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.

New D.C. School Cheating Scandal: This Time It’s About Graduating Students Who Didn’t Do the Work

Last November, right after Thanksgiving, National Public Radio and WAMU in Washington, D.C. exposed a scandal at the District’s Ballou High School.  Last May the school had made headlines for graduating all of its seniors and getting every one admitted to college.  You would think we’d have caught on about such promised miracles by now, but apparently we are a gullible society when we want to believe.

Here is what WAMU reported: “An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences.  WAMU and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a DCPS employee shared the private documents.  The documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present—missing more than 90 days of school… Another internal e-mail obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows that two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation requirements, community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.”

You’ll remember that an earlier Washington, D.C. cheating scandal was exposed during Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s tenure. In March of 2011,  USA Today broke the story about teachers erasing and correcting students’ answers on standardized tests. The problem was never fully investigated because Michelle Rhee controlled the contractor she hired to do the investigation, but John Merrow, the education reporter for the PBS NewsHour eventually confirmed that massive cheating had occurred under Rhee.

While Rhee was never held accountable, the impact on the D.C. public schools is well known—both the long repercussions of Rhee’s leadership style and of the IMPACT plan she instituted for formal teacher evaluations. Despite that Rhee left D.C. in 2012, the IMPACT evaluation plan and promises for rapid school improvement have been maintained by her successors—first Kaya Henderson and now Antwan Wilson.  Last week in the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit, Peter Jamison and Perry Stein reported that Kaya Henderson announced she would raise graduation rates by 22 points in five years, and Wilson, her successor made a similar commitment when he was hired.

In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss recently reviewed the history of Rhee’s influence on the D.C. public schools: “On Oct. 28, 2015, the D.C. Public Schools district put out a statement lauding itself with this headline: ‘D.C. Public Schools Continues Momentum as the Fastest Improving Urban School District in the Country.’  For years, that has been the national narrative about the long-troubled school district in the nation’s capital: After decades of low performance and stagnation, the system was moving forward with a ‘reform’ program that was a model for the nation. The triumphant story included rising standardized test scores and ‘miracle’ schools that saw graduation rates jump over the moon in practically no time.  Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary for seven years, called it ‘a pretty remarkable story’ in 2013…  Policymakers and school reformers—in the District and across the nation—chose to believe the ‘miracle’ narrative and ignore warning signs that were there all along… Meanwhile, the graduation rate—nationally and in the District—continued to rise, despite scandals revealing that schools were essentially juicing the books to make it seem like they were graduating more students. Scams included phony ‘credit recovery’ programs, failing to count all students, and, as the District just found out, letting kids graduate without the qualifications required for a diploma.”

Specifically, Strauss comments on the IMPACT teacher evaluation plan instituted by Rhee—and kept in place by Henderson and now Wilson: “The assessment system, known as IMPACT, that was introduced by Rhee… drew serious concerns from teachers and principals, who found it unworkable and unfair, with performance goals that were impossible to meet and metrics that were questionable… The pressure that IMPACT placed on educators and administrators—pressure that led to cheating on tests and phony graduation rates—was never acknowledged, at least until the new scandal.”

After WAMU and NPR exposed problems at Ballou High School, including permitting students to make up for long, unexcused absences by doing an extra project and the school’s instituting slick and insufficient credit-recovery sessions after school, a study of graduation practices was undertaken to determine if what happened at Ballou might be widespread. The Post‘s Perry Stein and Moriah Balingit describe findings of the new report, released on January 29: “Out of 2,758 students who graduated from D.C. public schools last year, more than 900 missed too many classes or improperly took makeup classes.” In a separate story, Stein reports the numbers for particular high schools: “At Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington, nearly 70 percent of the 106 graduates last year received their diplomas despite violating some aspect of city policy—the worst violation rate among comprehensive schools in the city.  At Ballou, the school whose mispractices spurred the investigation, 63 percent of graduates missed more classes than typically allowed, or inappropriately completed credit recovery…. One of the most damning findings came from Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington.  Teacher-centered attendance records at the school were modified from absent to present more than 4000 times for the senior class, which numbered fewer than 200.  Dunbar’s principal, Abdullah Zaki, was removed from the school in the wake of the findings.  Zaki… was named D.C. Public Schools’ principal of the year in 2013….”  The principal and assistant principal at Ballou High School have been fired along with the district’s Chief of Secondary Schools.

