America’s Dirty Secret

On Sunday, criticizing Ohio Senator Rob Portman for failing to speak out against Congress’s most recent attempt to throw away health care coverage for vulnerable families, Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer columnist and retired director of the editorial page, reminded readers that Portman’s wife serves on the board of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. And yet, Larkin explains, Portman voted earlier this summer to throw away significant health care coverage for children. Larkin quotes a letter to Congress signed by the heads of children’s hospitals throughout the country, a letter that wonders: “Children represent the future of the United States. Where are kids in these discussions? Do Congress and the White House see safeguarding children’s health care as a national priority?”

The struggles of poor children have been omitted from our two-decades’ discussion about school reform as well. No Child Left Behind said we would hold schools accountable, instituted a plan to punish schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores on standardized tests, and failed to invest significantly in the schools in poor communities. The failure to address the needs of poor children and their schools has been bipartisan. President George W. Bush and a bipartisan coalition in Congress brought us No Child Left Behind. President Obama pushed education policy that purported to “turnaround” the lowest scoring and poorest schools by closing or charterizing them. And Obama’s administration brought us the demand that states’ evaluation plans for teachers incorporate their students’ standardized test scores—without any consideration of the neighborhood and family struggles that affect poor children’s test scores or of the immense contribution of family wealth to the scores of privileged children.  Neither Bush nor Obama significantly increased the federal investment to help our nation’s  poorest urban and rural schools. The topics of rampant child poverty and growing inequality—along with growing residential segregation by income—have been absent from of our political dialogue.

Child poverty is well documented. Just last week the Economic Policy Institute presented a simple bar graph showing that one third of Native American and African American children are (still) in poverty.  Although child poverty declined for most racial and ethnic groups in 2016, here are the stark numbers that describe our society’s reality: While only 10.8 percent of white children live in poverty and 11.1 percent of Asian American children live in poverty, 33.8 percent of Native American and 30.8 percent of African American children live in poverty, along with 26.6 percent of Hispanic American children. These are alarming disparities. Native American and Black children are three times more likely to be poor than their white peers.  The Economic Policy Institute argues for raising the minimum wage; expanding refundable tax credits and the food stamp program, now called SNAP; and expanding Medicaid and affordable health care.  When was the last time you heard a politician seriously advocating for such programs?

In August, Elizabeth Harris of the NY Times once again outlined the extent of child homelessness in New York City—a devastating problem for families and children and for their public schools: “There were 100,000 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2015-16 school year, a number equal to the population of Albany… If current trends continue… one in every seven New York City public school students will be homeless at some point during elementary school.”

Harris quotes Anna Shaw-Amoah, a policy analyst at the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, the agency which released the data Harris describes: “In every school classroom, that’s two or three kids… And the challenges are not just about whether you’re currently living in a shelter or a doubled up setting, but did they have that experience last year, or did they have this experience in Kindergarten?  The instability really travels with students. If you fall behind in one year, it’s going to be harder to get on grade level the next year.”

Harris continues: “The growing number of homeless children is part of the fallout of the city’s housing crisis, which has seen a growing number of families in city shelters as rents have risen, federal and state aid has dwindled, and a state rental assistance program ended… The typical homeless elementary school student missed 88 days of school…. Families who have lost their home must make the wrenching choice of leaving a child in a school they know, or transferring them to a school closer to where they are staying. Moving to a new school may further the feeling of dislocation but it makes it easier for the child to get to class.”

What effect does all this have on students?  “Homeless children were more likely than those with stable housing to be on the wrong side of a huge array of indicators. They were more likely to be suspended or drop out, more likely to face delays in being identified as needing special education services, and more likely to need services to help them learn English. Their proficiency rates on the state math and English exams for third through eighth graders were about 20 points lower than their classmates.”

John Merrow just published Addicted to Reform, a memoir about what he learned during his decades-long career as the education reporter for the PBS NewsHour. The most stunning section of the book describes the cost to our society of what Merrow derides as our society’s addiction to accountability-driven, test-and-punish school reform—the policies that were mandated by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Merrow devotes the second chapter of the book, “Calculate the Cost of School Reform,” to examining the education policy in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. He concludes: “Children, teachers, schools, and society have paid a price for school reform, however well-meaning some reformers may have been. Our addiction to school reform has caused significant collateral damage: a narrowed curriculum, thousands of hours spent on testing and test prep, a demoralized teaching force, the resignations of effective teachers fed up with excessive testing, time and money spent recruiting those teachers’ replacements, huge cuts and occasional bankruptcy proceedings in school districts because of dollars diverted to online for-profit charter schools, and the cumulative negative effects on the public’s view of schools caused by the drumbeat of criticism.”(p.54)

But Merrow’s strongest words are for all those who have refused to acknowledge the impact of poverty on the lives of children and who are content to do nothing about poverty:  “To me, the biggest hypocrites in the world of education are the advocates of school reform who preach that ‘poverty can never be offered as an excuse’ for poor student performance but then do nothing to alleviate poverty and its attendant conditions. What they are saying, bottom line, is that it’s the teachers’ fault when kids in poverty-ridden schools do poorly on tests or fail to graduate… Even if these so-called thought leaders genuinely believe that poverty is not an excuse, shouldn’t they be outraged that most states are actively making things worse for poor kids?  At least thirty states are systematically shortchanging poor areas when they distribute education dollars… ‘The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts….’” (pp.25-26)

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How Did We Stop Honoring School Teachers? Why Does It Matter?

