High School Students Stand Up for Press Freedom and Public Education

A society’s public institutions reflect the strengths and also the faults and sins of the culture they embody. For this reason, America’s public schools that serve over 50 million children in every kind of community will never be perfect. There will be instances of mediocrity and examples of poor school administration and poor teaching. There will be schools stuck in the past and schools where there is sexism and racism—schools where poor children aren’t served up the kind of curriculum that rich children are offered—schools where families persist in segregating their children from others who are “not like them.”  We must expose the problems in our schools and surely, as a society, we are obligated to address our schools’ faults and problems.

But something else has happened in America as we have permitted advocates for privatization to capture our national imagination. How did so many come to view public schools as a problem?  How did we accept the terms “failing schools” and “failing teachers”?  How did we allow policymakers in our very unequal society to extol privately operated schools as a solution?  The education writer and UCLA professor of education, Mike Rose, demands that we be more discerning as we confront the “failing schools” conventional wisdom: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of the public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.” (Why School? p. 203)

After he spent four years visiting public school classrooms across the United States—urban schools, rural schools, Midwestern, Eastern, Western, Southern and border schools, and after observing hundreds of public school teachers from place to place, Rose celebrated the schools he had visited in a wonderful book, Possible Lives: “One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed, out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.” In the book’s preface, Rose reflects on the learning moments he witnessed during his journey: “The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.” (Possible Lives, p. xxviii)  Later in the book, Rose continues: “When public education itself is threatened, as it seems to be threatened now—by cynicism and retreat, by the cold rapture of the market, by thin measure and the loss of civic imagination—when this happens, we need to assemble what the classroom can teach us, articulate what we come to know, speak it loudly, hold it fast to the heart.” (Possible Lives, p. 433)

These days most of us do not have the kind of experience Rose acquired in four years of visiting public schools. Schools have been forced to worry about security and to lock kids safely in their classrooms. Most of us might think of what happens at school—if we think about it at all—only as we remember our own experiences, good and bad.

But sometimes, evidence of what students are learning finds its way outside the school and into the press. It happened last week in Lexington, Kentucky when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to town to participate in a roundtable conversation with Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who made a name for himself last year supporting a bill undermining teachers’ pensions.

At the roundtable conversation, Governor Bevin and Secretary DeVos were slated to discuss her new proposal for a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit, a plan that would divert federal tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers. There is no expectation that Congress will adopt DeVos’s new proposal for the tax credit plan she calls “Education Freedom Scholarships,” but she has been on-tour promoting her idea. We can presume she expected a sympathetic ear from Gov. Matt Bevin. Last year Kentucky’s teachers went out on strike to protest his education policies, and this year they have been staging sick-outs to protest several bills in the state legislature—one of them to set up a statewide private school voucher program. All year Bevin has been on the attack against the state’s public school teachers. Covering Bevin’s re-election campaign, Fox News describes Bevin’s political future as threatened by his persistent attacks on schoolteachers.

Governor Bevin’s roundtable conversation with Betsy DeVos might not have been widely noticed, covered as it was supposed to be by a group of invited journalists, but the members of the editorial board of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School’s Lamplighter, a public high school newspaper, received permission to leave school to cover the 11:00 AM event.  Despite “PRESS” identification tags, they were turned away at the door because they were unable to present one of the special invitations.  Instead of covering the event, the high school journalists did some thinking and some research, and penned a scathing high school newspaper editorial demonstrating not only the quality of their public school training as journalists but also their education in civics along with considerable curiosity about the meaning of their experience trying to cover what should have been a public event.

The Lamplighter editorial, No Seat at the Roundtable, and its high school authors became the subject of Monday’s Washington Post, Morning Mix column: “Unable to document the event, or query DeVos in person, they set about investigating the circumstances of her private appearance at the public community college. Ultimately, they penned an editorial flaying the education secretary and the Kentucky governor, accusing them of paying lip service to the needs of students while excluding them from the conversation.”

In their editorial, the students describe what happened as they encountered the guard at the entrance to the meeting they had set out to cover. Notice the role of the students’ journalism teacher and advisor to help them explore and plan their actions: “We presented our school identification badges and showed him our press credentials. He nodded as if that would be enough, but then asked us if we had an invitation.  We looked at each other, eyes wide with surprise. Invitation? For a roundtable discussion on education? ‘Yes, this event is invitation only,’ he said and then waved us away.  At this point, we pulled over and contacted our adviser, Mrs. Wendy Turner. She instructed us to try again and to explain that we were there as press to cover the event for our school newspaper. We at least needed to understand why were were not allowed in, and why it was never publicized as ‘invitation only.’  We watched as the same man waved other drivers through without stopping them, but he stopped us again.  Instead of listening to our questions, he just repeated, ‘Sorry.  It’s invitation only.’… We scrambled to get ourselves together because we were caught off guard, and we were in a hurry to produce anything we could to cover the event and to meet our deadline… After more research, we found mentioned on the government website that the meeting needed an RSVP, but there was no mention of an invitation.  How do you RSVP when there is no invitation?  On the web site, it also stated that the roundtable was an ‘open press event.'”

