No Child Behind Failed, But Kevin Carey’s New Article Doesn’t Go Deep Enough to Explain Why

On Wednesday, Kevin Carey published an important piece in the Washington Post—a profile really of Amy Wilkins, currently the chief lobbyist for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and formerly a lobbyist for many years at The Education Trust.  Carey, the Vice President for Education Policy at the New America Foundation, also worked for three years as a policy analyst at The Education Trust, from 2002-2005, in the years right after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In this week’s article, Carey accurately identifies The Education Trust, founded and directed for many years by Kati Haycock, as “a pro-school-reform organization.” He explains that The Education Trust’s mission grew out of the promises of the Civil Rights Movement—grounded not only in commitment to school integration, but endorsing the mission of the No Child Left Behind Act that test-based school accountability would ensure that schools better served black children, who had for generations been left behind.  The organization was a cheerleader for ending what was often described as the soft bigotry of low expectations: “National tests showed that white students were, on average, far surpassing their black and Latino peers, and that low-income students were falling behind. The Trust called this the ‘achievement gap.’… After the long, inconclusive battles for desegregated and well-funded schools, the federal government would finally ensure that the most disadvantaged students got the good schools they needed.”  The Education Trust also supported expanding school choice through the proliferation of charter schools.

It is significant that in his recent article Carey acknowledges the collapse of the two-decades-long national school accountability narrative. While Amy Wilkins hasn’t compromised her belief in test-based accountability and the creation of escapes for some children into charter schools, even Wilkins concedes a shift away from the vision she continues to endorse: “Amy Wilkins hasn’t given up on school reform.  She remains ‘struck by how politics allows the stubborn self-interest of adults to undermine again and again what’s right for poor kids and kids of color.’ But she says, ‘I have to believe we’re just at the wrong end of the pendulum swing.'”

In addition to profiling Wilkins, Carey also examines the ground shifting underneath public education policy. It is here where I believe his assessment falls short because he neglects to examine a mass of research demonstrating that disruptive, test-and-punish driven school reform has failed our nation’s poorest children.  And privatization through the expansion of charter schools has aggressively robbed the public schools that serve the mass of our children of essential dollars to keep class size small and to retain enough social workers, counselors, certified librarians and school nurses.

As evidence of a shift in the national narrative about education policy, Carey points to Elizabeth Warren’s education platform during her recent campaign for President—a proposal to end the federal Charter Schools Program and quadruple federal Title I funding for public schools serving concentrations of poor children: “Warren wasn’t the only politician who had turned hard against school reform. As the Democratic presidential candidates rolled out their platforms in 2019, they promoted unprecedentedly generous plans for education. Sen. Bernie Sanders called for tripling Title I funding and providing free prekindergarten for all. Former vice president Joe Biden also called for tripling Title I and free pre-K.  Meanwhile, school-reform ideas that had been staples of presidential agendas since the 1980s were nowhere to be found—unless they were being stridently denounced.”

So, what happened?  Carey traces pressure from schoolteachers who have consistently pushed back against the narrowing of the curriculum and the increased drilling that inevitably followed intense pressure to raise scores. Carey also reports on the failure of charter schools consistently to raise scores, the extremely disparate quality of charter schools, and the lack of transparency in these schools which are publicly funded but privately operated. He quotes Wilkins’  assessment of of her movement’s failures: “She… looks back on the school-reform tidal wave she helped unleash in 2001.  One crucial mistake, she says, was making all of NCLB’s consequences fall on individual teachers and schools, not the school districts and state education departments. And she says, ‘we should have been more aggressive about school funding equity. Far, far far more aggressive.'”

Carey’s own critique is deeper.  He explores the paltry fiscal investment Congress made in No Child Left Behind when it ramped up the emphasis on testing and punishing the schools unable quickly to raise scores.  And he reports on evidence that No Child Left Behind and the expansion of charter schools have neither significantly improved achievement overall nor closed achievement gaps: “Did school reform work?  High school graduation rates have improved over the past two decades, probably in response to accountability… NCLB produced modest bumps in student achievement on federal and state tests in the early ears.  Those gains, however, were concentrated in math in the early grades and seem to have plateaued or possibly reversed in recent years… As for charter schools studies have shown that they have not on average performed appreciably better than regular public schools.”  To his credit, Carey explains that mistrust threatens human relationships and institutions, and he criticizes No Child Left Behind for driving mistrust of teachers and public education in general. In fact, the law’s primary mechanism was to threaten educators with punishments if they could not produce ever higher test scores. It blamed schoolteachers for problems we now know they cannot control.

While  Carey is correct that support for the test-and-punish strategy of No Child Left Behind has waned and that skepticism is growing about the rapid expansion of charter schools, his analysis fails to explore several of the most important reasons for the failure of of the reforms The Education Trust endorsed.  Certainly his focus on Amy Wilkins narrows the issues he emphasizes.  Here are academic researchers addressing three problems Carey fails to address:

FIRST  In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on standardized testing, documents research exposing flaws in the entire strategy of No Child Left Behind.  While Carey quotes Wilkins alleging that teachers should have been tougher and resisted pressures to narrow the curriculum and drill for the tests, Koretz describes social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes (in the case of No Child Left Behind–closing schools, charterizing schools, firing principals, firing teachers) are tied to a quantitative social indicator (the assumption that teachers can produce higher aggregate student test scores year after year): “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)  Koretz shows that imposing high stakes punishments on schools and teachers unable quickly to raise students’ scores inevitably produced reallocation of instruction to what would be tested, caused states eventually to lower standards, caused some schools quietly to exclude from testing the students likely to fail, and led to abject cheating—as happened in Atlanta under Superintendent Beverly Hall.

SECOND  Research has demonstrated not only that state legislatures have persistently underfunded their public schools, but also that the rapid expansion of charter schools has been draining millions of dollars out of the school districts where the charter schools are located.  The best documented example is in the Oakland Unified School District, where political economist Gordon Lafer reports that charter schools drain $57.3 million dollars annually out of the public schools.  Here’s why: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

THIRD  Despite many people’s hope that if public schools worked harder and smarter, our society could leave no child behind, it is now well documented that public schools by themselves cannot solve economic inequality and child poverty. David Berliner is the Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University, former president of the American Educational Research Association and former dean of the College of Education at Arizona State University.  Berliner explains: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services. These are often families to whom low-birth-weight babies are frequently born, leading to many more children needing special education… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.” “We certainly do not have the legally sanctioned apartheid of South Africa.  But we should recognize that we do have heavily segregated systems of housing. In New York and Illinois, over 60 percent of black kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are nonwhite and mostly poor.  In California, Texas and Rhode Island, 50 percent or more of Latino kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are also not white, and often poor. Similar statistics hold for American Indian kids.” (Emphasis in the original.)

