Kevin Welner: In Our Alarmingly Unequal Society, Public Schools by Themselves Cannot Be the Great Equalizer

Someone should send Kevin Welner’s timely essay, “The Mythical Great Equalizer School System,” to Senator Joe Manchin, who has said he opposes expanding the Child Tax Credit as part of Build Back Better.

Welner’s essay, part of a new collection of essays, Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, is urgently timely. It examines the educational implications of the philosophy behind what has become the most controversial provision of President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, now passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and awaiting action in the U.S. Senate: repairing a deeply flawed Child Tax Credit.

Welner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado and executive director of the National Education Policy Center, demonstrates that in a nation with millions of children living in poverty, public schools by themselves cannot provide enough support to compensate for the detrimental effects of alarming economic inequality. Welner examines the old and widely accepted myth that our public system of education is the great equalizer: “Can schools balance our societal inequality? If that inequality is left unaddressed, along with the harm it does to children, can policymakers reasonably expect an outcome of rough equality through focusing instead on building a dazzling public school system that would envelop those children in rich opportunities to learn? Admittedly, this describes an odd (and cruel) policy approach: to first inflict awful harm on children and then pour resources into schools in a desperate attempt to mitigate the harm.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

The Child Tax Credit has provided some support for child rearing since its passage in 1997. President Biden’s COVID relief bill passed in March of 2021 temporarily fixed problems with the Child Tax Credit as a way to help parents get through a year dominated by COVID-19.  For the NY Times, Ben Casselman explains: “Congress last spring expanded the existing child tax credit in three ways.  First, it made the benefits more generous, providing as much as $3,600 per child, up from $2,000. Second, it began paying the credit in monthly installments usually deposited directly into recipients’ bank accounts, turning the once-yearly windfall into something closer to the children’s allowances common in Europe. Finally, the bill made the full benefit available to millions who had previously been unable to take full advantage of the credit because they earned too little to qualify. Poverty experts say that change, known in tax jargon as ‘full refundability,’ was particularly significant because without it a third of children—including half of all Black and Hispanic children, and 70 percent of children being raised by single mothers—did not receive the full credit. Mr. Biden’s plan would have made that provision permanent.”

Because the Senate failed to pass Build Back Better by the end of 2021, these changes expired on New Year’s Eve.  If Senator Manchin would agree, these reforms can be reinstated in the Senate’s version of Build Back Better, which Congressional leaders still pledge to pass.

You can find some of Welner’s research summarized in a newsletter last October describing the National Education Policy Center’s new Price of Opportunity Project: “Those of us who work in or with schools never question the enormous impact that a teacher or school can have on a student. But this essential truth coexists with another truth: that differences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S arise primarily outside of schools. This should not be a surprise. Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economical inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income and wealth. Compared to the Scandinavian countries and other so-called Western democracies like Canada, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand, American children are inordinately trapped in intergenerational poverty. Inequality in the U.S. is stark and enduring.”

In the longer essay published in Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Welner explains that between 60 and 80 percent of the achievement gaps as measured by standardized tests are attributable to outside-of-school opportunity gaps based on family income. Unlike President Biden, whose Build Back Better Bill acknowledges the lifetime impact of childhood poverty, Welner explains: “Many policymakers and others are still mired in a type of magical thinking. They have somehow convinced themselves that children’s opportunities to learn outside of school are not particularly important—that policy should simply focus on making schools more equal.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 91-92)

Inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding across the states only complicates the problem: “Meanwhile the national discussion of school funding is so impoverished…. We hail states like New Jersey and Washington when legislators finally stop dragging their feet in response to decades of court orders in adequacy cases. But the legislators never actually meet or exceed the adequacy standard—and that standard remains far below what is needed…. (N)o state has yet reached… the level of equity that we call ‘minimal adequacy.’ This is defined as the additional resources to give all students a realistic shot at reaching basic levels set forth by state standards…. Even if we were ever to get to that point, vast inequality would remain in place because of opportunity gaps that arise due to societal inequalities.”(Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

Welner believes that federal policy must address childhood poverty both inside and outside of school, and his essay is timely in the context of the dilemma facing Congress this winter. There is widespread agreement among advocates for children that President Biden’s reforms to the Child Tax Credit are the most basic way to begin ameliorating the opportunity gaps that Kevin Welner identifies as the greatest barrier to school achievement among children living in poverty.

First Focus on Children’s executive director, Bruce Lesley quotes from the recommendations of a 1991 National Commission on Children, recommendations advocates used in 1997 to justify the establishment of the Child Tax Credit: “Because it would assist all families with children, the refundable child tax credit would not be a relief payment, nor would it categorize children according to their ‘welfare’ or ‘nonwelfare’ status. In addition, because it would not be lost when parents enter the work force , as welfare benefits are, the refundable child tax credit could provide a bridge for families striving to enter the economic mainstream. It would substantially benefit hard-pressed single and married parents raising children. It could also help middle-income, employed parents struggling to afford high-quality child care. Moreover, because it is neutral toward family structure and mothers’ employment, it would not discourage the formation of two-parent families or of single-earner families in which one parent chooses to stay at home and care for the children.”

Lesley reminds us that, according to the Urban Institute, “under current law, the share of all new federal spending through 2030 for the adult portions of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will be 71% compared to just 2% for children’s programs.”  And he quotes findings from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget—that “while much of spending on adults is mandatory, spending on children is disproportionately discretionary…. Spending on children is disproportionately temporary…. Spending on adults is rarely limited while spending on children is often capped…. Most programs for children lack built-in growth…. Programs for children lack dedicated revenue and thus lack the political advantage and protection of programs for seniors that enjoy this benefit.”

Lesley urges Congress to make permanent the reforms to the Child Tax Credit passed temporarily for 2021 in last spring’s COVID relief bill.  These reforms benefited 65 million children “including an estimated 4 million children lifted out of poverty….”

However, among the three reforms to the Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan— increasing the amount of the per-child benefit, distributing the tax credit monthly instead of once a year, and making the tax credit fully refundable—one reform surpasses the others for ameliorating child poverty.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities emphasizes that, for America’s children, permanently making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for families with very low income is the most important element in Build Back Better:

“In the absence of the full refundability provision, the first two of those changes would lift an estimated 543,000 children above the poverty line, reducing the child poverty rate by 5 percent… But the two changes plus full refundability stand to raise 4.1 million children above the poverty line and cut the child poverty rate by more than 40 percent. In other words, the full refundability feature makes the expansion nearly eight times as effective in reducing child poverty.” “Prior to the Rescue Plan, 27 million children received less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most. The (COVID) Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.  Build Back Better, in one of its signature achievements, would make this policy advance permanent.”  (emphasis in the original)

Federally Mandated Standardized Testing: If Nothing Is Done to Change a Bad Public Policy, It Never Goes Away

The beginning of the new year is a good time to look around and consider that the way things are is not how they have to be. Annual standardized testing, the pivotal public policy that shapes U.S. children’s experience of public schooling today, is now recognized by most educators and many policy experts as a failed remnant of another time.