The Lamplighter‘s editors continue: “Doesn’t ‘open press’ imply ‘open to ALL press’ including students? We are student journalists who wanted to cover an event in our community featuring the Secretary of Education, but ironically we couldn’t get in without an invitation… Why was this information (the press notice about the meeting the next day) only shared a little more than 24 hours before the event?  When the Secretary of Education is visiting your city, you’d think you’d have a little more of a heads up.  We can’t help but suspect that the intention was to prevent people from attending.  Also, it was held at 11 AM on a Wednesday.  What student or educator is free at that time?  And as students, we are the ones who are going to be affected by the proposed changes discussed at the roundtable, yet we were not allowed inside.  How odd is that, even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away? We expected the event to be intense. We expected there to be a lot of information to cover. But not being able to exercise our rights under the First Amendment was something we never thought would happen.  We weren’t prepared for that.”

Before they wrote their editorial, the student journalists did more work to track the story: “We emailed FCPS (Fayette County Public Schools) Superintendent Manny Caulk to ask if he had been invited, and he answered that he had not.  Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky that deal directly with students, none were represented at the table. Zero. This is interesting because the supposed intention of the event was to include stakeholders—educators, students, and parents.  Fayette County School Board member Tyler Murphy even took to his Twitter to satirize the lack of time DeVos and Bevin took to visit local public school educators. When we reached out to him via email to explain what we experienced, he responded: ‘If Secretary DeVos wanted a true understanding of our public schools, she should hear from the people who participate in it every day.'”

The students also followed up with journalists who were admitted to the event.  They explore in some detail comments reported in the local press about the event from Kentucky Commissioner of Education, Wayne Lewis, someone who endorses DeVos’s proposed federal tuition tax credit voucher proposal. They also report that one high school student attended the roundtable—a scholarship student from Mercy Academy, a Louisville religious high school. This student is quoted in the Lamplighter report: “I was the only student at the table and I was invited because of a scholarship program I was a part of in Louisville.”

The student journalists conclude their editorial: “The bottom line is that we do not think that it is fair to have a closed roundtable about education when it affects thousands of Kentucky teachers, students, and parents.”

The reporter for the Washington-Post‘s Morning Mix, Isaac Stanley-Becker comments on the students’ experience and the way they responded as journalists: “As their travails became the story, the students began to see the terms of the event as emblematic of the approach of the education secretary, who has been criticized as displaying only cursory understanding of the subjects in her remit… Still, they sounded an optimistic note.  Though they were unable to gain the experience they had set out to acquire, they had learned a lesson nonetheless. ‘We learned that the job of a journalist is to chase the story by any means necessary… We learned to be resourceful and meet our deadline even if it wasn’t in the way we initially intended. And we learned that although students aren’t always taken seriously, we have to continue to keep trying to have a seat at the table.'”

The public high school newspaper editors of the Lamplighter exemplify education theorist Henry Giroux’s idea of the value of quality, universal public education. Commenting on the importance of what striking public school teachers—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Los Angeles and Oakland—have been trying to protect, Giroux writes: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy.”

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Low Salaries, High Rents, Poor Teaching Conditions Create Widespread Shortage of Qualified Teachers

You’d have to be pretty out of touch to have missed that teachers, who have been striking all year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to California, have been showing us their pay is inadequate and their working conditions are horrible. Schools in too many places feature huge classes (too few teachers) and an absence of counselors, social workers, librarians and nurses. All this ultimately signals a school finance problem stemming from the Great Recession a decade ago and state legislatures and governors determined to cut taxes.

All this is well documented in academic research. Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss recently released the first in a series of studies from the Economic Policy Institute, a report they summarize in a short, policy piece: “In our report we argue that when issues such as teacher qualifications and equity across communities are taken into consideration, shortages are more concerning than we thought.  If we consider the declining share of teachers who hold the credentials associated with teacher quality and effective teaching (they are fully certified, took the standard route into teaching, have more than five years of experience, and they have an educational background in the subject they teach), the teacher shortage grows.  If we compare the share of these teachers in high-needs schools (schools with a large share of students from families living in poverty) with other schools, we see that the shortages there are even more severe in those high-needs schools.”  Garcia and Weiss are particularly concerned about the growing percentage of teachers who are not fully certified, or who began teaching with only alternative—sometimes only a few weeks long—preparation for teaching, or who are currently teaching subjects in which they have no educational background themselves, or who are inexperienced.  The number of emergency-certified teachers has grown as well qualified and experienced teachers are giving up and leaving the profession.

At a nationwide level, EPI’s new report replicates findings by Linda Darling-Hammond and the Learning Policy Institute about the chronic shortage of qualified teachers in the state of California. In a research brief last September, Darling-Hammond tracks the history of California’s teacher shortage: “Budget cuts and layoffs resulting from the recession contributed to a steep decline in the number of teachers in California, falling from a high of 310,362 teachers in the 2007-08 school year to 283,836 four years later.  Recent efforts, including Proposition 30 and the Local Control Funding Formula, which, respectively, raised taxes for public education and transformed the state’s school finance method, have helped to regrow California’s teacher workforce. However, with sharp decreases in the supply of new teachers, there are still not enough qualified teachers across subject areas in many schools and districts to meet California’s staffing needs.”

Here are some of the Learning Policy Institute’s more detailed findings: “California’s supply of new, credentialed teachers plummeted by nearly 70% in the decade from 2001-02 to 2011-12, as the state’s education budgets shrank… When spending cuts further deepened in the four years after the recession began in December 2007, there were widespread teacher layoffs and the total teaching workforce decreased by about 9%… Schools serving higher percentages of low-income students of color are shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden… When vacancies go unfilled, schools are left with the choice of increasing class sizes, eliminating some programs, or turning to an assortment of emergency-type credentials. Most turn to emergency-type credentials.”

