Is Mayor Lori Lightfoot Trying to Return Chicago to the Arne Duncan Era?

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has appointed a new CEO for the Chicago Public Schools, and everybody agrees he faces myriad challenges. He is Pedro Martinez, currently the school superintendent of the San Antonio (Texas) Independent School District, someone who grew up among 11 siblings in Chicago and was himself educated in the Chicago Public Schools.

Martinez is also the board chairman of Chiefs for Change, the corporate-reformer education leadership organization spun off from Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd (Foundation for Excellence in Education).

For WBEZ, Chicago’s best education reporter, Sarah Karp introduces Pedro Martinez: “Turning to a non-educator with deep Chicago ties, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot named former Chicago schools official and a current San Antonio schools superintendent Pedro Martinez as the next CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Martinez, who was born in Mexico and raised in Chicago, will be the first permanent Latino leader in the school district’s history… Martinez worked as CPS’ chief financial officer under former CEO Arne Duncan… Martinez is an accountant who has been called ‘analytics heavy.’  And in San Antonio, he has expanded charter schools as well as partnered with private organizations to take over failing schools. These ideas have been popular in Chicago, but they have fallen out of favor in recent years… Martinez has never taught or run a school as principal. And, thus, in choosing him, Lightfoot is rejecting the input of parents and others who said they wanted someone with a strong instructional background with ‘boots on the ground’ experience… Martinez is a graduate of the Broad Superintendent Academy training program. Critics say the Broad Academy promotes school leaders who use corporate-management techniques and that they work to limit teachers’ job protections and the involvement of parents in decision-making.”

The past year has been tense for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and for Chicago’s teachers. There has been ongoing disagreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lightfoot about what constitutes, during the COVID-19 pandemic, safe reopening in a school district filled with old buildings, but current tensions are overlaid upon a long history of conflict between the mayor and the teachers union under the mayoral governance and mayoral appointed school boards the Illinois legislature established back in 1995. Last April (2021), it was reported that, “Defying Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill… restoring the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain with the city over a wide range of issues, including class size, layoffs and the duration of the school year… The measure repeals Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which has restricted the CTU’s bargaining power since 1995, when state lawmakers gave then-Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the school district after several long strikes.”

Then in July, Governor Pritzker signed a bill that that will phase in a fully elected Chicago school board by 2027: “Until now, Chicago Public Schools was the lone district in Illinois with a school board appointed by the mayor.  But under the new legislation, the Chicago Board of Education will transition to a hybrid board of elected and appointed members before fully transforming into an elected body by 2027.”

My clipping file tracks problems with mayoral governance and  corporate, test-based school accountability in Chicago way back into the mid-1990s, with the disempowerment of Chicago’s groundbreaking local school councils, which sought to engage parents, teachers, and the community into the life of the neighborhood schools. In 1995, the Illinois legislature established mayoral governance of Chicago’s schools, gave the mayor the power to appoint the school board, and denied the Chicago Teachers Union the bargaining rights guaranteed to other teachers union locals.  Then came Renaissance 2010, the massive experiment under school CEO Paul Vallas, that sought—under Arne Duncan’s leadership—to open a mass of new charter schools to replace neighborhood public schools deemed “failing.”  Later Arne Duncan replaced Vallas as CEO.

Chicago has been the centerpiece of an experiment with an education governance plan called “portfolio school reform” in which the administration manages traditional and charter schools as though the district is a business portfolio—investing in the best schools and shuttering the so called “failures.”  And the problems were exacerbated under Mayor Rahm Emanuel with “student-based budgeting.” When students left for a charter school, the public school which lost enrollment lost funding, class sizes exploded, nurses were laid off, libraries were shuttered and substitute teachers were even hard to find as the school declined.  A downward spiral began to accelerate, and at the end of 2013, the school district’s mayoral appointed board closed nearly 50 public schools, with African American children making up 88 percent of the students affected.

In a press release last week, the Chicago Teachers Union expressed understandable concerns about Martinez’s ties to these corporate, test-based accountability initiatives which have, over time, disrupted neighborhoods and failed to turn around the huge school district as promised: “Mr. Martinez returns to a different Chicago than the city he left in 2009, as we move toward an elected school board and embrace the return of full bargaining rights for teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, clinicians, case managers, and librarians. Families, students, and community organizations are empowered leaders now, and have rejected the charter proliferation, the mass firing of Black female teachers, weakened worker protections, and top-down decision-making that were hallmarks of his time under former CPS CEO Arne Duncan.  Many of the failed strategies that our new CEO is accustomed to no longer exist in Chicago, as the experiments of education reform and privatization have proven to be a failure. Equity, justice and democracy, and student, parent, and educator voice are now at the forefront. Despite having no classroom or in-school experience, Mr. Martinez will have to be an independent thinker, a far better partner and collaborator than Mayor Lightfoot, and work with stakeholders to keep them safe, earn their trust, and meet high expectations.”

Karp reports: “In San Antonio, Martinez has partnered with charter schools and other private organizations to get them to take over challenged public schools.”

But in its press release, Chiefs for Change brags that Martinez has a strong record of improving public education for students in San Antonio: “During Martinez’s tenure, the number of… students attending low-performing schools has decreased by roughly 80 percent. Graduation rates have continued to rise, while dropout rates have continued to fall… In addition, San Antonio Independent School District has increased the number of students in dual-enrollment programs, allowing them to get college credit while still in high school… San Antonio Independent School District has also received national attention for its dual-language program, which existed in just two schools when Martinez arrived… and has since expanded to 61 campuses, more than half of all San Antonio Independent School District schools.”

