Judge Rejects Plan to Allow New York Charter Schools to Certify Their Own Teachers

On Tuesday, a judge in New York blocked a 2017 rule made by the Charter Schools Committee of the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY) to allow charter schools and chains of charter schools sponsored by SUNY’s Board of Trustees to certify their own teachers.  Charter school certification programs were required, under the now-banned rule, to have included at least 160 hours of classroom training plus 40 hours of practice teaching.  The rule had been approved by New York’s state legislature as part of a political deal to favor Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies.

ChalkBeat‘s Monica Disare describes the significance of Tuesday’s ruling banning the practice: “The judge’s ruling upends the plans of the city’s largest charter school network, Success Academy, and wipes out a legislative victory that New York’s charter sector thought it had won…. The regulations, approved by the State University of New York in October 2017, were designed to give charter schools more discretion over how they hired teachers. They eliminated the requirement that teachers earn master’s degrees and allowed charter schools authorized by SUNY to certify their teachers with as little as a month of classroom instruction and 40 hours of practice teaching.  Some charter networks argued their existing in-house training programs are more useful to new teachers than the training required for certification under state law.”

Desire reports that the judge’s ruling this week was not merely procedural. The decision addresses a core issue: who, under New York law, has the right to set standards and requirements for certification of school teachers: “Charter networks ‘are free to require more of the teachers they hire but they must meet the minimum standards set’ by the state, the judge wrote in her order.”

In her decision, Judge Debra J. Young writes: “SUNY Charter Schools Committee, a sub-committee of the SUNY Board of Trustees (hereinafter the SUNY Subcommittee) adopted regulations which purported to establish an independent licensure process as a substitute for the teacher certification system as established by New York State Board of Regents and the State Education Department…  Education Law 3004 provides petitioner/plaintiffs Commissioner Elia and the Board of Regents the exclusive authority regarding teacher certification.  8NYCRR Part 80 sets forth the requirements for teachers’ certificates.  This, combined with Education Law 2854 (3) (a-1) which delineates the certification requirements of teachers in charter schools sets forth the certification requirements.  Additionally, Education Law 3602-44 sets forth the requirements for certification of Universal Pre-K teachers. Under Education Law 355, contrary to respondents’/defendants/ contentions, licensure or certification of teachers does not constitute the ‘governance, structure and operations’ of charter schools. Education Law 355 (2-1) merely gives that SUNY subcommittee the power to regulate in limited areas.”

Ironically, across its many campuses, the State University of New York educates a large number of New York’s professionally certified school teachers. The SUNY Charter Schools Committee is a subcommittee of the SUNY Board of Trustees. It is not an academic body responsible for designing the content of teacher preparation; neither is it connected with any of the Schools of Education located at the regional branches of the State University of New York. Under the new rule, now banned, the charter school networks were entirely free to set their own curriculum, expectations, and standards for teacher preparation.

The NY Times’ Elizabeth Harris describes the political deal the state legislature struck to grant charters school networks the power to certify their teachers: “The rules, enacted last year by the State University of New York, one of two entities that grants charters in the state, were part of a 2016 deal in the state legislature. In exchange for extending mayoral control of New York City schools, State Senate Republicans gave SUNY more authority to regulate the schools it oversees. SUNY then used that power to allow some schools to train and certify their own teachers… Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Success Academy, is close to Senate Republicans and the deal was seen as a gift to her.  Success has had difficulty recruiting enough teachers as the network expands.”

Harris publishes the response to Tuesday’s decision from the New York state officials who are responsible for overseeing the preparation of school teachers: “Betty A. Rosa, chancellor of the Board of Regents, and MaryEllen Elia, the state education commissioner, celebrated the decision and said in a statement, ‘Every child—regardless of color, economic status or ability—deserves a qualified teacher with meaningful experience to be prepared for the classroom.”

ChalkBeat‘s Disare reports that the legal challenges to the new SUNY Committee rule had been filed by state education officials as well as the state teachers union: “(T)he rule was quickly challenged by the State Education Department and the state teachers union, which filed separate lawsuits that were joined in April. They argued that SUNY overstepped its authority and charged that the rule change would lead to children being taught by inexperienced and unqualified teachers.”

It is well known that particular chains of charter schools expect the teachers they hire to practice the schools’ own formulaic teaching techniques and that many, including Success Academies, enforce compliance and obedience by imposing punitive zero-tolerance discipline. In contrast, school teachers, educated in traditional certification programs are exposed not only teaching methodology, but also thoughtful courses on child and adolescent development, educational psychology and the philosophy of education. Such programs are designed to help educators develop an understanding of the needs of students and the importance of teaching that helps form emotionally secure, thoughtful, curious, and rigorous students and good citizens. Too frequently charter schools demand instead that teachers practice a sequence of specific techniques.

Education writer and life-long teacher of teachers at UCLA, Mike Rose criticizes the kind of technique-based training young recruits are likely to be taught in the kind of month-long training Success Academy was hoping to establish under the new SUNY rules that Judge Debra Young has now banned: “If you pare down your concept of teaching far enough, you are left with sequences of behaviors and routines—with techniques. Technique becomes central to the reformers’ redefinition of teaching, and the focus on technique is at the heart of many of the alternative teacher credentialing programs that have emerged over the past decade.  Effective techniques are an important part of the complex activity that is teaching, and good mentorship includes analyzing a teacher’s work and providing corrective feedback. Teachers of teachers have been doing this for a long time. What is new is the nearly exclusive focus on techniques, the increased role of digital technology to study them, and the attempt to define ‘effective’ by seeking positive correlations between specific techniques and, you guessed it, students’ standardized test scores.”

