Cuomo Taps Bill Gates as NY’s New Education Consultant. Sadly, the Times Are Not a Changing

Bill Gates seems to have become this spring’s go-to gazillionaire.  Over the years his foundation has undertaken to fund medical work in Africa and public school policy and governance experiments across the United States.  And so… soon after the coronavirus pandemic reached American shores, Judy Woodruff had Bill Gates on the PBS NewsHour as an expert on world health. And now New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo has announced a partnership with Gates and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine” New York state’s public schools after the pandemic.

Fortunately, for covering the medical issues in the pandemic, Woodruff quickly replaced Gates with Dr. Anthony Fauci,  Dr. Ashish Jha from Harvard University’ Global Health Institute, and a host of other epidemiologists who really are experts. Big foundation people do fund work by experts, but they are not themselves usually the experts.

Isn’t it ironic? These days we are honoring nurses, ambulance drivers, foodbank workers, and teachers as heroes, but when we want advice we feel compelled to seek the guidance of celebrities like Bill Gates, especially if they have made billions of dollars in the tech industry. We like to assume that extremely successful people know how to be successful. And we admire billionaire philanthropists as successes. They have, after all, made a lot of money.

But the Gates Foundation’s record in public education exposes Gates and the so-called experts at his foundation as not really expert at all. What we have instead is a list of failed experiments. The record of Gates and Gates Foundation investment in education is dismal.

  • In 2007, the Gates Foundation funded The Turnaround Challenge, a guide for “quickly and dramatically” improving test cores in America’s “worst performing schools.”  The report and its guidance focused school reformers obsessively on test scores and promoted the idea that schools can be rapidly turned around with the help of consultants and experts.  But rapid school turnaround didn’t work; very few struggling schools on their own, it turns out, have been able rapidly to raise students’ test scores. Unfortunately, we now know that schools alone are unlikely to overcome the ravages of concentrated family poverty. Other reforms such as Community Schools with wraparound social and medical services are more likely to help.
  • The Gates Foundation has also promoted a theory called “portfolio school reform.” an idea developed by a Gates Foundation funded think tank, the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.  Manage your school district like a stock portfolio: keep investing in your best prospects—whether they are traditional public schools or charter schools—and shed the low scoring schools, the bad investments. Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 was the prime example. Eve Ewing, a sociologist, and the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research tracked the results: the closure of 50 schools in 2013, most of them in African American communities on the impoverished South and West Sides. Students did not do any better overall in the schools to which they were transferred, and students, teachers and whole communities are grieving for the loss of the public schools that anchored their neighborhoods.
  • Bill Gates himself made enormous financial political contributions to the campaign in Washington State that finally, after several tries, passed a referendum to enable the startup of charter schools in that state.
  • Two decades ago, the Gates Foundation launched an effort to make grants to school districts which agreed to break large comprehensive high schools into small schools, all sharing the original high school building. The idea was to develop more personal connections among smaller groups of students and faculty. But in 2009, the Gates Foundation admitted that the idea didn’t work and abandoned the project.  The smaller schools had made it harder for school districts to provide access for every student to enriched curriculum, reduced students’ access to elective classes of special interest to them, and proven enormously expensive when each small school required its own administrators.  School districts which had tried small schools were left to dismantle this experiment on their own.
  • In 2009, the Gates Foundation paid for the development of the Common Core. This helped out Arne Duncan, who had required that, even to qualify to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states must adopt uniform standards. Actually the federal government is not permitted to mandate curriculum (a state-by-state responsibility), but the Gates Foundation stepped in to create the standards which states were free to adopt. After states adopted the Common Core and the standardized tests with which the Common Core was paired, the effort slowly fizzled.  Outcomes did not improve, and states continue to drop the Common Core.
  • The Gates Foundation also collaborated with Arne Duncan’s demand that, as a qualification to apply for a Race to the Top grant or to get a No Child Left Behind Waiver, states promise to evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores.  The Gates Foundation also promoted the idea of offering financial incentives to the best teachers. The American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association both rejected the validity and reliability of the Value Added Measures that were used in the teacher evaluations and everyone now agrees that rating teachers by their students’ test scores is unfair and inaccurate.  Gates even abandoned the experiment with incentive pay for high scoring teachers in 2018, but the pilot school districts, which had themselves been required to invest millions of school district dollars into the experiment, were left holding the bag.  In Hillsborough County, Florida, Gates even withheld a promised $20 million after the Foundation discovered the performance bonus experiment didn’t work.