What is clear is that Martinez faces enormous challenges posed by years of state policy and mayoral appointed school administrators who have alienated the district’s teachers and imposed unpopular experiments with school privatization and school closure which have undermined neighborhoods.

Because much has changed in Chicago since the time when Martinez worked for Arne Duncan as the school district’s chief financial officer, we must hope Martinez will take to heart the words of University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing in her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard, which examines the widespread 2013 neighborhood public school closures in Chicago:  “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

In the Budget Reconciliation, Congress Must Support Biden’s Plan to Increase Investment in Full-Service Community Schools to $443 Million

President Biden has proposed urgently needed reforms to address poverty and income inequality and their effects on children. By expanding the Child Tax Credit (for this year only) in last spring’s American Rescue COVID-19 relief plan, Biden and Congress took a major step to reduce child poverty temporarily. As part of the federal budget reconciliation, Congress absolutely should include Biden’s proposal to extend the expansion of the Child Tax Credit. But Congress should also take care of another of the President’s plans that has not been as extensively reported: President Biden has proposed to increase funding for Full-Service Community Schools—from $30 million to $443 million.

Full-Service Community Schools provide wraparound services located inside the school building to address families needs at an easily accessible location. Here is what I was astounded to discover a decade ago when I visited New York City Public School 5, The Ellen Lurie School. This elementary school houses a medical clinic; a dental clinic; a mental health clinic; rooms filled with young children in Head Start and a brightly lit room filled with toddlers—some accompanied by their parents—in Early Head Start. We saw a classroom set up for evening English classes for parents and another classroom filled with commercial sewing machines for job training for parents. We observed an after school program serving well over a hundred children; some of the children were folk dancing while others were tending an enormous garden and others were cooking the vegetables they had grown in the garden. We talked with the Community School Director, who helped parents connect with other social services located outside the school and also patched together funding from Medicaid, Head Start, and the federal “21st Century Learning Centers” after school program, along with some philanthropic grants. Her responsibility was to work with the principal to coordinate the Community School services along with an excellent academic program.

Income inequality and poverty are overwhelming challenges for American families. In early September, for The Guardian, Ed Pilkington reported new data from the Russell Sage Foundation documenting economic inequality between white, African American, and Hispanic children in the United States: “In 2019, the median wealth level for a white family with children in the U.S. was $63,838. The same statistic for a Black family with children was $808. Hispanic families with kids fare little better. They have a median wealth of $3,175, which equates to 5 cents for every dollar of wealth in an equivalent white household… Wealth is calculated by aggregating a family’s assets and subtracting from it their debts. The median for white families largely consists of the value of the homes they own minus mortgages, with additional wealth coming from savings and inheritance. Among Black families homeownership is much less common, as are savings or inheritance, which collectively shrinks the median wealth to the paltry figure of $808.”

Families without resources need help locating assistance, and Full-Service Community Schools locate support for families right in the same building where the children are at school.  The growth of Full-Service Community Schools is not merely an urban phenomenon.  The Minnesota education writer, Sarah Lahm reports on the importance of a Community School in the Deer River School District, “a rural district serving approximately 900 students in the densely forested, lake-filled reaches of northern Minnesota,” where “the school district pulls kids in from the surrounding towns and covers more than 500 square miles…. Also, the school district is located within the Leech Lake Reservation, which is home to nearly 10,000 members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe…. Approximately one-third of Deer River’s student population is Native American…. More than two-thirds of the district’s K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines; 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless” and “almost 25 percent qualify for special education services.”

Earlier this month Lahm explored the role of a Full-Service Community School in inner-suburban Minneapolis—in Brooklyn Center rocked by the tragedy in April 2021 of the killing of Daunte Wright by a police officer: “Offering assistance in a time of crisis is something full-service community schools may be especially equipped to do.” Programming supported by community partnerships helped bring the return of school engagement not only after Wright’s tragic death, but also after a year of disruption by the COVID pandemic: “Sizi Goyah, a high school math teacher in Brooklyn Center… is overflowing with enthusiasm these days. It’s summer, and students from Brooklyn Center Community Schools, where he teaches, have been spending their days outside, learning about drones and other hands-on science and technology topics. ‘They are seeing engineering coming to life,’ Goyah says happily, noting that the summer program he’s part of is a way to help students re-engage in learning after the disruptions caused by COVID-19 shutdowns. The summer school option has been brought to life with help from local partners that work alongside Brooklyn Center Community Schools, an approach that is standard practice for this suburban school district… This includes not only support for summer school courses but also a whole range of on-site and community based initiatives.”

U.S. NewsLauren Camera cites data documenting the effectiveness of Full-Service Community Schools: “Research shows that community schools have a wide range of positive impacts on students and throughout the community, from improving attendance, academic achievement and graduation rates, to reducing disciplinary actions and increasing the physical and mental health of students and their families.  One analysis found that community schools yield up to $15 in social benefits for every dollar invested. And they’ve proven especially important for underserved students and their families….”