To summarize the urgent realities that Carey omits from this week’s article but which, together, discredit twenty years of test-and-punish, accountability-based school reform, we can turn to the National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who explain that school reform must address the enormous disparities in opportunity among our children.  Such an an effort would address school funding inequity—the reason Democrats running for President this year have endorsed quadrupling or tripling the federal investment in Title I. It will also be necessary to define the problem not merely as an achievement gap, but instead as an opportunity gap:

“We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society. No Child Left Behind had the explicit purpose of all children achieving high standards and thereby closing the achievement gap by 2014. It did not close. Noting the widening academic achievement gap between rich and poor, Sean Reardon found the gap ‘roughly 20 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier… In an economic and social shift, he reports that family income is now nearly as strong a predictor as parental education. The income achievement gap, which is closely tied to the racial gap, is attributable to income inequality, the increased difficulty of social mobility, the bifurcation of wages and the economy, and a narrowing of school purposes driven by test taking… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children soaring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board.”

Dem. Candidates Call for Equitable Public School Investment. Can the New Narrative Be Sustained?

Is our society beginning to realize that we must invest in helping instead of punishing the school districts which serve our poorest children?

Clearly the conversation about public education among the Democratic candidates for President has turned away from what has been a quarter century of bipartisan test-and-punish, pro-privatization education policy.  No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law 18 years ago, formalized the strategy.  But in a remarkable commentary on Wednesday in USA Today, Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders declared a very different agenda: “Under NCLB, standardized tests were utilized to hold public schools and teachers ‘accountable’ for student outcomes. As a result, some schools that underperformed were closed and their teachers and unions blamed.  The long-term effects of this approach have been disastrous.  NCLB perpetuated the myth of public schools and teachers as failing, which opened the door for the spread of school voucher programs and charter schools that we have today.  Some of these charter schools are operated by for-profits, many of them are nonunion and are not publicly accountable… The most serious flaw of high-stakes testing, however, is that it ignores the real problems facing our teachers and students: social inequality and underinvestment in our schools.”

And all the leading Democratic candidates have also taken notice. In Pittsburgh on December 14, at a Public Education Forum 2020, the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for President all endorsed tripling or quadrupling the federal investment in Title I.  They spoke for helping instead of punishing the schools in our nation’s poorest communities.

The Devastation Wrought by Accountability-Based, Test-and-Punish, Pro-Privatization School Reform

Federal and state governments have imposed school closures, state takeovers, and the transformation of low-scoring public schools into charter schools, but I don’t know of any school district serving mostly poor children with enough money to do the things wealthy school districts are able to accomplish by investing local property tax dollars they can collect on high-end real estate.  Money enables wealthy school districts to develop high school symphony orchestras; make English classes small enough that teachers can assign in-depth writing about students’ research or reading or experience; rehire professional librarians and turn elementary schools into places where excitement about reading dominates the school culture; and accelerate and enrich math classes so that every child is on a path to take advanced math in high school.

A primary problem has been a chronic shortage of state and federal investment in public education.  After tax revenues collapsed in the 2008 recession, many states made the problem worse by continuing to cut taxes. Last March, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has also documented that federal Title I formula funding, which supports school districts where student poverty is concentrated, dropped by 6.2 percent between 2008 and 2017.

In a short, profound analysis last fall, the Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker summarized what teachers and administrators had reported to Education Week are their greatest challenges: “A new Education Week national survey of school districts reveals disturbing gaps between state and federal policy and the reality in American public schools… The most serious funding problem districts report is convincing elected officials to sufficiently fund public schools.  They give both state and federal officials poor marks for their ability to understand school spending, and cite state legislators as the biggest obstacle to making spending decisions that best address student needs.”

Lecker continues: “Recent research highlights the failure of federal and state leaders to grasp the reality facing public schools. The most pernicious failure is the refusal to recognize the connection between poverty, funding and educational opportunity… Rather than recognize that high-poverty schools need more tools, and thus more funding, to best serve their students, federal and state leaders mandate intervention strategies that are proven failures: school turnaround, school closures, and state takeovers of school districts… Federal and state policies repeat a toxic cycle of disinvestment, punishment, then further disinvestment.”

Are Public Attitudes Shifting?

For two years now, striking teachers have forced us all to examine the implications of school policy that emphasizes test-and-punish school accountability overlaid upon an institution whose revenue base has fallen.  Public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have demonstrated the untenable conditions in their schools created by collapsing revenue—children struggling in classes of 40 students, teachers pushed out of the profession when their salaries fall so low they cannot afford to rent an apartment, and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses.

On December 14 when candidates were asked about their education policies—after months when moderators in televised candidates’ debates failed to ask even a single question about public education—the candidates went on record to declare that underinvestment in our public schools has become the education imperative of our times. We owe enormous thanks to the sponsors of the December 14,  Public Education Forum 2020, which brought leading Democratic candidates face to face with teachers, parents, public school students, and community advocates who pressed candidates publicly to commit to increasing federal funding to ensure opportunity for our nation’s poorest children in their public schools. The event was a collaboration of the Alliance for Educational Justice; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the Center for Popular Democracy Action; the Journey for Justice Alliance; the NAACP; the National Education Association; the Network for Public Education Action; the Schott Foundation for Public Education—Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; the Service Employees International Union; and Voto Latino.

Professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington, David Knight explains the significance of the Democratic candidates’ new consensus on significantly expanding Title I: “Funding increases of this scale would transform the federal role in education policy, making it easier for school districts to pay teachers higher wages while reducing class sizes. This focus on funding would mark a departure from previous administrations which instead emphasized policies intended to increase accountability and strengthen teacher evaluation.”

Derek Black, the school funding expert at the University of South Carolina School of Law, attended the December Democratic candidates’ forum in Pittsburgh. Black concurs with Knight on the importance of the shift among leading Democrats away from accountability and toward equalizing the opportunity to learn: “With few exceptions, the various Democratic plans for public education share a common theme: more funding, less privatizing… The way taxpayers do or do not fund public schools goes to the core question of the role of government in democracy.  Public schools have long consumed the lion’s share of the state and local tax dollars. No other single program comes close. Many of the earliest statewide tax systems came into existence for the express purpose of funding schools. And later major expansions of state taxes, like the state income tax in New Jersey, were solutions to unequal funding across school districts. Education holds this special status because state constitutions specifically require legislatures to fund uniform and adequate systems of public schools…. Public education has suffered steep funding declines over the past decade. Even once the Recession passed and tax revenues fully rebounded, states failed to replace those funds… The longstanding research consensus shows that fairly funding public schools is key to boosting student achievement for low-income students—and the precise connection between funding and student outcomes rows stronger and more detailed with each passing year… (T)hese new Democratic proposals try to do something that the nation has never before attempted, much less achieved: fully funding the educational needs of every poor, disabled, and English language learner student in the nation.”

