America’s Dirty Secret

On Sunday, criticizing Ohio Senator Rob Portman for failing to speak out against Congress’s most recent attempt to throw away health care coverage for vulnerable families, Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer columnist and retired director of the editorial page, reminded readers that Portman’s wife serves on the board of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. And yet, Larkin explains, Portman voted earlier this summer to throw away significant health care coverage for children. Larkin quotes a letter to Congress signed by the heads of children’s hospitals throughout the country, a letter that wonders: “Children represent the future of the United States. Where are kids in these discussions? Do Congress and the White House see safeguarding children’s health care as a national priority?”

The struggles of poor children have been omitted from our two-decades’ discussion about school reform as well. No Child Left Behind said we would hold schools accountable, instituted a plan to punish schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores on standardized tests, and failed to invest significantly in the schools in poor communities. The failure to address the needs of poor children and their schools has been bipartisan. President George W. Bush and a bipartisan coalition in Congress brought us No Child Left Behind. President Obama pushed education policy that purported to “turnaround” the lowest scoring and poorest schools by closing or charterizing them. And Obama’s administration brought us the demand that states’ evaluation plans for teachers incorporate their students’ standardized test scores—without any consideration of the neighborhood and family struggles that affect poor children’s test scores or of the immense contribution of family wealth to the scores of privileged children.  Neither Bush nor Obama significantly increased the federal investment to help our nation’s  poorest urban and rural schools. The topics of rampant child poverty and growing inequality—along with growing residential segregation by income—have been absent from of our political dialogue.

Child poverty is well documented. Just last week the Economic Policy Institute presented a simple bar graph showing that one third of Native American and African American children are (still) in poverty.  Although child poverty declined for most racial and ethnic groups in 2016, here are the stark numbers that describe our society’s reality: While only 10.8 percent of white children live in poverty and 11.1 percent of Asian American children live in poverty, 33.8 percent of Native American and 30.8 percent of African American children live in poverty, along with 26.6 percent of Hispanic American children. These are alarming disparities. Native American and Black children are three times more likely to be poor than their white peers.  The Economic Policy Institute argues for raising the minimum wage; expanding refundable tax credits and the food stamp program, now called SNAP; and expanding Medicaid and affordable health care.  When was the last time you heard a politician seriously advocating for such programs?

In August, Elizabeth Harris of the NY Times once again outlined the extent of child homelessness in New York City—a devastating problem for families and children and for their public schools: “There were 100,000 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2015-16 school year, a number equal to the population of Albany… If current trends continue… one in every seven New York City public school students will be homeless at some point during elementary school.”

Harris quotes Anna Shaw-Amoah, a policy analyst at the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, the agency which released the data Harris describes: “In every school classroom, that’s two or three kids… And the challenges are not just about whether you’re currently living in a shelter or a doubled up setting, but did they have that experience last year, or did they have this experience in Kindergarten?  The instability really travels with students. If you fall behind in one year, it’s going to be harder to get on grade level the next year.”

Harris continues: “The growing number of homeless children is part of the fallout of the city’s housing crisis, which has seen a growing number of families in city shelters as rents have risen, federal and state aid has dwindled, and a state rental assistance program ended… The typical homeless elementary school student missed 88 days of school…. Families who have lost their home must make the wrenching choice of leaving a child in a school they know, or transferring them to a school closer to where they are staying. Moving to a new school may further the feeling of dislocation but it makes it easier for the child to get to class.”

What effect does all this have on students?  “Homeless children were more likely than those with stable housing to be on the wrong side of a huge array of indicators. They were more likely to be suspended or drop out, more likely to face delays in being identified as needing special education services, and more likely to need services to help them learn English. Their proficiency rates on the state math and English exams for third through eighth graders were about 20 points lower than their classmates.”

John Merrow just published Addicted to Reform, a memoir about what he learned during his decades-long career as the education reporter for the PBS NewsHour. The most stunning section of the book describes the cost to our society of what Merrow derides as our society’s addiction to accountability-driven, test-and-punish school reform—the policies that were mandated by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Merrow devotes the second chapter of the book, “Calculate the Cost of School Reform,” to examining the education policy in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. He concludes: “Children, teachers, schools, and society have paid a price for school reform, however well-meaning some reformers may have been. Our addiction to school reform has caused significant collateral damage: a narrowed curriculum, thousands of hours spent on testing and test prep, a demoralized teaching force, the resignations of effective teachers fed up with excessive testing, time and money spent recruiting those teachers’ replacements, huge cuts and occasional bankruptcy proceedings in school districts because of dollars diverted to online for-profit charter schools, and the cumulative negative effects on the public’s view of schools caused by the drumbeat of criticism.”(p.54)

But Merrow’s strongest words are for all those who have refused to acknowledge the impact of poverty on the lives of children and who are content to do nothing about poverty:  “To me, the biggest hypocrites in the world of education are the advocates of school reform who preach that ‘poverty can never be offered as an excuse’ for poor student performance but then do nothing to alleviate poverty and its attendant conditions. What they are saying, bottom line, is that it’s the teachers’ fault when kids in poverty-ridden schools do poorly on tests or fail to graduate… Even if these so-called thought leaders genuinely believe that poverty is not an excuse, shouldn’t they be outraged that most states are actively making things worse for poor kids?  At least thirty states are systematically shortchanging poor areas when they distribute education dollars… ‘The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts….’” (pp.25-26)

