Success Academies: Can No-Excuses Charter Schools Be Called Progressive?

An important piece by Rebecca Mead in this week’s New Yorker takes us into Eva Moskowitz’s very controversial Success Academy charter schools in New York City. Mead explains the point of her piece: “For all the controversy, one question has, surprisingly, been overlooked: What are the distinguishing characteristics of a Success Academy education?”

Mead’s subtitle names a contradiction at the center of Moskowitz’s educational theory: “Inside Eva Moskowitz’s Quest to Combine Rigid Discipline with a Progressive Curriculum.” Even as Moskowitz defends the rigid and punitive discipline for which her schools are famous (In Mead’s piece, Moskowitz is quoted as defending the suspension of young children out of school as an important way of impressing a lesson on children and their parents.), Moskowitz claims John Dewey, the father of progressive education, as a guide to what happens in her schools. Moskowitz describes her curriculum as an example of progressivism—“circle time on the classroom rug; interdisciplinary projects that encompass math, science, social studies, and literacy.”  The question that underlies Mead’s analysis is whether it is possible to run a progressive school with no-excuses discipline.

While on one level Mead entertains Moskowitz’s rhetoric about progressivism, Mead seems puzzled by the circle time on the classroom rug: “In the second-grade classroom in Queens, the gridded rug seemed less like a magic carpet than like a chessboard at the start of a game. Within each square there was a large colored spot the size of a chair cushion.  The children sat in rows, facing forward, each within his or her assigned square, with their legs crossed and their hands clasped or folded in their laps. Success students can expect to be called to answer a teacher’s question at any moment, not just when they raise their hand, and must keep their eyes trained on the speaker at all times, a practice known as ‘tracking.’  Staring off into space, or avoiding eye contact is not acceptable.”

Like students at progressive schools (and all kinds of public schools, actually), students in Success Academies go on field trips.  And Mead visits a room where Kindergardeners are taken to play with blocks: “The school has dedicated a special classroom to the activity, and shelves were filled with an enviable supply of blocks. The walls of the room were decorated with pictures of architectural structures that the students might seek to emulate, from the Empire State Building to the Taj Mahal. There was also a list of rules: always walk; carry two small blocks or hug one large block; speak in a whisper.” Unlike free-play at progressive early childhood centers—with dolls, and blocks, and easels and paint, and clay or PlayDoh—block time at the school Mead visits is a specific activity provided by the school in a “block” room to which the entire class of children is led for an assigned period.

For older students there are what Moskowitz likes to consider seminar-type discussions in which children explore ideas. Here is Mead considering one of the class discussions: “The teacher, after establishing that the story’s genre was realistic fiction reminded the class of the necessary ‘thinking job’ required in approaching such a text: to identify the character, the problem, the solution, and the ‘lesson learned.’…  Success Academy students are required to speak in complete sentences, often adhering to a script: ‘I disagree with X’, ‘I agree with X,’ and ‘I want to add on.’… But the lesson seemed to be as much about mastering a formula as about appreciating the nuances of the narrative. When the students were called to ‘turn and talk,’ they swivelled, inside their grids (on the rug), to face a partner, and discussed the section of the text that had been examined collectively. The exchanges I heard consisted of repeating the conclusions that had just been reached rather than independently expanding them. Some students seemed to be going through the motions of analysis and comprehension—performing thought… Nor was there time for more imaginative or personally inflected interpretations of the text—the interrogation of big ideas that happens in the kinds of graduate seminars Moskowitz held up as a model.”

These descriptions of what happened in the Success Academy schools Mead visited sent me to First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, a book published just last year by Steve Nelson, the recently retired head of the Calhoun School, a well-known progressive private school in New York City. What follows are just three of the many characteristics of progressive education that Nelson explores in this book:

  • On the difference between discovery and being taught: “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.”'(p. 11)
  • On progressive education growing from and enhancing the curiosity of students rather than being driven by adults: “In a conventional school, students are seen as vessels into which authoritative adults pour ‘content.’  In a progressive school, students are seen as unique individuals, partners in learning, with their own important ideas, values and experiences.  While there are many shades of grey, conventional schools tend to value and insist on compliance and conformity, while progressive schools encourage skepticism and originality.” (p. 12)
  • On intrinsic motivation—not rewards and punishments—as essential to progressive education: “Extrinsic motivation, especially in education, is driven by systems of rewards and punishments… Intrinsic motivation is driven by factors that emanate from within, such as self-satisfaction, desire for mastery, curiosity, fulfillment, pleasure, self-realization, desire for independence, ethical needs, etc.  Intrinsic motivation is a powerful innate characteristic of all human beings across all cultures and societies… (I)ntrinsic motivation declines as extrinsic structures dramatically increase.” (pp. 160-163)