On Saturday, after after considerable criticism of Cuomo’s choice of Bill Gates to advise New York on reimagining its schools, the governor announced a “Reimagine Education” Advisory Council, but it isn’t made up of teachers from  across the state of New York. Among the Council’s 20 members there are two school superintendents, two teachers, and one parent along with six college presidents and people from agencies with some connection to education. If this were really a serious panel to deliberate about how to reopen schools, I would have hoped for the inclusion of school principals who know first hand the challenges at their schools along with some faculty members from the state’s many universities with colleges of education. And, most important, I would have hoped to see teachers who know and understand the developmental needs of young children, and teachers from across the state’s elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.

CNN recently featured some guidance from two New Yorkers, one of them an educator: Michael Hynes, a former teacher and currently the Superintendent of the Port Washington Public Schools and William Doyle, a New York City parent and education writer. Here are the principles they believe must be foundational when schools reopen:

  • “Schools should follow pediatric medical guidelines when schools reopen.”  The American Academy of Pediatrics says it is “critical to maintain a balanced curriculum with continued physical education and other learning experiences rather than an exclusive emphasis on core subject areas.”  New York’s “reimagined” schools should include physical activity, play, the arts and recess.
  • “Technology should be put in its proper place… As the American Academy of Pediatrics puts it, distance learning ‘is not generally believed to replicate the in-person learning experience.'”
  • “Student and teacher well-being is critical to learning.”  “According to the recent ‘Framework for Opening Schools’ report jointly issued by UNICEF, the World Bank, UNESCO, and the World Food Programme, reducing class sizes, increasing mental health services and focusing on the well-being of students and educators should be all part of the reopening process.”
  • “Public education ‘is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.’ These are the words of the United States Supreme Court in its historic 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision…”
  • “Teachers should be respected and supported as elite professionals…. but for years they have been shackled by bureaucracy, overwork, inept political interference and micromanagement. We should free educators to do their best work….”

Governor Cuomo, however, is bringing in Bill Gates. Cuomo must be a believer in outside consultants, and bringing in Bill Gates as the consultant does have one tangible benefit: Bill Gates will be cheaper than most consultants. Gates has said that the state will not need to pay the Gates Foundation for its work in New York. After all, paying for consultants was another of Gates’ initiatives.  In 2009, when Arne Duncan announced the Race to the Top federal grant competition, the Gates Foundation helped out the states by paying for consultants to write the grant proposals. Each state that wanted to apply got a quarter of a million dollars—that’s right, $250,000—to pay consultants to write the grant proposals.

My dream is that instead of offering advice, Bill Gates would do something really radical: offer to help Governor Cuomo, governors across the states, and school districts across the U.S. avoid laying off teachers in the midst of the upcoming recession. The problem right now is that as businesses have been shuttered and workers laid off, tax receipts that pay for public schools have begun to collapse.

Bill Gates and his philanthropic partners—the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, Laurene Powell Jobs and her Emerson Collective, the Waltons, Eli Broad, Jeff Bezos, John Arnold, Reed Hastings, Dick and Betsy DeVos, Jeb Bush, and Michael Bloomberg—have been investing for two decades in disruptive, test-based school accountability and the expansion of charter schools and vouchers. While their individual school reform priorities may differ a bit, all of these philanthropists have been investing one way or another in redesigning the public schools or replacing them with privatized alternatives.  In the third chapter of her new book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch identifies the various projects of this group of very rich public school “Disrupters.”  Many of these philanthropists have pledged to spend down their billions doing good works during their lifetimes.

Bill Gates could redeem himself for the Gates Foundation’s long record of failed educational experiments if he were to convince his philanthropic partners (and others) to throw all their money this year behind what would be the most important school reform in the midst of the collapse of state tax revenue: keeping class sizes small as students and their teachers return to school.  It would be enormously expensive but at the same time urgently important: prevent school districts from having to lay off teachers as their state aid declines. And restoring reasonable class sizes would be even more expensive in school districts where class size has already swelled in the past decade as state’s educational investment dropped following the 2008 recession and as a growing number of charter schools and vouchers sucked tax dollars out of their school districts. These are the places—across Oklahoma, in Oakland and Los Angeles—where teachers have struck to demand that students no longer regularly find themselves in classes of 40 students. Let these philanthropists spend down their foundations’ money right now while it is desperately needed. Reducing class size is the most important and the most expensive kind of school reform, because it means hiring enough teachers across the 98,158 public schools in the U.S.

Of course, philanthropic dollars would soon run out.  Across the United States after the immediate crisis, it would then be up to the rest of us.  Would we be willing to pay enough taxes to sustain small classes where teachers have the luxury of really learning to know and support every student?  And could the same celebrity philanthropists help build the political will across states to sustain such an investment—especially in urban communities where poverty is concentrated and students’ needs are greatest?