It is expected that Judge Young’s decision will be appealed by the SUNY Committee to a higher court.

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Despite ECOT’s Death, Ohio’s Unscrupulous Charter Schools Gobble Up State and Local Tax Dollars

Despite the death last January of the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio’s charter schools continue to suck money out of their host school districts, and, at the same time, many fail to educate the students for whom they are responsible.

The giant Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) was finally shut down after the state tried to collect $80 million the Department of Education calculated ECOT had overcharged taxpayers for the past two school years alone.  ECOT, which had been billing taxpayers (on a per-pupil basis) for thousands of phantom students the school had enrolled but who were not logging on to use the school’s curriculum, couldn’t pay the bill when the state demanded that the school return the money.  ECOT descended into bankruptcy.

Because of the way Ohio funds charter schools, not only the state but also the local school district loses money when a student leaves for a charter school. In Ohio the money follows the child to the charter right out of the general fund of the school district in which the child resides.  Many districts lose more money to charters than they receive in state aid.  As the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel reports: “Ohio does not directly fund charter schools, instead subtracting the money from individual districts based on where a charter student lives. Traditional public school officials and advocates have complained for years that the system also diverts local tax revenue to charter schools along with state funding. Siegel quotes Columbus, Ohio school board member Dominic Paretti, who says ECOT gobbled up enough funds to have used up several local school property tax levies: “If you add up all that local share of dollars that has flowed to ECOT from Columbus schools’ taxpayers, it would erase the need for us to possibly ever have to go to those levies.”

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow remains in the news because it will take years to wind up its affairs. Also Ohio waits for a final decision by the Ohio Supreme Court on the matter of ECOT’s final legal appeal to stay in business. In the meantime, Innovation Ohio has now calculated the total amount ECOT sucked out of  local school districts’ funds between 2012 and 2018.  During the six year period, for example, Columbus lost $62,897,188 to ECOT; Cleveland lost $39,405,981; and Dayton lost $20,200,830. Over the six year period, ECOT drained a total of $590,954,999 from Ohio’s school districts.

Many people push back with the argument that the money should follow the child; after all, the school district no longer has to pay expenses for that student. In a new report published by In the Public Interest, however, political economist Gordon Lafer dissects the stranded costs the child’s public school district must continue to cover: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district.” “If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

The Ohio State Board of Education, which has been increasingly proactive, voted last Tuesday to toughen the rules that regulate another of the state’s notorious charter school sectors: the Dropout Recovery Charter Schools—schools which have been held to far more lax academic standards than traditional public schools or other charter schools because they are said to serve students in trouble.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports: “The state school board on Tuesday passed higher standards for… the nearly 90 dropout intervention charter schools statewide, as Ohio continues refining how to measure schools that help the most struggling and at-risk students earn diplomas. The tougher rules—covering graduation rates and which schools qualify for the easier dropout school report cards—continue Ohio’s gradual crackdown on charter schools that have skated by for years despite poor results.”  Until last week, the state required Dropout Recovery Charters to graduate 8 percent of their students in 4 years; as of last week, the State Board will now require 25 percent to graduate in 4 years, or the school will be held accountable.

To qualify as a dropout recovery school, the old rules said that a school must enroll at least 50 percent of its students who are far behind their peers and in danger of dropping out. Last week the State Board changed the rules to demand that Dropout Recovery Charters will need to prove (in 2019-2020) that 65 percent of their students are in real academic danger and need special services. In 2020-2021 that requirement will increase to 75 percent of the school’s students.  In other words, these schools won’t be able to pad their graduation rates and average test scores with students who don’t fit their mission as schools for “dropout recovery.”

Schools that fail to comply with the new standards will be in danger of closure, and their sponsors’ ratings will also be at risk.  Is there an urgent need for such reforms?  O’Donnell explains: “Invictus High School of Cleveland barely graduates 12 percent of its students in four years.” And yet there have been no penalties, and public funding (combined state and local dollars) have flowed freely to this deplorable school until now.

In what has become a series of scathing columns, retired editorial page director for the Plain Dealer, Brent Larkin describes the legislative corruption that has fed the growth of a poorly regulated charter school sector in an all-Red state without any kind of checks and balances: “Legislators in Ohio have long stood accused of serving not their constituents, but the people who fund their campaigns. But in the last eight years, House Republicans seem to have reached new lows in their ethical depravity… In April, House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger resigned in the wake of revelations he may be the target of an FBI probe… including ties involving the insidious payday lending industry. Before that, the House was ruled by Bill Batchelder, who spent four years protecting some of the most unprincipled bottom-feeders ever to prowl Statehouse corridors. Then, lo and behold, some of those who received favorable treatment, including the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow online charter school, became clients of the Batchelder lobbying firm… ECOT was once the nation’s largest online charter school.  And arguably its worst… From 2001 to 2016, ECOT raked in more than $1 billion in taxpayer money.  In return, ECOT founder Bill Lager and his flunkies contributed more than $2 million to campaigns of Ohio politicians, a huge majority of that going to Republicans.  That money seemed to buy protection from a legislature that required only token policing of online charters.”

What’s clear in Ohio is that cleaning up this mess will require a long time and some very significant political change.