Two Additional Encouraging Developments

The first involves efforts by state governments to address the school funding challenge. Two days before Thanksgiving, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill to increase school funding across the state by $1.5 billion annually. And Maryland is set to consider a new plan developed over three years by a 25-member Kirwan Commission. The commission’s chair, William Kirwan declares: “Kids growing up in poverty need more resources, and so a major portion of our recommendations are aimed at putting the resources into the schools where there are lots of low-income kids and providing them support.”

A second development is at least mildly encouraging. In the federal budget President Trump signed just before Christmas, Congress did not cut funding for public education as President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had proposed. The new federal budget does not, of course, move toward the transformational changes being suggested by the leading Democrats running for President, but it does at least protect Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) from deep cuts.  And Congress neglected once again to enact DeVos’s annual proposal for federal tuition tax credit vouchers.

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains: “The fiscal 2020 spending bill Trump just signed provides $72.8 billion in discretionary funding to the Education Department, a $1.3 billion increase that stands in stark contrast to the 10 percent cut Trump proposed in his blueprint from March. The spending bill he signed includes a $450 million increase for Title I spending on disadvantaged students, a $410 million increase for state special education grants, and more money for programs covering enrichment and educator training.” Increasing Title I by $450 million and funding for mandated IDEA programming by $410 million—once these dollars are spread across 50 states—is a tiny and relatively meaningless investment. But it is a statement of continuing Congressional rejection of Trump’s policies.

A change is emerging, but if we want to transform every public elementary school, middle school and high school into a model school, and, on top of enriching the academics, to transform the schools serving the poorest families into full-service wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building, there is still a long way to go.  It is time to keep on keeping on.

Slaying Goliath: Diane Ravitch’s New Book Traces a Quarter Century of Public Education Disruption

In her new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch summarizes, defines, and humanizes the widespread attack that has threatened public education across the United States in the past quarter century. And she tracks an encouraging backlash, a growing resistance led by dogged individuals, community organizations, and organized schoolteachers.

What’s been called corporate-accountability-based, test-and-punish school reform is something we’ve all watched over the years—nationally in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—statewide as school budgets have been stretched to pay for privatized charters or vouchers—and locally as our children began taking too many standardized tests, our local schools began receiving letter grades on state report cards, or students left the local public school for a nearby charter school.

With only scanty newspaper coverage to guide us, however, we may have struggled grasp the ideology behind this war on public education or see how all the lines of attack were converging to discredit public schools and the work of local teachers.  Diane Ravitch, the education historian, has done us all an enormous favor with this new book.

Ravitch defines the ideology of the war being waged on public education by a giant army. Ravitch names the so-called “school reform” movement a Goliath-sized experiment in disruption.  Goliath’s work can be seen in “the wreckage that the so-called ‘reform’ movement had created by demonizing teachers as if they were adversaries of their students and treating them as malingerers who required constant evaluation lest they fail to do their duty…. (in) the damage inflicted on public schools, their students and teachers, by heedless billionaires who had decided to disrupt, reinvent, and redesign the nation’s public schools…. (in) the work of some of the richest people in this nation: the Walton family, Bill Gates, Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers, Michael Bloomberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, Reed Hastings, Eli Broad, and a bevy of other billionaires, most of whom had made their fortunes on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or the tech industry.” These people and their organizations “often say their goal is to ‘disrupt’ public education, and I think in this instance they have accurately named themselves. They are Disrupters…. (T)he current disruption movement… is in fact a calculated, insidious, and munificently funded campaign to privatize America’s public schools, to break teachers’ unions, to tear apart communities, and to attack teacher professionalism… Disrupters are proponents of privatization… Disrupters view education as an entrepreneurial activity that should be ‘scalable’ and should produce ‘return on investment.'”

The Disrupters have brought us a dangerous narrative about “failing” public schools even though most of us appreciate our local public schools and the professional teachers who nurture our children. And the Disrupters have redefined the purpose of education: “In the new era of disruption, it seems quaint, antique actually, to speak of ‘love of learning’ as a goal of education, to speak of education as personal development and preparation for citizenship in a democratic society.  Where is the profit in such fuzzy goals? How could… (the profit) be measured?”

Who is Goliath and who is funding the war on public education? The funders are the giant philanthropies like Gates, Broad, Walton, and a host of others including Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, the Koch brothers, and the Bezos family. The movement is also funded by corporate donors, wealthy individuals, and hedge fund managers.  It is being promoted by advocacy groups like ALEC; the member state foundations of the State Policy Network—groups like the Goldwater Institute in Arizona and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan; national advocacy groups like Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and EdChoice—formerly the Friedman Foundation. There are lavishly funded think tanks paid to produce the so-called “research” on which the movement is based. And finally the movement has permeated states and local school boards through the work of ideologically aligned politicians. Ravitch names names in every category, but perhaps the most arresting is the list of Disrupter-aligned Republican state governors: Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis; Michigan’s Rick Snyder; Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal; Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence; Ohio’s John Kasich; Arizona’s Doug Ducey; Illinois’s Bruce Rauner; Georgia’s Nathan Deal; Kentucky’s Matt Bevin; and Tennessee’s Bill Haslam and Bill Lee.

Who makes up the Resistance? Ravitch calls our attention to the imbalance in this battle, beginning with the level of philanthropic support: “The number of foundations which support the Resistance is in the single digits, led by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. This is truly a David vs. Goliath matchup.”  Scholars and academic researchers have supported the Resistance with information: Harvard’s Daniel Koretz and his book The Testing Charade, David Berliner and Gene Glass and their book 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten American Public Schools, Christopher and Sarah Lubienski and their book The Public School Advantage, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein, Duke’s Helen Ladd, Rutgers’ Bruce Baker, Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, Finnish scholar Pasi Sahlberg, U. of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing and her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard, political economist Gordon Lafer and his In the Public Interest study of the cost of charters for the Oakland Unified School District, and the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado—to name just a few of Ravitch’s examples.  School teachers have organized Save Our Schools rallies and working together, the Badass Teachers Association and parents produced United Opt Out.  The Network for Public Education has pulled together education columnists, bloggers and community groups.  The Journey for Justice Alliance, led by Chicago’s Jitu Brown—one of the 2015 Dyett Hunger Strikers who fought to save the public Dyett High School from closure—has organized an army of parents, high school students, and local community activists from city to city.

