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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Clinton Democrats Joined Philanthrocapitalists to Create Corporate School Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Book Includes Wonderful Retrospective Essay by the Late Mike Rose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Mike Rose

Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education, died in August.  Those of us who value thinking about education practice, education philosophy, and education policy will deeply miss Rose’s blog and his wisdom. But we will continue to have his books, and now is a good time to revisit some of them.

Rose was an educator, not a technocrat. In our society where for a quarter of a century education thinkers and policymakers have  worried about the quality of the product of schooling as measured by standardized test scores, Rose calls our attention to the process: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate— or constructed at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity?”  (Why School?, p. 14)  In Why School?  Rose explores a very different philosophy of education than what was embodied in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top: “I’m interested here in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind. The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it. Yet it is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it, the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are.” (Why School?, p. 34)

In the mid-1990s, Rose spent several years traveling around the United States visiting the classrooms of excellent teachers. The product of this work is Possible Lives, perhaps the very best book I know about public schooling in the United States and about what constitutes excellent teaching. Rose begins the book’s introduction: “During a time when so many are condemning public schools—and public institutions in general—I have been traveling across the country visiting classrooms in which the promise of public education is being powerfully realized. These are classrooms judged to be good and decent places by those closest to them—parents, principals, teachers, students—classrooms in big cities and small towns, preschool through twelfth grade, places that embody the hope for a free and educated society that has, at its best, driven this extraordinary American experiment from the beginning… Our national discussion about public schools is despairing and dismissive, and it is shutting down our civic imagination. I visited schools for three and a half years, and what struck me early on—and began to define my journey—was how rarely the kind of intellectual and social richness I was finding was reflected in the public sphere… We hear—daily, it seems—that our students don’t measure up, either to their predecessors in the United States or to their peers in other countries… We are offered, by both entertainment and news media, depictions of schools as mediocre places, where students are vacuous and teachers are not so bright; or as violent and chaotic places, places where order has fled and civility has been lost.  It’s hard to imagine anything good in all this.” (Possible Lives, p. 1)

Here, however, are Rose’s conclusions in the book’s final chapter: “What I began to see—and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms in addition to whatever else we may understand about them, represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history: a faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society. These rooms were embodiments of the democratic ideal… The teachers I visited were working within that rich tradition. They provided example after different example of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals.” (Possible Lives, pp. 412-413)  In his stories of four years’ of visits to public schools, Rose presents our nation’s system of public schooling as a defining American institution.

Rose appreciates and celebrates the work of public school teachers: “To begin, the teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable.  They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal…  As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity… The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… A teacher must use these various kind of knowledge—knowledge of subject matter, of practice, of one’s students, of relationwithin the institutional confines of mass education. The teachers I visited had, over time, developed ways to act with some effectiveness within these constraints—though not without times of confusion and defeat—and they had determined ways of organizing their classrooms that enabled them to honor their beliefs about teaching and learning… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms. Thus the high expectations they held for what their students could accomplish… Such affirmation of intellectual and civic potential, particularly within populations that have been historically devalued in our society gives to these teachers’ work a dimension of advocacy, a moral and political purpose.”  (Possible Lives, pp. 418-423

With his strong interest in the life of the classroom and the experience of education, Rose definitely does not ignore education policy, but he looks at policy decisions from the point of view of the students, their families and the community.  Here is how he examines one of No Child Left Behind’s and Race to the Top’s strategies: —school closure as a turnaround policy: “Closing a school and transferring its students is unsettling in the best of circumstances… For low-income communities, the school is often one of the few remaining institutions. Transfer also brings to the fore issues with transportation, with navigating streets that mark gang turf, with shifting kids from the familiar to the strange. And all this happens in communities already buffeted by uncertainty about employment, housing, health care, and food on the table… Race to the Top… raises broad questions about innovation in public education and makes funding contingent on change… But the model of change has to be built on deep knowledge of how the organization works, its history, its context, its practices. The model of change in Race to the Top seems to be drawn from ideas in the air about modern business, ideas about competition, innovation, quick transformation, and metrics—an amalgam of the economistic and the technocratic.  This is not a model of change appropriate for schools….” (Why School? pp. 63-65)