Michelle Rhee’s D.C. Education Revolution Continues to Collapse

The Associated Press‘s Ashraf Khalil explains: “As recently as a year ago, the public school system in the nation’s capital was being hailed as a shining example of successful urban education reform and a template for districts across the country. Now…. after a series of rapid-fire scandals including one about rigged graduation rates, Washington’s school system has gone from a point of pride to perhaps the largest public embarrassment of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tenure… A decade after a restructuring that stripped the decision-making powers of the board of education and placed the system under mayoral control, city schools in 2017 were boasting rising test scores and a record graduation rate for high schools of 73 percent, compared with 53 percent in 2011… Then everything unraveled.”

Teachers jobs were threatened if they didn’t raise test scores and increase graduation rates by passing students no matter what. Money was an incentive, with bonuses rewarding successful teachers. The Washington Post revealed that last year, while the district bragged about declining suspension rates, the reports were a fake. Many high schools were suspending students  without documentation.

Then an investigation by Washington, D.C.’s NPR station WAMU, uncovered that Ballou High School had been covering up massive student absences. Many students had been chronically absent and missed so many days of classes that mandatory course failure should have followed. But teachers failed to mark students absent, and students who were failing classes were being allowed to complete inadequate credit recovery projects so that they would pass courses and be allowed to graduate.

A district-wide investigation into practices during the 2016-2017 school year revealed that the problem wasn’t just at Ballou, but had spread district-wide. Khalil reports that, “about half of those Ballou graduates had missed more than three months of school and should not have graduated due to chronic truancy. A subsequent inquiry revealed a systemwide culture that pressured teachers to favor graduation rates over all else—with salaries and job security tied to specific metrics.  The internal investigation concluded that more than one-third of the 2017 graduating class should not have received diplomas due to truancy or improper steps taken by teachers or administrators to cover the absences.  In one egregious example, investigators found that attendance records at Dunbar High School had been altered 4,000 times to mark absent students as present. The school system is now being investigated by both the FBI and the U.S. Education Department.”

The school district responded this past winter by tightening attendance monitoring and enforcing course requirements.  In April of this year, the Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reported that, “Fewer than half of the seniors in the District’s traditional public school system are on track to receive their diplomas in June…. The city released a first batch of data in February, which showed that 42 percent of seniors attending traditional public schools were on track to graduate, while 19 percent were considered ‘moderately off track.'”

Last week Stein updated the story, reporting that 60 percent of seniors earned diplomas on time this month: “The school system said this week that 415 students who were considered ‘moderately off track’ in April received their diplomas in June. Forty students who were ‘significantly off track’ graduated… Many of the off-track students enrolled in credit-recovery courses to graduate on time.”  She adds that some students are likely to graduate after completing summer school.

Stein tracks the graduation rates by student demographics and finds them to be predictable and unfortunate: “At Banneker High, a selective-application school, 99 percent of seniors graduated this month—the highest rate in the District. The lowest rates belonged to Anacostia (42 percent), Coolidge (44 percent) and Ballou (45 percent).

In a puzzling development, Stein reports: “The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation last week allowing high school seniors who missed more than six weeks of class to receive their diplomas by discounting absences from the first three quarters of the school year.” The members of the Council are reported to have reasoned that students shouldn’t be held accountable for attendance rules that were tightened only after the graduation crisis was discovered.  Mayor Muriel Bowser has said she is not supportive of the emergency law, but she has not yet made a choice to sign or not to sign it.  Stein added : “But Bowser, whose signature is necessary for the reprieve to go into effect, has said she opposes it.  She said last week she is considering her options, and her office said Wednesday there is no update on her decision.”  If the law is signed, students will receive their diplomas late, as commencement exercises have already taken place.

What has been occurring in the D.C. public schools in recent years—allowing students to miss so much school they become chronically absent and hiding the fact that they are not in school—assigning short and easy credit recovery projects when students are failing classes—has been driven by promises to make the D.C. Public Schools a model. Michelle Rhee set up a system to pressure teachers and school administrators to by threatening to fire those who failed and paying merit bonuses to those who can make themselves look successful.  In a new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz explains why making graduation rates the primary measure of success, will taint the process and undermine the results. Koretz writes about Campbell’s Law, a well known principle in the social sciences: “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.” (The Testing Charade, p. 38)

When Michelle Rhee had been the leader of the D.C. Public Schools for several years, John Merrow, now retired from the PBS NewsHour, documented a major test score cheating scandal driven by Rhee’s demand that teachers raise test scores and her techniques for getting scores to rise: making teachers’ and principals’ evaluations, hiring and firing, and merit bonuses depend on educators’ capacity to raise scores. Later under former Chancellor Kaya Henderson, rising graduation rates became a second primary metric.  Koretz explains how Campbell’s law actually works: “(W)hen you hold people accountable using a numeric 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)  Koretz elaborates: “(Y)ou can take Campbell’s Law to the bank. It’s going to show up in any high-pressure accountability system that is based only on a few hard numbers.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 46-47)

Koretz predicts the consequences of the kind of school reform Michelle Rhee brought to Washington, D.C.:  cheating, lowering standards—what has happened in the D.C. graduation scandal, and excluding people with bad numbers—what may have happened in the D.C. schools when suspension rates were fudged.

Can Momentum Be Sustained from the Spring’s Prophetic Walkouts by Teachers?

If you think about it differently, it is possible to turn Kurt Weill’s song into a story about school finance instead of love: “It’s a long, long while from May to December November, and the days grow short when you reach September.”

That is the lesson I learned 25 years ago when a friend and I co-chaired our local, November school levy campaign. Ohio law prohibits unvoted tax increases, prevents school districts from benefiting from property appreciation by capping the value of local levies at their dollar amount on the day they are passed, and therefore requires voters to come back on the ballot again and again—through failure after failure—until another levy finally passes. That is the only way for Ohio school districts to raise enough revenue to keep up with inflation.  In May of 1993, our local school levy had failed by 2,000 votes. My friend and I worked all summer and, beginning in September with even more intensity—16 hour days,  pulling out all the stops—to try to ensure success in November.

