Teachers in AZ, WV, OK, KY, and CO Turn Narrative from Test Score Outcomes to Shortage of Inputs

In the New Yorker, E. Tammy Kim summarizes the meaning of the mass walkout by teachers last week in Arizona:

“In Arizona and other states where teachers have recently gone on strike, pay is a central issue: the average American teacher earns five percent less than he did in 2009. (In Arizona, the average teacher salary fell from fifty-three thousand to forty-seven thousand dollars in that time.) But the protests are about more than salaries. In recent years, educators have been blamed by politicians and parents for an array of social problems, from bankrupt municipal pensions to low graduation rates in poor neighborhoods.  Standardized testing has constrained teacher autonomy and creativity, and charter and private schools have competed more aggressively for government funds…  Per-student spending has fallen fourteen percent in the past decade, and some two thousand classrooms have no permanent instructors.  Between 2010 and 2015, Arizona’s rate of teacher turnover was twenty-three percent in traditional public schools and thirty-three percent in charters….”  And last week it was exposed that school districts in Arizona have been importing teachers from the Philippines on J-1 temporary guest worker visas.

In Arizona the strike went on days after it was scheduled to conclude because, while Governor Doug Ducey had promised teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020, it became clear his promise had been hollow. A Republican supermajority in both houses of the legislature blocked Ducey’s promise when it came time, late in the week, to pass a budget.  The Huffington Post‘s labor writer, Dave Jamieson reports: “The budget bill gives teachers a 9 percent pay raise next year, which, combined with a 1 percent raise already given, gets them halfway to the 20 percent hike they have called for. Ducey has promised that the second installment will come by 2020, though that is not guaranteed by the package he signed. The plan steers bulk money to districts and gives them the discretion to dole out the raises as they see fit, meaning not all teachers will receive the same percentage pay bump.  An analysis done by the Arizona Republic found that a minority of districts under the plan will not receive enough money to give all their teachers 20 percent raises.  The bill also hikes state spending on schools by $200 million per year more than Ducey originally proposed at the start of the year.  Still, it comes up well short of the walkout organizers’ demand that funding be restored to 2008 levels, adjusted for inflation.” There is not enough to make classes smaller, add enrichments, or relieve outrageous case loads for counselors.

And the way Arizona legislators raised enough funds in the budget bill to pay for investing in the public schools reflects the anti-tax bias of Arizona’s legislative majority.  The NY TimesDana Goldstein explains, “In Arizona, as in Oklahoma, legislators refused requests to raise income taxes on the wealthy, and instead turned to a hodgepodge of revenue sources that are likely to hit a wide range of voters… Mr. Ducey, a first-term Republican facing re-election, ran for governor promising never to raise taxes, and has said his budget keeps that commitment. In addition to an $18 car registration fee, a plan to shift the costs of several school desegregation plans to local property taxpayers from state government is expected to raise $18 million, in part by increasing property taxes in some low-income school districts.”

The attitude of many legislators is reflected in amendments offered as part of the budget bill. For Think Progress, Casey Quinlan reports: “Republicans offered amendments in response to the walkouts, which included an amendment from Rep. Kelly Townsend, which would have prohibited teachers in public schools from talking about or showing their political views during classroom time, and fined those who did.  She also proposed an amendment to make it illegal to close schools with the exception of natural disasters and other dangers…. Both amendments failed.”

While walkouts by school teachers this spring have not always yielded the level of victory in terms of salary increases and investments like enough money to lower ballooning class sizes, an analysis for The American Prospect concludes that teachers have been able to challenge the anti-tax, accountability-driven rhetoric of the past two decades: “Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this latest round of teacher labor power is that their demands are broad and inclusive. Even though the teachers who have gone on strike or are considering it are paid well below the average and have terrible benefits, they have put the focus of their demands on their students’ needs, on improving classroom quality and increasing classroom resources.  In doing so they made clear that winning a raise for themselves would be insufficient—they have demanded a significant investment in children as well as a win on the ‘bread and butter’ issues.”

This spring, school teachers walking out across a number of states have successfully highlighted a widespread, catastrophic shortage of financial inputs and challenged our society’s myopic focus on test-score outcomes

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Trump and Congress Launch Libertarian Attack on Poor Adults; Forget All About The Children

Paul Ryan’s firing of the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives has cast a bright light on the absence of any kind of public ethics in public policy coming out of the Trump administration and Congress.

The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank writes: “Praying for the poor is now apparently a firing offense in the corridors of power…Only in this perverted time could a priest lose his job after committing the sin of crying out for justice for the poor. But then, look around: Everywhere are the signs of a rising kleptrocracy. The $1.5 trillion tax cut did make winners of corporations and the wealthy. And actions since then show that the Trump administration is making losers of the poor… If you preach about the poor in today’s Washington, you don’t have a prayer.”

