Gates Foundation Unable to Address Real Needs in Public Schools. When Will We Ever Learn?

Bill and Melinda Gates just released this year’s Gates Foundation’s Annual Letter on the foundation’s giving.

Here are some principles I fall back on when I sit down to read such a letter.

First I think about the serious warnings we’ve had over the years about the power of today’s mega philanthropies, larger and more far reaching than in previous decades in their efforts to insert themselves into public policy, but without democratic checks and balances of any kind. Here is Diane Ravitch in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: “(I)t is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations.  There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review…. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.” (pp. 200-201)

Second, foundations are not supposed to be overtly political; after all, the funds invested in foundations by their billionaire founders are deemed tax-free and charitable. As charitable gifts, the funds donated to foundations are not taxed, but these dollars have been too frequently privately invested by foundations to underwrite so-called pilot programs in public school districts, programs that have been overtly designed to shape public policy.

Third, foundation-funded projects are experimental but the foundations don’t have to take any responsibility when their experiments fail.  The school districts and schools at the heart of the experiment, however, and the students and teachers in those schools are often seriously negatively impacted when the experiment fails.  Back in 2011, in a much read article about the power of the venture philanthropies—the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, Joanne Barkan traced the history and consequences, for example, of the Gates Foundation’s small high schools experiment: “In 2000 the foundation began pouring money into breaking up large public high schools where test scores and graduation rates were low… The foundation didn’t base its decision on scientific studies showing school size mattered…. In November 2008, Bill and Melinda gathered about one hundred prominent figures in education at their home outside Seattle to announce that the small schools project hadn’t produced strong results. They didn’t mention that, instead, it had produced many gut-wrenching sagas of school disruption, conflict, students and teachers jumping ship en masse, and plummeting attendance, test scores, and graduation rates.  No matter, the power couple had a new plan: performance-based teacher pay, data collection, national standards and tests, and school ‘turnaround’ (the term of art for firing the staff of a low-performing school and hiring a new one, replacing the school with a charter, or shutting down the school and sending the kids elsewhere).  To support the new initiatives, the Gates Foundation had already invested almost $2.2 million to create The Turnaround Challenge, the authoritative how-to guide on turnaround. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it ‘the bible’ for school restructuring.” We now know, of course, the fate of the turnaround challenge as it was adopted by Duncan’s Department of Education—an example of mega-philanthropy driving public policy by producing and promoting the research adopted by the Secretary of Education as the basis for federal policy.

In 2009, the Gates Foundation invested in a teacher evaluation and merit pay experiment in Hillsborough County (greater-Tampa) Florida, an experiment designed around offering bonuses to reward better teaching.  The public school district certainly bought in to participating in the experiment that Gates launched; it did not, however, expect to be left holding considerable debt.  Here is the Tampa Bay Times‘ Marlene Sokol: “The Gates-funded program—which required Hillsborough to raise its own $100 million—ballooned beyond the district’s ability to afford it, creating a new bureaucracy of mentors and ‘peer evaluators’ who don’t work with students. Nearly 3,000 employees got one-year raises of more than $8,000. Some were as high as $15,000, or 25 percent. Raises went to a wider group than envisioned, including close to 500 people who don’t work in the classroom full time, if at all. The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teachers into high-needs schools. More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants. The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million… The district’s share now comes to $124 million… And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses—a major change in philosophy.”

Then, of course, there has been the Gates Foundation investment in the Common Core—investment in the development of national standards and support for the development of the Common Core tests. Last June the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times quoted the Gates Foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman on this failure: “Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well equipped to implement the standards… We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators—particularly teachers—but also parents and communities, so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.  This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”  The LA Times editorial adds, however that Gates “is now working more on providing Common Core-aligned materials to classrooms, including free digital content that could replace costly textbooks.”  Gates has not given up on the Common Core, despite widespread unpopularity.