However, Miguel Cardona, our current U.S. Secretary of Education, has quietly allowed this policy to continue and permitted us all to cruise through one more school year without seriously confronting its implications. Even though Betsy DeVos cancelled the federal testing mandate in the spring of 2020 as COVID-19 struck, on February 22 of last year, an acting assistant secretary of education sent the state departments of education a letter announcing that—despite that some students were in class, others online, and some in hybrid online/in-person classes due to COVID-19—standardized testing would take place as usual in the 2020-2021 school year.  Despite considerable pushback from educators, that decision has never been reconsidered, and in the current school year federally mandated standardized testing is happening as usual.

Of course Secretary Cardona’s focus has been dominated by COVID’s disruption in public schools, and the problem is likely to continue as the new Omicron flareup threatens to intensify the pressure this winter despite the rollout of vaccines.  Even amidst these ongoing challenges, however, the time has come for the Secretary of Education to work with Congress to confront the overuse of standardized testing as the yardstick for measuring the quality of public schools and supposedly holding them accountable. Good leaders are responsible for initiating needed reforms when flawed public policy undermines the institutions where our children learn.

January 8, 2022 is the 20th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s signing the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It is worth remembering that until 2002, our society did not test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and compare the aggregate scores from school to school as a way to rate and rank public schools. School districts could choose to test students with standardized tests to measure what they had been learning, but until the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became law, there was no federally mandated high stakes testing across all U.S. public schools.

NCLB did not, as promised, enable every child to make Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient. Because, as research has demonstrated, out-of-school challenges affect students’ test scores, the whole high stakes testing regime didn’t improve overall school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps. Sadly, it did shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

Today states are required by No Child Left Behind’s 2015 successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to identify their state’s bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a way to blame and punish educators and supposedly “incentivize” them to work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe:

  • Many states publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns “a turnaround strategy.”
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score “proficient” on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools” and focuses the rest of the above punishments on the schools in the poorest communities.
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight to wealthy exurbs where aggregate test scores are higher.

Here are three academicians considering problems with high-stakes standardized testing from the point of view of their areas of expertise.

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains a primary reason why high-stakes standardized testing unfairly punishes the schools, the teachers, and the students in America’s poorest communities: “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.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Not only is the test-and punish regime unjust, but it also violates accepted theory about how children learn. Nobody thinks drilling and cramming for standardized tests is an inspiring kind of education, but in their 2014 rebuttal of the test-and-punish regime, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass point out that the test-and-punish era has also pushed out more important work at school: “Teaching problem solving and creativity is indeed possible, particularly when the teacher is an engaged teacher who uses culturally relevant pedagogical practices. But the issue lies not in whether it is possible, but in whether the teaching of these skills is disappearing…. (G)iven the current education system with its ever-increasingly test-based accountability systems, classrooms are becoming more controlled. Thus, environments in which problem solving and creativity are likely to be promoted are less evident… It should come as no surprise that when teachers focus on multiple ways of knowing and celebrate the wealth of knowledge their students bring to the classroom, collaborative environments spring up. In these environments, students and teachers participate in meaningful conversations about a variety of topics, including issues that are often of direct concern to their local community… It is through conversation, not didactic instruction, that students are able to articulate what they know and how they know it, while incorporating the knowledge of their peers and their teacher to further their own understanding.” (50 Myths and Lies, p. 238)

Finally, in Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, a fine new collection of essays edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, education historian Diane Ravitch summarizes the impact of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime: “Many schools were punished. Many teachers and principals were fired, their reputations in tatters… Nonetheless, Congress and state leaders remained fixated on raising test scores. NCLB remained in force until 2015, when it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which removed the deadline by which all students would be proficient and dropped some of the other draconian punishments. But what did not disappear was the magical belief that a federal mandate based on annual standardized tests would produce better education. In the grip of the policymakers’ obsession with testing and ranking and rating and sorting, schools that were important to their communities were closed or replaced or taken over by the state because their scores were too low. Forget the fact that standardized test scores are highly correlated with family income and affected by important factors like disabilities and language ability.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy,  p. 26)

When he campaigned for President in 2019, Joe Biden rejected standardized test-based school accountability. This year, 2022, is a good time for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to provide real policy leadership and ensure that President Biden can realize his promise.

New Book Includes Wonderful Retrospective Essay by the Late Mike Rose

I just received my pre-ordered copy of a fine new collection of essays from Teachers College Press.  In Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, editors David Berliner and Carl Hermanns pull together reflections by 29 writers, who, as the editors declare: “create a vivid and complex portrait of public education in these United States.”

It seems especially appropriate at the end of 2021 to consider one of the essays included in this new book—probably Mike Rose’s final essay—“Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric.” Rose, the wonderful writer and UCLA professor of education, died unexpectedly in August.

Rose considers the many possible lenses through which a public can consider and evaluate its public schools: “Public schools are governmental and legal institutions and therefore originate in legislation and foundational documents… All institutions are created for a reason, have a purpose, are goal driven… Equally important as the content of curriculum are the underlying institutional assumptions about ability, knowledge, and the social order… Public schools are physical structures.  Each has an address, sits on a parcel of land with geographical coordinates… By virtue of its location in a community, the school is embedded in the social and economic dynamics of that community… The school is a multidimensional social system rich in human interaction… With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics. Some school phenomena lend themselves to counting, though counting alone won’t capture their meaning… And schools can be thought of as part of the social fabric of a community, serving civic and social needs: providing venues for public meetings and political debate, polls, festivities, and during crises shelters, distribution hubs, sites of comfort.”

“Each of the frameworks reveals certain political, economic, or sociological-organizational aspects of the rise of comprehensive schooling while downplaying or missing others,” explains Rose. “It might not be possible to consider all of these perspectives when making major policy decisions about a school, but involving multiple perspectives should be the goal.”

In this retrospective essay, Rose reflects on a journey that resulted in his landmark book on public education, Possible Lives.  For several years Rose visited public school classrooms across the United States, classrooms recommended to him by national and local experts as sites of wonderful teaching. He begins his new essay in rural eastern Kentucky remembering an evening visit to a bar at the end of a day observing the high school social studies classroom of Bud Reynolds.”This testimony to the importance of the public school opens in the AmVets Club bar in Martin, Kentucky, population 550, circa 1990.  I am here as a guest of Bud Reynolds, a celebrated social studies teacher at nearby Wheelwright High School, about whom I would be writing for a book called Possible Lives (published by Houghton Mifflin in 1995) documenting good public school classrooms.” Bud introduces Rose to two friends, Tim Allen and Bobby Sherman, both of whom work for the one remaining railroad that runs through Martin. “While Bud and Tim play a video game, I end up talking with Bobby, a conversation that reveals the place of school in both memory and the practice of day-to-day living…  What… stands out to me is the role several of Bobby’s high school teachers play in his life.  An English teacher changed his reading habits, and in a way, I assume, that contributes to his current political and social views… I also can’t help but wonder about the degree to which the intellectual challenging of his chemistry teacher—the cognitive gave and take, the pleasure in it, his esteem for his teacher’s intellectual ability—the degree to which this extended experience plays into Sherman’s own sense of self as a thinker, and as proof of the presence of ‘damned intelligent people’ in Kentucky’s Eastern Coal Field.”