Writing for the Post’s “Morning Plum Line” on Friday, Greg Sargent reported: “House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R. Wis.) has dismissed the House chaplain, outraging Catholics in the lower chamber, and this morning’s speculation has centered on a prayer offered by the chaplain that was critical of the GOP tax law. In that prayer, Rev. Patrick J. Conroy urged members of the House to ensure that ‘there are not winners and losers’ under the new law, but rather ‘benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.'”

Sargent continues: “Ryan has declared himself an apostle of the radical individualism of Ayn Rand. In 2009, he claimed that Rand’s achievement was to explain ‘the morality of capitalism,’ which he described as ‘the morality of individuals working towards their own free will, to produce, to achieve, to succeed.’… Ryan has long believed, as many liberertarians do, that taxes and the safety net are paramount threats to individual liberty, both because redistribution is confiscation from the productive ‘makers’ and because… the safety net squelches individual initiative, turning them into ‘takers.'”

Even before Ryan dismissed Rev. Conroy, the NY TimesPaul Krugman penned a scathing column last week about Trump’s War on the Poor: “I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like the collection of petty grifters and miscreants surrounding Trump.  Price, Pruitt, Zinke, Carson…. The perks many Trump officials demand—the gratuitous first-class travel, the double super-secret soundproof phone booths, and so on—are outrageous, and they tell you a lot about the kind of people they are.  But what really matters are their policy decisions. Ben Carson’s insistence on spending taxpayer funds on a $31,000 dining set is ridiculous; his proposal to sharply raise housing costs for hundreds of thousands of needy American families, tripling rent for some of the poorest households, is vicious… That war is being fought on multiple fronts.  The move to slash housing subsidies follows moves to sharply increase work requirements for those seeking food stamps.  Meanwhile, the administration has been granting Republican-controlled states waivers allowing them to impose onerous new work requirements for recipients of Medicaid….”

The writers of all three of these fine columns about the decline of classic public morality miss one important additional issue, however. There are children in the picture. When libertarians cut food stamps or triple the rent for a publicly subsidized apartment, or deny Medicaid to unemployed parents, and when they design punitive policies that will, they say, force adults to take initiative and be productive, the children are hurt every single time.

Krugman does acknowledge the long term economic consequences of denying the needs of millions of children: “(T)he creation of the food stamp program didn’t just make the lives of recipients a bit easier. It also had major positive impacts on the long-term health of children from poor families, which made them more productive as adults—more likely to pay taxes, less likely to need further public assistance. The same goes for Medicaid, where new studies suggest that more than half of each dollar spent on health care for children eventually comes back as higher tax receipts from healthier adults.”

I am delighted that Krugman remembers children, but his argument makes me think about the comment of Jonathan Kozol in one of his books about the children of the South Bronx: “Even groups that advocate for children do not seem to feel it’s safe to make an argument their behalf without convincing us that being kind to children will be cost-effective.  Money invested in nutrition programs and pre-natal care, we’re told in countless publications, ‘saves hundreds of thousands of dollars’…. Advocates for children, most of whom dislike this ethos, nonetheless play into it in efforts to obtain financial backing from the world of business.  ‘A dollar spent on Head start,’ they repeat time and again, ‘will save our government six dollars over 20 years’ in lowered costs for juvenile detention and adult incarceration.  It’s a point worth making if it’s true, although it’s hard to prove; and still, it strikes one as a pretty dreadful way to have to speak of four-year-olds… Why do our natural compassion and religious inclinations need to find a surrogate in dollar savings to be voiced or acted on?  Why not give these kids the best we have because we are a wealthy nation and they’re children and deserve to have some fun while they’re still less than four feet high?”  (Ordinary Resurrections, pp 137-138)

As our children are forgotten, so are the schools that serve them—especially schools overwhelmed by concentrations of children living in extremely poor neighborhoods and therefore zoned into particular schools.  The Schott Foundation for Public Education, however, has been calling attention to child poverty and to the needs of public schools punished in our accountability-driven times because they are serving concentrations of poor children.  In a column published by the Learning Policy Institute as part of the recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report, John Jackson, President and CEO of the Schott Foundation, declares: “The ideology of the 1980s, ’90s, and today has primarily focused on elevating ‘personal responsibility’ and blaming the economically disadvantaged or the community workers who provide services to them instead of recognizing the systemic inequities in opportunities that exist and creating systems in which each child and his or her family have the supports to achieve high outcomes… (P)arental income remains the number one predictor of student outcomes—not the type of public school, the particulars of teacher labor contracts, or the brand of assessment used.  Decades of robust debates on education standards, assessments, accountability, labor contracts, and traditional vs. charter public schools have focused narrowly on the role of schools, classrooms, and teachers, while ignoring inequities in students’ neighborhood living environments.  Research shows that those inequities—such as lack of access to affordable housing and health care—are reflected in unequal student outcomes and rates of success.  Simply stated, every child needs both healthy living and learning climates to grow academically and to have a fair chance at succeeding.”

