Are Charter Schools Losing their Cachet? Is the Narrative Shifting?

There is a swell of reaction against “corporate school reform.” It can’t be called a tsunami, but the wave is significant enough that people are paying attention.  Thanks to a year of strikes by public schoolteachers, for example, people seem suddenly more aware that the expansion of charter schools has left urban school districts with all sorts of collateral damage.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss noted: “This country is nearly 30 years into an experiment with charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately operated, sometimes by for-profit companies. Supporters first described charters as competitive vehicles to push traditional public schools to reform. Over time, that narrative changed and charters were wrapped into the zeitgeist of ‘choice’ for families whose children wanted alternatives to troubled district schools.”

Strauss continues: “Today, about 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren attend charter schools, with 44 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico having passed laws permitting them.  Some states have only a few charters while some cities are saturated.  In Los Angeles, 20 percent of children attend charters.  In New York, it’s 10 percent.  Charter backers say the movement is an important and sustainable feature of America’s educational landscape and any problems it faces are expected growing pains. Yet the movement, which has enjoyed Republican and Democratic support—including hundreds of millions of dollars from the Obama administration—seems to be at an inflection point as supporters and detractors recognize that charters are not the panacea backers had long suggested… What looks like a backlash against charters has been several years in the making.”

Recently, as part of the agreement to end the strike by 30,000 Los Angeles teachers, not only did the district agree to smaller classes and more support staff, but it also agreed to another demand: that the district’s school board pass a resolution pressing the state legislature for an 8-10-month moratorium on new charter schools and co-locations of charter schools into public school buildings until the legislature conducts a study of the impact on public school districts of the expansion of charter schools. Although newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom has not taken a position on the proposed moratorium on charter schools, he asked Tony Thurmond, the recently elected Superintendent of Public Instruction to convene an expert panel to examine the impact of the charter sector across the state.  Newsom wants the panel to report by July 1.

Even in his news report on the Governor’s request for a panel, however, the Los Angeles TimesHoward Blume alludes to one problem with California’s charter school law.  Local school districts have no control at all over the growth or location of charter schools. Within the Los Angeles Unified School District, the LA school board cannot impose the kind of moratorium its members requested from the state while the study is ongoing: “LA. Unified has no authority to enforce a moratorium, which would require a change to state law. The L.A. school board, like others in the state, is required to approve any valid petition to start a charter school that comes before it.”

Strauss describes signs that, well beyond Los Angeles, widespread support for charters may be fading. In New York City, where charter schools were rapidly expanded under mayoral governance during Michael Bloomberg’s term from 2001-2013, the newest NYC Chancellor, Richard Carranza has been more critical of charter supporters when they disparage the traditional public schools. In his CURMUDGUCATION blog on Tuesday, Peter Greene noted that Community Education Councils of NYC, a group of 36 parent councils across the 1.1 million-student school district, have through their Education Council Consortium formally proposed a five-year moratorium on new charter schools in NYC along with a system-wide impact evaluation of NYC charter schools.

Strauss reminds us that in Chicago: “(Mayor) Rahm Emanuel surprised the city when he said he would not run for a third time even though there was no heir apparent.  One of the reasons that commentators said contributed to his decision was the growing unpopularity in Chicago of his education policies, which included closing some 50 traditional public schools, affecting mostly African American students, and his embrace of charter schools.”

The Network for Public Education (NPE) has been tracking problems in charter schools and problems caused more broadly by charter schools for years. In the introduction to a 2017 report, Charters and Consequences, NPE executive director, Carol Burris describes the widespread absence of regulation and accountability in the state laws that establish and supposedly oversee charter schools: “There are national chains that are corporately managed and ‘mom and pop’ charters. There is instability as charters open and close. About 1 in 5 charters are for-profit.  Some have a real estate arm that buys buildings then rents them to their own schools at exorbitant rates.  Still others are not-for-profit fronts that are managed by for-profit corporations. Some charters are brick and mortar, others are located in storefronts and still others are cyber or virtual schools… Many boards are populated by billionaires who enjoy isolated lives of wealth far from the poor, urban communities that their ‘no-excuses’ charters serve… Despite the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars that has resulted from lack of regulation, America’s billionaires—from Betsy DeVos to Eli Broad and Bill Gates—have spurred charter growth.  Sometimes they flood pro-charter ballot initiatives or political campaigns with their cash. They fund state and national charter and choice lobbying organizations they help create. Politicians from both parties, eager to receive their contributions, are more than willing to comply with both legislation and funding.”

Besides states’ weak regulation of their charter schools, however, it is also becoming increasingly understood that maintaining separate and unrelated systems of schools—all paid for from the education budgets that were stretched thin even before charters were established—is economically untenable.  In Los Angeles, striking teachers highlighted a May, 2018, report by political economist Gordon Lafer on the economics of California charter schools:  “In 2016-17, charter schools led to a net fiscal shortfall of $57.3 million for the Oakland Unified School District, $65.9 million for the San Diego Unified School District, and $19.3 million for Santa Clara County’s East Side Union High School District.”

Lafer explains what most people don’t understand about their public school district: “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. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case.”

Lafer details the costs public school districts cannot immediately cut when students leave for charter schools: “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.”

The Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker examined the same fiscal issues around the expansion of charter schools in a November, 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities.  In a new column, Jeff Bryant interviews Baker about the dire consequences of charter school expansion in any fixed geographic space like a school district: “It’s about the fact that kids are shifting to charters, and money for district schools is declining at a pace whereby the district cannot possibly immediately, efficiently adjust its budget and use of space… It’s just inefficient… Running two systems in a common space is just less efficient and more expensive than running one.. The ongoing inefficiency of charters is baked into having uncontrollable mobility between two independent systems operating in a common space.”

