Chicago Teachers Strike for Better Conditions for Students and to Protest Decades of Anti-CTU Policies

After 94 percent of its members voted in late September to authorize a strike, and now, after two more weeks of intense contract negotiations, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike yesterday.  WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reports that differences remain over manageable class size and teacher assistants’ salaries, along with chronic shortages of support staff needed to serve Chicago’s children—school nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers.

Chicago’s teachers are striking for the second time in a decade—fighting to turn back a quarter century of school policy that has demonized teachers and their unions and substituted corporate-style governance reforms, school closures, and the expansion of charter schools at the expense of the traditional public schools where they teach.

In his 2014 book, Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, Micah Uetricht describes Stand for Children’s executive director, Jonah Edelman bragging (in a videotaped interview) at the Aspen Ideas Festival about how, in 2011, his Oregon-based, astroturf organization hired lobbyists in Springfield, Illinois to ensure passage of a law crippling the Chicago Teacher’s Union by requiring a 75 percent vote by a union’s membership to authorize a strike: “‘In effect, they wouldn’t have the ability to strike,’ Edelman says matter-of-factly in the tape. ‘They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold.'” (Strike for America, p. 61)  Edelman’s taunt only challenged CTU’s membership, which authorized the 2012 Chicago Teachers’ Strike by 90 percent of the union’s members.

Edelman’s effort was the second time in recent decades when corporate reformers in Springfield lashed out specifically at Chicago’s teachers union. In a 2016 book, A Fight for the Soul of Public Education: The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike, University of Illinois professors Bob Bruno and Steven Ashby describe the state’s 1995 intervention in Chicago’s public schools by imposing mayoral governance: “As 1995 opened, the new legislative session created a frenzy of anti-Chicago teacher ideas. Republicans offered draconian proposals to ban teachers strikes, eliminate tenure, and inaugurate periodic teacher testing in the Chicago public schools.”  With the support of Chicago’s corporate-reformer mayor, Richard M. Daley, the legislature enacted mayoral control of the city’s public school district: “The plan gave the mayor a large measure of control over the system, which he had long sought, while also containing ‘significant anti-union elements.’  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 CTU 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.” (A Fight for the Soul of Public Education, pp. 28-29)  The law applied to Chicago alone, without affecting other school districts in the state of Illinois.

Richard M. Daley was Chicago’s mayor from 1989 to 2011, followed by Rahm Emanuel.  Both pursued a corporate agenda.  In 2004, there was the glittery new promise of Renaissance 2010, by which the district would close so-called ‘failing’ public schools and replace them with a hundred new schools—many of them charter schools. Arne Duncan headed up Renaissance 2010, and then became the school district’s CEO. School choice and competition have been at the center of Chicago’s school reform, a process that has left traditional public schools in the poorest neighborhoods increasingly vulnerable and that ultimately closed 50 schools in May of 2013. In her history of the 2013 school closures, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explains what happened: “Of the students who would be affected by the closures, 88 percent were black; 90 percent of the schools were majority black, and 71 percent had mostly black teachers—a big deal in a country where 84 percent of public school teachers are white.”  (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 5)

Writing about the pending strike last week in a Chicago Tribune commentary, two law professors—Sumi Cho of DePaul University College of Law, and Erica Meiners of Northeastern Illinois University, summarize the meaning of the strike which began yesterday: “(T)eachers are the front line of resisting this bipartisan austerity agenda. Chicago teachers won a historic 2012 strike that laid the foundation for the wave of successful teacher strikes that followed in red states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and in blue cities such as Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland, California.” This year, “the CTU’s unity with working people and marginalized communities led it to reject the city’s offer that focuses on teacher pay and health benefits.  Instead, the CTU is also demanding vital services and staffing that its members know Chicago’s most disadvantaged students need to thrive—such as a librarian in every school, more nurses, and health care professionals, and an expansion of sanctuary and community schools.”

Cho and Meiners add that, with this strike, leaders in the Chicago Teachers Union are also pushing back against the constraints on teacher organizing put in place along with mayoral governance in 1995. That law included language directed at the Chicago Teachers Union specifically to prevent CTU from negotiating as part of the union contract the conditions in their schools such as class size and presence of support staff. These negotiating conditions were not set in Springfield for any other teachers union in the state of Illinois.

