Why Do Public School Supporters Struggle to Create and Sustain a Strong Unified Message?

Bob Braun, the retired education reporter for the Newark Star Ledger and an avid blogger in Newark, NJ, has articulated a big worry.  Commenting on a recent conference of public education supporters and advocates in New Jersey, he writes:

“A few days after the United States Senate confirmed the appointment of an avowed enemy of public education—Betsy DeVos—to be the nation’s education secretary, advocates of public education held a conference in New Brunswick to search for some reason for hope… What was not inspirational, however, was the response of the New Jersey advocates—good, right-thinking people all, with whom I have little argument. Except one—why can’t they be as aggressive in promoting a system of free, inclusive, integrated, fully-funded independent public schools as Trump is in destroying it?”

Braun continues: “Don’t forget these were the activists, the advocates, the good guys, at the conference. But they argued against tinkering with the school aid formula, wrung their hands about seeking an end to charter schools completely, held out little hope about seriously integrating the public schools of the state…. (P)ublic education in New Jersey—and throughout the nation—is in serious trouble. It is underfunded. It is racially segregated. It is in danger of being swept away by charters. Its employees are demoralized. It has been targeted for destruction by a national administration unlike any other in the history of the republic. In short, without aggressive action to restore the promise of public education, it will continue to lose support among those who will turn to nuts like Trump and DeVos to find answers in alternatives like vouchers, private schooling, and home-schooling.”

Taking a more positive approach in a recent NY Times commentary, Nikole Hannah-Jones expresses the very same concern. “Even when they (public schools) fail, the guiding values of public institutions, of the public good, are equality and justice. The guiding value of the free market is profit. The for-profit charters DeVos helped expand have not provided an appreciably better education for Detroit’s children, yet they’ve continued to expand because they are profitable—or as Tom Watkins, Michigan’s former education superintendent, said, ‘In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.’ ”

Hannah-Jones continues: “Democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good. It’s called a social contract, and we’ve seen what happens in cities where the social contract is broken: white residents vote against tax hikes to fund schools where they don’t send their children, parks go untended and libraries shutter because affluent people feel no obligation to help pay for things they don’t need… If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix. The vast multiracial, socioeconomically diverse defense of public schools that DeVos set off may show that we have not yet given up on the ideals of the public—and on ourselves.”

Both writers hope supporters of public education will be able to sustain the surprising and fascinating outcry that emerged around the DeVos confirmation process in the Senate.  For the first time in years we heard Senators and their constituents alike speaking about the value of the public schools for their children and their communities.  What will it take to keep that message alive?

I believe there are several reasons public school supporters struggle to sustain a strong voice in support of public education. First there is all the money being spent to undermine public education. As long as the law permits unlimited political contributions from individuals, PACs, Super PACs, Dark Money Groups, and corporate-driven lobbying organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, it will be difficult for the folks who use the public schools—the parents of 90 percent of our children and their allies—to be heard above the din. Public education policy for decades now has been driven by the One Percent, even though public schools serve the children of the 99 Percent. That is why Bob Braun begs public school advocates to discipline themselves to one well-framed narrative that can be relentlessly driven home.

Second there is the problem created by the privatizers’ clever messaging. The ideologues who have framed the privatizers’ message know how to touch the heart by evoking the beloved story of the  American Dream—the story that success is individual, accomplished through personal determination, grit, and patience in a tough and competitive world. This narrative teaches that the starting blocks of the race are arranged to ensure we start at the same place. Of course we may acknowledge that some groups of people and some individuals have it harder than others.  So… we adjust our thinking—celebrating the outliers who have surmounted the obstacles and succeeded anyway. We create a voucher or a charter school for the childhood strivers who seem to have earned it. Some of us are even willing to articulate this strategy honestly: “If we can’t find a way to help all children, at least we should help the ones who most deserve  to escape.” But when Betsy DeVos, Mike Pence and others in the Trump administration suggest we can improve our provision of education by allowing a relative few children to escape into the lifeboat of vouchers or  charter schools, they are presenting a plan that would further isolate the children who are expensive to educate—homeless children, immigrant children learning English, autistic and blind children—in the public schools required by law to serve them.

The problem here is ethical; it is not really a matter of public policy. Do we believe in individualism and competition above all, or are we committed to a philosophy of social responsibility that values the worth and seeks to protect the rights of each person. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has framed these contrasting beliefs in a simple formulation: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

A third problem is in the realm of public policy, but it is an issue nobody is willing to name. Extreme poverty and inequality are undermining children’s opportunities. Public school supporters will sometimes acknowledge the issue of poverty, but the varied strategies by which they dance around this huge problem undermine their capacity to frame a strong central narrative of support for public education. Opponents of public schools, of course, determinedly prescribe privatization as the cure, without a shred of evidence that privatizing schools helps poor children.

Years’ of research confirm conclusively that, in the aggregate, test scores reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods far more than they reflect the quality of schools and teachers. Concentrated family poverty—in a nation that is increasingly unequal and residentially segregated by income—has been shown in every way to be the problem. Poverty. Rising inequality. Rigidifying income segregation of families overlaid on racial segregation.

