John Merrow and Thomas Toch Debate Michelle Rhee’s Strategy for Running Urban Schools

A debate about school reform has been raging on the pages of The Washington Monthly—between Thomas Toch, a defender of what is frequently called “corporate school reform” and John Merrow, the retired education reporter for the PBS NewsHour.  The subject: Washington, D.C. school reform as launched by Michelle Rhee and further evolved during the tenure of Kaya Henderson and others whom Henderson hired.  This now-old story about the D.C. public schools still matters, because the theories and practices introduced by Michelle Rhee a decade ago in the nation’s capital continue to drive the operation of urban school districts across the United States.

Thomas Toch formerly led the think tank Education Sector and now serves as the director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University. The July-August, Washington Monthly published Toch’s  Hot for Teachers, a paean to what he believes is a decade of public school improvement between 2007 and 2016 in the nation’s capital. Toch is careful to point out that his subject is broader than Michelle Rhee’s tenure that ended with her resignation in October of 2010. As Toch describes the elevation of test scores across the District, however, and as he celebrates a crackdown on “bad teaching,” improved recruitment and retention of teachers, and broad-scale, data-driven school management, Toch’s rhetoric betrays a pro-corporate-school-reform bias, which must filtered as one reads his story:

Toch appreciates charter schools: “Some 43 percent of D.C. students were enrolled in charters in 2013, up from less than 15 percent a decade earlier.  Many of these schools, with names like DC Prep, KIPP DC, and Achievement Prep, were earning attention for their innovative strategies and strong results.  Foundations heaped money onto them, and the young talent entering teaching through prestigious pipelines like Teach for America were keen to work in the schools.” He also celebrates Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s strategy for working with school teachers: “Rhee’s successors at DCPS have redesigned teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and performance-based promotions and compensation.”  Before Rhee resigned, “Kaya Henderson, who had been Teach for America’s D.C. director and then managed Rhee’s New Teacher Project work in the city, supervised the project as the new chancellor’s chief of human capital.  She worked with Jason Kamras, a Princeton graduate who had arrived in Washington a decade earlier through Teach for America…. At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, Henderson and Kamras launched the most comprehensive teacher measurement system ever implemented in public education.  It set citywide teaching standards for the first time ever… Under the new system, every teacher would be observed five times a year—three times by the administrators in their schools and twice by ‘master educators’ from the central office who would provide an independent check on principals’ ratings.”  Toch believes that fear is a useful strategy for making people work harder: “Rhee’s team deepened teachers’ angst…. Henderson ordered that student test scores make up 50 percent of teachers’ ratings if they taught tested subjects and grades. That turned out to be only 15 percent of the school system’s teaching force, but the move stoked anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s teaching ranks.”

Toch’s analysis continues beyond the transition from Chancellor Rhee to Chancellor Henderson. Noting that Henderson learned from Rhee’s mistakes, Toch emphasizes that after Rhee’s exit, Henderson introduced more support for good teaching—career ladders, for example, and collaboration among grade-level teams of teachers.  Toch does betray the top-down reformer’s bias, however: “There’s no doubt that the school reform stars aligned in Washington over the past decade: There was a rare infusion of talent in the central office; stable leadership enabled by mayoral control of city schools; freedom from key collective bargaining obstacles, and substantial funding, first from grants, then from savings from improvements in the city’s special education system.”

John Merrow, the retired PBS NewsHour reporter who has repeatedly investigated Michelle Rhee’s contentious tenure as the D.C. Chancellor, collaborated with Mary Levy to publish, in the September-October Washington Monthly, a rebuttal to Toch’s story.  Merrow has also expanded this story on his personal blog.  Merrow’s response to Toch centers on the Rhee years, because that is the subject Merrow knows best and because Merrow believes Toch’s distorted portrayal of a D.C. school improvement miracle is grounded in a biased understanding of Rhee’s troubled tenure.

Merrow points to gentrification as the source of much of the test score improvement in Washington, D.C.  He documents that achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and income have not closed: “Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students.  Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened.  From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called ‘others’ in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250-282.  Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the ‘proficient’ level remained an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among ‘others’ climbed from 22 to 53 percent.  An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined from 18 percent to 17 percent.  In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015, white proficiency was at 75 percent.”

Merrow describes what he calls “central office bloat”: “Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes…. Why so many of these teacher watchers?  Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers.” Merrow bemoans the result: a collapse of morale along with widespread resignations of teachers and school leaders.  Some of this is because staff are being moved among schools, enhancing disruptive change, but he notes: “Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.”

As he re-posts his Washington Monthly article on his personal blog, Merrow adds several pages of what he has documented over the years in his investigation of a years’ long cheating scandal in Washington DC, a scandal exposed by U.S.A. Today in March of 2011, but, as Merrow has documented repeatedly, never investigated.  He castigates Toch for (in his July-August article) dismissing the extent of the pressure Rhee was placing on school principals and the widespread reach of the cheating.