Where were the major battlefields in the war on public education? Ravitch devotes short, readable chapters to some of the biggest fights. One chapter explores the damage wrought by high-stakes standardized testing; another presents the research on how a strategy based on incentives for raising scores and punishments for low-scoring school districts, schools, and teachers has undermined the morale of teachers and ruined kids’ enjoyment of school.  A chapter on school choice, deregulation and corruption begins: “Any organization that receives millions of dollars in public funds should be subject to public oversight and accountability.  Lobbyists for the charter industry have fought against accountability and oversight, claiming that any regulation would hinder innovation.”  We learn about disruptive reforms which faultered when they didn’t work out as promised: the Gates-funded Common Core Standards; Value Added Measure (VAM) evaluation of teachers by their students’ standardized test scores; and the Parent Trigger school takeover initiative. One chapter describes the philanthropy-funded takeover of the New Orleans school district after Hurricane Katrina, and the profusion of vouchers and charter schools foisted on Florida by Jeb Bush, his foundation, ExcelinEd.

Despite all the money and ideology invested to disrupt the public schools, Ravitch demonstrates that the Resistance is ultimately winning this battle. Test-and-punish didn’t work. No Child Left Behind declared that all children would be proficient before 2014 or their schools and teachers would be punished. But test scores didn’t budge. The NAACP released a major resolution demanding a moratorium on new charter schools until they are regulated in the public interest. The ACLU released studies on how charters secretly and illegally select the most promising students. Barbara Madeloni became president of the Massachusetts Education Association and in November of 2016, successfully organized the state’s teachers and citizens to defeat Question 2—a ballot initiative that would have lifted a rigid cap on the startup of new charter schools.  After the election, Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, dug through the records of funders of the pro-Question 2 campaign and discovered the bundling of illegal gifts from out of state donors.  Cunningham’s work put New York’s hedge-fund backed Families for Excellent Schools out of business when Massachusetts imposed huge fines.

Ravitch ultimately credits the RedforEd wave of teachers’ strikes in 2018-2019 for forcing the public to question Goliath’s narrative: “The teachers taught the nation a lesson… They united, they demanded to be heard, and they got respect.  That was something that the Disrupters had denied them for almost twenty years… The politicians thought that they could silence teachers by breaking their unions. They were wrong. Teachers learned that together they had power. And they won’t forget that lesson.”

Even though Goliath has not died, the giant’s energy is flagging.  Ravitch believes, the Resistance has taught us to keep on keeping on with all the skill and energy we can muster.  Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, will be on bookstore shelves on January 21.  It is now available for pre-order.  I urge you to get a copy and read it carefully.

The Common Core Standards Died a Natural Death. Why Is Dana Goldstein Trying to Dig Them Up?

In a superficial article last Friday, NY Times education reporter Dana Goldstein exhumed an education reform that has, mercifully, already been buried: the Common Core State Standards.  The Common Core has pretty much faded out of the public consciousness, but now that Goldstein has chosen to examine the corpse, I wish she had done a careful job.

Goldstein explains that the Common Core Standards were created by “a bipartisan group of governors, education experts and philanthropists” and that, “The education secretary at the time, Arne Duncan, declared himself ‘ecstatic.'” Now, ten years after the experiment was launched, many of the over forty-five states that tried the Common Core have dropped it. They have recalibrated their curricula and dropped from their annual testing regime the standardized tests that were paired with the Common Core Standards, tests created by one of two test-development consortia: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (the PARCC test) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (the SBAC test).

In her article last Friday, Goldstein wonders whether recent U.S. test scores on the international PISA test and our own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) would be better if the Common Core were brought back: “The disappointing results have prompted many in the education world to take stock of the Common Core, one of the most ambitious education reform projects in American history. Some see the effort as a failure, while others say it is too soon to judge the program, whose principles are still being rolled out at the classroom level.”

Much of her story covers an interview with a Kentucky teacher who liked the Common Core. She also quotes one of the developers of the Common Core math standards, interviews other people who favor a nationally aligned curriculum, and talks with the program officer responsible for the Common Core at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  What she leaves out is the history and substance of the Common Core experiment, and she also omits all the reasons states have pretty much abandoned this project.

The Common Core State Standards were an attempt by Arne Duncan’s Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to impose common curricular standards across the country. The Common Core was to be another step in institutionalizing the movement for standards and test based school accountability that was originally cast into law by No Child Left Behind.  No Child Left Behind assumed that if states set tough standards, tested the students every year, and sanctioned schools unable to raise scores quickly, achievement would rise and all children would be proficient by 2014. But the federal government couldn’t, by federal law, impose a national curriculum. However, Arne Duncan figured out how to create incentives for states to buy into a national curriculum without its being federally imposed.  As part of the 2009 stimulus package created to infuse money across the states to address the Great Recession, Duncan created a federal competitive grant program—Race to the Top.  To qualify even to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states had to promise to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores and agree to controversial turnaround plans that included school closure and privatization. And states had to agree they would adopt “college- and career-ready” standards.

The states had the freedom to develop their own standards, but conveniently, the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers sat down with Bill Gates and together they agreed that the Gates Foundation would fund the development of Common Core Standards, which states could then use to meet Arne Duncan’s requirement that they adopt “college- and career-ready” standards in order to qualify for a Race to the Top grant.

There are certainly people who still believe in curriculum standards—even national standards—but there were a number of problems with the way the Common Core was rushed through. The substitution of new tests developed by the PARCC and SBAC consortia also intensified what many felt were unfair high stakes punishments being imposed on schools and on schoolteachers by No Child Left Behind.