On top of our failure to name and address family poverty, our school accountability system demands quick school turnarounds. The federal testing and accountability agenda—created by No Child Left Behind back in 2002 and still with us in a slightly milder form in the Every Student Succeeds Act—makes it even harder for our society to acknowledge the role of poverty in school achievement.  The federal government judges our schools by the huge data sets generated by annual standardized testing of all children, and federal law punishes (and insists that states punish) the schools and the school teachers and children in the very poorest schools where test scores don’t quickly rise. Instead of investing in and supporting the schools in our poorest communities, we close the the schools or replace their principals or their teachers. Or we privatize the schools when charter and voucher supporters like Trump or Pence or DeVos tell us that will solve the problem.

For public education supporters, one big challenge is political: to create the will for society to address honestly the well documented educational implications of extreme poverty. A second challenge is a matter of public ethics: to replace the far-right’s American Dream narrative (based on competition and escapes for the most able children) with a compelling narrative of social responsibility for lifting up every child.

A system of public schools, while never perfect, is the best way to meet the needs of all of our children and, through democratic governance, to protect their rights.

Clueless Betsy DeVos Blames School Teachers, Doesn’t Get that Test-and-Punish Is Core Problem

After our new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited a Washington, D.C. middle school last week, she insulted the teachers there.  She said the teachers were “in receive mode,” and continued: “’They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child,’ DeVos told a columnist for the conservative online publication Townhall. ‘You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.’”

Let me point out that I have not noticed this “receive mode” among the teachers I know here in Ohio. Just last week Melissa Cropper, President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT), sent out a call for “activism now.”

Ohio requires far more testing than the annual test that was mandated by No Child Left Behind.  The new Every Student Succeeds Act  offers a way for states to develop their own accountability plans and a way to reduce—at least somewhat—over-reliance on test-and-punish.  Cropper is protesting the inaction of the Ohio Department of Education, which has just provided evidence that it will ignore the opportunity for states to have more latitude for shaping their plans for educational accountability rather than just have punitive sanctions imposed on them by the federal government. Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer reports: “Ohio’s proposed new state education plan under ESSA… avoids making any changes in state tests or even any recommendations, despite complaints of excessive testing of students dominating surveys and feedback sessions across the state.”  O’Donnell adds that Ohio’s draft plan isn’t final.

Cropper castigates the draft plan: “This plan is devoid of an overall vision for education and does nothing to move Ohio away from a testing culture and towards a culture that is more responsive to the needs of children.”  Why, wonders Cropper, does the Ohio Department of Education intend to submit its empty draft to the federal government on April 3, despite that the state doesn’t really have to submit its final draft until September 18?  Is the state rushing this along to avoid public input and discussion?

Cropper urges school teachers and members of the public: “Continue your activism. Take the online ESSA survey now.  In each section, feel free to add whatever comments you might have about the topic, but make sure to include something that indicates that the plan does nothing to change our current testing culture and that the state needs to wait until September to submit so that it can be rewritten to reflect the vision Ohio wants for its students.”  She adds that the Ohio Department of Education will accept comments until March 6.

Bill Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding amplifies Cropper’s plea for engagement by forwarding an e-mail notice from the Legislature’s Joint Education Oversight Committee, which is also holding hearings on Ohio’s ESSA draft plan: “The Joint Education Oversight Committee will be hearing testimony regarding Ohio’s State Plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act.  JEOC will hold two meetings on Thursday, March 2, 2017 at 2:30 PM and Thursday, March 9, 2017 at 1:30 PM in the Senate South Hearing Room. If you are interested in testifying please contact Haley Phillippi,  haley.phillippi@jeoc.ohio.gov or 614-466-9082 and indicate a date preference.” People wishing to testify should send their testimony to Phillippi 24 hours prior to the meeting.

The reason I was so amazed to hear Betsy DeVos criticize teachers as “in receive mode” is that, as part of a local education coalition in my own community, month after month, I listen to our teachers complain about the burden of testing and test prep on them and the students in their classes.  The teachers in our coalition were the people who demanded that we all read Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve, a plea for a return to progressive education.

While Betsy DeVos insulted teachers last week as “in receive mode,” in my community and my state, teachers are dismayed and up in arms about what they are receiving. Here in the words of Steve Nelson’s new book about progressive education—First Do No Harm, is the kind of pressure our teachers are irate about receiving from the U.S. Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Education: “Public schools all over America are judged by the standardized test results of their students. In many, perhaps most, communities the test results are published in local newspapers or available online. The continued existence of a school often depends on its standardized test scores… Neighborhood public schools are labeled ‘failing’ on the basis of test scores and closed, often to be replaced by a charter operation that boasts of higher test scores… What has occurred is a complex sorting mechanism.  The schools, particularly the most highly praised charter schools do several things to produce better scores…. (S)tudents  are suspended and expelled at a much higher rate than at the ordinary public schools in their neighborhoods. Several studies show that charter schools enroll significantly fewer students with learning challenges or students whose first language is other than English.” (pp. 68-69)  All this pressures school administrators to force teachers to teach to the test at all cost.