Rose was not, however, a fan of the status quo; he was a believer in the need for ongoing school improvement, but not the technocratic, top-down, ideological school reform imposed in recent decades: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination… There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope.  Such is not the case now.  An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.” (Why School?, pp 203-204)  “My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school. Hand in glove, this motive and machinery narrow our sense of what school can be. We hear much talk about achievement and the achievement gap, about equity, about increasing effort and expectations, but it  is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on the ethical, social, and imaginative dimensions of human experience.” (Why School?, p. 214)

In the age of Teach for America, created by Wendy Kopp as her senior project at Princeton for the purpose of inserting brainy Ivy Leaguers into classrooms because their privileged backgrounds were thought to be gifts to the children of the poor, Mike Rose’s perspective is countercultural.  Rose instead wrote about the experiences of students discovering higher education as the first in their families to enroll in college. Lives on the Boundary and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education examine the work of community colleges, the challenges their students face economically as they struggle to pursue an education, and the personal meaning of their experiences apart from the job training they may acquire. And in The Mind at Work, Rose explores the intellectual demands of so-called blue-collar work.

I urge you to read or re-read some of these books as a way to celebrate Mike Rose’s legacy. None of these books feels dated. Rose’s writing is fresh and lucid. He will challenge you to examine the importance of public schooling in these times when corporate, test-based school accountability and school privatization continue to dominate too much of the conversation about education in the United States.

School Privatizers Attack a Central Institution of American Democracy

Introducing a column by the Network for Public Education’s Carol Burris on the explosion this year of legislation across the 50 state legislatures to expand school privatization, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss begins: “While many Americans see 2021 as the year that may bring back something close to normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic, it has instead been declared the ‘Year of School Choice’ by the American Federation for Children, an organization that promotes alternatives to public education and that was once headed by Betsy DeVos. Anyone who twas thinking that the departure of DeVos as U.S. education secretary would stem the movement to privatize public education should think again. In numerous states, legislatures have proposed or are considering legislation to expand alternatives to the public schools that educate most American schoolchildren, often using public funding to pay for private and religious school.”

In the piece that follows, Carol Burris examines the contention by Paul Petersen, the Harvard government professor who Burris reminds us is “a longtime cheerleader for market-based school reforms,” and Jeanne Allen who runs the Center for Education Reform, and who, “has never been shy in her hostility toward unions and traditional public schools,” that the legislatures considering school choice are doing so because parents are angry that public schools shut down during the pandemic.

Burris demonstrates that Petersen and Allen are wrong.  The states most active in promoting privatization are instead places where legislatures have tipped toward Republican majorities and in some cases Republican supermajorities.  And they are states where well-funded ideological lobbies for school privatization are working hard.

Burris describes today’s legislative climate for expansion of vouchers and charter schools: “Legislatures in 35 states have proposed bills to enact or expand voucher programs or charter schools. A few have passed; others have failed. Still others are sitting on governors’ desks or are stalled in the state’s House or Senate. Several are obvious attempts to please right-wing donors with no chance of moving out of committee. So far, eight states have enacted one or more bills.” She adds that despite what Petersen and Allen say, “red states with a high rate of open schools are where bills have been passed.”  So… this is definitely not a swelling of parents’ displeasure with public schools in the midst of a pandemic.

Burris covers several states according to a Burbio.com index which tracks the number of students who have been attending fully-open public schools. She explains that in Arkansas, whose legislature just passed a huge tuition tax credit voucher program, Burbio says that 96.8 percent of students were in school full time.  In Wyoming, where school districts have had the capacity to authorize charter schools but where, this spring the legislature created a new process (not yet signed by the governor) to expand charter school authorization to the state level, Burbio says 100 percent of students have been in full-time in-person schooling.  In West Virginia, where the legislature just expanded the number of charter schools, established state authorization of charter schools, permitted new virtual charter schools, and passed the biggest and most expensive Education Savings Account neovoucher program in the country, Burbio says 78 percent of students have been in full-time, in-person schooling.

