Stunning New Book Contextualizes Tragedy of 2013 School Closures in Chicago’s Hyper-Segregated History

Eve Ewing’s new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, explores the blindness, deafness, and heartlessness of technocratic, “portfolio school reform”* as it played out in 50 school closings in Chicago at the end of the school year in 2013. After months of hearings, the Chicago Public Schools didn’t even send formal letters to the teachers, parents and students in the schools finally chosen for closure.  People learned which schools had finally been shut down when the list was announced on television.

Eve Ewing, a professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and a former teacher in one of the closed schools, brings her training as a sociologist to explore this question: “But why do people care about these failing schools?” (p. 13)  In four separate chapters, Ewing examines the question from different perspectives: (1) the meaning for the community of the closure of Dyett High School and the hunger strike that reopened the school; (2) the history of segregation in Chicago as part of the Great Migration, followed by the intensification of segregation in thousands of public housing units built and later demolished in the Bronzeville neighborhood; (3) the narratives of community members, teachers, parents and students about the meaning of their now-closed schools in contrast to the narrative of the portfolio school planners at Chicago Public Schools; and (4) the mourning that follows when important community institutions are destroyed.

We hear an English teacher describing the now-closed school where she had taught: “I never considered us as a failing school or failing teachers or failing students. I felt like pretty much everyone in that building was working really hard for those kids…. Trying to push them forward as far as they could go.” (p. 135)

And we hear Rayven Patrick, an eighth grader speaking about the importance of Mayo elementary school at the public hearing which preceded the school’s closure: “Most of my family have went to Mayo. My grandma attended. My mother, my aunt. I came from a big family. The Patricks are known in Mayo. Like, we have been going there for so long. Over the years I have watched lots of students graduate, and they were able to come back to their teachers and tell them how high school has been going. Most of them are in college now, and I see them come to the few teachers that are left at Mayo and tell them of their experience of college and high school. This year I will graduate. And most of the students at Mayo… They’re family to me.  Little sisters and little brothers. I walk through the hallway, and every kid knows who I am. I’m able to speak to them, and I honestly, I wanna be able to watch them graduate.” (pp. 108-109)

Ewing also shares the justification for the 50 school closures by Barbara Byrd-Bennett, then Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed school district CEO: “But for too long, children in certain parts of our city have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom because they are trapped in underutilized schools. These underutilized schools are also under-resourced.” (p. 4)

Throughout the book, teachers, students, parents, and grandparents point out the irony that Byrd-Bennett has criticized their now-closed school for being under-resourced.  She is herself the person with enough power to have changed the funding formula that left some schools with ever-diminishing resources. Community members also complain again and again that at the same time neighborhood public schools are being shut down, the school district has been encouraging rapid growth in the number of charter schools.

But Ewing, the sociologist, also examines the justification read at the school closure hearing by Brittany Meadows, the Chicago Public Schools Portfolio Planner.  Here is just a short section of Meadows’s explanation: “To understand the enrollment efficiency range of a facility, Chicago Public Schools utilizes its space utilization standards which are located in your binder at Tab 14. The enrollment efficiency range is plus or minus 20% of the facility’s ideal enrollment.  For elementary school buildings, the ideal enrollment is defined as the number of allotted homerooms multiplied by 30…  As such, the enrollment efficiency range of the Mayo facility is tween 552 and 828 students.  As I stated, the enrollment of Mayo as of the 20th day of attendance for the 2012-2013 school year is 408.  This number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized.” (p. 100)

Ewing responds to Meadows’ presentation: “Meadows closes with the language of logic: ‘This number is below the enrollment efficiency range’….  Meadows presents this data using an ‘if…then’ statement, explaining the calculation of the metrics without explaining the validity of the constructs involved.  In this manner the school closure proposal appears natural and inevitable.  Well, of course, since this number is below the enrollment efficiency rate, this is what happens next…  The logic implied in Meadows’s statement reflects a certain view of reality: the idea that the most important aspects of the educational enterprise can easily be captured in no-nonsense, non-debatable numeric facts.  These numbers are taken to be unbiased and a truer representation of what happens in a school building than more qualitative measures (teacher observations, for instance), which are seen as overly subjective or unreliable. These quantifiable facts are also seen as a necessity—perhaps an imperfect measure, but a needed force for decision making….” (p. 101) (Emphasis in the original.)

Not only Ewing’s chapter about the Bronzeville community’s grief for its closed schools but also the entire book portrays the enormity of the historic mistake of technocratic, top-down school reform in Chicago. You must read Ghosts in the Schoolyard to hear the sadness of the children and their families and the despair of the teachers.  At the end of her story, Ewing wonders: “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (pp. 158-159)

*The think tank that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”

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What to Do to Support Students Who Are Chronically Absent from School?

