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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does this relate to test-based school accountability?  Last fall, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz explains: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) Policymakers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National School Choice Week: A Time to Examine How the Lessons of ECOT’s Demise Apply Beyond Ohio

During this National School Choice Week, a celebration of school privatization that is being financially and ideologically promoted by people like Jeb Bush and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, it is a good time to consider the lessons we have been learning about the impact of parental choice and what is virtually always at the center of school choice: privatization of education at public expense.

One obvious and little noticed problem for those who seek to bring the problems of school choice to the public’s attention is that the laws which established charter schools and govern their operation are state-specific.  When an unscrupulous charter school, or even a big chain of charters goes down in another state, it is easy to think, “This isn’t relevant to me,” and maybe skip reading the story.  Even if the Network for Public Education (NPE) releases a high quality, incisive a report on a selection of charter schools across the country, it is tempting to look for a chapter about a school in one’s own state and skip the report’s first four chapters about California. One can turn away, thinking, “I can’t do anything about this other state’s mess anyway.”

But if you read NPE’s big report, you’ll notice that charter school problems across the states have some things in common. Coincidentally and ironically, this National School Choice Week is happening only days after the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, one of the nation’s largest cyber charter schools, was finally put out of business  by Ohio state officials and its sponsoring organization.  ECOT’s demise last Thursday is a good opportunity to reflect on the broader lessons can be learned about school privatization.  ECOT’s seventeen year longevity, despite a history of controversy, is a lesson about outrageous lack of regulation of a privately operated education sector that relies on public tax dollars—public tax dollars that, even when the school is not-for-profit, too frequently flow to for-profit management contractors who use the money to pay state legislators and regulators to look the other way.

In Sunday’s Columbus Dispatch, Bill Bush quotes Bill Phillis, long ago an assistant superintendent of public instruction in Ohio and now executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding: “How blind can the state be? It was as if a bear was at the door, but they didn’t look out the window.” Phillis speculates, according to Bush’s report, that ECOT has “over billed the state by more than a half-billion dollars over its lifetime, while its founder, William Lager, showered politicians with campaign cash.”

Bush reviews ECOT’s early history: “ECOT opened in September 2000, and three months later, its first superintendent Coletta Musick, was ousted.  The Dispatch reported that the dispute supposedly centered on ECOT’s attendance claims, but Musick couldn’t discuss it because ECOT had paid her $124,233 in tax money to sign a nondisclosure agreement… Shortly after Musick left, three of ECOT’s five school board members, handpicked by Lager, also resigned.  Then-state Auditor Jim Petro issued an attendance audit in 2001 covering ECOT’s first year: The school initially claimed to have 2,270 students, but records showed only seven logged on to any of the school’s computer systems. Yet the school had still received full funding for all the students. ECOT was ordered to repay $1.6 million but was allowed to work off the debt.”

After the legislature strengthened Ohio’s charter school law a bit in 2015, the state could claim the right to demand computer log-in data before reimbursing ECOT for its students’ per-pupil state aid. ECOT, however went to court to protect its right, under a 2003 agreement, not to present log-in records to the state.  ECOT has had the state in court all year to prevent the state’s claw-back of $80 million for just two school years—2015-16 and 2016-17.  Until  ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West cracked down last week based on the school’s pending bankruptcy, the state has been unable to recapture the money.  The Ohio Supreme Court remains scheduled to hear the school’s final appeal in oral arguments on February 13.

Last summer, the Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel were the first to break the story about ECOT’s early history.  The reporters interviewed a disgruntled former-ECOT-employee, Chandra Filichia, employed by Lager as an ECOT registrar for several years, but now back full time as a waitress at the Columbus Waffle House where she met Bill Lager in 2000. Then bankrupt, Lager met with friends over coffee as they tried to come up with a new business venture.  Lager and his ECOT co-founder Kim Hardy mapped out their business plan on paper napkins.  Finally, “The two of them attended state-run classes on how to start a charter school, where they met Coletta Musick.  The former principal brought an actual education background to the team. Lager already had connections for obtaining computers and office equipment.  David Brailsford, a Toledo ticket broker, provided the early financing.”