Cleveland Plain Dealer Cuts Experienced Education Reporter and Eliminates Full Time Education Beat

Late Friday afternoon, Advance Publications, the corporation that owns the Cleveland Plain Dealer, along with the separate newsroom at the cleveland.com website, finished purging the experienced beat reporters at the Plain Dealer. Patrick O’Donnell, the newspaper’s longtime education reporter, was one victim of the mass action. His loss will leave education policy, central to O’Donnell’s beat, to be covered by cleveland.com‘s statehouse reporters if education policy, primarily a children’s issue, rises to a level that will attract their attention.

Here is what has happened to the Plain Dealer in the past week.

The reporters at the Plain Dealer have long been unionized; the reporters at cleveland.com are non-unionized and less experienced. Everyone agrees that Advance Media used the pandemic-driven decline in advertising revenue as an excuse to break the union.

Covering this week’s staff reductions at the Plain Dealer as part of an article about the implications of the pandemic-driven collapse in advertising revenue across America’s newspapers, the NY TimesMark Tracy makes a careful distinction for Cleveland.  He points out:  “The near-collapse of this venerable Cleveland daily, owned by Advance Publications, coincided with the economic downturn.”  (Emphasis mine.)

The Cleveland Scene‘s Vince Grzegorek describes the two week purge at the Plain Dealer: “Fourteen Plain Dealer journalists were left after last Friday’s massive layoffs that saw 22 staffers depart. Those who remained were subjected, on the very next business day, to the cruelest and perhaps final installment of local union-busting by Advance Publications and the Newhouse family. They were told… that they could keep their jobs but not their beats, or even their geographic coverage areas. They would be dispatched to cover the hinterlands of Cleveland, not Cleveland itself.  Should they remain they would serve as a bureau covering Cuyahoga’s surrounding counties, but not Cuyahoga itself, and not so much of those counties that the news could be considered statewide in importance.”

After 10 reporters resigned on Friday, an editor brought in two weeks ago to accomplish the staff reductions, Tim Warsinskey spun the story: “Today, 10 of our reporters and photographers made the decision to voluntarily ask to be laid off. This comes a week after we regretfully parted ways with some (22) talented journalists… Over the years in any newsroom, there are waves of personnel changes. Folks who cover beats for decades move on. New and sometimes younger journalists step in and usually wind up surprising us all. ”

In a statement late Friday afternoon, the Plain Dealer News Guild contradicted the new editor’s spin: “Tim Warsinskey… said the 10 journalists leaving today made voluntary decisions to be laid off. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It was the Plain Dealer who decided to lay off these union workers.  The Plain Dealer and its out-of-state owners put dedicated and seasoned journalists in an impossible situation earlier this week in a blatant attempt to embarrass them by banning most of them from reporting on Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the state.  For many, that meant being kept from covering the topics they know best and in many cases are regarded locally and nationally as experts.”

Here’s why the loss of education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell, will matter to Northeast Ohio.

In 2016, Cleveland’s alternative paper, the Cleveland Scene named Patrick O’Donnell as that year’s best Cleveland news reporter: “O’Donnell has guided Clevelanders through the data-rigging by state superintendent Richard Ross of low-performing online charter schools. He’s also kept CMSD (Cleveland Municipal School District) CEO Eric Gordon on his toes, reporting on the botched collection of E-rate rebates. He’s a crisp, prolific writer and a dogged reporter. And, much like the PD’s Brie Zeltner and Rachel Dissell, who reported on lead poisoning, and Michelle Jarboe, who reports on real estate, O’Donnell represents the value of hard-hitting, in-depth beat reporting…”  (All of these reporters have now been purged from the Plain Dealer newsroom.)

O’Donnell has kept readers in Northeast Ohio well-informed about the fraught policy environment for the state’s public schools over recent decades when Ohio’s Republican-majority legislatures have expanded charter schools, instituted five different statewide voucher programs, and pursued standards-based, test-and-punish school accountability.

O’Donnell doggedly tracked the 18 year, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow scandal in which William Lager scammed the state by more than $1 billion by extravagantly inflating the enrollment numbers at his online school. O’Donnell drove a hundred miles to Toledo in January of 2018 to the meeting where ECOT’s sponsor, The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West formally shut down the school.  O’Donnell broke the story before any other reporter tracked down the news.