Two new reports—from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and from Attendance Works—explore chronic student absenteeism and its consequences for student achievement and graduation.  Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must begin reporting data about students’ chronic absence in their accountability reports.  Attendance Works even posts an online interactive map from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution where a person can find chronic absence data about one’s own school district.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as students missing not just days but also weeks of school.  Attendance Works defines chronic absenteeism as, “missing 10 percent of school—the equivalent of two days every month or 18 days over a 180-day school year.”  While all school districts record students’ absences from school, until recent years most have not tracked each individual student’s accrued absences over the semester or the school year. Now school districts are required to watch and intervene when individual students’ attendance patterns become worrisome.

What is clear is that, while there are a number of ways researchers measure students’ chronic absence from school, the problem is serious:  When students miss too much school, they learn less, they fall behind, and they are more likely to drop out without graduating.  And students who are poor are more likely to miss school.

Writing for Attendance Works, Hedy Chang, Lauren Bauer, and Vaughan Byrnes explain: “Especially hard hit are children who live in poverty, have chronic health conditions or disabilities, or experience homelessness or frequent moves.  When chronic absence reaches high levels in a school or classroom, it can affect every student’s opportunity to learn, because the resulting churn—with students cycling in and out of the classroom—is disruptive for all and hampers teachers’ ability to meet students’ diverse learning needs.”

And before they delve into a data analysis, EPI researchers, Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss summarize past research: “Poor health, parents’ nonstandard work schedules, low socioeconomic status… changes in adult household composition (e.g. adults moving into or out of the household), residential mobility, and extensive family responsibilities (e.g. children looking after siblings)—along with inadequate supports for students within the educational system (e.g. lack of adequate transprtation, unsafe conditions, lack of medical services, harsh disciplinary measures, etc.)—are all associated with a greater likelihood of being absent, and particularly with being chronically absent.”

When we think about chronic absence, most of us think about students who cut school to hang out—students who are bored or disaffected.  But other issues are harder to address.  One teacher I know told me about a student who was late every day because she had to wait to come to school until a van came to take her quadriplegic mother to a care center. Another teacher who has been substituting in a huge high school told me he was frustrated because in the five sections of the English class he had to teach every day, it seemed that a different group of students was present each day. It seemed baffling to cope with the churn.

From the University of California at Berkeley and the Learning Policy Institute, David Kirp describes a new program in Los Angeles that seems to be paying off: “The Los Angeles Unified School District has invested in a new, low-cost approach to curbing absenteeism that’s been proven to move the needle. It’s a simple, potent idea: Enlist parents as allies in keeping their kids in school.”  Many parents, he writes, are unaware that their children are missing school: “To correct these misperceptions and to enlist parents in keeping kids in school, 190,000 Los Angeles families whose kids met the chronically absent standard in the past will be mailed attendance information five times a year.”  The letters are simple: “Billy has missed more school than his classmates—16 days so far in this school year… Students fall behind when they miss school. …Absences matter and you can help.”  Kirp reports that chronic absenteeism has dropped not only in Los Angeles, but also by 10 or 15 percent in Philadelphia and Chicago after such reporting to parents becomes routine.

The research from EPI and Attendance Works, however, indicates that chronic absenteeism very frequently reflects that students who miss school are facing serious health and family challenges which can be addressed only through additional support by teachers, counselors and social workers to help students find ways to make their own schooling a priority even when other problems intervene.

Two primary school reforms come to mind. The first is to make classes small enough that teachers can really come to know their students and the barriers for students that make school attendance difficult.  This is harder in a middle school or high school, however, where teachers work with likely five classes a day—a total of 125 students even when class size is kept at 25 students.

The benefits of wrap-around, full-service Community Schools (see here or here) become apparent in the context of such challenges.  With medical and dental clinics located in the school, parents don’t have to keep kids out of school because they have forgotten the necessary immunizations. The toothache can be addressed promptly with only an hour away from class. Such schools also employ social workers to help families balance the responsibilities that sometimes put care-giving in conflict with school and to help parents and students address issues like transportation.

These schools are also designed to welcome families warmly and authentically. In Community Schools in Action (Oxford University Press, 2005), the assistant director of the New York Children’s Aid Society National Technical Assistance Center for Community Schools, Hersilia Mendez describes the role of parent outreach and parent engagement in a Community School: “In its work in Community Schools, the Children’s Aid Society sees parents as assets and key allies, not as burdens; we aim not only to increase the number of parents involved in their children’s education but also to deepen the intensity of their involvement and to encourage greater participation in their children’s future. As we engage parents in skills workshops and advocacy events, we also create a critical link to the home, allowing us to serve and empower whole families… The Children’s Aid Society wanted to erase the mixed invitation that schools often extend to parents—that parents should be involved in their children’s schooling but only on the school’s terms and often in rather menial ways… For an immigrant like me… Public School 5’s warm atmosphere was beyond belief.  The beautifully furnished family room, the smell of fresh coffee, the presence of so many parents at all times, and, in particular, the friendly disposition of the staff were heartwarming. To me, it was an inconceivable atmosphere to find in any school, let alone a New York City public school… The parent involvement model is culturally responsive and provides multiple entry points for meeting parents at their level as well as multiple opportunities to engage with, support, and strengthen the school.” (pp. 42-45)

Schools Serving Very Poor Children Need Financial Assistance. Instead Ohio Beats Them Up.