That November, on the third try, the levy passed by 4,000 votes. My friend and I both consider that levy campaign to be one of our primary lifetime accomplishments. We talk on the phone about it around election day every November. It was harder and more exhausting than any of our paid jobs. What we learned is that public opinion can be turned between May and November, but it happens neither easily nor naturally. It is a matter of changing the narrative frame and bringing massive peer pressure to bear—mobilizing people through thousands of personal phone calls, holding meetings everywhere, and working with others to organize nearly a thousand volunteers walking door to door. We even did our best to use social media in that pre-facebook era. A mass of parents recorded this message on their telephone answering machines: “I’m sorry. We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re so busy working on the school levy.”

My experience in 1993 makes me worry about the staying power of what we learned in this spring of 2018 from desperate and prophetic school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina, teachers who told us that our selfish society has forgotten the needs of our children. Tax dollars in those states are so meager that underpaid teachers are leaving for other states, schools are in session only four days in some places, and classes are packed with 40 children, some of them sitting on the floor or on classroom counter tops.

The wildcat walkouts by teachers ended with the conclusion of this school year, and I worry that the message may fade from now to November. Why? Today, roughly 70 percent of households do not have children in school, and the power of corporate money in politics has affected no other institution more than public education.  In his important 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why attacking public education is a high priority for wealthy plutocrats: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

Let’s begin with some signs of hope that, just perhaps, the teachers’ walkouts will have some staying power:

  • Two ballot initiatives supporting public education may appear in November on the ballot in Arizona. You may remember that Arizona has cut total state per-pupil funding by 37 percent since 2008, more than any other state; spending cuts have diminished teachers’ salaries, left buildings crumbling, and even eliminated free full-day kindergarten in some districts. Adding to these problems, the legislature has rapidly moved education dollars into privatized charters and into an education savings account vouchers program that gives away state dollars in little debit cards which parents who pull their kids out of public schools can use to pay for private services.  One ballot initiative will definitely appear in November to stop the expansion of the state’s education savings account vouchers. But teachers, motivated by their spring walkout, are mounting a second effort, a mobilization to qualify another referendum for the November ballot—a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for teachers’ salaries and public school expenses. Associated Press reporter Melissa Daniels explains: “The Invest in Education Act would increase income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year. Sixty percent of the money raised would go toward teacher pay, with the rest earmarked for maintenance and operations. Supporters must collect more than 150,000 valid signatures by July 5 to get the initiative on the November ballot.”
  • For Education Week, Daarel Burnette II reports: “These funding wars in many states have spilled over into this fall’s midterm elections in which more than two-thirds of state legislative seats and 36 governorships—those positions with the most say over school spending—are up for election. More than 100 teachers have filed to run for state office in Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma after they failed to get all they demanded from their strikes and protests.”

There are also reasons not to be too hopeful.  It is evident in Kansas that repairing years of tax cuts and underfunding of public education will be neither quick nor easy. In Kansas an all-Republican legislature has fought hard against the Kansas Supreme Court, which has established a deadline for a remedy in the long-running school funding case of Gannon v. Kansas. In May, the legislature came up with a minimal remedy, and Governor Jeff Colyer signed the final plan, leaving it up to the Court to approve the remedy for years of catastrophic underfunding during former-governor Sam Brownback’s era of tax cuts.  Attorneys for plaintiff school districts followed up early in May, however, to demand that the court shut down the state’s schools unless the legislature comes up with an additional $1.5 billion by June 30.  Later in the month, the Associated Press’s John Hanna reported that on May 22, when the Kansas Supreme Court reviewed the legislature’s new plan: “A majority of the Kansas Supreme Court expressed skepticism… that the Legislature and governor raised public school funding enough in the short term to comply with the state constitution, suggesting they could be wrestling this summer with providing more money and possibly increasing taxes.” A year ago, legislators overcame Brownback’s veto and finally raised taxes, though it wasn’t enough to compensate for years of cuts. The Court will announce its decision by June 30.

And in Oklahoma, strong political pushback has emerged against the minimal concessions made to striking teachers this spring.  Oklahoma law requires three-fourths majorities in both houses of the legislature to pass any kind of tax increase. Under pressure from striking teachers, the legislature passed taxes on tobacco, oil and gas production, and motor fuels, but now far-right, former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn is working with Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! on a petition to block this first tax increase in Oklahoma since 1990. Coburn says teachers do deserve a raise, but it can be paid for by cutting waste in an already meager state budget: “Coburn said ‘ineffective and lazy state government’ is to blame for Oklahoma’s woes. He singled out what might be described as a $30 million shell game at the state Health Department as an example of poor management and oversight… Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! has until July 18 together about 42,000 valid signatures on its petition, after which repeal of HB1010xx (the recently passed tax increases) would go to a vote of the people.”

What teachers taught us in the most personal way all spring continues to be confirmed by experts. And the crisis permeates many states beyond this spring’s walkouts.  In a brief for the Education Law Center, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker reminds us:

  • “Most states fall below the funding levels necessary for their highest poverty children to achieve the relatively modest goal of national average student outcomes.
  • “High-poverty school districts in several states fall thousands to tens of thousands of dollars short per pupil, of funding required to reach average student outcomes.
  • “In several states—notably Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and California—the highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels.
  • “In numerous states, only the lowest-poverty districts have sufficient funding to achieve national average outcomes (but many low-poverty districts still do not have sufficient funding).
  • “Only a handful of states—including New Jersey and Massachusetts—are doing substantially better than others in terms of the average level of funding provided across districts….”

