High School Students Stand Up for Press Freedom and Public Education

A society’s public institutions reflect the strengths and also the faults and sins of the culture they embody. For this reason, America’s public schools that serve over 50 million children in every kind of community will never be perfect. There will be instances of mediocrity and examples of poor school administration and poor teaching. There will be schools stuck in the past and schools where there is sexism and racism—schools where poor children aren’t served up the kind of curriculum that rich children are offered—schools where families persist in segregating their children from others who are “not like them.”  We must expose the problems in our schools and surely, as a society, we are obligated to address our schools’ faults and problems.

But something else has happened in America as we have permitted advocates for privatization to capture our national imagination. How did so many come to view public schools as a problem?  How did we accept the terms “failing schools” and “failing teachers”?  How did we allow policymakers in our very unequal society to extol privately operated schools as a solution?  The education writer and UCLA professor of education, Mike Rose, demands that we be more discerning as we confront the “failing schools” conventional wisdom: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of the public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.” (Why School? p. 203)

After he spent four years visiting public school classrooms across the United States—urban schools, rural schools, Midwestern, Eastern, Western, Southern and border schools, and after observing hundreds of public school teachers from place to place, Rose celebrated the schools he had visited in a wonderful book, Possible Lives: “One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed, out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.” In the book’s preface, Rose reflects on the learning moments he witnessed during his journey: “The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. 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.” (Possible Lives, p. xxviii)  Later in the book, Rose continues: “When public education itself is threatened, as it seems to be threatened now—by cynicism and retreat, by the cold rapture of the market, by thin measure and the loss of civic imagination—when this happens, we need to assemble what the classroom can teach us, articulate what we come to know, speak it loudly, hold it fast to the heart.” (Possible Lives, p. 433)

These days most of us do not have the kind of experience Rose acquired in four years of visiting public schools. Schools have been forced to worry about security and to lock kids safely in their classrooms. Most of us might think of what happens at school—if we think about it at all—only as we remember our own experiences, good and bad.

But sometimes, evidence of what students are learning finds its way outside the school and into the press. It happened last week in Lexington, Kentucky when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to town to participate in a roundtable conversation with Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who made a name for himself last year supporting a bill undermining teachers’ pensions.

At the roundtable conversation, Governor Bevin and Secretary DeVos were slated to discuss her new proposal for a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit, a plan that would divert federal tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers. There is no expectation that Congress will adopt DeVos’s new proposal for the tax credit plan she calls “Education Freedom Scholarships,” but she has been on-tour promoting her idea. We can presume she expected a sympathetic ear from Gov. Matt Bevin. Last year Kentucky’s teachers went out on strike to protest his education policies, and this year they have been staging sick-outs to protest several bills in the state legislature—one of them to set up a statewide private school voucher program. All year Bevin has been on the attack against the state’s public school teachers. Covering Bevin’s re-election campaign, Fox News describes Bevin’s political future as threatened by his persistent attacks on schoolteachers.

Governor Bevin’s roundtable conversation with Betsy DeVos might not have been widely noticed, covered as it was supposed to be by a group of invited journalists, but the members of the editorial board of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School’s Lamplighter, a public high school newspaper, received permission to leave school to cover the 11:00 AM event.  Despite “PRESS” identification tags, they were turned away at the door because they were unable to present one of the special invitations.  Instead of covering the event, the high school journalists did some thinking and some research, and penned a scathing high school newspaper editorial demonstrating not only the quality of their public school training as journalists but also their education in civics along with considerable curiosity about the meaning of their experience trying to cover what should have been a public event.

The Lamplighter editorial, No Seat at the Roundtable, and its high school authors became the subject of Monday’s Washington Post, Morning Mix column: “Unable to document the event, or query DeVos in person, they set about investigating the circumstances of her private appearance at the public community college. Ultimately, they penned an editorial flaying the education secretary and the Kentucky governor, accusing them of paying lip service to the needs of students while excluding them from the conversation.”