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After 22-Year-Long State Takeover, Newark Regains Control of Its Schools

State takeovers—always intrusive—often arrogant, experimental, and ideological—don’t work.  But state officials persist in believing they know better than residents and school leaders in poor, black and brown communities, and the idea that takeover can compensate for states’ own underfunding of their poorest school districts wins again and again. The Flint lead poisoning resulted from Michigan’s imposition of emergency state fiscal managers to shape up local municipal and school district finances without enough attention to government’s responsibility for quality services. Louisiana and Michigan imposed so-called “recovery school districts” in New Orleans and Detroit. Michigan unsuccessfully turned over Highland Park and Muskegon Heights school districts to for-profit charter managers. And in Pennsylvania, the School District of Philadelphia has been run since 2001 by a state-appointed School Reform Commission.

In New Jersey, until last week, the state has been running the schools in Newark for 22 years, despite the presence of a toothless local school board, whose meetings were even boycotted by Cami Anderson, a recent state-appointed superintendent.

Here is Karen Yi for the Newark Star-Ledger last Wednesday:  “The state Board of Education voted Wednesday to end is takeover of the Newark school district and begin the transition to return control to the locally-elected school board after 22 years… The move comes after decades of fierce battles with the state and boiling frustrations among Newarkers who had little leverage over their schools. Key in the power shift: The local school board will now have the ability to hire and fire its own superintendent.”

Yi quotes Mayor Ras Baraka, a graduate of the Newark Schools and a local educator himself—formerly a Newark teacher and award-winning high school principal: “The people of Newark, we have some self-determination… We now have control over our own children’s lives.  It doesn’t mean that we won’t make mistakes or there won’t be any errors or obstacles… we have the right to make mistakes, we have the right to correct them ourselves.”

Baraka has been criticized for leaving in place a number of the charter schools brought to Newark by the despised recent superintendent, Cami Anderson, but he has also managed to create enough trust to work with the newest state appointment, Christopher Cerf, to bring the catastrophic Cami Anderson One Newark plan, and the Mark Zuckerberg $100,000 million-funded privatization fiasco—a dream turned nightmare and put in place secretly by Governor Chris Christie and now Senator Corey Booker—under control.  This blog extensively covered Anderson’s tenure here.

Cerf’s contract ends at the end of this school year, and the wind-down of state control will happen over a series of months. Marques-Aquil Lewis, president of the locally elected (but until now toothless) School Advisory Board, commented on the importance of the  Board’s right to appoint the next superintendent: “It’s important the next superintendent understand the community that he or she is going to serve. It will help (to be from Newark). Not a requirement, but it will help.”

David Chen, for the NY Times, describes Lewis and the state takeover that has dominated his own school years: “In 1995, when Marques-Aquil Lewis was in elementary school, the State of New Jersey seized control of the public schools here after a judge warned that ‘nepotism, cronyism and the like’ had precipitated ‘abysmal’ student performances and ‘failure on a very large scale.’  For more than 20 years, local administrators have had little leverage over the finances or operations of the state’s largest school district. Choices about curriculum and programs were mostly made by a state-appointed superintendent, often an outsider.  The city could not override personnel decisions.  Now, Mr. Lewis’s 4-year-old son is in prekindergarten, and things are changing.”

State takeovers too often mean experimentation on the children in the nation’s poorest urban school districts. Adequate funding for the most basic and necessary improvements—small classes to insure that all children are known and supported—wraparound programs like health clinics and social services—is more than most states have been willing to invest in. State takeovers are an extension of the ideology of accountability—that if schools are run like a business, they can be made financially accountable. The idea that educators can be pressured through threats and financial incentives to raise test scores is the other side of this bargain, along with the idea that privatized charters will create competition.

John Jackson, the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education comments on the arrogance and paternalism of these assumptions: “First, it’s important to understand that these state takeovers are taking place in the context of decades of disinvestment in public schools. Due to tax cuts and austerity budgets at the state level, schools in poor communities have suffered increasing inequities in funding for vital education services. Recent studies document that states taking over the democratic rights of local citizens and elected education officials have themselves failed to meet their own constitutional obligation to provide the locality with equitable resources needed to provide students with a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. In short, inequitable funding and disenfranchisement by school takeovers are actually a vicious cycle, a double threat to democracy in poor communities. It’s also impossible to dismiss the disparate racial impact of state takeovers. An overwhelming percentage of the districts that have experienced takeovers or mayoral control serve African American and Latino students and voters. The fact that this trend only occurs in districts like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Detroit and Chicago that are made up predominantly of people of color raises serious federal civil rights issues. The same communities that often face the greatest barriers to the ballot box are those susceptible to further disenfranchisement by removing local control of schools.”

Is the Purpose of Public Education No Longer Self-Evident?

Here are words from the beginning of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

Busy working, maintaining house and yard, swimming in an ocean of information in our media-driven, consumer society, most of us aren’t, perhaps, likely to spend a lot of time considering these principles, but it would certainly be wonderful if the officials we have chosen as our leaders were to demonstrate that, for them, at least, these truths are self-evident.