Ohio operates a test-and-punish accountability scheme that ranks and rates schools and school districts, and punishes school districts whose scores are low.  All the while, the state has diminished its effort to support public education and equalize funding.

In mid-September, for example, the state released school report cards awarding schools and school districts letter grades—“A” through “F.”  Like two other districts recently taken over by the state after receiving a series of “F” grades, East Cleveland will be seized by the state and assigned a state-appointed overseer CEO to replace its school superintendent and an appointed commission to replace the local school board.  East Cleveland—an economically and racially segregated inner-ring Cleveland suburban school district—is among Ohio’s very poorest.  Historically the residents in the community have voted high millage relative to their incomes to pay for their public schools despite the closure of local industry and the collapse of the economy.  The school districts in two other impoverished communities, Youngstown and Lorain, were taken over in recent years without a subsequent rise in test scores, the state’s chosen metric. Both received “F” grades again this year. The implementation of state takeover has been insensitive and insulting. Ohio’s Plunderbund reported in March that Krish Mohip, the state overseer CEO in Youngstown, feels he cannot safely move his family to the community where he is in charge of the public schools. He has also been openly interviewing for other jobs. Lorain’s CEO, David Hardy tried to donate the amount of what would be the property taxes on a Lorain house to the school district, when he announced that he does not intend to bring his family to live in Lorain.

EdChoice vouchers are a second high stakes punishment in the school attendance zones of “F”-rated schools. EdChoice gives families the opportunity to opt their children out of “failing” public schools by granting their children a chance to leave at public expense.  Writing for the Heights Observer, Susan Kaeser describes how this works in another Cleveland inner-ring suburban school district: “Access to EdChoice vouchers is tied to Ohio’s deeply flawed education accountability system.  If the aggregate test score data for an individual public school falls short, the school is defined as an EdChoice school.  Anyone residing in the attendance area of that school who could have attended that school is eligible for an EdChoice voucher… Nearly every district that has EdChoice designation serves many high-need students.”

Most students using EdChoice vouchers in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District which Kaeser describes are attending religious schools, and in fact real estate companies have been marketing houses in the state-designated neighborhoods as qualifying for EdChoice vouchers. Children can qualify for one of these vouchers as Kindergartners, without ever attending or intending to enroll in the public school that anchors the neighborhood. As Kaeser explains, “Once a student receives a voucher it can be renewed until the student graduates… Voucher use has grown exponentially as more schools were designated EdChoice and as recipients renew their vouchers.  This year, 176 Kindergarten students received first-time vouchers (without previously enrolling in a public school), adding to the total of more than 650 recipients.  The expected loss to the CH-UH district this year from EdChoice is $3.7 million….”  The rapid expansion of this program is fiscally unsustainable.

In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter tracks the impact statewide of Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers. Over the ten years since the program’s inception, it has grown from 3,100 to 22,153 students.  Fleeter explains: “EdChoice vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and up to $6,000 for students in grades 9-12.”  He continues, explaining that while the money ostensibly comes from the state, EdChoice is “funded through a ‘district deduction’ system… The deduction system means that the voucher student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the voucher is paid for by deducting the voucher amount from the district’s state aid.  This can often result in a district seeing a deduction for the voucher greater than the state aid that was received for that student, meaning that the district is in effect subsidizing the voucher program.”  While in FY 2007, $10,368,839 was spent statewide for EdChoice vouchers.  By FY 2017, the amount statewide had climbed to $102,688,259.  Over the decade, a total of $649,158,483 of state and local tax dollars was diverted from public schools to private school tuition through EdChoice vouchers.

All of Ohio’s school districts where students qualify for EdChoice vouchers are districts serving very poor children. And yet, last month in a new report Howard Fleeter explains: “(R)esidential taxpayers in the low wealth districts are paying taxes at nearly the same rate as are their higher wealth counterparts… The Tax Effort measure shows that when ability to pay is taken into account, the low wealth districts are levying taxes at the highest rate relative to their income, while the highest wealth districts are levying taxes at the lowest rate relative to income.”  Fleeter continues: “(T)he lowest wealth… districts have seen their share of total state and local resources fall from 26.4% in FY99 to 23.1% in FY19, while the highest wealth… school districts have seen their share of total state and local resources increase from 22.2% in FY99 to 23.4% in FY19.  Unsurprisingly… a variety of equity measures indicate that equity in state and local school operating revenues improved from FY99 to FY 09, but regressed somewhat from FY09 to FY19.”