In their editorial, the students describe what happened as they encountered the guard at the entrance to the meeting they had set out to cover. Notice the role of the students’ journalism teacher and advisor to help them explore and plan their actions: “We presented our school identification badges and showed him our press credentials. He nodded as if that would be enough, but then asked us if we had an invitation.  We looked at each other, eyes wide with surprise. Invitation? For a roundtable discussion on education? ‘Yes, this event is invitation only,’ he said and then waved us away.  At this point, we pulled over and contacted our adviser, Mrs. Wendy Turner. She instructed us to try again and to explain that we were there as press to cover the event for our school newspaper. We at least needed to understand why were were not allowed in, and why it was never publicized as ‘invitation only.’  We watched as the same man waved other drivers through without stopping them, but he stopped us again.  Instead of listening to our questions, he just repeated, ‘Sorry.  It’s invitation only.’… We scrambled to get ourselves together because we were caught off guard, and we were in a hurry to produce anything we could to cover the event and to meet our deadline… After more research, we found mentioned on the government website that the meeting needed an RSVP, but there was no mention of an invitation.  How do you RSVP when there is no invitation?  On the web site, it also stated that the roundtable was an ‘open press event.'”

The Lamplighter‘s editors continue: “Doesn’t ‘open press’ imply ‘open to ALL press’ including students? We are student journalists who wanted to cover an event in our community featuring the Secretary of Education, but ironically we couldn’t get in without an invitation… Why was this information (the press notice about the meeting the next day) only shared a little more than 24 hours before the event?  When the Secretary of Education is visiting your city, you’d think you’d have a little more of a heads up.  We can’t help but suspect that the intention was to prevent people from attending.  Also, it was held at 11 AM on a Wednesday.  What student or educator is free at that time?  And as students, we are the ones who are going to be affected by the proposed changes discussed at the roundtable, yet we were not allowed inside.  How odd is that, even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away? We expected the event to be intense. We expected there to be a lot of information to cover. But not being able to exercise our rights under the First Amendment was something we never thought would happen.  We weren’t prepared for that.”

Before they wrote their editorial, the student journalists did more work to track the story: “We emailed FCPS (Fayette County Public Schools) Superintendent Manny Caulk to ask if he had been invited, and he answered that he had not.  Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky that deal directly with students, none were represented at the table. Zero. This is interesting because the supposed intention of the event was to include stakeholders—educators, students, and parents.  Fayette County School Board member Tyler Murphy even took to his Twitter to satirize the lack of time DeVos and Bevin took to visit local public school educators. When we reached out to him via email to explain what we experienced, he responded: ‘If Secretary DeVos wanted a true understanding of our public schools, she should hear from the people who participate in it every day.'”

The students also followed up with journalists who were admitted to the event.  They explore in some detail comments reported in the local press about the event from Kentucky Commissioner of Education, Wayne Lewis, someone who endorses DeVos’s proposed federal tuition tax credit voucher proposal. They also report that one high school student attended the roundtable—a scholarship student from Mercy Academy, a Louisville religious high school. This student is quoted in the Lamplighter report: “I was the only student at the table and I was invited because of a scholarship program I was a part of in Louisville.”

The student journalists conclude their editorial: “The bottom line is that we do not think that it is fair to have a closed roundtable about education when it affects thousands of Kentucky teachers, students, and parents.”

The reporter for the Washington-Post‘s Morning Mix, Isaac Stanley-Becker comments on the students’ experience and the way they responded as journalists: “As their travails became the story, the students began to see the terms of the event as emblematic of the approach of the education secretary, who has been criticized as displaying only cursory understanding of the subjects in her remit… Still, they sounded an optimistic note.  Though they were unable to gain the experience they had set out to acquire, they had learned a lesson nonetheless. ‘We learned that the job of a journalist is to chase the story by any means necessary… We learned to be resourceful and meet our deadline even if it wasn’t in the way we initially intended. And we learned that although students aren’t always taken seriously, we have to continue to keep trying to have a seat at the table.'”

The public high school newspaper editors of the Lamplighter exemplify education theorist Henry Giroux’s idea of the value of quality, universal public education. Commenting on the importance of what striking public school teachers—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Los Angeles and Oakland—have been trying to protect, Giroux writes: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy.”

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Politicians Forget that Cut Scores on Standardized Tests Are Not Grounded in Science

Last week the NY TimesDana Goldstein and Manny Fernandez reported on a political fight in Texas over the scoring of the STAAR—the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness—the state’s version of the achievement test each state must still administer every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind, still mandates annual testing, although Congress no longer imposes its own high stakes punishments for failure.