Here is some of Merrow’s rebuttal: “Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools.  The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor.  The ‘investigations’ Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both… Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions, that could be asked.”

Merrow poses the essential question: “Why would so many schools be driven to cheat?  In her one-on-one meetings with all her principals, Rhee insisted that they guarantee test score increases and made it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.  The adults who subsequently changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were intent on keeping their jobs, which depended on higher scores… The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in these meetings, made them guarantee test score increases. We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.”

Merrow dismisses Toch’s piece as corporate-school-reform hot air: “To remain aloft, a hot air balloon must be fed regular bursts of hot air.  Without hot air, the balloon falls to earth.  That seems to be the appropriate analogy for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the ten-year regime (2007-2016) of Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson.  Their top-down approach to school reform might not have lasted but for the unstinting praise provided by influential supporters from the center left and right—their hot air.  The list includes the editorial page of the Washington Post, (and) former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan….”

Merrow dubs Toch’s article this summer as merely another draft of hot air.  He blasts Toch’s argument “that Rhee and Henderson revolutionized the teaching profession in D.C. schools, to the benefit of students. ”  And he calls Toch a cheerleader who, “obscures a harsh truth: on most relevant measures, Washington’s public schools have either regressed or made minimal progress under their leadership.  Schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods seem to be thriving, but outcomes for low-income minority students—the great majority of enrollment—are pitifully low.”

Thomas Toch responds to Merrow’s allegations.  His response is printed by The Washington Monthly at the end of Merrow and Mary Levy’s report, Has D.C. Teacher Reform Been Successful?

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Tax Reform, the Common Good, and Public Education

Nikolai Vitti became Detroit’s public school superintendent last April. Last week in the Detroit News, Superintendent Vitti published what sounds radically counter cultural: a school district vision statement that leaves out charter schools, school choice, blaming and firing teachers, and any mention of test scores (though the Every Student Succeeds Act will require that Detroit keep on testing its students). Here is some of what Superintendent Vitti says:

“We now have an empowered and elected school board for the first time in years….” “Detroit will not reach its full potential without a stronger traditional public education system. Children need to feel safe, empowered and supported when attending school. Students will make mistakes but learn from them through a more progressive code of conduct focused on positive behavior support, restorative practices, not exclusionary strategies.” “(P)riorities are rooted in developing a child-centric organization that ensures college-and career/technical-ready programing exists across the district in every school; retaining, developing and recruiting the strongest teachers and leaders, and being more strategic and aligned with our resources. Our other priority to focus on the whole child will expand access to enrichment activities such as art, music, athletics, chess, cultural field trips and electives… This spring we will launch a Parent Academy to empower our parents to play a more active role in their child’s education. Teachers will visit students’ home to create stronger relationships with parents… While our schools must own the challenge and opportunity poverty presents, we must recognize that public schools cannot lift children out of poverty alone. We must face the truth that although poverty affects all people, historical and institutional racism exacerbates poverty based on race.”  Vitti also describes schools as centers with wraparound services like health, mental health and dental services for students and families.

Vitti’s vision cannot be realized without nurturing collaboration, building trust, and honoring the professionals who will work with children every day.  It is also grounded in Vitti’s belief in public responsibility.

Which is where he may run into trouble in our era when politicians are focused instead on tax reform—defined as tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy.

In a brief last week for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sharon Parrot describes the Senate tax bill that, “has the same basic flaws as the House bill.”  “The core of the bill is a large corporate tax cut that would overwhelmingly benefit wealthy households, along with a tax cut for ‘pass-through’ businesses that’s also heavily tilted to high-income households and an estate tax cut worth $4.4 million (for estates from couples) for the nation’s very largest estates. These tax cuts are so costly that they require offsets like removing the tax deduction for state and local taxes to comply with the limitation that the tax cuts only increase deficits by $1.5 trillion over a decade. They leave little room for meaningful help to low- and moderate-income families.”

An earlier brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains what the Center is calling, “the Republican Two-Step Fiscal Agenda.” “When deficits rise, those who supported the tax cuts will likely label these deficits as unacceptable and point to spending as the culprit. When that happens, they presumably will call for the kinds of deep cuts they’ve already proposed in their long-range budget plans, which would hit education, basic assistance for struggling families, health care, and other key investments. Those cuts could happen as soon as next year.”