Steve Nelson’s definition of progressive education is exactly what the teachers in my community’s elementary, middle and high schools are demanding: “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.’ Conventional schools tend toward training and instruction, while progressive schools insist on learning and discovery. Perhaps the most powerful and misunderstood facet of progressive education is the notion of democracy. Progressive schools see themselves and their students as inextricably connected to the society in which they operate. The problems and fascinations of the world around them are the problems and fascinations they examine.” (p.11) He adds: “Education should cultivate the capacity to recognize and create beauty. School is a place where empathy and compassion should be honored and developed. The flames of curiosity should be fanned, not smothered. Skepticism should be sharply honed.” (p. 48)

The teachers I know describe how they slip progressive projects and exploration in around the edges of the demands made on them to prepare children for tests.  They also manage to save enough energy to respond when Melissa Cropper of OFT asks them to speak up for a better Ohio ESSA Plan.  We must join them in speaking up.

We should also remind Betsy DeVos again and again that by reducing test-and-punish she could help everybody at school—superintendents, principals, teachers and children—escape education “in receive mode.”  If Betsy DeVos were honestly concerned that too many students are being trained and taught and instructed and that they are in schools that fail to emphasize deeper education—discovery, examination, problem solving, skepticism, curiosity and compassion, Betsy DeVos would be absolutely in agreement with the school teachers I know.

If Betsy DeVos really believed in progressive education, as Secretary of Education she could use her powerful position to support  teachers as they excite children’s curiosity and support their personal interests and development.

In Fine, New Book, Steve Nelson Urges New Education Path that Is Less Dangerous for Children

Steve Nelson’s new book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, is refreshing in the author’s declaration of privilege as he applies all that he has learned in nineteen years as Head of the Calhoun School, a private, progressive school in New York City to an analysis of what’s gone wrong in public school reform over the same period.

Nelson begins: “I am mindful of the position from which I write. Those of us in independent schools enjoy great privilege. This privilege allows us to draw our students into deeply satisfying and thoughtful lives. But we must recognize that these experiences should not be limited to only those children who are wealthy and/or lucky enough to enroll in our schools. Non-sectarian private schools enroll only about 6% of America’s children. So what about the other millions of children? Do we who carry privilege also bear responsibility? I think so.” (p.5)

This is a refreshing and deeply grounded book for these times when so many of our long-held values about education are being tested.

Nelson isn’t utopian; he doesn’t imagine that all public schools could possibly afford to indulge children in classes of 15 students where teachers personally appreciate each student’s learning style and developmental level, but he does believe the constructs of progressive education are a far better way to organize schools than the test-and-punish system that came with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

A good teacher, Nelson summarizes the history of progressive education from Socrates and Aristotle through Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, A.S. Neill, Rudolph Steiner, John Dewey, Francis Parker, Felix Adler, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and Howard Gardner.  He also explores the neurobiological and psychological research supporting progressive education.

What is Nelson’s definition of the kind of education he’d like to see for more American children in their public schools? “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.’ Conventional schools tend toward training and instruction, while progressive schools insist on learning and discovery. Perhaps the most powerful and misunderstood facet of progressive education is the notion of democracy. Progressive schools see themselves and their students as inextricably connected to the society in which they operate. The problems and fascinations of the world around them are the problems and fascinations they examine.” (p.11) He adds: “Education should cultivate the capacity to recognize and create beauty. School is a place where empathy and compassion should be honored and developed. The flames of curiosity should be fanned, not smothered. Skepticism should be sharply honed.” (p. 48)

Nelson’s critique is biting. Writing at the end of the Arne Duncan era, when mega philanthropy collaborated actively with government to drive “corporate reform,” Nelson comments: “In short, business leaders and free market economic principles have gained increasing control over education. Education has become highly dependent on philanthropy, as public funding has declined.  Philanthropists didn’t make their fortunes as violinists, so they bring their business perspectives to bear on the institutions they support. As the old saying goes, ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.’  Today’s economist-driven version of education reform is the hammer that mistakes America’s children, particularly the poorest kids of color, as nails to pound.”

Nelson considers just how A Nation at Risk misunderstood our educational challenges; how testing and the intense pressure of high stakes works in children’s brains to undermine memory; how children who are drilled never learn to question and inquire; how the no-excuses charter schools enforce compliance and destroy curiosity; how scripted learning aimed at test scores hurts children and makes it impossible for good teachers to do what they know best; and how our notion of IQ which focuses on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is insufficient and leaves out the seven other domains identified by Howard Gardner. And we learn why schools need to nurture these other domains through the arts and physical activity—the classes schools are cutting these days as test prep takes more and more time.