In California, here’s how you can qualify for emergency credentials. People without teacher preparation or any demonstration of subject-matter competence can be hired for one year. Or under a Limited Assignment Teaching Permit, a credentialed teacher can teach outside her/his subject area.  In California, teachers in training (those from alternative, Teach for America-type training programs) can also be licensed to teach while they complete their certification.

In LPI’s brief, Darling-Hammond explains factors driving the shortage of fully qualified teachers: “Several factors appear to be driving the shortage… new demand for teachers as districts seek to return to pre-recession course offerings and class sizes… a rapid decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs… (and) teacher attrition. Teacher turnover currently accounts for about 88% of the annual demand for new teachers.  Put another way, nearly nine of 10 hires each year are needed to replace teachers who left.  Retirement is just a small part of this loss.  Most attrition is caused by teachers changing districts or leaving the profession… The highest turnover rates are in districts serving high-poverty students, students of color, and English learners… The main reasons teachers report leaving… are dissatisfaction with testing and accountability pressures, followed by a lack of administrative support; frustration with the teaching career, including lack of opportunities for advancement; and poor working conditions.”

California’s EdSource is covering the teacher shortage in a series of articles. In one report, EdSource describes rising rents in the San Francisco Bay Area driving teachers away from desperate school districts,  EdSource profiles one West Contra Costa Unified School District teacher who just got a job in more affordable Las Vegas, Nevada: “The West Contra Costa Unified School District, serving some of the poorest neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area, can use every excellent teacher it’s able to recruit. That is why the decision by Sarah La Due to pack up and leave the district, just two years after winning a Teaching Excellence Award, hurts. But La Due, after five years in the district, is tired of living with two roommates and sharing a bathroom in order to afford housing… “I’m a 35-year-old professional woman and I shouldn’t have to live with roommates.”

Here is EdSource‘s summary of the economics of trying to live in the Bay Area or other coastal or metro area on a teacher’s salary: “In nearly 40 percent of the 680 school districts that reported salary data to the state, first-year teachers did not earn enough to rent an affordable one-bedroom apartment.  In 39 districts, first-year teachers faced the prospect of spending more than 50 percent of their income on a modest one-bedroom apartment.  In more than a quarter of school districts the highest-paid teachers could not afford to rent a three-bedroom house or apartment. Teachers fare better in rural areas, where in nearly 90 percent of the districts, teachers earning an average salary could afford a two-bedroom apartment.”

The problem is not limited to California.  In Oklahoma, where, a year ago, striking teachers alerted us to their paltry salaries and  outrageous class sizes, Tulsa World reports, “that the percentage of Oklahoma educators leaving the profession has increased over the past six years, representing more than 5,000 per year, a total of approximately 30,000. The exodus represents an average of 10 percent of Oklahoma’s teacher workforce, in comparison to a national attrition rate of 7.7 percent.”  In this 2018-2019 school year the number of unqualified teachers who are emergency-certified by the state reached 2,915, an all time high—and exponentially higher than the 32 emergency-certified teachers hired in 2012.

And in Michigan, Eclectablog reports, “Teachers… are now paid less today in real and corrected-for-inflation dollars” than they were a decade ago.  “In 2009, the average teacher salary… was $63,025.  In 2017, the most recent year for which we have data, the average was only $61,908.  Adjusted for inflation, that’s a whopping 16% drop in just 8 years.” The result? “Michigan is battling a persistent shortage of teachers…. From the Upper Peninsula to Metro Detroit, job postings for K-12 positions across the state advertise hundreds of open positions from foreign language, music, science, and math teachers to paraprofessionals to counselors. Detroit Public Schools Community District, one of the most challenged districts in the state, had 90 teacher vacancies at the beginning of the school year last September. That was down from over 200 at the beginning of summer. But Detroit isn’t the only district dealing with the predictable outcome of corporatist, anti-public school policies. Schools in Grand Rapids, the home of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, had 40 vacancies as of February.”  Eclectablog blames former Governor Rick Snyder and a conservative legislature: “Once Rick Snyder and the corporatists rolled into power in 2011, they cut education funding to pay for corporate tax cuts and passed right to work legislation.”

Students Bring Problems of Trump’s America with Them When They Come to School

Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education who has profiled vital and challenging American classrooms, the work of teachers, and the role of public schools to extend opportunity, added a post to his blog this week about new research from a group of his colleagues at UCLA:  School and Society in the Age of Trump.

Rose explains why he believes this report is so important: “Schools are porous institutions—what happens in society at large plays out in classrooms and hallways—so the disturbing findings of a masterful new report, School and Society in the Age of Trump should not surprise us.  But they do, in their scope and severity. John Rogers and his colleagues (Michael Ishimoto, Alexander Kwako, Anthony Berryman, and Claudia Diera) at UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access surveyed a representative sample of over 500 public high school principals from across the country and found that 89% report that ‘incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has considerably affected their school community.'”

The report isolates current social issues and problems that are increasing pressure across American high schools for students, teachers, and school administrators:

  • political division, incivility, and hostility;
  • disputes over truth, facts, and the reliability of sources;
  • the impact of the opioid crisis on families;
  • the threat of immigration enforcement; and
  • the threat of gun violence in schools and neighborhoods.