The Common Core was developed by the same people who brought us test-based school accountability.  In her 2012 book, Reign of Error, written just as the Common Core standards and the tests paired with the standards were being rolled out, Diane Ravitch explains the top-down origin of these developments: “The U.S. Department of Education awarded $350 million to two consortia to develop national assessments to measure the new national standards. States and districts will have to make large investments in technology, because the new national assessments will be delivered online. By some estimates, the states will be required to spend as much as $16 billion to implement the Common Core standards.” (Reign of Error, p. 16) “The Gates Foundation… supported the creation, evaluation, and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in almost every state.  In addition, the Gates Foundation has joined in a partnership with the British publisher Pearson to develop online curriculum for teaching the Common Core standards.” (Reign of Error,  23)

One of the huge criticisms of the Common Core Standards is that their developers focused on pushing more difficult content knowledge without enough attention to the wide variation in children’s readiness and to normal variations in linguistic and cognitive development. In their 2014 book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass observe that teachers who know and understand their students, but are at the same time under intense pressure to raise scores, have less latitude to meet children’s particular learning needs: (U)nder the new Common Core State Standards, currently adopted by 45 states, teachers have little control over the curriculum they teach and the time they can allocate for instruction.” (50 Myths & Lies, p. 52)

What caused the most intense backlash—as more than 40 participating states substituted the PARCC and SBAC Common Core tests for the standardized tests the states had already been using annually under No Child Left Behind to judge schools—was that the PARCC and SBAC tests were benchmarked with much more demanding cut scores.  More schools appeared to be “failing.” And, for states to qualify for Race to the Top and the subsequent No Child Left Behind Waiver program, Arne Duncan demanded that states use the annual standardized tests as part of formal teachers’ evaluations.  When students’ test scores dropped catastrophically on the new PARCC and SBAC tests, there were growing news reports about teachers—sometimes long experienced and award-winning teachers—being fired or reassigned.  In some places, the teachers’ ratings based on the new test scores were published in newspapers to embarrass teachers into working harder. The replacement of No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which banned the Secretary of Education from involvement in states’ evaluation of teachers, was one result.  The other was the further discrediting of the Common Core experiment itself.

Goldstein explains why she dug up the Common Core again last week for coverage in the NY Times. Recently released scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress were disappointing, and U.S. scores recently released from the international PISA test were not significantly improved.

Back in 2010, Bill Mathis at the University of Colorado at Boulder published a cautionary analysis of the Common Core for the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice. In the piece, Mathis warns against developing standards-based education policy as a way to make the U.S. appear globally competitive: “The Obama administration advocates for education standards designed to make all high school graduates ‘college- and career-ready.’ To achieve this end, the administration is exerting pressure on states to adopt content standards, known as the ‘common core,’ being developed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers…. Contentions about global competitveness provide a key rationale given for common standards, along with increasing equity and streamlining the reform process.  The analysis presented here suggests that the data do not support these contentions.  U.S. states with high academic standards fare no better (or worse) than those identified as having low academic standards.  Research support for standards-driven, test-based accountability systems is similarly weak.”

Mathis concludes: “The… common core standards initiative should be continued, but only as a low-stakes advisory and assistance tool for states and local districts for the purposes of curriculum improvement, articulation and professional development.  The… common core standards should be subjected to extensive validation, trials, and subsequent revisions before implementation… Given the current strengths and weaknesses in testing and measurement, policymakers should not implement high-stakes accountability systems where the assessments are inadequate for such purposes.”

In her 2012 Reign of Error, Ravitch agrees with Mathis: “Unfortunately, neither the Obama administration nor the developers of the Common Core standards thought it necessary to field-test the new standards.” (Reign of Error, p. 16)  One reason we all watched the launch and failure of a giant experiment is that the Common Core and PARCC and SBAC tests were rolled out without validation and trials.

Reign of Error was published as the Common Core was being implemented across the states and before anyone knew how the Common Core standards and accompanying tests from PARCC and SBAC would work. In her 2012 book, Ravitch remained carefully neutral about what to expect: “No one can say with certainty whether the Common Core standards will improve education, whether they will reduce or increase the achievement gaps among different groups, or how much it will cost to implement them. Some scholars believe they will make no difference, and some critics say they will cost billions to implement; others say they will lead to more testing. ” (Reign of Error, p. 315)

Diane Ravitch has written a new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, to be published on January 21st.  It is to be a history of several decades of corporate, accountability-based, test and punish school reform and privatization. When I read Slaying Goliath, I’ll be looking for Ravitch’s postmortem on America’s failed experiment with the Common Core State Standards.

Giving Thanks for Red for Ed — Teachers Striking for Justice in Public Schools

In their agreement at midnight on Halloween to end a ten day strike, Chicago’s teachers secured not only a salary increase, but also the promise that the school district will spend $35 million annually to reduce what have become in many schools outrageous class sizes. Teachers also won the guarantee of a full time nurse and social worker in every school by July of 2023.

A lagging recovery from the 2008 recession, compounded in many states by revenue shortages due to tax cutting and the expansion of school privatization at public expense, has left desperate conditions in traditional public schools across many states.  In response, the Chicago Teachers Union, like Red for Ed counterparts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, and Oakland, went on strike to expose primary staffing inadequacy in public schools where such conditions are pretty much invisible to the general public.  After all, most of us do not have the opportunity to go into schools and look around to see what’s happening there.

Red for Ed teachers’ strikes have also challenged statewide policies that have come to define our public schools during the corporate school reform era. The Los Angeles and Oakland strikes, for example, surfaced evidence that charter schools—over which California’s public school boards of education have had little control—steal essential dollars that should be spent on the majority of children and adolescents who attend the public schools.  In Arizona, the teachers’ strike helped put the spotlight on the alarming danger to public schools of a pending 2018 ballot initiative (which ultimately was voted down) to expand the state’s already expensive Education Savings Account neo-vouchers. Chicago’s teachers were able to expose untenable aspects of the 1995 Illinois state law that imposed mayoral governance on Chicago’s public schools—an appointed school board and punitive restrictions to disempower the Chicago Teachers Union itself. The strike also helped shine a light on problems with student-based budgeting and school closures, both of which have been at the center of Chicago’s portfolio school reform under former mayor Rahm Emanuel. While the final contract agreement which ended the strike did not eliminate all of these policies, the strike made their consequences visible and secured promises from key legislators in Springfield to address several of these concerns.

Two more Red for Ed teachers’ walkouts have occurred in the weeks since Chicago’s teachers settled. The first, in Little Rock, Arkansas on November 14, involved 1,800 members of the Little Rock Education Association. The strike was not about teachers’ salaries. The Little Rock teachers’ strike instead pushed back against the the Arkansas Board of Education’s plan to end the unpopular 2015 state takeover of Little Rock’s schools by dividing the district. The state Board of Education proposed to return “successful” schools to a local school board, to close eleven schools, and to hold the lowest scoring schools under state takeover. Because the schools the Arkansas Board of Education refused to release from state takeover are majority black and brown, teachers struck on November 14, to protest what teachers identified as a return to segregation.