In a new and detailed expose for Mother Jones, James Pogue revisits this early story, adding details and photographs to depict the online charter school’s humble beginning as a budding business venture.  Pogue re-interviews Chandra Filichia, the waitress later hired by Lager to recruit students for ECOT, about her disillusionment with the quality of ECOT’s academic program: “As a registrar, she described herself as being in a position to see the school’s attendance problems.  She said kids who hadn’t logged on in for weeks would call, after being threatened with truancy proceedings, begging for her help.”

Pogue  quotes Jeffrey Forster, a former superintendent at the school, responding to an inquiry from an Ohio Department of Education’s attorney about the process ECOT used to verify its student enrollment: “Forster recalled as an example how one day in 2009, ECOT gathered its teachers in a Columbus-area Doubletree hotel, and over the course of 10 hours had them verify attendance for as many as 14,000 students. They passed the forms around a string of lined-up tables and worked from memory as much as from login or attendance records… If no one recalled a student, the teachers—each of whom could have had dozens of pupils, sometimes many more—would look on their rosters to see if they could find a name.  Many of the students presumably had done their schoolwork in good faith, and if a student had definitively dropped out the teachers would decline to sign.  But the verifications seem to have had nothing to do with how much time the student actually spent doing classwork.”

Pogue also quotes Keith Richards, who as Newark, Ohio’s public school superintendent in 2006, wrote a formal letter of complaint to ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West.  Superintendent Richards also forwarded his complaint to State Auditor Petro: “Of the 12 former Newark students who have attended ECOT this year, we have found many violations… with regard to enrollment, attendance, instruction time and activity and withdrawal procedures.” Superintendent Richards continued, “We have documentation that shows that four ECOT students… do not have a computer or even in some cases, internet access in their homes.  We know of one student who was enrolled in ECOT for two years… and who was never given a computer or ECOT coursework.”

On Sunday, the first day of this year’s National School Choice Week, the Columbus Dispatch editorialized: “Ohio’s charter-school laws were from the start, exceedingly friendly to big campaign donors who would go on to use them to make a buck. Numerous attempts over the years to reform the laws and strengthen oversight have been stymied by the charter-school lobby and legislators friendly to it.”

As a way of marking National School Choice Week this year, please read Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel’s July 30, 2017 expose on ECOT ,  James Pogue’s report at Mother Jones: The GOP’s Biggest Charter School Experiment Just Imploded, and the Network for Public Education’s recent report, Charters and Consequences.

Then consider, as a contrast, our nation’s system of public schools, regulated by law and the democratic process to protect the rights of their students and protect the public’s investment. Privatization of education is not inevitable.  School choice responds to power and privilege.  Maybe it is time to consider the best way to protect the public good by strengthening the public investment in well regulated public schools—and distributing tax dollars more generously to the schools in poor communities whose needs are great and whose funding remains meager.

Test-and-Punish Just Hangs on as Failed Education Strategy

ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, is like an old, altered, jacket, now frayed at the cuffs. The fabric was never really good in the first place and, when the jacket was made over, the alternations didn’t do much to improve the design. Not much noticed at the back of the closet, the jacket sags there. But it would take too much energy to throw it away.

Pretty much everybody agrees these days that the 2001 school “reform” law, No Child Left Behind, was a failure. The Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos went to the American Enterprise Institute the other day and criticized the education policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

And at the other end of the political spectrum, on January 8, 2018, the 16th anniversary of the day President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, Diane Ravitch declared, “NCLB, as it was known, is the worst federal education legislation ever passed by Congress.  It was punitive, harsh, stupid, ignorant about pedagogy and motivation, and ultimately a dismal failure… The theory was simple, simplistic, and stupid: test, then punish or reward.”

In December, 2015, Congress made over No Child Left Behind by passing the Every Student Succeeds Act.  While the law reduces the reach of the Secretary of Education and requires that the states instead of the federal government develop plans for punishing the so-called “failing” schools, ESSA, as the new version is called, keeps annual standardized testing and perpetuates the philosophy that the way to make educators raise test scores faster is to keep on with the sanctions.  ESSA remains a test-and-punish law.