The brief continues: “President Trump and Republican House and Senate leaders have been very clear on the areas they want to cut.  The Trump, House, and Senate budget plans for the next decade all would cut basic assistance and health care for millions of low- and moderate-income families with children, along with investments and services in areas such as education, job training, infrastructure, and environmental protection… The federal government provides modest but important support for K-12 education, about three-quarters of it through two large formula grant programs aimed at helping low-income and disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. Education aid is part of the non-defense discretionary budget category, which the Trump, House, and Senate budget plans would cut deeply, on top of cuts already imposed since 2010… Cuts of this magnitude would almost certainly affect aid to local schools. Although the budget plans are vague about what they intend to cut in future years, education seems an especially likely target because it has already been a target of congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration…”

As one watches the tax reform debate in Congress, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the technicality of much of the discussion or confused about which of the specific proposals would help or hurt whom. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is trying to keep us all focused on the big picture: if corporations and the very rich get huge tax cuts, the money has to come from somewhere. And past cuts to non-defense domestic discretionary spending have already been so deep that further cuts to what are already meager programs will inevitably limit what Superintendent Vitti is able to accomplish in already-distressed Detroit.

Societies are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens. Because government policy and services are central to serving the common good, paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses—with the heaviest responsibility on those with the greatest financial means.

Harvard’s Daniel Koretz Indicts High Stakes Testing in “The Testing Charade”

Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, is a scathing indictment of our society’s test-and-punish school regime, formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and continuing in the most recent version of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Koretz, the testing specialist, is not so critical of standardized testing itself as he is of the high stakes sanctions that Congress attached to the annual tests in No Child Left Behind—punishments that have driven massive pressure on educators that has ruined our public schools:

“Pressure to raise scores on achievement tests dominates American education today. It shapes what is taught and how it is taught.  It influences the problems students are given in math class (often questions from earlier tests), the materials they are given to read, the essays and other work they are required to produce, and often the manner in which teachers grade this work. It determines which educators are rewarded, punished, and even fired. In many cases it determines which students are promoted or graduate. This is the result of decades of ‘education reforms’ that progressively expanded the amount of externally imposed testing and ratcheted up the pressure to raise scores.” (p. 1)

Daniel Koretz’s biography at the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes him as an expert on educational assessment and testing policy, and the book describes in considerable detail just how high stakes punishments for schools and teachers have corrupted the results of the tests themselves, narrowed the curriculum, and degraded teaching.

But my deepest interest in the book is Koretz’s depiction of how the testing that was supposed force teachers and schools to better serve poor children, raise their test scores and close achievement gaps has instead truncated opportunity for the very children it was supposed to help. How has test-and-punish narrowed the curriculum to basic reading and math in the poorest schools, and how has it forced teachers to focus on test-prep and coaching instead of enrichment?  How has test-and-punish forced the closing or charterizing of schools in poor neighborhoods? How has evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores resulted in firing principals and teachers in the poorest schools and exacerbated staff turnover?  And what about the children being held back in third grade due to a test score—even when they may be making real progress in reading and the adolescents denied a high school diploma?

Under current federal law, students and schools are given credit for proficiency only when children reach benchmark proficiency scores. A fourth grader who advances during the school year from a first to a third grade reading level will still fail to achieve the fourth grade cut score. Neither the child nor the teacher will be given credit for the child’s improvement: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

Reformers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124) Koretz explains at length and in detail the ways that teachers and principals whose jobs are threatened have resorted to raising scores—coaching for the test, drilling on materials likely to be covered, and in some cases where the pressure was greatest, cheating by erasing and correcting scores.

Koretz quotes Linda Darling-Hammond’s characterization of test-and-punish school accountability: “the kick the dog harder model of education reform.” And he explains: “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)  He suggests first that we stop judging all students and schools by benchmark scores. We must “set goals based on students’ growth, not the level of their performance.” (p. 235)

In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss interviews Koretz about his new book, and she publishes an excerpt.

While I have emphasized the sections in which Koretz shows test-and-punish hurting the schools that serve the poorest and most vulnerable children, Koretz is a testing expert, whose primary interest is how high stakes punishments attached to a regime of universal testing have corrupted the entire operation of public schools: “Reformers may take umbrage and say that they certainly didn’t demand that teachers cheat. They didn’t, although in fact many policy makers actively encouraged bad test prep that produced fraudulent gains. What they did demand was unrelenting and often very large gains that many teachers couldn’t produce through better instruction, and they left them with inadequate supports as they struggled to meet these often unrealistic targets. They gave many educators the choice I wrote about thirty years ago—fail, cut corners, or cheat—and many chose not to fail.” (p.244)

Koretz joins a growing number of critics who indict test-and-punish school accountability. What is significant about this book is the thorough and relentless critique by a testing expert who carefully and sometimes technically dissects the evidence.

Momentum Grows Against VAM Evaluations of Teachers, but Eradication of VAM Will Take Time

Earlier this month, Christopher Tienken, a professor of education leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University published a short commentary on research he and colleagues have been conducting about whether standardized tests ought to be used for high stakes policy decisions.

