Even Though Schools Are Closed, Advocates Must Keep on Pushing to End Dangerous School “Deformer” Policies

Those of us who care about American public schools have spent nearly twenty years working to undo the damage of a school accountability and privatization movement that has ruined our schools, heaped pressure on teachers and children, and created a publicly funded, private education sector. School privatization on top of widespread state tax slashing has robbed education budgets—ensuring that our children can have neither the basic services they need nor the kind of stimulating, exciting and rigorous education our wealthiest society in the world ought to be able to provide for them.

The pause this month, as public schools are closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, has forced a lot of people to notice that public schools are a more important institution than many had perhaps realized.  We are noticing, for example, that virtual learning cannot substitute for real live teachers working personally to support children as they learn together. And we’ve been forced to notice all the ways we count on schools, as a universal system that provides care and supervision every day and even ensures that hungry children are fed.

At some point, however, schools will reopen, and when they do, I hope those of us who have been working for decades to repair the damage of twenty years of “school deform” won’t have been distracted.  Because we are a society with a short memory, it’s worth reviewing the goals we were working to realize before March, 2020 when the pandemic shut down our public schools.  There is a likelihood that the economic damage from the pandemic may bring added challenges, and we will no doubt be told that the new crisis, whatever it is, is the only thing that matters.

Diane Ravitch’s just-published book, Slaying Goliath, is a particularly timely guide for public school advocates in the months ahead. Ravitch explicitly traces how policy around the public schools has gone badly wrong, and she profiles the work of individuals and emerging movements to save public education after the failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. She also names the lavishly funded advocacy groups pushing policies that undermine public education; they are dogged people who are not going to give up.

Ravitch describes the proponents of test-based, corporate driven education policy as “Disrupters”: “Not every Disrupter believes exactly the same thing… Some believe that test scores are the goal of education… Others, like Betsy DeVos, believe that choice is an end in itself… The corporate leaders of this campaign admire disruptive innovation because high tech businesses do it, so it must be good.. They love charter schools because charters are start-ups without histories just like many new businesses in the modern corporate world… The concept of ‘creative destruction’ is derived from the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter… Corporate Disrupters approve of schools hiring inexperienced teachers with little or no training… because it costs less… Disrupters don’t like democratic control of education by elected local school boards…. They like mayoral control, where one person is in charge; the mayor can usually be counted on to listen to business leaders… The Disrupters oppose teacher tenure and seniority…. They are devoted to cutting taxes, cutting spending on public schools, and turning control of public schools over to private corporations….”  (Slaying Goliath, pp. 28-30)  “Years from now,” writes Ravitch, “historians will look back and wonder why so many very wealthy people spent so much money in a vain attempt to disrupt and privatize public education and why they ignored the income inequality and wealth inequality that were eating away at the vitals of American society.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 50.)

Certainly those of us who support public school improvement do not want merely to return to the past. Correcting injustices in our public system, improving teaching, and expanding the opportunity to learn for all children means neither returning to the past nor endorsing the status quo.  We do, however, agree with the goals Ravitch identifies as the traditional domain of constructive advocates for public schools: “Before the current era, true reformers wanted to make public schools better. They wanted public schools to have more resources. They wanted better prepared teachers or better curriculum, or better teaching materials. They wanted teachers to have higher salaries and smaller classes. They wanted districts to have modern buildings and better playing fields and better physical equipment. They wanted schools to be racially integrated so that all children had the chance to learn alongside others who were different from themselves. They wanted schools to have nurses, health clinics, social workers, psychologists, librarians and libraries, up-to-date technology, and programs for students with disabilities and English language learners.  They wanted all children to have equality of educational opportunity.  They wanted to have good schools with good teachers.” (Slaying Goliath, pp. 27-28)

Schools are closed this spring, but eventually our children and their teachers will return, and the well-funded Disrupters will be back at work trying to push their panoply of policies.

For those of us who stand with the public schools, here are four basic goals to remember throughout this interlude of school closures and as children and their teachers return to their classrooms:

SUPPORT ADEQUATE SCHOOL FUNDING     Champions of public education need to be prepared to advocate strenuously for states to maintain their support for public education even if another recession follows the coronavirus pandemic. After the Great Recession, school funding collapsed across the states. In a 2019 report, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documented that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels. Additionally, because decades of research confirm that segregation by family and neighborhood income is the primary driver of school achievement gaps, advocates will need to pay attention to broader public public programs designed to support families and ameliorate family poverty, press for more full-service wraparound Community Schools, and press for funding to support, rather than punish school districts where test scores are low.  It isn’t merely state budgets which have fallen behind.  This year, Democratic candidates for President have been supporting at least tripling federal Title I funding that invests in school districts where poverty is concentrated, and advocating that the federal government meet its 1975 promise of paying 40 percent of the cost of federally mandated programming under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Today the federal government is covering less than 15 percent of those costs.

PRESS FOR THE ELIMINATION OF HIGH STAKES STANDARDIZED TESTING     Standardized testing must be significantly reduced and must be decoupled from the kind of high stakes that have dominated federal and state policy since No Child Left Behind was enacted in January, 2002.  We now know that No Child Left Behind and the policies it mandated across the states did not work; scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have flatlined in recent years. Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains why using widespread standardized testing to drive teachers’ evaluations, school closures, the firing of school principals, state takeovers of schools, and the turnover of public schools to private operators not only left us with a succession of dangerous policies, but also undermined the validity of the tests themselves as states manipulated their scoring to avoid sanctions.  Further the attachment of high stakes undermined the education process in the schools where children were farthest behind—schools where teachers were forced to teach to the test or fall back on deadly drilling.  Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “The more any quantitative social indicator is 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… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

SUPPORT CHILDREN BY PAYING ATTENTION TO WHAT TEACHERS’ STRIKES HAVE TAUGHT US     Teachers’ working conditions are our children’s learning conditions.  Across the country in 2018 and 2019, striking schoolteachers exposed inexcusable conditions in their public schools from West Virginia, to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago.  We learned about outrageous class sizes; shortages of counselors, school social workers, certified librarians, and school nurses; and salaries so low in some school districts that teachers cannot afford to pay rent on a one bedroom apartment.  Striking teachers have forced us to see the crisis that exists in some entire states along with the financial crisis that prevails across the nation’s urban school districts. Teachers have exposed our society’s failure to create the political will to fund the school districts that serve our poorest children.  Many states have persisted in punishing school districts where child poverty is concentrated and where test scores are low. Only a few states, most recently Massachusetts, with a new funding system, have made the effort significantly to help these districts where the need is greatest.