The President and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation, Raymond Pierce celebrated Full-Service Community Schools in a commentary last week for Forbes Magazine: “President Biden’s budget request for the U.S. Department of Education includes an investment of $443 million to expand the Full-Service Community Schools program. That’s more than 10 times the amount invested in fiscal year 2021, and for good reason. In his testimony presenting the Department’s proposed budget, Education Secretary Cardona explained: ‘This program recognizes the role of schools as the centers of our communities and neighborhoods, and funds efforts to: identify and integrate the wide range of community-based resources needed to support students and their families, expand learning opportunities for students and parents alike, support collaborative leadership and practices, and promote the family and community engagement that can help ensure student success.'”

The Danger of Conflating Public School Stability with Preservation of the Status Quo

Two major education organizations have recently released public opinion polls describing—after last year’s disruption by the COVID-19 pandemic—Americans’ opinions about public education in general and respondents’ views of their own communities’ public schools.  It is fascinating to compare the sponsoring organizations’ interpretations of the meaning of the results they discovered.

Phi Delta Kappa International describes its mission: “Established in 1906, PDK International supports teachers and school leaders by strengthening their interest in the profession through the entire arc of their career.”  As an organization supporting public school educators, this year PDK probed how the pandemic affected parents’ attitudes and more broadly the opinions of adults in general toward public education.  PDK’s executive director Joshua Starr interprets the new poll results: “For 53 years, PDK has polled the American public on their attitudes toward the nation’s public schools…  (A)s we all know, the 2020-21 school year was anything but typical. So, we decided to take a different tack, setting aside our usual approach to the survey and… zeroing in on the questions that matter most right now: How have the public schools performed during the pandemic, and what are Americans’ main concerns about the coming 2021-22 school year? The results offer a rare glimmer of hope at a difficult time. Not only have the nation’s educators persevered through the hardest school year in memory, but according to our findings, most Americans—especially parents with children in the public schools—remain confident in their local schools’ ability to provide effective instruction and leadership.”

In contrast, several of Education Next‘s corporate reformers describe the new poll from the point of view of that publication. Education Next is edited by  Paul E. Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  Peterson’s program, a pro-corporate reform think tank, is housed in the Harvard Kennedy Center and is separate from Harvard University’s department of education. Education Next is the house organ for Peterson’s program.

Here is the spin of Peterson and three colleagues as they describe the results of the new Education Next poll: “Calamities often disrupt the status quo… Yet not all such catastrophic events lead to an appetite for change… The 15th annual Education Next survey investigates how Americans are responding to the worst pandemic since 1919.  In the realm of education, a desire for sweeping reform might well be expected, given the pandemic’s particularly severe toll on K-12 schooling…  In the political sphere, expectations for large-scale innovation are running high…  Our survey results should temper expectations for major shifts in any political direction and post a warning to advocates of any stripe. At least when it comes to education policy, the U.S. public seems as determined to return to normalcy after Covid as it was after the flu pandemic a century ago… The shifts are not large enough to be statistically significant for some items: in-state tuition for immigrant children, higher salaries for teachers when the respondent is informed of current pay levels, testing students for accountability purposes, tax-credit scholarships, and merit pay.  On other items, such as preschool education, the survey does not include information on the state of opinion in both 2019 and 2021, but we find no evidence of a surge in demand for change and reform.  All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

The Phi Delta Kappa poll should reassure those who have been worried that masses of parents have given up on public schools disrupted by long sessions of virtual schooling and hybrid in-class/online schedules.  “Majorities of Americans give high marks to their community’s public schools and public school teachers for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic during the 2020-21 school year.  Further, the public is broadly confident in schools’ preparedness to handle the challenges ahead in 2021-22. Teachers fare especially well in these assessments.  About two-thirds of adults overall, and as many K-12 public school parents, give their community’s public school teachers an A or B grade for their pandemic response.  Parents are almost as positive about their community’s public schools more generally, giving 63% As or Bs, though the positive rating slips to 54% among all Americans… People whose public schools mainly used a hybrid model are 7 to 17 points more apt than those with fully remote schools to be confident in their schools’ preparedness to reopen fully this fall…. Confidence on catching up on academics and dealing with social-emotional impacts is higher still among those whose schools mainly used in-person learning.”

Education Next compares polling results from its 2019 poll to this year’s survey, and points to declining support in every single category of policy change, from the kind of reforms Education Next supports—merit pay for teachers, annual testing, Common Core state standards, national standards in general, charter schools, universal private school tuition vouchers, low-income vouchers, and tuition tax credits; to reforms public school supporters prefer—more school spending and increased teacher salaries, to reforms in higher education—free public four-year college and free public two-year college. The Education Next poll even asks respondents about the impact of teachers unions: “A plurality of Americans (50%) say unions made it neither easier nor harder to reopen schools in their community.” “In short,” explains Education Next, “The public seems tired of disruption, change, and uncertainty. Enthusiasm for most, perhaps all, policy innovations has waned… All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

It is significant that these polls highlight something that neither organization names explicitly: Public schools are the only widespread institution outside the family itself that parents can count on to support their children, to shape a dependable family routine, to support parents as they learn to understand and appreciate their children’s challenges and gifts, and simply to introduce children to their broader community in a safe and structured setting.

Despite the worries reported in the press that parents might have lost faith in their public schools due to the incredible challenges posed by COVID-19 and some reports speculating that children will leave in droves to online or private alternatives, PDK’s poll affirms that most people will return their children to the public schools they continue to count on as the essence of their communities.