When the researchers surveyed high school principals and compiled the data, they discovered that today’s political atmosphere is undermining the climate inside the school: “In eighty-three percent of schools these tensions are intensified and accelerated by the flow of untrustworthy or disputed information and the increasing use of social media that is fueling and furthering division among students and between schools and the communities.”

Students also carry with them to school the effects of three widespread and very concrete conditions in their lives outside school—the opioid crisis, heightened immigration enforcement, and widespread gun violence.

The opioid crisis is most seriously affecting students in predominantly white schools in small towns and rural areas.  Nearly a third of principals interviewed in the study reported the occurrence of fatal overdoses in families of students in their school community. “Principals say opioid addiction in students’ families has resulted in student concerns about their well-being or the well-being of family members, students losing focus in class or missing classes, parent and guardian difficulties in supporting students, and a lack of parent and guardian participation in school activities.”

Heightened immigration enforcement affects students in school, despite that even undocumented students have a Constitutionally protected right to an education and cannot be arrested at school.  Students bring to school their anxiety about the potential arrest of family members: “Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016… the rhetoric and actions of the president and his administration have dramatically heightened the vulnerability of children and taken a toll on their physical and mental health and education… More than two-thirds of the principals surveyed report that federal immigration enforcement policies and the political rhetoric around the issue have harmed student well-being and learning or undermined the ability of parents to support student learning… More than half of principals report that immigrant parents and guardians have been reluctant to share information with the school.  Students and parents are reluctant to discuss their citizenship status with school personnel… Eight in ten principals surveyed report partnering with community-based organizations that provide services for immigrant students and families, while five in ten report connecting families to legal services.”

The study confirms: “Almost all of the high school principals we surveyed and interviewed report that their schools have been impacted by the threat of gun violence… Schools with large proportions of students of color have been affected most.  Principals dedicate more time addressing problems associated with the threats of gun violence than any other challenge they currently face.”  Schools receive threats of violence, and students lose focus in class or miss school due to “concerns with gun violence at school or in the surrounding community.”

The problems are widespread: “Virtually every school, regardless of region, community type, or racial make up was impacted by these challenges.” “The principals who participated in our study come from schools that reflect the rich diversity of public high schools across the United States.  Virtually every one of these principals experienced at least one of the five challenges addressed in the study.  Often they experience several challenges at once… Schools enrolling predominantly students of color are most impacted by the threats of immigration enforcement and gun violence.  Predominantly white schools are most impacted by the opioid crisis.”

The researchers worry that proactively addressing such a complex and intertwined set of problems is challenging the ability of administrators and teachers to respond in a comprehensive way: “It was rare for principals in our study to respond to the threat of gun violence in a manner consistent with the comprehensive public health model of school safety—which represents the consensus approach within school safety scholarship.  That model emphasizes establishing a school climate in which students feel a sense of connection with and responsibility toward one another.  It also entails investing in counselors, psychologists, and social workers who can identify students in need of counseling and provide mental health services.”

The report’s primary recommendation is that schools, “Establish and communicate school climate standards emphasizing care, connectedness, and civility and then create practices that enable educational systems to document and report on conditions associated with these standards.” Much of the challenge is a matter of lack of capacity, not lack of concern: “Principals report spending extra time on supervision, school discipline and community outreach related to school incivility and challenges with untrustorthy information and social media. Across the challenges, many principals say they spend extra time talking and meeting with students and parents, connecting students and families with community and social services, and planning and providing professional development to help teachers address the challenges. Some principals have intervened with immigration authorities on behalf of students and families.  Others have sent backpacks full of food home for the weekend, or dug into their own pockets for money to help pay utility bills or help with rent for students whose families have been affected by opioid abuse.”

School and Society in the Age of Trump presents a picture of the American high school that should concern us all: “It is important to note that when multiple challenges occur within a school site, they interact with one another in complex and mutually reinforcing ways. It is likely that political division makes schools more vulnerable to the spread of untrustworthy information, just as the spread of untrustworthy information often contributes to division and hostility.  And the fear and distress associated with opioid misuse, threats to immigrant communities, and gun violence, increases the possibilities for division and distrust amongst students and between educators and the broader community.”

Ohio’s Poorest School Districts Need Support Instead of Punitive HB 70 State Takeover

Ohio is in the midst of a big fight about the state takeover of its lowest scoring school districts.  If a school district gets an “F” grade for three years running on the state’s school district report card, the state takes over the district under House Bill 70 and appoints an Academic Distress Commission, which appoints a CEO. The CEO, with almost complete control of the district, can fire and hire at will.  He or she is supposed to turn around the district. The community continues to elect a school board, but the elected school board has no power.

Youngstown and Lorain, the two school districts taken over three years ago, are still earning “F” ratings. Today in Lorain, there is a state of emergency because the community has entirely lost confidence in the CEO, David Hardy.  He has arrogantly refused to bring his family to live in the school district, and he has refused even to meet with the elected board of education. Peter Greene, who once taught in Lorain, has traced some of this ugly history in his blog and in Forbes Magazine.