But now it seems ESSA is going out of use like that old, remade jacket. The states, as required, have churned out their ESSA school improvement plans and submitted them to the U.S. Department of Education, and Betsy DeVos’s staff people have been busy approving them—in batches.  This week the Department approved a batch of eleven such plans—from Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  Education Week‘s federal education reporter, Alyson Klein describes the eleven plans that were approved this week.

Ohio’s was one of the plans approved, and Patrick O’Donnell at the Plain Dealer perfectly captures the irony of the now pretty meaningless process in Ohio’s ESSA Plan Wins Federal Approval—and Few Care: “Though many observers nationally and here in Ohio had hoped states would present grand new visions for schools through the new plans mandated by 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that hasn’t happened… State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria’s plan made few changes to the state’s testing and report card system, promising little more than making sure the state follows federal law. A new vision and approach?  That’s all being handled separately, just not in the plan. Critics wanted the plan to make big cuts in state tests. It doesn’t but DeMaria and the state school board later asked the legislature for those cuts.  Others wanted the plan to reduce the use of tests in teacher evaluations.  DeMaria and a panel of educators are seeking those changes apart from the submitted plan. And some wanted the state to show a vision for schools that was less reliant on test scores in academic subjects. School board members and several panels of educators have been meeting the last few months to build new goals that are far more focused on the ‘whole child’ than before.”

There is even some talk in Columbus about the problems of the state’s “A”-“F” letter grades to rate and rank schools and school districts, despite that Ohio’s school report cards with letter grades are a feature of the ESSA plan Ohio submitted and that was approved this week.

The 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act is merely a made over version of No Child Left Behind—made over because Congress wasn’t really ready to accept that the law’s overall strategy of high stakes testing and a succession of punishments has accomplished neither of NCLB’s overall goals: helping the children who have been left behind and closing achievement gaps.

But consensus about No Child Left Behind’s overall failure and the failure of it punitive strategy keeps on growing.  Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz put several more nails in its coffin in his excellent new book The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Please read this book. In it Koretz shows exactly why the scheme of testing all students and punishing the teachers and the schools where scores do not rise quickly cannot work—why the scheme is merely a charade:  “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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) “The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)

If our society were intent on helping the children who have been left behind, we would invest in ameliorating poverty and in supporting the hard working teachers in the schools in our poorest communities. Things like reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program would help!  The ESSA plans being submitted to the Department of Education aren’t having much impact at all.  The old, made-over NCLB jacket is slowly slipping to the back of the closet.

Government Confusion and Dysfunction Increases Insecurity for Children, Families, and Schools

Life is filled with unknowns and eventualities we cannot control, but it used to be that we could expect the core functions and protections of government to be more or less predictable.  For twenty years now, parents whose jobs did not provide health insurance but who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid have been secure, knowing they could cover their children through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a federal program administered by the states.

And in 2012 President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to protect the young people who were brought here as babies or toddlers by their undocumented immigrant parents. DACA ensured these young people could at least qualify for a driver’s license, secure a work permit, and know they would not be deported as they matured into young adulthood.

We seem to live in a time of diminished expectations. Ten or fifteen years ago, the DREAM Act was additionally aimed at protecting the DREAMERS’ right to higher education—to qualify for in-state college tuition and be able to apply for a Pell Grant or a federally protected college loan. While those aims became politically unreachable, at least President Obama was able to ensure through DACA that the estimated 800,000 DREAMERS have been protected from deportation and granted the right to earn a living in the society where they have grown up and been educated in K-12 public schools.

Since last September, however, when President Trump’s Department of Homeland Security rescinded DACA protection, all this has become uncertain for DREAMERS. Days later President Trump himself tweeted his support for DACA, and announced: “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do).”  Today, despite much talk, the future of DACA remains in question. We watched Trump’s televised negotiation with Congress on Tuesday only to wonder what the President’s confusingly contradictory statements might mean, whether a hopelessly split Congress can possibly compromise, and how the policy confusion is affecting DREAMERS who are simply trying to live normal lives.  Education Week estimates that about 20,000 DREAMERS are employed today as school teachers.

