After Three Decades, New York Legislature Finally Passes Budget To Equalize Public School Funding

In 2007, New York State agreed to comply with a court mandate to invest five and a half billion dollars over four years—and maintain the investment annually—to equalize school funding in a state with vast differences in wealth and alarming disparities in public school funding across its 688 public school districts.  But in 2008, when the Great Recession hit, New York never invested the promised money in the education of the state’s children.

Last week, however, when both chambers of the state legislature agreed on the 2021-2022 state budget, New York promised once again to invest substantially in the education of its children and finally to comply with the court’s requirement, under the decision in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, for a legislative remedy.

Rochesterfirst.com reports: “The FY 2022 Enacted Budget provides $29.5 billion in State funding to school districts for the 2021-22 school year through School Aid, the highest level of State aid ever, supporting the operational costs of school districts that educate 2.5 million students statewide. This investment represents an increase of $3.0 billion (11.3 percent) compared to the 2020-21 school year, including a $1.4 billion (7.6 percent) Foundation Aid increase. Approximately 75 percent of this increase is targeted to high-need school districts.”

The NY Daily News’ Michael Elsen-Rooney explains the implications for the public schools in New York City, where over 1 million of the state’s children are enrolled in the nation’s largest school district: “A state budget agreement… includes a long-awaited windfall for New York City schools that could pad the city education budget by more than $1 billion annually by 2023.  Legislative budget documents… include an agreement to fully fund the state’s court-mandated ‘Foundation Aid’ formula for distributing money to school districts based on need. State education funding currently falls about $4 billion short of the amount the formula calls for—a shortfall that advocates and lawmakers have been fighting to reverse for more than a decade. The budget agreement will phase in the additional funding over three years, with state foundation aid spending likely to increase by roughly $1.4 billion each of the next three years.  When the additional funds are fully phased in, the city’s education budget could grow by more than $1 billion a year by 2023, advocates and analysts say.”

Last week’s legislative victory in New York has been a long time coming. For two decades, New York’s Alliance for Quality Education has led statewide organizing in the fight for fair school funding.  AQE’s executive director, Jasmine Gripper thanks all those who have worked with AQE over the years to stand up for New York’s children: “We are so humbled by every one of the parents, community leaders, students, educators, and elected officials who have stood alongside us through the years and never stopped pushing New York to finally do right by our students and fund the state’s own equitable school funding formula Foundation Aid. The Alliance for Quality Education has worked with our coalition partners Citizen Action of New York, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, and the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice to build a statewide force of parent power to lead and anchor this fight. The fight to hold the State to its obligation to fund public education has always been deeply steeped in racial justice; the majority of Foundation Aid remaining is due to school districts with 40 percent or more Black and Latinx students. The full funding of Foundation Aid that will be provided to schools over the next three years represents a major step toward racial and economic equity in education.”

The Schott Foundation for Public Education credits the work of the Alliance for Quality Education and its partners for the work that paid off in New York’s new budget: “But the Campaign for Fiscal Equity was always more than just a lawsuit: it was at the heart of a renaissance of educational justice organizing across the state… While attorneys were making arguments in courthouses, there were parents, students, and educators rallying on the steps outside. Academics and researchers pored through spreadsheets and made records requests to find out just how much schools were being underfunded. Parents and students organized in their schools and neighborhoods to educate and organize their peers. And seasoned advocates were making ever-stronger cases for funding equity to policymakers under the capitol dome in Albany… In the last several years, the hard-fought battles, consistent parent and youth organizing—and two 150 mile marches to Albany—began to pay off.”

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity filed the lawsuit for equitable school funding in 1993. The Schott Foundation examines the purpose of the lawsuit and the serious injustice that has persisted for New York’s children until last week: “The 2021-22 New York State budget meets a thirty-year-old demand and thirteen-year-old broken promise: equitably fund New York State’s public schools so that no matter what zip code a child resides in, there is a baseline of quality their public schools can afford to meet. The massive, downright Dickensian difference in funding between schools that sometimes are mere blocks from each other has been a hallmark of New York’s public education system for generations. In 2012, a Schott Foundation report on the particularly stark disparities in New York City described it as educational redlining: schools with predominantly white children were far better funded—and unsurprisingly, had higher academic outcomes—than schools with predominantly Black and Latinx children. We found similar disparity with income as well… ‘A black or Hispanic student, or a student of any race or ethnicity from a low-income household, is most likely to be enrolled in one of the city’s poorest performing high schools.'”

“By 2012, it shouldn’t have been that way. Five years earlier, in 2007, the 13-year Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit concluded in a victory for public schools: New York State agreed, under court mandate, to commit more than $5.5 billion in funding over four years to equitably fund all public schools. 70% of that funding was to go to the lowest-income school districts, whose property tax bases couldn’t compare with those of wealthier cities and neighborhoods.  However, this funding, known as Foundation Aid, never fully materialized.  Between the 2008 financial crisis and a wave of budget cuts by legislators, what should have been a decade of equity became one of austerity.”

Cardona’s Flexibility on Standardized Testing Creates Confusion and Rancor

After a chaotic schoolyear including remote learning and sometimes complicated hybrid schedules of in-person and remote learning, students are returning to full-time school to face the annual standardized tests. These are the tests that Congress requires under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the tests first required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). They are the foundation of a two-decade-old scheme to hold schools accountable. Betsy DeVos cancelled required standardized testing last spring after schools shut down as the pandemic struck the Unites States.

The U.S. Department of Education announced in late February, before Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was even confirmed, that it is requiring standardized testing this spring. There is a whole lot of confusion between the federal government and the states right now because the federal guidance about testing this year features “flexibility.”

Here is some of the letter, dated February 22, 2021, from acting assistant secretary of education, Ian Rosenblum, a letter which informed states they must test students this year: “We remain committed to supporting all states in assessing the learning of all students. The Department is, therefore, offering the following flexibility with respect to your assessment, accountability, and reporting systems for the 2020-2021 school year… We are inviting states to request a waiver for the 2020-2021 school year of the accountability and school identification requirements… A state receiving this waiver would not be required to implement and report the results of its accountability system, including calculating progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress or indicators, or to annually meaningfully differentiate among its public schools using data from the 2020-2021 school year… Each state that receives the accountability and school identification waivers would be required to continue to support previously identified schools in the 2021-2022 school year, resume school identification in the fall of 2022, and ensure transparency to parents and the public… It remains vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success. The Department will therefore maintain all state and local report card requirements, including the requirements to disaggregate data by student subgroup… As a condition of waiving accountability and school identification requirements, the Department will require all states to publicly report disaggregated chronic absenteeism data and, to the extent the state or school district already collects such information, data on student and educator access to technology devices.”

The letter explains further what is permissible: “It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning. We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices… We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments.  A state should use that flexibility to consider: administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments; offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. This could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021 school year.”

As you might expect, states and school districts are responding in very different ways to the federal requirement that testing continue as usual. The New York Daily News reports: “New York City will hold in-person standardized tests for elementary and middle school students this spring…. But districts have extra latitude this year on how to set up their exams, and New York City education officials said that they will only offer the exams to families who opt in.”