Baker also cautions us to consider a basic principle largely ignored by state legislative bodies who continue enacting regressive tax policy: “It costs more to achieve common outcomes in higher-poverty than in lower-poverty settings; in addition, costs associated with poverty rise as population density rises.”

I hope the school teachers who led the way this spring and the rest of us can manage to sustain the hope and momentum inspired by teachers’ recent wildcat walkouts. Teachers reminded us of the truth of the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s words: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

Laurene Powell Jobs’ Glitzy Projects versus School Reform that Is Basic and Essential

Here are two fascinating and radically contrasting articles on the subject of school reform. They tell us about the different ways people think about school reform, about the factors that determine which reforms begin to permeate the public mind, about what does or doesn’t seem to matter to reformers prescribing particular ideas, and about the long term political effects the language and framing by which policies are sold.

The first is David Montgomery’s Washington Post profile of Laurene Powell Jobs, her philanthropy—the Emerson Collective, and several of the Emerson Collective’s projects, including the XQ Institute and College Track. Laurene Powell Jobs is Steve Jobs’ widow, and among America’s tech-multi-billionaire philanthropists. Montgomery describes the way Powell Jobs has structured her philanthropy: “She set up the collective as a limited liability company rather than a foundation, not unlike the three-year-old Chan Zuckerberg Initiative established by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. This gives flexibility to do more than just make grants to nonprofit groups… Emerson invests in private companies, Powell Jobs said, not because the goal is to make money but because Silicon Valley has shown her that ‘amazing entrepreneurs who… are 100 percent aligned with our mission’ can find solutions that might not occur to a nonprofit. Emerson is also able to back advocacy groups, launch its own activist campaigns and contribute to political organizations… The LLC structure also means Emerson need not disclose details of its assets and spending… For the crew Powell Jobs has assembled, being tapped to join the collective was like being called to a mission.  In early 2016, shortly after he had left the Obama administration, Arne Duncan mentioned to Powell Jobs his idea for a novel experiment to confront the gun carnage in his home town of Chicago.” She also hired Russlynn Ali, Duncan’s assistant education secretary, to run the XQ Institute.

Like other mega-philanthropists, Powell Jobs is leveraging her voice through the media, though she insists that her money is not driving the content. “(L)ast year, Powell Jobs unleashed a series of dramatic moves across a three-dimensional chessboard of American culture. In July, Emerson Collective purchased a majority stake in The Atlantic, a 161-year-old pillar of the journalistic establishment. In September, an arm of the Collective and Hollywood’s Entertainment Industry Foundation co-opted the four major networks in prime time to simultaneously present an hour of live television, featuring dozens of celebrities inviting the nation to reconceive high school.  Over the following weeks, the Collective partnered with the French artist JR to create two monumental pieces of guerrilla art on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border that went viral on social media as satirical critiques of the border wall. In October, she bought the second-largest stake—about 20 percent—in the estimated $2.5 billion holding company that owns the NBA’s Wizards, the NHL’s Capitals, Capital One Arena and several other ventures… In February, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant announced he was committing $10 million to help create a Washington-area branch of a program that Powell Jobs had co-founded, which supports students to and through college in nine cities.”

The second article is featured in the Summer 2018 Issue of American Educator, the journal of the American Federation of Teachers. The piece is written by scholars at Stanford University’s Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. In Community Schools: A Promising Foundation for Progress, Anna Maier, Julia Daniel, Jeannie Oakes and Livia Lam present the well-researched case for bringing full-service, wraparound Community Schools to support children and families, particularly in the public schools in our society’s poorest neighborhoods.

What is a Community School?  “Community schools represent a place-based strategy in which schools partner with community agencies and allocate resources to integrate a focus on academics, health and social services, and youth and community development, and also foster community engagement. Many operate on all-day and year-around schedules, and serve both children and adults.  Although this strategy is appropriate for students of all backgrounds, many community schools arise in neighborhoods where structural forces linked to racism and poverty shape the experiences of young people and erect barriers to learning and school success. These are communities where families have few resources to supplement what typical schools provide.”

The article outlines the four conceptual pillars of Community Schools:

  • Patch together resources to bring integrated student supports—medical, dental and mental health and social services inside the school;
  • Expand learning time and opportunity with after-school, weekend and summer programs, and added individualized learning opportunities;
  • Bring parents and other community members into the school for enrichment and shared decision making regarding the school.
  • Build collaboration among all partners led by a community-school coordinator who brings together the academic program with medical, social service, extracurricular, and parental support programming.

The authors summarize the evidence from 143 research studies and conclude: “Community schools cannot overcome all problems facing poor neighborhoods—that would require substantial investments in job training, housing, and social safety net infrastructures, and other poverty alleviation measures. However, they have a long history of connecting children and families to resources, opportunities and supports that foster healthy development and help offset the harms of poverty. A health clinic can deliver medical and psychological treatment, as well as glasses to myopic children, dental care to those who need it, and inhalers for asthma sufferers.  Extending the school day and remaining open during the summer enable the school to offer additional academic help and activities, such as sports and music, which can entice youngsters who might otherwise drop out.”

The contrast between Powell Jobs’ philanthropy and the movement for Community Schools is not about the purpose or worthiness of Powell Jobs’ projects versus the value of Community Schools.  Montgomery describes how Powell Jobs, by creating an LLC instead of a philanthropy, can engage in political advocacy, including an effort to get some kind of Dream Act passed to protect students in the threatened DACA program.  In several cities the Emerson Collective is paying for programs to help high school students apply to college and providing non-financial supports to help them stay there and graduate. And in Chicago, under Arne Duncan’s direction, the Emerson Collective is working to connect young adults with work.

