In the Midst of Lame-Duck Culture War Attacks and Fighting about Vouchers, Here Are Some Core Principles to Remember

On Tuesday, this blog considered the implications of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s denigration of public school teachers, disdain for public schools, and exploitation of racist and homophobic attacks on the public school curriculum as their strategy for building far-right 2024 Presidential campaigns.  And right now, across many of the 50 statehouses, we are watching privatizers debate laws to expand vouchers at the expense of their state’s public school budgets and bills to threaten teachers who lead thoughtful and honest discussions of American history.

Watching the fraught educational culture wars and the current legislative battles, I thought about the following post I published in May of 2017, following the death of political philosopher, Benjamin Barber, a profound writer about public education.  Benjamin Barber believed a universal system of public schools is the best way to serve the needs of all children and protect their rights.

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Over the years, Benjamin Barber’s writing spoke poignantly to the civic principles that have defined our society’s commitment to public education. In today’s American ethos—defined by individualism, competition, and greed (along with the racism and homophobia that surrounds us in 2022)—Barber’s thinking calls us back to the principles by which our society defined the purpose of public education. Here are short excerpts from Barber’s own writing.

Some of the short essays published in Barber’s 1998 collection, A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, remain remarkably timely all these years later.

“Although a fifth to a quarter of all children under six and more than half of minority children live in poverty, everything from school lunch to after-school programs is being slashed at the federal and state levels… There is nothing sadder than a country that turns its back on its children, for in doing so it turns away from its own future.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 225)

“In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, special education centers, and city shelters… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred.  That is what makes  them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)

“America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony.  Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity. If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 231)

Barber’s  2007 warning, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, explains precisely what is dangerous about the thinking of school privatizers…  who dismiss as harmless a more-than twenty year, bipartisan romance with charter schools (and today’s Republican fixation on expanding vouchers).

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good. It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

“We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber’s 1992 book about education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, feels dated, with much of it addressing the culture wars raging a quarter century ago. What’s timely today in this book is Barber’s challenge to what has become a dominant assumption among many parents that education is a zero sum game. Today, very often, parents have been taught to believe that education is a competition—a race to the top for those who can run fastest.  School choice—driven by an ethos of individualism—encourages parents to fear that, “If your kid wins, mine will lose.” Barber confronts and contradicts that assumption even in his book’s title: everyone can be part of an aristocracy of the educated:

“This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well. It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 13-14)

Barber articulates abstract principles, ideals we should aim for. I realized how important it is to think about these principles when— after Hurricane Katrina led to the “shock doctrine” takeover and privatization of New Orleans’ public schools and the mass firing of all the teachers—I was sitting at an important conference. As a keynoter described the hurricane as an opportunity to “reform” the public schools, a woman in the audience leapt to her feet and shouted out: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town!”

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

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Republican Presidential Hopefuls Compete with Each Other to Trash Public School Teachers

As the race to be the Republican Party’s nominee for U.S. President in 2024 heats up, it’s already become ugly.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been ginning up his 2024 Presidential campaign with a scurrilous attack on none other than Randi Weingarten and America’s public school teachers. Two weeks ago, Pompeo announced: “I get asked, ‘Who’s the most dangerous person in the world? Is it Chairman Kim, is it Xi Jinping?’ The most dangerous person in the world is Randi Weingarten. It’s not a close call. If you ask, ‘Who’s the most likely to take this republic down?’ It would be the teacher’s unions, and the filth that they’re teaching our kids, and the fact that they don’t know math and reading or writing.”

Pompeo doesn’t seem to have noticed what happened in Tennessee with the Hillsdale College plan to open 50 charter schools across the state.  A sizeable backlash ensued after Hillsdale’s President Larry Arnn was caught on a hidden-camera video telling an audience that anybody can be a teacher and that public school teachers are “educated in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” After Arnn attacked teachers, a number of school districts across Tennessee quickly terminated negotiations for starting up any Hillsdale charter schools.

Last week, in a NY Post opinion piece, Pompeo clarified his shameless, ad hominum attack on America’s more than 3 million public school teachers by presenting his own culture war spin on the public schools’ failure to indoctrinate our children with a curriculum of American exceptionalism combined with the promotion of educational competition via school privatization: “Critical race theory and the 1619 Project derive from Marxist precepts; they do not reflect the greatness and the power of the American experiment… America’s founding was a watershed in world history. Our nation is exceptional. China, Russia and Iran destroy human initiative; America allows it to flourish…  Public schools must be required to compete for students with charter, private, and religious schools, in addition to homeschooling, for competition improves performance.”

Ah — Pompeo’s attack on teachers is merely his spectacularly ugly take on the platform another prospective 2024 Presidential candidate—Ron DeSantis—has already been implementing. Most public education policy is established under the 50 state constitutions, and Ron DeSantis, as Governor of Florida, is better positioned than a former Secretary of State to have already put in place a program that undermines his state’s public schools. After he was re-elected on November 8, DeSantis bragged: “Florida is “where woke goes to die.”  Here are a few things Ron DeSantis has accomplished:

  • Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” and Parents’ Bill of Rights Bill — On July 1, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported: “Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Law, popularly known by critics as the ‘don’t say gay’ bill, went into effect on Friday, restricting what teachers can say about gender and sexual orientation… The law, signed March 28 by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), is the first of its kind in the country… The law also legally empowers parents to sue school districts as a way to advance their ‘parental rights.’”
  • A Book Ban — Salon‘s Kathryn Joyce reported: “This March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a policy… that bans schools from using any books that are ‘pornographic’ or age ‘inappropriate,’ and allows parents broad access to review and challenge all books and materials used for instruction or in school libraries….”
  • Florida State Public School Funding Dollars Flooding Out of Public Schools into Florida’s Huge and Growing Voucher Programs — In a collaborative report released in September, the national Education Law Center and the Florida Policy Center document that over a billion dollars is currently flowing out of Florida’s public school funding budget into vouchers.  And even more shocking, when students take a voucher the state sucks money right out of the already established school district budget: “School districts have no control over the number of students who apply for vouchers, which makes budgeting difficult.”

Now weeks after the November election, another of DeSantis’s strategies is falling into place.  Some of the conservative school board candidates Governor DeSantis endorsed have been making deep changes in the school districts for which they are responsible. Last week, Politico‘s Andrew Atterbury reported: “Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis put his weight behind dozens of conservative school board candidates across Florida during the midterms. Now they’re in office—and are purging some educational leaders who enforced Covid-19 mandates.  New board members in two GOP-leaning counties essentially sacked their school superintendents over the span of one week… And while not tied to the 2022 election, the school board in Broward County earlier this month fired its superintendent through an effort led by five members appointed by DeSantis. All combined, school boards with ties to DeSantis pushed out three superintendents in November alone….”