He writes, “Every year, policymakers across the U.S. make life-changing decisions based on the results of standardized tests. These high-stakes decisions include, but are not limited to, student promotion to the next grade level, student eligibility to participate in advanced coursework, eligility to graduate high school and teacher tenure. In 40 states, teachers are evaluated in part based on the results from student standardized tests, as are school administrators in almost 30 states. However, research shows that the outcomes of standardized tests don’t reflect the quality of instruction, as they’re intended to… The results show that it’s possible to predict the percentages of students who will score proficient or above on some standardized tests. We can do this just by looking at some of the important characteristics of the community, rather than factors related to the schools themselves, like student-teacher ratios or teacher quality. This raises the possibility that there are serious flaws built into education accountability systems and the decisions about educators and students made within those systems.”  Tienken and his colleagues have been investigating issues associated with the aggregate poverty (or wealth) in the communities where schools are located.

Questions about the reliability and validity of standardized testing, reports Rachel Cohen for The American Prospect, are finally contributing to growing doubts about the use of what is known as Value-Added Modeling (VAM) to evaluate teachers. VAM, writes Cohen, is “a controversial statistical method aimed at isolating each teacher’s effectiveness based on… (her) students’ standardized test scores.” VAM models are supposed to measure the “value added” by each particular teacher.

Concerns about VAM are not new. In the spring of 2014, the American Statistical Association warned: “(V)ariation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. 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.”

A year later in June of 2015, the American Educational Research Association added, “Because of the adverse consequences of faulty evaluations for educators and the students they serve, use of VAM in any evaluation system must meet a very high technical bar… (T)he validity of inferences from VAM scores depends on the ability to isolate the contributions of teachers and leaders to student learning from the contributions of other factors not under their control. This is very difficult, not only because of data limitations but also because of the highly nonrandom sorting of students and teachers into schools and classes within schools. The resulting bias will not be distributed evenly among schools, given wide variation in critical factors like student mobility…. Therefore, due caution should be exercised in the interpretations of VAM scores, since we generally do not know how to properly adjust for the impact of these other factors.”

Nevertheless, the use of VAM to evaluate teachers has become widespread—driven by federal policy. Cohen traces the history, beginning with the influence of recommendations by the New Teacher Project and the National Council on Teacher Quality, both programs that oppose teachers unions and have sought to spread alarm about the quality of American teachers. “In 2009, an education reform group known as The New Teacher Project (TNTP) issued an influential report finding widespread ‘institutional indifference to variations in teacher performance.’… TNTP recommended an overhaul of teacher evaluations, urging districts to develop systems that rate teachers ‘based on their effectiveness in promoting students’ achievement’—which meant evaluating them by their students’ scores on standardized tests. The report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores and value-added modeling. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.)” Basically Arne Duncan’s U.S.Department of Education drove states to adopt VAM for evaluating teachers as a condition for states to qualify for a waiver from NCLB’s ill-conceived punishments.

Cohen adds that, “By 2015, the anti-testing backlash had gained steam across the country, in part because the federal government had pushed for test scores to be used to evaluate teachers across all grades and subjects. States had begun to require assessments in such traditionally untested areas like art and early elementary. Parents, teachers unions, and conservatives rallied together for a rollback of federal testing mandates. With the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act in late 2015, they succeeded.”  But although the federal government eliminated its requirement that states evaluate teachers with standardized test scores, many states have kept on using VAM to rate teachers.

Teachers and their unions have protested the unfairness and inaccuracy of VAM evaluation systems. Cohen summarizes lawsuits filed in a number of states by teachers and their unions, but these cases have been very hard for teachers to win.  For example, a federal judge in Florida in 2013 wrote an opinion that explained why courts have often found that while VAM may be unfair, it is not illegal: “In 2013, the National Education Association and its Florida affiliate filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that required at least half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on VAM. In practice, this meant that teachers in non-tested grades and subjects were graded based on the test scores of students they didn’t teach… Together, the seven public school teacher plaintiffs in Cook v. Chartrand argued that Florida’s law violated their equal protection and due process rights. But in 2014, a federal judge ruled against them, concluding that while the rating system seemed clearly unfair, it was nonetheless still legal. ‘Needless to say, this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would fine this evaluation system fair to (teachers in non-tested subjects), let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system… This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system. The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law.'” The decision was upheld on appeal.

Cohen reports, however, that teachers are encouraged by a judge’s recent decision in a Houston case: “The lawsuit centered on the system’s use of value-added modeling (VAM)…. United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith concluded that the metric’s impenetrability could render it unconstitutional. If, he wrote, teachers have ‘no meaningful way to ensure’ that their value-added ratings are accurate, they are ‘subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.’  More specifically, he continued, if the school district denies its teachers access to the computer algorithms and data that form the basis of each teacher’s VAM score, it ‘flunks the minimum procedural due process standard of providing the reason for termination in sufficient detail to enable (the teacher) to show any error that may exist.'”