If the pressure for expansion of vouchers and charter schools did not come from parents, who did it come from?  Burris lists the movers and shakers in four states:

  • In Arkansas, a group called the Reform Alliance (which operates another state voucher program paid for with state money) paid Trace Strategies $180,000 to lobby for the new voucher program. And the Walton Family Foundation donated $1,644,280 to the Reform Alliance.
  • In Wyoming, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools “bragged about how it lobbied for” passage of the new statewide authority to open charter schools.
  • In West Virginia, lobbyists included ExcelinEd (Jeb Bush’s organization); Stride (the new name of K12Inc.); the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; EdChoice Inc. (formerly the Friedman Foundation for EdChoice); Americans for Prosperity; and ACCEL (a for-profit charter chain run by Ron Packard, who formerly ran K12 Inc).
  • In Kentucky, lobbyists were Stride (formerly K12 Inc); the National Heritage Academies (a for-profit charter school chain); American for Prosperity; ExcelinEd; and Edchoice Kentucky (which Burris describes as a local branch of EdChoice Inc).

Burris concludes: “The movement’s agenda is clear in the minimal accountability and few protections for students included in these bills…. (T)he long-term goal is to undo public education—not only the institution but also the public funding of schools.”

It is a good time to review the ideology underneath the drive for school privatization and to contrast the values articulated by the privatizers with the values that have historically been the foundation of our system of public education since John Adams declared in 1785, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Here are four statements of principle that define the parameters of this debate:

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, an important book published last autumn, education historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire characterize the belief system of the promoters of marketplace school choice:  “An unquestioned faith in markets is at the very heart of the push to unmake public education. Just as consumers choose from a vast array of products in the marketplace… parents should be able to choose where and how their children are educated… Give consumers the freedom to choose where and how to educate their children and the woes of our public schools will finally be fixed…. ‘Bad’ schools will be forced to close as consumers flee them, while ‘good’ schools will proliferate to meet burgeoning consumer demand… Unlike the public education bureaucracy, the market is seen as a paragon of efficiency.  Rather than being directed by some central power, individuals in the market need only seek their own benefit… In this view, markets are a form of natural democracy—one in which individuals express their preferences and those preferences shape outcomes.  Consumers vote with dollars, and the aggregation of those individual votes produces a collective decision.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 15-17)

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

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

In Schoolhouse Burning, another important book published last autumn, Derek Black more precisely defines what public education was imagined to accomplish: “Our public education system, since its beginning, has aimed to bring disparate groups together. Public schools were to be the laboratory and proving grounds where society takes its first steps toward a working democracy that will include all… The framework is one where we understand public education as a constitutional right. This means public education is the state’s absolute and foremost duty. This means the state must help students, teachers, and districts overcome obstacles, not blame them when they don’t. This means the state must fully fund schools and reform policies unrelated to money when they impede adequate and equal opportunity. This means the state cannot manipulate educational opportunity by geography, race, poverty… This means the state cannot favor alternatives to public education over public education itself. This means the state must honor the constitution over its own ideologies and bias. This, finally, means that public education must be in service of our overall constitutional democracy. Every education policy we face must be filtered through these principles.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)

Groups like Americans for Prosperity, EdChoice, ExcelinEd, the Walton Family Foundation, the American Federation for Children, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools should not be determining the fate of public education in America.  The 50 state constitutions give citizens the responsibility, through the democratic process, of ensuring that their legislators provide public schools which are adequate, equitable, and accessible for all.

How the Bad Old Third Grade Guarantee May Be Reborn to Hurt Children in the Post-COVID Era

On Friday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss republished an article about learning loss, an article that raises some very serious concerns about what will happen next fall when we can presume that most children will be back in school.