When he was interviewed by Jim Siegel for the Columbus Dispatch, Fleeter was less technical and more candid about the state’s school funding formula: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Siegel reminds readers about the impact of the 2008 Great Recession, compounded by state tax cuts promoted by Governor John Kasich and passed by the legislature: “GOP leaders… eliminated the tangible personal property tax, which more than a decade ago generated about $1.1 billion per year for schools.  For a time, state officials reimbursed schools for those losses, but that has largely been phased out… And finally, there are Gov. John Kasich’s funding formula and fiscal priorities, including income-tax cuts that have meant an estimated $3 billion less in available revenue each year… Kasich crafted a new formula designed to drive funding to districts with the least ability to raise their own local funds, but Fleeter and public education officials have argued that it doesn’t quite work properly.”

Through various schemes to privatize education—EdChoice and several other voucher programs along with a large charter school sector—Governor Kasich and the Republican legislature have found another method, in addition to the flawed school funding formula, to divert needed state dollars out of public schools across the state.  State takeovers of struggling school districts and EdChoice vouchers are the clearest examples in state policy of punitive, top down programs that blame and punish local educators in poor communities instead of driving resources and support to communities serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Once again, it is appropriate to quote Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explaining in The Testing Charade just how high stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face the overwhelming challenge of student poverty:  “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)

Ohio Releases 2018 School Report Cards, Brands Poorest School Districts with “F”s

Yesterday, Ohio released school district report cards that reflect the test-and-punish theory that if we hold schools accountable for raising students’ test scores and graduation rates, teachers will somehow rise to the occasion and find a way to raise measured achievement to high levels.  Instead, the new state report cards demonstrate just what we already knew they would.  While the 2018 school report cards in Ohio have now become official and will subject the school districts branded with “F”s to punishments like state takeover, the state has been releasing unofficial, trial-balloon school and school district grades for several years now, and every time, the school districts in the state’s wealthiest communities got “A”s while city school districts, and inner-ring suburbs got “D”s and  “F”s.

This year, 28 school districts across Ohio earned “A” ratings. Twenty-three “A”-rated school districts are located in the state’s wealthiest suburban and exurban areas surrounding Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and Toledo. Eleven of the A-rated suburban districts are located in greater Cleveland, including five of Cuyahoga County’s privileged suburbs and six exurbs in the surrounding Geauga, Summit, Portage, Lorain and Medina Counties.  Five “A”-rated school districts are located in small towns—four in prosperous farming country in western Ohio.

Fourteen districts across Ohio received “F”s yesterday. These include the majority of the state’s largest cities: Cleveland, Canton, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.  Ohio’s other two big-city school districts—Cincinnati and Akron—earned “D” grades. The list of so-called “F” school districts also includes a number of very poor, segregated inner ring suburbs including East Cleveland and Euclid in greater Cleveland and North College Hill in greater Cincinnati. The two Ohio school districts currently under state takeover—Youngstown and Lorain—did not improve this year under state management; both earned “F” grades. Three school districts were waiting to learn whether the state would take them over if they earned an “F” again for the third time this year: Warrensville Heights in greater Cleveland and Trotwood-Madison in greater Dayton raised their scores to “D” and avoided the takeover. East Cleveland, among the very poorest and most racially segregated school districts in Ohio, will face state takeover, as its 2018 grade adds a third year to the district’s “F” ratings.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell has been reporting since 2013 (here and here) on what many Ohio researchers and educators believe is the correlation of the state’s school and school district grades with aggregate family income in the communities served by particular school districts.

More broadly, academic research, for half a century since the 1966 Coleman Report, has confirmed the correlation of school achievement—measured by standardized achievement tests and graduation rates—with aggregate neighborhood and family economic circumstances.  More recently, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon has shown that our society is resegregating by income with wealthy families and poor families moving to separate communities. Reardon also demonstrates that the number of mixed income communities is declining. Reardon has also shown that as our society is becoming more residentially segregated by family income, there has been a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.  The geographic distribution of Ohio’s 2018, “A”–“F” school grades demonstrates the growing residential segregation of our state’s metropolitan areas and the kind of economic achievement gap Reardon has identified.

In his important new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz describes the testing regime formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act: “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)

A new report this week from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools additionally indicts what remains very unequal school funding.  While it has been repeatedly demonstrated that school districts where poverty is concentrated need extra money to meet their students’ many needs, these school districts across the United States have fewer dollars per pupil once state and local funding is combined: “Districts serving white and more affluent students spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars more, per pupil, than high poverty school districts and those serving majorities of Black and Brown students. The challenges faced by these schools—larger class size, fewer experienced teachers, the lack of libraries, science equipment, technology and counselors—all reflect a lack of resources.”  The report adds, “The Education Trust found that in 2015, on average, districts with large majorities of students of color provided about $1,800 (13 percent) less per student than districts in the same state serving the fewest students of color.”  Howard Fleeter, an economist and school funding analyst at the Ohio Education Policy Institute, confirmed in a recent report that Ohio’s current school funding formula fails to compensate for vastly unequal local fiscal capacity across Ohio’s school districts.