Beyond the courts, reports Cohen, even prominent education “reformers” have begun to question the reliability of VAM-based teacher evaluations.  Jay Greene, the director of the far-right, Walton-funded think tank at the University of Arkansas, the Department of Education Reform, has begun raising questions. Cohen describes her interview with Greene: “In an interview with the Prospect, Greene… said that test-based accountability advocates tend to imagine either that existing accountability systems are already designed according to best practices, or that states will eventually adopt best practices. “But there’s no sign that this will happen…'”

Despite widespread evidence of its flaws, VAM modeling has unfairly damaged the reputation of the teaching profession and seriously undermined morale. We have begun to see a shift in attitudes, but it will take considerable and persistent advocacy to rid VAM entirely from state policy.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner Leads Ideological Fight Against School Funding Fairness

In an ugly special legislative session in early July, Illinois finally enacted a budget when the Legislature overrode Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto. It is the first budget the state has had since Rauner was elected governor over two years ago. But the wrangling between Republican Governor Rauner and the Democratically dominated Illinois Legislature continues.  On Monday, Rauner called another special session of the Illinois Legislature—beginning today—to resolve an impasse on school funding that threatens to hold up money necessary to start the upcoming school year.

Although the majority-Democratic legislature overrode Rauner’s veto to pass the budget, school districts cannot access their state funds because the formula to determine the distribution of state funds for school districts remains blocked.  The legislature has passed a new “evidence-based” school funding formula intended to equalize school funding, but, through a legal technicality, has not yet sent the budget to Rauner.  Legislative leaders fear Rauner will use what Illinois calls his power of “amendatory veto.”

Parsing out what’s going on in Illinois is confusing.  Here is a summary of what’s been happening and what it means.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH ILLINOIS SCHOOL FUNDING?   The Education Law Center’s National Report Card on School Funding identifies Illinois as fourth from the bottom of all the states in school funding fairness. The only states that do a worse job of using state funds to compensate for notoriously uneven local capacity to raise school taxes are Nevada, Wyoming, and North Dakota.  For WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station: Amanda Vinicky explains: “An over-reliance on local property taxes means that as much as $32,000 is spent on each pupil attending a school in a wealthy area, while spending on a student growing up in an area with low property values can be in the $4,500 range.”

WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE-BASED SCHOOL FUNDING PLAN?   This is the substance of a new law, Senate Bill 1, passed by both houses of the Illinois Legislature but not yet signed into law by Governor Rauner.  John O’Connor and Sophia Tareen, writing for the Associated Press explain: “The legislation would revise the way the schools receive state aid for the first time in two decades. The method funnels money to the neediest school districts first after ensuring that no district receives less money than last school year.  That includes a $250 million-a-year grant for the financially-troubled Chicago schools for programs funded separately in other districts and a requirement that the state pick up the annual $215 million employer portion of Chicago teachers’ pensions.”

THE POLITICS   Illinois is a split state with both houses of the legislature dominated by Democrats but a very conservative Republican as governor. After members of the legislature overrode Governor Rauner’s veto of a state budget that was years overdue, Rauner fired many of his key staffers and hired what Natasha Korecki at POLITICO describes as “several members of the Illinois Policy Institute, a lightning-rod conservative think tank, in their place….”  The Illinois Policy Institute is so far to the right that it is a member of the State Policy Network, a group of libertarian “think-tanks” at the state level that work with the American Legislative Exchange Council to develop and promote right-to-work and school privatization legislation and distribute model bills to be introduced in legislatures across the fifty states.

WHAT IS AN “AMENDATORY VETO”?   O’Connor and Tareen explain: “Illinois is one of just seven states that give its governor the power of amendatory veto.  It allows a governor to return legislation with ‘specific recommendations for change.’ But according to the state Supreme Court, that does not include changing a bill’s ‘fundamental purpose’ or making ‘substantial or expansive’ changes.” Governor Rauner has threatened to use his power of amendatory veto, which is why the bill has not yet been sent to Rauner.

THE SCHOOL FUNDING BILL WAS PASSED ON MAY 31. HOW COME IT HASN’T REACHED THE GOVERNOR’S DESK?   Vinicky at WTTW explains the mechanics of the delay: “Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, says given Rauner’s veto threat, he used a parliamentary procedure known as a ‘motion to reconsider’ to put a hold on the measure. That prevents the governor from killing it with his veto pen, and from signing it into law. There is no limit on how long the hold can last.”

SO WHY IS GOV. RAUNER THREATENING TO VETO AND CHANGE PART OF THE SCHOOL FUNDING PLAN?   The problem is that the Legislature has allocated money to help the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which have been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Chicago Public Schools is the state’s largest school district, and it serves an enormous number of children who need services due to concentrated poverty, special education programs, and programs for English language instruction. And there is a two-decades’ old pension crisis. The state contributes to the pension system for all of the state’s other school districts, but Chicago’s pension system is on its own.  Earlier this week, Reuters summarized: “Escalating pension payments have led to drained reserves, debt dependency and junk bond ratings for CPS, the nation’s third-largest public school system. The governor called the CPS pension funding ‘a poison pill’ in the legislation, adding that it should be taken up separately.