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We’ll Have to Reduce Test-and-Punish. Talking about Social Emotional Learning Isn’t Enough

Silly me!  I didn’t realize until a couple of weeks ago that SEL is a thing.  SEL is a new term in educational circles: Social Emotional Learning.  I heard Linda Darling-Hammond—Stanford University emeritus professor, CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, and chair of an Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development—present the work of the commission, and then I started reading more about Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

It would appear that many of the educational academics promoting SEL are doing so as an effort to shift our schools’ focus away from the incessant drilling on basic language arts and math that has been driven by the high-stakes testing embedded in the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  NCLB and Race to the Top, that compounded NCLB’s punitive grasp on our public schools, have created fear-driven pressure to raise scores at any cost. The stakes are high: Schools have been closed or charterized, teachers fired or their salaries cut, and school districts trapped in state takeover.  And worse—in terms of the social and emotional health of children—students whose reading scores are too low at the end of third grade have been retained in grade for an extra remedial year.

The Learning Policy Institute has been intent about trying to help state education departments take advantage of the way the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) tweaks accountability.  ESSA eliminates direct federal punishments for low test scores by turning accountability over to states, but it says states must have their own plans to hold public schools accountable.  Beyond the required reporting of test scores and graduation rates, states can now add new factors, as long as the new factors are research-based. For example, the Learning Policy Institute has been explaining how research backs up the establishment of wraparound Community Schools.  Its publications have shown states how to demonstrate through research that Community Schools are a worthy of inclusion in states’ dashboards of factors by which schools can be judged and held accountable.

Now, it would appear that Darling-Hammond’s support of Social Emotional Learning, through her leadership on the Aspen SEL Commission, is an attempt to help states position SEL as a factor in their Every Student Succeeds dashboards by which schools can be held accountable.  In Education Week a year ago after Aspen released coverage of its new SEL Commission, Evie Blad reported: “The new federal education law requires schools to report new factors, like chronic absenteeism rates, in their public report cards, and it requires states to broaden how they measure school success.  No state decided to include direct measures of social-emotional learning in its accountability system.  Most cited cautions from researchers who’ve said existing measures are not sophisticated enough to be used for high-stakes purposes.  But mindfulness of students’ emotions, relationships, and development can help schools show improvement in other areas covered by the law, like attendance and achievement commissioners said.”  The Aspen Commission, we should assume, hopes its new report will beef up the research base on SEL.

I suppose it s worth establishing a research base to support education of the whole child if in some way measuring SEL will help states be more humane in evaluating what is being accomplished at school.  However, it is also essential to remember that the Every Student Succeeds Act makes two other factors primary in the states’ ESSA accountability reports: standardized test scores and high school graduation rates.  I wonder if inserting Social Emotional Learning right on top of test-and-punish doesn’t merely represent a contradiction in strategies. And figuring out metrics by which a state can judge how a district is doing at SEL and then holding schools accountable for SEL in the state’s accountability system seems bizarre.

Some of the puzzling language in the Aspen Institute Commission’s report is about showing states and school districts how to measure SEL so that it will count for school accountability: “Develop and use measures to track progress across school and out-of-school settings, with a focus on continuous improvement rather than rewards and sanctions.”  So far the advice seems pretty positive compared to what we’re doing now which is focusing on rewards and sanctions. But the report later vaguely suggests some kind of measurable outcomes: “Use a broader range of assessments and other demonstrations of learning that capture the full gamut of young people’s knowledge and skills… Use data to identify and address gaps in students’ access to the full range of learning opportunities in and out of school.”

Recently in his personal blog, the writer and education professor at UCLA, Mike Rose raised concerns about Social Emotional Learning: “(D)o we need all these studies to demonstrate what any good teacher knows: that the nature and quality of the relationship between teachers and students matter?… More broadly I worry that as we pay needed attention to the full scope of a child’s being, we will inadvertently reinforce the false dichotomy between thought and emotion.”

Rose harks back to a piece he wrote in 2013 in which he worried that, “Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to mean the skills measured by standardized tests of reading and mathematics.  And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they’ve needed quantitative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models….”  Rose worries about dividing education into a “cognitive/non-cognitive binary.”  “The problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned way economists carve up and define mental activity.  If cognition is represented by scores on ability or achievement tests, then anything not captured in those scores—like the desired qualities of character—is, de facto, non-cognitive.  We’re now left with a pinched notion of cognition and a reductive dichotomy to boot.”

For Rose, social and emotional work must be an essential part of every teacher’s daily practice—and something children learn in their experience of schooling. In an excellent 2014 article published by The American Scholar, Rose describes the characteristics of the best classrooms he visited on a journey across the United States to research his fine book, Possible Lives: “For all the variation… the classrooms shared certain qualities… 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… And there was safety to take intellectual risks… 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… Respect also has a cognitive dimension.  As a New York principal put it, ‘It’s not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to be challenging enough that it’s respectful.’  Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space.  And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed.  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… (O)verall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

The people who are trying to make Social Emotional Learning part of states’ Every Student Succeeds accountability dashboards undoubtedly have good intentions. They are trying, once again to make normal child development and attention to the needs of the whole child primary goals in America’s public school classrooms.  Unfortunately, however, because standardized test scores and high school graduation rates—both highly measurable data sets—remain at the very center of ESSA’s federal demand for school accountability, Social Emotional Learning will always be on the side.

To improve the social and emotional climate in our schools today, we’ll need do go after what is really the problem—what Harvard’s Daniel Koretz calls “the testing charade.”

The Difficulty of Cleaning Arne Duncan’s Awful Policies Out of the Laws of 50 States

Sometimes I find myself considering how our society arrived in 2019 at what striking schoolteachers this year have been demonstrating is an existential crisis for our system of public education.

Partly, of course, Betsy DeVos, our current Education Secretary, and all her friends including the Koch brothers have been working for years to substitute privatized, marketplace school choice for what many of us prize as our universal system of public schools. The idea of public education is a network of schools in every American community, schools that are publicly owned, regulated by law, and operated by locally elected school boards. Our society’s promise, an ideal we have increasingly realized through a history of making the dream accessible to more and more children, is that the public schools will meet all children’s needs and protect their rights.  Supreme Court cases and civil rights laws have expanded protection for children of all races and ethnic backgrounds, no matter their immigration status. The law protects services for children whose primary language may be other than English, for children who are disabled, and for children whatever their gender or sexual orientation.