OPPOSE SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION:  CHARTER SCHOOL EXPANSION AND VOUCHER GROWTH STARVE PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF NECESSARY RESOURCES AND FAIL TO PROTECT STUDENTS’ RIGHTS AND THE INTERESTS OF THE PUBLIC     Disrupters have led us to deny that rampant privatization at public expense is destroying our public schools. However, research confirms that school privatization  through charter school expansion and the growth of vouchers siphons millions of dollars out of the public systems where the majority of our children remain enrolled.

Privatization poses additional problems beyond funding: School choice advocates frame their arguments in libertarian rhetoric about the rights of individuals. Rather, it is only through laws and government regulations that society can protect the rights of students to appropriate services—whatever their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—whether they are English language learners or disabled students with special needs. Private schools to which students carry public vouchers on the other hand, do not protect students’ rights. They can neither be required by law to protect children from religious indoctrination, nor to guarantee a full curriculum, nor even to teach history without bias or promote proven scientific theories. And in state after state the absence of adequate regulation has helped unscrupulous charter school operators steal scarce tax dollars as profits.

It is always worth remembering the warning of the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

No Child Behind Failed, But Kevin Carey’s New Article Doesn’t Go Deep Enough to Explain Why

On Wednesday, Kevin Carey published an important piece in the Washington Post—a profile really of Amy Wilkins, currently the chief lobbyist for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and formerly a lobbyist for many years at The Education Trust.  Carey, the Vice President for Education Policy at the New America Foundation, also worked for three years as a policy analyst at The Education Trust, from 2002-2005, in the years right after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In this week’s article, Carey accurately identifies The Education Trust, founded and directed for many years by Kati Haycock, as “a pro-school-reform organization.” He explains that The Education Trust’s mission grew out of the promises of the Civil Rights Movement—grounded not only in commitment to school integration, but endorsing the mission of the No Child Left Behind Act that test-based school accountability would ensure that schools better served black children, who had for generations been left behind.  The organization was a cheerleader for ending what was often described as the soft bigotry of low expectations: “National tests showed that white students were, on average, far surpassing their black and Latino peers, and that low-income students were falling behind. The Trust called this the ‘achievement gap.’… After the long, inconclusive battles for desegregated and well-funded schools, the federal government would finally ensure that the most disadvantaged students got the good schools they needed.”  The Education Trust also supported expanding school choice through the proliferation of charter schools.

It is significant that in his recent article Carey acknowledges the collapse of the two-decades-long national school accountability narrative. While Amy Wilkins hasn’t compromised her belief in test-based accountability and the creation of escapes for some children into charter schools, even Wilkins concedes a shift away from the vision she continues to endorse: “Amy Wilkins hasn’t given up on school reform.  She remains ‘struck by how politics allows the stubborn self-interest of adults to undermine again and again what’s right for poor kids and kids of color.’ But she says, ‘I have to believe we’re just at the wrong end of the pendulum swing.'”

In addition to profiling Wilkins, Carey also examines the ground shifting underneath public education policy. It is here where I believe his assessment falls short because he neglects to examine a mass of research demonstrating that disruptive, test-and-punish driven school reform has failed our nation’s poorest children.  And privatization through the expansion of charter schools has aggressively robbed the public schools that serve the mass of our children of essential dollars to keep class size small and to retain enough social workers, counselors, certified librarians and school nurses.

As evidence of a shift in the national narrative about education policy, Carey points to Elizabeth Warren’s education platform during her recent campaign for President—a proposal to end the federal Charter Schools Program and quadruple federal Title I funding for public schools serving concentrations of poor children: “Warren wasn’t the only politician who had turned hard against school reform. As the Democratic presidential candidates rolled out their platforms in 2019, they promoted unprecedentedly generous plans for education. Sen. Bernie Sanders called for tripling Title I funding and providing free prekindergarten for all. Former vice president Joe Biden also called for tripling Title I and free pre-K.  Meanwhile, school-reform ideas that had been staples of presidential agendas since the 1980s were nowhere to be found—unless they were being stridently denounced.”

So, what happened?  Carey traces pressure from schoolteachers who have consistently pushed back against the narrowing of the curriculum and the increased drilling that inevitably followed intense pressure to raise scores. Carey also reports on the failure of charter schools consistently to raise scores, the extremely disparate quality of charter schools, and the lack of transparency in these schools which are publicly funded but privately operated. He quotes Wilkins’  assessment of of her movement’s failures: “She… looks back on the school-reform tidal wave she helped unleash in 2001.  One crucial mistake, she says, was making all of NCLB’s consequences fall on individual teachers and schools, not the school districts and state education departments. And she says, ‘we should have been more aggressive about school funding equity. Far, far far more aggressive.'”