In this year’s 2018 Annual Gates Foundation Letter, Bill Gates describes the purpose of the Gates Foundation’s investment in education as “ultimately about helping low-income students and students of color get the same opportunities as everyone else… The issues of economic mobility in America are deeply intertwined; education, employment, race, housing, mental health, incarceration, substance abuse.”  You will notice, however, that Gates Foundation investments have not, so far, been aimed at addressing the nexus of poverty and education in the United States. Instead Gates has experimented with technocratic governance changes, standardized curriculum, and teacher evaluation and merit pay.

What does Bill Gates claim the Foundation has accomplished?  Well it isn’t really about addressing the root causes of educational inequality. In the new letter Bill Gates describes drawing attention to a flaw in the calculation of high school graduation rates, supporting small new secondary schools, and improving the quality of teaching by helping “educators understand how to observe teachers, rate their performance fairly, and give them feedback…”  He claims to have learned “that it’s extremely hard to transform low-performing schools.” Finally, he emphasizes: “For any new approach to take off, you need three things. First you have to run a pilot project showing that the approach works. Then the work has to sustain itself. Finally, the approach has to spread to other places.” So far most Gates’ experiments have failed the first test.

Bill and Melinda Gates claim that in the future, the Foundation will be driven more directly by input from teachers: “We will work with networks of middle and high schools across the country to help them develop and implement their own strategies for overcoming the obstacles that keep students from succeeding. We will help these networks with the process: using key indicators of student success like grades and attendance to drive continuous learning and improvement… We’re acutely aware that some development programs in the past were led by people who assumed they knew better than the people they were trying to help. We’ve learned over the years that listening and understanding people’s needs from their perspective is not only more respectful—it’s also more effective.”

After over fifteen years of investing in what, it is now clear, are failed interventions in education, it is nice that the Gates Foundation plans to work more closely with the teachers in the public schools. Ultimately, however, due to a long history of educational inequality exacerbated in the past decade by reduced state and federal funding, the greatest challenge for public schools today involves lack of resources—particularly for the schools in the poorest communities.  When the Gates Foundation talks with teachers, its staff will likely discover they cannot provide what is needed—especially in the poorest school districts serving student populations where poverty is concentrated.  Although more tax dollars would enable our society to buy smaller classes or more school nurses or counselors or psychologists or the addition of advanced curriculum or enrichments like school music, foundations are not set up to undertake ongoing operating expenses. Neither Gates nor any other foundation is set up to be responsive to these basic operating needs that teachers will surely identify.

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School Ratings Not Only Tell You Little about Schools, They Contribute to Economic Segregation

Jack Schneider, a professor and education historian at the College of the Holy Cross and director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, points out that the school district in Boston, Massachusetts encourages parents to choose from among the public schools across the district.  In a short commentary,  State School Rankings ‘Virtually Worthless,’ Schneider explains that many parents make that choice pretty much based on overall school ratings assigned by the state.

How does Massachusetts calculate its school ratings?  “Each year, the state classifies schools into one of five levels, with the ‘highest performing’ designated Level 1. This practice, though distinct in its details, is in keeping with what is done in the vast majority of states. The theory behind such rankings, whether devised as numerical scores, A-F grades, or narrative labels, is that parents and communities want a clear and simple indicator of school quality. Unfortunately, there are… flaws that make these levels virtually worthless. The first and most obvious problem with state-issued ratings of schools is that they are based primarily on a flawed measure: student standardized test scores.”

Schneider believes such school “grades,” “report cards” and rating systems show parents very little about the quality of schools. Schneider explains all the factors about school quality that test-based ratings omit: “Last fall, MassINC conducted a poll of Boston parents and found that more than two-thirds of them identified as ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’ all of the following: the quality of the teachers and administrators; school safety and discipline; the school’s academic programming; college and career readiness; class sizes; facility quality; the values promoted by the school; the school’s approach to discipline; and the diversity of the teachers and administrators. These critical dimensions of school quality are mostly ignored in the vast majority of statewide rating systems….”

Also, explains Schneider, “(S)chools are not uniformly good or bad. As most of us know from experience, schools—as structures, organizations, and communities—have different strengths and weaknesses. Schools that are struggling in some ways may be thriving in others. And schools with illustrious reputations often have a lot to work on.”