However, Congress still does require the states to submit plans to the U.S. Department of Education declaring what will be the consequences for low-scoring schools.  Goldstein and Fernandez explain that Texas, like many other states, still imposes punishments for the low scorers instead of offering help: “The test, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, can have profound consequences not just for students but for schools across the state, hundreds of which have been deemed inadequate and are subject to interventions that critics say are undue.”  Schools have to provide help for students who are not on grade level. Also: “Texas grades its districts on an A through F scale, in part based on how many students are meeting or exceeding grade-level standards… Persistently failing schools, and districts with just a single such school, can be shut down or taken over by the state—a threat facing the state’s largest school system, in Houston.”

Decades of research show that, in the aggregate, standardized test scores correlate with family and neighborhood income. In a country where segregation by race and poverty continues to grow, it is now recognized among experts and researchers that rating and ranking schools and districts by their aggregate test scores merely brands the poorest schools as failing. When sanctions are attached, political regimes of test-based accountability merely punish the schools and the teachers and the students in the poorest places.

In an excellent 2017, book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz explains the correlation of aggregate standardized test scores with family and community economics: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Goldstein and Fernandez report that the political fight in Texas this month is about the test scores in third grade reading: “The 2018 STAAR tests found that 58 percent of Texas third graders are not reading at grade level. On the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to a sample of fourth graders across the country, 72 percent of Texas students were not proficient in reading—a fact the state has cited as evidence that tough local standards are warranted.”

Like many other states, Texas blames the public schools.  But Goldstein and Fernandez present other factors that ought to be considered here: “More than half of the state’s public school students are Hispanic and nearly 60 percent come from low-income families.  About a fifth are still learning English.”  The state argues that’s all the more reason to set the passing cut score high and motivate schools to catch kids up quicker.

But educators and parents and some politicians in Texas are pushing back. They contend that the bar is set so high that students who are reading at grade level still score below the cut score for proficiency.  There is a lot of discussion of reading passages said to be two grade levels ahead of the students being tested and of something called Lexile measures, which involve the number of syllables in a word and are used to evaluate the difficulty of the passages on the test.

It would clear up a lot of the trouble if more people read Chapter 8, “Making Up Unrealistic Targets,” in Daniel Koretz’s book. Koretz explains that there is nothing really scientific about where “proficient” cut scores are set: “If one doesn’t look too closely, reporting what percentage of students are ‘proficient’ seems clear enough. Someone somehow determined what level of achievement we should expect at any given grade—that’s what we will call ‘proficient’—and we’re just counting how many kids have reached that point. This seeming simplicity and clarity is why almost all public discussion of test scores is now cast in terms of the percentage reaching either the proficient standard, or occasionally, another cut score… The trust most people have in performance standards is essential, because the entire educational system now revolves around them. The percentage of kids who reach the standard is the key number determining which teachers and schools will be rewarded or punished.” (The Testing Charade, pl 120)

Koretz explains that standardized test cut scores are not set scientifically. There is no scientific or even magical way of deciding exactly which reading passages every third grader must be able to decode and comprehend, and anyway, students in third grade are not consistent.  Koretz examines several methods used by panels of judges to set the “proficient” level.  He adds that the methods used by different state panels don’t arrive at the same cut scores: “The percentage of kids deemed to be ‘proficient’ sometimes varies dramatically from one method to another.” (The Testing Charade, p. 124)

Goldstein and Fernandez indicate that Texas uses the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) as its audit test by which it judges the accuracy of the way Texas sets its levels of proficiency. When the scores on the STAAR are compared to the scores on the NAEP, politicians in Texas are really concerned because NAEP shows that 72 percent of third graders in Texas are not proficient—even worse than the 58 percent who score below proficient on the STAAR.

But the matter is not as dire as it would appear. The education historian Diane Ravitch served on the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years.  Ravitch explains that the cut scores on the NAEP are set artificially high.  It is much harder to reach the proficient level than what our common understanding of the term “proficient” would lead us to expect: “‘Proficient’ on NAEP does not indicate ‘average’ performance; it is set very high… There are four levels. At the top is ‘advanced.’ Then comes ‘proficient.’ Then ‘basic.’ And last, ‘below basic.’  Advanced is truly superb performance, which is like getting an A+. Among fourth graders, 8% were advanced readers in 2011; 3% of eighth graders were advanced. In reading, these numbers have changed little in the past twenty years…   Proficient is akin to a solid A. In reading, the proportion who were proficient in fourth grade reading rose from 29% in 1992 to 34% in 2011. The proportion proficient in eighth grade also rose from 29% to 34% in those years… Basic is akin to a B or C level performance. Good but not good enough.”