Carey’s own critique is deeper.  He explores the paltry fiscal investment Congress made in No Child Left Behind when it ramped up the emphasis on testing and punishing the schools unable quickly to raise scores.  And he reports on evidence that No Child Left Behind and the expansion of charter schools have neither significantly improved achievement overall nor closed achievement gaps: “Did school reform work?  High school graduation rates have improved over the past two decades, probably in response to accountability… NCLB produced modest bumps in student achievement on federal and state tests in the early ears.  Those gains, however, were concentrated in math in the early grades and seem to have plateaued or possibly reversed in recent years… As for charter schools studies have shown that they have not on average performed appreciably better than regular public schools.”  To his credit, Carey explains that mistrust threatens human relationships and institutions, and he criticizes No Child Left Behind for driving mistrust of teachers and public education in general. In fact, the law’s primary mechanism was to threaten educators with punishments if they could not produce ever higher test scores. It blamed schoolteachers for problems we now know they cannot control.

While  Carey is correct that support for the test-and-punish strategy of No Child Left Behind has waned and that skepticism is growing about the rapid expansion of charter schools, his analysis fails to explore several of the most important reasons for the failure of of the reforms The Education Trust endorsed.  Certainly his focus on Amy Wilkins narrows the issues he emphasizes.  Here are academic researchers addressing three problems Carey fails to address:

FIRST  In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on standardized testing, documents research exposing flaws in the entire strategy of No Child Left Behind.  While Carey quotes Wilkins alleging that teachers should have been tougher and resisted pressures to narrow the curriculum and drill for the tests, Koretz describes social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes (in the case of No Child Left Behind–closing schools, charterizing schools, firing principals, firing teachers) are tied to a quantitative social indicator (the assumption that teachers can produce higher aggregate student test scores year after year): “The more any quantitative social indicator is 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… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)  Koretz shows that imposing high stakes punishments on schools and teachers unable quickly to raise students’ scores inevitably produced reallocation of instruction to what would be tested, caused states eventually to lower standards, caused some schools quietly to exclude from testing the students likely to fail, and led to abject cheating—as happened in Atlanta under Superintendent Beverly Hall.

SECOND  Research has demonstrated not only that state legislatures have persistently underfunded their public schools, but also that the rapid expansion of charter schools has been draining millions of dollars out of the school districts where the charter schools are located.  The best documented example is in the Oakland Unified School District, where political economist Gordon Lafer reports that charter schools drain $57.3 million dollars annually out of the public schools.  Here’s why: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

THIRD  Despite many people’s hope that if public schools worked harder and smarter, our society could leave no child behind, it is now well documented that public schools by themselves cannot solve economic inequality and child poverty. David Berliner is the Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University, former president of the American Educational Research Association and former dean of the College of Education at Arizona State University.  Berliner explains: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services. These are often families to whom low-birth-weight babies are frequently born, leading to many more children needing special education… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.” “We certainly do not have the legally sanctioned apartheid of South Africa.  But we should recognize that we do have heavily segregated systems of housing. In New York and Illinois, over 60 percent of black kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are nonwhite and mostly poor.  In California, Texas and Rhode Island, 50 percent or more of Latino kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are also not white, and often poor. Similar statistics hold for American Indian kids.” (Emphasis in the original.)

To summarize the urgent realities that Carey omits from this week’s article but which, together, discredit twenty years of test-and-punish, accountability-based school reform, we can turn to the National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who explain that school reform must address the enormous disparities in opportunity among our children.  Such an an effort would address school funding inequity—the reason Democrats running for President this year have endorsed quadrupling or tripling the federal investment in Title I. It will also be necessary to define the problem not merely as an achievement gap, but instead as an opportunity gap:

“We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society. No Child Left Behind had the explicit purpose of all children achieving high standards and thereby closing the achievement gap by 2014. It did not close. Noting the widening academic achievement gap between rich and poor, Sean Reardon found the gap ‘roughly 20 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier… In an economic and social shift, he reports that family income is now nearly as strong a predictor as parental education. The income achievement gap, which is closely tied to the racial gap, is attributable to income inequality, the increased difficulty of social mobility, the bifurcation of wages and the economy, and a narrowing of school purposes driven by test taking… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children soaring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board.”

DeVos Defends Trump’s Education Budget. Will Democrats Stick to Promises for Something Better?

Betsy DeVos has been on Capitol Hill in recent weeks trying to defend an indefensible, fiscal year 2021 Education Department budget proposal.  She has testified to House and then Senate appropriations subcommittees, where members of Congress deserve credit for defending common sense and the common good by summarily rejecting what Betsy DeVos was trying to sell them.

In late February, DeVos appeared before the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Department of Education.  Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains: “DeVos defended the Trump fiscal year 2021 budget blueprint that would cut $5.6 billion from the U.S. Department of Education’s current budget of $71.2 billion and roll most federal K-12 programs—29 in total—into a formula-driven block grant… ‘What have we bought with all that spending?’ DeVos asked, before answering her own question that there were merely ‘sad results’….”  Ujifusa continues: “But the most significant moment of the hearing perhaps came when Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the chairwoman of the House appropriations committee, told DeVos: ‘We are going to reject this proposal.'”

Last week, DeVos went before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. Unlike the House, the U.S. Senate is dominated by a Republican majority, but that fact did not change the response of members of the committee to the proposal DeVos came to defend. The Hill‘s Marty Johnson quotes DeVos’s assessment of American public schools: “DeVos, in her opening statements… claimed that the new $19.4 billion block grant program would ‘unleash new innovation at the state and local level, and continue to expand proven reforms, including public charter schools, magnet schools, and student-weighted funding.’  DeVos also said that test scores have remained stagnant in the 55 years the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been in place, noting that the federal government has spent $1 trillion over the past 50 years.”

Education Dive‘s Jeremy Bauer-Wolf describes the response of the subcommittee’s chair, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO: “Blunt, who chairs the panel, told DeVos that lawmakers would likely not pass cuts….”  Bauer-Wolf continues: “The White House four years running has put forward deep cuts to the U.S. Department of Education that Congress has rejected.  Trump is seeking to reduce the agency’s funding by roughly 8% in the most recent funding package.”