Heather Cherone for Chicago’s DNA Info explains further: “Rauner again said he plans to issue an amendatory veto that would remove the $300 million the legislation would send to CPS to cover current and past-due pension payments, which amounts to a ‘bailout of Chicago’s broken teacher pension system’ that the governor’s office said would take ‘away critical resources from school districts across the state.'”

Partly due to lack of equity in the state’s funding system, the Chicago school district has depended on borrowing for years, most notoriously from its teachers’ pension fund. The teachers’ pension fund has been in crisis, and it is clear that the pension crisis is not the fault of the teachers, who have paid their individual contributions. Maureen Kelleher, writing for the Chicago Reporter, explains that it stems from 1995, when the state created mayoral control that included sweeping financial changes: “The biggest revenue shift came from combining several property tax levies—including one earmarked to pay for teacher pensions—into one fund that could be used to pay current operating expenses. That year, $62.2 million was diverted from pension payments to operating expenses.” And the school district has persistently failed to pay its full contribution to the fund and diverted pension funds for school operating expenses—basically borrowing out of the teachers’ pensions to run the district. In the summer of 2015, Kelleher concluded that unfunded liabilities in the pension fund totaled $10 billion.

The Chicago Sun-Times editorial board castigates Rauner for pitting “Chicago against the rest of Illinois”—Chicago that educates 19 percent of the states public school students while, even under the new plan, receiving “only 16 percent of the state’s funding for education.”

Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown describes the common ground achieved between school leaders and advocates in Chicago and in smaller communities downstate as the Legislature developed the plan: “They found common ground with Chicago Public Schools in developing a formula that benefits both by recognizing their shared challenges—notably high percentages of students from poor families who are more costly to educate.” Brown profiles small-town school superintendents  “who have been holding town forums to explain the benefits of Senate Bill 1 to their residents,”  including Rolf Sivertsen, the “superintendent of Canton Union School District 66, about 30 miles west of Peoria. His district has 2,600 students in grades pre-k through 12th. Sixty percent of these students come from low-income families.  The school district would receive $760,000 more if Senate Bill 1 becomes law.”

It appears that most people in in Illinois and the legislators who represent them want to move forward with an unbiased system of funding schools, including fairness for the beleaguered Chicago Public Schools. Bruce Rauner’s ideological rigidity is blocking an equitable solution.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Owes ALEC for Promoting Her Anti-Public Education Agenda

Today in Denver, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will deliver the lunchtime keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Last year, right after the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Mike Pence, then-Governor of Indiana and then-nominee for Vice President, went home to Indianapolis to deliver a keynote address at last year’s annual meeting of ALEC. What this means is that key people serving in the Trump administration are political extremists. We know that, of course, but it isn’t bad to stop and really take in the meaning of who’s in charge.

Esteemed education policy writers David Berliner and Gene Glass trace the history of ALEC: “In 1971 one Lewis F. Powell, Jr., a lawyer and member of 11 corporate boards, sent to the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce what has come to be known as the Powell Manifesto. (Powell was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court within a year of his having transmitted his manifesto.) In brief, Powell urged conservatives to adopt an aggressive stance toward the federal government, to seek to influence legislation in the interest of corporations, and to enlist like-minded scholars in an attack on liberal social critics… (T)he Powell Manifesto influenced the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute… and other powerful organizations… The Powell Manifesto spawned the powerful American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Formed in 1973, just 2 years after the Powell declaration, ALEC has been without question the most powerful influence on education policy in the United States during the past 3 decades.” (50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 7-8)

It is primarily state policy and funding under the fifty state constitutions, not federal policy, that shapes public schools. ALEC is the far-right’s tool for influencing state government.  For forty years, ALEC has been the operation turning the agenda of corporations and far-right think tanks into the bills that are introduced in state legislatures across the country. It is a membership organization for state legislators and for the corporate and ideological lobbyists who sit down together to craft model legislation—the very same bills, perhaps tweaked just a bit to localize them— that are then introduced in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Florida,  Kansas, and Arizona.

A lot of state legislatures have recently been discussing laws for Education Savings Accounts, for example, a new form of vouchers. Although you might have imagined that Betsy DeVos and her incessant rhetoric about tuition tax credits and education savings accounts is the reason for this wave of bills introduced seemingly everywhere, it is ALEC that should get the credit. Betsy DeVos owes ALEC big time. ALEC is the assembly line that turns her kind of ideas into prototype bills and then sends them along the conveyor belt of its state legislative members for consideration across the fifty state legislatures.