The 2002, federal law, No Child Left Behind imposed a regime of standardized testing on America’s public schools. It outlined punishments for the schools that could not raise scores, with some pretty serious punishments if, after several years, a school could not demonstrate improvement. These prescribed punishments were called “turnarounds,” and the assumption was that it is possible just to turn around a school in a relatively short time. The federal turnaround sanctions included firing the teachers and half the staff, charterizing the school, turning the school over to an Education Management Organization (EMO), or closing the school.  Arne Duncan, who became Education Secretary in 2009, intensified emphasis on turnarounds in programs like Race to the Top.

While state takeover was not one of the  prescribed turnarounds in federal law, it has been a favorite in many states. Like many of the other turnaround strategies, it imposes a change in school governance. The assumption behind governance changes is simple: The people running the so-called failing school or so-called failing school district don’t know what they are doing and must be replaced by the appointees of federal or state politicians who know better. State takeover incorporates another assumption: The voters in the so-called failing school districts don’t know enough to elect a good school board whose members will choose a good superintendent.  So… the state must appoint someone from outside who will come in and oversee some major and possibly difficult changes to correct the failure of the district.

State takeovers have been tried for years across a number of states. They have never worked.  In New Jersey, for example, Newark’s schools and Camden’s schools have been returned to the local school boards after decades of failed state takeover. Michigan specialized in state takeovers—imposing “emergency fiscal managers” on local cities and school districts. The lead poisoning of Flint’s water supply was a program overseen by one emergency manager, a man who later moved on to be the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. Finally, Michigan has returned Detroit’s schools to its elected local school board, which has appointed a new and promising superintendent.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools explains that state takeovers are almost always imposed on communities like the three currently under state takeover in Ohio—Youngstown, Lorain, and (this year) East Cleveland: “These state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment in their public schools and consistent attacks on their property, agency, and self-determination.  In the past decade, these takeovers have not only removed schools from local authorities, they are increasingly being used to facilitate the permanent transfer of the schools from public to private management.”

In a recent interview with the Youngstown Vindicator, Ohio’s new governor, Mike DeWine acknowledges that something needs to be done, because the state school takeovers in Youngstown and Lorain don’t seem to be working out. He emphasizes again and again, however, that the state must intervene.  And I suspect that DeWine, like many in our punitive test-and-punish era, favors some sort of governance change.

But what if the problem is not governance? What if the people in charge of the schools in Youngstown and Lorain and now East Cleveland did know what they were doing, but the challenges they faced were daunting.

In Ohio, school funding fails to provide what people in even more affluent communities feel is essential. There are hundreds of moderate-income school districts in Ohio that must choose these days between nurses and certified school librarians and counselors and music programs.  Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are all communities, however, where over time the local tax base has collapsed as industry has shut down. These are communities of desperate and concentrated family poverty, places where virtually all of the students are poor. Ohio’s state basic aid and poverty assistance is far too meager to provide enough assistance.

Governor DeWine says he believes we must do something to improve opportunity for the children in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland.  Let’s suppose we try a different kind of experiment, and add the kind of resources striking teachers have been demanding  from West Virginia to California.

What if every child in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland were provided enriched Pre-Kindergarten? What if all the children in these cities were provided enriched all-day Kindergarten in classes of 15 children? What if class size in the elementary grades in these communities were limited to 15 children in Kindergarten through third grade and classes in fourth through sixth grade were limited to 18 students?  What if every one of the schools in these communities had a nurse, a counselor, a social worker, a school psychologist and a certified librarian? In addition, what if the state supported wraparound health and human service supports for the children in these schools and their families?  What if all students whose primary language is not English were part of enriched bilingual programs?  What if the entire curriculum were made language-rich with reading and writing infused across all the classes? What if every child were engaged in accelerated conceptual mathematics? What if, after third grade, every one of these schools had an instrumental music program? What if every school had an art teacher and every high school a theater program? What if the elementary school libraries—many of them shuttered today across Ohio—were reopened and new books added? And what if the elementary school children in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland had a story-hour every week and, with the guidance of a certified librarian, a chance to choose books to check out?

Ohio prefers punishments as a response to its low-scoring public schools—the third grade guarantee—state report cards that rate schools and school districts with letter grades—the diversion of school funding out of low-scoring school districts to send children to charter schools and give them vouchers for private school tuition—and the ultimate punishment, state takeover. The federal government isn’t prescribing punishments like these any more, because it’s clear No Child Left Behind and its high-stakes testing strategy didn’t work. But Ohio continues to double down on  test-and-punish.

In an excellent 2017, book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz explains the correlation of aggregate standardized test scores with family and community economics and a primary reason why punishments like state takeover are so unfair: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do… 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 Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss shares a commentary in which the National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explain in more detail 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.”

Ohio needs to stop using state takeover to beat up on its poorest Black and Brown school districts and support better education for the children in these communities.

Public Education Partners has drafted a model resolution endorsing the repeal of Ohio HB 70.  School boards and other organizations are invited to pass this resolution and submit it to Governor DeWine and members of the Ohio Legislature.

Politicians Forget that Cut Scores on Standardized Tests Are Not Grounded in Science

Last week the NY TimesDana Goldstein and Manny Fernandez reported on a political fight in Texas over the scoring of the STAAR—the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness—the state’s version of the achievement test each state must still administer every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind, still mandates annual testing, although Congress no longer imposes its own high stakes punishments for failure.