In the past month I have had the same heartbreaking conversation with school teachers from several different school districts. These teachers describe the following reality: school administrators—under intense pressure to raise test scores to protect their own jobs and to protect the reputations and rankings of their school districts—are exerting intense pressure from the top which sometimes includes threats, curriculum packages imposed from on-high, and consultants in classrooms correcting teachers’ practices in front of students. One teacher described a colleague reduced to tears because she was made to wear earbuds in the classroom and be corrected (by consultants in the back of the classroom) on her teaching technique while she was working with the students.

Today when we think about school teachers, we have been conditioned to believe that the biggest mission of those who would improve schools is to get rid of bad teachers.  But weeding out bad teachers is not the biggest problem, which is that morale in many public schools is so low that many teachers—including excellent teachers—are just giving up and changing careers.  In lots of states there are teacher shortages because fewer and fewer college students consider teaching to be a desirable career.

Sure there are some weak teachers; we all remember our worst teacher. Nobody thinks employing poor teachers is a good idea. But good administrators have the means to counsel these people out of the profession and the teachers’ unions themselves have developed peer mentoring along with peer assessment programs that are helping teachers in local school districts improve the practice of all teachers and encourage the poorest teachers to find other work.

Public policy is largely to blame for today’s crisis in teacher morale. The federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, driven by accountability but very little in extra resources to support the professionals who staff our schools, was designed to “incentivize” teachers through fear.  School ratings were tied to what was supposed to be ever-rising test scores. The law threatened teachers to work harder and smarter and blamed teachers when the test-score needle didn’t move quickly. Then Arne Duncan’s No Child Left Behind waivers—to permit states to stop some of the law’s most punitive requirements—were awarded to states when they complied with additional, Duncan-approved, federal requirements that included tying a large percentage of teachers’ formal evaluations to students’ standardized test scores. Nearly 20 years of punitive federal policies have had precisely the effect that could have been predicted, even if it wasn’t the law’s stated purpose. There has been a collapse in our society’s trust in teachers (even if polls continue to show that parents admire their own child’s teacher). Teachers were supposed to work harder and smarter, but because all test scores didn’t significantly rise, many people seem to have concluded that teachers don’t work hard and aren’t very smart.  It is as though we’ve had a national ad campaign to smear school teachers.

Here is Parker Palmer—whose books explore the idea of teaching as vocation—writing 20 years ago and predicting why our test-and-punish policies would be so damaging to teachers: “Teachers make an easy target, for they are such a common species and so powerless to strike back. We blame teachers for being unable to cure social ills that no one knows how to treat; we insist that they instantly adopt whatever ‘solution’ has most recently been concocted by our national panacea machine, and in the process we demoralize, even paralyze, the very teachers who could help us find our way.” (The Courage to Teach, p 3)  “(I)n every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning… Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness.  They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves… The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.” (The Courage to Teach, pp. 10-11)  I wish all teachers would read or reread Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, for these days our teachers are disheartened.

I wish the rest of us would sit down and read or reread Mike Rose’s wonderful 1995 book, Possible Lives.  Rose, a professor of education at UCLA, spent four years touring America’s public schools. Here is how he describes the book in the preface to a 2005 edition: “This book is a documentary of the possible, recorded from a journey through America’s public schools. The good classroom is the focal point of the journey, and we will spend time in many of them, learning about our children, their teachers, the surrounding communities, and the idea of public education. In doing so, we will learn about America itself. Such a journey seems more needed now than when Possible Lives was published just more than a decade ago.  In the midst of the culture wars that swirl around schools, the fractious, intractable school politics, the conservative assault on public institutions, and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose and grand vision of the common public school… I’m… struck by how the teachers in this book talk to young people. By turns, their exchanges with students are comical, sober, challenging, inviting, probing, quizzical, supportive—in short they take their students seriously as thinkers, as young people with a mental life and a desire to be competent… The way a teacher talks to students—the way any of us talk to each other—either opens up or closes down thought… Implicit in the activity of the teachers in Possible Lives are theories of teaching and learning…. (N)ew teachers (not to mention parents or any adult who works with children) need an orientation to cognition and learning that encourages a nuanced perspective on the developing mind.”  Possible Lives profiles good teachers from across America in cities, small towns, and even a one room country school.

In a 2015 piece published in The American Scholar, Rose once again reflects on the teachers he observed while writing Possible Lives.  Rose describes the professional challenges teachers face every day in their classrooms, this time contrasting today’s technocratic emphasis on gimmicks and the sequencing of particular techniques to the real work of a teacher: “If you pare down your concept of teaching far enough you are left with sequences of behaviors and routines—with techniques… What is new is the nearly exclusive focus on techniques, the increased role of digital technology to study them, and the attempt to define ‘effective’ by seeking positive correlations between specific techniques and, you guessed it, students’ standardized test scores… Techniques don’t work in isolation.  The sequencing of questions, for example, is a crucial skill, but it depends on the teacher’s knowledge of the material being taught, children’s typical responses to this material, the kinds of misconceptions and errors they make, and the alternative explanations and illustrations that might help them.  A teacher can’t ask meaningful questions for long without this kind of knowledge. In equal measure, the effectiveness of techniques, particularly for classroom management, is influenced by students’ sense of a teacher’s concern for them and understanding of them… This pinched notion of teaching (through a sequence of techniques) combined with a ‘no excuses’ stance toward low achievement yields a troubling response to economic inequality: the belief that the right kind of education can overcome poverty.”