The Washington Post’s Laura Meckler adds: “School board races in Florida are nominally nonpartisan, but DeSantis jumped into the fray and endorsed 30 candidates whom he said would carry conservative values into local districts. Moms for Liberty, a conservative parent group with similar goals, made an overlapping set of endorsements as well. In response, Florida Democrats and teachers unions endorsed some candidates on the other side, turning school board races in some communities into de facto partisan political contests.  DeSantis’s picks ran on the mantle of parents’ rights, which typically translates to fewer accommodations for transgender students, less conversation about race and racism in the classroom and heightened scrutiny of books with sexual or other controversial themes.”

Politicians pandering to the hard right by blaming schoolteachers for America’s challenges are the same Republicans who appeal to racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and homophobia.

In the NY Post last Friday, Randi Weingarten responded to Mike Pompeo’s attack on America’s teachers: “It’s tough to stand out in the GOP presidential scrum, but my 1.7 million members and I had a good eye roll last week when Mike Pompeo decided that calling me ‘the most dangerous person in the world’ was his surest path to the White House… His spite might be childish and petty, but what’s truly outrageous (is)… calling what educators do ‘filth’ and ‘propaganda.’  Our teachers give their all for their students, showing up every day for their kids, partnering with parents and helping the next generation fulfill their dreams… We agree with Pompeo that literacy is crucial—that’s why this year alone we (the American Federation of Teachers) have given out 1 million books to promote the joy of reading, instead of banning them, as his MAGA pals want to do. And in McDowell County, W. Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, we launched a public-private partnership that has boosted high-school graduation rates, raised academic proficiency and helped stem the teacher shortage by building houses for teachers… If (Pompeo) wants to engage in a real discussion about how best to strengthen public education or the importance of treating educators with respect, I invite him to join me in a visit to one of America’s 100,000 public schools to learn a thing or two.”

Mike Pompeo might learn a lot by visiting the public schools he disdains. The late Mike Rose, a beloved educator and education writer, published his very best book, Possible Lives, about what he learned by visiting public school classrooms across the United States. Toward the end of that wonderful book, Rose writes: “The teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable. They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal…  As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity… The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms… Such affirmation of intellectual and civic potential, particularly within populations that have been historically devalued in our society, gives to these teachers’ work a dimension of advocacy, a moral and political purpose.”  (Possible Lives, pp. 418-423

NAEP Scores Confirm that COVID Disrupted Schooling; They Do Not Reflect a Downward Trajectory in School Achievement

Are the new National Assessment of Educational Progress scores a catastrophic indication that the U.S. public schools have fallen into decline? I don’t think so.

Early this week, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a large data set from National Assessment of Educational Progress exams administered last spring to 4th and 8th grade students in U.S. public schools. Last month, NCES released scores from tests administered to a smaller group of 4th graders.  Both sets of scores show that the COVID pandemic seriously disrupted schooling for the nation’s children and adolescents.

Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum explains what the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is: “The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, pronounced nape) is a test administered by an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. It’s given periodically to a representative subset of American students in math and reading in grades four and eight. Scores are broken down by state and for a select handful of cities, too. The latest results are based on tests given between January and March 2022. The previous test was given in 2019, before the pandemic… Scores from a separate NAEP exam that has been given to 9-year-olds for many decades were previously released in September.”

The NAEP scores released this week were precipitously lower than scores on the NAEP when it was administered in 2019, before COVID—particularly in 8th grade math. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reports: “The portion of eighth-graders rated proficient or better in math fell to 27 percent, from 34 percent in 2019… the steepest decline in more than a half century of testing.”  (The fact that every year relatively few students reach NAEP’s proficient level overall is because the NAEP “proficient” cut score is set artificially high; it marks what most people would define as “advanced.”)

Some people assume that this year’s drop in NAEP scores signals a reversal of progress, the beginning of a downward spiral.  Others are using the scores as evidence for their particular reform or as evidence that their state had a better policy on school closures than other states. Meckler writes: “Partisans on all sides of the education debate seized on the results to advance competing ideas about the way ahead… The test results also offered fodder for those who argue bringing students back to campuses quickly was the right move… ‘We kept schools open in 2020, and today’s NAEP results once again prove we made the right decision,’ Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said on Twitter.  But the data did not establish a connection between back-to-school policies and academic performance. In California, for instance, many public schools were closed well into the 2020-21 school year and some students never saw a classroom that year. But the declines were similar to those in Texas and Florida, where schools were ordered to reopen much sooner.”

In a blog post last month when the first set of 4th grade NAEP scores was released, I shared my own assessment of what had happened. I think the scores released last month and the scores released this week show the same thing. Here is some of what I said in that post.

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There is no cause for panic.  Schooling was utterly disrupted for the nation’s children and adolescents, just as all of our lives were interrupted in so many immeasurable ways. During COVID, while some of us have experienced the catastrophic death of loved ones, all of us have experienced less definable losses—things we cannot name.

I think this year’s NAEP scores—considerably lower than pre-pandemic scores—should be understood as a marker that helps us define the magnitude of the disruption for our children during this time of COVID. The losses are academic, emotional, and social, and they all make learning harder.

Schools shut down and began remote instruction in the spring of 2020, and many stayed online through the first half of last school year. While most public schools were up and running by last spring, there have been a lot of problems—with more absences, fighting and disruption, and overwhelming stress for educators. It is clear from the disparities in the scores released last week among high and low achievers that the disruption meant very different things to different children. It is also evident that the pandemic was a jolting shock to our society’s largest civic institution. It should be no surprise, then, that the attempt to get school back on track was so rocky all through last spring…

While the NAEP is traditionally used to gauge the trajectory of overall educational achievement over time, and while the trajectory has been moderately positive over the decades, the results released last week cannot by any means be interpreted to mean a change of the overall direction of educational achievement.

Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz asked Stanford University professor Sean Reardon (whose research tracks the connection of poverty and race to educational achievement) whether “it will take another 20 years to raise scores once again.”  Reardon responded: “That’s the wrong question…. The question is: What’s going to happen for these (9-year-old) kids over the next years of their lives.” Schwartz describes more of Reardon’s response: “Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds, will be back to normal relatively soon, Reardon said. Instead, he said, we should look to future scores for 13-year-olds, which will present a better sense of how much ground these current students have gained.”

Schwartz reports: “Students at all levels lost ground during the past two years, but lower-performing students saw the biggest drops.”  The test does not in any way measure the factors that contributed to the drop in scores for students who were already struggling, but the results shouldn’t be surprising.  Some children live in families with internet access and enough computers that each of several children in the family could access online instruction simultaneously, while other children’s parents had to drive them to public library or fast food outlet parking lots to find any internet access at all. Some parents had sufficient time at home to supervise children and provide assistance during online instruction, while in other families, older siblings supervised younger siblings while trying to participate themselves in online instruction. Some children and adolescents simply checked out and neglected to log-on.