And in the months after the notorious ECOT was shut down, O’Donnell covered the legal efforts by the state to recover some of the money.  He described, for example, an Ohio Supreme Court hearing in which the state charged that masses of so-called ECOT students were never logging in to the school’s website. ECOT’s attorney Marion Little “claimed that it should be paid by its enrollment, not by how long students spend in their online classes… Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor had pressed Little, after he argued that state law requires the school to be paid regardless of how little time students spend online. ‘How is that not absurd?’ O’Connor asked.”

In 2014, economist Margaret (Macke) Raymond, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and wife of prominent, far-right economist Eric Hanushek, stunned the audience at the Cleveland City Club by confessing that marketplace choice doesn’t really work in education, O’Donnell was there to cover it: “Her reasons for why states need to exert more control raised a few eyebrows. A self-described supporter of free markets, Raymond said a totally free market is not appropriate for schools. ‘It’s the only industry/sector where the market doesn’t work…Parent’s can’t be agents of qualify assurance.'”

In June of 2015, O’Donnell punctured Ohio’s claim that the state was cracking down on some of its charter school sponsoring agencies, which had been known for years for their lax oversight: “It turns out that Ohio’s grand plan to stop the national ridicule of its charter school system is giving overseers of many of the lowest-performing schools a pass from taking heat for some of their worst problems.”

Later that summer, he extensively covered the Legislature’s surreptitious takeover of the Youngstown City Schools, a move made without hearings in the middle of the night.  O’Donnell has also exposed the Plain Dealer‘s readers to research demonstrating that the theory of school district failure—on which the state takeovers are based—is itself flawed: “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase.”

And in the past two months, as the Ohio Legislature has refused to address the secretive expansion in last summer’s budget bill of EdChoice, a private school tuition voucher program, O’Donnell has reported on the confusing implications as school districts are being forced to pass school levies just to pay for private school vouchers.  EdChoice vouchers are funded not by the state but instead out of local school district budgets. As the pandemic shut down the state and legislators determined merely to freeze the program, as it is currently operating, for another year, O’Donnell explained:  “For public school teachers, school boards and school officials, keeping the status quo on vouchers continues a drain on school district budgets… School districts… which saw a large increase in voucher use this school year, will have no relief….Their costs could even increase….”

It is devastating when a newspaper rids itself of a reporter like Patrick O’Donnell, whose background includes in-depth knowledge about complex public policy. And it isn’t just the purging of a more expensive unionized reporter. The Plain Dealer, it appears, is entirely eliminating education as a specialized beat. The change will leave Northeast Ohio less informed. Education policy is nuanced and politically fraught. Expert and experienced education reporters matter.

Bloomberg Defends His NYC Education Legacy: Here is What He Neglects to Mention

In Tuesday night’s debate, Mike Bloomberg defended his education legacy in New York City.  He was the city’s mayor, and the state-appointed leader of the city’s schools for over a decade from 2002 until 2013.  In Tuesday’s debate, he repeated his support for charter schools—and by extension the imposition of universal high school choice across NYC’s enormous school district, serving 1.1 million students.

One of NYC’s best known public school advocates, Leonie Haimson explains, “When I heard that he was running for president, it felt like the return of a bad dream.” Haimson personally lived through the decade when Bloomberg brought technocratic, corporate style disruption and marketplace policy to the NYC schools. She watched the process from the inside.  But even from far away, I will never forget learning about Bloomberg’s radical experiment: Bloomberg obliterated the city’s institutional infrastructure of regional and neighborhood high schools. Although overall the high school graduation rate rose, the high school closures, intensifying racial and economic segregation, and the school choice disruption undermined the whole endeavor. And once such an experiment is launched there is no going back.

At a Children’s Defense Fund conference eight or nine years ago, I found myself eating lunch with several NYC middle school guidance counselors, who described the impossible task of trying to help dozens of eighth graders—middle school students without any experience outside of their immediate neighborhoods—sort through a telephone book-sized high school choice guidebook to look for the best high school fit. These counselors told me that they believed NYC high school choice had been, in reality, designed to favor the children of savvy parents who knew how to get their children on the right track beginning in Kindergarten. These counselors were exhausted, overwhelmed, and worried about the effect on vulnerable thirteen-year-olds of losing a stacked school choice competition. They suspected that the new high school choice plan would prove to NYC’s poorest young people that they are losers who can’t possibly triumph.

The counselors told me they were trying to help students choose among schools and programs with which the counselors had no familiarity. Fourteen years into the program, in a 2017 NY Times‘ report, Elizabeth Harris and Ford Fessenden looked back at the challenge these guidance counselors had been trying to describe to me—“the flood of 80,000 eighth graders applying for the city’s public high schools. The field on which they compete is enormous: They have to choose from 439 schools that are further broken up into 775 programs. One program may admit students based on where they live, while another program at the same school may admit only those with strong grades… Rare is a 13-year-old equipped to handle the selection process alone.”  And students did not control the final placement. After they listed their top choices, an algorithm determined what was supposedly the best fit and made the assignment.