Here is what is different.  The authors of the American Educator‘s article on Community Schools represent major academic institutions—the National Education Policy Center and Stanford’s Learning Policy Institute. And the article is published in the journal of one of the two largest organizations representing the primary practitioners of education—schoolteachers. It’s purpose is to make the case, documented by the kind of research required in the academy, that Community Schools represent an innovative and at the same time responsible investment of tax dollars. Such schools, defined loosely enough to be locally adaptable from place to place, have been proven a worthwhile public investment.

In contrast: With $20 billion to invest, and the freedom from any kind of oversight (by government or any outside agency), Powell Jobs can experiment. With so much money involved—and so many celebrities assembled—her experiment has a glitzy profile.  Her four-network TV special on high school disruption typifies her way of operating.  Montgomery describes: “The long list of storytellers in acting and song who participated in last fall’s prime-time education reform special—from Tom Hanks and Viola Davis to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andra Day—(who) did a good job of selling Emerson’s approach to reimagining high school. The XQ Institute, Emerson’s independent education arm, has pledged $115 million to 18 schools across the country pursuing their own innovative approaches…. Without prescribing exact models, the group wants to focus on the competence a student achieves in a given subject more than the number of hours she sits in that class. There’s an emphasis on knowledge relevant to employers of the future. However, some reviews of the televised special were skeptical: ‘Encouraging such tinkering is a fine use of philanthropic dollars,’ Jack Schneider, assistant professor of education at College of the Holy Cross wrote in the Washington Post. ‘But that isn’t what the XQ project is promoting.  Instead it is publicizing a historically uninformed message that today’s technologies demand something new of us as human beings and that our unchanging high schools are failing at the task.'”

When someone’s so-called philanthropy is big enough to purchase TV time and the participation of a cast of celebrities, it is easy to forget that Powell Jobs has not really confessed that her XQ Institute is a mere experiment: pouring $115 into 18 high schools just to watch how the money might transform them. Like the Gates Foundation’s failed experiment to replace comprehensive high schools with small high schools or Gates’ other failed experiment with evaluating teachers by students’ scores and offering incentive pay, Powell Jobs’ experiment may never come to anything helpful. But, as Schneider explains, there is political content—trumpeted by celebrities on TV—to the whole endeavor: to discredit America’s high schools in some vague, undefined way.  We’ve been watching the creation of a similar stereotype for several decades: America’s so-called “failing schools.”

I think it is far more worthwhile to pay attention to the American Educator‘s report on full-service, wraparound Community Schools. There is a political agenda in the movement to expand Community Schools, but it is explicitly stated and the method carefully defined. The political goal is to patch together social service, Medicaid, and education dollars to create full service institutions in America’s poorest communities. Evidence has been amassed to document that such wraparound institutions support children and their families, and that where teachers, social workers, counselors, doctors, dentists and Head Start teachers work together, children thrive and do better in school.

I wish Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective would invest its vast resources in an already well known reform. Research has documented that the expansion of Community Schools would support the children enrolled in our nation’s most vulnerable public schools.

New Report Shows DeVos Restored Shoddy College Accreditor Despite Opposition from Her Staff

The NY Times Erica Green summarizes in plain language what Betsy DeVos did this spring—and what, with more complexity, this blog post will explain: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos disregarded a scathing review by her own staff this spring when she reinstated the watchdog body that had accredited two scandal-scarred for-profit universities whose bankruptcies left tens of thousands of students with worthless degrees and mountains of debt, a new report has revealed.”

Before the Obama Department of Education put the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) out of business in 2016, ACICS had been instrumental in accrediting a number of unscrupulous, for-profit colleges whose fiscal survival depended on attracting students bringing dollars from federal loans. After ACICS was put out of business by the Obama Department of Education, ACICS filed a lawsuit claiming its record had not been fully examined. In March of this year, a federal judge ruled in favor of the accreditation agency—saying that the Department of Education still needs to consider 36,000 pages of information ACICS submitted that was never considered. On April 3, 2018, after the judge’s ruling, Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos conditionally reapproved ACICS pending further study.

Last Friday, however, DeVos’s department was forced to release an internal report drafted by career staff at the U.S. Department of Education, a report condemning ACICS and recommending that its status as an accreditor be terminated. In April, DeVos ignored this new staff report when she restored—conditionally— the agency’s status. The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Eric Kelderman explains: “For the second time in less than two years, officials at the U.S. Department of Education have recommended against approving a controversial accrediting agency that primarily oversees for-profit colleges. But their finding may have little effect on the accreditor’s future. Friday evening, the department released a 244-page document advising that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, known as ACICS, failed to meet nearly 60 federal regulations on accreditation. The analysis is a draft of a report that was meant to be released in May at a hearing scheduled to consider the accreditor’s status. That hearing was cancelled following a judge’s order in a lawsuit filed by the council.”

Advocates have pressured for the release of the Department’s internal draft report, while, of course, ACICS has been trying to block the report’s becoming public.  The Wall Street Journal‘s Michelle Hackman explains: “The document was released Friday under the Freedom of Information Act after the Century Foundation… sued the Education Department for initially declining to make it public.  ‘It’s no wonder that ACICS and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos didn’t want this report to come out,’ said Alex Elson, a former Obama-era Education Department official whose firm, the National Student Loan Legal Defense Fund, helped sue the department. ‘Clearly, she was well aware that ACICS was getting worse, not better.’ The career staff’s findings could put Mrs. DeVos in a tough position as she weighs whether to allow the accreditor to continue operating.”