Jackson continues: “(S)egregation, in conjunction with unfair school funding formulas and disinvestment in historically Black and Latino neighborhoods has created separate and unequal living and learning environments where children do not have access to even the most basic resources and supports they need to learn and thrive… In February 2018, Schott launched the Loving Cities Index to outline and analyze the system of supports needed to affirmatively heal communities from the damage caused by decades of racialized policies, criminalization, and segregation.”  In all of the cities the Schott Foundation has studied there are “high levels of people working full time who are still earning 200% below the federal poverty line. They also show a housing market crisis in which the majority of residents cannot find rental options affordable at their income levels.  Fair wages, along with affordable and safe housing are part of a system of supports that are critical to providing children and families with stable living environments…”

Dana Milbank is correct that “The poor don’t have a prayer in today’s Washington.” I am delighted that John Jackson and the Schott Foundation for Public Education are calling attention to the needs of poor children in these appalling times.  For when Trump and Congress beat up on poor parents for lacking initiative and being “takers,” it is the children who really suffer.

Walkouts by Teachers Spread to Arizona and Colorado

The Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto identifies the teacher pay gap in all the states: the difference between average salaries for schoolteachers and for other college graduates. Arizona and Colorado, where teachers walked out last Thursday and Friday, represent the two states where the gap is widest among all the fifty states.  In Arizona, public school teachers make only 62.8 percent and in Colorado 64.5 percent of the salaries of other college graduates. And in both states the cost of living is quickly rising.

Surely their paltry wages are part of the reason school teachers in these states have mounted major protests at their state capitols, but conditions in the schools where they teach are the other reason.

Here are some realities in Arizona, where teachers continued their strike yesterday. The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit reports: “When adjusted for inflation, Arizona cut total state per-pupil funding by 37 percent between 2008 and 2015, more than any other state.  That has led to relatively low teacher salaries, crumbling school buildings, and the elimination of free full-day kindergarten in some districts… Low teacher pay has contributed to teacher shortages in Arizona. Some districts, unable to find qualified teaching candidates, have turned to emergency long-term substitutes who are required to hold only a high school diploma.”

Writing for Education Week, Daarel Burnete II adds: “Arizona is one of seven states that, in response to voter demands, has cut income taxes in the last decade, a revenue source schools rely on heavily. In 2016 alone, the state allowed $13.7 billion to go uncollected through a series of income, sales, and other tax exemptions, deductions, allowances, exclusions, or credits, according to the state’s department of revenue.  At the same time, Arizona has made among the most dramatic budget cuts in the nation to its schools, totaling 14 percent in the last decade alone… The paradox is that Arizona’s economy is in its best condition in years.  Its unemployment rate stands at 4.9 percent, and the state’s 100 largest corporations added more than 20,000 jobs last year alone.”

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has promised teachers a 20 percent raise over five years and also promised to do it without a tax increase.  Striking teachers do not believe his plan will produce the raises he has promised. Neither do they believe he will be able significantly to increase overall school funding.  NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg describes what she found when she visited schools in Arizona last week: “I visited a K-8 school in the scrublands of South Phoenix, a flat, dusty, wide-open area that’s only a 15-minute drive from downtown but feels much farther.  (The principal asked me not to identify it, or him, for fear that his school would suffer administrative reprisals for letting a journalist in.)  The science teacher told me her classes have 30-36 students each.  Aside from desks, she’d either bought most of what was in her classroom, or had it donated—not just books, but also chairs and even a water dispenser, which the class needed during the seven months when the school’s drinking fountains were broken… The teacher… was sad and anxious about the walkout, but had voted for it out of desperation. ‘I’m at a breaking point,’ she told me. ‘We don’t have the resources. I’m spending more and more money out of my own pocket, and I can’t have the impact that I want to have with the way things are now. Something needs to happen.'”