There are many reasons to be concerned about the broader implications of Ohio’s policy of awarding “A”–“F” grades to the state’s very unequally funded school districts—places which also reflect the geographic distribution of our society’s massive family economic inequality. While the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools and publish the results, and while ESSA says that standardized test scores and graduation rates must be part of the calculation, Congress does not require states to award a single “summative” grade to each school and school district.  Several years ago in greater Cleveland, a local fair housing agency, Heights Community Congress sponsored a well-attended program on how real estate websites—like Great Schools, which at the time published A-F grades for public schools (Great Schools now uses numerical ratings.)—have been redlining particular school districts and the neighborhoods in the attendance zones of particular schools. You would think these real estate websites have been violating the Fair Housing Act by steering families away from particular school districts, but they have been, in fact, merely using the information provided by the state of Ohio in the school report cards. The branding of public schools with “A”–“F” grades (or today’s Great Schools’ numerical system) encourages families who can afford it to avoid poor and mixed income school districts and buy homes in homogeneously white and wealthy exurbia.

Instead of branding Ohio’s poorest African American and Hispanic school districts with “F”s and punishing the state’s very poorest school districts with state takeover, the state should significantly increase its financial support for public schools in poor communities and encourage the development of full-service wraparound schools that provide medical and social services for families right at school.  Ohio’s system of branding the state’s poorest schools with “F” grades and imposing sanctions like state takeover undermines support for public education in school districts that desperately need strong community institutions.  The school district report cards also encourage segregation of the state’s metropolitan areas by race and family income.

William Mathis: What Standardized Tests Measure and What They Can’t Tell Us

Since 2002, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, American public schools, and later their teachers, have been evaluated by the standardized test scores of their students.  States have been required to punish the schools with the lowest scores—firing their principals or some of their teachers, closing the schools, or turning them over to charter schools.  But the idea that we can judge schools and judge teachers by metrics—by the aggregate test scores of their students—evolved long before the passage of No Child Left Behind—even prior to the publication in 1983 of the A Nation At Risk report that is said to have begun the wave of standards-based school reform. Perhaps it has been part of growing enchantment with our society’s advancing capacity to collect and analyze data.

Today it is becoming widely acknowledged, however, that the strategy of test-and-punish didn’t improve public schools, didn’t identify the best or the worst teachers, and didn’t help students who had been left far behind.  Even so, the narrative that we should judge schools by their test scores has become what everybody just believes—the conventional wisdom.

In a new commentary, Education Reforms: Everything Important Cannot Be Measured, (also published here), William Mathis, the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, traces the long history of our belief that raising test scores will be the solution to our society’s problems. And he identifies two primary flaws in this thinking.

First, Mathis reminds us that the standardized test scores which carry so much weight these days measure more about what happens in children’s lives outside of school than the tests measure the quality of the school  As a society, Mathis explains, we misread test scores: “That is, the low scores are strongly affected by circumstances outside the schools. Children coming from violent, economically challenged and drug addicted homes, as a group, are not going to do as well as their more fortunate classmates. As the family income gap between children has widened, the achievement gap has also widenedA Stanford professor compared all the school districts in the nation using six different measures of socio-economic well-being and found that a stunning 70% of test scores could be predicted by these six factors.  When the PARCC tests, which are used to test “college and career readiness” were compared with freshman grade point average, the tests only predicted between one and 16% of the GPA. What this means is that the tests do a better job of measuring socio-economic status than measuring schools. This pattern has been solidly and consistently confirmed by a mountain of research since the famous Coleman report in 1966.  It pointed to family and social problems rather than schools.”

Second, much of the most important contribution of schools to children’s development can’t be measured at all by standardized tests. Mathis concludes: “In focusing on what is easily measured, rather than what is important, we fail to grasp the real problem. To be sure, tests measure reading and math reasonably well and we need to keep tests for that purpose. But that’s only one part of education. Schools also teach children to get along with others, prepare young people for citizenship, encourage creativity, teach job and human skills, integrate communities, teach tolerance and co-operation, and generally prepare students to be contributing members of society. These things are not so easily measured.” “By concentrating only on the easily measurable, we squeeze the life out of schools. We devalue, de-emphasize and defund things that lead to a better life, better schools and a better civilization…  Parents want their children to grow and lead productive, happy lives and contribute to society. They want their children to practice civic virtue and have loving relationships. But these things are not easily measured by a test.”

As a public school educator and an academic, Mathis brings a unique point of view to this topic.  Under his leadership, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) publishes expert research on education by academics at major universities.  NEPC also publishes expert, third-party reviews of selected non-peer-reviewed publications—many of them reviews of so-called research from ideological think tanks.  NEPC’s website declares: “Using academic peer review standards, reviewers consider the quality and defensibility of a report’s assumptions, methods, findings, and recommendations.”

But Mathis is also a lifelong public school educator.  He has spent his working life in public schools and he knows from experience what matters in schools. He is the former superintendent of schools of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year.  Today Mathis serves on the Vermont State Board of Education.

