the nation—chose to believe the ‘miracle’ narrative and ignore warning signs that were there all along… Meanwhile, the graduation rate—nationally and in the District—continued to rise, despite scandals revealing that schools were essentially juicing the books to make it seem like they were graduating more students. Scams included phony ‘credit recovery’ programs, failing to count all students, and, as the District just found out, letting kids graduate without the qualifications required for a diploma.”

Specifically, Strauss comments on the IMPACT teacher evaluation plan instituted by Rhee—and kept in place by Henderson and now Wilson: “The assessment system, known as IMPACT, that was introduced by Rhee… drew serious concerns from teachers and principals, who found it unworkable and unfair, with performance goals that were impossible to meet and metrics that were questionable… The pressure that IMPACT placed on educators and administrators—pressure that led to cheating on tests and phony graduation rates—was never acknowledged, at least until the new scandal.”

After WAMU and NPR exposed problems at Ballou High School, including permitting students to make up for long, unexcused absences by doing an extra project and the school’s instituting slick and insufficient credit-recovery sessions after school, a study of graduation practices was undertaken to determine if what happened at Ballou might be widespread. The Post‘s Perry Stein and Moriah Balingit describe findings of the new report, released on January 29: “Out of 2,758 students who graduated from D.C. public schools last year, more than 900 missed too many classes or improperly took makeup classes.” In a separate story, Stein reports the numbers for particular high schools: “At Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington, nearly 70 percent of the 106 graduates last year received their diplomas despite violating some aspect of city policy—the worst violation rate among comprehensive schools in the city.  At Ballou, the school whose mispractices spurred the investigation, 63 percent of graduates missed more classes than typically allowed, or inappropriately completed credit recovery…. One of the most damning findings came from Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington.  Teacher-centered attendance records at the school were modified from absent to present more than 4000 times for the senior class, which numbered fewer than 200.  Dunbar’s principal, Abdullah Zaki, was removed from the school in the wake of the findings.  Zaki… was named D.C. Public Schools’ principal of the year in 2013….”  The principal and assistant principal at Ballou High School have been fired along with the district’s Chief of Secondary Schools.

It is hard to know exactly how this sad story will end.  The FBI and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General both launched investigations last week.  But while we don’t know the outcome, we don’t have far to look for where the story began.  Once again, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz describes the problem driven almost entirely by faith in rapid school improvement as measured by data—this time using promises of miraculous graduation rate increases instead of rapid test score increases.  Remember that as a measure of school accountability, the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act (the law that replaced No Child Left Behind) requires that states report not only disaggregated test scores on annual standardized tests, but also each secondary school’s graduation rate.

Daniel Koretz clearly explains the impact of trying to drive education policy through pressure to raise scores or graduation rates in his excellent new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better: “More than forty years ago, Don Campbell, one of the founders of the science of program evaluation wrote: ‘The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.’  In other words, when you hold people accountable using a numerical measure—vehicle emissions, scores on a test, whatever—two things generally happen: they do things you don’t want them to do, and the measure itself becomes inflated, painting too optimistic a view of whatever it is that the system is designed to improve.” (The Testing Charade, p. 38)

Of course we want more high school students—especially students in places like Washington, D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods—to thrive at school and graduate. High school graduation is a worthy accomplishment.  However, the current practice of pressuring teachers to push students through school to amp up the graduation statistics hurts both the students and the teachers.