Trump’s FY 2021 budget proposal for the Department of Education collapses 29 discrete federal programs into a single block grant including the Title I formula program that provides compensatory funding to school districts serving children in concentrated poverty. DeVos says the new plan would give states and local school districts the latitude to choose from the menu of 29 formerly separate programs.  They could use it for 21st Century Learning Center after-school programs, civics education, arts in education, English language acquisition, full-service Community Schools with wraparound social and medical services, homeless education, gifted and talented programs, magnet schools, the startup of new charter schools or any of the other possibilities. A real problem is that by collapsing the programs into one block grant, the Education Department is hiding an overall $5.6 billion reduction in funding for the Department, a 7.8 percent decrease. At the same time DeVos is once again asking Congress to enact her Education Freedom Scholarships—a $5 billion tuition-tax-credit voucher proposal to the Department’s budget. She has proposed the tax-credit vouchers for the past three years as well, but each time Congress has ignored her request.

DeVos’s recent Congressional appearances have featured her standard rhetoric trashing public schools. She claims that federal spending has skyrocketed but student achievement, as measured by test scores, has not increased over the decades.  Richard Rothstein addressed this myth in a 2011 brief for the Economic Policy Institute: “When properly adjusted for inflation, K-12 per pupil spending has about doubled over the last four decades, but less than half of this new money has gone to regular education (including compensatory education for disadvantaged children, programs for English-language learners, integration programs like magnet schools, and special schools for dropout recovery and prevention). The biggest single recipient of new money has been special education for children with disabilities. Four decades ago, special education consumed less than 4% of all K-12 spending. It now consumes 21%… American public education can boast of remarkable accomplishments in special education over this period. Many young people can now function in society whereas, in the past, children with similar disabilities were institutionalized and discarded. But it is not reasonable to complain about the increase in spending on such children by insisting that it should have produced greater improvement in the achievement of regular children. The increase in regular education spending has still been substantial…  But in light of the actual achievement improvements documented by NAEP, it is not reasonable to jump to the facile conclusion of a productivity collapse in K-12 education. A more reasonable story is that spending has increased and achievement has increased as well. Perhaps we have gotten what we paid for.”  Federal programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act were launched as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. These programs were designed to address the needs of groups of children historically left out and underserved.

On Saturday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss corrected DeVos’s allegation that NAEP scores have remained flat: “Not exactly. According to Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, the achievement gaps between white and black students and white and Hispanic students have been narrowing for decades—although unsteadily.  It says: ‘White-black and white-Hispanic achievement gaps have, in general, narrowed substantially since the 1970s in all grades in both math and reading.  The gaps narrowed sharply in the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, but then progress stalled. In fact, some of the achievement gaps grew larger in the late 1980s and the 1990s.  Since the 1990s, however, achievement gaps in every grade and subject have been declining. As of 2012, the white-black and white-Hispanic achievement gaps were 30-40% smaller than they were in the 1970s.’ ”

In the same weeks when DeVos was defending her Republican priorities before Congress, the prospects of Democratic candidates for the fall Presidential election have shifted radically. Now that the number of candidates competing for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination has narrowed, an important challenge remains. Public education has not been an issue at the center of the political conversation this year, except at a December 14, Public Education Forum 2020, in Pittsburgh, where seven of the top candidates—including Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders—came before a convention center filled with teachers, parents, students, community organizing groups, and advocates to discuss how federal policy must be improved to support the nation’s public schools.

In contrast to Betsy DeVos’s allegation that schools have been wasting money with nothing to show for it, all of the Democratic candidates speaking in Pittsburgh acknowledged the reality documented in a report last year from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has also documented that federal Title I formula funding, which supports school districts where student poverty is concentrated, dropped by 6.2 percent between 2008 and 2017.

On December 14, Senator Elizabeth Warren challenged the other candidates with the high bar she had set in her public education plan to quadruple the federal investment in Title I; to fund federally (as Congress promised in 1975) 40 percent of the cost for school districts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (currently funded federally below 15 percent); to transform 25,000 public schools into full-service, wraparound Community Schools by 2020; to expand the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights; to expand federal funding for English language learners; and to end the federal Charter Schools Program that has, without adequate oversight, dumped billions of dollars into charter schools which have never opened or eventually shut down.

Every one of the candidates speaking on December 14 declared that underinvestment in our public schools has become the educational imperative of our times. Bernie Sanders and several other candidates committed specifically to tripling Title I, and every one of the candidates focused on what striking school teachers—in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago—have exposed: outrageous class sizes; shortages of counselors, school social workers, certified librarians, and school nurses; and salaries so low that teachers cannot afford to pay rent on a one bedroom apartment.

Not one of the candidates endorsed school turnarounds defined by evaluating schools by their students’ test scores, or punishing low-scoring schools with state takeovers, school closure or charterization.  Nobody recalled No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top with nostalgia.

It will be up to us to keep the pressure on Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders to remember the commitments they made last December in Pittsburgh.

Challenges for America’s Forgotten and Overlooked Rural Public Schools

Incompetence and bureaucratic rigidity in Betsy DeVos’s U.S. Department of Education is denying the nation’s poorest rural schools the delivery of federal money these districts have already budgeted for essential services.

The NY TimesErica Green reported last week: “More than 800 schools stand to lose thousands of dollars from the Rural and Low-Income School Program because the department has abruptly changed how districts are to report how many of their students live in poverty. The change, quietly announced in letters to state education leaders, comes after the Education Department said a review of the program revealed that districts had ‘erroneously’ received funding because they had not met eligibility requirements outlined in the federal education law since 2002.  The department said it would strictly enforce a requirement that in order to get funding, districts must use data from the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates…. For about 17 years, the department has allowed schools to use the percentage of students who qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced-price meals, a common proxy for school poverty rates, because census data can miss residents in rural areas.”