Education Next‘s spinners, determined to impose their set of technocratic reforms, forget to identify public schools as essential institutions and forget that public schools represent the identity and the history of each community. In describing the poll, Education Next conflates the meaning of stability with something else entirely: returning to the status quo.  People who love the stability of their community’s public schools may desperately want school improvement, but they generally don’t choose the kind of technocratic change Education Next supports and includes in its new poll: merit pay, annual standardized testing, the Common Core state standards, national standards, privately operated charter schools, and publicly funded tuition vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

Parents and members of the community whose grandchildren and neighbors attend public schools more likely define essential change in the context of particular improvements needed for safety, security, and educational opportunities for the community’s children and adolescents: the return of a shuttered school library—small classes to bring more personal attention for each child—the return of a school nurse—an art program—a school orchestra—enough guidance counselors to ensure that all high school seniors have help with their college applications—better chemistry labs and a Calculus class at the high school—an additional school social worker—Community School wraparound services to support families who need medical care, better after-school programs, and summer enrichment.  Most families don’t look to find this kind of reform in a privatized charter school or by carrying a voucher to a private school.

Education sociologist Pedro Noguera reminds us, “What I try to remind people is that despite their flaws, public schools are still the most stable institutions in many cities, particularly the poor cities. The job now is to figure out how to make them better, not simply how to tear them down, especially given there’s no other institutions stepping up.”

Recently as I explored the books of the late Mike Rose, a profound advocate for the importance of America’s system of public education, I found this passage examining what ought to be the definition of school reform. Rose was not a fan of the status quo; instead he was a strong believer in the need for ongoing public school improvement: “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.” (Why School? p. 203)

Rose continues: “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)

Mike Rose would have been reassured by this year’s Phi Delta Kappa poll, which demonstrates that parents are sticking with the public schools—not leaving in droves as some people had feared.  Rose would have called us all to keep on fighting to ensure that our public schools are well resourced to ensure that every child discovers opportunity at school.

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.

Illinois Legislature Begins to Repair the Damage of Chicago School Reform

The detour into what we call corporate, test-based public school accountability began in Chicago. It involved an explicit effort to disempower unionized schoolteachers. And underneath it all was a corporate strategy that made assumptions about the wishes and needs of the city’s parents without consulting them.

According to Steven Ashby and Robert Bruno: “In November 1994, the Republicans gained a majority in the Illinois General Assembly… As 1995 opened, the new legislative session created a frenzy of anti-Chicago teacher ideas… After Mayor (Richard M.) Daley’s reelection to a third term in April, Republican leaders urged him to present a plan for school reform… Daley and the Republicans promptly negotiated a broader takeover of the Chicago school system. The plan gave the mayor a large measure of control over the system, which he had long sought… The new law did away with the School Board Nominating Commission, permitting Daley to handpick his own five-person school board. The position of superintendent was also eliminated, and Daley now had the sole power to appoint a school ‘chief executive officer.’ Further weakening the influence of the Chicago Teachers Union and its role in reform, at the mayor’s insistence the law also amended the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act… by banning teachers strikes for eighteen months, prohibiting bargaining over class size, layoffs, staffing and teacher assignments, eliminating seniority as a factor in filling teacher vacancies and limiting teacher rights to file grievances.” (The Fight for the Soul of Public Education: The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike, Cornell University. Press, 2016, pp. 28-29)

I have been tracking school reform since the mid 1990s, and my clipping file on the Chicago Public Schools is larger than any other. First the new plan disempowered Chicago’s groundbreaking local school councils, which sought to engage parents, teachers and the community in the life of the neighborhood schools.  Then came Renaissance 2010, the massive experiment in the expansion of charter schools and simultaneous closure of the neighborhood schools identified by standardized test scores as “failing.”

Rick Perlstein describes the launch of Renaissance 2010 by the city’s corporate establishment: “Travel back with me, then, to July of 2003, when the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago—comprised of the chairman of the board of McDonald’s, the CEOs of Exelon Energy and the Chicago Board Options Exchange, two top executives of the same Fortune 500 manufacturing firm, two partners at top-international corporate law firms, one founder of an investment bank, one of a mutual fund, and the CEO of a $220.1 billion asset-management fund: twelve men, all but one of them white—published ‘Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago’s Public Schools.’ (which declared:) ‘Chicago should have at least 100 charter schools… These would be new schools operating outside the established school system and free of many of the bureaucratic or union-imposed constraints that now limit the flexibility of regular public schools.’ Lo, like pedagogical kudzu, the charters came forth: forty-six of them, with names like ‘Infinity Math, Science, and Technology High School,’ ‘Rickover Naval Academy High School,’ ‘Aspira Charter School,’ and ‘DuSable Leadership Academy of Betty Shabazz International Charter School.'”

Since 1995, Chicago’s mayors and their appointed school boards have experimented in ways that damaged the city’s neighborhood schools, many of them shut down under a “portfolio school reform” plan that operated according to a theory similar to a business portfolio—eliminate the “failing” investments and buy more new, shiny charter schools. The mayor’s appointed board of education launched something called student-based budgeting at the same time the new charters were being launched and marketed with glowing promises. When students left for a charter, the schools which lost enrollment lost funding, class sizes exploded, nurses were laid off, libraries were shuttered, and substitute teachers were even hard to find as the schools declined. A downward spiral began to accelerate, and at the end of 2013, the school district’s mayoral-appointed board closed nearly 50 schools, over 80 percent serving African American students.