Nelson’s strength is his experience—nearly twenty years in his most recent position alone—working with children and adolescents at school. As he defends the needs of public schools that serve the mass of our children and emphasizes the need for reallocating our society’s resources, his focus is on what money can do inside a school to free the teachers to teach and create space for children to explore.  He doesn’t cover what he doesn’t know—meeting the children’s needs in a school where all the students qualify for free lunch, for example—assembling the resources and expertise for a quality English language program for immigrant children—finding the resources to serve severely disabled students.

Nelson style is fresh and engaging.  He is not ideological despite his strong belief in progressive schooling. He nudges schools and policy makers to move in a progressive direction. And while a lot of books about progressive education are dated, this one is very much up to date—exploring progressive education theory in the context of the destructive pressure of  “corporate reform” accountability.

While the book was written in the last year of so of the Obama Department of Education, it speaks clearly to the problems we are likely face in a Trump administration with Betsy DeVos as education secretary. As the Head of an exclusive New York City private school, Nelson knows precisely why the kind of school choice being promoted by Trump and DeVos won’t work: “The private schools where privileged parents send their kids are expensive and highly selective. I know. I’m the Head of one of them. Calhoun’s tuition is an embarrassing $48,000 per year—about average for Manhattan private schools. Poor families in New York City don’t have the ‘choice’ to attend Calhoun or any of the other private schools. At Calhoun we offer a great deal of tuition assistance so that our students are not all from wealthy families, but the glib come-on in support of privatization is inaccurate and dishonest. Try taking a $5,000 to $7,000 voucher to a place like Sidwell Friends, where the Obamas sent their daughters. Sidwell’s tuition is also about $40.000.” (p. 112-113)

Lacking Experience, What Will Trump and DeVos Do to Rural and Small Town Public Schools?

I am fascinated by an article that appeared the Washington Post over the weekend: Where School Choice Isn’t an Option, Rural Public Schools Worry They’ll be Left Behind.  The reporters take us to East Millinocket, Maine, where: “The small parking lot outside of Schenck High School was crammed with cars, all there for the basketball game, the town’s featured event that night…  This small, remote high school is perhaps East Millinocket’s last and most crucial community pillar. Even before the local paper mill shut down three years ago, the town had suffered a stark economic decline because of the mill’s dwindling profits and the widespread poverty that followed. With a shrinking tax base and an aging population, Schenck High faces an uncertain future. Washington has long designed education policy to deal with urban and suburban challenges, often overlooking the unique problems that face rural schools like this one.”

The reporters include a map of the 50 states that identifies six states where over 55 percent of the students attend rural schools: Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Maine. The article explores this question: How will the Trump administration—which has promised its priority will be to enhance competition and school choice by expanding vouchers students can carry to private and parochial schools and by expanding privately operated (but publicly funded) charter schools—do that in a town like East Millinocket, Maine?  That is, of course, the question that Maine Senator Susan Collins and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski kept asking during the Senate’s debate on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as our U.S. Secretary of Education, and they both voted against the confirmation because they were not satisfied with the answers they received. Jose DelReal and Emma Brown, the Washington Post‘s reporters, add that almost 9 million of the 50 million public school students across the United States attend rural schools.

I am especially interested in this article because, while today I live in inner-suburban Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up in a small town in northern Montana, one of the largely rural states identified by DelReal and Brown. My town of 10,000 people isn’t classified as rural, but within a hundred miles in all directions were the tiny communities where fewer than ten or fifteen students made up the high school graduating class every year. Even in my small (not rural) town, the schools were a central institution. High school basketball games were packed on frigid Friday evenings, and the high school football team played on a field surrounded by small hills and a sort of terraced roadway on which fans from the community (not just parents) would park to watch the games in their heated cars. After all, the temperature was sometimes below zero even in football season. While today, my husband and I buy tickets to hear the Cleveland Orchestra and attend plays at the Cleveland Playhouse or Great Lakes Theater, in my hometown, everybody bought tickets to see the plays produced by the high school, and students and the community alike came to the high school, the town’s only auditorium, to listen when Community Concerts brought a musical event to town. One time when I went for my regular checkup, my doctor congratulated me for making the high school honor roll, which at that time was regularly published in the newspaper.

Schools in small towns and rural communities may have trouble offering salaries that will attract teachers to remote areas. DelReal and Brown explain: “Rural schools have trouble recruiting and retaining good teachers and principals because housing is so limited, pay is so low and working conditions are difficult… Trump has decried failing public schools that are ‘flush with cash,’ but many rural schools—hobbled by a poor local tax base and weak state support—struggle with tight and often shrinking budgets.”  Neither can rural schools offer the kind of broad curriculum provided in the huge suburban high schools. There are real advantages, however. The students are known and cared for by the teachers who also live in their neighborhoods, and even people in town track students’ accomplishments. The superintendent of schools in East Millinocket, Maine adds another reality in his interview with the Post‘s reporters: “If you shut down schools, you destroy a town… There wouldn’t be any viable base for anyone or anything here.”

So… what might a federal administration committed to expanding a school choice marketplace through competition do for a place like East Millinocket, Maine?  It’s not hard to imagine.