Inside Higher Education’s Andrew Kreighbaum describes details from the new report which would seem to undermine ACICS’ case for restoration as an approved accreditor: “The failures cited in the analysis overlap with many issues raised in previous staff findings in 2016. Among the most serious issues: department staff found no evidence that ACICS effectively evaluates recruitment practices by institutions—a key issue involved in investigations of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges chain, which documents showed paid recruiters incentives based on numbers of students enrolled. The report showed ACICS policies were not widely accepted among other accreditors or state agencies. And it found that the accreditor couldn’t prove it had put in place two of the biggest reforms it had promised over last year: graduation rate benchmarks for institutions and job placement verification. ACICS also failed to clear a standard dealing with conflict of interest policies involving staff and contractors….”

ACICS was the agency that had accredited Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, for-profit trade schools shut down by the Obama Administration because their graduates were proven so poorly prepared that many were unable to find employment in the fields in which they had been trained. In an April report, the NY TimesErica Green explained: “Most public, private and nonprofit higher education institutions are regionally accredited, while national and specialized accreditors tend to draw for-profit and trade schools. To receive federal financial aid… schools must be accredited by an Education Department-recognized agency.”

Based on the judge’s decision in March, DeVos conditionally restored ACICS’s status as a federally approved accreditor. The judge demanded that the Department of Education review additional evidence, but DeVos made the decision—without the judge’s direction—to restore ACICS’s approval while the additional documents were to considered. It is DeVos’s responsibility as Secretary of Education either to restore or deny ACICS’s status as a federally authorized accreditor. Critics of ACICS charge that DeVos, who had previous access to the staff report released Friday, should have considered her staff’s recommendations and denied ACICS even a temporary reprieve.

Senators on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns, fearing that Secretary DeVos will permanently restore ACICS’s status as an approved accreditation agency.

In a letter sent May 24, 2018 Senators Elizabeth Warren (Mass), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Patty Murray (Wash.), Dick Durbin, (Ill.) and Maggie Hassan, (N.H) condemned Betsy DeVos’s action to have conditionally approved ACICS while  considering the materials ACICS had submitted: “We write to express our deep concern about, and to seek clarity regarding, your April 3, 2018 order restoring the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools’… status as a federally-recognized accreditor and your forthcoming review of ACICS’s 2016 petition for recognition. ACICS has a history of transgressions, noncompliance with federal law, failure to assure a quality education for hundreds of thousands of students, and leniency in accrediting institutions that faced federal and state investigations and penalties… While the court remanded the ACICS determination to you in order to incorporate materials submitted by ACICS in May 2016… the court made no suggestion that ACICS should be reinstated.  Nonetheless, your order immediately reinstates ACICS as a federally-recognized accrediting agency while the Department evaluates the Part II submission… By performing an about face, rather than addressing the supplementary material required by the court’s decision, the Department appears to be using the decision as a pretext to ignore the significant and damning record developed through the process.”

POLITICO‘s Michael Stratford describes Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley’s concerns: “Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) this year also raised concerns about several of the schools that ACICS approved, criticizing the ‘lax oversight’ of institutions he said were operating as ‘visa mills.'”

Social Efficiency, Workforce Development, and the Threat to the Humanities and Social Sciences

In Aristotle’s Wrongful Death , NY Times columnist Frank Bruni contemplates the retreat by colleges and universities from the liberal arts: “History is on the ebb. Philosophy is on the ropes. And comparative literature? Please. It’s an intellectual heirloom: cherished by those who can afford such baubles but disposable in the eyes of others. I’m talking about college majors, and the talk about college majors is loud and contentious these days. There’s concern about whether schools are offering the right ones. There are questions about whether colleges should be emphasizing them at all. How does a deep dive into the classics abet a successful leap into the contemporary job market? Should an ambitious examination of English literature come at the cost of acquiring fluency in coding, digital marketing and the like?”

Bruni describes how the University of Illinois is combining majors like anthropology and linguistics with computer science, how Assumption College is eliminating majors in art history, geography, and classics and adding data analytics, actuarial science and a concentration in physical or occupational therapy. He reminds us that the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point is considering dropping 13 majors in the liberal arts and adding “clear career pathways,” and that the University of Wisconsin at Superior is ending majors in sociology and political science and seven other majors in the humanities and social sciences.

The same trend is affecting K-12 education here in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich and his allies have been trying to move a bill through the legislature to collapse the Ohio State Board of Education and the Ohio (Higher Education) Board of Regents into Kasich’s own Executive Workforce Board. (See here and here.) Kasich also attempted to get the legislature—in the 2018-2019 biennial budget no less—to require that, to renew their state certification, all teachers would have to sign up for workplace externships to expose them to the “real” world of work. Fortunately, after many people pointed out that teaching is itself a form of work, that initiative was removed from the budget.

In some cases the substitution of workplace-relevant majors is part of an effort by struggling colleges to stay alive. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has been tracking what it calls a “sweeping redesign of academic programs at tiny Hiram College. At the end of May, the trustees approved the plan to add criminal justice, international studies, and sports management; and to consider adding majors next year in data analytics, computer engineering and gaming, and interactive media and information technology. The major in religion has been eliminated.  Economics, philosophy, math, French and Spanish are no longer academic majors, although students can earn academic minors in these fields.