Baffled by the test-and-punish policy our society has been actively pursuing for decades—despite massive evidence that we ought to be addressing poverty, inequality and segregation along with improving our public schools—Mathis ponders the path we’ve chosen to follow: “We collected more data. We now have ‘data dash-boards.’ Countless ads on the web tout this lucrative market and proclaim how people can ‘drill down,’ create interactive charts and visuals to provide ‘deep learning.’ They display all manner of things such as differences by ethnic group, technical education, graduation rate and a myriad of exotic esoterica.  By all means, we need to continue to collect this important data. The problem is that we already know what the dash-board tells us.”

However, “What it doesn’t tell us is the nature of the real problems and how to correct them. First, we must look to those things outside the school that affect school performance. Second, in addition to hard data, we must use on-the-ground observations to see whether we provide legitimate opportunities to all children, whether the school is warm and inviting, and whether the curriculum is up to date and well-delivered.”

Repeating My Recommendation: Please Read Daniel Koretz’s Book, “The Testing Charade”

How has high stakes testing ruined our schools and how has this strategy, which was at the heart of No Child Left Behind, made it much more difficult to accomplish No Child Left Behind’s stated goal of reducing educational inequality and closing achievement gaps?

Here is how Daniel Koretz begins to answer that question in his 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better: In 2002, No Child Left Behind “mandated that all states use the proficient standard as a target and that 100 percent of students reach that level. It imposed a short timeline for this: twelve years. It required that schools report the performance of several disadvantaged groups and it mandated that 100 percent of each of these groups had to reach the proficient standard. It required that almost all students be tested the same way and evaluated against the same performance standards.  And it replaced the straight-line approach by uniform statewide targets for percent proficient, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)…. The law mandated an escalating series of sanctions for schools that failed to make AYP for each reporting group.” Later, “Arne Duncan used his control over funding to increase even further the pressure to raise scores.  The most important of Duncan’s changes was inducing states to tie the evaluation of individual teachers, rather than just schools, to test scores… The reforms caused much more harm than good. Ironically, in some ways they inflicted the most harm on precisely the disadvantaged students the policies were intended to help.”

Koretz poses the following question and his book sets out to answer it: “But why did the reforms fail so badly?”

I recommend Daniel Koretz’s book all the time as essential reading for anyone trying to figure out how we got to the deplorable morass that is today’s federal and state educational policy.  I wish I thought more people were reading this book. Maybe people are intimidated that its author is a Harvard expert on the design and use of standardized tests.  Maybe it’s the fact that the book was published by the University of Chicago Press. But I don’t see it in very many bookstores, and when I ask people if they have read it, most people tell me they intend to read it. To reassure myself that it is really worth reading, I set myself the task this past weekend of re-reading the entire book. And I found re-reading it to be extremely worthwhile.

The book divides into three parts—an introductory section of several chapters—six or seven chapters in the middle that dissect the way high stakes testing has undermined education and damaged the education of our nation’s poorest children—and some wrap-up chapters. It is the middle part that is essential. While Koretz has some ideas near the end about where we go from here, his analysis of the damage caused is the crucial part. After all, this section at the heart of the book addresses the conversational dilemma many readers of this blog must face as often as I do. What can you say to the person who doggedly tells you that a particular school is a fine school because its scores are high and another school is a failure because its test scores are so low? This person, often well-intentioned, has lived with test-based school accountability for so long that he cannot imagine there is any other way to consider school quality. And anyway, he says, standardized testing is what we have to evaluate schools, so it’s what we need to use.

Koretz explains a 40-year-old social science rule first articulated by Don Campbell, who Koretz identifies as “one of the founders of the science of program evaluation.” Here is how Campbell stated what we now call “Campbell’s Law”: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” The rest of the central chapters in Koretz’s book explain precisely how the use of high stakes punishments tied to low test scores has triggered Campbell’s Law. What are the high stakes punishments?  First came the school turnarounds prescribed by No Child Left Behind —firing the principal and half the teachers, closing the school, charterizing the school.  Later Arne Duncan added the evaluation of teachers by students’ test scores—and schemes rewarding teachers whose students scored well and firing the teachers whose students post low scores. Koretz summarizes No Child Left Behind’s test-and punish strategy: “The reformers’ implicit assumption seemed to be that many teachers knew how to teach more effectively but were being withholding, and therefore confronting them with sanctions and rewards would be enough to get them to deliver.”

Three chapters explore how No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish strategy has distorted schooling itself and has undermined how teachers teach and how students learn.