Rose’s essay now takes his journey to a different kind of public school setting: “Let us move now from a town of 550 to Chicago, a city with the third largest school district in the nation, and to the story of a school and the community it represents… Like Martin, KY, Chicago was part of my itinerary for Possible Lives.  I visited six public schools in Chicago, one of which was Dyett Middle School, named after Walter Henri Dyett, a legendary music teacher in the Bronzeville community of Chicago’s South Side… From its inception in 1975, Dyett was not only a valuable resource for neighborhood children, but also represented a rich local history of Black artistic and educational achievement.” At Dyett Middle School, Rose listens as an English teacher engages 6th grade students in an open discussion about the books on which they will be writing reports and about questions and concerns they have about the teacher’s expectations for the reports they will be writing.  As classes change, Rose stops in the hallway to talk with several students: “‘Students learn here,’ one boy tells me. ‘They teach you how to speak and write,’ a girl adds. ‘You feel at home here,’ says another boy. ‘They don’t make fun of you if you mess up.'”

Now Rose updates more than two decades of news about Dyett: “Twenty years later, Dyett was one of 54 ‘failed’ schools targeted for closure by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the CEO of the district.  These schools were ‘underenrolled and underperforming.'” Dyett had been transformed into a high school, and, “By 2000, interwoven with large-scale transformations in the economy, urban revitalization projects, and changing demographics and gentrification, a new wave of school reforms had some urban districts attempting to reorganize their schools into a ‘portfolio’ of choices. Some schools were converted to selective admission schools or to magnet schools… while other schools were defined as general admission schools.  Add to this mix the growing number of charter schools, and one result is the diminishment of general admission community schools like Dyett, as their enrollment is drained away.”

Except that the school meant too much too the community: “But the community around Dyett wouldn’t allow it, mounting a protracted, multipronged campaign that led, finally to a hunger strike that made national news… The children I saw during my visit to Dyett would have been in their late twenties by the time the order to close the school was issued—their parents in their forties or fifties. We have, then, a sizeable number of people in the community who associate Dyett with, as the 6th grader put it, feeling at home, with being valued and guided, and with learning about themselves, each other, and the world.”

As he pursues his purpose—reflecting on public schools and the social fabric—Rose rejects one of the lenses he named earlier through which a society can observe and evaluate its public schools: “With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics.”  This is, of course, the rubric of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and all the rest of the two-decade technocratic experiment with corporate style public school accountability.

“As a rule, public policy decisions in our technocratic age tend to focus on the structural bureaucratic and quantitative dimensions of the institutions or phenomena in question—that which can be formalized, graphed, measured.  The other perspectives we’ve been considering, those dealing with economic, political, and social history and with the place of the school in a community’s social fabric, tend to be given short shrift or are ignored entirely… Creating or expanding opportunity for underserved populations is… an equity goal given for contemporary school reform policy. As we saw in the Dyett/Chicago example, opportunity was put into practice by creating choice options—which, paradoxically, involved closing existing options. In technocratic frameworks, opportunity easily becomes an abstraction.  But opportunity is a lived experience, grounded in a time and place, and therefore, there can be situation specific constraints on opportunity.”

Rose concludes: “The journey I took across the country visiting schools for the writing of Possible Lives enhanced my understanding of the complex position the public school holds in the social fabric. Journey… provides a literary device to sequence my visits to different schools, a narrative throughline, a travelogue of schooling.  Journey also has psychological significance. A journey is an odyssey of discovery…. I would learn a huge amount about the United States and the schools in it—but metaphorically of inner worlds as well….  And journey becomes method… it… has the potential to open one to experience, to learn, to grasp…. You talk to a guy in a bar who lives his decades-old education through conversation, an education he received in a school founded three-quarters of a century ago when the region’s economy was emerging… If this kind of journey attunes you to the particulars of place and its people, it also provides the longer view. As you visit schools, you see similarities across difference and, eventually, interconnectedness and pattern.  There is a grand idea in all this—and you sense it—a vast infrastructure of public schooling.”

New Research Yet Again Proves the Folly of Judging Teachers by Their Students’ Test Scores

The Obama Administration’s public education policy, administered by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, was deeply flawed by its dependence on technocracy. In the 1990s, Congress had been wooed by researchers who had developed the capacity to produce giant, computer-generated data sets. What fell out of style in school evaluations were personal classroom observations by administrators who were more likely to notice the human connections that teachers and children depended on for building trusting relationships to foster learning.

Technocratic policy became law in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed the omnibus No Child Left Behind Act. Technocratic policy reached its apogee in 2009 as Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top grant program became a centerpiece of the federal stimulus bill passed by Congress to ameliorate the 2008 Great Recession.

In an important 2014 article, the late Mike Rose, a professor of education, challenged the dominant technocratic ideology.  He believed that excellent teaching cannot be measured by the number of correct answers any teacher’s students mark on a standardized test. Rose reports: The “classrooms (of excellent teachers) were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

In her 2012 book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch reviews the technocratic strategy of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top. To qualify for a federal grant under this program, states had to promise to evaluate public school teachers by the standardized test scores of their students: “Unfortunately, President Obama’s Race to the Top adopted the same test-based accountability as No Child Left Behind. The two programs differed in one important respect: where NCLB held schools accountable for low scores, Race to the Top held both schools and teachers accountable. States were encouraged to create data systems to link the test scores of individual students to individual teachers. If the students’ scores went up, the teacher was an ‘effective’ teacher; if the students’ scores did not go up, the teacher was an ‘ineffective’ teacher  If schools persistently had low scores, the school was a ‘failing’ school, and its staff should be punished.” (Reign of Error, p. 99).

Ravitch reminds readers of a core principle: “The cardinal rule of psychometrics is this: a test should be used only for the purpose for which it is designed. The tests are designed to measure student performance in comparison to a norm; they are not designed to measure teacher quality or teacher ‘performance.'” (Reign of Error, p. 111)

This week, Education Week‘s Madeline Will covers major new longitudinal research documenting what we already knew: that holding teachers accountable for raising their students’ test scores neither improved teaching nor promoted students’ learning:

“Nationally, teacher evaluation reforms over the past decade had no impact on student test scores or educational attainment. ‘There was a tremendous amount of time and billions of dollars invested in putting these systems into place and they didn’t have the positive effects reformers were hoping for.’ said Joshua Bleiberg, an author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University… A team of researchers from Brown and Michigan State Universities and the Universities of Connecticut and North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed the timing of states’ adoption of the reforms alongside district-level student achievement data from 2009 to 2018 on standardized math and English/language arts test scores. They also analyzed the impact of the reforms on longer-term student outcomes including high school graduation and college enrollment. The researchers controlled for the adoption of other teacher accountability measures and reform efforts taking place around the same time, and found that their results remained unchanged. They found no evidence that, on average, the reforms had even a small positive effect on student achievement or educational attainment.”