After all, we’ve spent two and a half centuries making some progress by ensuring that our laws protect more than just the rights of men. And we have defined more precisely the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These struggles for redefinition have very often centered in the public schools—the right for the descendants of slaves to educational equality, the right for American Indian children to attend schools that reflect their indigenous cultures—the right for immigrant children to instruction in English and for the undocumented, the right to a K-12 public school education—the right of LGBT students to be safe, respected and understood.

Now it seems that our leaders have stepped back—even that they are willing to lead us backward.  For President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, what does not seem self-evident is “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  The most blatant recent example is Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, the notorious former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Abusing his position as a public official, Arpaio ran his department without concern for the rights of  the Hispanic residents of Phoenix—in flagrant violation of the rule of law. Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court. But the President, unfazed by the nature of Arpaio’s crime, called Arpaio a good man.  Here is the Washington Post: “(T)he White House’s official statement lauding Mr. Arpaio failed to mention the charge for which Mr. Trump had granted clemency: a criminal conviction of contempt of court for defying an order to halt racial profiling… Despite Mr. Trump’s suggestion that Mr. Arpaio was ‘convicted for doing his job,’ a federal judge found the former sheriff guilty of contempt when he refused to cease rounding up suspected undocumented immigrants on the basis of appearance alone. But Mr. Arpaio’s abuse of his authority as sheriff went well beyond racial profiling. With pride, he detained inmates in inhumane conditions and humiliated them in the name of deterring crime.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, like Trump, seems unclear that, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  In a keynote address earlier this summer, she wondered: “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families—and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” She added: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.” Demonstrating her unconcern for the government’s role in operating a  system of education to protect students’ rights, DeVos has begun limiting investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to the details of formal complaints as filed, without examining the three years of previous evidence to look for systemic violations. Her department has also wrapped up a large backlog of civil rights complaints without findings in most cases.

Trump and DeVos freely disparage the institution of public education—with DeVos persistently extolling privatized charter schools and various private school tuition voucher schemes.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes the damage being inflicted by Trump and DeVos on the very government institution for which they are responsible. After Trump once again disdained, at a recent Phoenix, Arizona event, “the failures of our public schools,” Strauss wrote: “But the larger effect of Trump’s remark is not that it is wrong but rather that it is part of a pattern of his — and of DeVos’s — to disparage public education as they promote programs that take resources away from public school systems…Such sentiments by Trump and DeVos, consistently expressed publicly, reinforce the myth that traditional public education is broadly failing students and that the answer is using public money for privately run and/or owned schools.”

Last week, in Losing Our Purpose, Measuring the Wrong Things, William Mathis, Vice-Chairman of the Vermont Board of Education and Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, considered what ought to be self-evident to all of us in an era when our leaders seem to have lost an understanding of the meaning of public education.  Mathis traces our problems not just to Trump and DeVos, but also to the test-and-punish accountability agenda of the Bush and Obama administrations: “By declaring schools “failures,” public monies were increasingly diverted to private corporations. Yet, after a half-century of trials, there is no body of evidence that shows privatized schools are better or less expensive. Large-scale voucher programs actually show substantial score declines. The plain fact is that privatization, even at its best, does not have sufficient power to close the achievement gap — but it segregates. It imperils the unity of schools and society. This proposed solution works against the very democratic and equity principles for which public systems were formed.”

Mathis calls us all to remember the purposes of public education: “For our first 200 years, the paramount purpose for building and sustaining universal public education was to nurture democracy. Written into state constitutions, education was to consolidate a stew of different languages, religious affiliations, ethnic groups and levels of fortune into a working commonwealth. As Massachusetts’ constitutional framers wrote, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, (is) necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties….In the nineteenth century, Horace Mann, father of the common schools movement, said, ’Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.’ Through the twentieth century, the popular view was that universal education would produce an equal and democratic society.”

Society has struggled, however, to ensure justice and realize the promise of our public schools: “But our social progress is checkered. Residential segregation and unequal opportunities still blight our society, economy and schools. Unfortunately, rather than addressing politically unpopular root causes, it was far more convenient to demand schools solve these problems… No serious effort was made to assure equal opportunities, for example. Thus, the achievement gap was finessed by blaming the victim. Instead of advancing democracy, our neediest schools were underfunded. The new purpose, test-based reform, appealed to conservatives because it sounded tough and punitive; to liberals because it illuminated the plainly visible problems; and it was cheap – the costs were passed on to the schools.”

Here is Bill Mathis’s challenge for the future of public education: “If our purpose is a democratic and equitable society, test scores take us off-purpose. They distract our attention. Rather, our success is measured by how well we enhance health in our society, manifest civic virtues, behave as a society, and dedicate ourselves to the common good…  We must select leaders who embrace higher purposes and in John Dewey’s words, choose people who will expand our heritage of values, make the world more solid and secure, and more generously share it with those that come after us.”

Is It True that Nobody Really Knows What to Do to Help Struggling Schools?

Early this week, in a column for the Washington Post, Emma Brown wondered: “What should America do about its worst public schools?” Does anybody know?  Brown notes that not one of the plans states are submitting to the U.S. Department of Education, as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, seems to include a solid plan to help the lowest scoring public schools.