The online academies are the first thing that come to mind. These are the schools children and adolescents can attend in the privacy of their own homes on the computer. The U.S. Department of Education might dangle incentive grants for states to create competition in rural school districts by bringing in e-schools—perhaps even encourage states to save money by making online education the only thing available in areas too remote for the schools to be consolidated together or with a larger district. The federal grants would come with baubles—tablets and computers provided to students and enhanced broadband that would benefit not only the schools but also be available to residents in the region. Consider the marketing and branding potential of such a project.

There are a couple of serious problems, however.  The virtual e-schools we have today have proven themselves abysmal compared to other kinds of education. The students are not learning nearly as much, for example. Just a year ago, after several years of support for an experiment with e-school charters, the Walton Foundation’s education program officer announced that based on a major, three-part, Walton Foundation-sponsored investigation by Mathematica Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), the Walton Foundation would be seriously reconsidering making grants for online charter schools: “The results are, in a word, sobering. The CREDO study found that over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading then their peers in traditional charter schools, on average. This is stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement. The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states.  If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst-performing. ”

Another problem with online charters has been epitomized by Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a huge Ohio virtual school operated by two for-profit, privately held companies owned by William Lager, a powerful Republican political contributor. There is evidence at ECOT of a serious online truancy problem. The Ohio Department of Education has documented that ECOT, which collected $100 million from the state in 2015 alone to educate about 15,000 students, needs to repay $60 million, because a lot of those students were not logging on for the state-required five hours per day—or even 20 hours per week. ECOT has argued that it is merely required by an old, 2003 agreement with the state to provide 920 hours of curriculum per year but not required to prove that students are actively engaged with that curriculum for 920 hours. Because the state legislature and the governor’s office and the elected state supreme court are all dominated by the Republican Party, and because ECOT’s operator William Lager has been investing regularly and heavily in campaign contributions to Ohio Republicans, it seems that online education in Ohio cannot be regulated effectively. The $100 million dollars, including last year’s $60 million non-recoverable overpayment for ECOT’s phantom students, is coming right out of the state’s education budget and hence reducing funding for the state’s public schools.

We can only hope that President Trump and Betsy DeVos, neither of whom has a bit of experience with public schools as a student or parent or teacher, will spend some time in these public institutions and pay some attention to their mission and their contributions to their students and to the vast array of communities they serve. The UCLA education professor and writer Mike Rose has made visiting public schools all across the United States and writing about these visits a centerpiece of his professional career.  In his little book, Why School?, Rose explains that public schools everywhere are embedded in the communities they serve—something impossible for e-schools: “Schools are nested in place—for all their regularity, they reflect local history, language, and cultural practices.” (Why School?, 2014 Edition, p. 216)

Rose’s perspective on the broader policy debates about education comes from reflecting on the time he has spent in public school classrooms:

“So much depends on what you look for and how you look at it. In the midst of the reform debates and 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 of the common public school…

“The details of classroom life convey, in a specific and physical way, the intellectual work being done day to day across the nation—the feel and clatter of teaching and learning… Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions… Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here. Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us… There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life…. The free-market believers’ infatuation slides quickly to blithe arrogance abut all things public…

“We have to do better than this. We have to develop a revitalized sense of public life and public education. One tangible resource for such a revitalization comes for me out of the thousands of small, daily events of classroom life I have witnessed. This sense of the possible emerges when a child learns to take another child seriously, learns to think something through with other children, learns about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It comes when, over time, a child arrives at an understanding of numbers, or acquires skill in rendering an idea in written language…

“There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good…. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.” (Why School?, 2014 Edition, pp. 201-206)

DeVos’s Opponents are Definitely Not Complacent Defenders of the Status Quo

Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday and sworn in as our new U.S. Secretary of Education. It became clear in the run up to the Senate’s closest-ever vote on a Cabinet secretary that millions of Americans value the idea of a system of universal, publicly funded schools and want to preserve public education despite the threat of privatization. Ms. DeVos’s views are very different.

In an editorial yesterday, the NY Times summarizes DeVos’s experience and her beliefs: “She has never run, taught in, attended or sent a child to an American public school, and her confirmation hearings laid bare her ignorance of education policy and scorn for public education itself.  She has donated millions to, and helped direct, groups that want to replace traditional public schools with charter schools and convert taxpayer dollars to vouchers to help parents send children to private and religious schools.”

Some of DeVos’s supporters have castigated her opponents as comfortable apologists for the status quo. Those of us who opposed DeVos will need to prove we neither fit this label nor accept the status quo. As primary civic institutions, public schools reflect the sins as well as the strengths of our society. We’ll need to demand loudly and persistently that our imperfect system be made to realize its potential for better serving the marginalized children who continue to be left behind even as we insist that public schools must do a better job serving all children’s needs and protecting their rights.

Here are just three of the important issues that slipped out of the conversation as we debated Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as education secretary.  We will need to be relentless in raising these concerns.