New Jersey Spotlight‘s John Mooney reports that Cardona’s Department of Education has given the state permission to put off testing until next fall and offer a different, shorter test: “In a letter this week, the federal Department of Education said the state’s plan to conduct a shorter test in the fall—“Start Strong”—would suffice in meeting federal requirements for annual testing, as long as districts continue less formal, in-class assessments this spring as well.”

And U.S. NewsLauren Camera reports that Secretary Cardona’s Department of Education seems to have contradicted itself by granting a district-wide testing waiver for this school year to the District of Columbia: “The decision, outlined in a letter sent to District of Columbia Public Schools officials on Wednesday, cites the staggering number of students who are still learning fully remote more than a year after the onset of the pandemic—roughly 88% of the city’s 51,000 students as of the end of March—and the likelihood that little usable data would be gleaned by administering a test to the few students who are learning in person. ‘Very few students would be able to be assessed in person this spring,’ Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, wrote in the letter. ‘This would also likely result in D.C. education officials not being able to report much, if any data, due to minimum subgroup size for reporting and the need to protect personally identifiable information.'”

Camera adds that Rosenblum’s blanket waiver to the D.C. public schools “has drawn the ire of education officials in other states, including Georgia, New York, and South Carolina” who also submitted formal requests for blanket state waivers this school year.

For Education Week, Andrew Ujifusa and Evie Blad explain that, while the Department of Education approved a request from Oregon to reduce the number of tests given this spring and a similar request from Colorado, it has rejected a formal request from Michigan despite “the recent spike in coronavirus cases in the state and the decision by Detroit schools and other Michigan districts to shift back to remote learning this week.”

Two months of protests—from deans of colleges of education, more than 500 educational researchers, experts on the dangers of the use of standardized testing for school accountability since the passage of No Child Behind, and both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—have made little difference.

Lauren Camera reports that Secretary Miguel Cardona continues to claim: “Using statewide assessments to assess where students are are one indicator we can use to make sure the $130 billion in the American Rescue Plan is going toward the students who have the greatest need and have the most deficit.”  But the testing scheme created by No Child Left Behind has never driven financial support to the school districts serving the nation’s poorest students whose needs are greatest.  The standardized tests have always been the foundation for test-and-punish accountability, driving reforms like state takeovers and school closures and state report cards that brand the poorest communities with F-rated schools.

It would now appear that the Department’s “flexible” guidance is already creating rancor and chaos as states struggle to comply and officials notice that the rules are not being applied consistently.  And as Peter Greene recently pointed out in his Forbes column, the testing this year cannot possibly create valid or reliable data:

“It is completely understandable that education leaders and policymakers and even editorial kibbitzers would like to have a clear, data-rich description of where students across the country are right now. There’s just one problem. They can’t have it. They certainly can’t get it from the Big Standardized Test. That’s in part because it will be anything but a standardized test. D.C. has been given a waiver based on the number of students attending school remotely, which means that other districts also qualify under the Education Department’s ideas about flexibility. New York City schools are the first to make the tests opt-in, meaning only the students who choose to take them will. Across the country, some students will take the test remotely, and some will take it in school… Some number of students across the country will opt out. Some will take a shorter version of the test. Some will test in the spring, and some in the fall. Other students will take the test carrying any number of traumas with them from home. And many students will take the test without the usual weeks of test prep, so that their answers will not reflect a lack of skills or knowledge, but a lack of familiarity with the language and expectations of the testing format itself. In short, nothing about the taking of the test will be standardized. The 2021 tests will generate a spoonful of data dissolved in an ocean of noise…. Nor will there be a useful framework into which the data can be plugged. Any comparison of 2021 data to where students are ‘supposed’ to be requires data crunchers to extrapolate data from two years ago, creating test results that they imagine would have happened this year in a universe without a pandemic.” (emphasis in the original)

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.” —John Adams

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber believed that the American system of public schools—schools located in every community, schools accessible to all, schools paid for by the public—are the heart of our U.S. democracy. And he worried that school privatization and consumerist school choice threaten to fragment our society:

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Tom Ultican is retired from a career teaching mathematics and physics at the public Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California.  A prolific California teacher-blogger, Ultican recently described what he learned about the important role of public schools in the small Idaho town where he grew up. The public schools were the engine of educational opportunity, but also the center of the community itself. Ultican lived on a ranch outside the town of Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho, where his mother taught school: “It was through family in Scotland that my mother became familiar with the British education system. She learned of its high stakes testing which was deciding a child’s education path: if that education would continue and whether it would be academic or vocational. To her, the great advantage for America’s schools was that they did not have these kinds of tests determining a child’s future… Instead of being sorted out by testing, American students had multiple opportunities to reenter the education system in whatever capacity they desired. Immature 11-year-olds did not have their futures decided by dubious testing results.”  Additionally Ultican recognizes: “The unifying factor in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho was the public schools. Children from rich families and poor families grew up together in those schools. At school functions, parents from the disparate religious sects came together and formed common bonds. Political decisions concerning community governance were developed through these school-based relationships.”

Ultican quotes John Adams in 1785 articulating the principles the Founders enacted that year in the first of the Northwest Ordinances, which established the blueprint for U.S. public schooling: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it not founded by a charitable individual but maintained at the expense of the people themselves.”

In his important book published last fall, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional scholar, Derek Black looks back not only at the founding of U.S. public education but also at the major threats to the institution of public schooling throughout our history—the collapse of universal access and school funding in the South after Reconstruction, the bigotry of Jim Crow, the long fight leading to Brown v. Board of Education, and the legal and legislative backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.

Black brings his history up to date and concludes that political forces today threaten the very idea of public schooling as seriously as in any of these troubled eras in our history: “This book has told the story of a nation founded on the idea of a self-governing citizenry, bound together and prepared by public education. The idea is so central that public education became a right and delivering it the constitutional duty of states… The nation, of course, had major setbacks—economic and racial—but those setbacks even when they aimed to, never overcame the fundamental commitment to public education.  Education policies of the last decade, however, do not fit well within the nation’s historical arc. The setbacks of the last decade are, in many respects, attempts to go straight at public education itself as the problem. Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else. At the very least, government ought not be the primary provider of education. This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment (since the 2008 Recession) in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.  Public education cuts initially looked like a response to the recession…. In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming.  To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools. The contrasting reality of public schools and their private alternatives looks like a legislative preference for private school choice over public school guarantees.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 225-226)

Like Tom Ultican, U.S. Senator Jon Tester was educated in a small western town, Big Sandy, Montana (population 560), where he still farms today. Not only did Tester attend Big Sandy’s public schools, but he also once taught music at F. E. Miley Elementary School and served for nine years on Big Sandy’s board of education before becoming a Montana state senator and then a U.S. Senator. Tester actively worries about the impact school privatization could have on the public schools in small rural communities like Big Sandy: “I am going to tell you what happens in a rural state like mine with privatization. My school system in my hometown of Big Sandy has about 175 kids. That is not an exception for Montana; there are a lot of schools that have 175 kids or fewer. By the way, that is not high school; that’s K through twelve. Let’s say that for whatever reason, somebody wants to set up a charter school a few miles down the road and suck a few kids out of Big Sandy, and maybe suck a few kids out of the Fort Benton school system, and a few more out of the Chester system.  Pretty soon, they have their little charter school, and there is less money to teach the kids who are left in those public schools. What do you think is going to happen to those kids who are left there? That is going to take away from our public education system. Ultimately it will cause those schools to close, because the money that funds our education is at a bare minimum right now.” (Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,  pp. 279-280)