Senators from rural states—Maine’s Susan Collins, Montana’s Jon Tester—have protested, and it looks as though Congress and the Education Department will find a way to solve the problem.  But here is what happened in the school districts that received the notice: “The department’s notifications rattled rural districts, which have come to rely on the program to supplement the costs of services that are far less accessible to rural students, like technology, mental health and guidance counselors, and full-day kindergarten. Congress created the Rural Education Achievement Program, recognizing that rural schools lacked the resources to compete with their urban and suburban counterparts for competitive grants.  The program is the only dedicated federal funding stream for rural school districts….”

It is easy to forget about the challenges for rural school districts, but in November, the Rural School and Community Trust released the newest in a series of reports on the state of rural education across the United States. The numbers are striking: “(N)early 7.5 million public school students were enrolled in rural school districts during the 2016-17 school year—or nearly one of every seven students across the country. The number is even larger when counting students who attend rural schools, including rural schools within districts classified as ‘non-rural.’  By this measure, more than 9.3 million—or nearly one in five students in the U.S.—attend a rural school. This means that more students in the U.S. attend rural schools than in the nation’s 85 largest school districts combined. Nearly one in six of those rural students lives below the poverty line, one in seven qualifies for special education, and one in nine has changed residence in the previous 12 months… Many rural school districts across the U.S. are very small: The median enrollment for U.S. rural districts is only 494 students, and at least half of rural districts in 23 states enroll less than the median.  In Montana, North Dakota, and Vermont, at least 90 percent of rural districts have fewer than 494 students.”

As our society struggles to crawl out from under the burden of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime, it is too easy to forget the complexity of our society’s public education endeavor.  Describing the schools he visited during a four year journey to research the wonderful Possible Lives, Mike Rose describes something we too often forget in an era when data and business school disruption have been pushed as the centerpiece of education policy in the federal government and across the states: “Schools are nested in place—for all their regularity, they reflect local history, language, and cultural practice. Yet it is also true—and we are not good at tolerating the ambiguity—that this wildly uneven array of schools contributed profoundly to the literacy and numeracy of the nation. Out of local effort and varied conditions emerged the common good.” (Why School? pp. 209-212)

In a fascinating recent NY Times column, Sarah Vowell explores the irony of the case of Espinoza v. Montana, currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.  It is a case whose tuition-tax-credit-voucher-supporting plaintiffs are trying, ironically, to establish that the Montana constitution’s prohibition of spending public dollars on religious schools interferes with free exercise of religion. Instead the Montana delegates in the state’s most recent, 1972 constitutional convention declared in their newly revised version of the Montana constitution their commitment to limiting the expenditure of desperately needed public dollars to the state’s public schools.

Vowell argues that private school tuition vouchers are fully inappropriate (and the Constitutional convention delegates knew this) in a state which epitomizes the urgent needs of rural public schools. She writes: “Article X Section 1, of the ’72 Constitution proclaims that it is the duty of the state to ‘develop the full educational potential of each person.’  That is an expensive ideal in a desolate wasteland.  Public schools are supposed to be a volume business, but tell that to the Great Plains. The state of Montana has about 60,000 fewer inhabitants than the number of students enrolled in New York City’s public school system.”  She continues, explaining that in Montana, “the poorest schools often have the smallest class sizes.” Vowell is describing the sort of high school with maybe 2 or 7 students in its graduating class; she even depicts an old friend near Bozeman who rode her horse to a tiny school. In Montana, the total public school enrollment across the state in 2018-19 was 161,691 students.

When I read Vowell’s column—being from Montana myself—I remembered Mike Rose’s observation that “schools are nested in place,” and they are vastly different from community to community even in rural Montana. Vowell lives down south in Bozeman, but in my part of northern Montana—on the Hi-Line along U.S. Route 2 and the old Great Northern railroad line—students riding horses to school would freeze to death pretty quickly.  But Vowell is correct: One thing that doesn’t vary from one tiny town to another is that classes are really small and the services for children extremely stretched.  My hometown, Havre, with about 9,000 people, is the largest town along the 564 mile stretch of road between Williston, North Dakota and Kalispell, an area that encompasses four Native American nations and dozens of tiny towns that are cold in the winter. Havre High School enrolled 508 students in grades 9-12 last school year. Shelby, the next big town going west, enrolls 115 students in its high school. In one county between Havre, and Shelby the towns of Chester, Joplin, Inverness and Galata bus their students on a long ride to a unified high school which enrolls 58 students in grades 9-12. (Montana high school enrollment data)

The Espinoza push for tuition-tax-credit vouchers is inappropriate in a state where a town is lucky to be able to sustain even a tiny public school (assuming Betsy DeVos’s Education Department restores the essential dollars it just slashed in an act of bureaucratic short-sightedness).  There are no school choices available in towns in the hundred miles east of Havre—from Chinook to Zurich, Harlem, Dodson, Wagner and Malta—and none in the hundred miles to the West—from Kremlin to Gildford, Hingham, Rudyard, Inverness, Joplin, Chester, Tiber, Galata, Devon, Dunkirk, and finally Shelby.

Mike Rose begins a new and very thoughtful blog post by recognizing the blindness that continues to affect public policy in education: “Over the past eight or nine months, I have been writing in this blog about perception and knowledge. How we gain knowledge, how background and social location affect that knowledge, whose knowledge counts, how the context or setting from which we perceive and know matters.” Referencing Diane Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath, Rose recognizes all sorts of things that threaten America’s public schools these days—from ideology (the Espinoza Case) to incompetence (Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education) to a fixation on the methodology of the business schools and the high-tech advocates. Like Diane Ravitch, Rose asks us to trust the experts, “teachers and parents who are close to conditions on the ground, who know the young people in their communities, know their schools and the textured daily life of classrooms, know teaching from the inside, live it, and understand a great deal about the complex social and cognitive dynamics of learning.”