Arne Duncan is no longer the U.S. Secretary of Education. And in 2015, Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with a different federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), in which Congress permitted states more latitude in how they evaluate schoolteachers. So why is this new 2021 research so urgently important?  Madeline Will reports, “Evaluation reform has already changed course. States overhauled their teacher-evaluation systems quickly, and many reversed course within just a few years.”  Will adds, however, that in 2019,  34 states were still requiring “student-growth data in teacher evaluations.”

In 2019, for the Phi Delta Kappan, Kevin Close, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, and Clarin Collins surveyed teacher evaluation systems across the states.  Many states still evaluate teachers according to how much each teacher adds to a student’s learning as measured by test scores, a statistic called the Value-Added Measure (VAM).  Practices across the states are slowly evolving: “While the legacy of VAMs as the ‘objective’ student growth measure remains in place to some degree, the definition of student growth in policy and practice is also changing. Before ESSA, student growth in terms of policy was synonymous with students’ year-to-year changes in performance on large-scale standardized tests (i.e., VAMs). Now, more states are using student learning objectives (SLOs) as alternative or sole ways to measure growth in student learning or teachers’ impact on growth. SLOs are defined as objectives set by teachers, sometimes in conjunction with teachers’ supervisors and/or students, to measure students’ growth. While SLOs can include one or more traditional assessments (e.g., statewide standardized tests), they can also include nontraditional assessments (e.g., district benchmarks, school-based assessments, teacher and classroom-based measures) to assess growth. Indeed, 55% (28 of 51) of states now report using or encouraging SLOs as part of their teacher evaluation systems, to some degree instead of VAMs.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act eased federal pressure on states to evaluate teachers by their students’ scores, but five years since its passage, remnants of these policies linger in the laws of many states.  Once bad policy based on technocratic ideology has become embedded in state law, it may not be so easy to change course.

In a profound book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, the Harvard University psychometrician, Daniel Koretz explains succinctly why students’ test scores cannot possibly separate “successful” from “failing” schools and why students’ test scores are an inaccurate and unfair standard for evaluating teachers:

“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.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

House Version of Build Back Better Makes the Child Tax Credit Fully Refundable. The Magnitude of this Change Is Breathtaking.

In our outrageously unequal and increasingly secular society—when Black Friday crowds filled the stores, scrambled to take advantage of online sales, and grieved shortages of the latest iPhones, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Build Back Better Bill on November 19 that feels almost like a response to a biblical call for justice for America’s children.

During the four-week season of Advent, which began yesterday, Christians will anticipate the birth of the Christ Child in a humble stable.  Worshipers will consider the words of Mary:  “My soul magnifies the Lord… for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Almighty’s servant…  God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things….'” (Luke: 1:46-55)

The House version of the omnibus economic reform legislation demanded by President Biden has now been sent to the U.S. Senate for deliberation and possible passage—perhaps by Christmas.  Here is how Sharron Parrott, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities describes the significance of what the House accomplished on November 19: “Today’s vote brings us a critical step closer to delivering policy advances that help families meet everyday challenges such as paying rent and putting food on the table, affording child care and preschool, securing health coverage, and paying for college… The Build Back Better bill would reduce poverty substantially, particularly among children, narrow our nation’s glaring racial disparities, which are the result of our long history of racism and discrimination; and move us toward an economy that works for everyone.”

The House Build Back Better legislation expands the economic reach of the Child Tax Credit. To explain the significance of this single provision, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published a separate 19 page report which explains not only the economic but also the profound moral implications of this reform if the Senate follows through by sustaining the actions of the U.S. House:

“The House Build back Better legislation would ensure that families continue to get a significantly expanded Child Tax Credit via monthly payments through 2022; and it would permanently make the full credit available to children in families with low or no earnings in a year, locking in substantial expected reductions in child poverty. The expanded credit benefits roughly 9 in 10 children across the country….  Making the full Child Tax Credit available for families with low or no earnings in a year, often called making it ‘fully refundable,’ is expected to generate historic reductions in child poverty… Before the Rescue Plan made the full Child Tax Credit fully available in 2021, 27 million children in families with low or no income in a year received less than the full credit or no credit at all. Full refundability ensures that children in these families get the same amount of the Child Tax Credit as children in families with higher incomes. This provision is the main driver of the credit expansion’s child poverty reductions.” (emphasis in the original)

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues: “Build Back Better’s Child Tax Credit expansions—especially permanent full refundability—also represent a significant step toward racial equity; they would permanently eliminate a fundamental design flaw in the credit that had the direct effect of ensuring that disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino children received a partial credit or none at all. Before the Rescue Plan’s expansion, roughly half of Black and Latino children in our country received less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all—compared to roughly 1 in 5 white children—because their families earned too little.  Black and Latino families are overrepresented in low-paid work and face worse employment prospects due to historical and ongoing discrimination in education, housing, employment, and criminal justice that have systematically limited opportunity. Build Back Better would also restore eligibility for the credit to children who aren’t eligible for a Social Security number because of their immigration status but can be claimed as tax dependents by using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN).”

The details of the report are profound.  Until last spring’s COVID relief bill, many children had been excluded because “their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most.  The (COVID) Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.  Build Back Better, in one of its signature achievements, would make this policy advance permanent.”

In the American Rescue relief bill last spring, Congress made three significant changes in the Child Tax Credit: raising the maximum Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per child through age 5, and $3,000 for children age 6-17; allowing families to receive a Child Tax Credit for 17-year-olds; and making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for the year 2021.  The House version of the Build Back Better Bill extends the first two provisions only through 2022, but the House version permanently makes the Child Tax Credit fully refundable.

CBPP explains the significance for 2022 alone of the changes the House has included in the version it passed on November 19:  “In the absence of the full refundability provision, the first two of those changes would lift an estimated 543,000 children above the poverty line, reducing the child poverty rate by 5 percent… But the two changes plus full refundability stand to raise 4.1 million children above the poverty line and cut the child poverty rate by more than 40 percent.  In other words, the full refundability feature makes the expansion nearly eight times as effective in reducing child poverty.” (emphasis in the original)

What will it mean after 2022 if the U.S. Senate passes the Child Tax Credit reforms now embedded in the House version? “If the maximum credit amount drops back to $2,000 per child in the coming years and the age range of eligibility for the credit returns to under 17, but full refundability remains permanent, roughly 2 million children would be lifted above the poverty line (as compared to child poverty without the full refundability provision in place).  That would reduce child poverty by roughly 20 percent compared to what it would be without the expansion.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows how, if adopted by the Senate, Build Back Better will help one family in 2022: “A single mom, with a toddler and a daughter who is a second-grader, works as a home health aide helping an elderly person meet their basic needs; she makes $12,500 working part time around her kids’ schedule. Prior to the Rescue Plan, this family received a Child Tax Credit of $750 per child per year, but they now get $550 per month — a total $3,600 for the toddler and $3,000 for the second-grader in 2021 — and would in 2022 as well if Build Back Better is enacted.” (emphasis in the original)

Making the Child Tax Credit permanently refundable is only one of the urgently needed reforms to ameliorate injustice for America’s children now passed in the House version of Build Back Better—all of which the U.S. Senate needs to adopt.  Here is a summary, from First Focus on Children’s president, Bruce Lesley, of the pro-child investments passed by the U.S. House of Representatives: “This once-in-a-generation legislation will transform the lives of our country’s children and the path of the nation itself. Children have endured decades of deferred maintenance on the care and services they need most. The provisions of this bill — extension and permanent refundability of the child tax credit, universal pre-school, affordable child care, better nutrition, paid family and medical leave, improvement of key children’s health programs — will vastly improve the health and well-being of our children. We implore lawmakers in the Senate to support this measure and bring these benefits to our children and our country.”