Cho and Meiners explain that CTU’s members are angry that Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, recently made a move to delay a new state law that would have repealed some of the anti-union provisions in the 1995 law that set up mayoral-control: “More disturbingly, after the Illinois House passed two bills last term to create an elected school board and to repeal the discriminatory provision restricting only Chicago teachers from striking over their working conditions, Mayor Lightfoot asked Senate President John Cullerton to stall these bills. As a result, Illinois’ legislative session ended last May with these bills sidelined in the Senate, just prior to contract negotiations between CTU and the city.”

Decades of tough, anti-public school teacher, anti-union policies—at both the state and local level—are underneath the current teachers strike in Chicago. Chicago teachers, like their counterparts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Oakland and Los Angeles, are on strike to protect their students from inequitable school funding along with corporate school reform programs, which have featured competition and thereby denied staffing and small classes most particularly in the schools serving Chicago’s poorest children.

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Even Though ESSA Dropped the Requirement, 34 States Still Evaluate Schoolteachers by Students’ Test Scores

Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reports this week that 9 of the 43 school districts which adopted the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers have stopped using students’ scores for teacher evaluation. This is an important development because all sorts of research has shown that students’ scores are unreliable as a measure of the quality of a teacher.  But too many states are still evaluating their teachers with unreliable algorithms based on students’ test scores.

Barnum reminds us about the history of using students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers: “The push to remake teacher evaluations was jump-started by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, which offered a chance at federal dollars to states that enacted favored policies—including linking teacher evaluation to student test scores… Philanthropies—most notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—provided support for a constellation of groups pushing these ideas.”

Evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores also became a condition for states to qualify for a No Child Left Behind Waiver. After it became apparent that No Child Left Behind was going to declare a majority of schools “failures” because they were not going to be able to meet the law’s rigid schedule, in 2011, the federal government offered to relax some of the law’s most punitive consequences by offering states waivers from No Child Left Behind. But to qualify for a waiver, states had to promise to enact some of Arne Duncan’s pet policies. Using students’ standardized test scores for evaluating schoolteachers was one of the requirements for states to qualify for No Child Left Behind Waivers.  Education Week explained: “In exchange, states had to agree to set standards aimed at preparing students for higher education and the workforce. Waiver states could either choose the Common Core State Standards, or get their higher education institutions to certify that their standards are rigorous enough. They also must put in place assessments aligned to those standards. And they have to institute teacher-evaluation systems that take into account student progress on state standardized tests, as well as single out 15 percent of schools for turnaround efforts or more targeted interventions.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Barnam explains the impact of these federal requirements: “Between 2009 and 2013, the number of states requiring test scores to be used in teacher evaluations spiked from 15 to 41, including Washington, DC.”

But in 2015, Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  And  the new law was partly shaped by a protest against Arne Duncan’s misguided teacher evaluation scheme. Barnum explains: “The backlash culminated with the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which explicitly bars future secretaries of education from doing what Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan did—trying to influence how teachers are evaluated.”

At the time, the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton described how the new ESSA would specifically stop the U.S. Secretary of Education from intervening in the formulation of state laws by limiting, “the legal authority of the education secretary, who would be legally barred from influencing state decisions about academic benchmarks, such as the Common Core State Standards, teacher evaluations and other education policies.”

Barnum outlines many of the problems with the schemes states set up to comply with Arne Duncan’s requirement that—to qualify for a Race to the Top grant or a NCLB waiver—states must judge teachers by students’ scores: “States that complied with federal urging to overhaul their evaluation systems struggled with exactly how to measure teachers’ performance. Classroom observations were usually the biggest factor, with tests playing a key role. But since many teachers do not have a standardized test corresponding to their grade and subject, some districts created new tests or had teachers create their own, raising concerns about overtesting. In other instances, teachers were evaluated in part by student performance in subjects they didn’t teach—the situation for half of New York City teachers in 2016. In many states, the new evaluations debuted just as new academic standards and tests were being implemented, frustrating teachers and their unions who felt they were being held accountable for unfamiliar material without adequate training.”

It became popular to use statistical algorithms called Value Added Measures (VAMs) of student learning rather than merely the aggregate benchmark scores of a teacher’s students as the basis of each teacher’s evaluation. However, in 2014, the American Statistical Association, and in 2015, the American Education Research Association released evidence that calculations trying to measure each teacher’s discrete contribution to her students’ learning were statistically flawed. The American Statistical Association warned: “Research on VAMs has been fairly consistent that aspects of educational effectiveness that are measurable and within teacher control represent a small part of the total variation in student test scores or growth; most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers… The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences. The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling.”