The argument about what different “proficient” levels really mean is old and tired, but we can’t seem to move beyond it. Today we know that the No Child Left Behind Act was aspirational. It was supposed to motivate teachers to work harder to raise scores. Policymakers hoped that if they set the bar really high, teachers would figure out how to get kids over it. It didn’t work.  No Child Left Behind said that all children in American public schools would be proficient by 2014 or their school would be labeled failing. Finally as 2014 loomed closer, Arne Duncan had to give states waivers to avoid what was going to happen if the law had been enforced: All American public schools would have been declared “failing.”

As we continue to haggle about the cut scores by which we judge our children and their schools, however, there is one thing we almost never consider.  What if—instead of punishing the schools where scores are lower and instead of making their children drill harder and attend Saturday cram sessions—we were willing to invest more tax dollars in the lowest scoring schools?  What if we made classes smaller to make it possible for teachers to work more personally with each student?  What if we made sure that the schools in our poorest communities had well stocked libraries with certified librarians and story-hours once or even twice a week?

Koretz comes to this same conclusion, although he explains it more theoretically: “(I)t is clear that the implicit assumption undergirding the reforms is that we can dramatically reduce the variability of achievement… Unfortunately, all evidence indicates that this optimism is unfounded.  We can undoubtedly reduce variations in performance appreciably if we summoned the political will and committed the resources to do so—which would require a lot more than simply imposing requirements that educators reach arbitrary targets for test scores.” (The Testing Charade, p. 131)

Linda Darling-Hammond Disappoints in Cleveland City Club Address

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith in High Stakes Testing Fades, Even Among the Corporate School Reformers

After a recent twenty-fifth anniversary conference at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell—a Gates funded education-reformer think tank, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum summarized presentations by a number of speakers who demonstrate growing skepticism about the high-stakes, standardized testing regime that has dominated American public education for over a quarter of a century.

Because the Center on Reinventing Public Education is known as an advocate for portfolio school reform and corporate accountability, you might expect adherence to the dogma of test-and-punish, but, notes Barnum:  “The pervasiveness of the complaints about testing was striking, given that many education reform advocates have long championed using test scores to measure schools and teachers and then to push them to improve.”

Then at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology School Access and Quality Summit early this month, Paymon Rouhanifard presented a major policy address challenging the use of high stakes testing to rank and rate public schools.  Rouhanifard was until very recently Chris Christy’s appointed, school-reformer superintendent in Camden, New Jersey.  Formerly he was the director in New York City of Joel Klein’s Office of Portfolio Management.  Rouhanifard describes the belief system he brought with him to Camden and describes how his five-year tenure as Camden’s superintendent transformed his thinking: “Our belief was that politics and bureaucracy had inhibited the progress Camden students and families deserved to overcome the steep challenges the city was facing…  We believed it was important for the district to segue out of being a highly political monopoly operator of schools….  This is a story about an evolution of my own thinking during that five-year experience…. What I’m referring to are the math and literacy student achievement data we utilize to drive so many of the critical decisions we make… My realization a few years ago was that I rarely asked questions about what these tests actually told us.  What they didn’t tell us.  And perhaps most importantly, what were the specific behaviors they incentivized, and what were the general trade-offs when we acutely focus on how students do on state tests.”

In 2013, at the beginning of his tenure, Rouhanifard introduced a school report card that rated each school primarily by students’ standardized test scores. Two years ago Rouhanifard eliminated his own school report cards.  He describes his realization: “We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized.  We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education…. I… believe the drawbacks currently outweigh the benefits.  That we haven’t been honest about the trade-offs.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, like Rouhanifard, held a position in Joel Klein’s “reformer” school administration in New York City.  Now the president of Bank Street College of Education, he was formerly Klein’s former deputy schools chancellor. Barnum explains that Polakow-Suransky has become an emphatic critic of the nation’s high-stakes standardized testing regime: “The biggest barrier to student learning and closing the achievement gap is the current system of standardized tests.”

In a piece at The74, the  Thomas Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio quotes Polakow-Suransky: “All of us were well-intentioned in pushing this agenda, but the tools we developed were not effective in raising the bar on a wide scale.”