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In a new statement this week after the second set of NAEP scores were released, FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, published a statement by Harry Feder: “Given that Monday’s state-by-state NAEP data mirror September’s national trends, as expected, we are getting an even greater cry of panic over “learning loss” and a call for dramatic interventions to catch students up. Such reactions are not justified. The September scores reflected the toll that the pandemic exacted. State-by-state numbers affirm what educators and parents already know – the pandemic was bad for kids.  But now that children are back in school, in-person learning has gone back to normal.  In all likelihood, scores for future 4th and 8th graders will revert to more normal patterns. We will need to see what happens to students as they age to see whether the pandemic score plunge dissipates over time.”

Ohio Senate Should End Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee by Passing HB 497

In June, the Ohio House of Representatives passed House Bill 497 by a margin of 82-10, thereby launching an effort in the current legislative session to end Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee.  It is urgently important that the Ohio Senate take up and pass House Bill 497 before the end of this year’s legislative session, or the House version will expire.

The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Chantal Brown reports that the Ohio Education Association has made lobbying for passage of HB 497 a top priority this fall, and the Ohio State Board of Education has been considering a resolution recommending the elimination of the Third Grade Guarantee.

Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee, enacted by the legislature in 2012 and implemented beginning in the 2013-2014 school year, requires that students who do not score “proficient” on the state’s third grade reading test must be retained for another year in third grade. Brown reports that,”Ohio has retained around 3,628 students per year.”

Jeb Bush and his ExcelInEd Foundation have been dogged promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee, but last May, the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver traced Ohio’s enthusiasm for the Third Grade Guarantee to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “In 2010, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a bombshell special report called ‘Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters.’ Students, it said, who don’t catch up by fourth grade are significantly more likely to stay behind, drop out and find themselves tangled in the criminal justice system. ‘The bottom line is that if we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty… And the price will be paid not only by the individual children and families but by the entire country.’”

But it turns out that promoters of the Third-Grade Guarantee ignored other research showing that when students are held back—in any grade—they are more likely later to drop out of school before they graduate from high school.  In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney reported: “Half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

Why does holding children back make them more likely to drop out later? In their book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass explain the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems…Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” Berliner and Glass continue: “Researchers have estimated that students who have repeated a grade once are 20-30% more likely to drop out of school than students of equal ability who were promoted along with their age mates. There is almost a 100% chance that students retained twice will drop out before completing high school.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 96-97)

In a recent report examining the impact of Third-Grade Guarantee legislation across the states, Furman University’s Paul Thomas explains that short term gains in reading scores after students are held back are likely to fade out in subsequent years as students move into the upper elementary and middle school years. But, Thomas quotes the National Council of Teachers of English on how the lingering emotional scars from “flunking a grade” linger: “Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • “retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • “basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • “retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.”

Here is what Thomas recommends instead: “States must absolutely respond to valid concerns about reading achievement by parents and other advocates; however, the historical and current policies and reforms have continued to fail students and not to achieve goals of higher and earlier reading proficiency by students, especially the most vulnerable students who struggle to read.” Specifically, Thomas urges policymakers to eliminate: “high-stakes policies (retention) around a single grade (3rd) and create a more nuanced monitoring process around a range of grades (3rd-5th) based on a diverse body of evidence (testing, teacher assessments, parental input)…. Remove punitive policies that label students and create policies that empower teachers and parents to provide instruction and support based on individual student needs.”

Last May, the Akron Beacon Journal Editorial Board pressed Ohio’s House to pass HB 497: “Unfortunately, the policy of holding struggling readers back in third grade shows that an aggressive tactic can create unintended consequences… Some 39,000 children have failed the statewide reading test since 2014, with most being forced to repeat third grade…. Politicians 10 years ago clearly overstepped in setting up this requirement. They apparently didn’t listen closely to educators who know that children feel stigmatized by being held back, and as Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro told a reporter, can come to hate reading.”

I urge the Ohio State Board of Education to pass the resolution its members have been considering to condemn the Third Grade Guarantee.  And when the Ohio Senate convenes again in a lame duck, post-election session, the Senate leadership should promptly bring House Bill 497 to the floor for passage.

Continued Misuse of Test Score Data to Rate and Rank Schools

Zachary Smith, the Plain Dealer‘s current data wonk, just published another article ranking Ohio’s schools, Ranking Ohio Public High Schools from 1 to 823, based on Ohio’s 2022 state school report card’s Performance Index.  A few weeks ago he ranked all of the state’s school districts by the same Performance Index.

Ohio released its annual state school report cards in mid-September and changed its ratings from A-F to a five star system.  At the time, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported that because the state’s schools were dealing with COVID all of last year and the federal government, therefore, eliminated demands for school improvement plans, the state would not calculate an overall summative rating for schools and school districts: “This year the Ohio Department of Education is not offering an overall rating for each school and district, due to the reprieve on sanctions. In future years, there will be an overall star rating.”

This year the stars were awarded in five categories: Achievement, Early Literacy, Graduation Rate, Progress, and Gap Closing.  A new category was added, “College, Career, Workforce and Military Readiness,” but there was were no stars assigned this year in this area due to ongoing COVID recovery.

While the state did not assign any overall summative grade for schools and school districts this year, reporter Zachary Smith discovered—in the state’s description of the category of “Achievement”what he considers an overall way to rank the state’s schools. In its description of measuring Achievement,  the state lists a “Performance Index” number for each school and school district.  The state says it calculates the Performance Index based primarily on aggregate standardized test scores: “The Achievement component represents the number of students who passed the state tests and how well they performed on them. This component includes three additional performance indicators —the Chronic Absenteeism Improvement Indicator, End-of-Course Improvement Indicator and Gifted Indicator.” Based on Performance Index scores, Smith and the Plain Dealer have been ranking the state’s school districts and high schools.

The problem is that test scores are known to reflect a community’s family economics more than they measure the quality of a school or school district. I wish Smith would go back a couple of years to look at Rich Exner’s profound 2019 Plain Dealer article on Ohio’s school report cards. See How Closely Ohio School Report Card Grades Trend with District Income. Here is an example of one of Exner’s bar graphs, which profoundly depict the story.

Two weeks ago, Jack Schneider, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and Joel Boyd, the superintendent of the Lowell Public Schools, explained that the correlation of standardized test scores with family income has been an issue from state to state through the past two decades since No Child Left Behind thrust us into school accountability based on standardized test scores: “As research indicates, test scores are highly indicative of the inequalities that afflict our communities, and are not a valid basis for determinations about overall school performance… Scholars have repeatedly shown (that) the leading predictors of student standardized test scores are demographic variables like family income and parental educational attainment.”

Schneider and Boyd show how test scores this year particularly are likely to reflect the disparate economic realities for families during the COVID pandemic: “Imagine that in one school community, students were insulated from the worst effects of the pandemic. Parents were able to work from home, oversee remote schooling, and offer additional support. Young people felt safe, and their families remained intact. Family resources were deployed for educational purposes and enrichment. The pandemic was a challenge, but one that was mitigated to a significant degree.  In the other school community, students felt the effects of the pandemic acutely. Family members became sick, were hospitalized, and may have even died.  Working in so-called essential fields drew caregivers away from home during the day. Internet was often slow and unreliable, and students competed for quiet space with siblings. Young people felt vulnerable, frightened, and isolated.”