Contrary to what Nelson identifies as the kind of child-centered, intrinsically motivated, experiential learning that defines progressive education, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies are rigid, relentlessly adult-driven, test-prep factories. Mead explains that to compensate for high turnover among teachers, “Teachers do not develop their own lesson plans; rather, they teach precisely what the network demands. Like the students in their classrooms, Success’s teachers operate within tightly defined boundaries…”

According to their purpose, Success Academy charter schools are are successful: “(T)hey get consistently high scores on standardized tests administered by the state of New York. In the most recent available results, ninety-five percent of Success Academy students achieved proficiency in math, and eighty-four percent in English Language Art: citywide, the respective rates were thirty-six and thirty-eight percent.”  There are, of course, extenuating circumstances: Success Academies do not replace students who drop out after fourth grade; Moskowitz has shamelessly admitted that students who do not fit the Success culture and expectations are encouraged to leave. Public schools, of course, must accept all children. In 2014, Success Academies opened its first high school, which last spring presented diplomas to seventeen students, whose “pioneering class originated with a cohort of seventy-three first graders.”

Mead reports that the high school has struggled with students’ learning styles formed in Success Academy elementary schools: “There was to be a lot more free time, in which students would be the stewards of their own studies.”  But, “Students accustomed to second-by-second vigilance found it difficult to manage their time when left unsupervised.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, tells Mead that a Success Academies education is the very opposite of progressive: “They have a philosophy that, to create a context for learning, it’s necessary to build a total institutional culture that is very strong, enveloping, and quite authoritarian. This produces a level of compliance from children that allows for pretty much any approach to instruction, and eliminates many of the typical challenges of classroom management. There is a reason why there is a continuing pull in human organizations toward authoritarian approaches. You can get a lot done. But what kind of citizens are you producing?… Can you educate children in an authoritarian context and also empower them to be active agents in their own lives, who think critically and question injustice in the world around them?”

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Tax Slashing Predictably Reduces Government’s Capacity to Do Its Job

Commenting for the NY Times yesterday on the tax reform bill being rushed through Congress, Peter Goodman and Patricia Cohen explain: “The tax plan has been marketed by President Trump and Republican leaders as a straightforward if enormous rebate for the masses, a $1.5 trillion package of cuts to spur hiring and economic growth. But as the bill has been rushed through Congress with scant debate, its far broader ramifications have come into focus, revealing a catchall legislative creation that could reshape major areas of American life, from education to health care.”

This warning about the persistent effort to reduce government should frighten those of us who worry about government’s capacity to educate the 50 million children and adolescents who fill public schools across our states. Perhaps you are taking comfort in the fact that fiscal responsibility for schools is shared by local, state, and federal governments, but it isn’t really that simple. What happens at the top—the federal level—or at the middle level, in your state—or in your local school district’s passage or failure of your most recent school levy is tightly woven together with the funding at other levels. On Wednesday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released A Punishing Decade for School Funding, the latest in its annual bird’s eye surveys of what is being spent across the United States on K-12 public education.  This latest report comes a decade after the Great Recession caused tax collections to collapse across many states. The report examines whether and to what degree states and their public schools have been able to recover.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) emphasizes the essential concept of interconnectedness. Public education is primarily a state function; schools are established by the 50 state constitutions, not the federal constitution. Forty-seven percent of money for public schools is provided through taxation by state governments; 45 percent of school funding comes from local school taxes; and only 8 percent is currently provided by the federal government. The number of students enrolled has grown in the decade when the Great Recession hit in 2008: “(W)hile the number of public K-12 teachers and other school workers has fallen by 135,000 since 2008, the number of students has risen by 1,419,000.”

So… what has happened to cause the number of teachers to fall even as the number of students has risen?  “When the Great Recession hit… property values fell sharply, making it hard for school districts to raise local property taxes—schools’ primary local funding source—without raising rates, which is politically challenging even in good times. Raising rates was particularly difficult during a severe recession with steep declines in housing values in many areas.  As a result, local funding for schools fell after the recession took hold, exacerbating the even steeper fall in state funding.”