While the Thomas Fordham Institute has endorsed corporate school reform including high-stakes, test-based accountability, Fordham’s Pondiscio now acknowledges that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, U.S. public schools have become mired in an education culture defined by test-based accountability.  Though he seems unclear on the way forward, Pondiscio now advocates for serious reconsideration: “The challenge is not testing vs. not testing.  It’s not accountability vs. none.  Both bring benefits of different kinds, and both are required by a federal law that’s not going to change anytime soon.  The challenge is to develop a policy vision that supports—not thwarts—the classroom practices and long-term student outcomes we seek… The problem is the reductive culture of testing, which has come to shape and define American education, particularly in the kinds of schools attended by our most disadvantaged children.”

There are some who remain faithful to the school reformer dogma. The Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Robin Lake tries to change the subject: “We need a more productive debate about school accountability, not tired arguments over testing.” And Matt Barnum quotes Sandy Kress—still a tried-and-true believer in the No Child Left Behind regime he helped create: “Research shows clearly that accountability made a real difference in this country in narrowing the achievement gap and lifting student achievement.”

Of course, research does not clearly show that Sandy Kress’s kind of No Child Left Behind accountability made a real difference.  Here is Harvard’s Daniel Koretz, in the authoritative book he published a year ago, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.  It is perhaps this volume by an academic expert on testing that has helped change the minds of some of the corporate school reformers quoted above.  Koretz writes: “It is no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge.  Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale.  Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents.  Cheating has become widespread.  The public has been deceived into thinking that achievement has dramatically improved and that achievement gaps have narrowed.  Many students are subjected to severe stress, not only during testing but also for long periods leading up to it.  Educators have been evaluated in misleading and in some cases utterly absurd ways  Careers have been disrupted and in some cases ended.  Educators, including prominent administrators, have been indicted and even imprisoned.  The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary-school math that don’t persist until graduation.  This is true despite the many variants of test-based accountability the reformers have tried, and there is nothing on the horizon now that suggests that the net effects will be better in the future. On balance, then, the reforms have been a failure.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 191-192)

Introducing readers to Don Campbell, “one of the founders of the science of program evaluation,” Koretz defines the problems inherent in our society’s quarter century of high-stakes, test-and-punish school accountability by quoting Campbell’s Law:  “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intend to monitor.”  Campbell directly addresses the problem of high stakes testing to rank and rate schools:  “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of … achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

How has the testing regime operated perversely to undermine the schools serving our society’s most vulnerable children—the ones we were told No Child Left Behind would catch up academically if only we created incentives and punishments to motivate their teachers to work harder?  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools.  The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others.  Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do.  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 may 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)

Besides imposing unreasonable and damaging punishments on the schools and teachers serving our society’s poorest children, Koretz believes our commitment to a regime of punitive testing has distracted our society from developing the commitment to address the real needs of children and schools in places where poverty is concentrated: “We can undoubtedly reduce variations in performance appreciably, if we summoned the political will and committed the resources to do so—which would require a lot more than simply imposing requirements that educators reach arbitrary targets for test scores.” The Testing Charade, p. 131)

Fine “Washington Post” Piece Traces Collapse of Michelle Rhee’s D.C. Legacy

In January of 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, establishing a high stakes testing regime with all children tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Test-and-punish school accountability meant annual testing and also a set of punishments for so-called failing schools and their staffs. The punishments eventually put in place were closing schools, firing teachers and principals, and privatizing or charterizing schools. States were eventually required to use students’ standardized test scores as a significant percentage of their formal evaluation process for teachers. The assumption behind all this was that incentives and punishments would make educators work harder and that standardized test scores would rise and achievement gaps would close. But test scores didn’t rise and achievement gaps didn’t close.

No school district epitomized this sort of data-driven, standardized test-based school reform like Washington, D.C.  In 2007, Michelle Rhee was brought in as appointed schools chancellor by Adrian Fenty, a new mayor who was given authorization for mayoral control of the school district. Fenty and his appointed chancellor created the grand illusion of success through mayoral governance and data-driven school reform. Washington, D.C. was said to be the symbol of school district turnaround.  Now we know most of it was a mere illusion.