Closing Achievement Gaps Will Require Closing Opportunity Gaps Outside of School

Last week this blog highlighted Advocates for Children of New York’s new report documenting that more than 10 percent of the over one million students in the New York City Public Schools—101,000 students—are homeless. These students are living in shelters, doubled up with friends or relatives, or living in cars and parks. What are the academic challenges for these homeless children and other children living in families with minimum wage employment, unemployment, unstable housing, food insecurity and inadequate medical care?

Although federal law continues to require that states measure the quality of schools and school districts with standardized tests, all sorts of research documents that students’ standardized test scores are indicators of their life circumstances and not a good measure of the quality of their public schools. Students concentrated in poor cities or scattered in impoverished and remote rural areas are more likely to struggle academically no matter the quality of their public school.

Here are just two examples of this research.

In 2017, Katherine Michelmore of Syracuse University and Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan studied data from Michigan to identify the role of economic disadvantage in achievement gaps as measured by test scores: “We use administrative data from Michigan to develop a… detailed measure of economic disadvantage… Children who spend all of their school years eligible for subsidized meals have the lowest scores, whereas those who are never eligible have the highest. In eighth grade, the score gap between these two groups is nearly a standard deviation.” “Sixty percent of Michigan’s eighth graders were eligible for subsidized lunch at least once during their time in public schools. But just a quarter of these children (14% of all eighth graders) were economically disadvantaged in every year between kindergarten and eighth grade… Ninety percent of the test score gap we observe in eighth grade between the persistently disadvantaged and the never disadvantaged is present by third grade.”

In How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong, Douglas Downey, a professor of sociology at The Ohio State University describes academic research showing that evaluating public schools based on standardized test scores is unfair to educators and misleading to the public: “It turns out that gaps in skills between advantaged and disadvantaged children are largely formed prior to kindergarten entry and then do not grow appreciably when children are in school.” (How Schools Really Matter, p. 9) “Much of the ‘action’ of inequality therefore occurs very early in life… In addition to the fact that achievement gaps are primarily formed in early childhood, there is another reason to believe that schools are not as responsible for inequality as many think. It turns out that when children are in school during the nine-month academic year, achievement gaps are rather stable. Indeed, sometimes we even observe that socioeconomic gaps grow more slowly during school periods than during summers.” (How Schools Really Matter, p. 28)

In the context of this research, Downey examines the six indicators the Ohio Department of Education uses to evaluate public schools when it releases annual report cards on school performance. Although the state has ceased branding public schools with “A-F” letter grades, Downey explains that the state of Ohio continues to ignore the role outside-of-school variables in students’ lives when it blames educators and schools for low aggregate test scores:

“The report card for schools is constructed from six indicators and not a single one of them gauges performance independent of the children’s nonschool environments. First is achievement, which is based on the percentage of students  who pass state tests… By far, the biggest determinant of whether a school produces high or low test scores is the income level of the students’ families it serves… Second is the extent to which a district closes achievement gaps among subgroups. But performance on this indicator can also be influenced by factors out of the school’s control… Third, schools are gauged by the degree to which the school improved at-risk K-3 readers… Of course, it is much easier to make progress on this indicator if serving children who go home each evening to reinforce the school goals. Fourth, schools are evaluated on their progress, an indicator based on how much growth students exhibit on math and reading tests. This kind of indicator is better than most at isolating how schools matter, but again, growth is easier in schools where students enjoy home environments that also promote learning… Fifth, the graduation rate constitutes a component of the district’s (rating)… but this is only a measure of school quality if the likelihood of a child’s on-time graduation has nothing to do with the stress they experience at home, the access they have to health care, or the quality of their neighborhood.  Finally districts are evaluated on whether their students are prepared for success.  This indicator gauges the percentage of students at a school viewed as ready to succeed after high school… and is determined by how well the students performed on the ACT or SAT and whether they earned a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam… These report cards ‘are designed to give parents, communities, educators, and policymakers information about the performance of districts and schools,’ but what they really do is mix important factors outside of school with what is going on inside the schools in unknown ways.” (How Schools Really Matter, pp. 115-116)

What these reports and many others demonstrate is that we cannot expect that no child will be left behind merely because Congress passes a law declaring that schools can make every American child post proficient test scores by 2014. No Child Left Behind’s (and now the Every Student Succeeds Act’s)  policies—which have branded schools unable quickly to raise aggregate test scores as “failing schools”— have unfairly targeted school districts located in poor communities. In 2017, the Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz published The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better in which he shows that ameliorating opportunity gaps in the lives of children is not something schools can accomplish by themselves.

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—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) Koretz continues: “(T)his decision backfired. The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)

Number of Homeless Public School Students Tops 101,000 in New York City

Advocates for Children of New York just reported that “more than 101,000 New York City students experienced homelessness in 2020-21.” The NYC public schools serve over a million students, and the number of homeless students is, once again this year, approximately 10 percent of the district’s student population. “Last year marked the sixth consecutive school year that more than 100,000 New York City students experienced homelessness.”

Advocates for Children describes homeless students’ living conditions in New York City: “Last year, as the pandemic raged and most students continued to learn remotely, nearly 28,000 of them did so while living in New York City’s shelters, and approximately 65,000 lived ‘doubled-up’ with friends or family, staying temporarily with others in overcrowded housing.  An additional 3,860 students were unsheltered last year, living in cars, parks, or abandoned buildings. While the total number of students identified as homeless was 9% lower than in 2019-20, some of this decline is likely attributable to the drop in overall public school enrollment (3.3%),  as well as the difficulty schools experienced identifying students whose housing situation changed while they were learning remotely.”

It is hard for most of us to grasp the challenges for a school district struggling to serve such a large group of students experiencing poverty and homelessness.  As we consider the logistical issues, we can better grasp why concentrated poverty is such an enormous barrier to student achievement.  A longer report and set of recommendations for New York City’s Mayor-Elect Eric Adams exposes the implications of student homelessness for academic engagement: “Even before the pandemic, students experiencing homelessness—85% of whom are Black or Hispanic—faced tremendous obstacles to success in school.  For example, in 2019, only 29% of students experiencing homelessness in grades 3-8 were reading proficiently, 20 percentage points lower than the rate for their permanently housed peers, and only 61% of students who were homeless graduated high school in four years, 18 percentage points lower than students who are permanently housed.”

Thirty-nine New York City organizations joined Advocates for Children last week to release a set of recommendations for improving coordination of services for children and adolescents whose families are homeless.  The report begins with the recommendation that Mayor-Elect Adams should pull together an interagency initiative to manage the problem—including the City’s Department of Education, Department of Homeless Services, Human Resources Administration, Department of Youth and Community Development, and the Administration for Children’s Services.