State funding has not caught up (when adjusted for inflation): “In 29 states, total state funding per student was lower in the 2015 school year (the most recent year for which data is available) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold.  In 17 states, the cut was 10 percent or more.  In 19 states, local funding per student fell over the same period. In the other 29 states for which we have data local funding rose, but those increases usually did not make up for cuts in state support. In 29 states, total state and local funding combined fell between the 2008 and 2015 school years.”

And even before we learn what will happen with the current tax-reform bill being considered by Congress this week, we learn from CPBB that, “Federal policy makers have cut ongoing federal funding for states and localities—outside of Medicaid—in recent years, thereby worsening state fiscal conditions. The part of the federal budget that includes most forms of funding for states and localities… known as non-defense ‘discretionary’ funding (that is, funding that is annually appropriated by Congress), is near record lows as a share of the economy. Federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools—is down 6.2 percent since 2008, after adjusting for inflation.”

Authors of CBPP’s new report cite peer-reviewed research by C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson and Claudia Persico, scholars at Northwestern University and the University of California at Berkeley, who tracked the long-term impact on children of their school district’s funding level: “As common sense suggests—and academic research confirms—money matters for educational outcomes. For instance, poor children who attend better-funded schools are more likely to complete high school and have higher earnings and lower poverty rates in adulthood.” Here are the learning essentials the CBPP report attributes to adequate school funding: recruiting, developing, and retaining high-quality teachers; trimming class size; and expanding learning time. Nothing fancy here: These are basic but very expensive fundamentals.

Why has spending on K-12 public education in many places never caught up to where it was in 2007?  The CBPP reports: “States disproportionately relied on spending cuts to close their large budget shortfalls after the recession hit, rather than a more balanced mix of spending cuts and revenue increases… State revenues have been hurt this year and last by a variety of factors, including falling oil prices, delayed sales of capital, and sluggish sales tax growth.”

Finally and not surprisingly, “Some states cut taxes deeply. Not only did many states avoid raising new revenue after the recession hit, but some enacted large tax cuts, further reducing revenues. Seven of the 12 states with the biggest cuts in general school funding since 2008—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—have also cut income tax rates in recent years.”

Austerity government and tax slashing—the reality in too many states in recent years—ought to serve as a warning to us all as Congress considers big reductions in federal taxes. There will inevitably be serious consequences for people who depend on government for things like healthcare and education.

Sorting Out the Debate About Educational Accountability

The watchword for the last quarter century’s school reform has been accountability: holding schools and school teachers accountable for quickly raising students’ scores on standardized tests. Sanctioning schools and teachers who can’t quickly raise scores was supposed to be an effective strategy for overcoming educational injustice. Test-and-punish has enabled us at least to say we’ve been doing something to hold schools accountable.

The politics of this conversation are pretty confusing—all going back to the federal education law, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and the debate about its replacement, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There was bipartisan agreement in 2001-2002 when NCLB was debated, passed, and signed into law that our society could close racial and economic achievement gaps by testing all students and then demanding that schools quickly raise the scores of underachieving students. In 2015 when Congress debated the law’s reauthorization, accountability-hawk Democrats stood by test-and-punish accountability; many Republicans, led by Senator Lamar Alexander instead pushed to expand states’ rights by lifting the heavy hand of the federal government and allowing states to design their own plans to improve so-called failing schools. Worrying that removal of universal testing would let schools off the hook, the Civil Rights Community has stood by NCLB’s testing plan. Many have continued to assume that universal testing exposes achievement gaps and that the exposure will motivate politicians and educators to address racial and economic disparities.

Test-and-punish school reform has been at the center of a conversation between Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Republican Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  An article by Caitlin Emma published over the weekend by POLITICO examines the history of No Child Left Behind vs. the Every Student Succeeds Act as a background for looking at how policy around school accountability has been evolving in the Trump administration. Emma describes the new ESSA, passed by a Republican Congress in 2015 and designed to return at least some authority for accountability back to the states. But Democrats prodded by Civil Rights leaders and some Republicans have stood by federally imposed accountability: “Critics… worry whether states will adequately track and provide equal opportunities for at-risk kids…. (Even) former Republican Rep. John Kline… an architect of the measure, has said he’s worried states are now getting away with testing plans that violate a key requirement of the law—that states administer the same test to all students annually.  The provision is critical (Kline believes) so that states are forced to report the performance of all students and the results for poor and minority students are not hidden from view, as they were for decades before federal testing requirements were enacted.”