Here is economist Gordon Lafer describing ALEC’s power: “Above all, the corporate agenda is coordinated through the American Legislative Exchange Council… ALEC, the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level, brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation. According to the group’s promotional materials, it convenes bill-drafting committees—often at posh resorts—in which ‘both corporations and legislators have a voice and a vote in shaping policy.’ Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills. The organization claims to introduce eight hundred to one thousand bills each year in the fifty state legislatures, with 20 percent becoming law.” Lafer lists over a hundred corporations whose lobbyists also represent their interests on ALEC committees writing the bills. (The One Percent Solution, pp 12-14)

A huge irony is that the IRS persists in considering ALEC a tax-exempt nonprofit instead of classifying it as a lobbying organization, Common Cause has filed a formal complaint: “Common Cause filed an IRS whistleblower complaint against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in April 2012, charging the organization with tax fraud as it operates as a corporate lobbying group while registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity.” Despite that Common Cause has updated its complaint to keep it active—in 2013, 2015, and 2016—the IRS has not reconsidered.

Not only corporations but also national organizations and think tanks promoting a corporate, anti-tax, and school privatization agenda are ALEC members and have served on its Education Task Force, including the Alliance for School Choice, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the Walton Family Foundation. Others have been sponsors of programming or exhibitors at ALEC annual meetings, including the American Enterprise Institute, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, the Center for Education Reform, the Family Research Council, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, Ed Choice (formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice),  and the pro-voucher Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Member think tanks of the far right State Policy Network are also members of ALEC’s bill-writing task forces. Their staffs collaborate with ALEC’s corporate and legislative members to draft model bills. Examples of  State Policy Network member organizations are Ohio’s Buckeye Institute, the Illinois Policy Institute, Michigan’s Mackinac Center, North Carolina’s John Locke Institute, New York’s Manhattan Institute, and Arizona’s Goldwater Institute.

So what do we know about the agenda for education policy—endorsed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—that is being created and spread to the state legislatures along ALEC’s conveyor belt of prototype bills? Here is Gordon Lafer; “The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the (corporate) agenda… The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education…. Finally the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence…. (F)or those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education. In all these ways then, school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda….” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

Lafer continues—identifying ALEC’s role in all this: “In states across the country, corporate lobbyists have supported a comprehensive package of reforms that includes weakening or abolishing teachers’ unions, cutting school budgets, and increasing class sizes, requiring high-stakes testing that determines teacher tenure and school closings, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, diverting public funding into vouchers… lowering training and licensing requirements for new teachers, replacing in-person education with digital applications, and dismantling publicly elected school boards. Almost all of these initiatives reflect ALEC model legislation, and have been championed by the Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and a wide range of allied corporate lobbies.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 130)

I wish we had a U.S. Secretary of Education who would challenge ALEC’s agenda in the luncheon keynote today in Denver.

The Edu-Tech Billionaires Promote “Personalized” Learning That Lacks the Personal Touch

I was relieved when I read the Los Angeles Times‘ editorial a couple of weeks ago about the newfound humility of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as regards its education philanthropy. Recounting the history of billions spent on failed projects like the small-schools initiative, the initiative to evaluate teachers and reward the best with merit pay, and the investment to develop, publicize and spread the Common Core standards, the LA Times editorial board writes: “Tucked away in a letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week, along with proud notes about the foundation’s efforts to fight smoking and tropical diseases and its other accomplishments, was a section on education. Its tone was unmistakably chastened. ‘We’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make systemwide change,’ wrote the foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman… ‘It is really tough to create more great public schools.'”

The only problem is that it isn’t quite true that Gates has disappeared from the world of education “reform.” Gone are the days, of course, when Arne Duncan hired Jim Shelton, right out of the Gates Foundation to lead the Office of Innovation at the U.S. Department of Education. But the Billionaire Boys continue to work behind the scenes.

Today the focus is “personalized learning,” the Orwellian name its proponents are calling computer-driven learning.  And, no surprise, Jim Shelton has come back to lead the philanthropically-driven effort, but this time he’s working with the Gates Foundation from a perch as head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, what Benjamin Herold at Education Week calls “the philanthropic and investment arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.” “The head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education division, former U.S. deputy education secretary Jim Shelton, previously worked as a program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for more than seven years.”

Here is Herold’s description of the new project: “Two of the biggest names in technology and education philanthropy are jointly funding a $12 million initiative to support new ways of tailoring classroom instruction to individual students. The grant marks the first substantive collaboration of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, chaired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative…. Their joint award was given in April to New Profit, a Boston-based ‘venture philanthropy’ organization. New Profit will in turn provide $1 million, plus extensive management advising, to each of seven other organizations working to promote personalized learning… The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not a traditional nonprofit foundation. Instead, it’s an LLC. That organizational structure allows for direct investment in for-profit companies and political lobbying and donations, as well as philanthropic giving.”