Rose summarizes the qualities of the fine teachers and classrooms he observed: “For all of the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities.  These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers would want them for their own children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration  But there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect.. 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.”

Several years ago, I was invited by a friend on the staff of the high school in my own community to visit classes for a morning. This is an inner-ring suburban public high school, majority African American with well over fifty percent of students living in poverty. My own children graduated from this high school, which is why I was so touched to be invited back for a visit. I spent an hour in several fine classrooms, but one stands out as an example of the kind of classroom Rose describes. The class is what is called at our high school a social studies elective, a political philosophy class for high school juniors and seniors. It is significant that this class is not required for Ohio’s graduation exam requirement, which allows this teacher some freedom. The students were in the midst of reading Voltaire’s Candide, the topic of the day’s discussion, and the teacher handed out copies of a list of fifteen questions to guide the day’s conversation. He asked the students collectively to decide which questions they thought were so obvious they could cross them off without discussion (usually the more literal questions), and then led the conversation for the rest of the hour by inviting students to name the questions they would like to discuss. One young woman became so engaged she hoisted herself up onto the radiator behind her for a better view of the students across the room. The teacher made a careful effort to engage all the students, often passing over a loquacious young woman to make a space for the quieter students. Finally the teacher wondered about Voltaire’s attitude toward religion, and the students felt safe enough to raise their questions. No one had been able to work this out very well, and all felt comfortable admitting that. What followed was considerable conversation about whether Voltaire is criticizing religion or hypocrisy. At the end of the hour, the teacher challenged the students to think about that question as they finished the book.  I came home admiring the intellectual safety of that classroom where earnest teenagers were encountering such a book for the first time.

Really, the national branding of teachers as failures might have caused you to wonder if such classrooms exist any more. Schools today are also relatively guarded places. Because of the school shootings in recent years and all the worry about school security, you likely won’t have an opportunity to make a visit to your community’s high school. Once again, however, Parker Palmer is reassuring. If you can find a way to visit one of your community’s schools, “Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization that they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills. But you will also witness teacher after teacher transcending these conditions and caring for young people in remarkable ways… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.” (Parker Palmer’s “Forward” to Stories of the Courage to Teach by Sam Intrator, p. xviii)

Two Wise Articles about High School Graduation Requirements

This week brought two fine commentaries on today’s punitive high school graduation requirements. Stan Karp, an educator, demonstrates widespread flawed assumptions about the need for high school exit exams. And, in a stunning commentary, the Rev. Jesse Jackson exposes the serious flaw in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to demand that students present proof of a life plan in order to secure a high school diploma.

I hope Stan Karp, an educator and editor at Rethinking Schools Magazine, whose column is published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, is correct when he says it seems to be going out of style to use exit tests artificially to raise the bar for high school graduation: “In the last few years, 10 states have repealed or delayed high school exit exams. California, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona even decided to issue diplomas retroactively to thousands of students denied them due to scores on discontinued tests. Although 13 states still use exit testing for diplomas and policies are in flux in several others, the number is down from a high of 27 states during the testing craze promoted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Karp’s article exposes the flaws in the myth that high school graduation tests ensure that students hold what has been called “a high-quality diploma.”

Karp lives in New Jersey, which still uses a standardized testing bar for high school graduation. I live in Ohio, where a new graduation plan, scheduled to begin with the class of  2018, requires students to accrue a total score of 18 points from a batch of required end-of-course exams. Projections indicate about a third of Ohio’s high school seniors will not have accumulated enough points to graduate and will be denied a diploma in June of 2018.

Karp opposes high school exit exams, what he calls, “the trapdoors of the education world. These are the tests that tie scores to high school diplomas and push students who miss the mark out of school into the streets, the unemployment lines, and the prisons.” He summarizes the research demonstrating that high school exit exams don’t, as their fans promise, ensure that students are “college and career-ready.” From a report by the New America Foundation, Karp explains: “(R)igorous exit testing was associated with lower graduation rates, had no positive effect on labor market outcomes, and, most alarmingly, produced a 12.5 percent increase in incarceration rates.”

What was the promise and where did it go wrong? “Exit testing relies on several related, flawed premises. One is that standardized testing can serve as a kind of ‘quality control’ for high school graduates, guaranteeing that graduates are ‘college or career ready.’  Another is that they have ‘predictive’ value for future success in academic or workplace situations, and serve a useful gate-keeping function for institutions that ration access to opportunity.  But there is little evidence for these contentions.  The tests don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure—intelligence, academic ability, college readiness—and they don’t measure at all qualities that high schools should nurture in all young people, like responsibility, resilience, critical insight, and empathy. Although the passing or ‘cut’ scores on standardized exit tests can be manipulated to produce varied outcomes, their main impact is to narrow access to opportunity for some, not to produce better preparation for all… Like the SAT and ACT before them, scores on the new Common Core tests closely mirror existing patterns of inequality and privilege.  Expanding their use would reinforce those patterns rather than disrupt them.”