Brown explains: Congress thought it had answers for the problem of low-performing schools when it passed No Child Left Behind in 2001. The bipartisan law, meant to fight what president George W. Bush called ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations,’ laid out consequences for schools that failed to meet escalating performance targets. After a school missed targets for two years, students were allowed to transfer out. After three years, schools had to offer free tutoring. After four and five years, there was a menu of options, from replacing the curriculum to firing staff, reopening as a charter school, or turning over management to state authorities… A decade after the law passed nearly everyone agreed it was broken… Despite some bright spots and success stories, a federal analysis released this year showed that, on average, test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received the money than in those that did not.”

The new version of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), keeps the tests but turns the responsibility for school improvement back to the states. Brown adds: “Many in the education world, from state superintendents to teachers unions, applaud this hands-off trend. Each struggling school faces unique circumstances… and deserves a tailored solution shaped by community input—not a top-down directive from faraway bureaucrats.” But Brown quotes several people who worry that scores are unlikely to rise under the new law—most notably the far-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli, who surmises, “We don’t know what to do about chronically low-performing schools. Nothing has worked consistently and at scale.”

I certainly agree that nothing we’ve tried lately has worked consistently and at scale. The question about whether we know how to support the schools in our poorest communities, however, has been addressed over the years by academic experts and people with a range of experience in the schools that struggle.  It turns out there is widespread consensus about policies we ought to try.  Here are three examples.

First, last November in Lessons from NCLB for the Every Student Succeeds Act, William Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo of the National Education Policy Center examined the new law’s potential to improve schools: “(T)he new law continues to disaggregate data by race and by wealth (and adds new sub-groups) but shows little promise of remedying the systemic under-resourcing of needy students.  Giving the reform policies of high-stakes assessment and privatization the benefit of the most positive research interpretation, the benefits accrued are insufficient to justify their use as comprehensive reform strategies.  Less generous interpretations of the research provide clear warnings of harm. The research evidence over the past 30 years further tells us that unless we address the economic bifurcation in the nation, and the opportunity gaps in the schools, we will not be successful in closing the achievement gap.”  The report continues: “Above all else, each state must ensure that students have adequate opportunities, funding and resources to achieve state goals…  States must shift toward an assistance role and exercise less of a regulatory role… Under ESSA, school performance will now be measured using a system that incorporates one or more non-academic indicators…. These non-academic indicators provide states their strongest new tool for maximizing educational equity and opportunity…. States and districts must collaborate with social service and labor departments to ensure adequate personal, social and economic opportunities.”   Finally Mathis and Trujillo  recommend that any effective school improvement strategy would include, at the very least, early education, an extended school year and day, de-tracking, class size reduction, and school-community partnerships.

Second, just weeks ago, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization spoke for communities of color in a report from a year-long task force that has held a series of hearings across the United States. The specific topic of the NAACP’s report is the organization’s proposed moratorium on new charter schools until significant oversight of these schools is increased. But the NAACP’s task force felt compelled to add recommendations to its report about the urgent need to address generations of underfunding and inequality in the schools located in communities of color: “More equitable and adequate funding for all schools serving students of color. Education funding has been inadequate and unequal for students of color for hundreds of years. The United States has one of the most unequal school funding systems of any country in the industrialized world.  Resources are highly unequal across states, across districts, and across schools, and they have declined in many communities over the last decade.  In 36 states, public school funding has not yet returned to pre-2008 levels—before the great recession, and in many states inner city schools have experienced the deepest cuts.  Federal funds have also declined in real dollar terms for both Title I and for special education expenditures over the last decade.”

The NAACP concludes: “Invest in low-performing schools and schools with significant opportunity to close the achievement gap… To ensure that all students receive a high-quality education, federal, state, and local policies need to sufficiently invest in: (1) incentives that attract and retain fully qualified educators, (2) improvements in instructional quality that include creating challenging and inclusive learning environments; and (3) wraparound  services for young people, including early childhood education, health and mental health services, extended learning time, and social supports.”

Finally, writing a year ago to then-Education Secretary, John B. King about the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Vermont State Board of Education criticized what its members anticipated would be the continuation of too much testing and too many sanctions, without any real effort to address the impact of concentrated poverty on the students in the lowest scoring schools: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.  Consequently, the continuation of a test-based, labeling and ‘assistance’ model (broadly seen as punishment) has not only proven ineffective, but has had a corrosive effect on the confidence of the people.  The encouragement of privatization has been harmful to local democracy, has further segregated a too fragmented nation and has diluted rather than focused valuable resources.”

For all these reasons, on the very topic of ESSA’s potential for improving schools, this blog surmised last Friday that in a climate of tax cutting and austerity budgeting at the federal level and in many states, we won’t see much school improvement under ESSA. Across the states, schools are unequally funded, with struggling rural and urban schools overwhelmed as well by student poverty that is being exacerbated by budget cuts to the health and social service programs needed by the same students who attend the poorest schools. No Child Left Behind never delivered the necessary resources to jump-start school improvement nor has Congress attached significant resources to ESSA. And Trump’s budget proposal does not increase the Title I formula, the one federal funding stream designed to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty.