Here is the list of recommendations that follow:

  • “Improve school attendance… During the pandemic, students in shelter had strikingly low attendance, significantly lower than any other group of students…
  • “Increase shelter placements closer to where children attend school. The City places more than 40% of families in a shelter in a different borough from their child’s school. This practice leads to long commutes, unnecessary school transfers, school absences, and barriers to participation in after-school and sports activities…
  • “Revamp city, shelter, and social service agency protocols and policies to take into account the educational needs of children… The average length of stay in shelter spans two school years… The City should… revisit policies that have a harmful impact on children. For example, the lengthy and burdensome shelter eligibility process that can take weeks to complete often results in children missing school and experiencing added instability and trauma…
  • “Bridge the digital divide. During the pandemic, many students in shelter could not access remote learning because their shelters did not have Wi-Fi or sufficient cellular reception for the iPads provided by the Department of Education…. While the City finally installed WiFi in family shelters, the City will need to maintain connectivity and ensure it is sufficient for students to participate in online learning….
  • “Improve access to academic and social-emotional support… For example, as the Department of Education develops plans to use federal COVID-19 relief funding for supplemental programming, the City must prioritize students who are homeless….
  • “Increase access to early childhood education and services… The City should work to increase enrollment among children who are homeless in early childhood education programs, including 3-K, Pre-K, EarlyLearn, Head Start, and preschool special education programs…
  • “Improve access to special education services… Thirty percent of students in shelter have Individualized Education Programs entitling them to special education services…. But research shows that NYC students who are homeless receive IEPs later than permanently housed students, missing out on services during the early years….
  • “Improve language access for families and supports for English Language Learners… The City should ensure that families who are homeless receive school-related documents and information in their primary language and have access to translation and interpretation… (and) ensure that English Language Learners who are homeless get the language instruction and the support they have the right to receive…
  • “Expand opportunities for students who are homeless to participate in after-school and summer programs…  Many students who are homeless attend schools far from where they live, but bus service is available only at the end of the school day—not following after-school programs… In addition, students who switch school mid-year may find that the after-school program at their new school or near their new temporary housing is already fully subscribed. The City should take steps to address these barriers….”

Advocates for Children and the coalition it has assembled emphasize one final recommendation as urgently important: “Ensure every shelter has staff qualified and equipped to support students’ educational needs starting by hiring 150 shelter-based Department of Education community coordinators… Currently there are 117 Department of Education Family Assistants assigned to help families in shelter, a number that has not grown over the past decade even though the number of school-aged children in shelter has increased by thousands of students, and Family Assistants must divide their time between multiple shelter sites. The Family Assistant title is a very low-paying position ($28,000 for 10 months), making it hard to recruit and retain staff who have the skills needed to help families navigate NYC’s complex school system.”

In the nation’s largest school district, there are no quick or easy solutions to managing the needs of 101,000 children whose families lack stable housing.

Build Back Better Bill Would Turn Around Decades of Policy Punishing Poor Children

The U.S. House of Representatives finally passed President Biden’s infrastructure plan last Friday. The Senate passed it a while ago, and the bill is headed to Biden’s desk for signature.  At the same time, Democrats in the U. S. House of Representatives pledged that if the Congressional Budget Office confirms cost estimates for the Build Back Better Bill, Democrats in the House will pass the current version of the plan and send it on to the Senate for consideration. For months, Congress has been debating the programs that are part of this plan, and even if Congress passes it, it won’t be perfect.

Even if imperfect, however, the Build Back Better Bill in its current form would signify a truly revolutionary investment in America’s children. That is because the United States has, for decades, utterly failed to use government to begin to eradicate a morally reprehensible level of childhood economic inequality.

Cara Baldari of the First Focus Campaign for Children explains: “For the first time in generations, we are on the precipice of making serious and long-term progress to reduce our stubbornly high rate of child poverty in the United States. Historically, the United States has had a significantly higher rate of child poverty than other developed countries because we have continually failed to sufficiently invest in our children. While the establishment of Social Security has permanently reduced poverty for seniors, children have remained the poorest group in America. This situation is not due to a lack of evidence on what works to reduce child poverty, but rather the lack of political will to act.”

Since 1997, families who earn enough income to pay federal income taxes have benefited from a tax credit for each child. Last spring’s American Rescue Plan Covid-relief bill made the full Child Tax Credit available to children in families with low earnings or without income, and it increased the credit’s maximum amount—$2,000 per-child last year— to $3,000 per child and $3,600 for children under age 6—but only through the end of 2021. Without the extension of this reform, many children will fall back into deep poverty in 2022.

Balderi presents some recent history: In 2015, advocates for children “worked with Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) to secure federal funding for the landmark National Academy of Sciences study, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, which was published in 2019. This study, written by a committee of experts… confirmed that… providing families with flexible cash assistance through a monthly child allowance was the most effective way to combat child poverty, reduce racial-economic inequality, and improve children’s long-term outcomes.”  In a tragic irony, until this year families without income or with income so low they payed little in federal income taxes could not receive the full tax credit, while middle class and even wealthy parents could receive the full credit, thereby reducing their federal income tax.

Last week the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities examined several provisions of the Build Back Better Bill which will, if the law is passed in its current draft form, reduce racial disparities.  The brief leads with the Bill’s provision to reduce child poverty by extending last spring’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit: “Build Back Better extends the American Rescue Plan’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit for 2022, which is expected to lift 4 million children above the poverty line and narrow the difference between poverty rates for Black and white children by 44 percent (compared to what the rates would be otherwise) and to narrow the difference between the poverty rates for Latino and white children by 41 percent.  Build Back Better also permanently ensures that the full Child Tax Credit is available to children in families with low or no earnings in a year. This is particularly important for Black and Latino children, about half of whom received a partial credit or no credit at all before the Rescue Plan expansion because their families’ incomes were too low, compared to about 20 percent of white children.”

In late October, a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Senior Research Analyst, Claire Zippel reported data collected from late July through September by the U.S. Census’s Household Pulse Survey. These data documented that, “Some 91 percent of families with low incomes (less than $35,000) are using their monthly Child Tax Credit payments for the most basic household expenses—food, clothing, shelter, and utilities—or education… Many of these households are receiving the full Child Tax Credit for the first time thanks to the American Rescue Plan’s credit expansion. The Rescue Plan temporarily increased the credit amount, provided for the credit to be paid monthly rather than once a year at tax time, and halted a policy that prevented 27 million children from receiving the full credit because their parents earned too little or lacked earnings in a given year.”

How did parents use the money?  Zippel continues: “Among households with incomes below $35,000 who received the Child Tax Credit, 88 percent spent their payments on the most basic needs: food, clothing, rent, a mortgage, or utility bills.  The Child Tax Credit payments also helped many parents and other caregivers invest in their children’s education, Pulse data suggest. Some 40 percent of families with low incomes used their Child Tax Credit payments to cover education costs such as school books and supplies, tuition, after-school programs, and transportation to and from school. (In some cases, these expenses may be for adults’ own education. About 5 percent of adults in low-income households with children are enrolled in school, other Census data show.)