The problem is that a lot of states continue to use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.  Education Week‘s Madeline Will explains: “Now 34 states require student-growth measures in teacher evaluations… Ten states and the District of Columbia dropped the requirement, while two states (Alabama and Texas) added a student-growth requirement during the same time period. Among the states that do still require an objective measure of student growth, eight do not currently require that the state standardized test be the source of the data. Instead, districts can use measures like their own assessments, student portfolios, and student learning objectives to determine teachers’ contribution to student growth….”

The 2015 replacement for No Child Left Behind—the Every Student Succeeds Act—ended the federal policy pushing states to judge teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. It is reprehensible that so many states are still holding on to this kind of discredited teacher evaluation scheme.

New Reports Confirm Persistent Child Poverty While Policymakers Blame Educators and Fail to Address Core Problem

On Tuesday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a stunning analysis, by the newspaper’s data analyst Rich Exner, of the school district grades awarded by the state of Ohio on the state report cards released last week.  The new report cards are based on data from the 2018-2019 school year.  I encourage you to follow the link to look at Exner’s series of bar graphs, which, like this one, present a series of almost perfect downward staircases, with “A” grades for school districts in communities with high median income and “F” grades for the school districts in Ohio’s poorest communities.

The correlation of academic achievement with family income has been demonstrated now for half a century, but policymakers, like those in the Ohio legislature who are debating punitive school district takeovers, prefer to blame public school teachers and administrators instead of using the resources of government to assist struggling families who need better access to healthcare, quality childcare, better jobs, and food assistance.

Ohio’s school district grades arrived this week. At the same time, and with less fanfare, arrived a series of reports on the level of federal spending on children, reports documenting that, as Education Week‘s Andrew Uifusa explains: “The share of the federal budget that goes toward children, including education spending, dipped to just below 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2018—the lowest level in the decade.”

On Tuesday of this week, the Urban Institute released a new report detailing trends in federal spending on children’s needs: “(O)verall spending on children represents a relatively small share of total federal spending, and that share is dwindling. In 2018, overall federal spending on children younger than 19 fell from recent years to about $6,200 per child.  Education and other discretionary spending categories saw the steepest declines last year, as they were squeezed by growing spending on health and retirement programs, as well as interest payments on the national debt.”  Further, federal spending on children is growing thin in particular areas as children’s needs compete with one another: “Increased mandatory spending on health programs for children and adults is putting pressure on education spending and other discretionary spending on kids. In 2018, federal spending on education dropped by $1.9 billion.  This is part of a long-term trend, as 2018 federal spending on elementary and secondary education was 48 percent below peak spending during the recession (in 2010) and 14 percent below pre-recession spending (in 2008).”  “As spending exceeds revenues year after year, the national debt will continue to climb… Under current policies, interest payments on the debt are projected to exceed spending on children in the next few years.”

A new report this month from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Children and Families in Trouble, examines the persistence of child poverty and the federal government’s failure to address it: “Poverty in the United States continued a sluggish decline in 2018, falling to 11.8 percent, with children and young adults still experiencing the highest rates.  Child poverty (ages 0-18) and young adult poverty (ages 18-24) remained unacceptably high at 16.2 percent and 15 percent respectively with alarmingly large racial and ethnic disparities in poverty.  Young children, under age 5, remain the poorest of all, at 17.7 percent….”  “Racial disparities are persistent, stark, and caused by structural factors… Black and Hispanic children are more likely to be poor (29.5 and 23.7 percent respectively) compared to 8.9 percent of non-Hispanic white children, despite high levels of work among their families.”

CLASP reports relatively high levels of employment among families with poor children, but problems with the kind of work available, the wages, and the conditions: “More than two-thirds of poor children (70.3 percent) live in households with at least one worker. Low wages, inadequate hours, and underemployment mean that work still does not pay a family-sustaining wage for millions of households. While unemployment remains near historical lows, a substantial share of low-income workers is employed part time involuntarily, meaning they would prefer to be working full time but are unable to find full-time work or get sufficient hours from their employer. Low-wage jobs predominate in the fastest-growing sectors, such as retail and food service. Such jobs are characterized by few benefits; unstable and unpredicable schedules; and temporary or part-time status.”