Last weekend, three reporters for the Washington Post collaborated to trace the history of the supposed Washington, D.C. school miracle and summarize the tragic results: “In the decade after the city dissolved its elected local school board and turned management of the schools over to the mayor, Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, created a system that demanded ever-higher accomplishments—higher test scores, higher graduation rates. They used money as an incentive: Principals and teachers were rewarded financially if they hit certain numbers. And with only weak oversight from the D.C. Council and other city education agencies—which report to the same mayor who is politically liable for the schools—there was no strong check on any impulse to gloss over shortcomings and pump up numbers. City lawmakers repeatedly boasted that the District’s schools had become the fastest-improving in the nation. Philanthropic dollars poured in… And one of the most dysfunctional school systems in America became known as a model for education reform efforts nationwide.”

Here is what the Post‘s reporters conclude: “If there is any simple truth about urban school reform, it may be this: It’s really hard. There are no miracles. The District’s scores have risen faster on national math and reading tests than anywhere else, but the improvements were driven in part by an influx of affluent families who enrolled children in the schools, helping boost scores. City officials invested billions of dollars to construct gleaming buildings, but that did not help close what remains the largest achievement gap between black and white students in a major U.S. city.”

The latest scandal, a subject this blog has previously covered, is a massive graduation rate crisis, where students in the city’s poorest high schools have been pushed toward graduation despite a pattern of chronic absence and teachers allowing students to make up work through short extra-credit assignments and superficial credit recovery programs. Now that officials have begun investigating and enforcing attendance and course completion requirements, it has become clear that the District’s graduation rate will plummet this year.

But there have been earlier warning signs.

Last weekend’s Washington Post report describes a history of practices aimed at improving the district’s appearance, if not the reality for its students:

  • “The District claimed a dramatic decline in suspensions, but a Washington Post investigation last summer showed that many city high schools were suspending students off the books, kicking students out without documentation—and in some cases even marking them present.”
  • Then there was the recent firing of the District’s newest Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, when he jumped a lottery waiting list to get his own daughter into the District’s highest scoring high school. Wilson had himself created some of the rules to tighten up on what had been a practice of letting powerful parents use their influence to secure special admissions for their own children.
  • A 2015 report by the National Research Council found that, “Eight years after Rhee’s arrival, and five years after her departure, poor and minority students were still far less likely to have an effective teacher in their classroom and perform at grade level.  Achievement gaps were as wide as ever.  About 60 percent of poor black students were below proficient in math and reading and had made only marginal gains since the changes were made.”
  • The reporters gloss over a significant cheating scandal under Michelle Rhee; it was difficult for reporters to conclusively document it because Rhee herself controlled the investigation.  The retired PBS reporter, John Merrow has amassed the evidence, however.

The Washington, D.C. public schools have been the nation’s poster child for the idea that schools themselves can change the trajectory of children’s lives, and that test scores are the mark of a school’s success or failure.  In his new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz demonstrates the problem with that assumption:

“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. 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… (T)his decision backfired. The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (pp. 129-134)

Challenging another of Michelle Rhee’s assumptions—the one about driving school reform through punishment, firing, and merit bonuses— Daniel Koretz attributes the kind of deception that has happened in Washington, D.C. to a well-known principle in the social sciences:  “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” (p. 38)

Michelle Rhee set up a system in which educators were incentivized almost exclusively through carrots and sticks to meet ever rising demands. Rhee created a teacher evaluation process that either rewarded or fired teachers and principals according to the test score and graduation rate increases they produced.  Last weekend’s Washington Post evaluation of the past decade’s D.C. school reform depicts the details of the kind of pressure that Rhee and her successors have put on the District’s educators: “The District’s teachers are among the highest paid in the nation and can earn merit bonuses. In exchange, they also are more vulnerable to losing their jobs than teachers just about anywhere else.  Since 2007, hundreds have been fired.  Dozens of schools have been closed.  Other struggling schools have been ‘reconstituted,’ meaning everyone had to reapply for their jobs and many were not rehired.”  The reporters describe the annual “goal meeting” every principal was required attend. Each year principals, meeting with their own superiors, were forced to promise they and their teachers would meet goals set by higher-ups, goals that leaders at individual schools knew were not realistic. “The focus on data carried the promise of a scientific approach to improvement.  But it came with fierce pressure to produce gains that critics said failed to take into account the influences on a child’s life outside of school.”