The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.” “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

But something has begun to change in this spring of 2021. Twenty-six years since an Illinois legislature launched Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 1995 school reform plan, another Illinois Legislature has begun to turn turn away from corporate school reform.

In April it was reported that, “Defying Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill… restoring the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain with the city over a wide range of issues, including class size, layoffs and the duration of the school year… The measure repeals Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which has restricted the CTU’s bargaining power since 1995, when state lawmakers gave then-Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the school district after several long strikes.”

In May, Mayor Lightfoot’s appointed board of education terminated its long contract with the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) to turnaround the city’s so-called “failing” public schools. School “turnaround” was a central part of the ideology of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and Arne Duncan’s 2009 Race to the Top program. School districts were required under federal law to identify the bottom 5 percent of public schools according to their standardized test scores and to turn them around quickly. Chicago turned many of its so-called “failing” schools over to AUSL, a city-wide consultant.  Chalkbeat‘s Cassie Walker Burke explains this history: “Tapped in 2006 to steer improvements at some of the city’s lowest-performing schools, the Academy for Urban School Leadership’s roster currently includes 31 schools on the South and West Sides that predominantly serve students from low-income families. Of the network’s schools, 20 campuses—or 65%—were in good standing last school year and had one of Chicago’s higher school ratings… but the remaining 11 were flagged for remediation or probation under that system.” Walker Burke describes Bogdana Chkoumbova, Chicago’s chief schools officer, explaining why school district leaders have chosen to terminate AUSL management of the schools: “She said that in school-level meetings about the transition plan, parents and educators said they hoped to see district takeover improve school culture and climate and prioritize restorative justice practices. Participants also said they hoped phasing schools back to district oversight would yield better collaboration with other schools and school leaders.”

Then last Wednesday, June 16, the Illinois House voted to approve a bill already passed by the Illinois Senate to begin the process of restoring an elected school board to the Chicago Public Schools. The Sun-TimesRachel Hinton reports: “Chicago will soon have an elected school board thanks to a bill passed by members of the Illinois House Wednesday over objections from Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The House voted 70 to 41 to advance the bill, handing another loss to Lightfoot, who has been vocal in her opposition to the prospect of an elected board. The bill will soon head to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has voiced support for an elected board and is expected to sign the legislation… House Bill 2908, as amended, would create a 21-seat board in January 2025, initially split between 11 mayoral appointees—including the board president—and 10 elected members.  Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, said the bill isn’t perfect but ‘this is a down payment on democracy.’… In a statement, the Chicago Teachers Union said the vote ‘represents the will of the people, and after more than a quarter of a century, moves our district forward in providing democracy and a voice to students and their families'”

Obviously the restoration of the fully elected board of education will be a long process fraught with several years of complicated politics. But there has been real concern in Chicago about the suppression of the voices of parents and teachers and the locus of power in Chicago in the powerful corporate establishment bent on pursuing ideological school reform for over twenty-five years.

In a profound 2018 book exploring the widespread closure of neighborhood schools during the years of mayoral governance, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of school closures across Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood—the meaning for teachers, grandparents, and students. Ewing contrasts their love for storied community institutions with the technocratic arguments of school district officials: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

Good Teachers Will Know How to Help Our Children Thrive after a Year of COVID-19 Disruption

This spring has been filled with a debate about whether or not standardized testing in public schools should be continued or cancelled. And right now there seems to be a widespread obsession with measuring students’ “learning loss” in this disrupted COVID-19 year. A lot of this anxiety about whether the COVID-19 generation will ever be able to catch up has less to do with the students themselves, however, and more to do with the fact that many people don’t really know what teachers do. Some people think of teachers essentially as babysitters; others imagine teachers merely lecturing all day in front of classrooms of students taking notes or dozing as they sit in rows of desks. Lots of people seem to imagine that teachers won’t know what to do with their students unless they see the scores on the federally required standardized tests in English language arts and math.

Back in the winter, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a letter from 74 national public education advocacy organizations and ten thousand individuals to the recently nominated education secretary, Miguel Cardona. In the letter asking Cardona to cancel standardized testing in this year of COVID-19 school closures and disruption, the writers concluded: “To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

Last week, as part of a series of columns this spring on how teachers can support students once back in school, Valerie Strauss published a wonderful piece by Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento.

As he reflects upon the students who spent much of the current school year online or on hybrid in-person/online schedules, Ferlazzo supports research showing that remedial classes—which go back and start with the basics one step at a time—are a bad plan. Ferlazzo agrees with researchers who have demonstrated that “accelerated” learning is a good idea, but he advises school districts not to spend a lot of money at the publishing houses and online companies promoting their expensive “accelerated learning” products:

“‘Accelerated Learning’ appears to be the buzzword of the day in education. It’s what all schools are supposed to be doing to help students recover from another buzzword—‘learning loss.’… I suspect that a fair number of people are going to try to make a lot of money off of ‘accelerated learning’ products and professional development over the next year and more.  And, though I agree that accelerated learning is what is called for right now (and always!), I also don’t think it’s anything new, don’t think it’s anything magical, and don’t think it’s anything that districts need to spend a lot of money to learn about. It is, in fact, what good teachers of English Language Learners have been doing for years. Good ELL teaching is good teaching for everybody!”

Of course, Ferlazzo is not writing about some of what teachers do in classes for non-speakers and non-readers of English. He isn’t writing about pattern practice drills or conversation “dialogues” that reinforce the rudiments of English syntax and help students learn the nuances of conversation. These parts of English language classes are more like mind-numbing remedial education.