The No Child Left Behind Act, formulated in 2001 and signed into law on January 8, 2002, restructured public education by demanding quantitative, standardized-test-based school accountability and by using sanctions to punish the public schools struggling to raise aggregate scores.  Gail Sunderman was one of NCLB’s early critics as the lead author of NCLB Meets School Realities, published for the Harvard Civil Rights Project in 2005, in collaboration with James Kim and Gary Orfield. Sunderman is now a research scientist in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Research and director of the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

Sunderman reminds readers that No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, but the new law still requires states to rate their schools and put the lowest scoring schools on corrective action plans. Here are Sunderman’s concerns today about the damage wrought by state school rankings: “There’s… evidence that state school rating systems often reflect personal and ideological preferences of state leaders… States with a more liberal orientation… are more likely to incorporate indicators related to school quality and indicators of student success, such as growth measures, while states with a more conservative leaning maintain a focus on student test scores…  While school rating systems may be a practical means to a political end, their educational value is questionable. Despite the proliferation of school rating systems, there is very little peer-reviewed, empirical research on their effects on student performance, and school and teacher practices…  Summative ratings also tend to obscure the well-documented relationship between student achievement scores and demographic variables, most notably race and socioeconomic status. An analysis of the Maryland five-star rating system, for instance, examined why no high-poverty schools earned a five-star rating, but when the researchers adjusted ratings to account for economic disadvantage, the number of five-star schools increased.”

Sunderman concludes: This inability of summative school ratings to distinguish school performance from student demographic variances disproportionately harms schools serving marginalized children and inflates the quality of schools serving wealthy and white students.”

This blog previously covered Ohio’s 2022 school ratings here.

New Ohio School Report Cards Rate Schools on 5-Star System Instead of Letter Grades, But the Results Still Fail to Recognize What Schools Do

In mid-August, this blog posed the following question: “How has standardized, test-based school accountability changed the way we understand public schooling?” Here is how that post answered the question: “The most basic critique of accountability-based school reform is that its frame is entirely quantitative. School accountability based solely on aggregate standardized test scores fails to measure the qualitative process of education as experienced by students and practiced by teachers.”

Despite the growing critique of high stakes, test-based school accountability, the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, requires states to rate their schools and intervene in the schools where aggregate student test scores have not risen significantly.  For years, Ohio has assigned “A” through “F” letter grades for each school and school district, based primarily on standardized test scores.  Last Thursday, however, Ohio released a new state report card evaluating each of the state’s 610 school districts and each individual public school by substituting a five-star system for the letter grades.

Because the U.S. Department of Education has relaxed—during and immediately following the pandemic—the demand that states develop correction plans to turn around the lowest scoring schools, Ohio will grant schools another year of the pandemic-driven reprieve on the imposition of state-imposed improvement plans. Neither will the state aggregate the school ratings into one overall summative score for each school and school district during this year. The Plain Dealer’s Laura Hancock reports, “This year the Ohio Department of Education is not offering an overall rating for each school and district, due to the reprieve on sanctions. In future years, there will be an overall star rating.”

A new five-star rating system is the key change this year. Ohio has rated schools with up to five stars in six categories.  According to Hancock, “The Ohio Department of Education created a 17-page guide to understanding the report cards, which shows how stars will be used….”  Here are the six categories on which schools are being rated and the method for computing the rating, according to Hancock:

  • “Achievement: This component represents whether student performance on state tests met previously established thresholds. It also considers how well students performed on tests overall…
  • “Early Literacy: This area measures reading improvement and overall proficiency scores for students in kindergarten through third grade.
  • “Graduation: This measurement looks at the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate and the five-year cohort graduation rate…
  • “Progress: This measurement looks at the growth students are making based on their past performances…
  • “Gap Closing: This component measures the reduction in educational gaps for student subgroups based on income, race, ethnicity, or disability.
  • “College, Career, Workforce and Military Readiness: This component looks at how well prepared Ohio’s students are for future opportunities, whether training in a technical field or preparing for work or college. This is a relatively new measurement and the full data won’t be completely reported until the 2024-2025 school year. There also won’t be a star ranking for this area.”

In its new rating system, the Ohio Department of Education leaves in place a system based on the assumption that school quality can be measured accurately and summarized with a quantitative methodology. Interestingly, four of the six categories in Ohio’s new system depend on a school’s or a school district’s aggregate test scores, which have for years been highly correlated with a school population’s overall family income. The new five-star method is assumed to be better than the assignment of letter grades even in our age of emojis, where people are quite comfortable with inferring a clear meaning from a visual display of symbols like stars.

A serious problem with the new ratings is that it is utterly unclear whether and how the ratings in any way measure what educators are doing differently from district to district. I looked at the 17-page guide to interpreting the scores.  In the section describing the “Early Literacy” measure, the guide explains: “The Early Literacy Component measures reading improvement and proficiency for students in kindergarten through third grade.”  It is based on students’ third-grade “Language Arts Proficiency” test score, how many students are promoted to fourth grade, and “two consecutive years of data to evaluate how well schools and districts are doing at providing supports needed to help struggling readers become on track with their reading.”

The 17-page guide does not acknowledge the research of Sean Reardon, the Stanford University educational sociologist, who comments on the opportunity gaps that come to school with children as they enter Kindergarten: “We examine… test score gaps because they reflect… differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… (D)ifferences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

There is nothing in the guide to the Early Literacy measure on the new Ohio State School Report Card that acknowledges the early gaps in preparation for reading that children present as they enter Kindergarten. Surely the new Ohio School Report Card’s Early Literacy measure is as much a measure of young children’s experiences outside of school—parents who read with them, and exposure to enriched child care, Pre-Kindergarten, and public library story hours—as it may be to their in-school experiences before they take the third-grade Language Arts Proficiency test that is so key to this measurement.

There are several reasons the Ohio Department of Education chose not to create one overall summative rating for each school and school district this year. The pandemic affected school districts differently with some districts forced to use more online services during COVID-19 upswings and with widely disparate access to the internet and home computers among the state’s children.  State officials imply that they want this year’s five star ratings to be a helpful guide for school districts. But a reporter, grasping the public’s hunger for comparisons, found a way to rank the districts in order merely by adding up each district’s total number of stars and publishing the state’s school districts in order from top to bottom.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter begins his report: “While the new Ohio school report card gives a star rating to various performance categories, there is no overall performance grade assigned for this year. So cleveland.com calculated the total score for all 607 districts… to show which schools scored the best across the board.”