What makes the preservation of public education so important?  Here is how Derek Black concludes his history of American public education and what he understands as today’s threat: “Our public education system, since its beginning, has aimed to bring disparate groups together. Public schools were to be the laboratory and proving grounds where society takes its first steps toward a working democracy that will include all… The framework is one where we understand public education as a constitutional right. This means public education is the state’s absolute and foremost duty. This means the state must help students, teachers, and districts overcome obstacles, not blame them when they don’t. This means the state must fully fund schools and reform policies unrelated to money when they impede adequate and equal opportunity. This means the state cannot manipulate educational opportunity by geography, race, poverty… This means the state cannot favor alternatives to public education over public education itself. This means the state must honor the constitution over its own ideologies and bias. This, finally, means that public education must be in service of our overall constitutional democracy. Every education policy we face must be filtered through these principles.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)

The Hubris of Billionaire Philanthropy and the Damage Wrought by the Common Core Standards

Hubris is definitely the tragic flaw in the modern, technocratic tragedy of educational experimentation by mega philanthropy. But there will likely be no tragic fall for a noble hero. The plot doesn’t operate like a classical tragedy. Bill and Melinda pose as our humble hero and heroine, sitting in front of a bookcase and dressed in nothing fancier than plain cashmere sweaters. There is no blood and no sensation. Today the weapon is billions of American dollars buying access to power and purchasing armies of ideological policy wonks. Most people haven’t even noticed the sins of our hero and heroine and there’s no hint of their impending downfall. The plot rises and falls and rises again when the perpetrators just start over with another massive experiment on the 50 million students in America’s public schools and their teachers. But the sin is hubris.

In a February report on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter, the Washington Post‘s  Valerie Strauss summarizes the three acts so far in the drama of Gates Foundation-funded school reform: “The Gates Foundation began its first big effort in education reform two decades ago with what it said was a $650 million investment to break large failing high schools into small schools, on the theory that small schools worked better than large ones… Bill Gates declared in 2009 that it hadn’t worked the way he had expected…. The next project for the foundation was funding the development, implementation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards initiative, which was supported by the Obama administration. It originally had bipartisan support but the Core became controversial, in part because of the rush to get it into schools and because of what many states said was federal coercion to adopt it… Meanwhile, Gates, while pushing the Core, showered three public school systems and four charter management organizations with hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and implement teacher assessment systems that incorporated student standardized test scores. School systems and charter organizations that took the foundation’s money were required to use public funds on the project, too.  By 2013, Bill Gates conceded that the Core initiative had not succeeded as he had expected, and a 2018 report concluded that the teacher evaluation project had failed to achieve its goal of improving student achievement in any significant way.”

Many of us who were paying attention noticed the collateral damage. When they took Gates money to break up big high schools, school districts had to hire a separate set of administrators and counselors for each small school—a very expensive proposition that ate up far more money than Gates provided. And students scheduled within their small schools struggled to find access to the advantages of a comprehensive high school—a journalism class, band and orchestra, arts electives like photography, technology courses. The experiment on evaluating teachers by students’ test scores and rewarding the teachers whose students posted high scores with financial bonuses collapsed after school districts had to absorb much of the cost.  In Hillsborough County, Florida, the district ended up using public revenues to cover $124 million that should have been spent on the ongoing education needs of the district’s students.

Strauss published part of the Gates Foundation’s 2020 annual letter, in which Melinda Gates describes the strategy of the Foundation’s education giving: “Consider this: The average American primary school classroom has 21 students. Currently, 18 of those 21 complete high school with a diploma or an equivalent credential… but only 13 start any kind of postsecondary program within a year of graduating. Only seven will earn a degree from a four-year-program within six years. It gets worse when you disaggregate by race. If every student in our classroom is Latinx, only six will finish their four-year degree program within six years. For a classroom of Black students, the number is just four. The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite. We believe the risk of not doing everything we can to help students reach their full potential is much, much greater. We certainly understand why many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders. But one thing that makes improving education tricky is that even among people who work on the issues, there isn’t much agreement on what works and what doesn’t.”

Notice that Melinda Gates assumes that “failing” schools are the causes of disparities in educational outcomes and that fixing the schools themselves—small high schools, grading teachers on students’ scores and offering financial incentives to successful teachers, and the Common Core standards—will somehow address the much deeper injustices for America’s children. There are libraries filled with research demonstrating that family and community economic circumstances compounded by racial and economic segregation and chronically inequitable school funding are the primary drivers of educational inequality, but the Gates Foundation has always dabbled in technocratic fixes and always failed to improve students’ outcomes.

On Monday, Valerie Strauss reprinted with the author’s permission some of Harvard education professor, Tom Loveless’s new book, Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding The Failure of Common Core, a new followup examination of one of Gates’ three failed initiatives.

Loveless explains: “The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) represent one of the most ambitious American education reforms of the past century.  Developed in 2009 and released in June 2010, the standards were designed to define what students should learn in mathematics and English language arts… from kindergarten through the twelfth grade… By the end of 2010, more than forty states and the District of Columbia had adopted the CCSS as official K-12 standards… A decade later, scant evidence exists that Common Core produced any significant benefit. One federally funded evaluation actually estimates that the standards had a negative effect on student achievement in both reading and math. Fortunately, the overall impact is quite small.”

The federal government is, by law, not permitted to establish a national educational curriculum, but Arne Duncan figured out how to skirt the law. The Gates Foundation paid for the development, implementation, and promotion of the standards; Duncan merely incentivized the states to adopt them when he made the adoption of educational standards a requirement for applying for a Race to the Top Grant.

Loveless continues: “If we conclude that CCSS had a minimal impact on student learning, perhaps the standards changed other aspects of education in a productive manner. Even if such a possibility is conceded, the policy’s extraordinary costs and the ferocious debate that it engendered outstripped such meager benefits. Billions of taxpayer dollars, from both federal and state coffers, were poured into making CCSS a success. Prominent philanthropies, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, funded a public relations campaign to fight back against political opposition. The nation’s three-million-plus public school teachers were asked to retool their instruction and use new curriculum materials aligned with Common Core; large numbers of students began failing new Common Core-aligned assessments; and many parents struggled to understand the strange new homework assignments that students were bringing to the kitchen table.”