  • Score Inflation: When the state achievement tests mandated by No Child Left Behind—the ones that would bring negative consequences for schools and teachers—were compared by experts like Koretz himself to another “audit” test such as the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP), which has no high stakes consequences, the researchers discovered that while the scores on the state test rose rapidly, NAEP scores remained flat.  Koretz comments: “(I)ncreases in scores are meaningful only if they signal similar increases in mastery of the domain.  If they do generalize to the domain, gains should appear on other tests that sample from the same domain.” He continues: “(A)ll that is required for scores to become inflated is that the sampling used to create a test has to be predictable… For inflation to occur, teachers or students need to capitalize on this predictability, focusing on the specifics of the test at the expense of the larger domain.”  And there are equity concerns here, because score inflation has occurred more often in schools serving poor students: “Ongoing work by my own group has shown… that it is not just the poverty of individual students that predicts the amount of inflation but also the concentration of poor students in a school… (S)chools with a higher proportion of poor students showed greater average inflation.” Teachers under pressure are finding a way to raise test scores without really teaching the students the material they are supposed to be learning.  Some schools have also inflated overall scores by focusing primarily on children right at the pass/fail level and paying less attention to students far behind.
  • Cheating: Koretz examines the big cheating scandals, notably Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.  He notes: “Cheating—by teachers and administrators, not by students—is one of the simplest ways to inflate scores, and if you aren’t caught, it’s the most dependable.” Sometimes teachers or administrators erase and change students answers; sometimes they provide teachers or students with the test items in advance; other times teachers give students the answer during the test.  And finally sometimes schools “scrub” off the enrollment rolls the students who are likely to fail.
  • Test Prep: Test prep narrows what is taught to students to the material that is tested.  Koretz identifies three kinds of bad test prep. Reallocation between subjects has been common when schools emphasize No Child Left Behind’s tested subjects—reading and math—and cut back on social studies, the arts, music and recess. Reallocation within subjects is when schools study past years’ versions of the state tests and ask teachers to focus on particular aspects of a subject.  Finally there is coaching. Schools and test-prep companies teach students to respond in a formulaic way to the format of the questions themselves. Koretz explains why all this has implications for educational equity: “Inappropriate test preparation, like score inflation, is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it—in particular, above the ‘proficient’ cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students…. Once again, disadvantaged kids are getting the short end of the stick.”

Two chapters in this middle section explore the ways No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish scheme has undermined equitable access to education in the schools in areas of concentrated poverty across our cities. The law that promised to leave no child behind not only encouraged test prep and cheating in the schools whose needs were greatest, but it also set impossibly tough and largely arbitrary test score targets for those schools and an impossibly short timeline for bringing students up to those targets.  And then the federal government set out to punish the schools and the teachers unable to meet the targets.

  • Making Up Unrealistic Targets: In this chapter, Koretz explains how No Child Left Behind’s standardized cut scores and timelines were set unrealistically and arbitrarily; the consequence was to label schools in poor areas as “failing” and to subject schools in areas of concentrated poverty to a series of punishments. Here is Koretz’s short summary: “Part of the blame for this failure lies with the crude and unrealistic methods used to confront inequity.  In a nutshell, the core of the approach has been simply to set an arbitrary performance target (the ‘Proficient’ standard) and declare that all schools must make all students reach it in an equally arbitrary amount of time.  No one checked to make sure the targets were practical.  The myriad factors that cause some students to do poorly in school—both the weaknesses of many of the schools they attend and the disadvantages some students bring to school—were given remarkably little attention. Somehow teachers would just pull this off… The trust most people have in performance standards is essential, because the entire educational system now revolves around them. The percentage of kids who reach the standard is the key number determining which teachers and schools will be rewarded or punished… But in fact, despite all the care that goes into creating them, these standards are anything but solid. They are arbitrary, and the ‘percent proficient’ is a very slippery number… A primary motivation for setting a Proficient standard is to prod schools to improve, but information about how quickly teachers actually can improve student learning doesn’t play much, if any, of a role in setting performance standards… However, setting the standards themselves is just the beginning. What gives the performance standards real bite is their translation into concrete targets for educators, which depends on more than the rigor of the standard itself… We have to say how quickly performance has to increase—not only overall but for different types of kids and schools. A less obvious but equally important question is how much variation in performance is acceptable.”
  • Evaluating Teachers: In 2009, beginning with Race to the Top and later as a condition for states to qualify for waivers from the worst consequences of No Child Left Behind, Arne Duncan’s Department of Education required states to change their laws to tie a percentage of teachers’ formal evaluations to students’ test scores. Myriad problems ensued. First of all, the required tests are in reading and math. What about the other teachers? Koretz describes Florida and Tennessee, which judged teachers in non-tested grades and subjects by the scores of students who were not in their classes, and in one case not in their schools.  Other states added tests in music, art, and physical education—subjecting students to added standardized testing—just for the purpose of state teacher evaluations.  Koretz explains the problems with Value-Added Modeling to evaluate teachers; many factors affecting students’ scores cannot be traced to any teacher and any teacher’s ratings seem to be unstable over several years.