But even with all her money, added to the money of her friends, and with the help of billionaire philanthropists who have served as her allies, Betsy DeVos isn’t powerful enough to have so thoroughly upended public education. We were all complicit somehow, although we didn’t collectively realize it, despite that many of us have been protesting along the way.

Over half a century ago, in The Affluent Society, economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “the conventional wisdom” to describe “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group.… the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”  In other words the conventional wisdom about hard and complicated subjects in public policy is made up of what we all believe because everybody else seems to believe it.

More recently, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have described how such conventional wisdom can somehow become acceptable despite plenty of contradictory evidence. Writing about the emergence of a bipartisan consensus about taxation and the role of government beginning in the Reagan era and continuing today, they write: “These changes did not go unnoticed or occur without pushback. Yet those who sought to defend or resurrect the ideas under siege found themselves caught in what communications experts call a ‘spiral of silence.’ In such a spiral, opinions become dominant because of acquiescence as well as acceptance. Even if individuals do not agree with an idea, their sense that it is shared broadly makes them reluctant to voice dissent. In time, this anticipation can create self-fulfilling cycles—a ‘spiral’—in which conflicting ideas are pushed to the periphery. When alternative understandings are no longer voiced confidently, we collectively forget their power.” (American Amnesia, p. 198)

Over the past quarter century, test-based school accountability and school privatization have quietly become fixtures of the bipartisan conventional wisdom about education. This year, striking public school teachers across the states have challenged the conventional wisdom by reinforcing, to use Hacker and Pierson’s words, “alternative understandings which have no longer been voiced confidently” to demand that we value the public schools that serve 90 percent of our society’s children.

No Child Left Behind, the 2002, omnibus federal education law, set up a scheme to judge schools by standardized test scores and punish low-scoring public schools until they improved their students’ scores. The scheme pretty much ignored resource inputs like equitable distribution of school funding, and it also ignored what has since then been repeatedly reconfirmed: that test scores are extremely highly correlated with children’s circumstances at home and in their neighborhoods. Concentrated poverty and segregation are central factors that the conventional wisdom glossed over.

This year striking schoolteachers have, for many of us at least, created a new receptivity to the facts.  Teachers have created a new context in which Nathan Robinson’s recent analysis in Current Affairs resonates in a new way.  This blog covered Robinson’s piece last week, but it is worth considering again.  Robinson specifically dissects Race to the Top, Arne Duncan’s plan, embodied in the 2009 federal economic stimulus, but Race to the Top merely magnified and intensified the strategy and specific details of No Child Left Behind, except that Race to the Top added another business strategy: competition.

Robinson explains that Race to the Top “gave $4.3 billion in funding to U.S. schools through a novel mechanism: Instead of giving out the aid based on how much a state’s schools needed it, the Department of Education awarded it through a competition.  Applications ‘were graded on a 500-point scale according to the rigor of the reforms proposed and their compatibility with four administration priorities: developing common standards and assessments; improving teacher training, evaluation, and retention policies; creating better data systems; and adopting preferred school-turnaround strategies.'”  The four turnarounds (originally defined in No Child Left Behind) were firing principals and teachers in so-called “failing” schools, closing these schools, or turning them into privately operated charter schools, or turning them over to an education management organization.

Looking back, Robinson wonders how our people permitted this to happen: “There is something deeply objectionable about nearly every part of Race to the Top.  First, the very idea of having states scramble to compete for federal funds means that children are given additional support based on how good their state legislatures are at pleasing the president, rather than how much those children need support.  Michigan got no Race to the Top money, and Detroit’s schools didn’t see a penny of this $4.3 billion, because it didn’t win the ‘race.’  This ‘fight to the death’ approach (come to think of it, a better name for the program) was novel, since ‘historically, most federal education funds have been distributed through categorical grant programs that allocate money to districts on the basis of need-based formulas.’… Once upon a time, liberals talking about how to fix schools would talk about making sure all teachers had the resources they need to give students a quality education.  Now, they were importing the competitive capitalist model into government: Show results or find yourself financially starved. The focus on ‘innovation,’ data, and technology is misguided, too.  Innovation is not necessarily improvement… When it came time, in 2016, to assess what Race to the Top had actually managed to accomplish, the administration conceded that ‘a vast literature examining the effectiveness of the types of policies promoted by Race to the Top provides no conclusive evidence on whether they improve student outcomes’….”

In one way, however, Arne Duncan was an extremely savvy politician. His Race to the Top competition magnified the test-and-punish policies of No Child Left Behind in 50 different ways and set them in concrete by bribing the 50 state legislatures to enact these policies into their own laws.  By dangling Race to the Top money in front of state legislatures in 2009 at the height of a recession, Duncan made it hard for state legislatures to resist temptation.  The result is that today, while Arne Duncan has left government to promote social entrepreneurship and work for a Chicago project of Lorene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, the educational policies of Race to the Top have been cast into the concrete of state laws, or at least buried in the statehouse sludge where nobody can remember them or identify them or pull them out.  And they have seeped into the conventional wisdom.

Here are some examples from my state, Ohio.

In No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top style, Ohio continues to identify so-called “failing” schools.  My state continues to use aggregate student test scores as the basis of a branding system that assigns schools letter grades—A-F,  with attendant punishments for the schools and school districts that get Fs.  And it publicly ranks our public schools and school districts from best to worst based on standardized test scores.

When a public school is branded with an F, the old school turnaround strategies from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—requirements that have now been dropped at the federal level—continue to apply in Ohio.  The students in the so-called “failing” schools can secure an Ed Choice Voucher to be used for private school tuition. And the way Ohio schools are funded ensures that in most cases, local levy money in addition to state basic aid follows that child. Ohio also permits charter school sponsors to site privately managed charter schools in so-called “failing” school districts.