I predict that, even without assigning an overall letter grade for schools and school districts, Ohio’s new, much touted five-star rating system will continue to promote educational redlining across Ohio’s metropolitan school districts.  Prospective home buyers will read the five-star system the same way they have been reading the “A” through “F” letter grade school district rating system. They will continue to want to live in the school districts with the most stars, and the system will, thereby, exacerbate economic and racial segregation as people who can afford it continue to move to pockets of privilege in exurbia. After all, in a follow-up report, the Plain Dealer‘s Jeremy Pelzer notes that “‘suburban, higher-income districts in Northeast Ohio and around the state, not surprisingly, generally received higher report-card ratings…. A dozen school districts in Ohio received perfect scores across the board, including four in Northeast Ohio: Aurora City School District, Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools, Highland Local Schools in Medina County, and Solon City Schools.”  All are higher-income exurbs.

Ohio’s new school rating system appeared just a week after the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published an overall critique of school accountability as measured quantitatively primarily by a district’s aggregate standardized test scores.  Strauss reminds readers that, “For several decades now, education policymakers have been obsessed with data-driven accountability—usually with standardized test scores as the key metric. The approach has failed to achieve any of the goals supporters have championed, such as closing the achievement gap, and has instead brought us things like pep rallies to get students excited to take standardized tests and methods to evaluate teachers based on the scores.”

Strauss publishes a piece written by two Northwestern University researchers, both sociologists, who have been evaluating our society’s obsession with ranking and rating.  Simone Ispa-Landa and Wendy Espeland declare: “We are a nation obsessed with lists and rankings, not just for dishwashers and other consumer products. We track our steps, rate our sleep, and go to hospitals with the ‘best ratings.’… In our research, we find that, across institutions, school leaders are pressured to devote enormous time and energy to ‘improving the numbers,’ even when this comes at the expense of making changes that, in private, they acknowledge would be far more impactful for students. Because rankings and other measures change how school leaders do their work and make decisions, current accountability policies have far-reaching implications for school discipline and student mental health at a moment of intense national crisis in child and youth well-being… We should acknowledge that one-size-fits-all metrics do not fairly measure what matters most in many schools…. We should reward schools for innovation, for creating programs that will take time to evaluate. Simple numbers promote simple solutions and can prevent promising programs with long-term positive implications from taking root. Before we head into another school year, let’s look at dismantling the ranking systems that are burdening our administrators… and preventing authentic improvement.”

Ohio’s brand new school report cards—still based largely on each school’s aggregate standardized test scores—neglect to reflect the experiences created by fine educators who meet students where they are and help them experience educational opportunity in classes that are respectful, challenging and emotionally safe.

How Clinton Democrats Joined Philanthrocapitalists to Create Corporate School Reform

I remember my gratitude when, back in 2010, I sat down to read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which connected the dots across what I had been watching for nearly a decade: the standards movement, annual standardized testing, the operation of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish, Mayor Bloomberg’s promotion of charter schools in New York City, and the role of venture philanthropy in all this.

Now over a decade later, many of us have spent the past couple of months worried about pushback from the charter school sector as the the U.S. Department of Education has proposed strengthening sensible regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. We have been reminded that this program was launched in 1994, and we may have been puzzled that a federal program paying for the startup of privately operated charter schools originated during a Democratic administration.

Lily Geismer, a historian at Claremont McKenna College, has just published a wonderful book which explains how the New Democrats—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and the Democratic Leadership Council—brought a political and economic philosophy that sought to end welfare with a 1996 bill called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” and envisioned privately operated charter schools to expand competition and innovation in the public schools as a way to close school achievement gaps. Geismer’s book is Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. The book is a great read, and it fills in the public policy landscape of the 1990s, a decade we may never have fully understood.

In the introduction, Geismer explains where she is headed: “Since the New Deal, liberals had advocated for doing well and doing good. However, the form of political economy enacted during the new Deal and, later, the New Frontier and Great Society understood these as distinct goals. The architects of mid-twentieth century liberalism believed that stimulating capital markets was the best path to creating economic growth and security (doing well). The job of the federal government, as they saw it, was to fill in the holes left by capitalism with compensatory programs to help the poor, like cash assistance and Head Start, and to enact laws that ended racial and gender discrimination (doing good). In contrast, the New Democrats sought to merge those functions and thus do well by doing good. This vision contended that the forces of banking, entrepreneurialism, trade, and technology… could substitute for traditional forms of welfare and aid and better address structural problems of racial and economic segregation. In this vision, government did not recede but served as a bridge connecting the public and private sectors.” (p. 8)

Geismer devotes an entire chapter, “Public Schools Are Our Most Important Business,” to the Clinton administration’s new education policy.  She begins by telling us about Vice President Al Gore’s meetings with “leading executives and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. The so-called Gore-Tech sessions often took place over pizza and beer, and Gore hoped for them to be a chance for the administration to learn from innovators of the New Economy…. One of these meetings focused on the problems of public education and the growing achievement gap between affluent white suburbanites and students of color in the inner city…. The challenge gave venture capitalist John Doerr, who had become Gore’s closest tech advisor, an idea…  The tools of venture capital, Doerr thought, might offer a way to build new and better schools based on Silicon Valley’s principles of accountability, choice, and competition… Doerr decided to pool money from several other Silicon valley icons to start the NewSchools Venture Fund. NewSchools sat at the forefront of the concepts of venture philanthropy. Often known by the neologism philanthrocapitalism, venture or strategic philanthropy focused on taking tools from the private sector, especially entrepreneurialism, venture capitalism, and management consulting—the key ingredients in the 1990s tech boom—and applying them to philanthropic work… Doerr and the NewSchools Fund became especially focused on charter schools, which the Clinton administration and the Democratic Leadership Council were similarly encouraging in the 1990s.” (pp. 233-234)

Quoting John Doerr, who founded the NewSchool Venture Fund in 1997, Geismer gives us a taste of the kind of rhetoric we heard so often from the corporate school reformers: “‘The New Economy isn’t just about high-tech products,’ Doerr liked to say. ‘It’s about the politics of education, constant innovation and unlimited growth’ and a nonhierarchical meritocracy where ‘the best ideas win.'” (p. 238)

We learn about Al From, who founded and led the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and From’s commitment to charter schools: “Privately, From stressed to the president that charter schools, along with welfare reform, were the most important ways to show his willingness to challenge ‘the old liberal Democratic Party orthodoxy’ and special interest groups like organized labor. Charters could appeal to the white moderate suburbanites whom the DLC believed to be critical to Clinton’s (1996) reelection effort.”  And Clinton bought the new strategy: “The 1996 State of the Union was most notable for Clinton’s declaration that the ‘era of big government is over.’ Elaborating on that theme, he also dared ‘every state to give all parents the right to choose which public school their children will attend; and to let teachers form new schools with a charter they can keep only if they do a good job.'” (p. 244)