However, Congress still does require the states to submit plans to the U.S. Department of Education declaring what will be the consequences for low-scoring schools.  Goldstein and Fernandez explain that Texas, like many other states, still imposes punishments for the low scorers instead of offering help: “The test, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, can have profound consequences not just for students but for schools across the state, hundreds of which have been deemed inadequate and are subject to interventions that critics say are undue.”  Schools have to provide help for students who are not on grade level. Also: “Texas grades its districts on an A through F scale, in part based on how many students are meeting or exceeding grade-level standards… Persistently failing schools, and districts with just a single such school, can be shut down or taken over by the state—a threat facing the state’s largest school system, in Houston.”

Decades of research show that, in the aggregate, standardized test scores correlate with family and neighborhood income. In a country where segregation by race and poverty continues to grow, it is now recognized among experts and researchers that rating and ranking schools and districts by their aggregate test scores merely brands the poorest schools as failing. When sanctions are attached, political regimes of test-based accountability merely punish the schools and the teachers and the students in the poorest places.

In an excellent 2017, book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz explains the correlation of aggregate standardized test scores with family and community economics: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do… 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)

Goldstein and Fernandez report that the political fight in Texas this month is about the test scores in third grade reading: “The 2018 STAAR tests found that 58 percent of Texas third graders are not reading at grade level. On the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to a sample of fourth graders across the country, 72 percent of Texas students were not proficient in reading—a fact the state has cited as evidence that tough local standards are warranted.”

Like many other states, Texas blames the public schools.  But Goldstein and Fernandez present other factors that ought to be considered here: “More than half of the state’s public school students are Hispanic and nearly 60 percent come from low-income families.  About a fifth are still learning English.”  The state argues that’s all the more reason to set the passing cut score high and motivate schools to catch kids up quicker.

But educators and parents and some politicians in Texas are pushing back. They contend that the bar is set so high that students who are reading at grade level still score below the cut score for proficiency.  There is a lot of discussion of reading passages said to be two grade levels ahead of the students being tested and of something called Lexile measures, which involve the number of syllables in a word and are used to evaluate the difficulty of the passages on the test.

It would clear up a lot of the trouble if more people read Chapter 8, “Making Up Unrealistic Targets,” in Daniel Koretz’s book. Koretz explains that there is nothing really scientific about where “proficient” cut scores are set: “If one doesn’t look too closely, reporting what percentage of students are ‘proficient’ seems clear enough. Someone somehow determined what level of achievement we should expect at any given grade—that’s what we will call ‘proficient’—and we’re just counting how many kids have reached that point. This seeming simplicity and clarity is why almost all public discussion of test scores is now cast in terms of the percentage reaching either the proficient standard, or occasionally, another cut score… The trust most people have in performance standards is essential, because the entire educational system now revolves around them. The percentage of kids who reach the standard is the key number determining which teachers and schools will be rewarded or punished.” (The Testing Charade, pl 120)

Koretz explains that standardized test cut scores are not set scientifically. There is no scientific or even magical way of deciding exactly which reading passages every third grader must be able to decode and comprehend, and anyway, students in third grade are not consistent.  Koretz examines several methods used by panels of judges to set the “proficient” level.  He adds that the methods used by different state panels don’t arrive at the same cut scores: “The percentage of kids deemed to be ‘proficient’ sometimes varies dramatically from one method to another.” (The Testing Charade, p. 124)

Goldstein and Fernandez indicate that Texas uses the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) as its audit test by which it judges the accuracy of the way Texas sets its levels of proficiency. When the scores on the STAAR are compared to the scores on the NAEP, politicians in Texas are really concerned because NAEP shows that 72 percent of third graders in Texas are not proficient—even worse than the 58 percent who score below proficient on the STAAR.

But the matter is not as dire as it would appear. The education historian Diane Ravitch served on the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years.  Ravitch explains that the cut scores on the NAEP are set artificially high.  It is much harder to reach the proficient level than what our common understanding of the term “proficient” would lead us to expect: “‘Proficient’ on NAEP does not indicate ‘average’ performance; it is set very high… There are four levels. At the top is ‘advanced.’ Then comes ‘proficient.’ Then ‘basic.’ And last, ‘below basic.’  Advanced is truly superb performance, which is like getting an A+. Among fourth graders, 8% were advanced readers in 2011; 3% of eighth graders were advanced. In reading, these numbers have changed little in the past twenty years…   Proficient is akin to a solid A. In reading, the proportion who were proficient in fourth grade reading rose from 29% in 1992 to 34% in 2011. The proportion proficient in eighth grade also rose from 29% to 34% in those years… Basic is akin to a B or C level performance. Good but not good enough.”

The argument about what different “proficient” levels really mean is old and tired, but we can’t seem to move beyond it. Today we know that the No Child Left Behind Act was aspirational. It was supposed to motivate teachers to work harder to raise scores. Policymakers hoped that if they set the bar really high, teachers would figure out how to get kids over it. It didn’t work.  No Child Left Behind said that all children in American public schools would be proficient by 2014 or their school would be labeled failing. Finally as 2014 loomed closer, Arne Duncan had to give states waivers to avoid what was going to happen if the law had been enforced: All American public schools would have been declared “failing.”