The number of these vouchers and privatized charter schools is expected to rise next year when a safe-harbor period (that followed the introduction of a new Common Core test) ends.  Earlier this month, the Plain Dealer reported: “Next school year, that list of ineffective schools (where students will qualify for Ed Choice Vouchers) balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”

Ohio uses state takeover rather than school closure as the punishment when a school district has been rated F for three consecutive years. The school board is replaced with an appointed Academic Distress Commission which replaces the superintendent with an appointed CEO.  East Cleveland this year will join Youngstown and Lorain, now three years into their state takeovers—without academic improvement in either case.

In Race to the Top and later in his No Child Left Behind Waivers program, Arne Duncan demanded that states commit to evaluating teachers based on the Value Added that could, supposedly, be identified in their students’ standardized test scores. Ohio complied enthusiastically with Duncan’s teacher evaluation policies by making 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on the standardized test scores of the teacher’s students.  Then, finally, after the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association both condemned as unreliable the use of Value Added Measures for evaluating teachers, Congress ended the policy.  In the new federal education law, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, Congress removed the Arne Duncan requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores as a significant percentage of the evaluation of teachers. Only in the summer of 2018, however, did Ohio finally amend its Duncan-driven policy for teachers’ evaluations. Finally the Legislature folded the use of test scores into a more complex evaluation that, lawmakers said, tracks how teachers are using test score data to inform their instruction. The new system won’t be implemented until the 2020-2021 academic year, however, and it still incorporates students’ test scores in a vague way. Today in 2019, Ohio still makes 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on students’ standardized test scores.

In Ohio, No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top style punishment, not assistance, remains the strategy for the schools in our poorest communities. All this punitive policy sits on top of what many Ohioans and their representatives in both political parties agree has become an increasingly inequitable school funding distribution formula. Last August, after he completed a new study of the state’s funding formula, Columbus school finance expert, Howard Fleeter described Ohio’s current method of funding schools to the Columbus Dispatch: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

A growing consensus that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were misguided in their obsessive use of high stakes standardized tests is widely documented in the research literature. The biggest problem is that these policies targeted the public schools in the nation’s poorest communities for punishment.  In his 2017 book, The Testing Charade, Daniel Koretz, a testing expert at Harvard University, explains how test-and-punish works: “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…  Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

From West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona to Kentucky to Los Angeles, schoolteachers have been striking all year to show us how all this has gone wrong—robbing their schools of essential programs and staff.  I hope these people who know the conditions in their schools better than the rest of us will continue to challenge the conventional wisdom of the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top Era.

A big problem is that Arne Duncan induced state legislatures to embed his favorite ideas into the laws of the 50 states. It isn’t going to be so easy to get them cleaned out.

Denver Strike: Teachers Protest Low Pay and “Corporate Reform” Innovations that Didn’t Work

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association went on strike yesterday against the Denver Public Schools over low pay and what has become a failed experiment in merit pay bonuses.  Schoolteachers want the district to scrap its ProComp incentive pay system, which was put in place in 2006 when teachers agreed to the plan—a fixture of then-Superintendent Michael Bennet’s corporate school reformer agenda.  Bennet now a U.S. Senator, served as Denver’s school-reformer superintendent from 2005 until 2009. He was the mayor’s chief of staff and formerly an investment banker who lacked any experience in education.

Denver’s teachers’ strike is the latest in a yearlong wave of walkouts by teachers—a state-by-state cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and insultingly low pay. This time, however, an added issue is a twelve-year experiment with corporate reformer innovation in the form of a bonus pay system supposedly to incentivize teachers to work harder and smarter. Today teachers claim the innovation didn’t work, because too much money went into bonuses at the expense of base pay.

For the NY Times, Julie Turkewitz and Dana Goldstein explain why Denver’s teachers are striking: “Pay-for-performance models like Denver’s offer teachers bonuses for raising student achievement and for taking on tougher assignments, such as in schools with many students from low-income families.”  Denver teachers, write Turkewitz and Goldstein, “say this model-once hailed as a way to motivate teachers—has delivered erratic bonuses while their base salaries stagnate amid rising living costs… The foundational principle of Pro-Comp—evaluating teachers according to how well their students perform—was later enshrined in Colorado law and then in Race to the Top…. But such evaluation models typically required more testing of students in order to gather evidence of teacher impact…. Since 2016, federal and state laws have shifted districts away from using student performance to judge teachers. In many ways, ProComp is now seen as a relic of an earlier era of school reform.”

The Denver Post‘s Elizabeth Hernandez reports that the school district’s negotiators agreed to save money by phasing out the jobs of central office administrators, but the school district’s proposal invests the money into increases in the Pro-Comp incentive system instead of raising base pay.  The teachers union rejected the proposal.

Denver’s teachers have pointed out that the ProComp bonus incentives are unstable, shifting each year according, for example, to the percentage of students who qualify for free-and-reduced price lunch in any school—a figure which shifts as families relocate.  Turkewitz and Goldstein explain: “Denver teachers and their union leaders argue that it is more important to raise teachers’ base pay than to offer them modest and unpredictable bonuses. In a city surging with new money from the technology, aerospace and marijuana industries, teachers say they are struggling to pay off student loans and cannot afford rent, much less buy a home… The average Denver teacher earns $63,400 per year, including any ProComp bonuses.  The union wants more money to go to base salaries, in part by reducing a proposed $4,500 bonus for teachers in high-poverty schools, and eliminating a proposed $3,000 incentive for teachers in the district’s 30 highest-priority schools.”

Chalkbeat reprinted a letter from several Denver teachers explaining why, even though they serve in “hard to serve” schools, they want to reject ProComp: ” It’s not clear that the current bonuses are working.  We have not seen conclusive evidence that the incentives we receive for working in hard to serve schools have affected teacher retention or recruitment.  Every year, schools in our area are hiring for positions that often get filled by first-year teachers…  The current bonuses let the district off the hook… We know that increasing incentive pay to work at ‘hard to serve’ schools will not fix the issues around segregation in Denver Public Schools.  Increasing incentive pay to work at ‘hard to serve’ schools will not fix the issues around some schools lacking nurses, social workers, counselors, support for Spanish speaking and emerging bilingual students, and support for special education programs.  It will not solve issues around the lack of reliable technology, funding for arts, comprehensive neighborhood schools, or the flood of issues that we all feel in our schools on a daily basis.”