When, in 1997, Clinton held an event to celebrate charter schools at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center in California, the school’s founder, Don Shalvey, met another entrepreneur, a guy who had already sold a software company for $750 million, Reed Hastings, who later founded Netflix.  The two raised millions of dollars to sponsor a ballot issue that would raise the state’s cap on the number of charter schools. Eventually, without ever mounting the ballot referendum, they reached a compromise with California’s legislature to pass a bill to “increase the number of charters in the state from 250 immediately and add an additional 100 each year after that.” (p. 251)

Beyond Shalvey and Hastings’ efforts in California there were various strategies to grow the scale of the charter movement. In 1994, Clinton’s Department of Education launched the Charter Schools Program, “which provided new seed capital for opening charter schools.” (p. 243)  And there was the ongoing work of the NewSchools Venture Fund: “The NewSchools board and staff especially concentrated on ways to accelerate the scale and impact of the charter school model… NewSchools developed a model of creating a charter network called a charter management organization (CMO), which would be nonprofit but draw on market-based ideas and practices. NewSchools worked closely on this idea with Hastings and Don Shalvey… Shalvey did most of the legwork in developing University Public Schools (it would later change to Aspire), which he envisioned as a ‘scalable model’ that would bring ‘the customer focus and sense of responsibility of a top-notch service organization or consulting firm to public education.’ The name derived from its goal that all the low-income students who enrolled would go on to college or at least ‘aspire’ to do so… NewSchools provided the initial funding but tied the money to student performance and achievement.” (p. 256)

As the movement grew, so did problems for the public school districts where the charter chains located: “For most of the 1990s, charters represented a small portion of the total schools in most urban districts. The growth of CMOs and the new philanthropic investment changed that in the next decade as NewSchools helped to launch or expand twenty CMOs… For the first time, public schools in struggling urban neighborhoods found charter schools making a significant dent in their enrollments and funding. With the perpetual scarcity of funding and resources allocated for public education, it would have particularly deleterious consequences for many urban schools.” (p. 259)

Geismer summarizes the impact of the educational experiment Clinton launched: “Whether successful or not, charters remain effective symbols of the control that wealthy private forces have come to wield over public policy and the ways that the ethos of the New Democrats had a direct impact on the public sector. The Gates Foundation and the tech entrepreneurs of the NewSchools Venture Fund did not just get a seat at the decision-making table but wielded the financial power to control educational policy at the local, state, and federal level.” (p. 260)

More broadly Geismer examines the tragic limitations of Clinton’s experiment in using “the resources and techniques of the market to make government more efficient and better able to serve the people. Clinton and his allies routinely referred to microenterprise, community development banking, Empowerment Zones, mixed-income housing, and charter schools as revolutionary ideas that had the power to create large-scale change. These programs, nevertheless, uniformly provided small or micro solutions to large structural or macro problems. The New Democrats time and again overpromised just how much good these programs could do. Suggesting market-based programs were a ‘win-win’ obscured the fact that market capitalism generally reproduces and enhances inequality. Ultimately, the relentless selling of such market-based programs prevented Democrats from developing policies that addressed the structural forces that produced segregation and inequality and fulfilled the government’s obligations to provide for its people, especially its most vulnerable.” (pp. 9-10)

I definitely encourage you to read Lily Geismer’s Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality.

Ohio Legislature Must Ensure No More Children Are Held Back by 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law twenty years ago on January 8, 2022, has come to be known as America’s test-and-punish education law, designed by politicians, not educators, and based on manipulation of big data collected from all the states’ standardized test scores

“Test-and-punish” has become a cliche, whose meaning we rarely consider carefully. Unlike the politicians who designed the law, educators who know something about learning and the psychology of education have always known that the law’s operational philosophy couldn’t work. Fear and punishment always interfere with real learning.

The federal government has reduced the imposition of federal punishments when a school’s test scores fail to rise, but states are still required to rate and rank their public schools and to devise turnaround plans for the so-called “failing” schools.  And, despite that some test-and-punish policies were never federally required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), many states themselves adopted policies that reflected the test-and-punish ethos. Some of these policies remain in state law as a relic of the NCLB era.

Much of the No Child Left Behind era’s punitive policy was aimed at pressuring school districts and particular schools quickly to raise scores, but one test-and-punish policy which has been particularly hurtful to children themselves is the so-called “Third Grade Guarantee.”  In 2014,  Ohio adopted the Third Grade Guarantee as it was outlined in a model bill distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to ALEC’s A-Plus Literacy Act: “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

During the years of disruption amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio Legislature temporarily stopped holding children back in third grade.  Now the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reports on a new effort by two state legislatures to do the right thing and end Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee altogether: “State lawmakers pressed pause on the retention requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. No third-grade students from 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years were held back.” “State Rep. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville… and state Rep. Phil Robinson, D-Solon, want to make that permanent with HB 497.”

Staver begins her report by describing what educational research demonstrates is the serious damage the Third Grade Guarantee has caused among Ohio’s children: “More than 39,000 Ohio children have failed the statewide reading test and been mandated, with some exceptions, to repeat third grade since 2014. The idea being kids learn to read between kindergarten and third grade before reading to learn for the rest of their education. But educators, parents, school psychologists and early childhood researchers at Ohio State University’s Crane Center have spent the last decade questioning whether our Third Grade Reading Guarantee works. Whether the stigma of being held back was outweighed by gains in reading comprehension and student success.  A pair of state representatives think the answer is no, and they’ve introduced House Bill 497. The legislation would keep the state tests but not the requirement that those who fail must repeat third grade.”

Jeb Bush and his ExcelInEd Foundation have been promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee, but Staver traces Ohio’s enthusiasm for the Third Grade Guarantee to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “In 2010, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a bombshell special report called ‘Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters.’ Students, it said, who don’t catch up by fourth grade are significantly more likely to stay behind, drop out and find themselves tangled in the criminal justice system. ‘The bottom line is that if we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty… And the price will be paid not only by the individual children and families but by the entire country.'”

It was the old “A Nation at Risk” story about “failing” public education creating a mediocre America and a lagging economy.  In states across the country, anxious legislators capitulated to the anxiety driven narrative and failed to consider what being held back would mean for the children themselves—for their drive to learn to read, for their engagement with school, for their self esteem, and for what we have learned since is their accelerated risk of dropping out of school before high school graduation. Staver quotes Ohio’s former governor: “Gov. John Kasich made it the focus of his education overhaul, saying the time had come to ‘put an end to social promotion.'”

Staver cites a 2019 report, Has Ohio’s Third-Grade Reading Guarantee Led to Reading Improvements?, from Ohio State University’s Crane Center, whose website describes it as “a multidisciplinary research center dedicated to conducting high-quality research that improves children’s learning and development at home, in school and in the community.” The report concludes: “We found no meaningful or significant improvements to Ohio’s fourth-grade reading achievement from the time the third-grade reading guarantee was implemented.”  Staver adds that Jamie O’Leary the Crane Center’s associate director, interprets the results: “O’Leary had some theories about why. The first was early learning…. Only 41% of children passed the Ohio Department of Education’s kindergarten readiness exam in 2018. Twenty-three percent needed ‘significant support.'”  Finally  O’leary worries about children’s stress inside and outside of school.