Colorado’s capacity to fund its schools is complicated by an American Legislative Exchange Council backed Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a TABOR, adopted into Colorado’s state constitution in 1992. Here is a description about how Colorado’s TABOR affects school funding: “(W)hat it basically means is that lawmakers can’t raise your taxes without making you vote on it first. And it also limits how much of a ‘raise,’ so to speak, that the state gets each year. And, if the state happens to generate too much money, it can’t keep it. Instead, this goes back to taxpayers.”  TABOR and other tax freezes and limitations in Colorado mean that state’s allocation for school districts has declined steadily.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains further that Colorado is the only state that has embedded a TABOR into its constitution despite attempts in other states, where voters have defeated passage of this kind of restrictive policy that is being promoted by far-right anti-tax interests. More than a decade after the TABOR was passed, Colorado’s revenue collapsed so completely that: “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.”

The state’s school funding morass due to the TABOR means that Colorado teachers’ purpose in rallying is a little different than in Arizona.  The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Livingston reports: “Meanwhile, in Colorado, an upcoming ballot measure in November could tip the scales in the students’ favor. The ‘Great Schools, Thriving Communities’ measure would increase tax rates for corporations and for people who make more than $150,000 annually. The money would be used to increase base funding for all students, provide full-day kindergarten and increase funding from the state to local districts for English language classes and special education.”

Unfortunately the prospects for passage of the ballot initiative are unsure: The Post‘s Moriah Balingit summarizes the tenuous financial situation faced by school teachers in TABOR-constrained Colorado: “The stagnant salaries, combined with skyrocketing housing prices in the booming state, have made life untenable for many educators. The state’s constitution gives only voters the authority to raise taxes, and they have twice rejected such proposals.”

Teachers in Arizona and Colorado have now joined their counterparts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky to expose what it means for children and their teachers when far-right governments impose tax freezes and slash taxes.  As NY Times columnist and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman explained very plainly last week: “Education accounts for more than half of the state and local (public) work force….  What tax cuts do.. is sharply reduce revenue, wreaking havoc with state finances. For a great majority of states are required by law to balance their budgets. That means that when tax receipts plunge, the conservatives running many states can’t do what Trump and his allies in Congress are doing at the federal level—simply let the budget deficit balloon.  Instead they have to cut spending. And given the centrality of education to state and local budgets, that puts schoolteachers in the cross hairs.”

NYC Public Schools Serve 111,500 Homeless Students. What Does This Mean?

When Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, spoke in Cleveland last month, he began his address with these words that introduce one of the book’s final chapters: “The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets. We say that at home, we can ‘be ourselves.’…  At home, we remove our masks. The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms, where as children, we imagine, play, and question, and as adolescents, we retreat and try. As we grow older, we hope to settle into a place to raise a family or pursue work… In languages spoken all over the world, the word for ‘home’ encompasses not just shelter but warmth, safety, family—the womb.  The ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘home’ was often used in place of ‘mother.’  The Chinese word jia can mean both family and home. ‘Shelter’ comes from two Old English words: scield (shield) and truma (troop), together forming the image of a family gathering itself within a protective shell.” (Evicted, p. 293)

When children lack a permanent home, the upheaval in their personal lives affects their schools. Some of the details emerge in new reporting from New York City’s public schools. New York City’s 1,800 public schools serve 1.1 million students. Last week the NY TimesElizabeth Harris reported: “More than 111,500 New York City students were homeless at some point last year, whether they were staying in a shelter, in a hotel or with family and friends… The upheaval of homelessness means those children are often anxious and traumatized, and that their parents are as well. Many of them travel long distances from where they sleep to school in the morning, leaving them exhausted before the day begins.  Drained and frightened, they bring all of that with them to school… The (city’s education) department said that during the 2016-17 school year, homeless students accounted for 13 percent of all suspensions….”

A report last month from Advocates for Children of New York on homelessness among the school district’s students puts the size, scope, and meaning of the challenges for children and for the school district in perspective: “If these students made up their own school district, it would be one of the thirty largest districts in the nation, with twice the number of students as the entire Boston public school system. In New York City, students in temporary housing have worse educational outcomes than their permanently housed peers…. Outcomes are particularly bleak for students living in New York City shelters—38,000 students during the 2016-2017 school year.  For example, during the 2015-2016 school year:  53% of NYC students living in shelters were absent on 20 or more school days—missing the equivalent of one month of school. Only 15% of third through eighth grade students living in shelters scored proficiently in reading. Only 12%… in math.”

Advocates for Children explains: “Homelessness can create a chaotic living environment where students are exposed to high levels of stress. In addition to the trauma of housing loss, children may have been exposed to other traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, which is now the primary driver of homelessness in New York City. Homelessness uproots children from their systems of support and care, which may include relatives, friends, teachers, service providers, medical providers, and mental health providers.  Families who are homeless must balance competing priorities including juggling multiple social services appointments and the search for permanent housing. These stressors exacerbate the challenges that children living in poverty already face. While school can serve as a key source of stability for students, the City places most families in shelters far outside their neighborhood. Last year, only 50% of families were placed in the same borough… where their youngest child had been attending school prior to the family entering shelter.  As a result, families must decide between long commutes to school and transferring schools.”