It turns out that the problem of struggling public schools is not really the lack of knowledge about what to do to begin helping the teachers and students in these schools. Our society instead has a moral problem: widespread lack of public will in the United States to help children trapped by concentrated poverty. We refuse to invest in the services that would enrich the lives of our poorest children and support their public schools. We keep talking instead about a far cheaper strategy: creating private lifeboats to help a few children escape.

How Will the DeVos Department of Education Implement the Every Student Succeeds Act?

Between 2002 and the end of 2015, many who care about U.S. public education lived and breathed strategies for ending No Child Left Behind’s rigid and punitive accountability mechanisms. The law was supposed to make all public schools accountable for improving schooling, especially for children in poverty and children in racial and ethnic groups who have historically been marginalized. NCLB was supposed to ensure that every child in America would be proficient by 2014. Its strategy was using fear as the motivator—driving everybody to work harder to avoid terrible sanctions like teachers being fired, schools being closed, and schools being turned over to private operators.

But, although teachers were fired, and schools were closed, and schools were turned over to private contractors, test scores did not rise appreciably and achievement gaps did not close.  And, because test scores in the aggregate reflect family and community economic levels, the schools that were closed or privatized were too often in the big city neighborhoods the law was supposed to help and the teachers who were fired were too frequently black and brown teachers living and teaching in those cities.

So… when Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with a newer version of the federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act, many people hoped for more support for the poorest schools in America’s big cities.  And supporters of public school improvement were not sorry that the Republicans who dominated Congress in December 2015 seemed to want to soften the “punish” part of test-and-punish. The testing part, unfortunately, remains: once every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  But the punish part was turned over to the states, who were told they must set goals for improving test scores and find ways to reach those goals.  It was all pretty vague—and lots of people worried that what it really meant was a return to states’ rights.  That worry paled, however, compared to a widespread consensus that it is impossible to punish schools into raising test scores.

Then a year later Betsy DeVos, the devoted privatizer and strong supporter of less regulation of education, arrived to lead the U.S. Department of Education. People began watching as, in the spring of this year, states began submitting their required ESSA plans—their goals for raising test scores and their strategies to push schools to reach those goals. Everybody was shocked in early July when DeVos, the de-regulator, allowed her department to demand that Delaware make its plan tougher on accountability. Here is Erica Green of the NY Times:  “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who made a career of promoting local control of education, has signaled a surprisingly hard-line approach to carrying out an expansive new federal education law, issuing critical feedback that has rattled state school chiefs and conservative education experts alike.”

Green describes Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, pushing back at the Republican Secretary of Education: “Proponents, especially congressional Republicans and conservative education advocates, believed that a new era of local control would flourish under Ms. DeVos…. But her department’s feedback reflects a tension between ideology and legal responsibility.”

It turns out that the person at the Department of Education who has been reviewing states’ ESSA plans is Jason Botel, an acting assistant secretary of education. (His appointment has not yet come before the Senate.) Botel is a longtime corporate school reformer whose background includes stints at KIPP charter schools and Maryland’s chapter of 50CAN, an advocacy organization supportive of strong accountability for public schools. Erica Green quotes Botel advocating for a strict interpretation of the wording of ESSA, which spells out that states’ plans must be ambitious: “Because the statute does not define the word ‘ambitious,’ the secretary has the responsibility of determining whether a state’s long-term goals are ambitious.”

Senator Alexander responded: “I think we have a case of an assistant secretary who hasn’t read the law carefully… The heart of the entire law… was that it’s the state’s decision to set goals, to decide what ‘ambitious’ means, to make decisions to help schools that aren’t performing well.” (What this means is a little unclear, as in the past test-and-punish was defined as “helping” schools that aren’t performing well.)

On Monday morning of this week, the Department of Education, in a notice published in the Federal Register, answered Senator Alexander’s concerns—clarifying what sort of evidence it will require from states to ensure their accountability plans are ambitious.  Here is Sarah Sparks of Education Week explaining how the Department will interpret the rules: “For the most part, the rules tweak or clarify existing rules to incorporate ESSA’s four increasingly rigorous levels of evidence: …To use an intervention or approach for school improvement under ESSA, it must be backed by research that is strong (experimental trials), moderate (quasi-experimental), or by promising studies that don’t meet the higher standards of rigor but still statistically control for differences between the students using an intervention and those in a control group. For topics aside from school turnaround where there just is no rigorous research, states and districts can test an intervention while conducting their own study.”

Also this week, Betsy DeVos signed off on the ESSA plan Delaware had presented and Botel had rejected, though the state tweaked the application a bit to satisfy the Department. Alyson Klein summarizes for Education Week: “Delaware made some tweaks to its plan, and clarified some things for the department. The state gave some more information to show why its goal of cutting the number of students who don’t score proficient on state tests in half by 2030 is, indeed, ambitious.  And it explained that all public high school students do, in fact, have access to the courses, tests, and other measures the state wants to use to figure out whether students are ready for college and the workforce. Delaware also moved science test scores to another part of its accountability system, at the behest of the feds… Apparently, all that was good enough to convince DeVos—who has final say over giving a state plan the thumbs up or down—to approve Delaware’s ESSA vision.”