Poverty has clearly been a factor: “The districts retaining 2% or fewer of their students are overwhelmingly located in wealthy suburban neighborhoods.” Staver interviews Scott DiMauro, a current teacher and the president of the Ohio Education Association: “‘What that means… is that our must vulnerable students are the ones getting held back.’ That’s a problem for him because several studies suggest retaining children also decreases their chances of graduation. Notre Dame sociologist Megan Andrew published a study in 2014 about 6,500 pairs of students with similar backgrounds and IQ scores. The ones held back were 60% less likely to graduate high school. She hypothesized that since students routinely ranked retentions as ‘second only to a parent’s death in seriousness,’ the move was so ‘psychologically scarring’ that many never regained their confidence. DiMauro put it this way, ‘Instead of creating lifelong learners, we’re creating kids who hate to read.'”

To offer a contrasting opinion—support for the Third Grade Guarantee, Staver quotes Lisa Gray, the president of Ohio Excels. Staver describes Gray as “the lone opponent to testify against HB 497.” The  Ohio Excels website describes that organization’s history: “Ohio Excels was born in 2018. Leading that effort were former Greater Cleveland Partnership CEO Joseph Roman, Ohio Business Roundtable President and CEO Patrick Tiberi, Cincinnati Business Committee CEO Gary Lindgren, and Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer. Assembling an initially small group of business leaders, they created a non-partisan coalition committed to keeping the business community’s voice at the forefront of policy discussions of education and workforce issues.”

I am hopeful, as the Ohio Legislature considers permanently removing Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee by passing House Bill 497, that our legislators will study the research from the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy instead of paying attention to Ohio Excels.  For a long time policymakers have listened to the test-and-punish, corporate accountability hawks and neglected what they might learn from early childhood research and a basic class in educational psychology.  I share Scott DiMauro’s concern—that the Third Grade Guarantee is creating kids who fear failure, who dread being shamed by their peers, who hate to read, and who feel altogether alienated from school.

Federally Mandated Standardized Testing: If Nothing Is Done to Change a Bad Public Policy, It Never Goes Away

The beginning of the new year is a good time to look around and consider that the way things are is not how they have to be. Annual standardized testing, the pivotal public policy that shapes U.S. children’s experience of public schooling today, is now recognized by most educators and many policy experts as a failed remnant of another time.

However, Miguel Cardona, our current U.S. Secretary of Education, has quietly allowed this policy to continue and permitted us all to cruise through one more school year without seriously confronting its implications. Even though Betsy DeVos cancelled the federal testing mandate in the spring of 2020 as COVID-19 struck, on February 22 of last year, an acting assistant secretary of education sent the state departments of education a letter announcing that—despite that some students were in class, others online, and some in hybrid online/in-person classes due to COVID-19—standardized testing would take place as usual in the 2020-2021 school year.  Despite considerable pushback from educators, that decision has never been reconsidered, and in the current school year federally mandated standardized testing is happening as usual.

Of course Secretary Cardona’s focus has been dominated by COVID’s disruption in public schools, and the problem is likely to continue as the new Omicron flareup threatens to intensify the pressure this winter despite the rollout of vaccines.  Even amidst these ongoing challenges, however, the time has come for the Secretary of Education to work with Congress to confront the overuse of standardized testing as the yardstick for measuring the quality of public schools and supposedly holding them accountable. Good leaders are responsible for initiating needed reforms when flawed public policy undermines the institutions where our children learn.

January 8, 2022 is the 20th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s signing the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It is worth remembering that until 2002, our society did not test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and compare the aggregate scores from school to school as a way to rate and rank public schools. School districts could choose to test students with standardized tests to measure what they had been learning, but until the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became law, there was no federally mandated high stakes testing across all U.S. public schools.

NCLB did not, as promised, enable every child to make Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient. Because, as research has demonstrated, out-of-school challenges affect students’ test scores, the whole high stakes testing regime didn’t improve overall school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps. Sadly, it did shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

Today states are required by No Child Left Behind’s 2015 successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to identify their state’s bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a way to blame and punish educators and supposedly “incentivize” them to work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe:

  • Many states publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns “a turnaround strategy.”
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score “proficient” on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools” and focuses the rest of the above punishments on the schools in the poorest communities.
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight to wealthy exurbs where aggregate test scores are higher.

Here are three academicians considering problems with high-stakes standardized testing from the point of view of their areas of expertise.

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains a primary reason why high-stakes standardized testing unfairly punishes the schools, the teachers, and the students in America’s poorest communities: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Not only is the test-and punish regime unjust, but it also violates accepted theory about how children learn. Nobody thinks drilling and cramming for standardized tests is an inspiring kind of education, but in their 2014 rebuttal of the test-and-punish regime, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass point out that the test-and-punish era has also pushed out more important work at school: “Teaching problem solving and creativity is indeed possible, particularly when the teacher is an engaged teacher who uses culturally relevant pedagogical practices. But the issue lies not in whether it is possible, but in whether the teaching of these skills is disappearing…. (G)iven the current education system with its ever-increasingly test-based accountability systems, classrooms are becoming more controlled. Thus, environments in which problem solving and creativity are likely to be promoted are less evident… It should come as no surprise that when teachers focus on multiple ways of knowing and celebrate the wealth of knowledge their students bring to the classroom, collaborative environments spring up. In these environments, students and teachers participate in meaningful conversations about a variety of topics, including issues that are often of direct concern to their local community… It is through conversation, not didactic instruction, that students are able to articulate what they know and how they know it, while incorporating the knowledge of their peers and their teacher to further their own understanding.” (50 Myths and Lies, p. 238)

Finally, in Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, a fine new collection of essays edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, education historian Diane Ravitch summarizes the impact of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime: “Many schools were punished. Many teachers and principals were fired, their reputations in tatters… Nonetheless, Congress and state leaders remained fixated on raising test scores. NCLB remained in force until 2015, when it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which removed the deadline by which all students would be proficient and dropped some of the other draconian punishments. But what did not disappear was the magical belief that a federal mandate based on annual standardized tests would produce better education. In the grip of the policymakers’ obsession with testing and ranking and rating and sorting, schools that were important to their communities were closed or replaced or taken over by the state because their scores were too low. Forget the fact that standardized test scores are highly correlated with family income and affected by important factors like disabilities and language ability.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy,  p. 26)

When he campaigned for President in 2019, Joe Biden rejected standardized test-based school accountability. This year, 2022, is a good time for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to provide real policy leadership and ensure that President Biden can realize his promise.