In the 13th annual release, last week, of its proposed Children’s Budget, First Focus on Children summarizes several areas in which Congress needs to support children with increased spending:

  • “Almost 80 percent of eligible 3-5 year old children lack access to Head Start programs.
  • “The Federal Government is not fulfilling 55 percent of its funding commitment for Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) grants.
  • “Of the households on the waiting list for housing assistance, 60 percent are families with children.
  • “75 percent of poor families in the U.S. who are eligible for cash assistance do not receive it.
  • “Nearly 83 percent of children who receive free or reduced price lunch during the school year do not have access to the summer meals program.”

The Trump administration has now also proposed a new “public charge rule” which would eventually deny green cards and application for citizenship to members of immigrant families who use public benefits. The new rule will apply in the future to the possible citizenship of today’s infants and children in these families.  In its recent report CLASP highlights special problems for immigrant children if, at the end of a 60 day posting period, the rule goes into effect (on October 15, 2019): “Among children, 425,000 more were uninsured in 2018 versus 2017, reversing a decades-long trend toward greater coverage. This concerning reversal, including a significant worsening among Hispanic children and among young children… likely reflects multiple attacks on health insurance coverage for people with low incomes. Notably, the Trump Administration is waging ongoing efforts to undermine the ACA and Medicaid access, and a hateful anti-immigrant agenda… (is) causing a chilling effect on immigrant families’ access to public programs.”

In late August, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) highlighted “Six Ways Trump ‘Public Benefits’ Policies Harm Children.” NEPC’s newsletter examines how the Trump administration’s proposed new rule would constrain opportunity for children in vulnerable immigrant families: “On August 12th the Trump administration proposed a new rule to change the criteria considered when the U.S. government decides whether to extend visas or grant permanent residency (‘green cards’).  These criteria—which are inextricably tied to a history of bias in the immigration process—have long included evidence about the likelihood of the immigrant becoming dependent on public benefits. But the approach that is now used focuses on cash benefits, such as Supplemental Social Security (‘disability’) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (‘welfare’).  The proposed rule will expand that to the main non-cash benefits used by immigrants: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps; Medicaid; and housing vouchers and other housing subsidies.”  NEPC continues: “(Seventeen) states plus DC have brought two lawsuits against the administration, alleging that the rule redefines the term ‘public charge’ inconsistently with Congress’ intent in the Immigration and Nationality Act; that it violates constitutional equal protection guarantees by effectively targeting immigrants from poorer areas in Asia, Latin America, and Africa; that it infringes on states’ rights to protect their own residents; and that it punitively, arbitrarily and capriciously targets immigrants for using public benefits programs that are used by about half the country’s residents.” While school breakfast and lunch programs are not directly affected, “current policy automatically enrolls students in the federal free and reduced-price school meal program if their families receive food stamps… Accordingly, if immigrant families avoid SNAP, (their children) are less likely to receive the meals.”

My reason for quoting all of this information about persistent child poverty is to make the needs of America’s poorest children visible. The bar graph produced by the Plain Dealer‘s Rich Exner clearly shows that child poverty affects academic achievement. Policy makers, however, in the spirit of test-based, sanctions-based school accountability, are instead determined to impose punishments on the school districts serving poor children. They imagine that if they shift the blame onto teachers, nobody will notice that they are themselves failing to invest the resources and power of government in programs to support the needs of America’s poorest children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers and Teachers Unions: Essential to Recovering Equity After Years of Funding Cuts and Privatization

The annual Phi Delta Kappa poll came out earlier this week, and not surprisingly, writes the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler, “The poll found widespread teacher complaints about low pay and poor funding for their schools, and nearly half said they felt unvalued by their communities.  Most said they would not want one of their own children to follow them into teaching.”  She continues: “The annual survey was conducted by PDK International, an association of teachers, administrators and other professionals, which has measured public attitudes toward schools for 51 years.”

Meckler quotes Joshua Starr, chief executive of PDK international and formerly the Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland: “It’s shocking in some ways, but anybody who’s been following public education in the last 20 years and the demonization of teachers, the continued low pay, the working conditions, the relentless focus on standardized testing as the only measure of success, would naturally conclude we would reap what we sowed.”