The NY TimesClaire Cain Miller adds that in its current form in the U.S. House of Representatives: “The Build Back Better Bill also includes extensive investment in pre-Kindergarten for 3 and 4-year-olds and assistance for parents to afford childcare as well as dollars to ensure that “teachers in child care classrooms be paid a livable wage, equivalent to that of elementary teachers with the same credentials… Also as part of the proposal, pre-K lead teachers must have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a related field, though they would be given six years to get the degree with some exemptions based on professional experience.”

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman strongly endorses these and other proposals to help families and their children: “Democrats may—may—finally be about to agree on a revenue and spending plan. It will clearly be smaller than President Biden’s original proposal, and much smaller than what progressives wanted. It will, however, be infinitely bigger than what Republicans would have done, because if the G.O.P. controlled Congress, we would be doing nothing at all to invest in America’s future. But what will the plan do?  Far too much reporting has focused mainly on the headline spending number.”

Krugman continues: “So let me propose a one-liner: Tax the rich, help America’s children.  This gets at much of what the legislation is likely to do. Reporting suggests that the final bill will include taxes on billionaires’ incomes and minimum taxes for corporations, along with a number of child-oriented programs.”

Krugman, the economist, comments on the economic arguments for Congressional passage of this bill: “(T)here is overwhelming evidence that helping children, in addition to being the right thing to do, has big economic payoffs. Children who benefited from safety-net programs like food stamps became healthier, more productive adults. Children who were enrolled in pre-K education were more likely to graduate from high school and go to college…. As I’ve argued in the past, the economic case for investing in children is even stronger than the case for investing in physical infrastructure.”

Krugman also believes that President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, philosophically conforms to American political tradition: “Remember, we are the nation that basically invented universal education… America led the way in creating ‘common schools’ that were meant to include students from all social classes, and were justified by many of the same arguments now being made for universal pre-K and other forms of aid to children. So when Republicans denounce pro-child policies as socialist and try to promote private schools, they, not Democrats, are rejecting our nation’s traditions.”

A Climate of Fear Makes It Harder for Children and Their Teachers to Consider Our History

We have all seen pictures in the news and listened on television to parents shouting at the members of their local school boards. The parents have been inflamed by a well coordinated campaign to infuriate parents about the teaching of so-called “divisive” concepts. I am alarmed when I watch this sort of thing. But I think being horrified by the theater and screaming at school board meetings or the laws being considered in more than half the statehouses to ban so-called Critical Race Theory misses something important.

It is essential to clarify exactly who are the extremists stirring up the controversy and how they are misrepresenting the American history curriculum in public schools.  But another perspective on the controversy has too often been missing.  What is our experience and our children’s experience when we learn accurately and honestly about the injustices that are part of the nation’s history?  Does it feel dangerous? Does it hurt us psychologically?

The National Education Policy Center does a great job of explaining how right-wing ideologues are actively sowing discord in our communities by stealing and changing the meaning of an old graduate school and law school concept—Critical Race Theory—which, in higher education, has been used to describe systemic, structural racial bias: “Well-established and powerful far Right organizations are driving the current effort to prevent schools from providing historically accurate information about slavery and racist policies and practices, or from examining systemic racism and its manifold impacts. These organizations include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and Manhattan Institute…. The work and social media posts of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo offer a good example of how far Right ideologues push the anti-CRT narrative… On Twitter, Rufo states his objective and brags about his success: ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—-into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

It is important for us to understand the role of the Manhattan Institute and Christopher Rufo and others who seek to distort our politics for their own political purposes.  I worry, however, that we are not paying enough attention to the educational consequences for our children, although several organizations have warned us.

In conceptual terms, the National Education Policy Center summarizes the educational impact of the far-right when they stoke the current controversy about the teaching of American history: “The anti-CRT narrative is thus used to accomplish three goals: to thwart efforts to provide an accurate and complete picture of American history; to prevent analysis and discussion of the role that race and racism have played in our history; and to blunt the momentum of efforts to increase democratic participation by  members of marginalized groups.”

In a similarly abstract definition, the American Historical Society and the Organization of American Historians summarize the controversy and condemn a bill passed last June in Texas: “Texas House Bill 3979—‘relating to the social studies curriculum in public schools’ and signed into law on June 15, 2021—prohibits slavery and racism from being taught as ‘anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.’ Such laws… risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn and seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements.”

These formal explanations are essential, but something is missing. The goal of ideological, far-right political operatives is to ignite a visceral emotional response. The goal is to terrify white parents and make them believe their white children will feel uncomfortable or guilty or sad if they learn about racial oppression in American history.  Many of these parents have been able to insulate themselves in mostly white communities and largely avoid considering people whose culture and life experience might bring different perspectives on our history. By creating an atmosphere of fear, the far-right seeks to further sow anxiety and division.

By contrast, in a thoughtful Washington Post column, Michael Gerson considers how studying history is intended to challenge our various parochialisms and, within the relative safety of the classroom, to show us, if we are willing to see and hear, the complexity of our society: “‘The attempted declawing of historical studies may be politically useful for Republicans in some places. But it bears little relationship to the way history is actually learned. All good history teaching involves layering the perspectives of a period’s participants. For this reason, the great debates of U.S. history cannot be held within polite, nonoffensive boundaries… Struggling to understand these layered perspectives is practice in critical thinking and mature citizenship. The discipline of history teaches us to engage with discomforting, distressing ideas without fearing them.”

Gerson also points to the new Texas law, but he examines precisely how the law functions psychologically to freeze teachers’ capacity to help children consider other perspectives: “The state of Texas—confirming its status as the laboratory of idiocracy—did the most damage. It has forbidden the teaching of any ‘concept’ that causes an individual to ‘feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.’  The consequences for violating this law are unspecified. But the vagueness is the point. White children—really the White parents of White children—have been given an open invitation to protest any teaching on U.S. racial history that triggers their ‘discomfort.’ Which for some parents will mean any teaching on racism at all. This will inevitably lead to self-censorship by teachers who want to avoid trouble.”

Reading Gerson’s column caused me to think back to a community-wide discussion last winter (on ZOOM, of course) of Derek Black’s new book, Schoolhouse Burning.  Black’s immediate topic is the danger of the widespread collapse of public school funding over the recent decade and today’s politically conservative (Betsy DeVos pushing vouchers) and neoliberal (Arne Duncan pushing charter schools) attempt to privatize the public schools. I was part of two small group conversations about this book, but on neither evening did participants find the greatest interest in the chapters on the current wave of vouchers and charter schools. Instead people wanted to talk about the chapters in the middle of the book that trace the development of the institution of public schooling during and after the Civil War—the demand for schooling by freed slaves, the expansion of public schooling during Reconstruction, and the convulsive aftermath in the years after Reconstruction ended n 1876.  Derek Black explores this post-Reconstruction  period when the formerly Confederate states segregated schools racially and imposed extremely localized school funding to avoid undertaking the education of Black children. Our discussion last year included African American and white participants; in almost every case, people were fascinated by the details in the chapters which covered what for most of us, at least, was a hidden history we had never been taught at school. Everybody talked and talked about what they learned from the historical chapters in this book. Learning this history just seemed important; it didn’t feel threatening to anybody.