In a Chicago Sun-Times column this week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also worries about the way high school graduation requirements contribute to inequality.  Jackson examines the assumptions underneath Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new high school graduation proposal to require that, to earn their diplomas, high school seniors in Chicago’s public schools must present documentation of college or military enrollment or evidence of a job. (This blog covered Mayor Emanuel’s plan here.)  Jackson exposes Emanuel’s plan as another example of thinking that individuals should pull themselves up by their bootstraps through personal determination. At the same time Jackson lays bare a serious flaw: the problem isn’t so much each high school graduate’s lack of effort to make plan as it is society’s failure to ensure that students’ plans could possibly be realized.

Here are the realities Rev. Jackson describes in Chicago, his hometown: “Chicago has the worst black unemployment of any of the five biggest cities in the country. Across the U.S., a staggering 51.3 percent of young black high school graduates are unemployed or underemployed (that is, forced to work part time involuntarily or giving up on finding a job). A majority of young black high school graduates are looking for full-time work and can’t find it. The mayor’s plan does nothing to address this grim reality. Instead, it erects a paperwork hoop for kids to jump through that is likely to have very little to do with their plans for their lives. Why not go a step further down the reform road? Establish the requirement and then guarantee every graduate a job, with the city acting as an employer of last resort.”

Jackson compares Rahm’s graduation requirement to the 1996 welfare reform, whose technical name betrays what was intended—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—that blamed the victims for their poverty. Jackson believes the law  failed because it didn’t follow through with a viable way to expand work opportunity: “Emanuel’s plan is a faint echo of his mentor Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. In 1996, when Clinton’s welfare reform bill was passed, the rhetoric was all about impoverished single mothers going from welfare to work. The plan was to abolish the welfare guarantee and require that poor mothers go to work after a limited period of time. Great, everyone is for work over welfare. But in order to hold a job, impoverished single mothers need some way to care for their children, job training, a way to get to their job—and a job to get to. None of that was provided in the welfare reform bill that eventually passed.”

Jackson concludes: “Emanuel operates from the theory that poor graduates lack a plan for life after high school.  What they lack, however, is a real job or a real training program that would lead to a job. These kids grow up in impoverished neighborhoods and on mean streets. Often they come from broken homes, without adequate nutrition, with unstable housing. They attend schools with massive needs and inadequate resources. If they make it, they graduate into an economy that has little place for them.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand that students present a life plan and the states’ imposition of high stakes graduation exit exams do nothing to address the deeper problem of poverty and inequality that almost nobody ever mentions. Rev. Jackson’s commentary in a Chicago newspaper seems stunningly out of place in today’s plutocratic America where poverty has effectively been hidden. Rev. Jackson’s commentary is short; it is a must-read.

High School Graduation—Rahm’s Plan Worse than Ohio’s Terrible Plan, But Arne Loves It

I had imagined it would be pretty hard to come up with worse high school graduation requirements than the new Ohio plan endorsed by Governor John Kasich. Watching the state move toward the implementation of our new graduation requirements a year from now is like watching a train speeding down the wrong track. It is expected that nearly a third of the students in Ohio’s Class of 2018 won’t be able to accrue the required 18 points—based on their cumulative scores on end-of-course exams—to graduate from high school next June. Remember that the cut scores on high stakes exams are not in some way scientific, but can be raised or lowered depending on how many students politicians want to pass or fail.

School superintendents from across Ohio have been holding protest rallies at the statehouse, and this week even the Ohio State Board of Education proposed a one-year emergency exemption to allow students to graduate from high school in June of 2018, as long as they have passed all their classes even though they may not have scored high enough on the tests. The State Board suggests that students could make up for low test scores with, “some career training goals or by doing things like having strong attendance or classroom grades their senior year.” For the members of the State Board to oppose Governor Kasich on this matter is pretty amazing. After all, eight of the 19 members of the Ohio State Board of Education are appointed by the governor and most of the rest of them are members of his party.

But Chicago’s mayor (who also runs the public schools) Rahm Emanuel just came up with a more punitive and less workable plan to toughen up. Here is the Chicago Tribune: “Emanuel’s proposal would add one more big item to the graduation checklist for high school seniors: proof they’ve been accepted into college or the military, or a trade or a ‘gap-year’ program. The requirement would also be satisfied if the student has a job or a job offer… Emanuel and his office said the ‘groundbreaking’ effort would make CPS the nation’s first large urban school district to require students to develop a plan for their lives after high school. He outlined the plan as CPS continues to struggle with financial problems that have led officials to warn the current school year could end three weeks early.”

DNA Info Chicago lists the ways students could meet the demands of Rahm’s new plan:

  • “College acceptance letter,
  • “Military acceptance/enlistment letter,
  • “Acceptance at a job training program, like a coding bootcamp,
  • “Acceptance into a trades apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship program,
  • “Acceptance into a ‘gap-year’ program,
  • “Current job or job offer letter.”

While the Tribune describes Mayor Emanuel defending his plan with the traditional justification—“If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”—many have questioned the wisdom of Emanuel’s thinking.  Some have even questioned the legality of his plan: “State laws and regulations aren’t clear on exactly how much authority school districts have to expand graduation requirements, said Miranda Johnson, who is the associate director of the Education Law and Policy Institute at Loyola University’s School of Law. “I think that raises questions when the requirements go beyond academic curriculum and extend into the student’s post-secondary choices… I think it also raises questions if those requirements are contingent on a third party’s action that may go beyond the scope of what the student can control.”