Emma explains: “The Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed in 2015, was widely viewed by Republicans as a corrective to the federal overreach that followed… No Child Left Behind.”  Emma reports that last summer, when Jason Botel, an official in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education began reviewing the states’ applications for federal funds under the ESSA, Botel demanded that before he would approve some states’ plans, they must toughen their standards and demand more.  Powerful Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who had—during the 2015 reauthorization—supported a return of control to the states, formally complained to Betsy DeVos—“furious that a top DeVos aide was circumventing a new law aimed at reducing the federal government’s role in K-12 education. He contended that the agency was out of bounds by challenging state officials, for instance, about whether they were setting sufficiently ambitions goals for their students.”

For many of us who have, for fifteen years, closely followed educational accountability as mandated under No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, the entire debate seems wrong-headed and bizarre.  I am writing about those of us who care deeply about expanding opportunity for children segregated in schools where poverty is highly concentrated— schools where intense segregation by poverty is overlaid on segregation by ethnicity and race. The schools these children attend have, under federal policy, been derided by accountability hawks as “failing” schools.  Widespread blaming—of schools and school teachers—now dominates discussions of school reform even as sociologists increasingly document that family and neighborhood poverty pose overwhelming challenges for these children and their schools.

Much of the confusion and rancor arises because the public debate about school accountability conflates two very different questions:

  • Should the federal government be involved at all in telling states what to do about education?
  • Is test-and-punish accountability an effective strategy for improving public schools and closing opportunity gaps?

The original federal education law, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, addressed the first question as a response to the needs of children in primarily southern states, where schools serving black children had been underfunded and inadequate for generations. There are similar problems of inequity across cities today and forgotten rural areas. Poor children and children of color segregated in particular areas remain under served. The debate about this first question involves states’ rights vs. what has come to be accepted (by many of us) as the federal government’s responsibility to protect the rights of all children and ensure they are all well served. It is a heated question that remains underneath much of the debate about school reform.

The second question involves the strategy Congress chose for reforming schools in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Congress blamed teachers and schools and devised a law that was supposed to force schools and teachers to work harder and faster to improve test scores in schools where achievement lagged when all children in each state were tested on a single standardized test.  It is becoming clearer all the time that when Congress jumped behind test-and-punish accountability, it chose the wrong strategy.  A long and growing body of research demonstrates that test scores are far more aligned with a school’s aggregate economic level than with the work of the teachers or the curriculum being offered to students. Economists like Bruce Baker at Rutgers University also document enormous opportunity gaps as these same public schools in our nation’s poorest communities receive far less public investment than the schools in wealthy suburbs, schools serving children whose families also invest heavily in enrichments at home.

Here is just some of the prominent research from the past ten years that tries to answer the second question.

In 2010, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focused on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm. They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480. They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present. The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released a massive data analysis confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In The Testing Charade, a book published just last month, Daniel Koretz of Harvard University blames test-and-punish accountability for enabling our society to pretend that we have been overcoming educational inequity at the same time we avoid making the public investment necessary even to begin addressing the problem: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)  “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)

The second question involves the overall direction of education policy, and it is important because we desperately need a better strategy. Blaming and punishing the schools with the lowest scores—by closing “failing” schools or privatizing them or firing their teachers and principals—has only further undermined the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities without addressing the opportunity gaps the tests identify.

Today’s Republican tax slashing agenda will only further reduce public investment in education.  And we are likely to keep on blaming the victims.

Moving Beyond a Soundbite Analysis of College-for-All vs. Career-Technical Education

Happy Thanksgiving!  This blog will take the holiday week off.  Look for a new post on Tuesday, November 28.

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This week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been talking about (economic) opportunity—the role of education for preparing students eventually to enter the workforce through career and technical education and apprenticeships. Based on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, DeVos has proposed expanding apprenticeships to help fill openings for 6 million “good” jobs.

Surely students pursuing career and technical paths of study need and deserve better education, but we cannot assume that federal support for a modest expansion of apprenticeships is a solution for a large and complex challenge. Emphasizing individualism as usual, DeVos said, “We need to stop forcing kids into believing a traditional four-year degree is the only pathway to success… We need to expand our thinking on what apprenticeships actually look like… We need to start treating students as individuals… not boxing them in.”