And finally, Schneider names the reality that school ratings are shaping our society: “Perhaps most importantly, ratings shape the decisions parents make about where to live and where to send their children to school.”  Although Schneider does not explore the details of this important observation,  academic research demonstrates the reasons why school ratings are likely to reinforce growing housing segregation by family income.

Over a half century of sociological research (dating back to the landmark 1966 Coleman report) demonstrates a strong correlation between overall school achievement and aggregate family income. When states rate schools by their aggregate test scores, the schools whose students are wealthy tend to get an A, and the schools serving very poor children too frequently get a D or an F.  Here are academic experts discussing how test scores reflect a community’s aggregate economic level, not school quality.

In 2011, the Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon showed here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Based on Reardon’s research, in a 2016 report from the National Education Policy Center warning against the continued reliance on No Child Left Behind’s strategy of testing children, rating schools by scores, and punishing the schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo caution policymakers: “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries.  We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our highest scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board. We must also deal with governmentally determined housing patterns that segregate our children… One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality. This has not happened. Shining a light does not provide the social and educational learning essentials for our neediest children.”

William Mathis and Kevin Welner, in another 2016 National Education Policy Report, summarize what was misguided about school accountability policy imposed by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act: “As policymakers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty. Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding. The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less. This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.”

How does this relate to test-based school accountability?  Last fall, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz explains: “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.” (pp. 129-130) Policymakers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124)

Test-and-punish accountability since 2002, when No Child Left Behind was enacted, has condemned as “failing” the poorest schools and school districts whose test scores, according to academic research, are undermined by the economic circumstances of their communities and families. In lock-step, states have bought in to holding schools accountable and exacerbated the problem by ranking schools with numerical rankings or letter grades—again based on standardized test scores—that encourage wealthier families who can afford it to move to affluent communities that brag about A-rated schools and to abandon the schools in poor communities. For sixteen years, school accountability policies mandated by federal and state governments have been contributing to the economic resegregation of America’s metropolitan areas.

DeVos Locks Out Teachers Demanding that Education Department Address Inequity, Protect Civil Rights

Last week Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, marked her first year in office with a news conference where she announced that her greatest accomplishment has been diminishing the role of her department.

For the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit reports: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proclaimed Wednesday that her proudest accomplishments in her first year in office were shrinking he role of the agency, rolling back Obama-era initiatives and erasing outdated regulations… She rolled back key regulations and guidance documents intended to protect transgender students, student borrowers and victims of sexual assault in the name of reining in a department whose role she believes had grown too large.  She used budget cuts and buyouts to reduce the size of the agency.  ‘Some of the most important work we’ve done in this first year has been around the area of overreach and rolling back the extended footprint of this department to a significant extent,’ DeVos said… She is a rarity among education secretaries, having never worked in public schools before her appointment.”

Worse, last Thursday, DeVos locked the doors of the U.S. Department of Education and left Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association (NEA) and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), along with teachers and parent activists, standing on the sidewalk outside. Eskelsen Garcia, Weingarten and a group of pro-public schools activists had tried to make an appointment personally to deliver 80,000 report cards rating DeVos’s accomplishments this year as a failure.

The report cards were created by a coalition of education, civil rights, community organizing, religious and labor organizations—The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. The Alliance released its report card in conjunction with a strong statement about DeVos’s failure to implement the Department of Education’s defined mission to rectify economic and racial justice in the nation’s 90,000 K-12 public schools. School teachers and school support professionals in public schools around the country had added personal comments on the 80,000 report cards Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten attempted to deliver. Together NEA and AFT represent the majority of the nation’s more than 3 million public school teachers.

By rejecting a meeting with leaders of the nation’s school teachers and other public school supporters, DeVos lost the opportunity to listen to the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools’ substantive critique: “To assess the Secretary’s leadership, we reviewed the U.S. Department of Education’s mission and purpose statements and identified four specific roles in public K12 education on which to review her work…

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

The Alliance explains: “We give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos an “F” for failing to pursue the mission of the U.S. Department of Education.” “In each area, it is clear that the Secretary, far from leading the agency to fulfill its mission, is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. This is not based on incompetence, but on a fundamental disdain for the historic role of the federal government in ensuring access and equity to public education for all children.”