There are also deeper structural problems.  Denver’s economy is surging and driving up the cost of living, but its tax laws have kept overall school funding low. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains that Colorado remains the only state with a TABOR—a Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, “a constitutional measure that limits the annual growth in state (and sometimes local) revenues or spending to the sum of the annual inflation rate and the annual percentage change in the state’s population. (For example, if the general inflation rate is 2 percent and the state’s population grows by 1 percent, state revenue available for expenditures can increase by 3 percent. The balance must be refunded to taxpayers.) Overriding these limits requires voters’ approval or some other high bar, such as a supermajority vote of the legislature.” “In 2005, Colorado voters approved a measure to suspend TABOR’s formula for five years to allow the state to rebuild its public services. Unfortunately, the suspension did not last long enough for the state to recover fully from the period that TABOR was in effect, and the Great Recession further undermined that effort. TABOR continues to cause ongoing fiscal headaches for Colorado even as the economy improves.”

In its newest 2017 study of school funding across the states, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported Colorado’s total state and local funding for K-12 public education to be 4 percent below what was being invested in education in 2008 before the Great Recession (in inflation-adjusted terms).

More to the point in terms of teachers’ salaries, the Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel point out that Colorado’s teacher pay penalty is fourth worst in the country. Colorado teachers’ salaries are 35.1 percent lower than the salaries of other college graduates. The only states with a bigger gap between teachers’ pay and and the pay for other comparably educated professionals are Arizona, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Turkewitz and Goldstein blame Colorado’s failure adequately to fund its schools for much of the problem teachers are protesting in Denver: “Underlying the battle in Denver is the fact that school funding in Colorado was about $2,000 below the national average per-student in 2016.  The state requires all tax increases to be approved directly by referendum, and during the midterm elections this past November, voters rejected an initiative to raise money for schools by increasing corporate taxes and personal income taxes on those earning over $150,000.”

Striking Schoolteachers Have Changed the National Conversation about Our Public Schools

The editor of Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson offers a profound critique of President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s signature education policy, Race to the Top.  Race to the Top epitomized neoliberalism—“meritocratic, technocratic, and capitalistic, meaning that it (1) sees competition as good and winning competitions as proof of desert, (2) defers to policy experts over the actual people affected by policies, (3) views productivity and success within the marketplace as a measure of the good.”

Robinson reminds us that Race to the Top, “gave $4.3 billion in funding to U.S. schools through a novel mechanism: Instead of giving out the aid based on how much a state’s schools needed it, the Department of Education awarded it through a competition.  Applications ‘were graded on a 500-point scale according to the rigor of the reforms proposed and their compatibility with four administration priorities: developing common standards and assessments; improving teacher training, evaluation, and retention policies; creating better data systems; and adopting preferred school turnaround strategies.’… The Obama administration also wanted states to adopt policies favorable to charter schools. Education secretary Arne Duncan said explicitly that, ‘States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund.'”

Robinson condemns the Obama-Duncan strategy: “There is something deeply objectionable about nearly every part of Race to the Top.  First, the very idea of having states scramble to compete for federal funds means that children are given additional support based on how good their state legislatures are at pleasing the president, rather than how much those children need support.  Michigan got no Race to the Top money, and Detroit’s schools didn’t see a penny of this $4.3 billion, because it didn’t win the ‘race.’  This ‘fight to the death’ approach… was novel, since ‘historically, most federal funds have been distributed through categorical grant programs that allocate money to districts on the basis of need-based formulas.’ Here, though, one can see how Obama’s neoliberal politics differed in its approach from the New Deal liberalism of old: Once upon a time, liberals talking about how to fix schools would talk about making sure all teachers had the resources they needed to give students a quality education.  Now, they were importing the competitive capitalist model into government… There is a mistrust of teachers: The premise here is that unless teachers have the right incentives, they will perform badly. There is an underlying acceptance here of the free market principle that government services do not perform well because they lack the kind of economic rewards and punishments that exist in the private sector.  So we should introduce competitive marketplaces in schools (i.e. charterize the system) and do constant assessment of teacher job performance to weed out the Bad Teachers.  Race to the Top literature talks about ‘turning around failing schools,’ not ‘fixing inequality in schools’….”

Although lots of people have been complaining about Race to the Top and Duncan’s strategy for years, Robinson’s jeremiad strikes a different chord this year after months of walkouts and strikes by desperate school teachers. Last week, the NY Times education reporter Dana Goldstein described what she believes is a major turning in the way people are thinking about public education.  She has been writing about schools for 13 years, beginning in the era—the precursor to Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top—of No Child Left Behind, the law signed in 2002 that brought us high stakes test-and-punish. But she observes today: “So much has changed in education, as the focus shifts from calling out and overhauling bad teachers and schools to listening more carefully to what educators say about their working conditions and how students are affected by them… The emphasis now is on what education experts call ‘inputs’—classroom funding, teacher pay, and students’ access to social workers and guidance counselors—and less on ‘outputs,’ like test scores or graduation rates.”

In their strikes this year schoolteachers have forced policymakers to stop obsessing about punishing  low-scoring, “loser” schools and begin reckoning with society’s responsibility to pay for the kind of schools our children need.