Loveless summarizes what he says are the many lessons of the sad adventure of Gates’ purchase of public education policy via the Common Core. What was it that Gates Foundation policy wonks and Arne Duncan’s education department failed to consider? Please read Loveless’s careful analysis, but here are some of his conclusions: “Implementation of large-scale, top-down education policy transpires in a complicated system that is multilayered and loosely coupled in terms of authority and expertise. Common Core is not a federal policy, although it received crucial support from the federal government during the Obama administration but it is national in scope, originally involving more than forty states and Washington, DC. States have their own political offices and educational bureaucracies, of course, but consider some ballpark numbers for the nodes of political and organizational authority situated below the state level: approximately 13,600 school districts… 98,000 schools, and more than three million teachers…..  Navigating the vertical complexity of the K-12 educational system is daunting… the main lesson of the study was that schools shape state policies to fit local circumstances.”

Further, “Curriculum and instruction are particularly important because they constitute the technical core of the educational enterprise… They sit at the bottom layer of the system. Writing and adopting standards takes place at the top of the system, in the domain of politicians and educational officials… Successful implementation of standards not only depends on the willingness of implementers but also on the quality of the curriculum and instruction that local educators use to enact the standards… The publisher of a terrific K-8 math series may also publish a terrible reading series; a math program with strong second and sixth grade texts may be weak in first and fourth grades…  The two subjects that Common Core tackles, mathematics and English language arts, have long histories of ideological debates between educational progressives and traditionalists.”

In their hubris, Bill and Melinda and their foundation latched onto one big educational reform, but in their hurried launch, they forgot about a carefully coordinated and internally evaluated rollout of the standards and the high-stakes tests that were paired with the standards. They also neglected working at each level of the system with the professionals they assumed would grab on to their idea and make it work. Loveless considers what was left out of the process: “Once governments have decided on a policy decision, how does it become enacted in schools? Exploring that question compels an examination of the school system’s organizational structure and the flow of policy downward from policymakers to practitioners.” That is, of course, separate from another important issue: whether Gates’s experts developed and promoted the right standards.

Does Education Secretary Cardona Recognize the Two Huge Problems with High-Stakes Testing?

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona insists that federally mandated standardized testing will go on as usual in this COVID-19 dominated year. While his decision feels particularly impractical, intrusive, complicated and disruptive in the midst of COVID-19, the decision is of much deeper concern for two reasons.

This blog will take the holiday weekend off. Look for a new post on Wednesday, April 7.

One would like to think that Dr. Cardona is familiar with the huge debate that has consumed education experts and also many parents who have been opting out for years now.  But when Dr. Cardona explained why testing must go on as usual, he didn’t even bother to offer a rationale that addresses any of the reasons experts have insisted he should cancel the tests once again this year. Instead he said we need the tests so that the Department of Education can ensure that federal investment goes to the school districts that need it most. That is such a lovely thought, and if tests were designed and used to gauge needed investment in the poorest communities, it would be wonderful. 

But standardized tests, as mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, were not designed to drive a system of test-and-invest. They are instead the very foundation of a maze of policies at the federal level—and now federally mandated across the states—to identify so-called “failing schools” and to punish them.

The first kind of damage caused by high-stakes testing is pedagogical. Standardized testing and its preparation have deeply affected what happens in the classroom itself. Dr. Cardona’s decision to insist on tests in this schoolyear will undermine what students need most when school resumes in some sort of post pandemic normal.

At his Rethinking Learning blog, Rich tenEyck explains: “For more than 20 years now, we have been told that a major component of the ‘standards movement’ was the creation and use of large-scale assessments required by federal funding programs. These were sold as a critical source of information about how much our kids are learning… These annual tests are far more reliable predictors of family wealth than as tools for helping teachers better respond to student needs. Educators have known this and have frequently tried to alert us to the misunderstanding and the misuse of these tests. What has happened as a result?  These teachers and school leaders have been vilified… But what if the tests required by various pieces of federal legislation never really tested learning at all? What if they tested the recall of many isolated and disconnected facts?… What if the tests provide almost no insight into the real learning needs of kids?”

Educator and blogger Steve Nelson diagnoses the special problem with standardized tests this spring when some students are online, others in hybrid settings, some disconnected: “In keeping with the illogical, inhumane, and ineffectual practices of the recent past, the testing industry will look for all the deficits it can find, so as to identify the mythical ‘learning losses,’ so that the least privileged can be remediated using materials produced by the testing industry, thereby further depriving them of the experiences they need most… Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner and many others have determined that social context is the most important variable in real learning. Relationships among and between teachers and students determine the quality of school experience. Now more than ever kids need to be back in the good company of their friends and their teachers.”

And Alfie Kohn reminds us: “John Dewey described how a curriculum that’s based on students’ questions and connects with their experiences has ‘an inherent attracting power.’” Kohn continues: “The whole standards-and-testing edifice of our education system consists of expectations and outcomes that have been devised by distant authorities, imposed on students (and teachers!), and enforced by exams to ensure ‘accountability.’ These standards are often breathtakingly granular in their specificity because the whole approach is rooted in an outdated behaviorist model of learning.”

Standards and test-based accountability have moved us far away from the progressive philosophy of education advocated by Kohn, Nelson, and tenEyck. But there is also a second problem is that is structural and systemic: Standardized testing has damaged the very foundation of our entire system of public education. Ohio’s Bill Phillis captured the extent of the problem in his daily comment on Tuesday: “The No Child Left Behind Act has put the nation at risk… After four decades of reform by politicians, teachers are demoralized. Poor school districts are still poor with test scores lower than rich districts. Billions have been largely wasted on charters and vouchers. The voucher and charter advocates have developed powerful lobbies and billionaire partners. The future of the time-honored common school system is in jeopardy.”

Today states are required by the Every Student Succeeds Act to identify the 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 tool to blame and punish educators and make them work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe.

  • Many states create and 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.”
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight.

A lot of people are watching Education Secretary Miguel Cardona carefully to gauge whether he grasps the depth of the problems with high stakes testing, first, pedagogically within our nation’s classrooms, and second, through the test-based system itself that punishes instead of assisting the schools that need the most help.

Diane Ravitch summarizes why people are so concerned that Secretary Cardona has not acknowledged the damage of the high-states testing regime: “These tests have high stakes for students (who might fail to be promoted), teachers (who might be fired if their students’ test scores don’t rise), and schools (which might be closed if test scores don’t go up)… The challenge for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, will be to abandon two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability and to remove any federal incentives to create privately managed charter schools.”

I Have Begun to Worry about Where Miguel Cardona is Leading Education Policy

When my careful, watchful, and somewhat shy daughter came home for lunch on the first day of first grade, I heard the words every parent looks for on the first day of school: “After one morning, I already feel smoothed into school!” There are generations of parents in Cleveland Heights, Ohio who still wonder at the gifts, kindness, and dedication of Marlene Karkoska. What was it that she did to make our first graders feel “smoothed into school”?

What worries me right now is that despite the passage of the American Rescue Plan with lots of money for school districts and state governments to help get schools back up and running, I am still hearing a lot from policy makers about learning loss, the need for kids to make up the work in summer programs, and the need for testing to document what’s been lost. I’m not hearing enough about the calm, the encouragement, the confidence, and the enjoyment of being at school that Miss Karkoska provided for our children as the very foundation for their learning to read and compute.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s announcement last week that the federal government will mandate standardized testing for this school year came despite months of pleading for cancellation of this year’s standardized tests—advice from experts who know a lot about working with children, about learning theory, and about the problems of standardized test-based accountability for schools. My children started Kindergarten in 1985 and 1988, before standardized testing became the driver of American public education.  I wonder if people who have been creating education policy since the 1990s, when holding schools accountable for test score outcomes became the primary educational policy goal, can really imagine another way to think about education.