In a book published last year, the Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker presents the stark fiscal realities that partly explain why teachers are so discouraged: “Consider, for example, the trade-off between spending to pay teachers more competitive salaries to improve teacher quality versus spending to provide smaller class sizes.  In many cases, schools and districts serving high-need student populations are faced with both noncompetitive salaries and larger class sizes, as compared to more advantaged surrounding districts. Trading one for the other is not an option, or, in the best case, is a very constrained choice. It is unhelpful at best for public policy and is harmful to the children subjected to those policies to pretend without any compelling evidence that somewhere there exists a far cheaper way to achieve the same or better outcomes…. A common false-choice argument is that good teachers matter more than money.  In this view, we simply need good teachers and recruitment and retention (and dismissal) policies to achieve this goal, regardless of money. This argument falsely assumes that there is no connection whatsoever between the amount of available funding for salaries and benefits and the ability of schools and districts to recruit and retain a high-quality workforce.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, p. 51)

Baker continues: “The level of teacher wages matters in at least two ways.  First, among schools and districts in any given region, the salary a district can pay to a teacher with specific credentials affects which teachers that district can recruit and retain.  So do working conditions… Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods need not only comparable wages to recruit and retain comparable teachers, but they need substantively higher wages.  And second, the level of teacher salaries more generally compared with other employment options requiring similar education levels affects the quality of entrants into the teacher workforce.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 51-52)

For Chicago’s WBEZ, education reporter Sarah Karp presents a case study of exactly how these factors are playing out for teachers, students, and an entire school district in Chicago. The subject is the shortage of teachers, particularly special education teachers, in Chicago’s poorest schools and an accompanying crisis from the lack of substitute teachers willing to serve in these schools.  Karp explains: “This is the stark reality in Chicago Public Schools. Last school year, almost a third of 520 district-run schools—152—had at least one regular education or special education teacher position open all year long… The problem is most acute at schools serving low-income and black students. They are twice as likely as all other schools to have a yearlong teacher vacancy. Chicago’s 28 schools with majority white student populations had no yearlong vacancies. And making matters worse, CPS also has a severe substitute teacher shortage… At 62 schools, half the time a teacher was absent no substitute showed up. Here, again, there is a racial disparity.  When majority black and Latino Chicago public schools request a substitute to cover a class, subs didn’t show up 35% of the time, data from September 2018 through March 2019 shows. That’s compared to 20% at majority-white or racially-mixed schools. Substitute teachers can turn down any school assignment.”

In Chicago, racist stereotypes contribute to the problem: “Principal Jasmine Thurmond said the teacher and substitute shortage hits a school like hers extra hard. ‘The perception is that Englewood is a dangerous place to live and it is a dangerous place to work… And because the media does such a great job at perpetuating that, it ends up becoming an internal bias for some folks so much so sometimes they don’t apply for schools that are in areas like Englewood or Austin or Roseland.'”

The school district and administrators in particular schools are working hard to counter perceptions and to launch programs to confront the unequal distribution of teachers and substitutes. Ms. Thurmond, the principal at King Elementary explains that she has, “built relationships with universities and others that help her fill positions.” Because the district leaves some discretion for principals to allocate the funds for their buildings, “(S)ome schools pay for a full-time teacher who works as a substitute floater. Because the money for this position comes out of the school’s budget, it means they have less for other positions, like an art teacher or a reading specialist.”

The district has also designated 60 “Opportunity Schools” for which: “The school district recruits teachers, vets them hires them and then plays matchmaker between schools and candidates.  It also supports the new teachers once they are in the schools… (A) key is that teacher candidates are brought in to tour Opportunity Schools.”  Matt Lyons, who is the District’s chief talent officer, explains: “Despite what someone might read, assume or hear from a friend, you walk into these schools and they are safe, they are welcoming, students are smiling and happy to be there and happy to learn.”

The issues of under-funding by state governments, school funding inequity, racial and economic segregation, and structural racism are deep and abiding, however.  A new report from Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles (ROSLA) traces the story of strategic organizing over several years to develop community support for the city’s schools and for school teachers: “The case study examines how the teachers union and their partners… built and carried out a two-year campaign that lifted a vision of ‘the schools all our students deserve’ into the public consciousness.”

The project was a strategic initiative of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA): “Internally, UTLA embarked on a complete reorganization of the union…. The union increased face-to-face communications with members, expanded school-based structures, and created a Research and Analytics Department to track member contacts.  For the first time, the union was asking its members what they believed was important in their schools, for their students, and in their communities… Externally, the union forged a coalition with three organizations—the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment… the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy… and Students Deserve….” The United Teachers of Los Angeles had created a strong and deeply rooted community coalition—Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles.”