Something is missing from DeVos’s soundbite individualism. Here is Mike Rose—the longtime educator, education writer, and professor of education at UCLA—also expressing concern for individual students, but in a more nuanced and personal way: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity?” (Why School?, p. 14)

In a new blog post, Rose reflects on what is often framed as an either-or debate: college-for-all versus what has traditionally been called vocational education: “This debate is an important one and is of interest to me… because it directly affects the kinds of students I’ve been concerned with my entire professional life: Those who come from less-than-privileged backgrounds and aren’t on the fast track to college. It also catches my attention because a book of mine, The Mind at Work, is sometimes used in the argument against college-for-all. The Mind at Work is the result of a study of the cognitive demands of physical work, waitressing and styling hair to carpentry and welding. Our society makes sharp and weighty distinctions—distinctions embodied in curricular tracking—between white collar and blue collar occupations, between brain work and hand work. But what I demonstrate is the degree to which physical work involves the development of a knowledge base, the application of concept and abstraction, problem solving and troubleshooting, aesthetic consideration and reflection. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.” In a more recent book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, Rose also considers the mix of career and technical education and the liberal arts that is the subject of today’s debate on who should get what kind of education. His recent blog post is adapted from Back to School‘s final chapter.

Rose warns against precisely the kind of narrow conversation we’ve read about in Washington, D.C. this week about college vs. apprenticeships: “Though this college versus work debate can slip into a reductive either/or polemic, I think that it does raise to awareness a number of important issues, ones not only central to education but also to the economy, to the meaning of work, and to democratic life. There is the sky-rocketing cost of college and the poor record of retention and graduation in higher education. There is the disconnect between the current labor market and the politically popular rhetoric of ‘educating our way into the new economy.’ And there is the significant commitment of financial and human resources that will be needed to make college-for-all a reality. On a broader scale there is the purpose of education in a free society. There is the issue of the variability of human interests and talents and the class-based bias toward entire categories of knowledge and activity—a bias institutionalized in the structure of the American high school. There is, then, the need to rethink the academic-vocational divide itself and its post-secondary cousin, the liberal ideal versus the vocational mission of the college. And finally we need to keep in mind that the college-for-all versus work debate takes place within a history of inequality and that the resolution of the debate will involve not only educational and economic issues but civic and moral ones as well.”

Rose isn’t willing to give up on the educational part of education and reduce the student’s experience to mere job training: “The problem is that historically the vocational curriculum itself has not adequately honored the rich intellectual content of work… The huge question then is this: Is a particular vocationally oriented program built on the cognitive content of work and does it provide a strong education in the literacy and mathematics, the history and economics, the science and ethics that can emerge from the world of work?”

Rose cautions that we really do need to think about the individual needs of students, but this doesn’t mean some sort of libertarian concept of individual freedom: “We need to be careful about painting this broad group of students with a single brush stroke.  Some are strongly motivated but because of poor education, family disruption, residential mobility, or a host of reasons are not academically prepared… Some students are unsure about their future, are experimenting—and in my experience, it’s not easy to determine in advance who will find their way. We also know that a significant number of students leave college temporarily or permanently for non-academic reasons: finances, childcare, job loss.  Some of these cases could be addressed with financial aid or other resources and social services. So while I take the skeptics’ point about the poor record of student success and agree that college is not for everyone and that a fulfilling life can be had without it, it is a simplistic solution to funnel everyone who is not thriving into a vocational program.”

Rose suggests that the debate about college vs. vocational education rests on how we define the purpose of education: “Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into—and are shaped by—a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life.”

Rose’s thinking takes us much deeper than the conversation in Washington, D.C. this week about jobs and apprenticeships: “I think this tension—like the divide between the academic and vocational—restricts the conversation we should be having.  How can we enhance the liberal studies possibilities in a vocational curriculum and enliven and broaden the academic course of study through engagement with the world beyond the classroom?”

Rose cautions, however, that educators must be fully attentive to that first question: What is the experience of opportunity?  “It is important to remember… that goals, expectations, and what students imagine for themselves are deeply affected by information and experience…. (S)tudents will need a lot of information about college and careers and multiple opportunities to visit colleges and potential work sites… The differences in cultural and social capital between my UCLA students and the students I know at inner-city community colleges are profound and widening as inequality widens in our country…  (A)dvocates will have to confront this inequality head on, for it is as important as the construction of curriculum.”

I urge you to read Rose’s blog post, along with any or all of these books: Why School?, Back to School, and The Mind at Work. What is absent in today’s soundbite-driven, twitter-limited public conversation is serious reflection on educational, economic, and ethical considerations that ought to be the foundation for public policy.