I have many questions about the strategies and plans which the U.S. Department of Education will attach to the federal stimulus awards of funds to states and schools.  One reason for my concern is that I watched the awarding of stimulus dollars to states during the Great Recession back in 2009 under Arne Duncan.  Here is some of what I worry about:

  • Will there be any real attempt when students return to school to ensure that the focus is on welcome and encouragement, and on spiraling the curriculum to review material that may have been missed as students accelerate into exploring new material?  What is to prevent the numbing drilling that has filled too many classrooms, particularly in the schools that serve our nation’s poorest children?  I recently read one suggestion that when students return, the curriculum should be further narrowed to compensate for learning loss with an intense and sole focus on language arts and math, an almost humorous suggestion if it weren’t such a blatant plea for raising test scores at all cost in the two areas the federal government already mandates standardized tests.
  • I have read that American Rescue Plan dollars can be spent on teachers and school support staff to reduce class size and add sufficient counselors and social workers. That is a very good thing, but will the federal government, as it awards dollars for these added staff, incentivize states themselves to continue to allocate adequate state funds to ensure that schools can continue employing these professionals into the future after the one-time federal grant runs out? I remember so well that Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants supported the employment of armies of one-time consultants but virtually no hiring of long term professional educators and student support staff.
  • Although most of the federal aid for school districts is being distributed through the Title I formula, some of the federal stimulus dollars in the American Rescue Plan will flow through the state governments which control the allocation of school funding. I know there are some “maintenance of effort” rules in the federal stimulus bill, but are they strong enough and will they be enforced? Can the federal government create enough regulations to prevent states from further slashing state taxes and replacing state dollars with federal stimulus dollars? Will there be rules to direct the states to spend needed money on public schools and not on expanding charter schools and private school tuition vouchers?
  • Secretary Cardona says he believes that standardized test scores in this school year can tell us more about the need for added funding in the nation’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children. Will we learn more from standardized test scores than we already know from the data currently maintained in the fifty states and collected by the National Center for Education Statistics?  There is plenty of data already available about disparities in class sizes, the number of per-pupil guidance counselors, and the number of school social workers and school psychologists.  Further, we all watched a wave of teachers’ strikes and walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 through which teachers exposed appalling conditions—masses of students in large classes—sometimes 40 students—counselors with case loads of 400 and 500 students—the absence of nurses, librarians.

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire summarize the financial dilemma in which public schools found themselves at the time the COVID-19 pandemic struck: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession (2008), but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.”  Schneider and Berkshire describe what we learned from the nationwide teacher strikes in 2018-2019: “(T)he recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-43)

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black adds that the growth of school privatization has left us with a charter school sector and the expansion of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schools at the expense of the public schools:  “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.”   And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)

In a profound, short analysis in The Progressive, Diane Ravitch summarizes two decades of test-and-punish accountability and the growth of school privatization.  Here is her very plain, simple recommendation for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona: “Cardona could help urban schools, which are underfunded, by ending the pretense that competition (via charters and vouchers) will make them better (it doesn’t).  It starves them of needed resources. Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition. We have poured billions of dollars into that fake reform and achieved little other than demoralized teachers and students whose test-centric education robs them of motivation. Why not try a radically different approach?  Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of students are greatest?… Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play.  Now that would be a revolution!

Educational Researchers Demand Cancellation of Spring 2021 Tests: Secretary Cardona Won’t Cancel, but Says In Future He May Reexamine Role of Testing

On Tuesday, in remarks at the annual legislative conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the new Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona declared that he will not bow to pressure and will instead continue demanding that standardized tests be administrated this year again as usual, despite that COVID-19 has utterly upended another school year.  Last year Betsy DeVos cancelled the tests as schools shut down in March.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported on Wednesday: “A day after more than 500 education researchers asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona not to force school districts to administer federally mandated student standardized tests this year during the coronavirus pandemic, Cardona said Tuesday that policymakers needed the data obtained from the exams…. (H)e said student data obtained from the tests was important to help education officials create policy and target resources where they are most needed… Cardona said Tuesday that he would be willing to ‘reexamine what role assessments’ play in education—but not immediately. ‘This is not the year for a referendum on assessments, but I am open to conversations on how to make those better,’ he said.”

On Monday, 548 researchers from the nation’s colleges of education sent a joint letter urgently asking Secretary Cardona to cancel the federally required standardized achievement tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school. America’s standardized testing regime was mandated in January of 2002 in the No Child Left Behind Act and, in 2015, folded into that law’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The federal government set up the testing regime as the foundation of a massive school accountability scheme that ranked and rated America’s public schools and set out to turnaround (mostly through a cascade of sanctions) the poorest performing schools as measured by the tests. It was said that all of America’s youth would score “proficient” by 2014. Today we know that the law did not improve academic achievement overall and that it failed to close academic achievement gaps by race and family economics. In fact damage for students, their schools, and their teachers followed instead.

The letter, sent to Cardona on Monday from a large body of academic researchers in education, directly questions the value of forcing public schools to administer standardized tests this spring as being not only impractical and burdensome for school districts when some students are learning in class and others online, but unlikely to produce complete or reliable data. The letter was sent on behalf of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Beyond Test Scores Project, and authored by Jack Schneider at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and Lorrie Shephard, Michelle Renee Valladares, and Kevin Welner at the University of Colorado, Boulder. A list several pages long contains the names of 544 additional academic researchers.

Here are the concerns the researchers identify about the gathering of data through standardized tests this spring: “First, we strongly urge USED to work with states to approve requests for flexibility as they attempt to limit statewide testing, especially in states where significant numbers of students are still engaged in remote learning and where the state request has identified alternative data sources that can meet state needs.  This recommendation is based on the following: The results of remotely administered tests will not be equivalent to the results of in-person testing. Great variability in participation rates and non-random selection bias make it impossible to compare results across schools or between this year and previous years… (T)here is no way to prevent misinterpretation and misuse of these highly flawed data.”