In Washington, D.C., each school’s accomplishments in raising test scores and each high school’s progress in raising graduation rates have been tracked by data. Merit bonuses have been tied to records of raising scores and raising graduation rates, but principals and teachers have been fired if they couldn’t raise test scores and graduation rates.  People under pressure found ways to meet the targets.

Now, as the Washington Post reporters conclude: “The revelations—coupled with the resignation of the chancellor after his own personal scandal and separately, allegations of enrollment fraud at one of the city’s most sought-after selective high schools—have shattered the simple narrative of success. Now, there is a groundswell of skepticism among parents, taxpayers and elected officials who are questioning how much of the touted progress is real.  It is the most prominent surge of such skepticism since 2008, when Rhee appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a broom to sweep away the old culture of failure and low expectations.”  Many are now questioning the wisdom of mayoral control of schools, a system that lacks the checks and balances provided by an elected school board.

Public Schools Alliance Releases One Year Report Card for DeVos: She Gets an F

Did you remember that today is Betsy DeVos’s first anniversary as U.S. Secretary of Education? One year ago, on February 7, 2017, the U.S. Senate confirmed DeVos’s nomination by the barest margin. Mike Pence, the Vice President, had to be brought in to cast the deciding vote.

Today, in honor of DeVos’s first anniversary as Education Secretary, a coalition of education, civil rights, labor, religious, and community organizing groups—the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools grades DeVos on the quality of her work to implement the K-12, public schools mission of the U.S. Department of Education.

Here is how the Alliance defines its rubric for evaluating DeVos’s performance: “To assess the Secretary’s leadership, we reviewed the U.S. Department of Education’s mission and purpose statements and identified four specific roles in public K12 education on which to review her work…

  • “Supplementing state and local resources for schools and districts, particularly those serving low-income students and students of color…
  • “Ensuring access and equity in public schools for all students…
  • “Protecting students’ civil rights…
  • “Promoting evidence-based strategies for school improvement.”

Overall, the Alliance comments: “We give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos an “F” for failing to pursue the mission of the U.S. Department of Education.” “In each area, it is clear that the Secretary, far from leading the agency to fulfill its mission, is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. This is not based on incompetence, but on a fundamental disdain for the historic role of the federal government in ensuring access and equity to public education for all children.” “In her first year at the Department, DeVos has proven to be disinterested in, or actually hostile to her agency’s mission. Instead of taking steps to strengthen public schools, and to ensure equity and access, she has proposed slashing budgets. Instead of fighting to protect students, she has hamstrung her own Office for Civil Rights’ ability to conduct thorough investigations of claims of discrimination and has eliminated scores of civil rights regulations. Instead of promoting what works, she has declared her allegiance to one thing only: privatization.”  In the Alliance’s statement, the details explain how DeVos has undermined the Department’s capacity to carry out its mission in each of the four areas.

Identifying the one most urgent concern for our nation’s children and for the public schools that serve them, the Alliance comments specifically on DeVos’s failure to ensure that the Department addresses wide disparities in the opportunity to learn for poor children and especially children of color.  Title I, the Department’s oldest and largest program, was designed in 1965 to address the needs of vulnerable children and their schools; DeVos has ignored the need to strengthen Title I.  The Alliance addresses Title I not as a single issue, but speaks to the principles that were the foundation for the original 1965 federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act:

“Public schools are the vehicle through which we guarantee all children a free education from kindergarten through 12th grade. In our collective interest, we promise that poor children and rich children, students with disabilities, students of color, immigrant and non-immigrant will have access to an equitable, quality public education, paid for by taxpayers and controlled by local communities.  Yet across the country, we continue to invest more in schools serving white children than in schools serving African American and Latino children. And as the number of students living in poverty has risen in the U.S., state and local funding for public education has decreased in the past decade, deepening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Two critical and historic roles of the U.S. Department of Education are to address these disparities, and protect students from discrimination in their educational experience.  But over the past year, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has deliberately refused to fulfill this mandate.”

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is a coalition of the following national organizations: Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, American Federation of Teachers, Center for Poplar Democracy, Gamaliel Network, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, NYU Metro Center, People’s Action, Service Employees International Union, and Schott Foundation for Public Education.

On this first anniversary of DeVos’s confirmation, please read the Alliance’s very thoughtful assessment of DeVos’s work and the condition today of the U.S. Department of Education.