John Merrow and Thomas Toch Debate Michelle Rhee’s Strategy for Running Urban Schools

A debate about school reform has been raging on the pages of The Washington Monthly—between Thomas Toch, a defender of what is frequently called “corporate school reform” and John Merrow, the retired education reporter for the PBS NewsHour.  The subject: Washington, D.C. school reform as launched by Michelle Rhee and further evolved during the tenure of Kaya Henderson and others whom Henderson hired.  This now-old story about the D.C. public schools still matters, because the theories and practices introduced by Michelle Rhee a decade ago in the nation’s capital continue to drive the operation of urban school districts across the United States.

Thomas Toch formerly led the think tank Education Sector and now serves as the director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University. The July-August, Washington Monthly published Toch’s  Hot for Teachers, a paean to what he believes is a decade of public school improvement between 2007 and 2016 in the nation’s capital. Toch is careful to point out that his subject is broader than Michelle Rhee’s tenure that ended with her resignation in October of 2010. As Toch describes the elevation of test scores across the District, however, and as he celebrates a crackdown on “bad teaching,” improved recruitment and retention of teachers, and broad-scale, data-driven school management, Toch’s rhetoric betrays a pro-corporate-school-reform bias, which must filtered as one reads his story:

Toch appreciates charter schools: “Some 43 percent of D.C. students were enrolled in charters in 2013, up from less than 15 percent a decade earlier.  Many of these schools, with names like DC Prep, KIPP DC, and Achievement Prep, were earning attention for their innovative strategies and strong results.  Foundations heaped money onto them, and the young talent entering teaching through prestigious pipelines like Teach for America were keen to work in the schools.” He also celebrates Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s strategy for working with school teachers: “Rhee’s successors at DCPS have redesigned teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and performance-based promotions and compensation.”  Before Rhee resigned, “Kaya Henderson, who had been Teach for America’s D.C. director and then managed Rhee’s New Teacher Project work in the city, supervised the project as the new chancellor’s chief of human capital.  She worked with Jason Kamras, a Princeton graduate who had arrived in Washington a decade earlier through Teach for America…. At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, Henderson and Kamras launched the most comprehensive teacher measurement system ever implemented in public education.  It set citywide teaching standards for the first time ever… Under the new system, every teacher would be observed five times a year—three times by the administrators in their schools and twice by ‘master educators’ from the central office who would provide an independent check on principals’ ratings.”  Toch believes that fear is a useful strategy for making people work harder: “Rhee’s team deepened teachers’ angst…. Henderson ordered that student test scores make up 50 percent of teachers’ ratings if they taught tested subjects and grades. That turned out to be only 15 percent of the school system’s teaching force, but the move stoked anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s teaching ranks.”

Toch’s analysis continues beyond the transition from Chancellor Rhee to Chancellor Henderson. Noting that Henderson learned from Rhee’s mistakes, Toch emphasizes that after Rhee’s exit, Henderson introduced more support for good teaching—career ladders, for example, and collaboration among grade-level teams of teachers.  Toch does betray the top-down reformer’s bias, however: “There’s no doubt that the school reform stars aligned in Washington over the past decade: There was a rare infusion of talent in the central office; stable leadership enabled by mayoral control of city schools; freedom from key collective bargaining obstacles, and substantial funding, first from grants, then from savings from improvements in the city’s special education system.”

John Merrow, the retired PBS NewsHour reporter who has repeatedly investigated Michelle Rhee’s contentious tenure as the D.C. Chancellor, collaborated with Mary Levy to publish, in the September-October Washington Monthly, a rebuttal to Toch’s story.  Merrow has also expanded this story on his personal blog.  Merrow’s response to Toch centers on the Rhee years, because that is the subject Merrow knows best and because Merrow believes Toch’s distorted portrayal of a D.C. school improvement miracle is grounded in a biased understanding of Rhee’s troubled tenure.

Merrow points to gentrification as the source of much of the test score improvement in Washington, D.C.  He documents that achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and income have not closed: “Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students.  Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened.  From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called ‘others’ in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250-282.  Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the ‘proficient’ level remained an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among ‘others’ climbed from 22 to 53 percent.  An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined from 18 percent to 17 percent.  In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015, white proficiency was at 75 percent.”

Merrow describes what he calls “central office bloat”: “Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes…. Why so many of these teacher watchers?  Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers.” Merrow bemoans the result: a collapse of morale along with widespread resignations of teachers and school leaders.  Some of this is because staff are being moved among schools, enhancing disruptive change, but he notes: “Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.”