The article is by a former teacher, now an editor at a website called Edutopia.  Steven Merrill writes: “It’s perfectly sensible to worry about academic setbacks during the pandemic… But our obsessive need to measure academic progress and loss to the decimal point—an enterprise that feels at once comfortably scientific and hopelessly subjective—is also woefully out of time with the moment… If there’s a pressing need for measurement, it’s in the reckoning of the social, emotional, and psychological toll of the last 12 months.  Over 500,000 Americans have died.  Some kids will see their friends or favorite teachers in person for the first time in over a year…  Focusing on the social and emotional needs of the child first—on their sense of safety, self-worth, and academic confidence—is not controversial, and saddling students with deficit-based labels has predicable outcomes… (I)f we make school both welcoming and highly engaging… we stand a better chance of honoring the needs of all children and open up the possibility of connecting kids to topics they feel passionate about as we return to school next year.”

We know that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is requiring states to administer the usual, federally mandated standardized tests for this school year. Cardona says he doesn’t intend for the tests to be used for school accountability, but instead to see which schools and school districts need the most help—a strange justification because the tests were designed for and have always been used for holding schools and teachers and even students accountable. And the punitive policies these tests trigger in schools across the country are well established. What if state legislatures and state departments of education merely use the test scores in this bizarre post-COVID school year to trigger the same old punishments we’ve been watching for years now?

For example, consider the Third Grade Guarantee, which originally came from Jeb Bush’s right-wing, Foundation for Excellence in Education, or as it is now called ExcelinEdCarly Sitrin, for Politico’s Recovery Lab recalls the history: “Republican school choice policymakers in the early 2000s… zeroed in on the third grade, passing the stricter third grade reading laws in place today.  Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was a huge proponent, as was Betsy DeVos… If a child is not reading at a third-grade level, they should be held back until they can. Some states pepper in funding incentives and additional literacy coaches to help kids upgrade their reading skills. Others leave these support measures out or include more anemic versions.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) creates model far-right legislation—bills that can be simply adapted and introduced in state legislatures across the country.  Back in 2012, the Third Grade Guarantee was included in an ALEC model law.  According to Chapter 7, Section 2 (C) of the ALEC model law, “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

There is, however a downside to retaining students, even in the elementary school years. Children who are held back a grade are stigmatized as failures and more likely than other children to drop out of school before high school graduation. In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney summarized: “Half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

And David Berliner and Gene Glass report the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems…Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 96)

Sitrin profiles the dilemma in this COVID-19 school year of students in Tennessee, where policy makers have decided that, depending on standardized test scores, students whose third-grade reading scores are lagging will be held back in third grade, on top of missing out on all of the last year of schooling with their peers.

Sitrin profiles the family of David Scruggs Jr., who has helped his second grader in Nashville with online schooling all year: “For a year, the Scruggs worked to keep their kids from falling behind as the pandemic forced children to stay home… Now, the Scruggs and thousands of families like them in Tennessee and more than a dozen other states face a reckoning with how well they succeeded in their new role as substitute teachers. In the coming months, under a new, stricter state policy, if their son doesn’t do well enough on a standardized reading test next year, he could be forced to repeat a grade… Tennessee’s new law, enacted during a rushed statehouse voting session in January, dictates that if a third-grade student cannot read at grade level as measured by standardized tests, they will be held back until they can. The retention bill was one of several education measures fast-tracked with the support of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in an attempt to respond to COVID-related learning loss… (I)n 18 states, including Tennessee, this decision will be made not by parents and their children,, but by state officials.”

Stephen Merrill worries that states’ test-and-punish policies will merely further stigmatize the most vulnerable students who will be “sorted in a way that will only exacerbate the equity issues… Can we—should we, in the aftermath of the clarifying events of the last year—find the will to challenge the testing regime, return some agency to both our teachers and our students, bring the science of learning into our classrooms, and honor all children with challenging, engaging work that ushers in a new, better, fairer era in education?”