First, we’ve been ignoring poverty. There is a primary flaw in the federal school accountability system that was created by No Child Left Behind back in 2002, and it is still with us in a slightly milder form in the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December of 2015.  We judge our schools these days by the huge data sets generated by annual standardized testing of all children, and we are set on punishing the schools and the school teachers in places where test scores don’t quickly rise. Yet, years’ of research show conclusively that aggregate test scores reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods far more then they reflect the quality of schools and teachers. Concentrated family poverty in a nation that is increasingly unequal and residentially segregated by income has been shown in every way to be the problem. Poverty.  Rising inequality. Rigidifying income segregation of families overlaid on racial segregation.  You are aware of these problems if you are reading books by Thomas Piketty, or reports from the Economic Policy Institute, or demographic sociology from Sean Reardon at Stanford University, but you sure don’t ever hear any politicians reflecting on these matters. Concentrated urban poverty is an issue our politicians won’t talk about, and it remains at the heart of our society’s biggest concerns for educating our children.

Second, the idea of instituting competition and rewarding success in a privatized system is grounded in a belief system that is contrary to the values by which our ancestors created a system of public education. Betsy DeVos and Mike Pence and others in the Trump administration prefer to assume we can improve our provision of education by allowing a relative few children to escape through vouchers or to charter schools. It’s a lifeboat strategy that gives a leg up to a few strivers even as it isolates the children who are expensive to educate—homeless children, recent immigrant children learning English, autistic and blind children—in the public schools required by law to serve them. This kind of thinking is epitomized by the mythology of the American Dream—that success is individual—accomplished through personal determination, grit, and patience. Adherents of this story prefer to believe that the starting blocks of the race are arranged to ensure we start at the same place.  If we think about it, however, most of us will admit that some groups of people and some individuals have it harder than others. So… we adjust our thinking again—celebrating the outliers who surmount the obstacles and succeed anyway.  Then we make policy based on the unusual success stories of these heroes. Some of us are even willing to articulate such a strategy honestly: “If we can’t find a way to help all children, at least we should help the ones who most deserve  to escape.”  There is a basic ethical question here: whether we believe in individual merit above all or whether we are committed to a philosophy of social responsibility that values the worth and seeks to protect the rights of each person. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has framed these contrasting beliefs in a simple formulation: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”  When Betsy DeVos says, “Government really sucks,” she is elevating the value of individual competition in an education marketplace and trashing the idea that the community, expressed through its democratic government, is responsible for the well being of all.

And third, money in politics makes it virtually impossible ever to regulate a privatized school choice marketplace. As long as there are unlimited political contributions being donated by individuals, along with PACs, and Super PACs, and Dark Money Groups investing to buy education policy, it doesn’t really matter if the goal is to privatize education to make a profit or merely to privatize because of an ideology like Betsy DeVos’s.  All that money washing around in the politics of privatization is going to ensure that education privatization cannot possibly be regulated. People like Betsy DeVos will be able to contribute their way into office and to underwrite others who believe in—or profit from—the same ideology.  State governments—already amenable to pressure from corporate money through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council—will neglect to protect children because political contributions will ensure that privatization remains unregulated.  A public system will work only when we can curb the flow of money buying private interests.

Those of us who worked to oppose Betsy DeVos’s nomination must remain actively engaged—demanding that our society grapple with how poverty constrains children’s academic promise, condemning an immoral strategy designed to privatize education and  to serve a few at the expense of the many, and naming relentlessly the fact that a charter school marketplace can never be regulated as long as politics are flooded with money. We’ll have to build the political will to insist that our representatives understand that democratically governed public schools are the most promising institution for addressing these serious problems.

What About the Crazy Talk of “Moving Students into High Quality Seats”?

These days, as part of the rhetoric of technocratic school reform, you often hear people talk about the goal of moving more students into high quality seats.  It’s a puzzling way of talking, as though education is purely a function of any student’s placement–part of the idea that moving kids around from school to school via school choice will make up for a state’s failure to invest enough money to ensure that every school has excellent teachers, a full curriculum, and a range of co-curricular opportunities. Such talk is a symptom of a lack of public generosity. School districts intent on moving  kids to “high quality seats” invest lots of money in exclusive magnets and boutique charters instead of the even more expensive project of investing enough in the traditional neighborhood elementary and middle schools and the comprehensive high schools that serve the mass of any school district’s students. By selecting some children for elite schools, the school district will be able to boast about high scores at “successful” schools and graduation rates at the elite high schools.

In Chicago, due to affirmative action policies at the elite high schools, a significant number of students from families with low income have now been admitted. Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research just conducted a study to test how poorer students at selective-admissions high schools are faring.  Here are the assumptions researchers set out to examine:  “High-quality public schools may be a lever for closing the gap by providing equitable educational opportunities for students who have fewer economic resources at home. We know that low-income students can succeed in school, but many who are high-performing in elementary school fail to make it to college, suggesting that high-achieving, low-income students may lack good high school options or that there are barriers to entry into high-performing high schools for students who have fewer resources. If selective public schools improve student outcomes for low-income students by a greater amount than they improve outcomes for high-income students, then selective public schools may help close achievement gaps by family income.”