As he re-posts his Washington Monthly article on his personal blog, Merrow adds several pages of what he has documented over the years in his investigation of a years’ long cheating scandal in Washington DC, a scandal exposed by U.S.A. Today in March of 2011, but, as Merrow has documented repeatedly, never investigated.  He castigates Toch for (in his July-August article) dismissing the extent of the pressure Rhee was placing on school principals and the widespread reach of the cheating.

Here is some of Merrow’s rebuttal: “Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools.  The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor.  The ‘investigations’ Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both… Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions, that could be asked.”

Merrow poses the essential question: “Why would so many schools be driven to cheat?  In her one-on-one meetings with all her principals, Rhee insisted that they guarantee test score increases and made it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.  The adults who subsequently changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were intent on keeping their jobs, which depended on higher scores… The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in these meetings, made them guarantee test score increases. We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.”

Merrow dismisses Toch’s piece as corporate-school-reform hot air: “To remain aloft, a hot air balloon must be fed regular bursts of hot air.  Without hot air, the balloon falls to earth.  That seems to be the appropriate analogy for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the ten-year regime (2007-2016) of Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson.  Their top-down approach to school reform might not have lasted but for the unstinting praise provided by influential supporters from the center left and right—their hot air.  The list includes the editorial page of the Washington Post, (and) former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan….”

Merrow dubs Toch’s article this summer as merely another draft of hot air.  He blasts Toch’s argument “that Rhee and Henderson revolutionized the teaching profession in D.C. schools, to the benefit of students. ”  And he calls Toch a cheerleader who, “obscures a harsh truth: on most relevant measures, Washington’s public schools have either regressed or made minimal progress under their leadership.  Schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods seem to be thriving, but outcomes for low-income minority students—the great majority of enrollment—are pitifully low.”

Thomas Toch responds to Merrow’s allegations.  His response is printed by The Washington Monthly at the end of Merrow and Mary Levy’s report, Has D.C. Teacher Reform Been Successful?

Tax Reform, the Common Good, and Public Education

Nikolai Vitti became Detroit’s public school superintendent last April. Last week in the Detroit News, Superintendent Vitti published what sounds radically counter cultural: a school district vision statement that leaves out charter schools, school choice, blaming and firing teachers, and any mention of test scores (though the Every Student Succeeds Act will require that Detroit keep on testing its students). Here is some of what Superintendent Vitti says:

“We now have an empowered and elected school board for the first time in years….” “Detroit will not reach its full potential without a stronger traditional public education system. Children need to feel safe, empowered and supported when attending school. Students will make mistakes but learn from them through a more progressive code of conduct focused on positive behavior support, restorative practices, not exclusionary strategies.” “(P)riorities are rooted in developing a child-centric organization that ensures college-and career/technical-ready programing exists across the district in every school; retaining, developing and recruiting the strongest teachers and leaders, and being more strategic and aligned with our resources. Our other priority to focus on the whole child will expand access to enrichment activities such as art, music, athletics, chess, cultural field trips and electives… This spring we will launch a Parent Academy to empower our parents to play a more active role in their child’s education. Teachers will visit students’ home to create stronger relationships with parents… While our schools must own the challenge and opportunity poverty presents, we must recognize that public schools cannot lift children out of poverty alone. We must face the truth that although poverty affects all people, historical and institutional racism exacerbates poverty based on race.”  Vitti also describes schools as centers with wraparound services like health, mental health and dental services for students and families.

Vitti’s vision cannot be realized without nurturing collaboration, building trust, and honoring the professionals who will work with children every day.  It is also grounded in Vitti’s belief in public responsibility.

Which is where he may run into trouble in our era when politicians are focused instead on tax reform—defined as tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy.

In a brief last week for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sharon Parrot describes the Senate tax bill that, “has the same basic flaws as the House bill.”  “The core of the bill is a large corporate tax cut that would overwhelmingly benefit wealthy households, along with a tax cut for ‘pass-through’ businesses that’s also heavily tilted to high-income households and an estate tax cut worth $4.4 million (for estates from couples) for the nation’s very largest estates. These tax cuts are so costly that they require offsets like removing the tax deduction for state and local taxes to comply with the limitation that the tax cuts only increase deficits by $1.5 trillion over a decade. They leave little room for meaningful help to low- and moderate-income families.”

An earlier brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains what the Center is calling, “the Republican Two-Step Fiscal Agenda.” “When deficits rise, those who supported the tax cuts will likely label these deficits as unacceptable and point to spending as the culprit. When that happens, they presumably will call for the kinds of deep cuts they’ve already proposed in their long-range budget plans, which would hit education, basic assistance for struggling families, health care, and other key investments. Those cuts could happen as soon as next year.”