What seems clear is that ESSA enforcement is not Betsy DeVos’s top priority. It also seems that the Department, under DeVos’s leadership, is not going to make waves with powerful Congressional Republicans like Lamar Alexander.

It is also clear that federally driven, test-based school accountability is not going away. One can only hope that academic researchers and the Department of Education will watch carefully to see if any of the evidence-based strategies states impose under ESSA as the response to low test scores do begin to deliver real improvement in our nation’s struggling schools.

My prediction is that in a climate of tax cutting and austerity budgeting at the federal level and in many states, we won’t see much school improvement. Across the states schools are unequally funded, with struggling rural and urban schools overwhelmed as well by student poverty that is being exacerbated by budget cuts to the health and social service programs needed by the same students who attend the poorest schools. No Child Left Behind never delivered the necessary resources to jump-start school improvement nor has Congress attached significant resources to ESSA.  And Trump’s budget proposal does not increase the  Title I formula, the one federal funding stream designed to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty.

Momentum Grows Against VAM Evaluations of Teachers, but Eradication of VAM Will Take Time

Earlier this month, Christopher Tienken, a professor of education leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University published a short commentary on research he and colleagues have been conducting about whether standardized tests ought to be used for high stakes policy decisions.

He writes, “Every year, policymakers across the U.S. make life-changing decisions based on the results of standardized tests. These high-stakes decisions include, but are not limited to, student promotion to the next grade level, student eligibility to participate in advanced coursework, eligility to graduate high school and teacher tenure. In 40 states, teachers are evaluated in part based on the results from student standardized tests, as are school administrators in almost 30 states. However, research shows that the outcomes of standardized tests don’t reflect the quality of instruction, as they’re intended to… The results show that it’s possible to predict the percentages of students who will score proficient or above on some standardized tests. We can do this just by looking at some of the important characteristics of the community, rather than factors related to the schools themselves, like student-teacher ratios or teacher quality. This raises the possibility that there are serious flaws built into education accountability systems and the decisions about educators and students made within those systems.”  Tienken and his colleagues have been investigating issues associated with the aggregate poverty (or wealth) in the communities where schools are located.

Questions about the reliability and validity of standardized testing, reports Rachel Cohen for The American Prospect, are finally contributing to growing doubts about the use of what is known as Value-Added Modeling (VAM) to evaluate teachers. VAM, writes Cohen, is “a controversial statistical method aimed at isolating each teacher’s effectiveness based on… (her) students’ standardized test scores.” VAM models are supposed to measure the “value added” by each particular teacher.

Concerns about VAM are not new. In the spring of 2014, the American Statistical Association warned: “(V)ariation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences. The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling.”

A year later in June of 2015, the American Educational Research Association added, “Because of the adverse consequences of faulty evaluations for educators and the students they serve, use of VAM in any evaluation system must meet a very high technical bar… (T)he validity of inferences from VAM scores depends on the ability to isolate the contributions of teachers and leaders to student learning from the contributions of other factors not under their control. This is very difficult, not only because of data limitations but also because of the highly nonrandom sorting of students and teachers into schools and classes within schools. The resulting bias will not be distributed evenly among schools, given wide variation in critical factors like student mobility…. Therefore, due caution should be exercised in the interpretations of VAM scores, since we generally do not know how to properly adjust for the impact of these other factors.”

Nevertheless, the use of VAM to evaluate teachers has become widespread—driven by federal policy. Cohen traces the history, beginning with the influence of recommendations by the New Teacher Project and the National Council on Teacher Quality, both programs that oppose teachers unions and have sought to spread alarm about the quality of American teachers. “In 2009, an education reform group known as The New Teacher Project (TNTP) issued an influential report finding widespread ‘institutional indifference to variations in teacher performance.’… TNTP recommended an overhaul of teacher evaluations, urging districts to develop systems that rate teachers ‘based on their effectiveness in promoting students’ achievement’—which meant evaluating them by their students’ scores on standardized tests. The report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores and value-added modeling. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.)” Basically Arne Duncan’s U.S.Department of Education drove states to adopt VAM for evaluating teachers as a condition for states to qualify for a waiver from NCLB’s ill-conceived punishments.

Cohen adds that, “By 2015, the anti-testing backlash had gained steam across the country, in part because the federal government had pushed for test scores to be used to evaluate teachers across all grades and subjects. States had begun to require assessments in such traditionally untested areas like art and early elementary. Parents, teachers unions, and conservatives rallied together for a rollback of federal testing mandates. With the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act in late 2015, they succeeded.”  But although the federal government eliminated its requirement that states evaluate teachers with standardized test scores, many states have kept on using VAM to rate teachers.

Teachers and their unions have protested the unfairness and inaccuracy of VAM evaluation systems. Cohen summarizes lawsuits filed in a number of states by teachers and their unions, but these cases have been very hard for teachers to win.  For example, a federal judge in Florida in 2013 wrote an opinion that explained why courts have often found that while VAM may be unfair, it is not illegal: “In 2013, the National Education Association and its Florida affiliate filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that required at least half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on VAM. In practice, this meant that teachers in non-tested grades and subjects were graded based on the test scores of students they didn’t teach… Together, the seven public school teacher plaintiffs in Cook v. Chartrand argued that Florida’s law violated their equal protection and due process rights. But in 2014, a federal judge ruled against them, concluding that while the rating system seemed clearly unfair, it was nonetheless still legal. ‘Needless to say, this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would fine this evaluation system fair to (teachers in non-tested subjects), let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system… This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system. The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law.'” The decision was upheld on appeal.