For Jacobin Magazine, Eric Blanc reports: “The immediate roots of this week’s action go back to January 2015 when the Arkansas State Board of Education announced that it was taking over Little Rock’s schools due to low standardized test scores. By all accounts, the ensuing state takeover failed to accomplish its nominal goal of improving stability and educational opportunities for the town’s low-performing schools. Yet rather than return Little Rock School District to local control in 2020 as promised, the state board instead proposed in September of this year that it would continue to oversee so-called “F”-rated schools, those with the lowest scores… In a dramatic protest on the evening of October 9, thousands of teachers, support staff, students, and community members congregated on the steps of Central High… This public outpouring forced the state board to change tactics  At the next evening’s contentious Arkansas Board of Education meeting, it dropped the proposal to split Little Rock’s school district.  But surprisingly, the board then immediately proceeded to cease recognition of the LREA (Little Rock Education Association) as the educators’ representative, thereby scrapping the last remaining collective bargaining agreement for school workers in Arkansas. The decision was blatant retaliation against not only teachers but also Little Rock’s school support staff, who were in the midst of negotiating a pay raise.”  On November 14, teachers walked out in protest.

Not surprisingly in Arkansas, the Waltons, well known for funding attacks on public education, have for many years also been funding the campaigns of legislators likely to impose policies like the 2015 state takeover. Blanc continues: “The Waltons for decades have bankrolled Arkansas politicians, including Governor Asa Hutchinson, to break up unions and the public sector. They have paid for anti-union Astroturf organizations like the Arkansas State Teachers Association and leveraged their fortune to make standardized testing the live-or-die metric to judge Arkansas schools.”  The Arkansas State Teachers Association sounds like a teachers’ union, but what it is really?

For the Arkansas Times, Max Brantley explains: “Little Rock teachers are… complaining of a mass e-mail from the anti-union Arkansas State Teachers Association… warning teachers against striking. This group had a $362,000 startup grant from the Walton Family Foundation, no surprise given how notoriously anti-union Walmart has always been.  ASTA also has ties to a national anti-union organization founded by like-minded billionaires… ASTA also has been peppering state newspapers with op-eds touting their anti-union views.”

The  Little Rock teachers’ strike focused on the urgent need to preserve one racially integrated school district with all schools returned to the local board of education, which will be elected in November of 2020.  Teachers also stood up for their right  to be represented by the Little Rock Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest public sector union.

This month’s second recent Red for Ed event closed schools across the state of Indiana on November 19th, as 15,000 teachers gathered in Indianapolis for a statewide rally. Chalkbeat Indiana‘s Emma Kate Fittes describes the walkout, which teachers dubbed a statewide rally because state law prohibits teachers’ strikes: “With so many teachers planning to be at the state capitol on the ceremonial opening day for the legislative session, more than 130 districts statetwide have cancelled classes, affecting about half of the state’s students.” “Better working conditions, higher pay, increased funding for public school classrooms, less emphasis on standardized testing and more respect—these are some of the things teachers say they will be fighting for Tuesday at a massive Indiana Statehouse rally.”

Fittes summarizes what teachers demanded: “The state’s largest union, Indiana State Teachers Association, is calling for lawmakers to take three actions: give schools $75 million of the estimated $400 million the state will bring in this year above its expected revenue, pass a hold-harmless provision to protect schools from any negative consequences related to low 2019… standardized test scores, and repeal new licensing requirements mandating 15 hours of unpaid professional development related to their community’s workforce needs.”

Salaries were a centerpiece of the Indiana rally on November 19. The Indianapolis Star‘s Arika Harmon reports that Indiana’s average teacher pay, $50,614, lags the average teachers’ salary in all the states surrounding Indiana: Kentucky, $52,952; Ohio, $58,000; Michigan $61,911; and Illinois, $65,721.

Further, Indiana has been rating and ranking schools and school teachers according to students’ performance on state tests, but the state changed tests in spring of 2019, and the teachers want their evaluations and their schools’ ratings held harmless because scores dropped sharply when new tests were introduced.

Finally, on November 19, teachers were protesting a state-imposed a “staff development” teachers must complete to renew their teaching certification. As though teachers are ignorant about the workplace outside their schools, they will now be required to engage in a workplace externship or learn about the workplace in some other way. Herron describes the requirement: “The new rules passed last year require teachers to log 15 hours of professional development related specifically to their community’s workforce needs—like available jobs and skills needed by local employers—before they can renew their teaching license.”

Teachers across Indiana declared that it is not their own misunderstanding of the demands of the workplace but instead the conditions in the schools where they work which are undermining their students’ education. The Indianapolis Recorder‘s Tyler Fenwick interviewed teachers at the rally including Trudie Ingram, a Gary, Indiana middle school science teacher. She explained how Indiana’s miserably inadequate funding for public education undermines opportunity for her students: “It’s a great hindrance for science because we don’t have the equipment and the technology… to keep students up to date on those things that are required for them if they’re going to go on to higher education to become science-related majors.”

For nearly two years teachers have built Red for Ed momentum across the states. Teachers have courageously raised their voices:

  • for smaller classes;
  • for enough school funding to ensure their schools have essential equipment and technology;
  • for enough school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses, and certified librarians;
  • for teachers’ salaries that provide a living wage;
  • against too much standardized testing that eats up classroom time and narrows the curriculum;
  • against branding schools in poor communities with letter grades;
  • against corporate state takeovers and school closures in the schools that serve poor communities; and
  • against the expansion of privatized charter schools and vouchers that eat up desperately needed public dollars.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, we must give thanks for teachers’ courage and energy as they continue to demonstrate our collective responsibility to provide all of our nation’s children with public schools which will enrich their lives and ensure our society’s future as an inclusive democracy.

An Urgent Issue in Troubled Times: Building the Will to Support Public Education

For this blog, I’ve been tracking the explosion of new vouchers in Ohio, a similar expansion of the cost of school vouchers in Wisconsin, the proposed closure of the storied Collinwood High School by Cleveland’s mayoral-appointed school board, and the protracted negotiations in Lorain, Ohio to get rid of the state’s appointed school district CEO, a man who has brought chaos to the city’s public schools and the entire community. Then, last week, I spent time reviewing the history of corporate, accountability-based school reform as a twelve-year experiment imposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein, in New York City.  It is all pretty discouraging.  And an added worry is the absence so far of any talk about our public schools, arguably our most important civic institution, in the 2020 Democratic candidates’ debates.

At the impeachment hearings last week, I was struck by the importance of people like William Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch, experienced career professionals who clearly articulate the institutional norms and goals of international diplomacy. What educator could I feature in this blog, someone who would remind us of the educational policies and institutional norms worth fighting for as a way to protect in our public schools during troubled times?