It is hard to know exactly how this sad story will end.  The FBI and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General both launched investigations last week.  But while we don’t know the outcome, we don’t have far to look for where the story began.  Once again, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz describes the problem driven almost entirely by faith in rapid school improvement as measured by data—this time using promises of miraculous graduation rate increases instead of rapid test score increases.  Remember that as a measure of school accountability, the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act (the law that replaced No Child Left Behind) requires that states report not only disaggregated test scores on annual standardized tests, but also each secondary school’s graduation rate.

Daniel Koretz clearly explains the impact of trying to drive education policy through pressure to raise scores or graduation rates in his excellent new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better: “More than forty years ago, Don Campbell, one of the founders of the science of program evaluation wrote: ‘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.’  In other words, when you hold people accountable using a numerical measure—vehicle emissions, scores on a test, whatever—two things generally happen: they do things you don’t want them to do, and the measure itself becomes inflated, painting too optimistic a view of whatever it is that the system is designed to improve.” (The Testing Charade, p. 38)

Of course we want more high school students—especially students in places like Washington, D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods—to thrive at school and graduate. High school graduation is a worthy accomplishment.  However, the current practice of pressuring teachers to push students through school to amp up the graduation statistics hurts both the students and the teachers.


An Urgently Needed New Year’s Resolution for Those Who Care About Public Education

A worthwhile New Year’s resolution would be to honor educators—the people who feel called to help others realize their promise. We live in an era of attacks on the public schools and school teachers, and even on higher education in America’s world-renowned colleges and universities.

A resolution to honor educators would mean we consult educators about the public policies that shape our schools, but in recent years we have listened instead to politicians, philanthropists,  business leaders, and tech titans—Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Mark Zuckerberg, and Eva Moskowitz—or Eli Broad, Jeb Bush and Betsy DeVos.

As it happens, John Dewey—a professor of education, perhaps America’s most famous education philosopher, and an education psychologist as well—published a short, readable education creed in 1897. As an exercise for the new year, indulge yourself by comparing Dewey’s pedagogic creed to the ideas and principles that underpin today’s public education policy driven by business, philanthropy, the tech-savvy, and politicians. Imagine how different our schools might be if school teachers who have studied the philosophy and psychology of education were trusted by the education committees in Congress and across the statehouses.

Here are just four of the concepts explored in Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed.” Dewey’s thinking directly confronts what is happening in our schools driven by high stakes test and punish—charter schools dominated by no-excuses compliance—schools with unworkable ratios of students per teacher—schools oriented to college-and-career prep.

First, Dewey, the psychologist, explains that because all learning comes from within the learner, school must be child- or student-centered.  “I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe that they represent dawning capacities.  Accordingly the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator. I believe that these interests are to be observed as showing the state of development which the child has reached. I believe that they prophesy the state upon which he is about to enter. I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observation of childhood’s interests can the adult enter into the child’s life and see what it is ready for, and upon what material it could work most readily and fruitfully.”  Therefore, “The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.  Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative.”

Second, Dewey challenges the idea of school as career prep or college prep. “I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed.  The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation.  As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.” “But on the other hand, the only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions, is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers.  With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means to to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”

Third, what about the role of the teacher and the student’s peers?  “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.  Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms… For instance, through the response which is made to the child’s instinctive babblings the child comes to know what those babblings mean; they are transformed into articulate language and thus the child is introduced into the consolidated wealth of ideas and emotions which are now summed up in language.” “I believe that moral education centres about this conception of the school as a mode of social life, that the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of worth and thought… I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of the neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life.  I believe that the teacher’s place and work in the school is to be interpreted from this same basis.  The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

And fourth, all education must be social; it cannot happen merely in front of a computer screen. “I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness…” “This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together… The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.” “I believe that in the ideal school we have the reconciliation of the individualistic and the institutional ideals. I believe that the community’s duty to education is, therefore, its paramount moral duty… I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment to perform his task… I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.”


Moving Beyond a Soundbite Analysis of College-for-All vs. Career-Technical Education

This week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been talking about (economic) opportunity—the role of education for preparing students eventually to enter the workforce through career and technical education and apprenticeships. Based on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, DeVos has proposed expanding apprenticeships to help fill openings for 6 million “good” jobs.

Surely students pursuing career and technical paths of study need and deserve better education, but we cannot assume that federal support for a modest expansion of apprenticeships is a solution for a large and complex challenge. Emphasizing individualism as usual, DeVos said, “We need to stop forcing kids into believing a traditional four-year degree is the only pathway to success… We need to expand our thinking on what apprenticeships actually look like… We need to start treating students as individuals… not boxing them in.”