Bloomberg Defends His NYC Education Legacy: Here is What He Neglects to Mention

In Tuesday night’s debate, Mike Bloomberg defended his education legacy in New York City.  He was the city’s mayor, and the state-appointed leader of the city’s schools for over a decade from 2002 until 2013.  In Tuesday’s debate, he repeated his support for charter schools—and by extension the imposition of universal high school choice across NYC’s enormous school district, serving 1.1 million students.

One of NYC’s best known public school advocates, Leonie Haimson explains, “When I heard that he was running for president, it felt like the return of a bad dream.” Haimson personally lived through the decade when Bloomberg brought technocratic, corporate style disruption and marketplace policy to the NYC schools. She watched the process from the inside.  But even from far away, I will never forget learning about Bloomberg’s radical experiment: Bloomberg obliterated the city’s institutional infrastructure of regional and neighborhood high schools. Although overall the high school graduation rate rose, the high school closures, intensifying racial and economic segregation, and the school choice disruption undermined the whole endeavor. And once such an experiment is launched there is no going back.

At a Children’s Defense Fund conference eight or nine years ago, I found myself eating lunch with several NYC middle school guidance counselors, who described the impossible task of trying to help dozens of eighth graders—middle school students without any experience outside of their immediate neighborhoods—sort through a telephone book-sized high school choice guidebook to look for the best high school fit. These counselors told me that they believed NYC high school choice had been, in reality, designed to favor the children of savvy parents who knew how to get their children on the right track beginning in Kindergarten. These counselors were exhausted, overwhelmed, and worried about the effect on vulnerable thirteen-year-olds of losing a stacked school choice competition. They suspected that the new high school choice plan would prove to NYC’s poorest young people that they are losers who can’t possibly triumph.

The counselors told me they were trying to help students choose among schools and programs with which the counselors had no familiarity. Fourteen years into the program, in a 2017 NY Times‘ report, Elizabeth Harris and Ford Fessenden looked back at the challenge these guidance counselors had been trying to describe to me—“the flood of 80,000 eighth graders applying for the city’s public high schools. The field on which they compete is enormous: They have to choose from 439 schools that are further broken up into 775 programs. One program may admit students based on where they live, while another program at the same school may admit only those with strong grades… Rare is a 13-year-old equipped to handle the selection process alone.”  And students did not control the final placement. After they listed their top choices, an algorithm determined what was supposedly the best fit and made the assignment.

Harris and Fessenden describe how NYC high school choice was supposed to work, and contrast the theory with what really happened: “Under a system created during Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, eighth graders can apply anywhere in the city, in theory unshackling themselves from failing, segregated neighborhood schools. Students select up to 12 schools and get matched to one by a special algorithm. This process was part of a package of Bloomberg-era reforms intended to improve education in the city and diminish entrenched inequities… But school choice has not delivered on a central promise: to give every student a real chance to attend a good school. Fourteen years into the system, black and Hispanic students are just as isolated in segregated high schools as they are in elementary schools…. Within the system, there is a hierarchy of schools, each with different admission requirements—a one-day high-stakes test, auditions, open houses. And getting into the best schools where almost all students graduate and are ready to attend college, often requires top scores on the state’s annual math and English tests and a high grade point average.  Those admitted to these most successful schools remain disproportionately middle class and white or Asian…. At the same time, low-income black or Hispanic children… are routinely shunted into schools with graduation rates 20 or more percentage points lower… Students in competitive middle schools and gifted programs carry advantages into the application season, with better academic preparation and stronger test scores. Living in certain areas still comes with access to sought-after schools. And children across the city compete directly against one another regardless of their circumstances, without controls for factors like socioeconomic status.”

Harris and Fessenden continue: “There are some great options for the families best equipped to navigate the application process. But there are not enough good choices for everyone, so every year thousands of children, including some very good students, end up in mediocre high schools, or worse… (I)n practice, children who grow up in neighborhoods with low-performing elementary schools tend to go to low-performing middle schools, then on to high schools with low graduation rates and even lower college-readiness rates… An analysis by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that half of all students who got top scores on state tests came from just 45 middle schools out of more than 500. And 60 percent of the students who went to specialized high schools came from those same 45 schools.  None of those middle schools are in the Bronx.”

Bloomberg broke up the comprehensive high schools across the city into small high school programs and charter schools co-located into the old high school buildings, but the new smaller schools did not all offer a comprehensive curriculum. In a 2015 report for the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, Clara Hemphill, Nicole Mader and Bruce Cory explain: “While the graduation rate has steadily increased over the past decade, the proportion of students receiving an Advanced Regents diploma—one commonly used measure of college readiness—has stagnated… Today 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry. More than half of the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science… Roughly 21 percent of New York City high school students attend schools that don’t offer courses in both chemistry and physics. Many of these are the new small high schools that proliferated during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg… (Three years of science is a graduation requirement in all city high schools. Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet that requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, ‘living environment’—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.) The result is an intense bifurcation of the city’s public high school system…. Looking at statistics from August 2014, the Center for New York City Affairs found that 48 percent of the New York City public high school students receiving Advanced Regents diplomas are clustered in just 25 schools. At 100 other schools, on the other hand, not a single student received an Advanced Regents diploma.”

