When my careful, watchful, and somewhat shy daughter came home for lunch on the first day of first grade, I heard the words every parent looks for on the first day of school: “After one morning, I already feel smoothed into school!” There are generations of parents in Cleveland Heights, Ohio who still wonder at the gifts, kindness, and dedication of Marlene Karkoska. What was it that she did to make our first graders feel “smoothed into school”?
What worries me right now is that despite the passage of the American Rescue Plan with lots of money for school districts and state governments to help get schools back up and running, I am still hearing a lot from policy makers about learning loss, the need for kids to make up the work in summer programs, and the need for testing to document what’s been lost. I’m not hearing enough about the calm, the encouragement, the confidence, and the enjoyment of being at school that Miss Karkoska provided for our children as the very foundation for their learning to read and compute.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s announcement last week that the federal government will mandate standardized testing for this school year came despite months of pleading for cancellation of this year’s standardized tests—advice from experts who know a lot about working with children, about learning theory, and about the problems of standardized test-based accountability for schools. My children started Kindergarten in 1985 and 1988, before standardized testing became the driver of American public education. I wonder if people who have been creating education policy since the 1990s, when holding schools accountable for test score outcomes became the primary educational policy goal, can really imagine another way to think about education.
I have many questions about the strategies and plans which the U.S. Department of Education will attach to the federal stimulus awards of funds to states and schools. One reason for my concern is that I watched the awarding of stimulus dollars to states during the Great Recession back in 2009 under Arne Duncan. Here is some of what I worry about:
- Will there be any real attempt when students return to school to ensure that the focus is on welcome and encouragement, and on spiraling the curriculum to review material that may have been missed as students accelerate into exploring new material? What is to prevent the numbing drilling that has filled too many classrooms, particularly in the schools that serve our nation’s poorest children? I recently read one suggestion that when students return, the curriculum should be further narrowed to compensate for learning loss with an intense and sole focus on language arts and math, an almost humorous suggestion if it weren’t such a blatant plea for raising test scores at all cost in the two areas the federal government already mandates standardized tests.
- I have read that American Rescue Plan dollars can be spent on teachers and school support staff to reduce class size and add sufficient counselors and social workers. That is a very good thing, but will the federal government, as it awards dollars for these added staff, incentivize states themselves to continue to allocate adequate state funds to ensure that schools can continue employing these professionals into the future after the one-time federal grant runs out? I remember so well that Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants supported the employment of armies of one-time consultants but virtually no hiring of long term professional educators and student support staff.
- Although most of the federal aid for school districts is being distributed through the Title I formula, some of the federal stimulus dollars in the American Rescue Plan will flow through the state governments which control the allocation of school funding. I know there are some “maintenance of effort” rules in the federal stimulus bill, but are they strong enough and will they be enforced? Can the federal government create enough regulations to prevent states from further slashing state taxes and replacing state dollars with federal stimulus dollars? Will there be rules to direct the states to spend needed money on public schools and not on expanding charter schools and private school tuition vouchers?
- Secretary Cardona says he believes that standardized test scores in this school year can tell us more about the need for added funding in the nation’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children. Will we learn more from standardized test scores than we already know from the data currently maintained in the fifty states and collected by the National Center for Education Statistics? There is plenty of data already available about disparities in class sizes, the number of per-pupil guidance counselors, and the number of school social workers and school psychologists. Further, we all watched a wave of teachers’ strikes and walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 through which teachers exposed appalling conditions—masses of students in large classes—sometimes 40 students—counselors with case loads of 400 and 500 students—the absence of nurses, librarians.
In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire summarize the financial dilemma in which public schools found themselves at the time the COVID-19 pandemic struck: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession (2008), but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.” Schneider and Berkshire describe what we learned from the nationwide teacher strikes in 2018-2019: “(T)he recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted. In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-43)
In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black adds that the growth of school privatization has left us with a charter school sector and the expansion of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schools at the expense of the public schools: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.” And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)
In a profound, short analysis in The Progressive, Diane Ravitch summarizes two decades of test-and-punish accountability and the growth of school privatization. Here is her very plain, simple recommendation for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona: “Cardona could help urban schools, which are underfunded, by ending the pretense that competition (via charters and vouchers) will make them better (it doesn’t). It starves them of needed resources. Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition. We have poured billions of dollars into that fake reform and achieved little other than demoralized teachers and students whose test-centric education robs them of motivation. Why not try a radically different approach? Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of students are greatest?… Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play. Now that would be a revolution!