Harris and Fessenden describe how NYC high school choice was supposed to work, and contrast the theory with what really happened: “Under a system created during Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, eighth graders can apply anywhere in the city, in theory unshackling themselves from failing, segregated neighborhood schools. Students select up to 12 schools and get matched to one by a special algorithm. This process was part of a package of Bloomberg-era reforms intended to improve education in the city and diminish entrenched inequities… But school choice has not delivered on a central promise: to give every student a real chance to attend a good school. Fourteen years into the system, black and Hispanic students are just as isolated in segregated high schools as they are in elementary schools…. Within the system, there is a hierarchy of schools, each with different admission requirements—a one-day high-stakes test, auditions, open houses. And getting into the best schools where almost all students graduate and are ready to attend college, often requires top scores on the state’s annual math and English tests and a high grade point average.  Those admitted to these most successful schools remain disproportionately middle class and white or Asian…. At the same time, low-income black or Hispanic children… are routinely shunted into schools with graduation rates 20 or more percentage points lower… Students in competitive middle schools and gifted programs carry advantages into the application season, with better academic preparation and stronger test scores. Living in certain areas still comes with access to sought-after schools. And children across the city compete directly against one another regardless of their circumstances, without controls for factors like socioeconomic status.”

Harris and Fessenden continue: “There are some great options for the families best equipped to navigate the application process. But there are not enough good choices for everyone, so every year thousands of children, including some very good students, end up in mediocre high schools, or worse… (I)n practice, children who grow up in neighborhoods with low-performing elementary schools tend to go to low-performing middle schools, then on to high schools with low graduation rates and even lower college-readiness rates… An analysis by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that half of all students who got top scores on state tests came from just 45 middle schools out of more than 500. And 60 percent of the students who went to specialized high schools came from those same 45 schools.  None of those middle schools are in the Bronx.”

Bloomberg broke up the comprehensive high schools across the city into small high school programs and charter schools co-located into the old high school buildings, but the new smaller schools did not all offer a comprehensive curriculum. In a 2015 report for the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, Clara Hemphill, Nicole Mader and Bruce Cory explain: “While the graduation rate has steadily increased over the past decade, the proportion of students receiving an Advanced Regents diploma—one commonly used measure of college readiness—has stagnated… Today 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry. More than half of the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science… Roughly 21 percent of New York City high school students attend schools that don’t offer courses in both chemistry and physics. Many of these are the new small high schools that proliferated during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg… (Three years of science is a graduation requirement in all city high schools. Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet that requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, ‘living environment’—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.) The result is an intense bifurcation of the city’s public high school system…. Looking at statistics from August 2014, the Center for New York City Affairs found that 48 percent of the New York City public high school students receiving Advanced Regents diplomas are clustered in just 25 schools. At 100 other schools, on the other hand, not a single student received an Advanced Regents diploma.”

This blog has recently covered Mike Bloomberg’s disruptive school reforms in New York City here and here. Why so much concern before Bloomberg, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, competes in Super Tuesday Democratic presidential primary races?  I suppose my intense concern reflects the moral flaw in the scheme Bloomberg introduced into NYC’s public schools. The Rev. Jesse Jackson named the problem with school choice competitions: Competitions always create losers as well as winners, and the losers of school choice arrangements are almost always poor children of color.  At a 2011 Schott Foundation for Public Education town hall, the Rev. Jackson declared: “There are those who make the case for a race to the top for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody. ”

We need to continue improving access and opportunity in the public schools, for no set of institutions can possibly be utopian. In contrast to neoliberal, disruptive plans featuring the closure of comprehensive high schools, school choice and charter school expansion, however, a system of traditional public schools provides the best chance of balancing the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.

Elizabeth Warren Releases Strong, Comprehensive Public Education Plan

The education plan Elizabeth Warren released on Monday is urgently important. Today, I am not going to focus on the math—whether Warren’s plan can be funded by the wealth tax she has also proposed. Neither am I going to speculate about whether, politically, she might be able to get Congress—and in the case of some of her proposals, the fifty state legislatures—to enact her ideas.

The paper she published on Monday matters, I believe, for a very different reason. Warren articulates a set of principles that turn away from three decades of neoliberal, corporate school reform—the idea, according to The American Prospect‘s Robert Kuttner, that “free markets really do work best… that government is inherently incompetent… and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market.”  Competition is at the heart of the system, all based on high-stakes tests, and punishments for the schools whose scores fall behind.