Instead, Ferlazzo writes about something more complicated and more subtle: “ELL teachers know that whatever kind of schooling their students received or did not receive in their home countries, they nevertheless bring a wealth of experience and knowledge into the classroom. This knowledge includes social emotional learning skills like resilience, and understandings that can be connected to academic content. (They might not know specifically about Mardi Gras, but they will know about cultural celebrations; they may not know about the American Civil War, but they will know about conflicts in their home country/region; they may not know about the specific details of climate change, but they may know that one of the reasons their families were forced to leave their country might have been due to more recent drought conditions.)  During the pandemic… all of our students have acquired an enormous amount of other knowledge and skills.”

Ferlazzo suggests that good teachers know “how to look at their students through the lens of assets and not deficits.”

He suggests that good teachers will build their students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and explore. They will make “students feel they have some control over what they are being taught and how they are learning. Providing choice is an easy way for teachers to incorporate this quality” including well designed writing assignments and homework options. Good teachers build confidence instead of threatening students about falling behind: “Research says that no matter how much we say that people learn a lot from failure, most do not….”  Good teachers make their classrooms into settings for relatedness, “where students feel like the work they are being asked to do is bringing them into relationship with people they like and respect” including the teacher and other students through group work.  Finally, good teachers know how to make the subject matter of the class relevant to students’ lives, to their personal interests, and to what’s happening in the world.

Good teachers activate and provide prior knowledge. “Prior knowledge is not just what students bring to our classrooms. It is also knowledge that we strategically provide so they can access even newer content that we will be teaching… (W)e are better learners of something new if we can connect it to something we already know.”

Ferlazzo adds that good teachers make students comfortable emotionally by emphasizing supportive relationships, and organizing classes according to predictable routines. Good teachers use all sorts of “formative assessments”—“low stakes tools” that show the teacher what students can do and where they need help. Good teachers provide study organizers—charts and graphic organizers, note-taking strategies, writing frames and other techniques to help them be independent learners.  And finally, Ferlazzo advocates the use of some adaptive online instruction tools, though in this case, he is very clear: “Tech has its place in education, and it also has to be kept in its place… Really, if we were going to be able to ‘technify’ ourselves to academic excellence, wouldn’t that have happened in many places over the past 15 months?”

I am struck with the similarity of Ferlazzo’s definition of great “accelerated” learning as students return to school post-pandemic with education professor and writer Mike Rose’s basic definition of good teaching. Rose’s book, the 1995, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (with a new edition in 2006), is the story of a four year trip he took across the United States to observe excellent teaching.  Possible Lives came right before our nation fell into the trap of No Child Left Behind and the era of corporate, test based school accountability.  It is the very best book I know about great teaching.

Nearly 20 years after the publcation of Possible Lives, in an extraordinary 2014 article pushing back against the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top era’s school reform, Rose summarizes what he has learned about teaching over a career of observing great teachers: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

Mike Rose, a scholar who has studied good teaching over a long career, and Larry Ferlazzo, an experienced and thoughtful high school teacher, warn us not to underestimate what good teachers know how to do.

President Biden Proposes to Offer Extra Title I Grants as Incentives to Encourage States to Do Justice

The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations provided financial incentive grants to states to encourage them to expand charter schools. (The federal Charter Schools Program still exists, and I am hoping the Biden administration gets rid of it!) And the Obama administration provided Race to the Top incentive grants to urge states to adopt common standards paired with standardized tests and to evaluate teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. These were all part of a more than two decades’ scheme of standardized, test-based, corporate-style accountability that provided incentives to reward teachers who produced high test scores and punishments for teachers and schools that couldn’t produce rising scores.  While the assumption was that teachers and schools could, by adopting particular practices, produce jumps in test scores, the reality has proven far more complicated and challenging, and anyway, most of us agree that test scores should not be the sole way of judging the quality of education.

Now the Biden administration is proposing something more constructive and even revolutionary: Biden is proposing to use Title I grants to encourage state legislatures to increase and equalize school funding across school districts. President Biden seeks to press states to abide by the language of their state constitutions, and thereby provide a system of well funded schools to serve every child—rich or poor; Black, Hispanic, white or Native American; English language learner or disabled child.  President Biden is proposing to use federal funds to incentivize the states—which under the 50 state constitutions, have the primary responsibility for fairly funding public education—to do justice.

The president’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal, announced last Friday, now will be considered by Congress, which has to appropriate the money. Congress rarely passes the same budget presented by the President. But the budget President Biden proposed last Friday is a significant statement of his values and priorities.  Many of the ideas from the American Families Plan are included. And, significantly, the new budget proposal would extend the American Rescue Plan’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit until 2025.

Education Week‘s Evie Blad outlines the education section of Biden’s FY 22 budget proposal: “President Joe Biden proposed an ambitious $6 trillion national budget Friday that calls for dramatic increases in spending on K-12 education, including $20 billion in new incentives to states to raise teacher pay and address inequity in school funding. The proposal would increase the U.S. Department of Education’s discretionary budget for the coming fiscal year to $102.8 billion, about 41 percent above current levels.” Blad reports that Biden’s proposed budget would:

  • Increase Title I to $36.5 billion from $16 billion;
  • Begin the phase in of $100 billion over t0 years for school infrastructure;
  • Add $3.5 billion for universal preschool in the Department of Health and Human Services and provide two years of free community college;
  • Increase funding to $16 billion for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—an increase of $2.7 billion;
  • Increase funding for full service, wraparound Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million;
  • Invest $1 billion to double the number of guidance counselors, school psychologists, school nurses, and school social workers; and
  • Spend $25 million to make schools environmentally friendly.