The study’s findings do not confirm the assumptions. “Overall, we find little effect on test scores or educational attainment, but students admitted to selective schools have lower grade point averages (GPAs)… Looking at estimates by neighborhood SES, we find no evidence that admission to elite public schools in Chicago helps close the achievement gap between students from high- and low-poverty neighborhoods.  Selective high school admission has no effect on test scores, regardless of neighborhood SES….  When it comes to grades, the negative effect of selective high school admission on GPAs is larger for students from low-SES neighborhoods than for students from high-SES neighborhoods… (W)e find that students from low-SES neighborhoods who are admitted to a selective high school are 13 percentage points less likely to attend a selective college than students from low-SES neighbohoods who just miss the admission cutoff.”

The researchers explain why Chicago’s unique affirmative admissions policies make it important to study the effects of selective high schools on low-income students in Chicago: “Selective enrollment high schools command a lot of attention—they generally serve the most academically successful students, the seats are highly coveted as there are many more applicants than available slots, and they are often hailed as the best schools in the system.  These schools also receive criticism for serving student bodies that are much less racially diverse than the district in which they are situated.  The affirmative action admission policy in Chicago, reserving seats for students from low-SES neighborhoods, makes selective schools the most racially diverse public high schools in the city. This feature also allows us to look at separate effects for students from different SES backgrounds.”

Here is what the new study says about students’ test scores: “We find that when it comes to test scores, attending a SEHS (Selective  Enrollment High School) has no statistically significant impact. Simply put, on average, these students would have performed well on tests with or without selective schools.  This finding is consistent with previous studies of selective schools in the U.S. This paper extends the scope of prior work by allowing the effect of selective school admission to differ by students’ neighborhood SES status. Nevertheless, even for students from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, we find no positive impact on test scores.”

What about college admissions?  “High school GPA is another important academic outcome that affects both college admissions and college scholarship eligibility.  We find negative effects of being admitted to a SEHS on GPA, and this effect is primarily driven by the large, negative impact on GPA for students from more disadvantaged neighborhoods.  The negative impacts on GPA in combination with unaffected test scores do not translate into a decreased likelihood that SEHS students enroll in college…. Our results suggest that admission to a SEHS reduces the probability that a student from a low-SES neighborhood attends a selective college, while potentially increasing the probability that a student from a high-SES neighborhood attends a selective college. This finding is particularly troubling.”

Competition, as usual, favors the privileged; the researchers conclude that poorer students are not losing ground academically even though their grades are lower than their wealthier peers: “We do not believe that it is the case that students from low-SES neighborhoods cannot do well in elite public school programs.  In fact, there is no evidence of learning declines, as test scores for less affluent students are unaffected.”

As elite magnet schools do not seem to be expanding equal opportunity for their students’ college admissions, the researchers wonder whether the Chicago School District should eliminate its elite magnet high schools?  The advantages of maintaining such schools, according to these researchers, derive to the reputation of the district itself, not to the competitive edge of students being admitted to elite high schools through affirmative admissions programs. First, at a time when school segregation is increasing everywhere, their affirmative admissions policies have turned the elite high schools into Chicago’s most diverse high schools, economically and racially.  And the elite high schools increase the school district’s tax base and what the researchers call the “overall social capital” of families in the school district by serving as an incentive for families who “would otherwise leave the district for private schools or suburban districts.”

However, the researchers do find one advantage for poorer students who have been admitted to the elite high schools: the students believe their school experience is more positive. Selective high schools “have a positive effect on students’ perceptions of the high school experience. When it comes to relationships with students and teachers, SEHS students are more positive than their counterparts in non-SEHSs.  Students in SEHSs also report a greater sense of safety—they are less likely to worry about crime, violence, and bullying…. Perhaps it is factors like these that make SEHSs highly desirable to students and families—more so than the potential to improve test scores and college outcomes.”

All this leads one to contemplate the moral implications in a school district like Chicago where school funding has been in crisis for decades and where Standard & Poor’s just dropped the school district’s credit rating again this month. Investing generously in all of a city’s high schools is far more expensive than creating elite institutions where a city’s brightest students are educated. What would it take to make it possible for every high school in Chicago to ensure small classes so that every student is known and the student’s learning needs accommodated? What would it take to hire enough counselors and social workers and college and career guidance staff to support every student?  What would it take to support a band and orchestra in every high school along with classes in drawing, sculpture and art appreciation and with a full range of sports and other co-curriculars? For years now charters and elite magnet schools have been designed as escapes for academic stars and students whose motivated parents know how to work the system. What would be required to provide a climate of safety and support in all of Chicago’s high schools?

Last month the national NAACP passed a resolution demanding a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools—that public funds not be diverted to charter schools at the expense of the traditional public system, and that the 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.”  The NAACP’s demands speak to the role of selective magnet high schools as well as their privatized but publicly funded charter cousins.