The Alliance’s most serious charge is the Department’s failure to fulfill the mission of Title I and the Department’s Office for Civil Rights: “(A)cross the country, we continue to invest more in schools serving white children than in schools serving African American and Latino children. And as the number of students living in poverty has risen in the U.S., state and local funding for public education has decreased in the past decade, deepening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Two critical and historic roles of the U.S. Department of Education are to address these disparities, and protect students from discrimination in their educational experience. But over the past year, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has deliberately refused to fulfill this mandate.”

Last week Politico‘s Kimberly Hefling and Caitlin Emma reported that Betsy DeVos has been taking lessons from the prominent “Republican messaging expert” Frank Luntz—“to figure out how to talk about conservative educational policies without sparking protests from teachers and liberals.”  Hefling and Emma report that a notation appeared on DeVos’s calendar last June: “Frank has a 60-slide deck of the words to use, and the words to lose, regarding parental choice, vouchers, charter schools, teacher pay and all the other issues in education reform.”  According to  Politico, DeVos wants to avoid explicit mentions of school choice and instead talk about “coming together and finding solutions’ with words like “innovation” and “blended learning.”

Politico‘s reporters describe recent speeches in which DeVos uses softer language: “The new message was… on display during a January speech at the American Enterprise Institute, when she said her job is not to be the country’s  ‘choice chief.’  Rather, she said it was time to ask questions, such as  ‘Why do we group students by age?’ and ‘Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?’  ‘We must answer these questions… We must acknowledge what is and what is not working for students.'”

Hefling and Emma continue: “DeVos herself described her focus on ‘rethinking school’ and innovation as a ‘broadening of the message’ during a roundtable with reporters Wednesday.  And expanding school choice options is one way to shake up education, she said. ‘We have to keep changing and getting better at doing school for kids, and helping kids learn in the way they’re wired up to learn,’ she said.  ‘We have far too many places and way too many examples of doing things repeatedly and continuing to double down on doing something the same way and expecting different results.'”

If DeVos wanted seriously to engage such issues, she would have responded to the questions for which NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia has been demanding answers as the condition for setting up a conversation with the head of the National Education Association.  You’d think she might also have politely received Weingarten, Eskelsen Garcia, and their group of pro-public schools advocates when they tried to make an appointment to talk with her on Friday about the Alliance’s serious critique.

That DeVos locked the building to avoid meeting with Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia last Thursday sends a perfectly clear message that cannot be obscured by Frank Luntz’s fuzzy linguistic framing. Betsy DeVos considers the nation’s teachers unions her enemies.

That’s too bad because, while Betsy DeVos herself has never worked in a public school, the NEA and the AFT represent the millions of professionals who are devoting their lives to that very endeavor. They might have some things to teach our inexperienced U.S. Secretary of Education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chan Zuckerberg Priorities, Including “Personalized” Learning, Are Veiled in a Haze of Rhetoric

We shouldn’t be entirely surprised by the sales pitch from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) about the glories of so-called “personalized” learning.  When tech giants push education theory, one always needs to watch for ideas that embody the use of technology. But in the case of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, there is another reason to be careful.  Jim Shelton leads the education work of CZI, a limited-liability corporation that will also be granting gobs of money to develop and promote its education agenda.

In a piece at CHALKBEAT last week, Matt Barnum reports: “Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a bold statement in a recent essay: By giving students individual help, average students can be turned into exceptional ones. ‘If a student is at the 50th percentile in their class and they receive effective one-on-one tutoring, they jump on average to the 98th percentile,’ Zuckerberg wrote.  It’s a remarkable claim, one that strains the limits of belief.  And for good reason: The results from the 1984 study underlying it have essentially never been seen in modern research on public schools. Still, the results have become a popular talking point among those promoting the ‘personalized learning’ approach that Zuckerberg’s philanthropy is advancing. One video created by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative features an illustration of a 50 on a graph zooming upward to hit 98.  The New Schools Venture Fund, another influential education group that backs personalized learning, cites the same work by Benjamin Bloom.”