What followed was the teachers’ strike last January.  Here are merely some of the agreements ROSLA claims were won in the strike, which was widely supported across Los Angeles because teachers sought not only salary increases but reforms deemed essential among parents and others: more nurses, counselors and librarians; smaller class size; nearly $12 million for the development of Community Schools with wraparound medical and social services that help families; a reduction in standardized testing; the end of random searches of students which had been occurring in some schools; district support for immigrant students and more ethnic studies programming; support from the city’s school board for stronger regulation of charter schools which drain money from the public schools; and commitment from the Mayor and the LAUSD School Board to join the fight for a 2020 ballot measure challenging the state’s 1978 tax freeze law, Proposition13.

In Los Angeles strong leadership from the teachers union enabled teachers to take action to relieve the kind of despair the new PDK poll shows teachers are experiencing across the states.  ROSLA reports that during the Los Angeles teachers’ strike last January, UTLA’s efforts among its members and its organizing across the community paid off: “The outpouring of support for the strike from every corner of the district signaled an unambiguous commitment to public schools in LA—a city where there is real fear that the very existence of public education is under threat. For over two decades, the nation’s students and teachers have endured a coordinated assault on public education. Budgets have been slashed. Teachers, students and schools have been relentlessly tested and shamed. Children—particularly children of color—have been criminalized through policies that promote compliance over creativity. Further, cities like LA have been sold the false promise of ‘choice’ instead of the guarantee of quality and equity… The story is still unfolding. But the long-term campaign at the core of this story offers critical lessons.  Whether you come from the perspective of a labor unionist, a classroom teacher, a parent, a student, a community member, or as a philanthropist interested in strengthening the foundations of our public life, the work of Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles provides insight, vision, and hope at a time when all are much needed.”

“Classrooms and Hope” — Mike Rose’s Reflection for the Holiday Weekend

If you care about children, it is pretty easy to get discouraged in a country where state budgets are shorting schools, where we celebrated the 4th of July yesterday with tanks, and where children are being warehoused at the southern border in unsanitary, unsafe, and frightening conditions.

It is the holiday weekend when we celebrate who we want to be as a nation.  Where is there something hopeful we can focus on in 2019?  The UCLA education professor and wonderful writer, Mike Rose contemplates this question in a blog post earlier this week: “What in our lives acts as a counterforce to the dulling and blunting effects of evil, helps us see the good, hold to it, and work toward it?”

Rose, the educator who wrote a book about a four year trip across the United States—a journey in which he visited hundreds of classrooms and observed teachers—answers his own question: “I realized that for me a longstanding source of hope, of what might be, is the classroom, or more exactly, all that the classroom represents at its best: a sanctioned space for growth, learning, discovery, thinking and thinking together,”

In this post Rose describes what his visits to public schools helped him realize: “These trips to Calexico, to Baltimore, to Eastern Kentucky, to a nation within a nation in northern Arizona brought forth new cultural practices, new languages, new gestures.  I was fortunate to have been escorted into so many classrooms, so many homes, to have been guided into the everyday events of the communities I visited, for the invitation eased the unfamiliarity and discomfort that could have been present on all sides. What I experienced was a kind of awe at our variety, yet an intimate regard, a handshake on the corner, a sense of shared humanity.”

Rose continues: “The journey was odd for me in another way, considering my own teaching history.  My work in the classroom has mostly been with people whom our schools, public and private, have failed: working-class and immigrant students, students from nonmainstream linguistic and cultural backgrounds, students of all backgrounds who didn’t fit a curriculum or timetable or definition of achievement and were thereby categorized in some way as different or deficient…. And yet there were these rooms.  Vital, varied, they were providing a powerful education for the children in them, many of whom were members of the very groups defined as inferior in times past and, not infrequently, in our ungenerous present.  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: 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. To be sure, this democratic impulse has been undercut and violated virtually since its first articulation… But it has been advanced, realized in daily classroom life by a long history of educators working both within the mainstream and outside it, challenging it through workingmen’s organizations, women’s groups, Black schools, appropriating the ideal, often against political and economic resistance, to their own emancipatory ends.”

“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.  At a time of profound disillusionment with public institutional life, these people were, in their distinct ways, creating the conditions for children to develop lives of possibility.”

I urge you to read Rose’s new post this weekend.  His column is made up of passages from two of his books. You might want to read or reread these books—Possible Lives and Why School?this summer.

As Ohio Budget Negotiations Drag On, Conference Committee Should Leave State School Takeovers Out of the Budget

This morning, July 1, marks the beginning of a new fiscal year for Ohio. Yesterday was the deadline for passage of a new budget to pay for the functions of state government for the next biennium—fiscal years 2020 and 2021.  But instead over the weekend, members of the Legislature passed a 17 day budget extension to keep the state operating while members of the Senate/House conference committee wrangle.