A system of public schools has been understood historically as our society’s moral responsibility for all of our students. Public schools have also traditionally been understood as the path by which society can benefit from the academic gifts, the skills, and the talents of every student.  The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s prophetic words come to mind once again: “There are those who would make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

All the mechanical talk about attracting students to “high quality seats” through school choice only makes it easier to forget about our broader obligation to the personal and academic needs of the mass of children and adolescents who fill our public schools.

Everybody Should Read This New Policy Brief: Lessons from NCLB for ESSA

In the context of President-elect Donald Trump’s promise that his education plan will be based on the ideology of increased privatization, it is refreshing and instructive to read the new research-based (seven and a half pages of footnotes for a 15 page paper) policy brief from the National Education Policy Center on Lessons from NCLB for the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The style is charming and the paper non-technical.  Anybody who cares about the role of the federal government in education ought to read it. It could profitably be the basis of conversation in a community group or a PTA.

Here is how its authors, Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo begin: “If Lyndon Johnson were alive today, he would undoubtedly be discouraged to see what has become of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that he signed into law fifty years ago as part of the War on Poverty… (O)ur lawmakers have largely eroded ESEA’s original intent.  Moving from assistance to ever-increasing regulation…. (a)t each step, our educational policies became more test-based, top-down, prescriptive, narrow and punitive, and federal support to build the most struggling schools’ capacity for improvement faded.”

How does the new version of the federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (passed last December) compare to its No Child Left Behind predecessor?  “(A)t its core, ESSA is still a primarily test-based educational regime. Annual standardized testing in reading and math is still mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Science testing at benchmark levels of schooling remains. The criteria for requiring schools to write improvement plans have been revised, yet standardized test scores continue to comprise the largest share of these criteria. Identification of schools in need of improvement continues to depend mostly on scores, but now also includes one or more other academic and quality indicators. Formerly rigid prescriptions for school reforms have been relegated to districts and states, although the expanded range of potential reforms still encourages and funds charter schools and requires other NCLB-like ‘corrective actions.’  State accountability systems must be federally approved and mechanisms such as turnaround-driven layoffs, conversions to charter schools, and school closures are likely to continue even though they have not been proven to consistently improve schools in struggling communities. Punishments for continued low test-performance persist. The most substantial difference is that the power to decide which test-based consequences for under-performing schools resides once again in the states, not the federal government.”

After an introduction, the short brief is organized into five sections: NCLB and ESSA: Commonalities and Contrasts—First-Order Lessons for ESSA—Lessons for State Accountability Systems—Recommendations for Policymakers and School Practice—and The Moral Imperative: Adequate Inputs and the Opportunity Gap.  Whether you are a parent, a citizen, a teacher, a state policymaker or a member of Congress, there is important information her for you, and the presentation is lucid and non-technical.

Mathis and Trujillo believe the primary lesson from No Child Left Behind is that, “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities…. Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools.”

What about the rationale often used to justify all the testing mandated by No Child Left Behind?  “One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality.  This has not happened.”

The authors refute the idea that high-stakes, test-based accountability improves learning. And they present research to show that the school turnarounds prescribed by NCLB caused “disruption, decreased efficiency, and human capital and organizational commitment losses” instead of helping children.  They reject test-based teacher evaluation, a strategy used by 74% of schools that received School Improvement Grants: “Evaluating teachers by test scores breaks down in several logical and empirical ways.  First, students must be randomly assigned, which is demonstrably not the case in school practice. Some teachers teach remedial classes while others teach advanced placement students.  Further, a given teacher could be (and has been) rated a success in one year and a failure in the next simply based on the students assigned. Second, the error rate inherent in this approach is so high that it simply precludes its use in high-stakes circumstances. Third, there is no general teaching factor that is universally applicable to all cases. This renders the model invalid for general application. Fourth, alternative explanations of gains (or losses) caused by factors outside the teacher’s control have typically not been properly considered. The use of value-added measures provoked the unusual response of a cautionary statement by the American Educational Research Association as well as a warning from the American Statistical Association.”

Recommendations for states?  “Above all else, each state must assure that students have adequate opportunities, funding and resources to achieve state goals.” “States must shift toward an assistance role and exercise less of a regulatory role.”  “States and districts must collaborate with social service and labor departments to ensure adequate personal, social and economic opportunities.”

And there is one special opportunity afforded by the Every Student Succeeds Act that was absent from No Child Left Behind: “Under ESSA, school performance will now be measured using a system that incorporates one or more non-academic indicators—chosen separately by each state. These non-academic indicators provide states their strongest new tool for maximizing educational equity and opportunity and bringing attention to the nation’s broader educational purposes.”

Here is the moral assessment that concludes this short, readable brief: “The nation has become a majority of minorities and the common good requires all students to be well educated.  Yet, we have embarked on economic and educational paths that systematically privilege only a small percentage of the population. In education, we invest less on children of color and the economically impoverished. At the same time, we support a testing regime that measures wealth rather than provides a rich kaleidoscope of experience and knowledge to all… The greatest conceptual and most damaging mistake of test-based accountability systems has been the pretense that poorly supported schools could systemically overcome the effects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation by rigorous instruction and testing.”