Barnum’s short report is very much worth reading, for he describes years of academic research discounting Bloom’s claims, beginning with Johns Hopkins researcher Robert Slavin who, in 1987, described Bloom’s claims as, “misleading, out of context, and potentially damaging to educational research.”  Barnum also reminds readers that whatever Bloom’s claims for the value of personalized tutoring in 1984, Bloom was referring to tutoring by human beings, and not tutoring by a computer—even one driven (as people are now beginning to predict) by artificial intelligence.

What Barnum leaves out, however, is another reason for skepticism about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s glowing claims about tutoring by computer—now dubbed by its promoters as “personalized” learning.  Jim Shelton is in charge of education work at CZI, and for quite a long time he has been promoting innovation and computer-driven education. While Shelton has one masters degree in education, he also has degrees in computer science and  business administration and years of experience in the worlds of ed tech and philanthropy, but no experience at all in the classroom.

Jim Shelton worked for Arne Duncan in the Obama administration’s Department of Education.  Shelton rose during his tenure to become the Deputy Secretary, second in command to Arne Duncan. For most of Duncan’s tenure as Education Secretary, however,  Jim Shelton headed the Office of Innovation and Improvement and led the ill-fated Race to the Top program.  According to a Department of Education biography, Shelton majored in computer science at Morehouse College and subsequently earned two master’s degrees from Stanford University in business administration and education.  He developed computer systems, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1993 before moving to the education conglomerate founded by Mike and Lowell Milken, Knowledge Universe, Inc.  In 1999, he founded LearnNow, later acquired by Edison Schools and then worked for Joel Klein to develop and launch Klein’s school strategy in New York City that closed public schools and opened charter schools and based it all on test score data.  Shelton became a partner for the New Schools Venture Fund and then in 2003 joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the program officer for its education division.  In 2014, Shelton left the Department of Education.  He later became the president and chief impact officer of 2U, Inc. an ed tech company that creates online courses for colleges and universities.

In his recent piece at CHALKBEAT, Matt Barnum reminds readers why it should matter so much to us that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is investing in computer-driven—so-called “personalized”—learning.  There is a whole lot of money behind the endeavor: “Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares—worth an estimated $45 billion in late 2015—to CZI over their lifetime.  The organization—which also focuses on criminal justice, immigration, and economic policy—is expected to give ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ per year to education causes.” Not only does CZI wield power with lots of money, but its corporate structure gives it added political power. CZI is a limited-liability corporation, which, unlike a foundation, can lobby for specific legislation and participate directly in political campaigns.

In a piece he published in Medium in December, Jim Shelton himself promotes what he says is CZI’s philosophy of “personalized” learning.  Shelton seems not to worry about justifying CZI’s work with Benjamin Bloom’s 1984, now-discredited report on the role of personalized tutoring to lift a student’s achievement from the 50th to the 98th percentile.  He embraces Bloom’s work as the basis for what he says are the essential questions: “The study proved that the large majority of students had the capacity to learn much more if the experience was well designed and tailored to their needs. That knowledge provokes questions that remain pressing today: What might all our children be capable of if they had the opportunity to reach their true potential? What if our challenges educating children have been the result of our inability or unwillingness to provide the conditions for their success?… And, knowing that today it is the most privileged young people who receive the most tailored education, what is fair and just to those who need it most? These are the questions that drive the education work of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.”

Not only is Shelton using ancient and now-discredited research to justify CZI’s work, but he stipulates that ed tech will be involved in personalizing and individualizing education “at scale” and yet, at the same time involve the human teachers we now count on for this work: “Our notion of personalized learning… is focused on enabling powerful relationships and shared experiences between people—between teachers and students as well as students with their peers, each empowered by learning opportunities with fewer boundaries and much more intensive support.  Technology can support great teaching and has potential to help individualize learning experiences in ways and at a scale that Bloom could not have imagined in the 1980s.  But it is still just a tool.  The heart and soul of education remains about great practitioners working lovingly and skillfully to create the environments and experiences that truly change lives.”