As we continue to haggle about the cut scores by which we judge our children and their schools, however, there is one thing we almost never consider.  What if—instead of punishing the schools where scores are lower and instead of making their children drill harder and attend Saturday cram sessions—we were willing to invest more tax dollars in the lowest scoring schools?  What if we made classes smaller to make it possible for teachers to work more personally with each student?  What if we made sure that the schools in our poorest communities had well stocked libraries with certified librarians and story-hours once or even twice a week?

Koretz comes to this same conclusion, although he explains it more theoretically: “(I)t is clear that the implicit assumption undergirding the reforms is that we can dramatically reduce the variability of achievement… Unfortunately, all evidence indicates that this optimism is unfounded.  We can undoubtedly reduce variations in performance appreciably if we summoned the political will and committed the resources to do so—which would require a lot more than simply imposing requirements that educators reach arbitrary targets for test scores.” (The Testing Charade, p. 131)

Appreciating Teachers: Responding to Donald Trump Jr.

Recently at the President’s rally in El Paso for his border wall, his son, Donald Trump, Jr., warmed up the crowd with a speech in which he gratuitously attacked teachers: “Bring it to your schools… You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth.”  It is hard to know what all that means, although I suppose we can infer that attacks on so-called socialists are going to be a centerpiece of the campaign if the President runs for reelection in 2020.

Valerie Strauss covered responses to this disgusting ad hominem attack on schoolteachers. Teachers themselves have been speaking up, she explains, on twitter with the hashtag #loserteachers.

Strauss also published a response to Trump Jr. from three teachers—Jelmer Evers (the Netherlands), Michael Soskil (2017-18, Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year) and Armand Doucet (Canada) who co-authored a 2018 book, Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice. Evers, Soskil, and Doucet write that for them, Trump Jr.’s speech was a chilling moment: “Throughout history, schools and teachers have always been among the first to be targeted by authoritarian regimes and extremists.  Independent thinking, creativity, compassion and curiosity are threats to dogmatic beliefs and rule.”  “Whether Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, right, left, center, blue or red—seeing and reinforcing the value of a teacher should be a national pillar that rises high above partisan politics and cheap applause…  If we can be accused of anything, it is that we are on the front line of democracy.  Education reformer John Dewey famously said, ‘Democracy has to be born again each generation and education is its midwife.’  As members of a global profession, we reject the narrowing of the mind and we stand by our colleagues defending academic freedom.”

President Trump and his son were both educated in private schools.  I suspect that neither has even visited a public school, and I wonder if either one has ever considered what teachers do, or what shapes teachers, or what teachers consider as they work every day with children and adolescents.  I thought it would be important to respond to Donald Jr.’s bullying remark with some additional thinking from people who have thought a lot about teaching and public education.

In his 2007, Letters to a Young Teacher, Jonathan Kozol responds directly to Donald Jr.’s assumption that a teacher’s primary role is to prepare students for some kind of economic function: “(T)eachers, and especially the teachers of young children, are not servants of the global corporations or drill sergeants for the state and should never be compelled to view themselves that way.  I think they have a higher destiny than that. The best of teachers are not merely the technicians of proficiency; they are also ministers of innocence, practitioners of tender expectations. They stalwartly refuse to see their pupils as so many future economic units for a corporate society, little pint-sized deficits or assets for America’s economy, into whom they are expected to pump ‘added value,’ as the pundits of the education policy arena now declaim. Teachers like these believe that every child who has been entrusted to their care comes into their classroom with inherent value to begin with.” (Letters to a Young Teacher, pp. 4-5 [emphasis in the original])

Gloria Ladson-Billings is a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and former president of the American Educational Research Association.  Ladson-Billings’ book, The Dream-Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, is a staple in colleges of education. Ladson-Billings explores what makes a particular group of excellent teachers effective.  Here she explores the importance of experience—teaching experience and life experience—shaping what happens in the classroom: “I wanted to know what was right with African American students’ education and what happens in classrooms where teachers, students, and parents seem to get it right. I searched for these teachers by polling African American parents… I asked principals and colleagues at schools in the district to recommend outstanding teachers to me. If a teacher’s name appeared on both lists… she became a candidate for the study. The most memorable thing about these teachers was that they had such few obvious similarities. True, they were all women, but I presume that to be an artifact of elementary teaching… After three years of working with these teachers I found two qualities that may explain their success. The first was experience. These women were very experienced teachers. None had fewer than twelve years of teaching experience… The second and perhaps more compelling factor was that each of these teachers could point to a transformative moment in their lives that forced them to reassess the way they did their work… These moments of transformation stand in stark contrast to the experiences of well-intentioned young people who come into teaching every year hoping to do some good for those ‘poor Black children.’ In my subsequent study with novice teachers I realized that it was important to select candidates who already had some life experiences that forced them to look closely at their lives and the lives of those less fortunate than they.” (The Dream-Keepers, “Forward” to the 2009 edition, pp. vii-viii [emphasis in the original])

Finally, in Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (1995, second edition 2006), Mike Rose, the education writer and professor of education at UCLA, traces four years of travel across the United States visiting and observing teaching in what he had identified as likely sites of excellent public school classrooms. Rose concludes: “To begin, the teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable. They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning, and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal… As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity…  (T)eaching well means knowing one’s students well and being able to read them quickly and, in turn, making decisions to slow down or speed up, to stay with a point or return to it later…. This decision-making operates as much by feel as by reason: it involves hunch, introduction, a best, quick guess. There is another dimension to the ability to make judgments about instruction. The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms… Such affirmation of intellectual and civic potential, particularly within populations that have been historically devalued in our society, gives to these teachers’ work a dimension of advocacy, a moral and political purpose.” (Possible Lives, pp. 418-423)

I wanted to share these passages from writers who not only teach prospective teachers but also help readers appreciate the real work of teachers. Most of us do not have the opportunity to sit inside America’s classrooms and become aware of the scale of this kind of work—across all of our communities—cities, suburbs, small towns and rural areas. Rose captures the importance of our system of public education with its millions of classrooms: “What I began to see—and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms… represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history: a faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society… The teachers I visited were working within that rich tradition. They provided example after different example of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals.”  (Possible Lives, pp. 412-413)

It’s too bad our President and his son don’t get it.