One of the biggest conflicts between House and Senate is over the misguided state school district takeovers established in the 2015, House Bill 70, a bill which was fast tracked through the Legislature without open hearings.

HB 70 has proven a catastrophe.  You may remember that just two months ago, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal Ohio state school takeovers.  Not only did the Ohio House pass HB 154 to undo HB 70, but its members did so in spectacular, bipartisan fashion by a margin of 83/12. The House also included the repeal of HB 70 in HB 166, the House version of the FY 20-21 biennial budget.

The Ohio Senate has also been considering state school district takeovers. Distrusting teachers, school administrators, and locally elected school boards in Ohio’s poorest school districts where test scores lag, members of the Ohio Senate removed from the budget bill the House language to repeal the state school takeovers.  Senator Peggy Lehner and the Senate Education Committee she chairs convened a working group to create a complicated amendment to replace the current HB 70 state takeovers with another form of state control called the Ohio School Transformation Plan. Lehner’s committee is dominated by members of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Lobbyists from the far-right Thomas Fordham Institute and the business lobby, Ohio Excels, have also been pressing for the Senate’s School Transformation Plan.

As of this morning, we do not know whether the Senate will succeed in getting Lehner’s amendment for the Ohio School Transformation Plan inserted into the final Ohio budget.  Advocating that the Legislature eliminate state takeovers, the editorial board of the Toledo Blade reported on Friday that House Speaker Larry Householder “wants the conference committee to put a moratorium on school takeovers in the pending budget bill and later work out a resolution.”

Because the elimination of HB 70 state school takeovers is so urgently important, today’s blog post will review what this blog has—over the past two months—explained are alarming problems with the Ohio School Transformation amendment Lehner and her committee have tried to include in the Senate Budget.

Here is a bit of history.  In June of 2015, House Bill 70 was rushed through the Legislature to prescribe that, based on aggregate standardized test scores, the state would take over any school district with three years of “F” ratings on the state report card.  The school districts in Youngstown and Lorain have been operating under state appointed Academic Distress Commissions and their appointed Chief Executive Officers for four years.  East Cleveland is currently undergoing state takeover.  Academic Distress Commission-appointed CEOs In Youngstown and Lorain have proven autocratic in their disdain for the locally elected school boards who, under HB 70, continue to be elected but have no remaining power.  Both CEOs have refused to live in or educate their own children in communities where they oversee the public schools.  David Hardy, Lorain’s CEO, has managed to make enemies of the mayor, the city council, the locally elected school board, the teachers, the students at the high school, and even several members of the Academic Distress Commission who appointed him.

In addition to the school districts in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland, other Ohio school districts facing state takeover in the next two years are: Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill. What dominates every one of these school districts is the concentration of poverty.  Many of these communities are majority black and brown.

The School Transformation Plan—which the Ohio Senate hopes to include in the now-stalled state budget—pretends to leave the power for running the school district in local hands.  It pretends not to be a state takeover.  But in fact under the plan, while local people are still in place, their decisions will now be overseen by a new state agency.  Local school administrators will now also operate under the “guidance” of an outside consultant approved by the state agency.  Here are the details of the Senate’s plan:

  • The proposed amendment establishes a statewide School Transformation Board made up of the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction; the Chancellor of Higher Education; and three individuals, appointed by the Governor and with experience and expertise in education policy or school improvement. The School Transformation Board would hire an executive director and would be required to approve school improvement plans developed in the school districts deemed in need of transformation.
  • The Ohio Department of Education would create and maintain a list of “approved school improvement organizations” which may be not-for-profit, or for-profit, and may include an educational service center. The approved school improvement organizations would serve as consultants to the school districts deemed “failing.”
  •  A school district which has earned an “F” rating for three consecutive years would be required to choose one of the approved school improvement organizations, which would, in the first year the school is under “transformation,” conduct what the plan calls a “root cause review of the district.” The consulting organization would review the district’s leadership, governance, and communication; curriculum and instruction; assessments and effective use of student data; human resources and professional development; student supports; fiscal management, district board policies; collective bargaining agreements currently in force; and “any other issues preventing full or high-quality.”
  • The state’s School Transformation Board would then establish—in each district being transformed—a local School District Improvement Commission including three members appointed by the state superintendent; the president of the teachers union, who would be a non-voting member; a representative of the business community appointed by the municipality’s mayor; the president of the elected board of education—all of whom must reside in the county where the school district is located.  The School Improvement Commission would be required to appoint a School Improvement Director.
  • After the consulting school improvement organization has conducted the root cause analysis, the local School Improvement Commission would convene a committee of community stakeholders district-wide and also at each of the district’s schools to create a district-wide improvement plan and a school-improvement plan for each school. These school improvement plans would be submitted to the statewide School Transformation Board for approval.
  • The school district’s School Improvement Director would have enormous powers under the Senate’s Transformation Proposal: to replace school administrators; to assign employees to schools and approve transfers; to hire new employees; to define employee job descriptions; to establish employee compensation; to allocate teacher class loads; to conduct employee evaluations; to reduce staff; to set the school calendar; to create the budget; to contract services for the district; to modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; to establish grade configurations of the schools; to determine the curriculum; to select instructional materials and assessments; to set class size; and to provide staff professional development.  The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.
  • Additionally—and here the plan copies the school turnaround options in the now-discredited federal No Child Left Behind Act—the Senate’s Transformation Proposal would empower the local School Improvement Director to reconstitute the school through the following methods: “change the mission of the school or the focus of its curriculum; replace the school’s principal and/or administrative staff; replace a majority of the school’s staff, including teaching and non-teaching employees; contract with a nonprofit or for-profit entity to manage the operations of the school… reopen the school as a community (Ohio’s term for charter) school… (or) permanently close the school.” The Senate’s proposal specifies: “If the director plans to reconstitute a school… the commission shall review the plan for that school and either approve or reject it by the thirtieth day of June of the school year.”
  • Additionally, “the director may limit, suspend, or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement entered into, modified, renewed, or extended on or after October 15, 2015.”
  • Beginning on July 1, 2020, school districts would enter the process earlier—after only one year of an “F” rating: “Beginning July 1, 2020, this section shall apply to each city, local, and exempted village school district that receives an overall grade of “F”… for the previous school year.  Each district that receives such a grade shall be designated with ‘in need of improvement’ status and undergo a root cause review….  After receiving the root cause review, each school district to which this section applies shall create an improvement plan for the district, if recommended by the review, and for each of the district’s schools that received an overall grade of “F” or “D.”

The Senate’s proposed Ohio School Transformation Plan’s rests on several mistaken assumptions. The plan assumes: first, that test scores are a pure and accurate measure of what a school district is accomplishing, and second, that school governance is the problem. The assumption is that a state approved School Improvement Director with support from consultants will know how to raise test scores quickly. Years of state takeovers in other states have failed to confirm that aggregate test scores can be rapidly raised. And nobody I know can tell me where there are consultants who actually know how to transform a school district’s aggregate standardized test scores in a year or two. There is also evidence that such an obsession with raising test scores narrows the curriculum and distorts schooling.

In an excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research, examined essential supports that would be necessary in 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools in Chicago, the poorest schools in a school district where many schools are troubled with poverty. The families these school serve are 96 percent low income: 64 percent of adult males in these families are unemployed; the median family income is $9,480; and the percentage of families living below the poverty line is 70 percent. Bryk and his colleagues prescribe strategies for improving the schools that serve children in such neighborhoods, but they point out that realistically,  “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused… ” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, p. 173)

The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explain why standardized tests are the wrong way to evaluate school quality: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the use of standardized testing, demonstrates that high-stakes standardized testing is a flawed way to measure the quality of a school.  Standardized test scores in the aggregate merely tell us that the so-called “failing school” is likely to be located in a neighborhood or community where the residents are struggling with poverty:

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

The Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan is merely another top-down scheme to prescribe governance changes as the cure when a district’s test scores lag. It is a paternalistic plan that assumes school district administrators don’t know enough and teachers aren’t working hard enough. Like the federal law that didn’t work, the Ohio Senate’s School Transformation Plan assumes that the legislators can snap their fingers and prescribe that school districts will leave no child behind. It assumes that school districts can cure our society’s failure to overcome the tragedy of concentrated family poverty.

Instead of inserting the Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan into the 2020-2021 biennial state budget, the Ohio Legislature should consider carefully the needs of Ohio’s school districts serving concentrations of children living in poverty. The Ohio Senate needs to pass HB 154 to eliminate the catastrophic HB 70 state takeovers. Then the Legislature needs to invest significantly in smaller classes, more counselors, more social workers, more nurses, more librarians, more wraparound social and medical services, and more school enrichment. The state needs to begin adequately supporting rather than punishing its very poorest school districts.