We were appalled by much of this history, but it was also layered with something positive: “All fifty state constitutions include an education clause or other language that requires the state to provide public education.  Most of these clauses were first enacted or substantially amended in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. By law, Congress explicitly conditioned Virginia’s, Mississippi’s and Texas’s readmission to the Union based on the education rights and obligations they had just put into their constitutions… (A)fter the Civil War, no state would ever again enter the Union without an education clause in its constitution.” (Schoolhouse Burning p. 53)

There is a lesson from these history chapters in Derek Black’s book. What happened in history does, in fact, speak directly to our problems today. In Ohio we have been caught for decades in debates about the school finance provisions in our state constitution, and we now anticipate a lawsuit over the constitutionality of private school vouchers. Our community conversation last year made us more appreciative of the role of our state constitution and for the strengthening by Congress in the context of the Civil War of the protection provided by government for the rights of our nation’s most vulnerable children.

In his recent column, Michael Gerson observes: “A history curriculum designed to ensure the comfort of White people would have more than a few gaps. And teaching down to such a standard undermines one of the main purposes of historical education, which is to foster a useful discomfort with injustice.”

Mob Rule Is Un-American—at the Capitol on January 6 and at Your Local School Board Meeting

This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. A mob isn’t supposed to attack Congress to overturn the routine approval of the vote count in a Presidential election, and mobs of angry parents are not supposed to appear at local school board meetings trying to bully the school board to censor the books in classrooms or make teachers leave out the history of slavery or omit the theory of evolution.

I am neither an attorney nor a legal expert on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. But even I can tell that something weird is brewing when a right-wing PAC, The Conservative Action Project, sends an alert, Conservatives Urge Every Parent To Attend Their School Board Meetings in Defiance of the FBI, signed by a long list of people including attorneys like former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Trump defender Cleta Mitchell, demanding that parents attend local school board meetings to defy the FBI and demonstrate their First Amendment rights. Of course this action alert is carefully framed to ask parents “to use their rights to speak, to request documents under the Freedom of Information Laws, to engage in dialogue with elected school boards,” but the Conservative Action Project message to parents is a response to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s threat to involve the FBI when school board members are threatened with violence or outshouted and unable to do their work in the context of rude and violent parent protests.

Then there is last week’s bizarre Wall Street Journal commentary* by Philip Hamburger, a libertarian professor of law at Columbia University and president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a legal organization which describes itself this way: “NCLA views the administrative state as an especially serious threat to constitutional freedoms.” (*The link is to Diane Ravitch’s reprinting of this column, because the original is paywalled.)

Hamburger makes the following argument, based on his interpretation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, for direct parental control of the curriculum in public schools and for finding public education itself unconstitutional because parents’ free speech rights are being violated: “Education consists mostly in speech to and with children. Parents enjoy freedom of speech in educating their children, whether at home or through private schooling.” “Although the exact nature of this parental freedom is much disputed, it is grounded in the First Amendment…. (T)he freedom of parents in educating their children belongs to all parents… The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government educational speech for their own. Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling… (P)arents are… being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own… For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible.”

Here is the response of journalist, Jennifer Berkshire and education historian, Jack Schneider: “(O)ne might reasonably conclude that radicals are out to curtail the established rights that Americans have over the educational sphere. Yet what’s actually radical here is the assertion of parental powers that have never previously existed. This is not to say that parents should have no influence over how their children are taught. But common law and case law in the United States have long supported the idea that education should prepare young people to think for themselves, even if that runs counter to the wishes of parents… When do the interests of parents and children diverge? Generally, it occurs when a parent’s desire to inculcate a particular world view denies the child exposure to other ideas and values that an independent young person might wish to embrace or at least to entertain. To turn over all decisions to parents, then, would risk inhibiting the ability of young people to think independently.”

Last week, the Washington Post Editorial Board spoke up for the rights of children themselves and the importance to the public of students who have developed critical thinking skills: “Allowing one parent—or a group of parents—to bully, threaten and intimidate school officials into their way of thinking is not what our democracy is about. And it is not what learning should be about. It is chilling that a school administrator in Texas suggested that an opposing view of the Holocaust needed to be taught to comply with the state’s controversial law on curriculum content.  Everyone—parents, teachers, and school administrators, as well as politicians—needs to focus less on what books are being taught and more on giving students the skills to think critically and form their own judgments.”

Education historian, Diane Ravitch challenges Hamburger’s inaccurate depiction of the history of American public schooling: “Hamburger’s central critique of the public schools is that they were created by nativists out of fear of Catholicism and their central purpose was to homogenize all children and mold them into Protestants. He repeatedly asserts that the very idea of the public school was shaped by hostility to Catholics… Were there anti-Catholics who supported public schools? Yes. Were there nativists who hated Catholics and who feared that the Pope wanted to seize control of their city or state? Yes.  Was the primary purpose of the public school movement to stamp out the influence of Catholics? No. The overwhelming majority of Americans supported the growth of public schools because they believed that a democratic society needed educated citizens who were prepared for self-government. The Catholic school system grew and thrived. Catholic leaders thought their schools were unfairly denied public funding, but the idea of prohibiting the public funding of religious schools was broadly popular and appears in almost every state constitution. The public endorsed the proposition that society as a whole, though taxation, is responsible for maintaining a public school system that offers a free education for all who enroll.”

Without taking on the bizarre logic of Hamburger’s far-right legal argument that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech renders public schooling unconstitutional as a violation of parents’ rights, First Focus on Children’s executive director Bruce Lesley suggests  the chaotic result if a school board were to adopt the demands being shouted by parents to suppress what is deemed accurate science or history or to censor books we’ve all been reading for decades:

“(I)magine an elementary school of 450 students where 15 parents oppose the teaching of evolution, 19 parents believe the earth is flat, 28 are Holocaust deniers, 22 oppose white children learning about slavery, 7 believe in racial segregation, 21 believe in the concept of a school without walls, 49 demand the use of corporal punishment, 18 want to ban Harry Potter books from the school library, 26 want to ban any books that mention the Trail of Tears, 62 believe that parents should be allowed to overrule a physician’s decision that a child with a concussion should refrain from participating in sports, 87 oppose keeping their kids out of school when they have the flu, 9 believe that a child with cancer might be contagious, 29 believe that kids who are vaccinated should be the ones who quarantine, 72 support “tracking” in all subject areas, 32 believe students should not be taught how to spell the word “isolation” and “quarantine” because they are too “scary of words,” 104 don’t like the school neighborhood boundaries, 38 don’t like the bus routes, 71 parents want a vegan-only lunchroom, 4 demand same-sex classrooms, 5 oppose textbooks and want their children only reading from the Bible, and it can go on and on. The vast majority of parents do not agree with any of these things, and yet, parental rights extremists would insist schools must accommodate them, even if they are completely false, undermine the purpose of education, threaten the safety of children, or promote discrimination. How can a school operate if every parent can decide every aspect of the education of their child, as some are demanding? It cannot.”

Lesley juxtaposes Hamburger’s libertarian argument with the profound defense of public schooling by the late Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Earl Warren: “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” (Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954)