The brief continues: “President Trump and Republican House and Senate leaders have been very clear on the areas they want to cut.  The Trump, House, and Senate budget plans for the next decade all would cut basic assistance and health care for millions of low- and moderate-income families with children, along with investments and services in areas such as education, job training, infrastructure, and environmental protection… The federal government provides modest but important support for K-12 education, about three-quarters of it through two large formula grant programs aimed at helping low-income and disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. Education aid is part of the non-defense discretionary budget category, which the Trump, House, and Senate budget plans would cut deeply, on top of cuts already imposed since 2010… Cuts of this magnitude would almost certainly affect aid to local schools. Although the budget plans are vague about what they intend to cut in future years, education seems an especially likely target because it has already been a target of congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration…”

As one watches the tax reform debate in Congress, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the technicality of much of the discussion or confused about which of the specific proposals would help or hurt whom. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is trying to keep us all focused on the big picture: if corporations and the very rich get huge tax cuts, the money has to come from somewhere. And past cuts to non-defense domestic discretionary spending have already been so deep that further cuts to what are already meager programs will inevitably limit what Superintendent Vitti is able to accomplish in already-distressed Detroit.

Societies are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens. Because government policy and services are central to serving the common good, paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses—with the heaviest responsibility on those with the greatest financial means.

Wisconsin Voucher Program: Exacerbates Inequity by Stealing from Local School District Budgets

A new study for the National Education Policy Center by Ellie Bruecker of the University of Wisconsin warns that Wisconsin’s statewide voucher program, as it grows, will increasingly exacerbate fiscal inequity across the state’s public school districts.

In the 2015-2017 state budget bill, Wisconsin expanded the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program statewide school vouchers by eliminating a 2,000 student statewide cap and sunsetting a district-by-district student participation cap. The new law provides that the participation cap for any district’s students will increase one percent a year until 2026-2027, after which the district cap will disappear altogether.

At the same time Wisconsin changed the way the state funds vouchers. While, before 2015, statewide vouchers were funded by the state through its General Purpose Revenue fund, the 2015 budget bill began counting voucher students as part of the overall enrollment of their local school district and deducting money from the school district’s state’s formula aid to pay for the vouchers:

“The bulk of state aid allocated to public school districts in Wisconsin is derived from a guaranteed tax base formula (equalization aid), which produces higher aid for districts with low property wealth and lower aid for districts with higher property wealth. To fund the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, this allocation of state equalization aid is reduced by the total cost of the vouchers for participating students in the district.  The bill also specifies that if a district’s voucher costs exceed the total allocation of equalization aid, the remaining payment would be deducted from other state aid—categorical aids, which are allocated for specific purposes such  as transportation costs, special education, or high poverty assistance.”

The expansion of Wisconsin’s statewide voucher program is  less likely to affect districts whose tax base is high and students are wealthy. Currently to qualify for a voucher, a student must live in a family at or below $44,955—185 percent of the federal poverty line. However, according to Bruecker, students with slightly higher income may soon become eligible: “Additionally, as of August 2017, Wisconsin Senate Republicans are considering increasing the income eligibility limit for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program from 185%… to 220% of the federal poverty level. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that if this change becomes law, it would reduce state aid to local school districts by an additional $16 million in the first school year in which it takes effect as more students participate in the program.”  Bruecker concludes that the new law will place “a greater burden on local taxpayers, particularly those who are already facing higher local tax rates that generate lower per-pupil spending than that in districts not negatively affected by the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program.”

In Wisconsin the vast majority of students participating in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program were already enrolled in a private school before they received a voucher: “Nearly three out of every four students who participated in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program in the 2016-17 school year were already private school students prior to enrolling in the program.”  The state has assumed “financial responsibility for educating additional students without providing a proportionate increase in the financial support it provides for those students… Because the per-pupil equalization aid does not cover the full cost of the voucher in nearly all districts, this funding mechanism decreases the state’s per-pupil investment, forcing local taxpayers to support a private school tuition program that they did not vote for nor that they control through their elected school boards.”

Bruecker recommends that Wisconsin maintain the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program’s income threshold at 185 percent of the federal poverty level, maintain the original district-level cap in any local school district at one percent of the district’s total enrollment, and fully fund the program, as in previous years, through the state’s General Revenue Fund.

She also warns other state’s to examine the inequity built into Wisconsin’s voucher program as a cautionary tale.