In her education plan, Warren endorses the civic and democratic principles which, from the nineteenth century until the late 1980s, defined our nation’s commitment to a comprehensive system of public education. Her plan incorporates the idea that while public schools are not perfect, they are the optimal way for our complex society to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures, by law, the rights and addresses the needs of all children. And she acknowledges the massive scale of the public commitment required to maintain an equitable education system that fairly serves approximately 50 million children and adolescents across cities and towns and sparsely populated rural areas.

I urge you to read Elizabeth Warren’s education plan.  Here I will highlight what I believe are her most important suggestions for overcoming the bipartisan, neoliberal, corporate reform agenda, formalized in 2002 in the No Child Left Behind Act, but dominating policy for more than a decade before that. Corporate education reform has driven federal policy in education during five recent administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump.

Warren emphatically demands that school privatization and the corruption that has accompanied the expansion of vouchers and charters be stopped.  This is an improvement from the position Warren advocated fifteen years ago. The NY TimesDana Goldstein reminds readers that in a book she published in 2003, Warren suggested a universal voucher program to expand choices for parents, but in recent years, Goldstein points out, Warren seems to have paid more attention to the impact on public schools of the expansion of school choice: “(I)n 2016, Ms. Warren, then in her first term as a senator from Massachusetts, spoke out against a ballot referendum that would have raised the cap on the number of charters that could open each year in her home state.”

In the plan she released on Monday, Warren begins the section on school privatization by condemning the ways charter schools and vouchers damage public schools: “To keep our traditional public school systems strong, we must resist efforts to divert public funds out of traditional public schools. Efforts to expand the footprint of charter schools, often without even ensuring that charters are subject to the same transparency requirements and safeguards as traditional public schools, strain the resources of school districts and leave students behind, primarily students of color… More than half the states allow public schools to be run by for-profit companies, and corporations are leveraging their market power and schools’ desire to keep pace with rapidly changing technology to extract profits at the expense of vulnerable students. This is wrong. We have a responsibility to provide great neighborhood schools for every student. We should stop the diversion of public dollars from traditional public schools through vouchers or tuition tax credits—which are vouchers by another name. We should fight back against the privatization, corporatization, and profiteering in our nation’s schools.”

Warren names the reforms needed to rein in school privatization:

  • She is the only candidate so far who explicitly advocates ending the federal Charter Schools Program, which has used tax dollars as a sort of venture capital fund to stimulate the expansion of charter schools with grants to states and charter management companies. Her declaration is emphatic: “End federal funding for the expansion of charter schools: The Federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), a series of federal grants established to promote new charter schools, has been an abject failure… As President, I would eliminate this charter school program and end federal funding for the expansion of charter schools.”
  • Like other candidates, Warren proposes to ban for-profit charter schools, but she goes farther by opposing all the arrangements by which nonprofit charter schools are now, quite legally, managed by huge for-profit ventures: “Ban for-profit charter schools: Our public schools should benefit students, not the financial or ideological interests of wealthy patrons like the DeVos and Walton families. I will fight to ban for-profit charter schools and charter schools that outsource their operations to for-profit companies… Many so-called nonprofit schools—including charter schools—operate alongside closely held, for-profit service providers. Others are run by for-profit companies that siphon off profits from students and taxpayers… (M)y plan would ban self-dealing in nonprofit schools to prevent founders and administrators from funneling resources to service providers owned or managed by their family members.”

In her new plan, Warren also addresses the funding crisis in the public schools which serve our nation’s poorest children. She begins by acknowledging the efforts of schoolteachers—on strike this year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Los Angeles to Oakland and ongoing right now in Chicago—to call attention to their underfunded schools that cannot afford to provide the basics that more privileged American public school students take for granted: “(O)ur country’s educators have taken matters into their own hands—not only in the classroom, but also in the fight for the future of our country. Teachers have been battling for public investment over privatization, and for shared prosperity over concentrated wealth and power. Educators… across the country have carried the #RedforEd movement from the streets to state capitol buildings, striking not just to get the compensation they deserve, but to condemn the diversion of funding from public schools to private ones, to increase funding to reduce class sizes and improve their schools, and to expand services that will make their students’ lives safer and more stable.”

Warren’s proposals for school funding equity are extensive.