Everyone wants better services for homeless children, to reduce their trauma, reduce chronic absence and cut the number of disciplinary problems and suspensions. Coordination between the school district and the city’s enormous social service bureaucracy is chronically difficult. And the needs of homeless children compete for budget dollars with the needs of all kinds of other students. What is clear is that the magnitude and rapid growth of homelessness in NYC have complicated the district’s capacity to respond. In mid-March, the NY Times’ Elizabeth Harris reported: “After rising steadily for about five years, the number of homeless students in New York City public schools jumped up in the 2015-16 school year to the somber threshold of 100,000 students. Then it took another leap: More than 111,500 students were homeless at some point during the 2016-17 school year… The education department has rules and employees in place, both in schools and in shelters, to try to minimize student absences. But the comptroller’s office found that in many cases, protocols weren’t followed, seemingly because those charged with trying to keep children in schools were overwhelmed.  During the 2015-16 school year, there were 110 family assistance workers responsible for helping the 32,243 students in city shelters—giving them an average caseload of 293 children each.”

In addition to placing education staff in the shelters to help support children’s placement in and adjustment to school, staff at school provide targeted services. Harris describes some of these efforts at Frederick Douglass II middle school, which has been trying to reduce suspensions among homeless students: “Frederick Douglass II has had an additional full-time social worker since last year, and the parent coordinator has attended training on how to better support homeless families. The school has had a mental health clinic on site since the 2015-16 school year.”

This month, Richard A. Carranza replaced recently retired Carmen Farina as the new Chancellor of NYC’s public schools. Advocates for Children urges Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase staffing significantly—appointing a deputy chancellor to address the growing needs of homeless students. Advocates for Children also recommends doubling the number of school social workers and installing at least 50 new school social workers in the city’s shelters to coordinate with school staff to meet children’s needs. NYC’s Comptroller Scott Stringer adds that improvements are needed in the school district’s electronic data system to ensure that school staff can better track students who are chronically absent from school.

It is important for blogs like this one to report on the magnitude of poverty and homelessness in school districts like New York City’s. The No Child Left Behind Act mandated annual achievement testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  The law also established sanctions—punishments—for public schools unable quickly to raise scores.  So-called failing schools were subjected to a range of turnarounds—fire the principal and teachers—close the school—charterize the school.

None of these so-called “solutions” has addressed the kind of challenge posed by massive homelessness in New York City and across America’s cities. What’s clear in New York City is that many students in the public schools face overwhelming obstacles from social conditions the schools cannot themselves control.  Extreme poverty and homeless among students, in turn, pose enormous challenges for teachers, counselors and social workers. How can our society set a universal standard of public school “success” or “failure” when schools in wealthy suburbs and schools in impoverished communities face such disparate circumstances?  Our society owes impoverished and homeless students, their families, and their schools far greater support.

NAEP Scores Flatline, Achievement Gaps Persist. Millions of Children Are Still Left Behind

For almost two decades since the passage of No Child Left Behind, our society has been operating according to an educational policy scheme by which we say we’ve been holding educators accountable. The two year National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores were released this week, however, and while experts are parsing the meaning of the difference of a couple of points of gain or loss at fourth or eighth grade on the new  scores, what is clear is that No Child Left Behind has neither significantly raised student achievement nor closed racial and economic achievement gaps.

For the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit reports: “The gap between high- and low-achieving students widened on a national math and science exam, a disparity that educators say is another sign that schools need to do more to lift the performance of their most challenged students.  Averages for fourth-and eighth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card, were mostly unchanged between 2015 and 2017.  The exception was eighth-grade reading scores, which rose slightly.  But scores for the bottom 25 percent of students dropped slightly in all but eighth-grade reading.  Scores for the top quartile rose slightly in eighth-grade reading and math.  The slippage among the nation’s lowest-performing students raised concerns among educators and experts….  Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, said there were no statistically significant changes when it came to different categories of students.  This means black and Hispanic students continue to trail their white counterparts on the exam. Students from low-income households also performed below the national average, as did special-education students, though they posted significant gains in 2017 compared with two years earlier.”

Unlike state-by-state achievement tests mandated by the 2002 No Child Left Behind and continued under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, the NAEP is given to a representative sampling of students across all the states. Its purpose is to gauge the overall state of public education across the nation, not to compare scores for particular states or schools.  There is no test-prep for the NAEP.