Cohen reports, however, that teachers are encouraged by a judge’s recent decision in a Houston case: “The lawsuit centered on the system’s use of value-added modeling (VAM)…. United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith concluded that the metric’s impenetrability could render it unconstitutional. If, he wrote, teachers have ‘no meaningful way to ensure’ that their value-added ratings are accurate, they are ‘subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.’  More specifically, he continued, if the school district denies its teachers access to the computer algorithms and data that form the basis of each teacher’s VAM score, it ‘flunks the minimum procedural due process standard of providing the reason for termination in sufficient detail to enable (the teacher) to show any error that may exist.'”

Beyond the courts, reports Cohen, even prominent education “reformers” have begun to question the reliability of VAM-based teacher evaluations.  Jay Greene, the director of the far-right, Walton-funded think tank at the University of Arkansas, the Department of Education Reform, has begun raising questions. Cohen describes her interview with Greene: “In an interview with the Prospect, Greene… said that test-based accountability advocates tend to imagine either that existing accountability systems are already designed according to best practices, or that states will eventually adopt best practices. “But there’s no sign that this will happen…'”

Despite widespread evidence of its flaws, VAM modeling has unfairly damaged the reputation of the teaching profession and seriously undermined morale. We have begun to see a shift in attitudes, but it will take considerable and persistent advocacy to rid VAM entirely from state policy.

NAACP Publishes Extraordinary Report from its Task Force on Quality Education: Please Read It!

Yesterday the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, released an extraordinary report from a national Task Force on Quality Education, convened last October by the NAACP’s board of directors.  The Task Force was charged with investigating the operation of charter schools across the states in response to a resolution passed by the NAACP last October that demanded  a moratorium on new charter schools until four conditions are met: that charter schools be subject to the same transparency and accountability as public schools; that public funds not be diverted to charter schools at the expense of public school systems; that charters cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate; and that charters “cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

Soon after appointing the Task Force, the new report explains, the NAACP’s board of directors realized the group must investigate not only the operation of charters but also the broader issue of “the protection of quality public education for all inner-city children.” The resulting Task Force on Quality Education was charged to hold hearings across the country and to report its findings this summer at the national NAACP convention, currently underway, in Baltimore. Hearing sites were seven U.S. cities: New Haven, Memphis, Orlando, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York.

I encourage you to read and reflect on the entire, and very readable, thirty page report, because even the report’s excellent executive summary cannot convey the authenticity of the comments from testimony across so many very different communities. Derrick Johnson, the NAACP’s vice president, is quoted from his own testimony at the Task Force’s Detroit hearing: “Here’s the moral walk: That the same quality and equity that a child would receive in Bloomfield Hills is guaranteed for every child in the city of Detroit… that we insist (on) a system, not hodgepodges of opportunity, but a comprehensive system for all children.”

A short primer on charter schools begins the report with a definition of charter schools: “Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are nearly always privately operated by an appointed board under a written contract (or ‘charter’) with a state, district, or other organization, depending on the state… Charter schools generally have flexibility from many laws and regulations that govern neighborhood public schools, as long as the charter school meets the terms of its charter.”

The report seeks  to be scrupulously fair—with a section on “perceived benefits of charter schools” and another on “perceived problems with charter schools.”  In the section on perceived benefits, charter operators, parents and supporters are quoted telling the Task Force that charters graduate many children who later matriculate to college. Many charter schools, according to their proponents, “take and keep all students as other public schools do.”  Some charters are said to do a very good job serving children living in poverty. The report explains: “As would be expected, charter school advocates and operators believe that their schools offer a strong education, and many argue that it is a better education than many neighborhood public schools.”  The report describes parents, students, and community members who “love their charter school because it provides ‘the best education.'”

But many who came to the Task Force’s hearings testified about problems in particular charter schools. Educators, parents and community members told of even bigger problems in states with poor oversight of charter schools and the states that fail to regulate charter school authorizers.