Emanuel’s plan hasn’t yet been voted on by the Chicago Board of Education. And some have noted, including Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, that, “A top CPS official also acknowledged… that every Chicago public high school graduate essentially already meets the new standard because graduation guarantees admittance to the City Colleges of Chicago community college system.”

We shouldn’t imagine, however, that all those students will be able to afford community college tuition. And there are also serious questions about the workability of such a requirement in a school district so broke that it may have to close three weeks early. (See here.)  School districts in dire fiscal circumstances are known to burden high school counselors with unworkable case loads of hundreds of students.

Peter Greene, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, responded to Rahm’s new idea on his personal blog: “Steady job that’s not a trade?  Working musician? Stay-at-home mom? Person who just needs to spend a year or two working at a crappy minimum wage job while they figure out what they want to do next?  Manage the family business?  All of that and more have passed through my classroom and gone on to successful, productive, happy lives. Are you telling me we shouldn’t have given them a diploma because they didn’t do what we wanted them to after graduation.  Nor do I imagine for one Chicago Second that wealthy parents whose children are not ready for or aimed at one of these… choices while they are still high school seniors—those parents are going to say, ‘Oh, well, then.  I guess you don’t get a diploma.  Them’s the breaks.’  No—this is one more numbskulled reformy idea that wealthy parents would not tolerate for a single second… Demanding that an eighteen year old develop a life plan, right now, this minute, or else, is just rank foolishness.  To demand a commitment to that plan, right now, that involves a commitment to give up a year or spend a ton of money or both—also foolishness… But to attach such high stakes is the worst, particularly since three of the four options require someone to accept the student… Well, too bad, because now they have a double strike against them—no plan yet, and no diploma, either.”

But Rahm does have one cheerleader: our former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. It is instructive to read Arne Duncan’s Chicago Tribune op ed just as a reminder of the kind of technocratic nonsense we all lived with for nearly eight years. Arne was always using big city schools and their teachers and their students as the subjects of an experiment with one of his plans—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, quick two-year school turnarounds like firing the teachers or closing or charterizing schools. We are still living with the collateral damage. Arne’s innovations rarely involved careful consideration of the possible negative externalities.  And he always focused on the program—certainly not the students in any kind of careful developmental or psychological way.

Arne is always motivated by competition—the endeavor to create and win the race to the top. Here is his analysis of Rahm’s new graduation plan: “For much of the last 10 years, America out-educated most other nations in the world, which drove the world’s strongest economy, built the middle class and made the American Dream possible for millions. In recent years, however, many other countries have caught up to us.”

Arne is also a technocrat—prone to focus on the mechanics of a program and the data sets that can be generated to hold it accountable—without considering how it might really affect the lives of particular children or their teachers or their counselors: “Every student needs a plan, whether that’s college, trade school, apprenticeships, the military, a job or even a  gap-year program that can open young eyes to the world and lead graduates in promising new directions. We should be tracking all of these outcomes and holding ourselves accountable for them.”

There is definitely a classist bias to Rahm’s new plan and Arne’s defense of it: “But too many… young people have no real plan for their future. They don’t have those dinner-table conversations about the future. Instead, they feel pressure to earn for themselves and their families and they can’t see a path forward… Middle-class parents expose their own children to work opportunities. They have networks of friends who can offer internships.  Their communities offer entry-level jobs to kids who are still in high school. For low-income kids however, those work experiences don’t just happen naturally.”  Arne expresses a whole lot of assumptions here about how eighteen-year-olds think and about the kind of opportunities that may not be happening so naturally in today’s economy even for middle class eighteen-year-olds.

Finally there is Arne’s love of incentives as primary motivators—the kind of psychology that has driven the past two decades of technocratic school “reform.”  Behaviorist psychology will tell you that if you are going to use incentives, you are far better offering carrots than sticks, but Arne and the school “reformers” have preferred threats and manipulation through fear. Threaten the jobs of teachers if they can’t quickly raise scores. Close or privatize schools that cannot quickly raise scores. Deny high school diplomas for students who don’t score well enough!  And set those cut scores really high; make it so tough it will motivate everybody.  Here is Arne describing Rahm’s plan: “Some people worry that raising graduation standards will cause more young people to drop out, but they’re wrong. Young people don’t drop out because school is too hard. They drop out because it is too easy and they are not engaged. They don’t understand how it’s relevant to their lives.”

So Rahm and Arne now endorse a plan to reduce dropouts with the threat of denying diplomas to students who have passed all their classes and their required tests but lack a life plan. Deny students without a plan their high school diploma, the very document required across our society as the credential for a next step in any plan a young person might eventually come up with.

Public Schools Transformed by Stable Leadership, Challenging Curriculum and Caring Relationships

Recently I listened online to a lecture sponsored by the American Educational Research Association in which Dr. Charles Payne, a sociologist and professor of urban education at the University of Chicago explains what public schools can do to help their students thrive academically even despite what we know are the constraints posed when their families and their neighborhoods are extremely poor.  Poverty, Payne says, poses enormous challenges to children’s thriving at school, but if the curriculum is extremely challenging and the children are known by the adults at the school and feel supported by these relationships, many children can thrive academically.