All the news about the abandonment of the liberal arts and social sciences, the attention to computer driven skills, and an almost myopic focus on workforce development as the goal of education took me back to David Labaree’s brilliant and very complex 1997 article published in the American Educational Research Journal: Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals. This is a paywalled article and available primarily in college and university libraries. If you can find access to it, you’ll be amazed at its timeliness 20 years after its publication.  It is a largely a descriptive analysis in which Labaree dissects and identifies the frequently competing social goals our society holds for education.

Labaree names three competing goals which he believes over the centuries have been thought to define the broad social purpose of education in the United States: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. The first is what many of us claim to be the purpose of public education—forming a democratic citizenry and promoting equal access and equal treatment for all students. The third—social mobility—is less often named, but certainly practiced by parents positioning their children by purchasing homes in particular suburbs or grasping for access to the Kindergartens in New York City known to be the path to Stuyvesant High School and the Ivy Leagues. Many public schools reflect this third goal institutionally, set up as many are to reinforce our society’s already existing social stratification. And promoters of marketplace school choice incorporate this goal in their arguments. This third goal positions education as something of value primarily to individuals, not society as a whole.

Labaree’s second goal—social efficiency—is the May, 2018 goal-of-the-month—the one that concerns Frank Bruni. Here is Labaree’s definition: “The logic is compelling: Schooling supplies future workers with skills that will enhance their productivity and therefore promote economic growth. This logic allows an educational leader to argue that support for education is not just a matter of moral or political correctness but a matter of good economic sense. Schooling from this perspective can be portrayed as a sensible mechanism for promoting our economic future, an investment in human capital that will pay bountiful dividends for the community as a whole and ultimately for each individual taxpayer.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Labaree describes proponents of social efficiency as: “policymakers (politicians and educational bureaucrats) who are worried about the high cost of supporting many parts of the educational establishment when the economic utility of this investment is slight.  There are employers and business leaders, who fear that their immediate manpower needs are not being filled by persons with appropriate skills or that they will have to provide training for employees at their own expense…  In addition, at the most general level, social efficiency in education is a concern for any and all adult members of American society in their role as taxpayers. As citizens, they can understand the value of education in producing an informed and capable electorate; as consumers, they can understand its value in presenting themselves and their children with selective opportunities for competitive social advantage; but, as taxpayers, they are compelled to look at education as a financial investment—not in their own children, which is the essence of the consumer perspective, but in other people’s children. The result is that adults in their taxpayer role tend to apply more stringent criteria to the support of education as a public good than they do to their role as consumers thinking of education as a private good… Thus the taxpayer perspective applies a criterion to the support of education for other people’s children that is both stingier than that arising from the consumer perspective and loaded down with an array of contingencies that make support dependent on the demonstrated effectiveness of education in meeting strict economic criteria—to boost economic productivity, expand the tax base, attract local industry, and make the country more competitive internationally, all at a modest cost per student.”

He continues: “For taxpayers in general and for all of the other constituencies of the social efficiency goal for education, the notion of education for social mobility is politically seductive but socially inefficient. Sure, it is nice to think that everyone has a right to all the education he or she wants, and of course everyone would like to get ahead via education; but (say those from the social efficiency perspective) the responsible deployment of societal resources calls for us to look beyond political platitudes and individual interests and to consider the human capital needs of the society as a whole. From this pragmatic, fiscally conservative, and statist perspective, the primary goal of education is to produce the work force that is required by the occupational structure in its current form and that will provide measurable economic benefits to society as a whole.

Labaree describes considerable interaction over the decades among the three goals, and it is clear that today in our high-tech economy, the third—social mobility—is also driving at least a lot of talk across K-12 schools about STEM preparation—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Students want jobs with status, and hi-tech is where it’s at. Colleges, of course, are lured to provide what students think they need to qualify for lucrative, high-status jobs.  In the state universities, however, especially in the all-Red states engaging in austerity budgeting after tax cuts, the motive of social efficiency conspires with market-based social mobility against the humanities and the social sciences.

Labaree’s primary purpose is to define and describe the many goals that compete from era to era to drive education policy.  Frank Bruni takes a position—flatly rejecting what seems to be the dominant goal right now—social efficiency through workforce development.  He worries about a fourth goal—one that many of us hold: intellectual development itself.  Bruni writes: “I worry that there’s a false promise being made. The world now changes at warp speed. Colleges move glacially. By the time they’ve assembled a new cluster of practical concentrations, an even newer cluster may be called for, and a set of job-specific skills picked up today may be obsolete less than a decade down the road…. (I)t’s a balancing act, because colleges shouldn’t lose sight of what makes traditional majors—even the arcane ones—so meaningful, especially now. And they shouldn’t downgrade the nonvocational mission of higher education: to cultivate minds, prepare young adults for enlightened citizenship, give them a better sense of their perch in history and connect them to traditions that transcend the moment. History, philosophy and comparative literature are bound to be better at that than occupational therapy. They’re sturdier threads of cultural and intellectual continuity. And majoring in them—majoring in anything—is a useful retort to the infinite distractions, short attention spans and staccato communications of the smartphone era.”

Bruni agrees with our society’s greatest proponent of progressive education, John Dewey, who, in 1897, published a Pedagogic Creed, in which he declared: “((T)he 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 so 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….”

All this is to malign neither fine vocational training nor workforce preparation in fields where students will find employment opportunities—including teaching. But one should be alarmed if, as is being considered at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, future teachers will still be able to earn state professional certification even though the future high school teachers among them will no longer be able to earn academic majors in the subject areas in which they plan to teach.

Defining workplace prep as the single, dominant goal of education is merely another example of how out-of-kilter things have become in America.