The researchers also caution about the use of data, once gathered, from any administration of standardized tests this year: “We applaud USED’s recent decision to emphasize the importance of data for informational purposes, rather than high-stakes accountability. In light of research evidence, we wish to underscore the importance of continuing this practice in the future. For decades, experts have warned that the high-stakes use of any metric will distort results. Analyzing the impact of NCLB/ESSA, scholars have documented consequences like curriculum narrowing, teaching-to-the-test, the ‘triaging’ of resources, and cheating… The damage inflicted by racialized poverty on children, communities, and schools is devastating and daunting… Whatever their flaws, test-based accountability systems are intended to spotlight those inequalities and demand that they be addressed.  But standardized tests also have a long history of causing harm and denying opportunity to low-income students and students of color, and without immediate action they threaten to cause more harm now than ever.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa interviewed Secretary Cardona. Ujifusa asked about Cardona’s decision to continue standardized tests this year, while being willing to work with states and offer some degree of flexibility. In his answer, Cardona expresses some of the same concerns the researchers raise in Monday’s letter about the past two decades’ uses of standardized testing: “To be overly enamored by data is to be vulnerable to their misuse.  So we have to keep in perspective what the data will tell us and what it won’t tell us. It should never be even considered at this point for (labeling) schools as high-achieving schools, or low-achieving schools. We need to forget about that. We also shouldn’t be utilizing data for (educator) evaluations, because it’s not valid for that this year. However, as we’re rolling out $130 billion (in federal COVID-19 aid for schools), any data that can help state leaders think about policy and distribution of funds, to make sure that it’s aimed at closing achievement gaps and (addressing) lack of access to quality learning, that’s critically important. The team has been working at the agency, even before I joined, on flexibilities. We know that one size doesn’t fit all. We know in come places, they’ve been in schools since day one. In other places they’re just starting to get in. So flexibility is critically important.” (Parenthetical statements are Ujifusa’s.)

While Secretary Cardona seems to share some of the researchers’ concerns, we will need to observe his actions carefully in upcoming months as he takes over a federal department that has been mired for twenty years in a scheme organized to stigmatize and punish the schools and teachers serving poor children. These tests have never been used to drive the allocation of resources on a scale that would help the students in the school districts where our society’s poorest children are segregated. Will Cardona change a department which has tried to shape up low scoring schools by inducing states to punish and sometimes fire the principal and the teachers, or by imposing school closures or state takeovers, or by encouraging states to locate privatized charter schools or offer private school vouchers to students in those districts?

In his recent book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black highlights the massive school funding inequity that has endured throughout the past twenty years of standardized, test-based school accountability: “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need. (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

For Decades America Has Blamed and Punished Public Schools Serving Poor Children: Biden’s Plan Addresses the Underlying Poverty

For over fifty years sociologists of education have documented the correlation between the ravages of child poverty and challenges for children at school. Hunger, homelessness and the family anxiety that accompanies the struggle to survive make it hard for many students to thrive at school. This is why the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill signed into law last week, as “a huge new school reform.” And Strauss isn’t writing merely about the $130 billion included in the bill for public schools:

“President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is aimed at helping the country recover from the coronavirus pandemic—but it is another thing, as well: a major federal school reform unlike those we’ve seen in the past few decades. While the new law is aimed at helping families get back on their feet and helping businesses and schools reopen after a year of turmoil, it includes measures that together have the potential to slash poverty among the 12 million students who live in low-income households.”

Strauss reminds us how, over the past quarter century, public education policy has gone wrong—blaming the schools themselves and failing effectively to address children’s needs: “Policymakers have been focused for decades on improving public schools with a culture based on standardized testing, the expansion of charter schools and other ‘school choice’ measures, and, in some places, the demonization of teachers. Child poverty, they said, was an excuse for poor performance by adults. But the testing/choice/big data approach has not closed the achievement gap, and on some measures, it has barely moved… Many schools nationwide have attempted to address the out-of-school lives of students including ‘community schools’ that forge partnerships with local agencies and organizations to provide wraparound services for children. But federal policy has been focused on other things since 2002’s No Child Left Behind law ushered in an era of standardized-testing accountability systems for schools and districts.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) documents  the impact of Biden’s new relief package on America’s children. The American Rescue plan will enable nearly 66 million children and adolescents under the age of eighteen to benefit from the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, including 27 million who had been left out until last week. “The Act will lift 4.1 million additional children above the poverty line—cutting the remaining number of children in poverty by more than 40 percent—and lift 1.1 million children above half the poverty line (referred to as ‘deep poverty’),  Among the children that the Child Tax Credit expansion will lift above the poverty line, some 1.2 million are Black and 1.7 million are Latino.”

The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, John Jackson describes the significance of the expansion of the Child Tax Credit: “The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan… is a watershed moment. That such legislation has become law—that our federal government acted decisively with a bill targeted to aid low-and middle-income families—evokes equal parts inspiration and relief in its radical departure from previous trickle-down approaches that have increased inequality and racial injustice… Now, more than 93% of children in America will receive full or partial benefits under the Child Tax Credit… Because of past policy actions which disproportionately harmed Black, brown and Native children and families, this policy specifically adds unique benefits to those communities.”

The new rescue plan also targets money directly to help public schools. The CBPP reports: “The American Rescue Plan also includes $130 billion in new, mostly very flexible funds for school districts, which they will be able to spend through the 2023-2024 school year to address the pandemic and its effects on student learning. This is the largest-ever one-time federal investment in K-12 education, but entirely appropriate in light of school funding needs. Historically, K-12 schooling has been funded overwhelmingly by states and localities; they currently provide 92 percent of funding, with the federal government providing the rest. COVID-19, however, forced states to cut funding and created enormous financial and educational challenges that states and localities will be hard pressed to meet over the next several years without federal assistance. K-12 funding comprises about 26 percent of state budgets, and states will find it very hard to shield that funding while meeting their balanced-budget requirements. Even before COVID-19, schools endured years of inadequate and inequitable funding. Some 15 to 20 states were still providing less funding for K-12 schools when the pandemic hit than before the Great Recession a decade ago… When COVID-19 hit, schools were employing 77,000 fewer teachers and other workers while educating 1.5 million more children.”

So what will new relief dollars set aside for public schools cover? According to the CBPP: “Schools need to close the ‘digital divide,’ so all students and teachers have access to devices and connectivity. They need to safely operate in-person schools, which will require … more custodial staff, and more buses and drivers to maintain social distancing. A quarter of schools have no full- or part-time nurse, and most schools lack counseling support to help students navigate the mental-health challenges of returning to school. Many schools will need to add staff/ and/or portable classrooms to reduce class size to meet social distancing guidelines… With resources, schools can lengthen school days and the school year and invest in high-quality tutoring to help students…. Along with the $130 billion, the Act includes ‘maintenance of equity’ provisions that require states to avert funding cuts to schools and school districts with high numbers of poor children.”

The bill’s specifics are important, but all kinds of journalists and social scientists continue to point to its overall meaning as the harbinger of a major shift in federal economic policy, despite that it is a temporary relief bill whose primary infusions of funding will eventually run out.

The NY Times Jamelle Bouie writes: “The list of new policies goes on. There is money in the American Rescue Plan to expand food stamps, bolster state welfare programs, and increase federal support for child and dependent care. Put all this together and the bill is expected to reduce overall poverty by more than a third and child poverty by more than half. It is, with no exaggeration, the single most important piece of anti-poverty legislation since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, itself the signature program of a man who sought to emulate FDR.”

Here is the Washington Post‘s Catherine Rampell: “Sure President Biden may be the oldest president in U.S. history.  But in signing his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law, he just delivered the biggest legislative victory for the young in generations. For decades, the general trend in federal fiscal policy, with some limited exceptions, has been to transfer wealth away from the young toward the old. The federal government spends about six times as much per capita on older Americans (primarily in the form of Social Security and Medicare) as it does on children…. It’s no surprise, then, that children have long had the highest poverty rates of any age group in the United States. They also have the dubious honor of notching one of the highest child-poverty rates in the developed world, largely because other rich countries invest considerably more in children than we do.”