The Hubris of Billionaire Philanthropy and the Damage Wrought by the Common Core Standards

Hubris is definitely the tragic flaw in the modern, technocratic tragedy of educational experimentation by mega philanthropy. But there will likely be no tragic fall for a noble hero. The plot doesn’t operate like a classical tragedy. Bill and Melinda pose as our humble hero and heroine, sitting in front of a bookcase and dressed in nothing fancier than plain cashmere sweaters. There is no blood and no sensation. Today the weapon is billions of American dollars buying access to power and purchasing armies of ideological policy wonks. Most people haven’t even noticed the sins of our hero and heroine and there’s no hint of their impending downfall. The plot rises and falls and rises again when the perpetrators just start over with another massive experiment on the 50 million students in America’s public schools and their teachers. But the sin is hubris.

In a February report on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter, the Washington Post‘s  Valerie Strauss summarizes the three acts so far in the drama of Gates Foundation-funded school reform: “The Gates Foundation began its first big effort in education reform two decades ago with what it said was a $650 million investment to break large failing high schools into small schools, on the theory that small schools worked better than large ones… Bill Gates declared in 2009 that it hadn’t worked the way he had expected…. The next project for the foundation was funding the development, implementation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards initiative, which was supported by the Obama administration. It originally had bipartisan support but the Core became controversial, in part because of the rush to get it into schools and because of what many states said was federal coercion to adopt it… Meanwhile, Gates, while pushing the Core, showered three public school systems and four charter management organizations with hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and implement teacher assessment systems that incorporated student standardized test scores. School systems and charter organizations that took the foundation’s money were required to use public funds on the project, too.  By 2013, Bill Gates conceded that the Core initiative had not succeeded as he had expected, and a 2018 report concluded that the teacher evaluation project had failed to achieve its goal of improving student achievement in any significant way.”

Many of us who were paying attention noticed the collateral damage. When they took Gates money to break up big high schools, school districts had to hire a separate set of administrators and counselors for each small school—a very expensive proposition that ate up far more money than Gates provided. And students scheduled within their small schools struggled to find access to the advantages of a comprehensive high school—a journalism class, band and orchestra, arts electives like photography, technology courses. The experiment on evaluating teachers by students’ test scores and rewarding the teachers whose students posted high scores with financial bonuses collapsed after school districts had to absorb much of the cost.  In Hillsborough County, Florida, the district ended up using public revenues to cover $124 million that should have been spent on the ongoing education needs of the district’s students.

Strauss published part of the Gates Foundation’s 2020 annual letter, in which Melinda Gates describes the strategy of the Foundation’s education giving: “Consider this: The average American primary school classroom has 21 students. Currently, 18 of those 21 complete high school with a diploma or an equivalent credential… but only 13 start any kind of postsecondary program within a year of graduating. Only seven will earn a degree from a four-year-program within six years. It gets worse when you disaggregate by race. If every student in our classroom is Latinx, only six will finish their four-year degree program within six years. For a classroom of Black students, the number is just four. The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite. We believe the risk of not doing everything we can to help students reach their full potential is much, much greater. We certainly understand why many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders. But one thing that makes improving education tricky is that even among people who work on the issues, there isn’t much agreement on what works and what doesn’t.”

Notice that Melinda Gates assumes that “failing” schools are the causes of disparities in educational outcomes and that fixing the schools themselves—small high schools, grading teachers on students’ scores and offering financial incentives to successful teachers, and the Common Core standards—will somehow address the much deeper injustices for America’s children. There are libraries filled with research demonstrating that family and community economic circumstances compounded by racial and economic segregation and chronically inequitable school funding are the primary drivers of educational inequality, but the Gates Foundation has always dabbled in technocratic fixes and always failed to improve students’ outcomes.

On Monday, Valerie Strauss reprinted with the author’s permission some of Harvard education professor, Tom Loveless’s new book, Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding The Failure of Common Core, a new followup examination of one of Gates’ three failed initiatives.