This blog has recently covered Mike Bloomberg’s disruptive school reforms in New York City here and here. Why so much concern before Bloomberg, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, competes in Super Tuesday Democratic presidential primary races?  I suppose my intense concern reflects the moral flaw in the scheme Bloomberg introduced into NYC’s public schools. The Rev. Jesse Jackson named the problem with school choice competitions: Competitions always create losers as well as winners, and the losers of school choice arrangements are almost always poor children of color.  At a 2011 Schott Foundation for Public Education town hall, the Rev. Jackson declared: “There are those who make the case for a race to the top for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody. ”

We need to continue improving access and opportunity in the public schools, for no set of institutions can possibly be utopian. In contrast to neoliberal, disruptive plans featuring the closure of comprehensive high schools, school choice and charter school expansion, however, a system of traditional public schools provides the best chance of balancing the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.

Stalemate: Ohio’s Senate and House Reach Impasse on EdChoice Vouchers

According to what is logical, what is constitutional, and what is moral, you would think members of Ohio’s legislature could come together to resolve Ohio’s voucher crisis and provide some relief for school districts going broke because that same legislature (in the final hours of the budget conference committee last summer) surreptitiously and explosively expanded EdChoice Vouchers paid for out of local school districts’ budgets.  But you would be wrong, because in the Ohio Senate, ideology trumps logic, constitutional protection of school funding, and basic morality.

Ohio’s EdChoice Voucher program has created a crisis for Ohio school districts. Here’s why:

  • EdChoice Vouchers are awarded to students in so-called “failing” schools.  The school ratings are based on what everyone—Republican and Democratic legislators alike—agrees are flawed algorithms in the state report card.  Schools are rated in six categories, and if a school scores D or F for two years running in any one of the categories, it becomes an EdChoice Designated School, where students can qualify for a voucher paid for by a local school district budget deduction. The number of EdChoice Designated public schools increased from 255 last school year (2018-2019) to 517 this year (2019-2020), and that number is due to explode to over 1,200 schools for next school year (2020-2021). Two-thirds of all the state’s school districts will have at least one EdChoice Designated school next school year.
  • Each EdChoice voucher is based on a school district deduction—$4,650 for K-8 students and $6,000 for each high school student.  A student is counted as enrolled in the local school district, and the district receives state basic aid for that student, but for many districts, the voucher extracts more than the state’s basic aid per-pupil.  And in an added twist this school year, the state froze basic formula aid for all public schools at last year’s amount.  There is no extra money coming into the school district to pay for any additional vouchers this school year.
  • While previously a student had to have been enrolled in a public school in order to carry a voucher out of that school, in the state budget bill, the Legislature changed that requirement.  This year, any high school student living in the zone of a Designated EdChoice high school qualifies for a voucher even if that student has never attended a public school in the district.

All this means that during this 2019-2020 school year, thousands of students previously enrolled in private and religious schools claimed a voucher, while their school districts received not a cent of extra money for those students from the state.

The Legislature reached a stalemate at the end of January and gave itself 60 days, until April 1, 2020, to reach a compromise.  But the two sides—both with huge Republican majorities—are deeply divided.

The Ohio Senate supports a plan that prevents the number of Designated schools from rising to 1,200 and would, for three years, freeze the number of vouchers available while the Legislature reevaluates the state report cards on which voucher eligibility is determined.  The Senate would maintain the school district deduction method of paying for the vouchers, leaving the responsibility on the backs of local school districts, which have already begun trying to pass additional property tax levies just to begin to cover the cost of vouchers for private school tuition. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver quotes one state senator who worries that having the state take over paying for the vouchers would be so expensive that the cost alone would curtail the size of the voucher program. Senators seem less worried about the burden of the school district deduction on local budgets. While school districts have asked for hold-harmless funding to help cover the unexpected expense during the current school year, no one has offered to provide assistance.

The Ohio House passed a very different plan, which was summarily rejected on February 12 by the Ohio Senate.  The House plan would have phased out the current EdChoice Vouchers, ended the awarding of vouchers based on the state school district report card, phased out the school district deduction method of funding, and awarded all future vouchers under a new, fully state-funded, Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship program based on family income—at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.  Only students currently carrying an EdChoice Voucher (or their siblings) would continue to have their vouchers paid for by a school district deduction. The House plan, as proposed, did leave a significant burden on local school districts already losing a large amount of local school district funding to the EdChoice program.

After the Senate rejected the House plan, a Senate-House conference committee began meeting. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes “10 marathon hearings” in which “about 400 witnesses testified for a combined 49 hours of hearings that filled a Saturday morning, an entire President’s Day, and ran past 3 a.m. Wednesday night, and 2 a.m. the following night.”  Public school personnel are demanding help, but so far are seeing no progress in the legislative negotiations.

The absence of logic, constitutionality, and morality in the Ohio Senate is astounding.

Researchers from Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, to Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz, to experts at the National Education Policy Center, to Ohio’s own Howard Fleeter, to the Plain Dealer‘s Rick Exner have documented again and again and again that standardized test scores, which are at the heart of Ohio’s state report card algorithms, correlate primarily with family and neighborhood income. Ohio’s state report cards are designed to punish the school districts across Ohio’s urban areas and rural Appalachia where poverty is concentrated.  It is surely illogical for the Ohio Senate to insist on draining the local budgets of the school districts serving the state’s poorest children.

The Ohio Constitution provides that the state will provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools.  There is no constitutional provision in Ohio for the funding of private and religious schools.

Finally, we are accustomed to hearing members of the Ohio Senate blame public school teachers when their students struggle.  Ohio regularly awards “A” grades to wealthy, white outer ring suburban school districts, which lose very little from their school district budgets to EdChoice Vouchers.  Legislators lavish praise on these “excellent” schools, where children living in cocoons of privilege and wealth benefit from lavish budgets based on local property tax wealth.  One of the unmet mandates of the long and unresolved DeRolph litigation, however, is that the state is supposed to support equity by helping, rather than bankrupting, the school districts serving our state’s most vulnerable children.