After an extensive search across shelves of books, I remembered School Reform Fails the Test, an article in which, five years ago, Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education, examined America’s long journey into corporate, test-and-punish school reform.  Even if you read this article five years ago when it was published in The American Scholar, and even if you’ve read Rose’s inspiring books, I encourage you to read Rose’s article from 2014 again. Rose identifies important norms and practices in our public schools and explains why, in the midst of all the news swirling around us, we must continue to advocate for strengthening our society’s dedication to universal public education as a right we guarantee for all of our young people.

Rose is not naive.  He explains: “Public education, a vast, ambitious, loosely coupled system of schools is one of our country’s defining institutions. It is also flawed, in some respects deeply so. Unequal funding, fractious school politics, bureaucratic inertia, uneven curricula, uninspired pedagogy, and the social ills that seep into the classroom all limit the potential of our schools. The critics are right to be worried. The problem is that the criticism, fueled as it is by broader cultural anxieties, is often sweeping and indiscriminate. Critics blame the schools for problems that have many causes. And some remedies themselves create difficulties. Policymakers and educators face a challenge: how to target the problems without diminishing the achievements in our schools or undermining their purpose. The current school reform movement fails this challenge.”

Rose suspects that our long, strange, education-reform trip into test and punish accountability may reflect massive and rapid change in our broader society: “School reform is hardly a new phenomenon, and the harshest criticism of schools tends to coincide with periods of social change or economic transformation. The early decades of the 20th century—a time of rapid industrialization and mass immigration from central and southern Europe—saw a blistering attack, reminiscent of our own time. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered another assault, with particular concern over math and science education. And during the 1980s, as postwar American global economic preeminence was being challenged, we saw a flurry of reports on the sorry state of our education….”

Here is part of Rose’s analysis of the school reforms that followed, policies which were eventually formalized in the No Child Left Behind Act and which made demands on public schools and school teachers: “A core assumption underlying No Child Left Behind is that substandard academic achievement is the result of educators’ low expectations and lack of effort. The standardized tests mandated by the act, its framers contended, hold administrators and teachers accountable….  The act’s assumptions also reveal a pretty simplified notion of what motivates a teacher: raise your expectations or you’ll be punished… An even more simplistic theory of cognitive and behavioral change suggests that threats will lead to a change in beliefs about students.”

But the framers of the law didn’t envision all the consequences which followed, including this one: “The nature of a school’s response to high-stakes pressure is especially pertinent for those less affluent students at the center of reform. When teachers… concentrate on standardized tests, students might improve their scores but receive an inadequate education. A troubling pattern in American schooling thereby continues: poor kids get a lower-tier education focused on skills and routine while students in more affluent districts get a robust and engaging school experience. It’s important to consider how far removed standardized tests are from the cognitive give and take of the classroom.”

In 1995, Rose published Possible Lives, a book about several years of research he undertook by visiting public school classrooms.  He reviews the conclusions of that research in the 2014 article: “During the first wave of what would become the 30 year school reform movement that shapes education policy to this day, I visited good public school classrooms across the United States, wanting to compare the rhetoric of reform, which tended to be abstract and focused on crisis, with the daily efforts of teachers and students who were making public education work.  I identified teachers, principals, and superintendents who knew about local schools, college professors who taught teachers, parents and community activists who were involved in education….”

What did Rose notice about the characteristics of the excellent classrooms he visited?  “The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment….  Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class with direction, others came with a curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place.  But two things were always evident.  A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Rose concludes by lifting up the experiences and traditions within public schools themselves—as an alternative to the corporate boardrooms seen by school reformers as the place to seek answers: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?…  Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success.  All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.

Even if you know the work of Mike Rose and have enjoyed his books, I hope you will read or reread School Reform Fails the Test.  It is a great review of what has gone wrong. It is also hopeful: Rose anchors school improvement in supporting the work of the professionals who have studied good pedagogy and who know the norms and expectations of the institutions where they spend their days with our children. Rose confirms what we’ve watched now for going on two years, as schoolteachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have been striking to drive home the urgent need for nurses, counselors, social workers, librarians and small classes. To serve  the collective needs of our children, we’ll have to build the public will for investment to overcome our public schools’ greatest challenges.

Michael Bloomberg Says He May Run for President: Why He Won’t Be my Choice

New York City’s former three-term mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire businessman, is exploring whether to join other Democrats running for President in 2020. It is said that he would be a Democratic centrist, and we know that he has contributed positively to the national conversation promoting gun control and an aggressive response to climate change.  But, as usual in this political season, his record on public education has been neglected by the press.

Michael Bloomberg does have a long education record. Bloomberg served as New York City’s mayor from January of 2002 until December of 2013. In 2002, to accommodate his education agenda, Bloomberg got the state legislature to create mayoral governance of NYC’s public schools. In this role, Michael Bloomberg and his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein were among the fathers of what has become a national wave of corporate, accountability-based school reform. Bloomberg is a businessman, and Joel Klein was a very successful attorney. Neither had any experience as an educator. They took aggressive steps to run the NYC school district, with 1.1 million students, like a business. Their innovations included district-wide school choice, rapid expansion of charter schools, co-location of a bunch of small charter and traditional schools into what used to be comprehensive high schools, the phase out and closure of low-scoring schools, evaluation of schools by high stakes standardized test scores, the assignment of letter grades to schools based on their test scores, and a sort of merit pay bonus plan for teachers.

In her 2018 book, After the Education Wars, Andrea Gabor, the New York business journalist and journalism professor, comments on Bloomberg’s educational experiment: “The Bloomberg administration embraced the full panoply of education-reform remedies. It worshiped at the altar of standardized tests and all manner of quantitative analysis. The Bloomberg administration also had a penchant for reorganizations that seemed to create more disruption than continuous improvement among its 1.1 million students and 1,800 schools.” ( After the Education Wars, p. 75)

Gabor describes Bloomberg’s expansion of charter schools: “Harlem, in particular, has become the center of an unintentional educational experiment—one that has been replicated in neighborhoods and cities around the country.  During the Bloomberg years, when close to a quarter of students in the area were enrolled in charter schools, segregation increased, as did sizable across-the-board demographic disparities among the students who attended each type of school. An analysis of Bloomberg-era education department data revealed that public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double—and several have triple—the proportion of special needs kids of nearby charter schools. The children in New York’s traditional public schools are much poorer than their counterparts in charter schools. And public schools have far higher numbers of English language learners… In backing charter schools Bloomberg and other advocates pointed to one clear benefit: charters, it was widely accepted, would increase standardized test scores. However, years of studies showed little difference between the test-score performance of students in charter schools and those in public schools.” After the Education Wars, p. 95)