West Virginia House Kills Education Bill After Teachers Strike to Block School Privatization

Yesterday, Tuesday, West Virginia’s teachers walked out to protest an omnibus education bill moving through the state legislature. The bill, known as Senate Bill 451, included another pay raise for teachers, but the Republican dominated West Virginia Senate had also inserted poison pills—authorization for seven charter schools and a statewide education savings account neo-voucher program for 1000 eligible students with special needs.

At noon yesterday, as schools were shut down in 54 of the state’s 55 counties and teachers from across the state had gathered at the statehouse, the West Virginia House of Delegates voted to table Senate Bill 451 indefinitely—killing the bill.

Teachers announced last night, however, that their strike will continue through today, Wednesday, because of fears that some members of the legislature will try to resurrect the bill.  All of the state’s public schools have been closed today.

Yesterday’s statewide walkout was almost exactly a year after the state’s teachers struck for decent pay.  At the end of last year’s strike, teachers won a 5 percent raise.  In October, Governor Jim Justice promised teachers an additional raise this year.

West Virginia is among the states that has, until now, not pursued marketplace school choice through the creation of charter schools or any kind of voucher program. The Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education recently graded West Virginia A+ for its commitment to public education and its avoidance of these schemes to privatize the public schools.

This week’s sudden teachers’ strike broke an impasse in an all-Red state, with a Republican governor, and Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature.  The Senate had, however, shown itself to be more ideological, filling the omnibus Senate Bill 451 with ideas straight out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which offers model legislation for the very programs that seemed to be priorities of key Republicans in the West Virginia Senate—charter schools and education savings account neo-vouchers.

When the original Senate Bill 451 moved to the West Virginia House of Delegates over a week ago modifications ensued. By examining how the House altered the Senate version, it is easy to see why teachers understood the original bill as the Senate’s retaliation against their strike a year ago. The House amended the bill by slashing out the education savings account vouchers and paring down the charter school pilot program to two new schools.  For West Virginia Metro News, Brad McElhinny explains the amendments added last week by the House: “The bill changed in several key ways during almost two weeks of consideration in the House.  A non-severability clause was removed right away.  That would have meant the whole bill, including the teacher pay raise would have been struck down if any element were successfully challenged in court.  A ‘paycheck protection’ provision was removed too.  That would nave mandated annual approval for teachers union members to have their dues withheld from paychecks.  Unions viewed it as an anti-organized labor provision.  The Senate’s version allowed charter schools. That’s still in the bill, but barely. House Education at first capped the charters at six. Now there’s a pilot program for two…  A provision establishing educational savings accounts was removed by delegates in decisive votes… The House Education committee also voted to remove an entire section detailing the consequences of a work stoppage. Originally, the bill specified withholding pay if a work stoppage closed schools… The Education Committee altered a section that would have removed seniority as the main factor in job retention.”

The strike this week was announced late on Monday after the House version of the bill was sent back to await Senate action.  McElhinny reported Monday night: “The House of Delegates, which also has a Republican majority, made significant changes to the bill last week, scaling back many of its original provisions.  But Monday afternoon, when the Senate got the bill again, leadership introduced one big amendment that would include 1,000 education savings accounts and up to seven charter schools… Union leaders said those changes, plus the perception that elected officials have not listened to educators, left no choice but to strike.”

Yesterday morning, after teachers walked out statewide, Governor Jim Justice declared in a radio interview that he would veto the bill if the version that reached his desk included the Senate’s amendment from Monday. Justice had previously asked for a clean bill to increase teachers’ pay, and now that SB 451 appears dead, the House of Delegates has added such a bill to its agenda today.

The NY TimesDana Goldstein commented yesterday on the meaning of this year’s strikes by schoolteachers: “American teachers in the past year have mounted the most sustained educator protest movement in decades. Their relentless string of mass walkouts continues this week in West Virginia, where education unions abruptly called a statewide strike on Monday evening, and in California, which is bracing for a districtwide strike on Thursday.  The movement started with cries for better pay and benefits for educators, and more funding for schools and classrooms. But it has evolved into a protest against the argument that has driven the… education reform agenda… that traditional public schools and the people who work in them are failing, and that they must be challenged by charter schools, private school vouchers, test-driven accountability and other forms of pressure to improve.”

This week West Virginia teachers are on strike to prevent an experiment with privatization—a scheme like the one that has for two decades been undermining the public schools in states like Arizona and California.  West Virginia’s teachers acted to protect their state from the kind of conditions privatization has wrought in Oakland, where teachers will strike tomorrow to stanch the flow of funds out of the public schools and into an ever-expanding charter school sector.