Billionaire Power? Two Decades of Education Policy Are a Cautionary Tale

Anand Giridharadas’s NY Times analysis of the recent Democratic candidates’ debate is the week’s most provocative commentary.  Giridharadas, author of the recent best seller about the role of venture philanthropy, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, devotes his recent column to The Billionaire Election:

“The Democratic debate on Wednesday made it clearer than ever that November’s election has become the billionaire referendum, in which it will be impossible to vote without taking a stand on extreme wealth in a democracy. The word ‘billionaire’ came up more often than ‘China,’ America’s leading geopolitical competitor; ‘immigration,’ among its most contentious issues; and ‘climate,’ its gravest existential threat… With the debate careening between billionaire loathing and billionaire self-love, Mr. Buttigieg warned against making voters ‘choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.'”

As someone who has been watching billionaire-driven, disruptive education reform for over 20 years, I find it fascinating that the role of billionaire power has become a primary issue in presidential politics. If you haven’t been paying such close attention to the education wars, you might not realize that policy around education and the public schools has for two decades been the locus of experimentation with the power and reach of billionaire philanthropists seizing a giant public sector institution from the professionals who have been running the schools for generations.  The billionaires’ idea has been that strategic investment by data wonks and venture philanthropists can turn around school achievement among poor children.

All this fits right in with America’s belief in the enterprising individual, and an attack on public institutions by far-right ideologues.  Disruptive education reform also arose chronologically with the development of big data, which fed into the idea of management efficiency, once tech experts could manipulate the data and help entrepreneurs more efficiently “fix” institutions to raise achievement.

The other part of the story, of course, is that school teaching is not a glam job. You don’t become a celebrity by teaching second grade, or supporting students trying to conceptualize algebra, or helping five sections of fifteen-year-olds every day learn how to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Teachers work on behalf of children; they are not known for their individualism or for competing to be successful. But the business stars—particularly when they are also tech entrepreneurs—have become marketplace celebrities. And so we have given them a chance.

Mike Bloomberg himself brought the experiment to New York City when he got the state legislature to grant him mayoral governance. He hired a well known attorney, Joel Klein, as his schools chancellor.  Without a a bit of training or experience in education, they took over the schools, opened district-wide school choice in a school district serving over a million students, opened charter schools, colocated charters into buildings with public schools and other charters, tested everyone, rated and ranked schools by test scores, and closed the “failing” schools. It was all about technocratic management and attacks on the teachers’ union.  Many of the charter schools were “no-excuses” experiments with children walking silently in straight lines—schools with high suspension rates to create a rigid culture of obedience.  After Joel Klein left to work with Rupert Murdoch on a tech venture, Bloomberg hired socialite Cathie Black to run the city’s schools.  Black was a magazine publisher at Hearst.  She had no advanced degree and no education experience or training. Unable to show any feeling or empathy for the 1.1 million children enrolled in NYC’s public schools or their parents, Black lasted in the position from January until the first week of April in 2011.

Bloomberg was one of the billionaire, ed tech leaders, but there were lots of others:

  • Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation brought us a bunch of experiments that eventually petered out: small high schools, the Common Core, incentive pay for teachers based on their students’ test scores. And Gates money seeded the vast charter school experiment in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane.
  • The Walton Family Foundation has spent more on charter school expansion than any of the other billionaires.
  • The Edith and Eli Broad Foundation just bought a place in the Yale School of Management for the Broad Superintendents’ Academy that has for years been training school leaders with business management principles.
  • Mark Zuckerberg (the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) has promoted so-called “personalized” learning in which the software is programmed to tailor online instruction “personally” according each child’s needs and rate of learning.

Arne Duncan filled the U.S. Department of Education with staff from the Gates Foundation and the New Schools Venture Fund and formalized all the competitive, business-tech theory into a Race to the Top, which was going to reward success and punish so-called “failing schools” with mandated quick turnarounds—firing principals and teachers, charterizing or privatizing schools, and finally closing schools.

It is time to remember several things about the reforms brought to us by the tech billionaires, for these same lessons may apply to the way, if elected, billionaires would “reform” the country just as they “reformed” the schools.  In the first place, No Child Left Behind, the federal program that encapsulated all this ed-reform theory, didn’t raise test scores.  Neither did it close test score gaps between wealthy children raised in pockets of privilege and poor children.

And the turnaround strategy created a mess in the cities where it was tried.  Year after year, New York City qualifies as the nation’s most segregated school district, because marketplace school choice promotes racial and economic segregation.  In Chicago, where Gates money enabled Arne Duncan to launch Renaissance 2010 before he took the same ideas to the U.S. Department of Education in Race to the Top, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing describes the human collateral damage when technocrats forgot about the role of human institutions in real communities. In the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side, Ewing documents community grieving for the destruction of neighborhoods when schools were closed:  “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”  Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  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?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-159)

Mike Rose, the education writer and professor who has educated future teachers during an entire career writes about the kind of education policies the billionaire technocrats have never understood. After a trip across the United States observing excellent teachers, Rose writes about what classrooms look like when teachers know how to nurture and respect human connections with and among our children:  “The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment….  Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class with direction, others came with a curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place.  But two things were always evident.  A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Do we really want the billionaires to be able to direct their philanthropy, however well-intentioned, privately to shape public institutions with the money they are not paying in taxes?  Giradharadas concludes his recent column with that very question: “Do we wish to be a society in which wealth purchases fealty?  Are we cool with plutocrats taking advantage of a cash-starved state to run their own private policy machinery, thus cultivating the networks required to take over the state from time to time, and run it in ways that further entrench wealth? Just this week, Mr. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, announced his creation of a $10 billion fund to fight climate change.  Once, such a gift might have been greeted with unmitigated gratitude. But now, rightly, people are asking about all the taxes Amazon doesn’t pay, about its own carbon footprint, and about whether any mortal should have that much power over a shared crisis.”