I cannot imagine exactly how our society can recover from the our terrible test-and-punish misadventure and our labeling as “failing” the institutions and teachers who serve our poorest children.  What is heartening about The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better is the clarity with which Daniel Koretz presents our current dilemma: “We now know what many educators did.  Faced with unrealistic targets, some cut corners or simply cheated.  And perhaps because the system, in its zeal to address inequities, made the targets most unrealistic for educators serving disadvantaged kids, those kids—ironically—got the worst of it: the most test prep, the most score inflation, and apparently the most cheating.  And yet inflated scores allowed policy makers to declare victory, and the public received a steady diet of encouraging but bogus news about rapid improvements in the achievement gap…. On balance… the reforms have been a failure.”

Please read The Testing Charade.  We all need to understand and be able to explain how we’ve gone so far astray.

Kansas Supreme Court Declares School Funding Equitable; More Money Needed for Adequate System

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Kansas found that the state’s school funding system remains unconstitutional, but gave the state a year to increase the funding. This is a relief to families, as the Court had threatened to force the legislature into a special summer session to increase school funding or shut down school altogether for the fall.  It also is a relief for those looking for justice for the state’s children because it means the Court has retained jurisdiction in the case—to ensure that the legislature will have to find enough money to provide for the needs of children in the state’s public schools.

The case of Gannon v. Kansas preceded Sam Brownback’s tax-slashing tenure as Kansas’ governor, but Brownback’s tax cuts only made matters more desperate for public school districts in Kansas, and particularly for the school districts serving the state’s poorest children.

Writing on June 26, school finance expert Derek Black explains what just happened in Kansas: “Yesterday, the Kansas Supreme Court issued its third decision in two years regarding the state’s school funding practices.  Yet again, the court found that the state had failed to meet its constitutional duty… The two big issues before the court were the equality of its financing system and the adequacy. The court found that the state had finally developed a plan that would achieve equitable access to school funding.”

The Court credits the Legislature with addressing inequity, resulting from the fact that the state has been expecting school districts to be able to raise local funding through something called a Local Option Budget (LOB).  Wealthier school districts could afford to do so; very poor districts have not been able sufficiently to supplement the state’s contribution. Black explains: “Under the prior law, not all local districts had the capacity to meet their LOB targets. The new law, according to the court, cures the problem by taking into account the percentage of at-risk students a district serves. Those with higher percentages will calculate their LOB requirement (and the funds they are entitled to from the state) differently than other districts. In short, high-need districts will receive more from the state and be expected to generate less locally.”

While The Court approved this system as the path to equity,  the issue of inadequacy of funding remains. In other words, despite that last year the Legislature raised taxes to offset the revenue catastrophe caused by Sam Brownback’s big experiment with supply-side, tax-slashing economics, the state is still suffering from inadequate revenue. Brownback had predicted that his tax cuts would grow the economy, but his hypothesis was wrong.  Now it is taking years for the state to catch up.

Reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star explain the situation for the 2018-2019 school year: “The Kansas Supreme Court ruled… that a new school funding plan is still inadequate, but gave the Legislature another year to fix it. ‘The State has not met the adequacy requirement in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution,’ the court ruling said.  But if lawmakers add money to compensate for inflation Kansas ‘can bring the K-12 public education financing system into constitutional compliance.’… The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Legislature must meet two tests to satisfy a state constitutional mandate to provide ‘suitable’ education funding: It must be adequate, meaning that there’s enough total money in the system for schools to provide a quality education. And it must be equitable, meaning that the state resources are allocated to give poor children the opportunity to obtain an education of roughly similar quality to what’s provided in wealthy districts.”

Retaining jurisdiction over the case, the Court will consider it again on April 15, 2019, “when both sides will have to file reports on whether they think the Legislature has corrected the remaining constitutional issues.”

In Kansas the Supreme Court has provided the kind of checks and balances that are missing across many of the 26 all-Red states, whose legislators and governors doggedly pursue anti-tax dogma. That is why many far right politicians in Kansas have come to believe the Supreme Court itself is the problem. The reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star quote Susan Wagle, the Senate President and a Wichita Republican: “Today the unelected bureaucrats of the Kansas Supreme Court chose to continue with the endless cycle of school litigation, leading us down the road to an unavoidable tax hike… When Kansas is on par with Nancy Pelosi’s California for sky-high property taxes and families are fleeing the state, we can thank the Kansas Supreme Court.” Senator Wagle and her colleagues are pushing for a constitutional amendment to remove court oversight and make education funding the sole responsibility of the legislature.

What the theoretical discussion of adequacy and equity of school funding misses is the impact on the daily experiences children and schoolteachers. Kansas is one of 12 states identified last November by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities where the per-pupil school funding remained lower than before the great recession in 2008.  Several of the others—Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, West Virginia, and North Carolina—are places where teachers walked out in massive protests this spring. We listened in those states to the teachers’ stories of huge classes, scarcity of counselors and support services, outdated textbooks, pared-down curriculum, and paltry, non-competitive salaries. We need to replay those stories mentally as we read about the Kansas court battle for better school funding.

On a a theoretical level, however, Kansas is a good example of the importance of checks and balances. It is a place where the judicial branch of government is putting a stop to a radical anti-tax experiment launched by the executive and legislative branches. That is how government is supposed to work.