A Leadership Academy for school administrators taught business management principles. Gabor explains: “The Leadership Academy, launched in January 2003, was a cornerstone of the new Bloomberg administration’s education-reform strategy for public schools, one focused on breaking up both the central bureaucracy and New York City’s large, factory-style high schools…  The Leadership Academy’s mission was to recruit and train six hundred new entrepreneurial principals by the end of Bloomberg’s first term, in 2006, to help run the many new mostly small schools that the new administration hoped to establish.  Like many of the Bloomberg-era reforms, there was much that was controversial about the Leadership Academy.  For one thing, the academy boasted the ideal of a public-private partnership and the promise of helping to run both schools and the education bureaucracy more like businesses….”  (After the Education Wars, p. 76)

Perhaps Gabor’s most abiding criticism is that Bloomberg and Klein distrusted experienced educators. And this attitude has been part of the corporate reform movement they helped launch across America’s big cities during the past two decades: “The business reformers came to the education table with their truths: a belief in market competition and quantitative measures. They came with their prejudices—favoring ideas and expertise forged in corporate boardrooms over the knowledge and experience gleaned in the messy trenches of inner-city classrooms.  They came with distrust of an education culture that values social justice over more practical considerations like wealth and position. They came with the arrogance that elevated polished, but often mediocre (or worse), technocrats over scruffy but knowledgeable educators. And, most of all, they came with their suspicion—even their hatred—of organized labor and their contempt for ordinary public school teachers.” (After the Education Wars, p. 4)

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch examined all this while it was an ongoing experiment: “In the first decade of the new century, New York City became the national testing ground for market based reforms.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellor, Joel Klein, applied business principles to overhaul the nation’s largest school system, which enrolled 1.1 million children… They reorganized the management of the schools, battled the teachers’ union, granted large pay increases to teachers and principals, pressed for merit pay, opened scores of charter schools, broke up large high schools into small ones, emphasized frequent practice for state tests, gave every school a letter grade, closed dozens of low-performing schools, and institutionalized the ideas of choice and competition (albeit without vouchers).  (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 69)

School closures were among the most problematic of Bloomberg’s reforms.  Ravitch explains: “As it elevated the concept of school choice, the Department of Education destroyed the concept of neighborhood high schools.  Getting into the high school of one’s choice became as stressful as getting into the college of one’s choice… Students were expected to list their top twelve preferences. Most got into one of the twelve, but thousands got into none at all. Neighborhoods were once knitted together by a familiar local high school that served all the children of the community, a school with distinctive traditions and teams and history. After the neighborhood high school closed, children scattered across the city in response to the lure of new, unknown small schools with catchy names or were assigned to schools far from home… As a high school for 3,000 students was closed down, it would be replaced by four or five small schools for 500 students.  What happened to the missing students?  Invariably, they were the lowest-performing, least motivated students who were somehow passed over by the new schools… These troublesome students were relegated to another large high school, where their enrollment instigated a spiral of failure, dissolution, and closing.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 84)

In a stunning 2013 report, Over the Counter, Under the Radar, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University tracked what happened to students who arrived in the district too late for that year’s school choice competition.  Others did not speak English, or for some reason did not participate in the choice process. These students who just showed up at school trying to register were dubbed in NYC, “over the counter students”: “Every year, some 16,000 students who enroll in New York City high schools without participating in the high school choice process are labeled as ‘over-the-counter’ or OTC students and are assigned a school by the New York City Department of Education. These young people are among the school system’s highest-needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, previously incarcerated teens, poor or transient or homeless youth, students over age for grade… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools with higher percentages of low-performing students… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools that are subsequently targeted for closure or that are undergoing the closure process.”

Under Bloomberg’s watch, several large comprehensive high schools, deemed failing for low test scores, were phased out one grade per year.  New ninth graders stopped being enrolled; then tenth grade was eliminated, then eleventh, and finally  the school closed.  Ravitch quotes education sociologist Pedro Noguera: “Pedro Noguera of New York University observed that the Department of Education failed to provide the large schools with the support and guidance they needed to improve. ‘They don’t have a school-change strategy… They have a school-shutdown strategy'”(The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 87)

In a stunning 2015, New Yorker magazine profile of Jamaica High School, in Queens, Jalani Cobb recounts the story of his own alma mater, its demise brought on by increasing residential segregation, poverty, and Bloomberg school reform: “Jamaica High School, in Queens, was once the largest high school in the United States… One evening in June of last year, Jamaica students wearing red and blue gowns gathered with their families and teachers and with members of the school staff at Antun’s, a catering hall in Queens Village, for the senior-class commencement ceremony, but it carried a particular significance on this occasion, because it was as applicable to the faculty and the staff, some of whom had been at the school for nearly three decades, as it was to the students.  After a hundred and twenty-two years, Jamaica High School was closing; the class of 2014, which had just twenty-four members, would be the last.  The New York City Department of Education had announced the closure three years earlier, citing persistent violence and a graduation rate of around fifty percent.  Accordingly, the department had begun to ‘co-locate’ four newly created ‘small schools’ in the old building… The schools tended to operate like siblings competing for bathroom time. Access to the building’s communal spaces was at a premium. Unable to secure the auditorium for a graduating class of two dozen, Jamaica High School found itself both figuratively and literally, pushed out.”

Cobb explains how the Bloomberg-Klein New York Department of Education phased out the school: “In 2004, in the name of greater choice, the Bloomberg administration revised the districting rules to allow students to attend any high school in the city. Given the realities of residential segregation and of school quality as a determinant of real-estate values, there was something almost radical in that idea.”  But the universal high school choice plan didn’t desegregate New York City’s public schools. “The demographic balance that characterized Jamaica during my years became impossible to maintain. In 2011, the year that the city formally decided to close the school, fourteen percent of the student population had disabilities and twenty-nine percent had limited English proficiency. In the year before the school closed, it was ninety-nine percent minority, a demographic that would not in itself be a concern were it not also the case that sixty-three percent of the students qualified as poor… The tacit belief that large schools were unreformable meant that Jamaica’s sliding numbers looked to some experts like predictable educational failure; to the faculty, those numbers looked like what happens when a school is asked to educate a challenging population without the necessary tools.”

Among the Democrats running for President in 2020, I’ll be looking for a candidate who respects professional educators and who understands the importance of supporting the public schools, designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children. Public schools need our ongoing attention and support. My choice for President couldn’t possibly be Michael Bloomberg.