  • Warren would quadruple the federal investment in Title I to better support public school serving children in poverty.  And, in contrast to programs like Race to the Top which incentivized the expansion of charter schools, Warren would offer federal funding incentives to states if they would make their own school funding formulas more equitable.
  • She would federally fund 40 percent of the cost for school districts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Education Act. That is what Congress promised in 1975 when the law was passed. Last year, writes Warren, Congress funded the law at a paltry 15 percent.
  • Warren endorses the goal of making 25,000 public schools into full-service, wraparound Community Schools by 2030. “Community Schools are the hubs of their community. Through school coordinators, they connect students and families with community partners to provide opportunities, support, and services inside and outside the school. These schools center around wraparound services,” incorporate medical and social services, and provide expanded learning time and after school programs.
  • She commits to expanding the capacity of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to ensure that all students are treated fairly under the law.  She also commits to providing federal funding for the kind of magnet school and transportation programs which three decades ago enabled school districts to voluntarily integrate, both racially and economically.
  • Warren commits to strengthening public school programs for the 10 percent of American students who are English language learners, to ensuring that the needs of immigrant students are fully addressed, and to supporting American Indian students in public schools.

As part of a section of the report devoted to, “providing a warm, safe, and nurturing school climate for all our kids,” Warren buries one of her most important principles: “As President, I’ll push to prohibit the use of standardized testing as a primary or significant factor in closing a school, firing a teacher, or making any other high-stakes decisions, and encourage schools to use authentic assessments that allow students to demonstrate learning in multiple ways.”

It is difficult to imagine how Warren would accomplish this goal, because high-stakes testing as the measure for school quality is, thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, embedded to varying degrees in the fifty state laws. It is, however, refreshing to have a Presidential candidate strongly advocate for eliminating high stakes testing as the way we evaluate schools and schoolteachers across the United States. Half a century of academic research, most recently culminating in a new study by Stanford University professor, Sean Reardon, has demonstrated that a school’s or school district’s standardized test scores do not measure the quality of a school or the teachers in a school.  Instead standardized test scores correlate almost perfectly with the median income of families in the school or district. No Child Left Behind mandated that all public school children be tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school, that their scores be used to judge their schools, and that the schools unable quickly to raise scores be punished.  Race to the Top then demanded that states tie teachers’ evaluations to the same test scores. Although the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, eased some of this, a test-and-punish regime based on mandated high-stakes testing still drives school accountability across the United States.

Warren is proposing to turn around decades of policy that punishes public schools and the nation’s poorest students and their teachers. None of the other Democratic candidates for President has released such a comprehensive plan. I hope the release of Warren’s new plan will stimulate discussion of these issues among Democrats running for President.  In the debates so far, none of the moderators has asked the candidates about their policies regarding  public education.  It’s time for some serious conversation about the public schools.

(This blog recently named seven important principles candidates for President ought to embrace to address the many ways charter schools damage our public schools.)

When Traditional Public School Educators Set Public Policy and Speak for Public Schools, It Makes a Difference

If you are a proponent of the Jeb Bush-“Chiefs for Change” model of corporate school reform, you conceptualize school governance in terms of tough management overriding the interests of local educators who are said to be unable to handle the inevitable and often competing pressures within a community.  In its formula for state takeover of low-scoring school districts, Chiefs for Change prescribes: “unflinching” appointed leadership; the appointed leader’s absolute autonomy to control staffing, teachers, and school culture; the appointed leader’s capacity to demand and get results or fire staff; and the appointment of an “unbiased” third-party consultant “external to the school system.”

Traditional educators understand the role of public schools very differently. Working with a community and building collaboration are skills practiced by traditional school administrators.  Last Thursday, for example, the PBS NewsHour‘s Jeffrey Brown interviewed Tony McGee, the school superintendent in Mississippi’s Scott County Public Schools when Brown wanted to learn about the how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids had affected families and children in Scott County.  Superintendent McGee told Brown: “We had approximately 154 students across our district, mainly Hispanic and Latino… that were absent from school today.  And so we have started reaching out to those families to find out about boys and girls—where they’re at or how they’re doing—just making sure that they know school is a safe place for them—it can be a safe harbor for boys and girls—and that we’re here to care for those kids… We have a lot of organizations in Scott County that are deeply rooted into the Hispanic community. And so they came to lend support to our school people… and making sure that everybody felt safe… On our end, especially in the community and the school, we had no prior knowledge. And so it was—it was pretty—pretty shocking. It was really a tough day emotionally for our educators and students and families.”