The biggest, the most significant, and very likely the most controversial part of President Biden’s education budget is the increase in Title I, the Education Department’s oldest program—dating to 1965—and designed to provide extra federal funding for schools serving concentrations of children in poverty to help compensate for inequities within and across state school funding systems.

Blad explains: “At the core of Biden’s education budget (are) new ‘equity grants’ that would increase funding for Title I, a grant program for educating disadvantaged students, to $36.5 billion from about $16 billion, the largest increase in the history of the program. That new funding would ‘build on the existing Title I program,’ flowing through a new formula that would address state and local funding models that ‘favor wealthier districts over districts with concentrated poverty.’… Politicians concerned about equity have long pointed to challenges with the nation’s education funding systems as a concern.  Predominantly white districts receive about $23 billion more funding (from state and local sources combined) than districts that predominantly serve students of color….”

Blad further explains the administration’s justification for the new Title I grants: “Some lawmakers have said the existing Title I formula does not adequately address funding gaps between schools. Rather than replace that formula entirely, the Biden plan would break out new Title I funds into a separate grant. To access that funding, states would have to submit plans about how they would track and address gaps in their funding systems, ensure teachers are compensated at levels comparable to other professionals with similar education and experience, ensure students have access to advanced coursework, and increase access to early-childhood programs.”

Living in Ohio, I am acutely aware of the need for somebody to press our state senate to make our state’s school funding formula work for children who live in economically and racially segregated school districts. This month the Ohio Legislature is considering a new Fair School Funding Plan as part of the state budget which must be passed by June 30. Experts have regularly pointed to the collapse of the state’s school funding formula—leaving school districts overly reliant on unequal local property taxes. In a House Finance Committee hearing on December 2, 2020, Ohio school funding expert Howard Fleeter explained: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a (working) school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.” Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton adds: “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”  Earlier this spring, the Ohio House passed the six-year phase-in of the new Fair School Funding Plan as part of its version of the proposed state budget, but, yesterday the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported that the Senate Finance Committee wants to reduce new public school funding over six years to about a third of the House version, increase funding for vouchers, and cut personal income taxes by 5 percent. Senate leaders claim it is dangerous to pass a plan for the upcoming biennium that will constrain future legislatures as the Fair School Funding Plan’s six-year phase-in would need to continue. The House and Senate versions will need to be reconciled by the end of June.

Ohio is part of a much broader pattern. School finance experts Bruce Baker and Mark Weber recently tracked a trend of declining states’ fiscal efforts over the past twenty-five years to fund their public schools. These economists compared each state’s total K-12 education spending to the state’s fiscal capacity as measured by aggregate personal income. State fiscal effort for education, not surprisingly collapsed after the Great Recession: “What happened starting in 2010 was disastrous in two respects.  First, average effort declined rapidly for 3-4 years, bottoming out well below its pre-recession level. Second, it did not recover in subsequent years. In other words, as of now, the decline in fiscal effort appears permanent.”

In a fine book published last autumn, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black documents the same trend, still evident a dozen years after the Great Recession: “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)  “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

Have the cuts in spending affected students’ experience at school? Last summer,  C. Kirabo Jackson, a social policy professor at Northwestern University and two colleagues released a study of the decade-long effects of the recession on school achievement nationwide despite federal stimulus in the form of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  School districts made the greatest cuts by putting off capital expenses like building maintenance and repairs. “Even so, districts still made substantial cuts to instructional spending. For every dollar in spending cuts, we find districts reduced instructional spending by $0.45, on average. Reductions in payroll costs for instructional employees account for roughly half of that amount… Districts trimmed their spending on payroll across the board, taking particular aim at the guidance office. We look at overall staff counts and find that, on average, a $1,000 decline in spending was associated with hiring 3.7 percent fewer teachers, 5.3 percent fewer instructional aides, 3.3 percent fewer library staff members, and 12 percent fewer guidance counselors. This led to roughly 0.3 more students per teacher and 80 more students per guidance counselor… (T)he spending declines that followed the Great Recession halted a five-decade-long increase in student test scores in reading and math, kicking off what some have called a ‘lost decade’ in terms of student achievement… (T)hose cuts also were associated with slower rates of college-going among students on track to become first-time college freshmen, possibly undermining some students’ momentum during a critical moment of transition from K-12 to higher education…”

What Is President Biden’s American Families Plan?

Tonight, when President Biden marks 100 days in office with a major speech to a joint session of Congress, he is expected to announce the second part of his Infrastructure Plan—the American Families Plan.  This part of Biden’s agenda does not directly support the public schools, but it will continue to ameliorate child poverty and reduce stress on families and thereby help public school students in myriad ways.

The Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein explains what is known about the plan, despite that negotiations have been fluid even in recent days: “The ‘American Families Plan,’ set to be released ahead of the president’s joint address to Congress on Wednesday, calls for devoting hundreds of billions of dollars to national child care, prekindergarten, paid family leave and tuition-free community college, among other domestic priorities… The key components of the plan consist of roughly $300 billion in education funding, the biggest pot of which includes funding to make two-year community colleges tuition-free; $225 billion in child-care funding; $225 billion for paid family and medical leave; $200 billion for prekindergarten instruction; and $200 billion to extend more enhanced Affordable Care Act subsidies….  The plan would also extend a more robust child tax credit until 2025… a measure that could cost as much as $400 billion, as well as extend a more robust tax credit for workers. Aides repeatedly stressed that the details of the plan were subject to change and that final decisions had not yet been made.”

Fiscally austere federal policy to address economic inequality dates back to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the law that ended welfare. Policy designed to stigmatize instead of helping low income families has been around for so long that, it’s clear, the path to final enactment of Biden’s American Families Plan will not be smooth. Stein continues: “Those programs all largely reflect ideas that have moved into the Democratic mainstream, brought to the fore by the changes caused by the pandemic. The United States is the only wealthy nation with no federally provided paid maternity leave; is one of about five with no paid paternity leave; and is one of two without general paid sick leave… The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has ranked the United States as one of the worst in the world in terms of spending on families, with parents particularly stressed by the high cost and lack of access of child care during the pandemic.”

Negotiations in Congress look challenging. CNN‘s Phil Mattingly reports that after tonight’s speech to Congress, “Biden will then hit the road on his first sales pitch for the plan later this week.” The American Family Plan is being announced second—after the Infrastructure Plan was recently announced.  Mattingly explains: “(O)fficials acknowledged to CNN… that this is a far heavier lift politically, with limited chance for any GOP buy-in. The two pieces were spaced out intentionally in part to give space for Biden’s infrastructure plan to attract bipartisan support.” From the other side, Congressional Democrats are demanding that Biden extend the plan with additional programs and investments.

Especially controversial with Republicans are the tax reforms that have been discussed as the way to pay for the plan. Stein explains: “Biden and White House officials have been adamant that their tax hikes would not hit anyone earning under $400,000 per year. The key tax changes are expected to include increasing the top tax rate from 37 percent to 39.6 percent; taxing investment gains from capital income at ordinary wage rates for those earning more than $1 million; and imposing a higher tax on assets when they are transferred at death, among other provisions….”

A Little History about the Need for Such a Plan

In the first 100 days of his term, President Biden has been taking enormous steps to try to establish a new set of foundational values regarding the role of government for supporting children—both at school and at home. When a major shift is underway in the direction of public policy, it is difficult to discern the ultimate implications.  We can’t anticipate how Biden’s Infrastructure Plan will work out or even whether he will get his proposed budget for education passed.

We had another major shift in the basic values under public policy when a  bipartisan Congressional coalition passed the omnibus No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) back in 2002. That law—with its glowing title about saving children—would instead solidify the idea that public schools across America are failing and would launch an era of austerity budgeting for public schools federally and across the states. We have now watched two-decades of blaming and sanctioning the schools serving America’s poorest children instead of helping them.  And at the same time, federal policy has reduced economic support for the poorest children served by public schools. The federal punitive requirements of NCLB conspired with the 1996 law that “ended welfare as we know it”— and later with the Great Recession followed by austerity budgeting across the states after the Tea Party wave election in 2010—to destroy overall state investment in public education and programs to help families barely subsisting as economic inequality soared.

It took two years (through 2018 and 2019) of statewide walkouts by public school teachers from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma along with huge strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland and Chicago to begin to correct NCLB’s strategy of test-and-punish. Teachers finally opened the nation’s eyes to the impact on schools and on children of austerity budgeting and privatizing education—an agenda that had conspired across the states to punish, privatize, and even close public schools in America’s poorest communities.  Striking teachers across the states exposed what had been invisible: staffing shortages that left children stuffed in classes of 40 students and that left children in public schools without an adequate number of counselors, school psychologists, school nurses and librarians.

It’s been a long time coming, but right now President Biden is attempting significantly to shift policy that shapes the lives of America’s poorest children and their schools. Biden’s American Rescue Plan, signed into law on March 11, allocates significant dollars for school reopening, and his FY 22 budget proposal would double investment in the Title I program that invests extra dollars in the public schools serving concentrations of America’s poorest children. Both are designed to rectify the damage to schools wrought by NCLB and a cascade of other punitive policies like Race to the Top.

Today the Biden Administration, spurred on by the economic catastrophe of COVID-19, will propose to supplement those investments by introducing the American Families Plan, intended to reshape national policies that have blamed America’s poorest families for being poor and denied them urgently needed public support. The American Families Plan would make permanent the American Rescue Act’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit and offer a boost for families struggling to afford preschool, for young people unable to afford community college, and for families shut out of affordable childcare and burdened with persistent poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

Last month when the President’s infrastructure bill was announced, the Center for Law and Public Policy’s executive director, Claudia Golden responded to the parts of the infrastructure package that comprise the American Families Plan: “CLASP looks forward to supporting the remaining crucial infrastructure investments anticipated in the forthcoming American Families Plan. A successful economic recovery can’t occur without a national paid leave program that enables workers everywhere to take time when they need to care for themselves or loved ones without risking their livelihoods. It requires a large-scale investment to transform the nation’s child care and early education system, building on the important first step in the recently enacted American Rescue Plan to stabilize the sector.  A comprehensive recovery must also make permanent improvements to the child tax credit and earned income tax credit included in the American Rescue Plan, as well as a substantial additional investment in mental health….”

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?”