  • The Task Force heard about problems of access and retention—of exclusionary enrollment and push-out practices particularly for children with special needs. “In New Orleans, the Southern Poverty Law Center had to bring a lawsuit against the Recovery School District because so many special education students were rejected from all the charter schools they applied to.”  “Witnesses explained that while a charter school may claim to be open to all students, between reserving seats prior to any lottery process, selective enrollment, the use of exclusionary discipline processes, and counseling out of students, it may actually be exclusive.” “Bob Wilson, a member of Journey for Justice from Chicago, Illinois, testified about a local study (which) f0und that Chicago charter school expulsion rates were more than 1,000% higher than those of Chicago Public Schools on a per-pupil basis.”
  • People testified to the Task Force about uneven school quality. “Dr. Earl Watkins, Chair of Mississippi State NAACP Education Committee, explained that under Mississippi Code 372847: No more than 25% of teachers in a charter school in Mississippi may be exempt from state teacher licensure requirements.  Administrators in charter schools in Mississippi do not have to be certified, and can hold only a bachelor’s degree to be a principal in that school… (Compare this to) traditional public schools where the threshold is 5% of staff can teach out of field or not be certified, and principals in public schools in Mississippi must be certified as administrators…”  While proponents of charters brag that charters can be closed for poor quality (unlike traditional public schools), if such schools are closed, “Black students are particularly susceptible to being impacted by school closures… Charter schools are far less stable schooling options for communities than traditional or magnet schools.”  Testifying from Broward County, Florida about the closure of 30 charter schools due to poor quality, a witness explained: “Broward County School District enrolls over 271,000 students and has over 300 schools. Closing 30 schools, 10% of the schools, represents a significant disruption to students’ education and district’s operations.”
  • Lack of accountability and transparency in the charter sector was reported to the Task Force as a serious issue from place to place. The report compares oversight in Tennessee in contrast to Michigan: “The extent to which charter schools are financially accountable and transparent often varies depending upon the strength of individual state charter laws.  For example, according to testimony on Tennessee State charter laws, ‘The schools are required to have audits, they’re required to report on academic achievement, financial management, and organizational facilities every year and report this information to districts and to the state.’ Compare this to Michigan, where according to the Detroit Free Press, ‘Michigan taxpayers pour nearly $1 billion a year into charter schools. But state laws regulating charters are among the nation’s weakest, and the state demands little accountability in how taxpayer dollars are spent and how well children are educated.'”  Poor oversight and accountability are also exemplified by significant variations in charter school staff salaries including charter school operators paid, in one case, a quarter of a million dollars and in another instance half a million dollars per year.  Finally there is all the money spent to lobby for the perpetuation of poor regulation of charters—such as in Massachusetts in November 2016, when out-of-state Wall Street hedge fund managers, the Walton family and dark money PACs spent $25 million to lobby to raise the state’s cap on the authorization of new charters. The pro-charter lobbying frenzy failed to block regulation in this case, but the problem remains in many states.
  • The Task Force reports that it heard about school choice and charters reducing access for children to schools in their own neighborhoods, requiring long commutes in some cities on public transportation: “One of the side-effects of extensive chartering is that children do not have a right to attend school in their neighborhood.  In many communities, all of the neighborhood public schools have closed.  Children may be rejected for admission from nearby charter schools or be unable to attend because nearby charters are full—or there may be no nearby schools at all… In some communities, like Detroit and Memphis, enrollments in neighborhood public schools are decreasing due to smaller populations in these cities and to charter schools enrolling more students.”
  • Then there is the issue of for-profit charters: “Approximately 12% of U.S. charter schools are run by for-profit companies and approximately 15 states allow virtual schools, many of which are operated by for-profit organizations. In some cases the non-profit charter is run by a for-profit management company, to whom the nonprofit pays substantial fees.”

Summarizing concerns raised by witnesses who testified across seven community hearings—accountability issues, concerns about transparency, problems with disparate access for students and disparate standards, and concerns about authorizing and funding—the NAACP Task Force concludes: “Multiple parents and community members described the need for the state or district to govern all schools—traditional and charter—so that there’s one system of democratically-accountable, high-quality schools.  This system would help students and families make sense of the variety of education options and ensure that all schools support student learning.”

Describing the need to replace educational fragmentation with systemic oversight, the Task Force quotes Tonya Allen, President of Detroit’s Skillman Foundation: “Not only is that a disaggregated system, there are 14 different entities that make decisions today about whether you open or close schools, and not one of them are necessarily coordinated.  There’s no mandate on that.  So, what we’ve gone from is basically a school system to what many would say (is) ‘a system of schools,’ except we have no system.  Okay.  So there’s no planning, there’s no support… So basically if you’re a parent and you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to choose a school, it’s basic hunger games for you… Families are desperately looking for places, and we have nothing in our community… And so we have a hyper—I mean a hyper-competitive environment where you can have all of these various entities working in one geographic domain… There’s nobody, literally nobody in charge of the children in (the) the city of Detroit.”

The NAACP’s Task Force concludes: (W)hile high quality, accountable, accessible charters can contribute to educational opportunity, by themselves, even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education in the communities that serve our children.”

The NAACP’s Task Force makes five excellent recommendations.  I agree with all of them, and I’ll list them here (quoted from the report):

  1. Provide more equitable and adequate funding for schools serving students of color.
  2. Invest productively in low-performing schools and schools with significant opportunity and achievement gaps.
  3. Develop and enforce robust charter school accountability measures: (a) create and enforce a rigorous charter school authorizing and renewal process; (b) create and enforce a common accountability system; (c) monitor and require charter schools to admit and retain all students; (d) create and monitor transparent disciplinary guidelines that meet ongoing learning needs and prevent push out; (e) require charter schools to hire certified teachers.
  4. Require fiscal transparency and equity regarding the sources of revenues and how those resources are allocated.
  5. Eliminate for-profit charter schools.

I believe the primary importance of this report is in the moving and compelling narrative it creates of a disastrously uncoordinated and poorly regulated experiment that has hurt poor children and their families—especially black and brown children in the big cities where the charter experiment has been focused. The NAACP’s Task Force has significantly shaped a coherent narrative when nobody else has succeeded—connecting the dots across the 43 states where charter schools operate under 43 state laws.