There is an ongoing battle of values and language that shapes the way we think about and talk about education.  The current threats across several states of state takeover of school districts are perhaps the best example of this conflict.  According to the Chiefs for Change model, the school district in Providence has recently been taken over by the state of Rhode Island.  Texas now threatens to take over the public schools in Houston. In Ohio, four years of state takeover has created chaos in Lorain and dissatisfaction in Youngstown.  East Cleveland is now in the process of being taken over, and the Legislature has instituted a one-year moratorium while lawmakers figure out whether to proceed with threatened takeovers of the public school districts in Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill.

Among the most painful situations this summer is the threatened closure of the high school or the state takeover of the school district in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a segregated African American community and one of the poorest in the state.  Michigan has actively expanded school choice with charter schools and an inter-district open enrollment program in which students carry away their school funding. The statewide expansion of charters and inter-district school choice has undermined the most vulnerable school districts and triggered a number of state takeover actions.  Michigan State University’s David Arnsen explains: “In Michigan, all the money moves with the students. So it doesn’t take account of the impact on the districts and students who are not active choosers… When the child leaves, all the state and local funding moves with that student. The revenue moves immediately and that drops faster than the costs… In every case they (districts losing students to Schools of Choice) are districts that are predominantly African American and poor children and they suffered terrific losses of enrollment and revenue….”

Benton Harbor—heavily in debt and struggling academically—has been threatened with state intervention like Inkster, Buena Vista, Highland Park, and Muskegon Heights—whole school districts which were closed, charterized, or put under emergency manager control by former governor Rick Snyder.  Now the new Governor Gretchen Whitmer has threatened to close the high school in Benton Harbor or eventually close the district.

However, the State Board of Education in Michigan, an elected body with the power to choose the state school superintendent, has appointed a public school educator who doesn’t value the corporate, Chiefs for Change model. Michael Rice understands the role of public schools in a community. Rice, who began his tenure as state superintendent last week, was the school superintendent in Kalamazoo until his recent appointment to state office.  Bridge Magazine‘s Ron French explains the significance of Rice’s appointment: “As state superintendent, Rice is independent from the… governor’s office.  Rice was appointed to his position by the State Board of Education, which has eight members who are elected in statewide elections.”  “Having the state’s highest ranking school official come out against the (high school) closure could put more pressure on officials in the governor’s office and the Treasury Department to find a way to keep the high school open… Rice’s stance is also significant because it undercuts one avenue the state could use to dissolve the school district (which Whitmer threatened to do if the Benton Harbor school board didn’t agree to shutter the high school).  The state treasurer and the state superintendent can agree to close a school district if certain metrics are met. If Rice is a firm no on closure, that avenue is closed.”

French describes State Superintendent Rice’s understanding of his role in working out what has become a political crisis in Benton Harbor: “In an interview in his office on his seventh day on the job, Rice minced no words in expressing his position on the controversy.  When asked if the high school should close Rice answered with one word: ‘No.’ ‘We, collectively in the state, need to figure out how to stabilize Benton Harbor’s finances and academics such that (closing) is not necessary.'”  Rice continues: “There’s going to be a conversation around finances, and that’s the province of Treasury… And I’m not trying to force myself into that world.  That being said, there’s an academic component to it and I will be involved in the academic component of it.  As you can see, I have strong feelings about the importance of community, and about the importance of the strength of the community relative to its public schools… A high school is the center of a community.”

The Kalamazoo school superintendent has become the new state superintendent in Michigan.  In Wisconsin, the state superintendent of public instruction was elected last November as the new governor.  Governor Tony Evers calls the new budget he signed “a start” to help Wisconsin’s public schools recover from former Governor Scott Walker’s tax cuts and the budget slashing that followed. Governor Evers has lost no opportunity for sharing his support for the state’s public school districts.  He has showed up and presented keynote addresses at all five Summer Summit gatherings of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. The LaCrosse Tribune‘s Kyle Farris shares Heather DuBois Bourenane’s  assessment of what it means to have a public school educator instead of a tax cutter leading the state.  DuBois Bourenane is the director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network: “Having a budget worth fighting for was such a welcome challenge… Electing a public educator to the office of governor is amazing for kids.  We have somebody who knows how schools work in that office, which is new.”

Once inflation is factored in, the public school budget in Wisconsin is still behind where it was before Scott Walker’s election, but Farris describes how Evers has begun to make a difference: “Evers used his veto pen to allocate $87 million more in K-12 public education spending than Republican legislators had intended. He increased funding for special education, school mental health programs, and per-pupil aid—and vowed to fund two-thirds of schools’ overall costs in the future.” And Evers has been relentlessly talking about the importance—for kids and for communities—of these investments.

When public school educators frame the education conversation around the public good, it is a reminder of the essential role of a democratically governed public system designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children.

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.”

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)