New Book Includes Wonderful Retrospective Essay by the Late Mike Rose

I just received my pre-ordered copy of a fine new collection of essays from Teachers College Press.  In Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, editors David Berliner and Carl Hermanns pull together reflections by 29 writers, who, as the editors declare: “create a vivid and complex portrait of public education in these United States.”

It seems especially appropriate at the end of 2021 to consider one of the essays included in this new book—probably Mike Rose’s final essay—“Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric.” Rose, the wonderful writer and UCLA professor of education, died unexpectedly in August.

Rose considers the many possible lenses through which a public can consider and evaluate its public schools: “Public schools are governmental and legal institutions and therefore originate in legislation and foundational documents… All institutions are created for a reason, have a purpose, are goal driven… Equally important as the content of curriculum are the underlying institutional assumptions about ability, knowledge, and the social order… Public schools are physical structures.  Each has an address, sits on a parcel of land with geographical coordinates… By virtue of its location in a community, the school is embedded in the social and economic dynamics of that community… The school is a multidimensional social system rich in human interaction… With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics. Some school phenomena lend themselves to counting, though counting alone won’t capture their meaning… And schools can be thought of as part of the social fabric of a community, serving civic and social needs: providing venues for public meetings and political debate, polls, festivities, and during crises shelters, distribution hubs, sites of comfort.”

“Each of the frameworks reveals certain political, economic, or sociological-organizational aspects of the rise of comprehensive schooling while downplaying or missing others,” explains Rose. “It might not be possible to consider all of these perspectives when making major policy decisions about a school, but involving multiple perspectives should be the goal.”

In this retrospective essay, Rose reflects on a journey that resulted in his landmark book on public education, Possible Lives.  For several years Rose visited public school classrooms across the United States, classrooms recommended to him by national and local experts as sites of wonderful teaching. He begins his new essay in rural eastern Kentucky remembering an evening visit to a bar at the end of a day observing the high school social studies classroom of Bud Reynolds.”This testimony to the importance of the public school opens in the AmVets Club bar in Martin, Kentucky, population 550, circa 1990.  I am here as a guest of Bud Reynolds, a celebrated social studies teacher at nearby Wheelwright High School, about whom I would be writing for a book called Possible Lives (published by Houghton Mifflin in 1995) documenting good public school classrooms.” Bud introduces Rose to two friends, Tim Allen and Bobby Sherman, both of whom work for the one remaining railroad that runs through Martin. “While Bud and Tim play a video game, I end up talking with Bobby, a conversation that reveals the place of school in both memory and the practice of day-to-day living…  What… stands out to me is the role several of Bobby’s high school teachers play in his life.  An English teacher changed his reading habits, and in a way, I assume, that contributes to his current political and social views… I also can’t help but wonder about the degree to which the intellectual challenging of his chemistry teacher—the cognitive gave and take, the pleasure in it, his esteem for his teacher’s intellectual ability—the degree to which this extended experience plays into Sherman’s own sense of self as a thinker, and as proof of the presence of ‘damned intelligent people’ in Kentucky’s Eastern Coal Field.”

Rose’s essay now takes his journey to a different kind of public school setting: “Let us move now from a town of 550 to Chicago, a city with the third largest school district in the nation, and to the story of a school and the community it represents… Like Martin, KY, Chicago was part of my itinerary for Possible Lives.  I visited six public schools in Chicago, one of which was Dyett Middle School, named after Walter Henri Dyett, a legendary music teacher in the Bronzeville community of Chicago’s South Side… From its inception in 1975, Dyett was not only a valuable resource for neighborhood children, but also represented a rich local history of Black artistic and educational achievement.” At Dyett Middle School, Rose listens as an English teacher engages 6th grade students in an open discussion about the books on which they will be writing reports and about questions and concerns they have about the teacher’s expectations for the reports they will be writing.  As classes change, Rose stops in the hallway to talk with several students: “‘Students learn here,’ one boy tells me. ‘They teach you how to speak and write,’ a girl adds. ‘You feel at home here,’ says another boy. ‘They don’t make fun of you if you mess up.'”

Now Rose updates more than two decades of news about Dyett: “Twenty years later, Dyett was one of 54 ‘failed’ schools targeted for closure by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the CEO of the district.  These schools were ‘underenrolled and underperforming.'” Dyett had been transformed into a high school, and, “By 2000, interwoven with large-scale transformations in the economy, urban revitalization projects, and changing demographics and gentrification, a new wave of school reforms had some urban districts attempting to reorganize their schools into a ‘portfolio’ of choices. Some schools were converted to selective admission schools or to magnet schools… while other schools were defined as general admission schools.  Add to this mix the growing number of charter schools, and one result is the diminishment of general admission community schools like Dyett, as their enrollment is drained away.”

Except that the school meant too much too the community: “But the community around Dyett wouldn’t allow it, mounting a protracted, multipronged campaign that led, finally to a hunger strike that made national news… The children I saw during my visit to Dyett would have been in their late twenties by the time the order to close the school was issued—their parents in their forties or fifties. We have, then, a sizeable number of people in the community who associate Dyett with, as the 6th grader put it, feeling at home, with being valued and guided, and with learning about themselves, each other, and the world.”

As he pursues his purpose—reflecting on public schools and the social fabric—Rose rejects one of the lenses he named earlier through which a society can observe and evaluate its public schools: “With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics.”  This is, of course, the rubric of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and all the rest of the two-decade technocratic experiment with corporate style public school accountability.

“As a rule, public policy decisions in our technocratic age tend to focus on the structural bureaucratic and quantitative dimensions of the institutions or phenomena in question—that which can be formalized, graphed, measured.  The other perspectives we’ve been considering, those dealing with economic, political, and social history and with the place of the school in a community’s social fabric, tend to be given short shrift or are ignored entirely… Creating or expanding opportunity for underserved populations is… an equity goal given for contemporary school reform policy. As we saw in the Dyett/Chicago example, opportunity was put into practice by creating choice options—which, paradoxically, involved closing existing options. In technocratic frameworks, opportunity easily becomes an abstraction.  But opportunity is a lived experience, grounded in a time and place, and therefore, there can be situation specific constraints on opportunity.”

Rose concludes: “The journey I took across the country visiting schools for the writing of Possible Lives enhanced my understanding of the complex position the public school holds in the social fabric. Journey… provides a literary device to sequence my visits to different schools, a narrative throughline, a travelogue of schooling.  Journey also has psychological significance. A journey is an odyssey of discovery…. I would learn a huge amount about the United States and the schools in it—but metaphorically of inner worlds as well….  And journey becomes method… it… has the potential to open one to experience, to learn, to grasp…. You talk to a guy in a bar who lives his decades-old education through conversation, an education he received in a school founded three-quarters of a century ago when the region’s economy was emerging… If this kind of journey attunes you to the particulars of place and its people, it also provides the longer view. As you visit schools, you see similarities across difference and, eventually, interconnectedness and pattern.  There is a grand idea in all this—and you sense it—a vast infrastructure of public schooling.”