Loveless explains: “The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) represent one of the most ambitious American education reforms of the past century.  Developed in 2009 and released in June 2010, the standards were designed to define what students should learn in mathematics and English language arts… from kindergarten through the twelfth grade… By the end of 2010, more than forty states and the District of Columbia had adopted the CCSS as official K-12 standards… A decade later, scant evidence exists that Common Core produced any significant benefit. One federally funded evaluation actually estimates that the standards had a negative effect on student achievement in both reading and math. Fortunately, the overall impact is quite small.”

The federal government is, by law, not permitted to establish a national educational curriculum, but Arne Duncan figured out how to skirt the law. The Gates Foundation paid for the development, implementation, and promotion of the standards; Duncan merely incentivized the states to adopt them when he made the adoption of educational standards a requirement for applying for a Race to the Top Grant.

Loveless continues: “If we conclude that CCSS had a minimal impact on student learning, perhaps the standards changed other aspects of education in a productive manner. Even if such a possibility is conceded, the policy’s extraordinary costs and the ferocious debate that it engendered outstripped such meager benefits. Billions of taxpayer dollars, from both federal and state coffers, were poured into making CCSS a success. Prominent philanthropies, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, funded a public relations campaign to fight back against political opposition. The nation’s three-million-plus public school teachers were asked to retool their instruction and use new curriculum materials aligned with Common Core; large numbers of students began failing new Common Core-aligned assessments; and many parents struggled to understand the strange new homework assignments that students were bringing to the kitchen table.”

Loveless summarizes what he says are the many lessons of the sad adventure of Gates’ purchase of public education policy via the Common Core. What was it that Gates Foundation policy wonks and Arne Duncan’s education department failed to consider? Please read Loveless’s careful analysis, but here are some of his conclusions: “Implementation of large-scale, top-down education policy transpires in a complicated system that is multilayered and loosely coupled in terms of authority and expertise. Common Core is not a federal policy, although it received crucial support from the federal government during the Obama administration but it is national in scope, originally involving more than forty states and Washington, DC. States have their own political offices and educational bureaucracies, of course, but consider some ballpark numbers for the nodes of political and organizational authority situated below the state level: approximately 13,600 school districts… 98,000 schools, and more than three million teachers…..  Navigating the vertical complexity of the K-12 educational system is daunting… the main lesson of the study was that schools shape state policies to fit local circumstances.”

Further, “Curriculum and instruction are particularly important because they constitute the technical core of the educational enterprise… They sit at the bottom layer of the system. Writing and adopting standards takes place at the top of the system, in the domain of politicians and educational officials… Successful implementation of standards not only depends on the willingness of implementers but also on the quality of the curriculum and instruction that local educators use to enact the standards… The publisher of a terrific K-8 math series may also publish a terrible reading series; a math program with strong second and sixth grade texts may be weak in first and fourth grades…  The two subjects that Common Core tackles, mathematics and English language arts, have long histories of ideological debates between educational progressives and traditionalists.”

In their hubris, Bill and Melinda and their foundation latched onto one big educational reform, but in their hurried launch, they forgot about a carefully coordinated and internally evaluated rollout of the standards and the high-stakes tests that were paired with the standards. They also neglected working at each level of the system with the professionals they assumed would grab on to their idea and make it work. Loveless considers what was left out of the process: “Once governments have decided on a policy decision, how does it become enacted in schools? Exploring that question compels an examination of the school system’s organizational structure and the flow of policy downward from policymakers to practitioners.” That is, of course, separate from another important issue: whether Gates’s experts developed and promoted the right standards.

I Have Begun to Worry about Where Miguel Cardona is Leading Education Policy

When my careful, watchful, and somewhat shy daughter came home for lunch on the first day of first grade, I heard the words every parent looks for on the first day of school: “After one morning, I already feel smoothed into school!” There are generations of parents in Cleveland Heights, Ohio who still wonder at the gifts, kindness, and dedication of Marlene Karkoska. What was it that she did to make our first graders feel “smoothed into school”?