Education Week‘s Sarah Sparks summarizes the 2017 results: “Across the board struggling American students are falling behind, while top performers are rising higher.”  This certainly reflects the growing gap noticed by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon who, several years ago, used a massive data set to document the consequences of widening economic inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

In an Education Week follow-up on the release, also this week, of a special subset of NAEP data comparing the scores of large urban school districts, Sparks declares that over time, “America’s large urban districts have been improving faster than the nation as a whole.” Scores in cities of over 250,000 are rising more quickly than the scores of other students, but rising so slowly that it will take decades for them to catch up if growth continues at the current rate. A basic score on NAEP is the lowest level, while proficient is scored in such a way that students deemed proficient are achieving at somewhat above an average level. Sparks describes the trend of rising scores among urban students: “These gains are a mixed blessing: Urban 4th graders scored on average at the basic level in math and reading. Urban 8th graders scored on average at the basic level in reading and below basic in math. Yet, 27 percent of urban 8th graders scored at or above the proficient level in reading in 2017, up 8 percentage points since 2007.  That’s faster than the 5 percentage-point reading growth for students overall.”

For the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell describes a mixed bag of gains and losses for students in that very poor city: “The major bright spot was in eighth-grade math, where Cleveland had the third-highest increase among cities. That placed Cleveland’s scores ahead of the Baltimore, Detroit, Fresno and Milwaukee districts and in a tie with Shelby County (Memphis), Tenn. The district also mostly held on to a sizeable gain it made in fourth grade reading between 2014 and 2015, the previous NAEP test, falling just a single statistically insignificant point. But fourth grade math and eighth grade reading scores had the worst and third-worst drops out of all tested cities.”

The Detroit Free Press’s Lori Higgins reports discouraging scores in that other very poor Rust Belt city: “In Detroit, students had the worst performance not only among large, urban districts but also compared with all states in fourth- and eighth-grade math, as well as fourth-grade reading.  Detroit shared the bottom spot with Cleveland for eighth-grade reading.”

This year the NAEP was administered online to 80 percent of students, and there has been complaining that the change may have lowered scores. However, Peggy Carr of the National Center for Education Statistics explained to the Post‘s Balingit that scores were formally adjusted to compensate for the online administration of the test—and to make the scores comparable with the older paper-and-pencil version: “Research shows digital assessments are tougher for students than paper-and-pencil tests. So, Carr said, her federal center adjusted results so the change in format ‘would not influence the comparisons and trends that we are reporting.'”

The stated purpose of federal policy in education since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002 has been to hold schools accountable for raising achievement among the nation’s lowest scoring students and to close achievement gaps. In the meantime, as the teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky have shown us this month, states have cut funding for education due to the economic recession of 2008 and continued tax slashing across many states.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has documented this trend, with 29 states in 2015 providing less overall funding, adjusted for inflation, than in 2008. In 19 of those states, local school districts also cut funding. Comparing 2018 general fund, per-pupil formula funding in 12 states for which that data is currently available, CBPP reports that Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi, Utah, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, and Idaho spend considerably less today than they did in 2008.

Nobody traces small changes in NAEP scores to particular causes from school district to school district. Surely, however, three major trends are implicated in the flattening of NAEP scores over time.

  • Our society has not addressed deepening poverty and widening inequality, at a time when growing research demonstrates that family and neighborhood poverty affects children’s achievement at school.
  • Nearly two decades of education policy has focused on punishing public schools—too often the schools in our poorest communities—by closing schools, by firing teachers and principals, by charterizing schools, or by imposing portfolio governance.
  • As school teachers are now exposing, funding in too many places has collapsed below acceptable levels.

While Teachers’ Walkouts Highlight Inadequate Funding of Schools, Inequity Remains Unaddressed

This blog has recently been tracking the walkouts of teachers in states where legislators have been chronically underfunding public education, states where teachers’ pay ranks among the lowest in the nation.  (See here, hereherehere and here.) These are states in the heartland, many where the children and the teachers are mostly white.  The walkouts by teachers have been happening in all Red states that lack political checks and balances because their governors and both houses of their legislatures are dominated by far-right Republicans.  Schoolteachers are walking out to call their legislators’ attention to the fact that rampant tax cutting is cheating the children. These teachers are calling everybody’s attention to the plain fact that in these states funding for the public schools has been dropping.  The recent walkouts by teachers have put a face on the problem of inadequate school funding.