One striking example of the shift in emphasis that Goldstein describes is the story of Debora Gist.  For Politico and the Hechinger Report, Amadou Diallo profiles the transformation of Deborah Gist, formerly the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education who made her name by firing the entire staff of the high school in Central Falls, one of Rhode Island’s poorest communities. Gist also won the state a $75 million Race to the Top award by promising to comply with Arne Duncan’s neoliberal priorities. Unpopular in Rhode Island and especially unpopular with unionized school teachers, Gist returned to her hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma as the superintendent of schools. Gist’s priorities began to change when she faced an acute shortage of teachers in a state where salaries are fourth from the bottom among all the states. Dialo reports that 300 of the district’s 2,000 teachers are working under emergency certificates because salaries are too low to attract qualified staff.  Last spring, when schoolteachers walked out, Gist herself joined unionized teachers to walk 110 miles from Tulsa to Oklahoma City to demand better funding for the state’s schools.  She is also dipping into the school district’s emergency reserves to pay basic expenses.  While Gist refuses to acknowledge that she has entirely left her Rhode Island priorities behind, she describes the lessons that have taught her to become an ally instead of an enemy of her district’s teachers: “I knew coming into Tulsa that Oklahoma spent less than half per student of what Rhode Island did… What I didn’t anticipate was the continued cuts we’d be receiving.  I didn’t fully realize what that would mean in terms of the lack of adults in our schools… and the pressure that creates.”

The most extraordinary evidence that the teachers’ strikes are forcing a rethinking of education policy, however, came last week in Los Angeles.  The settlement of the recent strike by 30,000 Los Angeles teachers brought concessions including a modest raise, smaller classes and the guarantee of more support staff like counselors, librarians and school nurses. But the teachers demanded something more: They insisted on a vote by Los Angeles’s charter school-friendly board of education on a resolution requesting that the state legislature place an 8-10 month moratorium on new charter schools while a study is conducted on the impact of charter schools on the public school district.

The Los Angeles school board did take such a vote last week, and the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the outcome: “The school board voted Tuesday to ratify the strike-ending deal between the Los Angels Unified School District and United Teachers of Los Angeles.  The new contract provides teachers with 6 percent pay increases, more resources for schools and small reductions in class size. The strike ended with other agreements too, including what many saw as a surprising promise by the school district to support a state moratorium of up to 10 months on charter schools while the state studies their effects.  The Los Angeles Board of Education has six members, at least half of whom were elected with the help of financial support from the charter lobby. The district superintendent, Austin Beutner, is a former investment banker who is a charter backer.”

For Salon Jeff Bryant explains the details of this development: “(T)he concessions teachers won that will likely have the most impact outside of L.A. are related to charter schools.  The teachers forced the district leader to present to the school board a resolution calling on the state to cap the number of charter schools, and the teachers made the district give their union increased oversight of charter co-locations—a practice that allows charter operations to take possession of a portion of an existing public school campus.  Los Angeles Unified has 277 charter schools, the largest number of charter schools of any school district in the nation. The schools serve nearly 119,000 students, nearly one in five students.  The vast majority of charters are staffed by non-union teachers.  So the quick take from some is the teachers’ union made curbs on charter schools part of their demands because these schools are a threat to the union’s power. But when you talk to teachers, that’s not what they say. They tell you they want to curb charter school growth, not because it threatens their union, but because charters threaten the very survival of public schools…. (T)eachers I spoke with described competition from surrounding charter schools as an existential threat to their schools and an undermining influence on the public system.”

Bryant describes the growing realization across Los Angeles, and backed up by recent academic research that, “While public school districts can’t build new schools unless increases in enrollment or an influx of school-aged children demand them, charter schools can make the case based on subjective arguments having nothing to do with numbers, and when local school boards deny charter applicants, charter operators can appeal to the county or state board that, more often than not, overrules the local board…  Bryant quotes researcher—and former charter school supporter—Julian Vasquez Heilig: “Charters contribute to the funding problems because we’re paying for two school systems… There’s an incredible amount of waste and inefficiency.”

By Striking, Teachers Are Demonstrating Society’s Failure to Value our Children and Their Schools

The 30,000 striking teachers in Los Angeles won better conditions for their students —smaller class size maximums, more counselors, librarians and nurses and an addition of 30 Community Schools with wraparound medical and social services for families. This week teachers in Virginia, a state where strikes are technically illegal, walked out for the day to rally at the state capitol in Richmond.  And school teachers in Denver had voted to go on strike this week, although their action was delayed when Denver Public Schools filed a request for intervention from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. It is evident that last spring’s teachers’ walkouts were not a mere blip.

Nineteen-year labor and workplace reporter for the NY Times, Steven Greenhouse comments in the Washington Post about the meaning of this year’s actions by masses of school teachers fed up with the collapse of state budgets and the working and learning conditions they have been telling us ought to be unacceptable in the wealthiest society in the world: “The overall number of strikes by American labor unions has declined sharply decade by decade, an unmistakable measure of organized labor’s diminished clout.  But last week’s strike by more than 30,000 Los Angeles teachers belongs to an extraordinary surge in recent union militancy—a surge that includes statewide teachers’ strikes last year in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona… The L.A. walkout was particularly unusual in that the teachers won more for the kids than for themselves—the school district agreed to hire 300 more nurses so that every elementary school would have a nurse five days a week, and 84 more librarians so that every middle school and high school would have one. Even though much of labor remains in a defensive crouch, the unions and workers joining the recent strike wave took to the streets with picket signs because they were fed up… The teachers and their students were lagging badly behind, their pay stagnating, their school budgets squeezed when so many parts of the economy were booming, when corporate profits, the stock market, the incomes of the richest Americans were at or near record levels, and Congress and many states were handing out big tax cuts to business and the rich.”

Writing for The Guardian, Mike Elk details the complaints by Virginia teachers: “Due to overcrowding, more than 22,000 students in Fairfax county receive their education in cheaply constructed plywood trailers, often with visible signs of green mold, like those parked next to the baseball fields next to McLean high school.  Those trailers, the poor state of school funding in general, low teacher pay and now the huge tax breaks the state is giving to lure in Amazon have led the teachers to strike on Monday…. In Fairfax county, the third richest county in America, there are over 800 trailers serving as temporary classrooms because the school district cannot afford to build new classrooms.”