Maybe we can be reassured by this.  Perhaps not.  It is filled with platitudes and all the right code language to reassure those who worry about what Shelton continues to claim CZI’s theory of “personalized” learning is not about: a school where “a computer screen intermediates or substitutes for a child’s relationship with a teacher, and where an academic measure is the only one that matters.”  Most schools today already do incorporate use of the internet; many teach coding.  It is hard to imagine what Zuckerberg’s millions are to be invested in, though if we are talking about expanding digital access and added online research and exploration, that would be wonderful.  George Orwell criticizes Shelton’s kind of language, however, for being so abstract that it may in fact mean any number of things.  Shelton’s rhetoric causes us to pose one important question: What exactly does CZI plan to do?

In an interview for Education Week last June, Shelton tried, for a broad educators’ audience, to dispel any concerns that “personalized” learning is about replacing teachers with computers.  Once again Shelton applies all the right education buzzwords to CZI’s endeavor: “We’ve got to dispel this notion that personalized learning is just about technology… In fact, it is about understanding students, giving them agency, and letting them do work that is engaging and exciting.” Good teachers, of course, understand that their students’ need to own their accomplishments, but there is no evidence that individualized computer-driven projects are the exclusive way to make that happen. Shelton’s implication here is that real live teachers today do not “let”—permit or allow—students to do exciting work.  The excellent public school teachers I know would tell you that engaging students in exciting learning is their purpose.  Shelton denies that the project will be entirely technology driven and says the project will assist teachers in the classroom: “Many people have a preconceived notion that ‘personalized learning’ is a kid in the corner alone with a computer… Forget about that.”  The claim is that CZI is promoting technology along with a focus on the whole child.

Benjamin Herold, the Education Week writer who interviewed Shelton last year, also spoke with Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor at at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, who is skeptical that CZI will be able to achieve its ambitious school transformation agenda.  Herold describes Cuban’s concerns: “Innovations in public education are more about people than technology, Cuban said.  As a result, even the best-funded improvement efforts are often stymied by institutional barriers to changing how teachers teach and children learn. ‘What they have run up against in public schools are the structures of the age-graded school, the demand of standards, and the responsibility for doing well on standardized tests… If the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative thinks it will be easy to scale up within those structures, they’re in for a massive disappointment.'”

CZI must be carefully watched—both the ways in which CZI pushes technology into America’s classrooms and the influence CZI seeks to exert on education policy.  It will also be important to look for the reality beneath the slick promotion. In Herold’s interview, Jim Shelton, the careful rhetorician, frames “personalized” learning as though the goal is not to replace teachers with cheaper computerized alternatives: “‘We’re paying really close attention,’  said Shelton.  He added that forcing grantees to adopt specific tools is ‘not how we want to operate’  ‘What we hope to do is understand how we can create the environments, tools and resources that let all teachers do their best work and all students benefit from their teacher’s best teaching.'”

That last sentence tells us neither what CZI plans as the thrust of its political work nor what will be the focus of its philanthropic giving which, due to the amount of money being invested, will likely shape think tank research, maybe program and curriculum development, and promotion of CZI’s theory of education.

Big Data, A.I., ‘Personalized’ Learning: A Solution for Eliminating Poverty and Improving Schools?

Tuesday’s NY Times featured a commentary whose author promotes artificial intelligence, big data, and “personalized” learning—algorithm-driven computer programs said to tailor learning to a student’s needs and interests—not only for reinventing education but for powering a new war on poverty. It is a glowing article framed as problem-solving: “Poverty, of course, is a multifaceted phenomenon. But the condition of poverty often entails one or more of these realities: a lack of income (joblessness); a lack of preparedness (education); and a dependency on government services (welfare). A.I. (artificial intelligence) can address all three.”

Clearly the author, Elisabeth A. Mason, the founding director of the Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab, isn’t a fan of dependency on government programs to provide support for people trapped in poverty, and she believes big data and artificial intelligence can match people who are out of work to, “good middle-class jobs that are going unfilled.  Today there are millions of such jobs in the United States…. A.I can predict where the job openings of tomorrow will lie, and which skills and training will be needed for them.” Mason adds: “(B)ig data promises something closer to an unbiased ideology-free evaluation of the effectiveness of… social programs.”