Writing for the NY Times, economist Paul Krugman explains: “(T)he American Rescue Plan Act… reinstates significant aid for children. Moreover, unlike most of the act’s provisions, this change… is intended to outlast the current crisis; Democrats hope and expect that substantial payments to families with children will become a permanent part of the American scene.” This is thanks to a promise by Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to bring forward legislation this year to make permanent the expansion of the Child Tax Credit.

Krugman continues: “(T)his isn’t a return to welfare as we knew it; nobody will be able to live on child support. But it will sharply reduce child poverty. And it also… represents a philosophical break with the past few decades, and in particular with the obsessive fear that poor people might take advantage of government aid by choosing not to work… (T)hese traditional (Republican) attacks, which used to terrify Democrats, no longer seem to be resonating. Clearly, something has changed in American politics.”

The American Prospect‘s Robert Kuttner cheers: “Maybe once or twice in a century, you can feel the ground shifting. This is surely one of those moments. After yesterday, Donald Trump looms a lot smaller, and so does mainstream political conservatism. I’ve never seen the Wall Street Journal editorial page so despondent…  Activist government has been demonized for more than a generation. A great many working-class people, who saw government under both parties getting into bed with elites rather than providing practical help… may give government and the Democrats a second look.”

Pressure on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Grows: Cancel Standardized Tests in this Crazy COVID-19 School Year

There is absolutely no reason why the U.S. Department of Education should refuse to grant states waivers this spring from the federal requirement for standardized testing. Two weeks ago, a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ian Rosenblum released guidance telling states they must test students as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act despite the pandemic. After that, the Senate finally voted to confirm President Biden’s appointment of Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education.

We all hope that Dr. Cardona will reconsider. And it is becoming clear that the subject is not closed.  Experts, parents, educators, and members of the public continue to press the new Secretary of Education to do the right thing in this year when some students have been in school, many are on hybrid schedules, and many others continue to learn remotely.

Why should Secretary Cardona cancel testing this spring? When Rosenblum announced that he was charging ahead to require testing, he ignored more than a month of informed advocacy by board of education members, education experts, school administrators, schoolteachers and parents—all pushing the Department of Education to grant states waivers to cancel the tests in this COVID-19 year. (See here, here, here, and here.) No one in the Department has provided a convincing justification for requiring that the high-stakes tests be administered this school year.

Opponents of testing this spring have spoken about problems of feasibility when some students are in class and others learning remotely, and they have raised serious questions about the validity and comparability of the information that can be collected during these times. Others question whether time should be wasted on testing when teachers need to be putting all of their energy into supporting students’ well-being and learning instead of test prep and test administration. While some have argued that teachers need the test results to guide their instruction once schools reopen, testing experts have continued to point out that teachers won’t get overall results for months and will never learn about individual students’ answers to particular multiple choice questions. Others have pointed out that these tests have been required for two decades not for any kind of pedagogical purpose but instead to be used for so-called accountability: so that the federal government can require states to rate and rank their public schools and devise plans to turnaround the low scorers.

A letter from 74 national organizations and more than 10,000 individuals sent to Secretary Cardona on January 30, 2021—after he had been appointed but before his nomination had been confirmed—describes in plain language exactly what should happen when children can return normally to their classrooms: “It does not take a standardized assessment to know that for millions of America’s children, the burden of learning remotely, either full- or part-time, expands academic learning gaps between haves and have nots. Whenever children are able to return fully to their classrooms, every instructional moment should be dedicated to teaching, not to teasing out test score gaps that we already know exist. If the tests are given this spring, the scores will not be released until the fall of 2021 when students have different teachers and may even be enrolled in a different school. Scores will have little to no diagnostic value when they finally arrive. Simply put, a test is a measure, not a remedy. To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

New pushback against mandated testing has emerged this week.

On Tuesday, several Congressional Democrats sent a letter pressing Secretary Cardona to cancel the tests.  Politico‘s Michael Stratford reports: “The effort is being led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), vice chair of the House education committee and a former middle school principal… The letter to Cardona… was also signed by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Tom Suozzi (D-NY), and Mark Takano (D-Calif.) as well as Sens Ed. Markey (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)… Bowman, who said he’s had ‘preliminary conversations’ with fellow lawmakers about a legislative path to stopping standardized testing, also took aim at how the Biden administration’s decision was carried out last month. The new testing guidance was unveiled by the Education Department on Feb. 22, before Cardona was confirmed by the Senate. The guidance was signed by Ian Rosenblum, former executive director of the Education Trust-New York.”  Rep. Bowman explains, “Mr. Rosenblum, with all due respect, has never been a teacher or school administrator in his life, and it’s important that our parents and educators know that these decisions are being made by people who do not have the experience to make those decisions.”

Also on Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association did something extremely unusual. AFT and NEA released a shared agenda outlining the best thinking of their members and their collaborative research departments and  pledged to work with states and school districts on the steps that must be taken not only to get students back in school but also to support children’s academic progress and their psychological and social well-being after a difficult year.

Part I of this joint document from the two unions that together represent millions of American teachers begins with a plea on behalf of children for relief this spring from the federal standardized testing mandate: “In February 2021, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance on assessing student learning during the pandemic in relation to the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Prior to that, both the NEA and AFT stressed the need for flexibility in both the administration of assessments and their use in accountability, and both advised that standardized testing should be suspended for the 2020-202 school year. Standardized test scores have never been a valid, reliable or complete measure of an individual’s instruction, nor do they accurately measure what students know and are able to do. And they are especially problematic now. The assessment flexibilities offered by the department, while helpful, do not go far enough to allow states to support the gathering of information and the distribution of resources in a way that will support teaching, learning and healthy school environments.”  The statement continues with thoughtfully and professionally developed suggestions for “the way forward,” including all sorts of examples of diagnostic assessments that have been developed by educators in collaboration with respected academic research partners and local community partners.

It is not too late for the rest of us to add our voices to those of academicians, members of Congress, the two major teachers unions, and other advocates. Pressure on Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to reassess the need for federally mandated, high-stakes standardized testing in the 2020-2021 school year remains timely and important.

FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, offers the following guidance for advocates:

  • “Push the U.S. Department of Education and Congress to reverse plans to deny comprehensive testing waivers;
  • “Pressure states to request maximum possible student assessment flexibility for the current year by pushing the envelope of the waivers USDOE already has said will be granted;
  • “Simultaneously, push states and districts to suspend their own testing mandates for the 2020-2021 school year and lift all high-stakes consequences for students, teachers and schools;
  • “Pursue these policies in the context of promoting well-rounded, authentic assessment systems developed in partnership with educators; and
  • “If Spring 2021 testing policies are not overhauled consistent with these goals, aggressively promote broad, diverse standardized exam opt-out campaigns.”