Governor Ralph Northam has pledged to increase education funding across Virginia by $269 million, but as the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports, teachers in Virginia say that is not enough: “According to Virginia Educators United, a grass-roots coalition of teachers and other community members, the state legislature could approve all of the investments called for by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and state spending would still be down 7 percent per student from 2009…  That means, it said, the state would have to invest another $500 million in 2020 to spend the same per student as in 2009….” (Numbers are adjusted for inflation.)

Lagging salaries are also a problem in Virginia. The Washington Post‘s Debbie Truong reports that teachers and support staff in Fairfax County cannot afford the inflated cost of living in Metropolitan Washington, D.C.  Many commute from Spotsylvania County and even from as far away as West Virginia.  And it isn’t only that teachers can’t keep up with the high cost of living in the suburbs of the nation’s capital.  The president of the Fairfax Education Association explains: “If you take Northern Virginia out of the equation, we rank in the bottom five of teacher salaries in the country.”

The pending teachers’ strike in Denver, Colorado reflects not only lack of funding but also a reaction by teachers against incentive pay and “portfolio” school reform instituted in 2005, with the hiring of neoliberal Democrat, Michael Bennet—now U.S. Senator Michael Bennet—as the school superintendent.  Writing in Forbes, Peter Greene explains: “Back in 2005, the district hired Michael Bennet, who had no background in education, but was the mayor’s chief of staff, with a background in turning around failing companies for an investment firm.  Bennet brought in other outsiders to form a community group (A+ Denver) along with some other education philanthropists to ‘pressure’ the district. The preferred model was a portfolio model.  Think of this type of model as a forced merger between public and charter schools, with the resulting entity run by charter philosophy.  Or, given the portfolio emphasis on continually closing bottom-ranked schools, you can think of the portfolio model as trying to fire your way to excellence on the institutional scale.  Since 2005, Denver has closed 48 schools and opened 70; most of the new schools are charter schools.”

The elected board of education in Denver is now dominated by corporate reformers, whose campaigns have been, reports blogger Tom Ultican, underwritten by far right opponents of traditional public schools: Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and philanthropist Arthur Rock.

Ultican documents that Denver’s portfolio school reform has left schools racially segregated.  It has also failed to close significant racial and ethnic achievement gaps as documented by scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress.  Ultican reports that today in Denver, “there are 204 schools: 106 traditional public schools, 42 charter schools, and 56 innovation schools… The innovation school concept is promoted nationally by the American Legislative Exchange Council.  According to ALEC model legislation, these schools ‘are provided a greater degree of autonomy and can waive some statutory requirements.’  In Denver, innovation schools are given a three year contract during which they are run by a non-profit. The results (testing data) at the end of the contract will dictate whether the experiment on the school children continues.”

In a second Forbes commentary, the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess describes another of the reforms brought to Denver by Michael Bennet: a pay-for-performance plan, called ProComp, for teachers and administrators: “ProComp allows teachers to earn an annual $3,851 bump for obtaining an advanced degree or license; a $2,738 boost for working in a ‘hard to staff’ field or a ‘hard to serve’ school; $1,540 for working in a ‘ProComp Title I’ school (which is different from a ‘hard to serve’ school); $855 a year for completing the requisite ‘professional development units’; and up to $855 for receiving a positive performance evaluation (with that figure falling by half for longtime educators). Teachers can also receive between $800 and $5,000 for leadership roles and a bonus if their school meets performance goals.”  Hess explains that the performance pay incentives have become an issue in the contract negotiations: “The union wants to streamline or eliminate a number of ProComp incentives, arguing that they are unpredictable and confusing and cause salaries to fluctuate capriciously from year to year based on district calculations that determine if a school is ‘hard to serve.'”

Here is how some Denver teachers explain their support for the union’s demand to change Denver’s ProComp incentive system: “We are a group of teachers representing schools in the far northeast region of Denver. Many of us now receive ‘incentives’ for working at Title I schools where many students live in poverty—and we are also willing to strike in support of the union’s proposed salary structure, which moves some of the money used tor those incentives into long-term base pay… The current bonuses can’t be relied on.  The ‘hard to serve’ school label is based on free and reduced-price lunch percentages, which vary on an annual basis… It’s not clear that the current bonuses are working.  We have not seen conclusive evidence that the incentives we receive for working in hard to serve schools have affected teacher retention or recruitment.  Every year, schools in our area are hiring for positions that often get filled by first-year teachers…  The current bonuses let the district off the hook… We know that increasing incentive pay to work at ‘hard to serve’ schools will not fix the issues around segregation in Denver Public Schools.  Increasing incentive pay to work at ‘hard to serve’ schools will not fix the issues around some schools lacking nurses, social workers, counselors, support for Spanish speaking and emerging bilingual students, and support for special education programs.  It will not solve issues around the lack of reliable technology, funding for arts, comprehensive neighborhood schools, or the flood of issues that we all feel in our schools on a daily basis.”

Peter Greene highlights another reason teachers support the union’s demand to change the incentive system: “(A)n information request by a Denver parent uncovered a payout of $3.2 million in bonuses to Denver administrators.  Average administrator base pay is over $100,000, with the district spending $20 million total.  About a half million of the bonus money goes to administrators with no school or student responsibilities.”  In other words massive incentives are being collected by central office administrators.

Teachers are bargaining, of course, for salaries sufficient for their livelihood. But all year teachers have also been striking to teach us all about the deteriorating conditions in which our children go to school. Here is how the political economist, Gordon Lafer, describes the profound message teachers have been sending us again and again all year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Arizona, to Los Angeles, and now in Denver and Virginia:

“Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector…  Finally, the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence.  In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education.  In all these ways…  school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda, uniting in one issue the goals of antiunionism, partisan politics, restructuring labor markets, redefining citizens’ expectations of government, and the transfer of enormous sums from public to private hands.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

Linda Darling-Hammond Disappoints in Cleveland City Club Address

Linda Darling-Hammond is a national figure in the field of education policy.  She is the President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford University, where she is an emeritus professor of education, and she headed up President Obama’s transition team for education. She is the author of several books including The Flat World and Education, in which she declares: “One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high quality education system for all children.” (p. 164)

Last Friday, Darling-Hammond delivered the weekly address at the Cleveland City Club.  I was disappointed.