Reporters for Inside Philanthropy, who call the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative CZI, add that since Shelton took over a year ago, “CZI’s work on personalized learning has evolved rapidly, and now has a number of parts. Developing and promoting the technology for personalized learning is a central focus. In March, Shelton wrote on Facebook that CZI is ‘building a world-class engineering team with a commitment to developing breakthrough products and practices that support personalized learning.’ More specifically, it’s creating a free online tool, the Summit Learning platform, which ’empowers teachers to customize instruction to meet their students’ individual needs and interests.’  This platform was developed by a partnership between Facebook and Summit Public Schools, a leading charter school provider. It’s now used by 130 schools, 1,100 teachers and 20,000 students, according to Shelton. But CZI is dreaming even bigger… Shelton described the philosophy here more broadly: ‘It turns out when you let people choose, their level of engagement and motivation goes up.'”

And, explains Inside Philanthropy, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has made a grant to Chiefs for Change, a network of local and state school superintendents convened by Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has pushed all sorts of ed tech contracting. “Chiefs for Change will use the funds to support the new Transforming Schools and Systems Workgroup.”

Inside Philanthropy concludes its report: “What can be said is that personalized learning, facilitated by new technology, obviously tracks with Mark Zuckerberg’s own background and world view. And it reflects a techno-optimism at the core of CZI’s work. ‘We believe engineers can help turbocharge and scale solutions to facilitate social change,’ the organization says.”

In a new analysis for the NY Times, Natasha Singer is a little more skeptical about The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools, including Facebook’ s Mark Zuckerberg: “The involvement by some of the wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century amounts to a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers for their ideas. Some tech leaders believe that applying an engineering mind-set can improve just about any system, and that their business acumen qualifies them to rethink American education.”  She continues: “If Facebook’s Mr. Zuckerberg has his way, children the world over will soon be teaching themselves—using software his company helped build. It’s a conception that upends a longstanding teaching dynamic. Now educators are no longer classroom leaders, but helpmates… Mr. Zuckerberg has described how it works. Students cluster together, working at laptops. They use software to select their own assignments, working at their own pace. And should they struggle at teaching themselves, teachers are on hand to guide them. ‘When you visit a school like this, it feels like the future—it feels like a start-up.. You get the feeling this is how more of the education system should work.'”

Let me be very clear.  Students need to learn how to use technology. Even as a relatively computer-illiterate blogger, I compose on a laptop. I recently found an old kitchen mug to store all the pencils that have been lying around the house, and I carried them up to the attic. And technology is a wonderful tool for exploring and researching and calculating.  School should incorporate technology beginning in the elementary years.

But there is something very important missing from these articles about Zuckerberg and Gates and Shelton and the huge grant to New Profit.  In Education Week, Benjamin Herold quotes the Gates Foundation’s program officer commenting on the new work with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: “It’s 100 percent collaborative… We’re looking for ways to work together and to coordinate when it’s appropriate.”  If this is a collaborative project about how students are going to learn in the future, I wonder about the very important people whose voices seem to be missing from the collaboration: teachers.  If this effort were really collaborative, wouldn’t you think the edu-philanthropists might have folded in some contributions from experts at Teachers College or Bank Street or the state teachers’ colleges? What about engaging the wisdom of advisory panels from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers? Teachers might bring a focus to the kind of classroom leadership, student mentoring, and classroom management that is going to be needed for this “remaking” of education.

And finally there is the really personal part of learning.  While the tech edupreneurs might dream about each child’s “personal” exploration through the computer, lots of us worry about protecting the personal relationships between children and their classroom peers and their real live teachers—in small enough classes where those relationships can flourish. We must insist that, just as patients in hospital beds need doctors and nurses (assisted by technology of course) to care for them, children be provided well-trained, experienced teachers to build classroom communities and nurture learning.

In a recent book, First Do No Harm, progressive educator Steve Nelson shares his concerns about so-called “blended” and “personalized” learning: “My objections to technology are mostly directed to the misuse with young children and to the alarming tendency to substitute technology for real human interactions… The world’s greatest problem is not a shortage of people who can write computer code… Our challenge is to develop humans who have the fluid intellect, creativity, imagination, aesthetic sensibilities and ethical convictions to save the world from the sorry mess we have created. That’s the purpose of education… Relationships are central to learning, both as a contributor to the release of dopamine, but also as a critical social context for language development as articulated by Vygotsky, Bruner, et al.”

Nelson continues: “The colorful images that often accompany education articles or on school websites show children sitting in small cubicles, smiling at their computers, with little human interaction at all…  The symbolic representation of life is not the same as life itself. Perhaps the greatest harm done by technology is an act of omission. Every hour of screen time, whether in school or at home, is an hour not spent in some much more important activity, especially those things that involve real human engagement…. (T)echnology is just the most recent manifestation of the industrial model of education.  Inherent in the technological model of education is economy of scale. It must be impersonal, and people and parts must be interchangeable. It must be replicable…  Most importantly, it must be profitable.” (First Do No Harm, p. 126-133)