Then, later on Tuesday night, we learned that a federal judge in San Francisco has blocked the Trump administration’s six-month phase out of DACA that began last September.  Here is Derek Hawkins of the Washington Post: “U.S. District Judge William Alsup… blocked the administration’s attempt to phase out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation.  Alsup was tasked with, among other things, determining whether it would serve the public interest to leave DACA in place while litigation over the decision to scrap the program proceeds. On this point, he had an easy answer: Trump himself had expressed support for DACA on Twitter in September, just days after Department of Homeland Security officials rescinded it. ‘Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!'”

The words Hawkins quotes from in Judge Alsup’s order seem to summarize where we are as a country—the new level of uncertainty with which DREAMERS are living—and a new level of dysfunction in the federal government:  “We seem to be in the unusual position wherein the ultimate authority over the agency, the Chief Executive, publicly favors the very program the agency has ended… For the reasons DACA was instituted and for the reasons tweeted by President Trump, this order finds that the public interest will be served by DACA’s continuation.”

Fortunately for DREAMERS, the Constitution provides checks and balances—in this case the judiciary. Hawkins continues his analysis: “In litigation over Trump’s executive actions, no ruling seems to be complete without a section explaining how Trump’s tweets and public statements undercut the administration’s legal arguments… This is new territory for federal judges, according to Niels Frenzen, an immigration law professor at the University of Southern California. ‘We’ve never had a president tweeting like this… You have these extreme public statements that are shedding light on the motivation of the president in regard to why he is directing Cabinet secretaries to engage in these actions. The courts are saying these are fair game.'”

So… DREAMERS can take a deep breath, at least while a legal challenge to the phaseout of DACA moves forward.

Does this mean that Congress will stop negotiating on a way to address the needs of the DREAMERS—that DACA will no longer be a bargaining chip in the contentious battle over the continuing budget resolution that must be passed in the next two weeks to keep the government running?  Does this mean Congress will forget about the 800,000 DREAMERS because Senators and Representatives have so much other chaos to deal with?  Probably. Nobody knows.

And now for low income families and children there is another unknown—this time due to Congress’s own dysfunction and inability to compromise. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—which Congress had allowed to lapse at the end of September—seems to be out of money even though everybody had been told it had been fixed for the moment. In December, when Congress passed an emergency continuing budget resolution, it added a relatively small infusion of cash to protect CHIP—until March when Congress would again try to find a way to keep CHIP alive. Last Friday, Kaiser Health News published this warning: “Some states are facing a mid-January loss of funding for their Children’s Health Insurance Program… despite spending approved by Congress in late December that was expected to keep the program running for three months, federal health officials said Friday. The $2.85 billion was supposed to fund state’s CHIP programs through March 31.  But some states will start running out of money after Jan. 19, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. CMS did not say which states are likely to be affected first. The latest estimates for when federal funding runs out could cause states to soon freeze enrollment and alert parents that the program could soon shut down.  The CHIP program provides health coverage to 9 million children from lower-income households that make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.”

The NY Times editorial board spoke to this issue on Tuesday: “CHIP was created in 1997 and has helped halve the percentage of children who are uninsured. It has been reauthorized by bipartisan majorities of Congress in the past. But Republican leaders in Congress all but abandoned the program last fall and devoted their time to trying to pass an unpopular tax bill that will increase the federal debt by $1.8 trillion over the next decade… By contrast, CHIP costs the federal government roughly $14.5 billion a year, or $145 billion over 10 years. Republicans have held children’s insurance hostage to force Democrats to accept cuts in other programs.”

What has become the norm in Washington—in the Trump administration and in Congress—is dysfunction and rancorous fighting  that makes life more uncertain for America’s most vulnerable families, young people, and children. This kind of uncertainty is a public school problem as well, as 50 million of America’s children—many of them living in poverty and financial insecurity—bring the anxiety they absorb at home with them to school each day.