Darling-Hammond declared that “we have left No Child Left Behind (NCLB) behind” and implied that its 2015 replacement, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, has erased the punitive philosophy of its NCLB predecessor.  Darling-Hammond then devoted most of her prepared remarks to Ohio’s adoption of one of her own research priorities—social-emotional learning—into the state’s new five-year strategic plan for education.  Darling-Hammond chaired the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which on January 15, 2019 published its final report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.

Of course one cannot blame an academic for focusing a major policy address on her own particular research interest. But I was disappointed nonetheless, because Darling-Hammond’s remarks so completely neglected what I and many others believe are alarming realities today in Ohio public school policy. More broadly she also failed to acknowledge catastrophic school funding shortages brought to national attention by striking school teachers for almost a year now from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona and in the past two weeks in Los Angeles, funding shortages caused by tax cuts and tax freezes and exacerbated when scarce tax dollars are redirected to privatized charter schools and voucher programs. Only after she had finished her prepared remarks and in answer to a question about Ohio’s punitive state school district takeovers, did she briefly comment on the enormous and controversial policies many in the audience hoped she would address.

Despite that Darling-Hammond told us she believes the kind of punitive high-stakes school accountability prescribed by No Child Left Behind is fading, state-imposed sanctions based on aggregate standardized test scores remain the drivers of Ohio public school policy. Here are some of our greatest challenges:

  • Under a Jeb Bush-style Third Grade Guarantee, Ohio still retains third graders for another year of third grade when their reading test scores are too low. This is despite years of academic research demonstrating that retaining children in a grade for an additional year smashes their self esteem and exacerbates the chance they will later drop out of school without graduating.  This policy runs counter to anything resembling social-emotional learning.
  • Even though the federal government has ended the Arne Duncan requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, in Ohio, students’ standardized test scores continue to be used for the formal evaluations of their teachers.  The state has reduced the percentage of weight students’ test scores play in teachers’ formal evaluations, but students’ test scores continue to play a role.
  • Aggregate student test scores remain the basis of the state’s branding and ranking of our public schools and school districts with letter grades—A-F,  with attendant punishments for the schools and school districts that get Fs.
  • When a public school is branded with an F, the students in that so-called “failing” school qualify for an Ed Choice Voucher to be used for private school tuition. And the way Ohio schools are funded ensures that in most cases, local levy money in addition to state basic aid follows that child.
  • Ohio permits charter school sponsors to site privately managed charter schools in so-called “failing” school districts. The number of these privatized schools is expected to rise next year when a safe-harbor period (that followed the introduction of a new Common Core test) ends.  Earlier this month, the Plain Dealer reported: “Next school year, that list of ineffective schools (where students will qualify for Ed Choice Vouchers) balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”
  •  If a school district is rated “F” for three consecutive years, a law pushed through in the middle of the night by former Governor John Kasich and his allies subjects the district to state takeover. The school board is replaced with an appointed Academic Distress Commission which replaces the superintendent with an appointed CEO.  East Cleveland this year will join Youngstown and Lorain, now three years into their state takeovers—without academic improvement in either case.
  • All this punitive policy sits on top of what many Ohioans and their representatives in both political parties agree has become an increasingly inequitable school funding distribution formula. Last August, after he completed a new study of the state’s funding formula, Columbus school finance expert, Howard Fleeter described Ohio’s current method of funding schools to the Columbus Dispatch: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Forty-two minutes into the video of last Friday’s City Club address by Darling-Hammond, when a member of the Ohio State Board of Education, Meryl Johnson asked the speaker to comment on Ohio’s state takeovers of so called “failing” school districts, Darling-Hammond briefly addressed the tragedy of the kind of punitive systems that now dominate Ohio’s public school policy: “We have been criminalizing poverty in a lot of different ways, and that is one of them… There’s about a .9 correlation between the level of poverty and test scores.  So, if the only thing you measure is the absolute test score, then you’re always going to have the high poverty communities at the bottom and then they can be taken over.” But rather than address Ohio’s situation directly, Darling-Hammond continued by describing value-added ratings of schools which she implied could instead be used to measure what the particular school contributes to learning, and then she described the educational practices in other countries she has studied.

In the context of the new report of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which she chaired, Darling-Hammond’s focus last Friday was social-emotional learning. The Commission’s new report emphasizes the need to broaden “the definition of student success to prioritize he whole child.”  The report recommends that our society: “Develop and use measures to track progress across school and out-of-schools settings, with a focus on continuous improvement rather than on rewards and sanctions.”

I wish Darling-Hammond had more pointedly applied the Commission’s findings to Ohio, where, while people applaud the goal, there have been serious questions about whether Ohio’s addition of social-emotional learning in the state’s new five-year strategic plan is workable in our underfunded and terribly punitive, high stakes testing environment. Some of the factors that affect a school’s capacity to support the social and emotional needs of students are small classes that ensure students are known and respected, enough counselors and school psychologists, the presence of the arts and enrichments, and the presence of play in the school lives of very young children. Ohio’s meager school funding and emphasis on high-stakes testing threaten all of these.

In these times we need to be especially attentive to the social and emotional needs of America’s students as the federal Department of Education steps away from policies designed to protect students’ safety and emotional well being. Remember that at the end of December, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded urgently important Obama-era civil rights guidance designed to reduce out of school suspension and expulsion, reduce racial disparities in suspension and expulsion, and increase in-school programs promoting restorative discipline.  Ohio’s new strategic plan to prioritize social-emotional learning in public schools is an important first nudge—pushing our state away from No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish. But there remains a long, long list of urgently needed policy changes. I wish Linda Darling-Hammond had been more supportive of our struggle in her address last Friday.