Payne documents his address from the academic research literature, but what might be seen as a case study for his theory of school improvement appeared in Sunday’s NY Times: an article by David Kirp, the University of California at Berkeley public policy professor who has been visiting public schools in the Union Public School District, located in the eastern part of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Beneath the improvements in Union Public School District—how the District has made its curriculum more rigorous and created a web of relationships that support students—Kirp highlights an additional factor that usually gets less attention. The superintendent who transformed and strengthened this school district retired in 2013 after 19 years and the new superintendent isn’t looking to move on.

In contrast to the theory of disruption that has pervaded corporate school reform and that is also at the heart of Betsy DeVos’s belief in privatization is stable, deliberate, and incremental school improvement. Kirp explains: “Superintendents and school boards often lust after the quick fix.  The average urban school chief lasts around three years, and there’s no shortage of shamans promising to ‘disrupt’ the status quo. The truth is that school systems improve not through flash and dazzle but by linking talented teachers, a challenging curriculum and engaged students.  This is Union’s not-so-secret sauce: Start out with an academically solid foundation, then look for ways to keep getting better. Union’s model begins with high-quality prekindergarten, which enrolls almost 80 percent of the 4-year-olds in the district.  And it ends at the high school, which combines a collegiate atmosphere… with the one-on-one attention that characterizes the district.”

Christa McAuliffe Elementary boasts a STEM curriculum—science, technology, engineering and math—for all students.  Kirp describes a 7-year-old who, like his classmates, has developed an algorithm for a video game. The teacher has prescribed the conditions the algorithm must produce: “(A) cow must cross a two-lane highway, dodging constant traffic. If she makes it, the sound of clapping is heard; if she’s hit by a car, the game says, ‘Aw.'”  Emily Limm, the director of the STEM program, tells Kirp the district offers STEM classes to all students, not just those deemed gifted: “It’s not unusual for students struggling in other subjects to find themselves in the STEM classes. Teachers are seeing kids who don’t regard themselves as good readers back into reading because they care about the topic.”

Over a decade ago, in 2004, the district also undertook to make its schools full-service, wraparound Community Schools: “These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities—art, music, science, sports, tutoring—that middle-class families routinely provide.  They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.”

Kirp emphasizes the stability for students: “Counselors work with the same students throughout high school, and because they know their students well, they can guide them through their next steps.  For many, going to community college can be a leap into anonymity… But Union’s college-in-high-school initiative enables students to start earning community college credits before they graduate, giving them a leg up.”

You can read Kirp’s article to learn about the improvements in test scores, attendance, and the high school graduation rate.  The important point, in addition to the strong curriculum and the web of personal connections that make all students feel known at school, is that the school district’s accomplishments have not come from some kind of quick turnaround.  Kirp quotes Cathy Burden who led the district for 19 years prior to her retirement in 2013: “None of this happened overnight. We were very intentional—we started with a prototype program, like community schools, tested it out and gradually expanded it. The model was organic—it grew because it was the right thing to do.”

Are Charter CEOs Being Purely Altruistic in Their Demand for More Federal Support for Public Schools?

What’s happening here?  The leaders of 20 of the nation’s charter school networks, including Achievement First, Aspire, Breakthrough, Green Dot, KIPP, Rocketship Education, Uncommon Schools and YES Prep published a letter in USA Today demanding that the Trump administration must change its budget priorities to be more supportive of traditional public schools.  Trump’s proposed budget expands by 50 percent the funding for the federal Charter Schools Program to stimulate the startup of new charter schools.  So why are these charter school providers complaining and why are they demanding more money for traditional public schools?

Here is some of what they said in their letter: “(W)e see ourselves as partners, not competitors, with traditional school districts… But to make that broader vision work, we need federal support for all schools, for all kids, not just kids in ‘choice’ schools… We realize that expressing concerns about a budget that benefits our schools might seem counterintuitive.  But we want to join with all those who are fighting to defend public education as an essential pillar of our democracy.”

What’s behind this attack of altruism?  What has caused the CEOs of some of the biggest and best known charter school networks to become advocates for federal funding for the very public schools we’ve been taught by Milton Friedman and Betsy DeVos to believe charters need to improve by competing with them in an education marketplace?

Well, for one thing, even though they rarely admit it, charter schools depend on their host public school systems to survive. Their mission is to provide escapes for some children from what they call “failing” public schools, but they count on their host school district to provide the special education services and English language instruction for the children they don’t serve. Charter schools don’t have to serve all children; they can “counsel out” the students who are not comfortable in their school culture—students whose behavior they struggle to manage—students who are too often truant—students whose low test scores are undermining their school’s ratings. The public school district provides the escape valve for the children the charters won’t or can’t serve. And in lots of places public schools provide really basic services like school bus transportation to charter schools.

Another reality that has suddenly become a concern for the charter ssector is that, after several years of rapid expansion of the number of charter schools, that growth is slowing.  Robin Lake, a supporter of the expansion of charter schools at the Center on Reinventing Public Education explains: “A recently released annual update from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools included a surprising fact: a mere 329 charter schools opened across the country in the 2016-2017 school year. In no year since the Alliance began tracking new charter openings has the total number of new schools been so low… (I)t appears that it was the early 2000s when we last saw fewer than 350 new charter schools open. When you take closures into consideration, the total additional growth of charter schools last year was just over 100 schools, or nearly 2 percent.”  Lake continues: “Mike DeArmond and I looked back five years and see that, in general, the rate of charter growth has pretty consistently held at 6 to 8 percent until the 2014-2015 school year, when the rate slowed to around 4 percent.  In 2015-2016, it slowed further to just barely over 2 percent, and then down to the current 1.8 percent. This year is not an anomaly. So what is going on?”