What worries me right now is that despite the passage of the American Rescue Plan with lots of money for school districts and state governments to help get schools back up and running, I am still hearing a lot from policy makers about learning loss, the need for kids to make up the work in summer programs, and the need for testing to document what’s been lost. I’m not hearing enough about the calm, the encouragement, the confidence, and the enjoyment of being at school that Miss Karkoska provided for our children as the very foundation for their learning to read and compute.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s announcement last week that the federal government will mandate standardized testing for this school year came despite months of pleading for cancellation of this year’s standardized tests—advice from experts who know a lot about working with children, about learning theory, and about the problems of standardized test-based accountability for schools. My children started Kindergarten in 1985 and 1988, before standardized testing became the driver of American public education.  I wonder if people who have been creating education policy since the 1990s, when holding schools accountable for test score outcomes became the primary educational policy goal, can really imagine another way to think about education.

I have many questions about the strategies and plans which the U.S. Department of Education will attach to the federal stimulus awards of funds to states and schools.  One reason for my concern is that I watched the awarding of stimulus dollars to states during the Great Recession back in 2009 under Arne Duncan.  Here is some of what I worry about:

  • Will there be any real attempt when students return to school to ensure that the focus is on welcome and encouragement, and on spiraling the curriculum to review material that may have been missed as students accelerate into exploring new material?  What is to prevent the numbing drilling that has filled too many classrooms, particularly in the schools that serve our nation’s poorest children?  I recently read one suggestion that when students return, the curriculum should be further narrowed to compensate for learning loss with an intense and sole focus on language arts and math, an almost humorous suggestion if it weren’t such a blatant plea for raising test scores at all cost in the two areas the federal government already mandates standardized tests.
  • I have read that American Rescue Plan dollars can be spent on teachers and school support staff to reduce class size and add sufficient counselors and social workers. That is a very good thing, but will the federal government, as it awards dollars for these added staff, incentivize states themselves to continue to allocate adequate state funds to ensure that schools can continue employing these professionals into the future after the one-time federal grant runs out? I remember so well that Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants supported the employment of armies of one-time consultants but virtually no hiring of long term professional educators and student support staff.
  • Although most of the federal aid for school districts is being distributed through the Title I formula, some of the federal stimulus dollars in the American Rescue Plan will flow through the state governments which control the allocation of school funding. I know there are some “maintenance of effort” rules in the federal stimulus bill, but are they strong enough and will they be enforced? Can the federal government create enough regulations to prevent states from further slashing state taxes and replacing state dollars with federal stimulus dollars? Will there be rules to direct the states to spend needed money on public schools and not on expanding charter schools and private school tuition vouchers?
  • Secretary Cardona says he believes that standardized test scores in this school year can tell us more about the need for added funding in the nation’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children. Will we learn more from standardized test scores than we already know from the data currently maintained in the fifty states and collected by the National Center for Education Statistics?  There is plenty of data already available about disparities in class sizes, the number of per-pupil guidance counselors, and the number of school social workers and school psychologists.  Further, we all watched a wave of teachers’ strikes and walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 through which teachers exposed appalling conditions—masses of students in large classes—sometimes 40 students—counselors with case loads of 400 and 500 students—the absence of nurses, librarians.

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire summarize the financial dilemma in which public schools found themselves at the time the COVID-19 pandemic struck: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession (2008), but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.”  Schneider and Berkshire describe what we learned from the nationwide teacher strikes in 2018-2019: “(T)he recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-43)

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black adds that the growth of school privatization has left us with a charter school sector and the expansion of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schools at the expense of the public schools:  “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.”   And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)

In a profound, short analysis in The Progressive, Diane Ravitch summarizes two decades of test-and-punish accountability and the growth of school privatization.  Here is her very plain, simple recommendation for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona: “Cardona could help urban schools, which are underfunded, by ending the pretense that competition (via charters and vouchers) will make them better (it doesn’t).  It starves them of needed resources. Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition. We have poured billions of dollars into that fake reform and achieved little other than demoralized teachers and students whose test-centric education robs them of motivation. Why not try a radically different approach?  Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of students are greatest?… Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play.  Now that would be a revolution!