Mason denigrates what she believes is our education system: “We bundle students into a room, use the same method of instruction and hope for the best.”  The solution?  A.I. tutors that, “can home in on and correct for each student’s weaknesses, adapt coursework to his or her learning style and keep the student engaged.”  The so-called tutors are computers—not human beings.  Mason continues: “Today’s dominant type of A.I., also known as machine learning, permits computer programs to become more accurate—to learn, if you will—as they absorb data and correlate it with known examples from other data sets. In this way, the A.I. ‘tutor’ becomes increasingly effective at matching a student’s needs as it spends more time seeing what works to improve performance.”

I am skeptical about Mason’s brave new world even though I acknowledge the value of social research that employs big data. Stanford’s Poverty & Technology Lab is tiny part of much larger collaborative, cross-discipline work at the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality, where sociologist Sean Reardon has been using big data to inform us about economic inequality and its effects on students’ educational achievement. My skepticism does not extend to Reardon, who has done more to help us understand the impact of poverty on children than perhaps any other social scientist. With the kind of big data Mason advocates, Reardon has found a way (here and here) to document nearly a half century of growing residential resegregation by family income across America’s metropolitan areas along with a widening academic achievement gap that reflects children’s segregation by income.  And recently, Reardon published a new study, once again based on big data, that teases out the impact of family and neighborhood factors in education from other indicators of the quality of a community’s schools. All this helps define the scope of our social problem of widening and deepening hypersegregation by race and poverty across America’s communities and schools, but so far, at least, it has helped us face neither the logistical challenge of what to do nor the moral problem of motivating our society to want to do something. Here in metropolitan Cleveland, Ohio, for many years I have been watching the growth of interstate highways that take the wealthy farther and farther into white, outer-ring suburbs. Reardon’s data helps me see the phenomenon in a new and more structural way, but so far nobody seems to know what to do or how to develop the political will to stop our economic segregation.

It would be helpful if big data and artificial intelligence could help us with a new war on poverty, but once again, the challenge is not so much a matter of the technical capacity to measure the problem. Despite that politicians today do not even mention poverty, its depth and growth are well documented. The Washington Post recently reported on a new study from the United Nations on U.S. poverty: “With welfare reform in 1996, poor single parents with children now have a lifetime limit of five years of assistance and mandatory work requirements… The number of families on welfare declined from 4.6 million in 1996 to 1.1 million this year.  The decline of the welfare rolls has not meant a decline in poverty, however. Instead, the shredding of the safety net led to a rise in poverty. Forty million Americans live in poverty, nearly half in deep poverty—which U.N. investigators defined as people reporting income less than one-half of the poverty threshold. The United States has the highest child poverty rates—25 percent—in the developed world… Declining wages at the lower end of the economic ladder make it harder for people to save for times of crisis or to get back on their feet. A full-time, year-round minimum wage worker, often employed in a dead-end job, falls below the poverty threshold for a family of three and often has to rely on food stamps.” Poverty in America remains politically and morally invisible despite the presence of big data.

And finally there is the proposal that our society can personalize education with A.I. tutors—computers driven by algorithms said to respond to children’s prompts with material that addresses their educational needs and feeds their interests. Yesterday this blog explored the education philosopher John Dewey’s 1897 pedagogic creed. Dewey believed that education is not merely for the kind of individual intellectual growth that is promoted by advocates for so-called “personalized” learning. The school, as the place where the student works with teachers and peers, is also instrumental for socializing human beings. The school and the family are the social institutions where, through relations with others, children learn to be moral beings and citizens: ” “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.  Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms.” “(E)ducation is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness.” “This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together… The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.”

Nobody ever really pinned down the meaning of Arne Duncan’s cliche that our schools must stop being “trapped in the 20th century.” John Dewey’s long life spanned the last half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. I hope nobody will try to tell me that Dewey’s wisdom is just so “yesterday.”