Something is missing from DeVos’s soundbite individualism. Here is Mike Rose—the longtime educator, education writer, and professor of education at UCLA—also expressing concern for individual students, but in a more nuanced and personal way: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity?” (Why School?, p. 14)

In a new blog post, Rose reflects on what is often framed as an either-or debate: college-for-all versus what has traditionally been called vocational education: “This debate is an important one and is of interest to me… because it directly affects the kinds of students I’ve been concerned with my entire professional life: Those who come from less-than-privileged backgrounds and aren’t on the fast track to college. It also catches my attention because a book of mine, The Mind at Work, is sometimes used in the argument against college-for-all. The Mind at Work is the result of a study of the cognitive demands of physical work, waitressing and styling hair to carpentry and welding. Our society makes sharp and weighty distinctions—distinctions embodied in curricular tracking—between white collar and blue collar occupations, between brain work and hand work. But what I demonstrate is the degree to which physical work involves the development of a knowledge base, the application of concept and abstraction, problem solving and troubleshooting, aesthetic consideration and reflection. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.” In a more recent book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, Rose also considers the mix of career and technical education and the liberal arts that is the subject of today’s debate on who should get what kind of education. His recent blog post is adapted from Back to School‘s final chapter.

Rose warns against precisely the kind of narrow conversation we’ve read about in Washington, D.C. this week about college vs. apprenticeships: “Though this college versus work debate can slip into a reductive either/or polemic, I think that it does raise to awareness a number of important issues, ones not only central to education but also to the economy, to the meaning of work, and to democratic life. There is the sky-rocketing cost of college and the poor record of retention and graduation in higher education. There is the disconnect between the current labor market and the politically popular rhetoric of ‘educating our way into the new economy.’ And there is the significant commitment of financial and human resources that will be needed to make college-for-all a reality. On a broader scale there is the purpose of education in a free society. There is the issue of the variability of human interests and talents and the class-based bias toward entire categories of knowledge and activity—a bias institutionalized in the structure of the American high school. There is, then, the need to rethink the academic-vocational divide itself and its post-secondary cousin, the liberal ideal versus the vocational mission of the college. And finally we need to keep in mind that the college-for-all versus work debate takes place within a history of inequality and that the resolution of the debate will involve not only educational and economic issues but civic and moral ones as well.”

Rose isn’t willing to give up on the educational part of education and reduce the student’s experience to mere job training: “The problem is that historically the vocational curriculum itself has not adequately honored the rich intellectual content of work… The huge question then is this: Is a particular vocationally oriented program built on the cognitive content of work and does it provide a strong education in the literacy and mathematics, the history and economics, the science and ethics that can emerge from the world of work?”

Rose cautions that we really do need to think about the individual needs of students, but this doesn’t mean some sort of libertarian concept of individual freedom: “We need to be careful about painting this broad group of students with a single brush stroke.  Some are strongly motivated but because of poor education, family disruption, residential mobility, or a host of reasons are not academically prepared… Some students are unsure about their future, are experimenting—and in my experience, it’s not easy to determine in advance who will find their way. We also know that a significant number of students leave college temporarily or permanently for non-academic reasons: finances, childcare, job loss.  Some of these cases could be addressed with financial aid or other resources and social services. So while I take the skeptics’ point about the poor record of student success and agree that college is not for everyone and that a fulfilling life can be had without it, it is a simplistic solution to funnel everyone who is not thriving into a vocational program.”

Rose suggests that the debate about college vs. vocational education rests on how we define the purpose of education: “Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into—and are shaped by—a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life.”

Rose’s thinking takes us much deeper than the conversation in Washington, D.C. this week about jobs and apprenticeships: “I think this tension—like the divide between the academic and vocational—restricts the conversation we should be having.  How can we enhance the liberal studies possibilities in a vocational curriculum and enliven and broaden the academic course of study through engagement with the world beyond the classroom?”

Rose cautions, however, that educators must be fully attentive to that first question: What is the experience of opportunity?  “It is important to remember… that goals, expectations, and what students imagine for themselves are deeply affected by information and experience…. (S)tudents will need a lot of information about college and careers and multiple opportunities to visit colleges and potential work sites… The differences in cultural and social capital between my UCLA students and the students I know at inner-city community colleges are profound and widening as inequality widens in our country…  (A)dvocates will have to confront this inequality head on, for it is as important as the construction of curriculum.”

I urge you to read Rose’s blog post, along with any or all of these books: Why School?, Back to School, and The Mind at Work. What is absent in today’s soundbite-driven, twitter-limited public conversation is serious reflection on educational, economic, and ethical considerations that ought to be the foundation for public policy.


America’s Dirty Secret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rose summarizes the qualities of the fine teachers and classrooms he observed: “For all of the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities.  These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers would want them for their own children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration  But there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect.. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

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

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