But there is another very different school funding problem across America.  Very often it is a problem not centered in the capital city of the state—the place where the legislature meets.  In Michigan where Lansing is the capital city, this problem is greatest in Detroit. In New York, where Albany is the capital city, this problem centers in New York City, Syracuse and Buffalo.  In Wisconsin, where Madison is the capital city, this problem centers in Milwaukee. And in Illinois, where Springfield is the capital city, this problem is most serious in Chicago.  This other problem, of course, is alarming school finance inequity, exacerbated when legislators from rural areas and small towns fail to grasp the challenges for children and teachers in the schools of our largest cities, all of them segregated by race, all of them struggling with concentrated poverty, and virtually all of them encircled by rings of wealthy suburban school districts.

This is, of course, not a new problem. In 1991, Jonathan Kozol lamented: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’ Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (Savage Inequalities, p. 83)

In the introduction to a 2005 edition of his landmark 1996 history of Detroit, Thomas Sugrue explores what he calls “the urban crisis”: “It is dangerous to let our optimism about urban revitalization obscure the grim realities that still face most urban residents, particularly people of color. Acres of rundown houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, and shuttered stores stand untended in the shadow of revitalized downtowns and hip urban enclaves. There has been very little ‘trickle down’ from downtown revitalization and neighborhood gentrification to the long-term poor, the urban working class, and minorities…. And despite some conspicuous successes–often against formidable odds—community development corporations have made only a small dent in the urban economies and housing markets. Local nonprofits have the will but ultimately not the capacity to stem the larger processes of capital flight that have devastated the city… American cities have long reflected the hopes as well as the failures of the society at large. From the mid-twentieth century to the present, American society has been characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor, between communities of privilege and those of poverty. Despite a rhetoric about race relations that is more civil than it was in 1950, racial divisions by income, wealth, education, employment, health, and political power remain deeply entrenched.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, pp. xxv-xxvi)

In 2011, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon, used a massive data set to document the widening economic inequality that Kozol and Sugrue had been describing and to show the consequences of widening inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

So, what did our society do to respond?  In 2002, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which demanded that states test students every year and use the scores to evaluate schools and their teachers. Punitive turnarounds were prescribed for the bottom five percent of schools—virtually always in the poorest neighborhood of our cities where poverty is concentrated—and those turnarounds included firing principals and teachers, closing schools, or charterizing them. The law operated through threats and punishments for schools unable to raise scores quickly without acknowledging that such schools might need greater investment to build the capacity and services so that the schools themselves would not be overwhelmed by the challenges brought by concentrations of children struggling with extreme poverty.

In an extremely important 2017 book, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz describes nearly two decades of damage wrought by this test-and-punish law, which was premised on the belief that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: The law’s framers “acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, p. 123-124) “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Bill Mathis and Kevin Welner summarize the way our society responded when, despite widening inequality and growing economic and racial segregation, federal law imposed sanctions and turnarounds on urban public schools: “As policy makers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policy makers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty.  Moreover districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding.  The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less.  This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.  In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts.  Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio districts,’ and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack.” (“The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance,” a brief that is part of a 2016 series from the National Education Policy Center, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking)

Just as in today’s battles for education funding—in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—teachers have pushed back against the punitive school turnaround policies promoted by the federal government during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. In one memorable instance, a teachers union courageously confronted underfunded school “reform” based on school turnaround through school closure.  In the fall of 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union, having worked closely with parents and community groups across the city, went on strike to protest not only teachers’ salaries and benefits, but also Illinois’s notoriously inequitable school funding, and also the power of mayoral governance under Rahm Emanuel and his prescribed “portfolio” school reform plan.  In her book, The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein describes the leadership of CTU president Karen Lewis: “Lewis called Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reform agenda—especially his policy of using low test scores to select fifty schools for closure in poor neighborhoods, sometimes replacing them with non-unionized charter schools—‘a corporate attack on public education… This is warfare now.’ ” (The Teacher Wars, p. 221)

We must hope that this month’s walkouts by teachers create enough pressure to force legislators to raise school funding that is adequate to the need to invest in schools and in teachers’ salaries in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. The problem of inequity, however, is more daunting. Despite an enormous body of scholarly research and writing by academics and despite decades of work by social justice activists and organizers, we have not developed the political will to distribute sufficient funding to meet the needs of public schools in urban communities where poverty is concentrated.  The Kerner Commission named the problem of inequity 50 years ago:  “No American-white or black-can escape the consequences of the continuing social and economic decay of our major cities. Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society. The great productivity of our economy, and a federal revenue system which is highly responsive to economic growth, can provide the resources. The major need is to generate new will–the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary, to meet the vital needs of the nation.”