Why is growth in the number of charter schools slowing?  In a follow-up article, Lake explores the reasons: “There are several plausible explanations for this slowdown. The politics of the charter school movement have taken an increasingly hostile turn of late… Some states, like Massachusetts, took a cautious but high-quality approach to charter school growth. Other states bent to political winds early on and refused to allow anyone other than a school district to approve charter schools. Still others starved charters of funding or access to facilities… It ‘s also true that bureaucratic hurdles have increased even without hostile political pressure. Charter authorizers, the agencies responsible for charter school approval, oversight, and closing, have been getting increasingly choosier. The goal has been to increase the quality of schools—and rightly so—but the result is a much costlier and sometimes prohibitive process for applicants who lack serious financial backing and connections. In many states, applicants are expected to invest a year or more in planning, have a facility secured, and demonstrate strong community support… CMOs (charter management organizations) have relied on Teach for America as their primary labor source, but that well is running dry… CMOs are increasingly asked to turn around low-performing neighborhood schools and address high expulsion and low special education numbers, all while trying to perform well on tougher new Common Core-aligned tests… In short, well-intentioned efforts to address quality and improve equity may be significantly slowing charter school growth, just as fear of increased growth by opponents intensifies. The combination may soon bring charter growth to a halt unless something changes.”

It is heartening to see that a charter advocate like Robin Lake realizes that growing push-back from advocates for strong public schools is having an impact.  Charter schools were launched by those who said the schools ought to be free from regulation, but over the years, concern has grown in communities watching unscrupulous charter operators enriching themselves while their schools flounder.  States have watched rip-offs on an unprecedented scale as owners of for-profit charter management companies and the e-school charters invest in political contributions to legislators who then fail to provide for urgently needed oversight to prevent fraud and corruption. Public school districts have found themselves trying to catch up students returning to their schools far behind peers who remained in traditional schools. Under pressure, states have been increasing regulation.

And there has been growing push-back against what happens in particular school districts—against the school closures that result when a mass of charters in a neighborhood empty out a neighborhood school while parents try out school choice. The district responds by closing the neighborhood school, but when the charter schools flounder, there is no public alternative to which children can return. Jitu Brown, a Chicago organizer who has watched this process and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (an organization of grassroots community organizations in 24 U.S. cities) delineates in more detail how charter schools undermine neighborhood public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities. Brown writes: “(T)hese privatization supporters speak about the virtues of charters while failing to address how they have increased segregation, sometimes cherry-picked students, taken funding away from underfunded traditional systems, and operated in secrecy.”

Last October, leaders of the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights organization, ratified a resolution that calls for a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until: “charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools; public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system; charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate; and (charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest-performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

Charter schools have now been around for over two decades and academic research has finally begun to catch up with the need to understand the impact of charter school privatization, particularly the effect of these new schools on the public school districts where charter schools have been rapidly opened. Some researchers have noted that rapidly expanding charters may be functioning as parasites killing their host.  In a study released at the end of November, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University challenged policy makers to judge charter schools and other privatized alternatives not merely by the test scores posted by their own students but instead by the effect of these institutions on the entire educational ecosystem in any metropolitan area. Charters should not be permitted to undermine the provision of education by their host public school systems: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

With a mass of evidence published in local newspapers about growing academic and fiscal problems in particular charter schools, with reporting by the national press of academic and fiscal abuses by some of the big charter management organizations and the huge online academies, with resistance from community organizers and the NAACP in the very urban communities where charter schools have rapidly expanded, and with growing pushback from the research community, it is not surprising that charter supporters and the CEOs of the chains of charter schools might be worried.

Their letter this week that endorses more federal funding for traditional public schools probably describes an awareness among charter school leaders that, even though they like to believe their schools are independent, their futures are inextricably connected to their host school districts. It also may reflect their own need to present themselves in a positive light at a time when the public is becoming aware that public schools in many places have been hurt by the rapid growth of charter schools.

Those of us who worry about the threat of privatization to the institution of public education need to keep up the pressure.

“Something Is Happening and You Don’t Know What It Is…”

After reading John Merrow’s reflection on what is happening in the Trump-DeVos Department of Education, I woke up in the night thinking of Bob Dylan. John Merrow covered education for the PBS NewsHour for decades, and he just visited Washington, D.C., where he talked with old friends and contacts who see significant developments at the U.S. Department of Education.

Merrow describes the movement of education policy in the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration, but he is definitely not depicting a new spirit or a gathering momentum. This is definitely not a “the times, they are a-changin” moment.