What Biden’s COVID-19 Rescue Plan Will Mean for American Poorest Children and for Our Public Education System

On February 27, the U.S House of Representatives passed President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief bill, and on Saturday, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the House bill. Nancy Pelosi says the House will promptly enact the Senate’s version, and the bill will move later this week to the President for his signature. News reports have focused on big economic elements of the relief package—unemployment relief and one-time stimulus checks, but one of the most important things about this bill has been under-reported: what the President and Congress plan to do for America’s children and their public schools.

The American Rescue Plan Supports Public Schools and the State Governments that Fund Public Schools

There has been enormous and utterly confusing guidance coming from the CDC, the White House, and mayors of big cities, all of whom want to get all children back to school in-person. But it is rarely mentioned that when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, public schools had been struggling for years with inadequate funding. Yes, schools could reopen safely if ventilation were adequate, but lots of old schools have windows that don’t open. Yes, schools could reopen safely if classes were small enough that classrooms could house all the students in desks six feet apart, but in too many classes these days, one teacher works with more than 30—sometimes even 40—students. Running school buses with social distancing would require additional buses. Because most of us don’t spend our time inside schools where we can observe the realities children and their teachers live with every day, we like to imagine that reopening schools ought to be an easy process.  But the complexities can be overwhelming and the problems expensive to address—which is why many students are still learning remotely or attending school on complicated hybrid schedules.

The new stimulus package will help school districts address the complexities. The Washington Post‘s Rachel Siegel reports that Biden’s American Rescue Plan, passed by the House and now by the Senate, “sets aside almost $130 billion for K-12 education. That money would go to improving ventilation systems, reducing class sizes, buying personal protective equipment and implementing social distancing.” The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities adds that there is considerable flexibility, allowing school districts to use the funding over the next two-and-a-half school years: “With resources, schools can lengthen school days and the school year and invest in high-quality tutoring to help students—over the course of the next couple of years….”

On top of emergency relief money to support reopening, the bill the Senate passed on Saturday includes $350 billion for state, local and tribal governments. Last year’s Republican-majority Senate deleted aid for state and local governments from the March CARES Act and from the smaller relief plan that passed in late December. The Post‘s Rachel Siegel describes the effect of this year’s COVID-19 recession on state budgets: “Facing deep budget shortfalls, state and local governments have shed 1.3 million jobs since the pandemic began last year—a loss of more than 1 in 20 government jobs…. While tax revenue grew in some states last year, the majority—at least 26 states—were hit with declines. Revenue fell by 10 percent or more in five states… The toll was felt in both Republican-led states such as Texas, which saw a 10 percent shortfall, and Democratic-led ones, such as Oregon, which weathered a 13 percent drop…  Across all states, cuts to education spending make up almost all of the job losses. On the local level, public education accounted for just over half of job losses.”

COVID-19’s financial pressure on state public education budgets only compounds what has been a long running drop in public school funding. In two important books published last fall, the authors describe the fiscal condition of school districts over the decade since the 2008 Great Recession but before COVID-19 struck.  Here are Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire in The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black also examines the fiscal condition of U.S. public education even before COVID-19: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine… (I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)  “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

Federal dollars in the American Rescue Plan will cover emergency assistance for school reopening and ensure that states can restore cuts made in the past year to their per-pupil school funding. The goal is for school districts to be able to rehire enough teachers and support professionals to ensure that all children have the support they need when they return to school.

The American Rescue Plan Will Significantly Ameliorate Child Poverty for the Remainder of This Year

Beginning with the 1996 law that substituted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, federal policy has aimed to incentivize parents to work instead of providing direct assistance for the children in America’s poorest families. President Biden’s priority, embodied in the new stimulus package, is to stabilize the lives of America’s poorest children and to make it possible for them to thrive and engage fully at school. Keep in mind that a family of four is officially living in poverty with an income of $26,500 or less; a family of four living in extreme poverty has an income of $13,250 or less. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently emphasized: “A large body of research links hardships such as inability to afford adequate food or housing to worse child outcomes. The effects of such hardships, which range from nutrient deficiency to disrupted schooling when families move frequently from home to home, can have lifelong consequences… Providing more food, housing, income, and other relief is linked with a range of long-term positive outcomes for children.” COVID-19 has increased the number of families living in poverty and exacerbated the stress these families are already experiencing.

The relief package the Senate passed on Saturday increases the Child Tax Credit and makes it fully refundable. The Child Tax Credit is not a new federal program; it is a per-child tax credit parents receive for each of their children. The American Rescue Plan increases the annual Child Tax Credit from $2,000 per child under current law to $3,600 per child for children 5-years-old and under and $3,000 per child for children 6-17 years-of-age. It works by reducing a parent’s federal income taxes leaving more earned income to be spent on children’s needs. But as the tax credit is currently designed, if a parent’s income is too low, that parent is not paying enough federal income tax to benefit from the full amount of the credit as higher earning parents do. President Biden’s plan would make the child tax cut fully available to all parents—“fully refundable” in the jargon of Congress. Biden’s plan will affect millions of America’s most vulnerable children—making their lives more secure and helping them thrive at school. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains that the American Rescue Plan “would lift another 4.1 million children above the poverty line, cutting the remaining number of children in poverty by more than 40 percent.”

The expansion of the Child Tax Credit is so urgently important that Jason DeParle highlighted it late yesterday for the NY Times: “Obscured by other parts of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package which won Senate approval on Saturday, the child benefit has the makings of a policy revolution. Though framed in technocratic terms as an expansion of an existing tax credit, it is essentially a guaranteed income for families with children, akin to children’s allowances that are common in other rich countries. The plan establishes the benefit for a single year. But if it becomes permanent, as Democrats intend, it will greatly enlarge the safety net for the poor and the middle class at the same time when the volatile modern economy often leaves families moving between those groups.  More than 93 percent of children—69 million—would receive benefits under the plan, at a one-year cost of more than $100 billion.” For years, DeParle has covered the impact on children and families of the 1996 welfare reform.  His analysis is definitely worth reading.

Additionally, the American Rescue Plan includes relief to shore up the provision of child care, which has been threatened during this COVID-19 year. The executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Olivia Golden explains: “The legislation contains $39 billion for the child care sector: $15 billion to expand the Child Care and Development Block Grant and $24 billion for a fund to stabilize the economically devastated child care sector. The investment builds on previous coronavirus relief bills to finally deliver $50 billion in child care relief, which CLASP has demonstrated is so vitally needed to keep child care providers afloat, support the child care workforce—disproportionately women of color—and allow child care to reopen safely. Child care is crucial infrastructure for the economy, and its restoration is critical for women’s return to the labor market. The legislation supports parents and children by including funds to make quality child care affordable for people with low incomes as they return to work.”

Golden summarizes why the American Rescue Plan is so important as our nation seeks a way out of the current health and economic crisis wrought by COVID-19: “The American Rescue Plan is the urgent response the nation needs. It’s the large-scale response required at this moment to many of our nation’s most pressing needs created by the coronavirus, recession, and racial inequity… It will alleviate today’s crisis of suffering in communities with low incomes and meaningfully reduce child poverty.”