DeVos Department of Education Clashes with Federal Employees Union over Contract

On Wednesday afternoon U.S. Department of Education employees held a rally to protest the imposition on the Department’s employees of what Betsy DeVos has called a contract agreement. The so-called contract was, however, neither agreed to nor signed by any representative of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The Washington Post‘s Joe Davidson explains: “The Education Department is attempting to enforce a ‘collective bargaining agreement’ on a union that does not agree. The department’s move to foist a contract on the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the Trump administration’s latest and most dramatic attack on federal labor organizations and has implications far beyond the 3,900 employees the union represents at the department. This bold stroke could herald what federal unions across the government might encounter from an administration bent on belittling them.”

Rachel Cohen first broke the story on March 15, in The Intercept: “The union representing nearly 4,000 federal employees working for the U.S. Department of Education filed a complaint this week accusing the agency, run by Betsy DeVos, of union busting…. (M)anagement officials at the Education Department informed their workers’ union, the American Federation of Government Employees Council 252, that they would no longer be bargaining with them. Instead, management issued a 40-page document the department is calling a ‘collective bargaining agreement.’… Education Department staffers have been represented by the AFGE since 1982… In an interview with The Intercept, AFGE Assistant General Counsel Ward Morrow said it’s ‘extremely unusual’ to have to file a complaint over something like this. ‘You can’t even call it a collective bargaining agreement because it wasn’t collective, it wasn’t bargained, and there was no agreement,’ he said.”

In his Washington Post PowerPost commentary, Davidson analyzes the changes taking place: “The Department’s contract is part of a pattern demonstrating the administration’s disdain for organized labor. In September, President Trump initiated his assault with an executive order abolishing labor-management forums, created by former president Barack Obama to foster communication between supervisors and staff.  Trump’s budget proposal, released last month, implicitly blames federal unions for ’employer-employee relations activities (that) currently consume considerable management time and taxpayer resources, and may negatively impact efficiency, effectiveness, cost of operations, and employee accountability and performance.'”

Davidson explains further: “Capitol Hill Republicans have long pushed legislation to restrict ‘official time,’ which allows union officials, while being paid by the government, to engage with managers on a limited set of issues affecting employees generally… Official time is grounded in the obligation of federal unions to represent everyone in a bargaining unit and not just dues-paying members.  Those on official time cannot engage in strictly union activities, like recruiting members. Official time can be used for things such as improving productivity and safety and dealing with retaliation and discrimination.”

Cohen reports that office space and equipment in the Education Department building will no longer be provided to the union: “The new edict seeks to curtail union activity by imposing significant new rules and restrictions on the AFGE… Federal laptops, printers, and cellphones assigned to union members must be returned by March 26.  Union office space must be vacated by April 11, unless the AFGE wants to start paying fair-market rent for its use.  Staffers who serve as union officers are now also being told that they will no longer receive paid leave for time spent performing union representational duties.”

Cohen reports that Education Department spokesperson, Liz Hill blames the union for “dragging its feet on ground rules negotiations without reaching any agreement, and then failed to respond in timely manner to negotiate over the contract proposed by the Department.”

Cohan reports the union’s response from AFGE Council 252 President, Claudette Young: “We did not have any sticking points, we were not at an impasse… We were negotiating ground rules and making progress at every negotiating session. We don’t believe that we had anything we would not have been able to reach an agreement over if bargaining were to continue.”

Education Week‘s Alyson Klein provides background: “The contract dispute is happening as DeVos and her team are working on a major reorganization of the department. The plan calls for merging the Office of Innovation and Improvement, which deals with charter and private schools, with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the main K-12 office, among other changes.  The plan has meant reassignments for senior career managers and other employees.  For instance, the department’s chief privacy officer, Kathleen Styles, was reassigned and replaced by her deputy, Angela Arrington.” DeVos had also planned to break up the Department’s budget office, but Congress blocked that change with a provision added to the omnibus 2018 spending bill passed last week and signed by President Trump.

Klein puts the Department’s internal union dispute in a broader context: “The confrontation at the education department coincides with a big moment for education unions. Teachers in West Virginia stopped work for nine school days until the state legislature agreed to a 5 percent pay raise. Educators in Oklahoma are preparing a walkout in early April, and unions in other states are contemplating a similar move. As secretary, DeVos hasn’t taken sides in the state-level teacher contract disputes… She… said she supported both higher teacher salaries and responsible state budgeting.  But back in Michigan, DeVos and her family rarely saw eye-to-eye with unions, including the Michigan Education Association…. (T)he DeVos family was a force behind a successful campaign in Michigan to turn the state into a ‘right-to-work state.’  The Michigan Freedom Fund, an organization headed up by Greg McNeilly, a long-time associate of the Devoses, helped lead the charge in getting the legislation passed.”