I will, however, give Bob Dylan credit for naming what I think John Merrow has noticed: “Something is happening and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”

Here is John Merrow: “In his inaugural address, President Trump told the nation that we have an ‘education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.’ His proposed budget acts on his words, cutting federal education dollars by 13.5% or nearly $9 billion. His Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has called public education a disgrace and a disaster. Openly hostile to traditional public schools (which serve 90% of children) she plans to use the levers of power available to her to support vouchers, home schooling, on-line for-profit charter schools, and other alternatives… However, it’s also chaotic, because Trump’s White House does not trust any of the Cabinet departments and has installed ‘spies’ in all of them, including Education. These Trump loyalists, often called ‘Special Assistants to the Secretary,’ report to the White House, not to the Secretary of the department they’re assigned to. So things have to be beyond weird at 400 Maryland Avenue SW, the home of the Department of Education… I just came from Washington, where some Republicans and Democrats told me that ‘Lamar Alexander is really in charge.’… They seemed to be expressing the hope that Senator Alexander could and would rein in DeVos if she really got crazy. So, it’s bad, but it would be worse if Trump’s anti-public school people had their act together, which they do not.”

In all this John Merrow is able to derive some optimism: “Congress, which finally got out from under the widely-discredited No Child Left Behind Act when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, has now revoked regulations issued in the dying days of the Obama Administration.  That gives even more power back to states and districts, who must still file their ESSA accountability plans with the Department…. even though it’s not clear that anyone at the Department will read them, let alone approve them. Trump’s budget cuts federal dollars that have been supporting State Departments of Education, so it’s reasonable to infer that state officials are spending lots of time and energy trying to restore those budget cuts… So, with Washington engaged in in-fighting, and State Departments fighting to keep their feet firmly in the federal trough, who’s paying attention to local school districts?  Could this be a real opportunity for genuine local control?”

I wonder what gives John Merrow quite so much optimism about local control.  Since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January of 2002, there has definitely been a gross imbalance toward federal power, of course, with the test-and-punish strictures of the federal government conditioning the evaluations of school teachers and even the survival of particular schools on schools’ capacity to raise the test scores quickly. Federal law has demanded accountability even though the federal government itself entirely failed to build the capacity of the schools that have struggled.  Congress neglected to demand that funding between rich and poor school districts be equalized and failed as well to address the conditions that concentrated poverty imposes on the schools in our poorest communities.

Restoring some federal-state-local balance would be a very good thing. But it is wrong to imagine that if the federal role fades, school improvement will automatically evolve. The prophetic warning of the late Frederick Douglass should staunch our optimism:“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

If the federal government’s role in education policy dissipates into incompetence and in-fighting, other influential factions across the states and within local school districts are still likely to manage public schools in ways that further privilege the children of the powerful unless democratic pressure persists.

Here are merely two examples of how privileged interests are driving school policy.

The first example is  at the local level.  On Wednesday, the NY Times published a column by Damon Hewitt, now the director of the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and formerly with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Hewitt protests the injustice of the way New York City selects the students for its  “eight ‘specialized’ city public high schools that include Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. About 28,000 students took the multiple-choice test required for admission, and 5,078 did well enough to secure a place. This system, while it might seem meritocratic, in fact leads to a shocking inequity. Even though black and Latino students make up nearly 70 percent of public high school students in the city, they routinely represent only 10 percent of those offered admission to the specialized high schools. This year the city offered admission to only 524 black and Latino students. The numbers are even lower at some of the most desired schools, such as Stuyvesant, which has space for nearly 1,000 freshmen and offered admission to only 13 black students… The sole criterion is a student’s score on the multiple-choice admissions test.”

Everybody knows, or should know, that test scores, in the aggregate, reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods. (See here and here.) In New York City, parents influential enough to do so scramble in Kindergarten and at the middle school transition to get their children into schools that are thought to prepare students for admission to the elite high schools.  And in New York City everybody knows that students whose parents can afford it are tutored for the admissions test for the elite high schools.  Hewitt concludes: “If the (DeBlasio) administration is truly committed to admitting black and Latino students who deserve to be in specialized high schools, it must find the courage to disrupt the status quo and ask the harder questions… What if the school district… and the State Legislature… started from scratch to create an admissions process that rewards those who do well in middle school?  What if school officials and the public actually believed there are many talented black and Latino students who can succeed in an elite setting?”

The second example is the state-by-state policy promoted by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education: the creation of state report cards that award letter grades based on standardized test scores to school districts and individual schools.  Some had pushed that the federal rules for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act require states to create summative ratings (like A-F school grades) for schools and districts in their state ESSA accountability plans.  Even though the Obama ESSA accountability rules were just scrapped by the new Congress, Education Week recently reported that at least 18 states have or are developing some form of A-F grading system for their schools: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.  Because, in the aggregate, test scores are highly correlated with family income and the overall economic level of neighborhoods where children live (See here and here.), such letter grades are currently branding and stigmatizing the schools in poorer communities with lower grades—ratings that are widely advertised on real estate websites like Zillow and Trulia.  The assignment of letter grades to schools is condemning schools and school districts in the poorest rural areas, and redlining school districts in big cities and inner ring suburbs. In metropolitan areas the school district grades—legitimized because they are created by state governments themselves—are incentivizing parents to choose the so-called “excellent” school districts in wealthy outer suburbs whose schools are A-rated. Across cities and their suburbs, the letter grades are driving residential segregation by both family income and race.

John Merrow has called our attention to the reality that in federal education policy, something is happening but we don’t quite know what it is. We can be sure of one thing, however.  A vacuum of power—even if it happens due to federal in-fighting or incompetence—is likely to serve the children of the powerful and not children who have historically been left out or left behind. For those of us who care about justice in public schools, it will be essential to figure out exactly what is happening and then to press hard for policies that expand opportunity for the poorest students and children who have long been marginalized by their race or ethnicity.