How Clinton Democrats Joined Philanthrocapitalists to Create Corporate School Reform

I remember my gratitude when, back in 2010, I sat down to read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which connected the dots across what I had been watching for nearly a decade: the standards movement, annual standardized testing, the operation of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish, Mayor Bloomberg’s promotion of charter schools in New York City, and the role of venture philanthropy in all this.

Now over a decade later, many of us have spent the past couple of months worried about pushback from the charter school sector as the the U.S. Department of Education has proposed strengthening sensible regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. We have been reminded that this program was launched in 1994, and we may have been puzzled that a federal program paying for the startup of privately operated charter schools originated during a Democratic administration.

Lily Geismer, a historian at Claremont McKenna College, has just published a wonderful book which explains how the New Democrats—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and the Democratic Leadership Council—brought a political and economic philosophy that sought to end welfare with a 1996 bill called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” and envisioned privately operated charter schools to expand competition and innovation in the public schools as a way to close school achievement gaps. Geismer’s book is Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. The book is a great read, and it fills in the public policy landscape of the 1990s, a decade we may never have fully understood.

In the introduction, Geismer explains where she is headed: “Since the New Deal, liberals had advocated for doing well and doing good. However, the form of political economy enacted during the new Deal and, later, the New Frontier and Great Society understood these as distinct goals. The architects of mid-twentieth century liberalism believed that stimulating capital markets was the best path to creating economic growth and security (doing well). The job of the federal government, as they saw it, was to fill in the holes left by capitalism with compensatory programs to help the poor, like cash assistance and Head Start, and to enact laws that ended racial and gender discrimination (doing good). In contrast, the New Democrats sought to merge those functions and thus do well by doing good. This vision contended that the forces of banking, entrepreneurialism, trade, and technology… could substitute for traditional forms of welfare and aid and better address structural problems of racial and economic segregation. In this vision, government did not recede but served as a bridge connecting the public and private sectors.” (p. 8)

Geismer devotes an entire chapter, “Public Schools Are Our Most Important Business,” to the Clinton administration’s new education policy.  She begins by telling us about Vice President Al Gore’s meetings with “leading executives and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. The so-called Gore-Tech sessions often took place over pizza and beer, and Gore hoped for them to be a chance for the administration to learn from innovators of the New Economy…. One of these meetings focused on the problems of public education and the growing achievement gap between affluent white suburbanites and students of color in the inner city…. The challenge gave venture capitalist John Doerr, who had become Gore’s closest tech advisor, an idea…  The tools of venture capital, Doerr thought, might offer a way to build new and better schools based on Silicon Valley’s principles of accountability, choice, and competition… Doerr decided to pool money from several other Silicon valley icons to start the NewSchools Venture Fund. NewSchools sat at the forefront of the concepts of venture philanthropy. Often known by the neologism philanthrocapitalism, venture or strategic philanthropy focused on taking tools from the private sector, especially entrepreneurialism, venture capitalism, and management consulting—the key ingredients in the 1990s tech boom—and applying them to philanthropic work… Doerr and the NewSchools Fund became especially focused on charter schools, which the Clinton administration and the Democratic Leadership Council were similarly encouraging in the 1990s.” (pp. 233-234)

Quoting John Doerr, who founded the NewSchool Venture Fund in 1997, Geismer gives us a taste of the kind of rhetoric we heard so often from the corporate school reformers: “‘The New Economy isn’t just about high-tech products,’ Doerr liked to say. ‘It’s about the politics of education, constant innovation and unlimited growth’ and a nonhierarchical meritocracy where ‘the best ideas win.'” (p. 238)

We learn about Al From, who founded and led the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and From’s commitment to charter schools: “Privately, From stressed to the president that charter schools, along with welfare reform, were the most important ways to show his willingness to challenge ‘the old liberal Democratic Party orthodoxy’ and special interest groups like organized labor. Charters could appeal to the white moderate suburbanites whom the DLC believed to be critical to Clinton’s (1996) reelection effort.”  And Clinton bought the new strategy: “The 1996 State of the Union was most notable for Clinton’s declaration that the ‘era of big government is over.’ Elaborating on that theme, he also dared ‘every state to give all parents the right to choose which public school their children will attend; and to let teachers form new schools with a charter they can keep only if they do a good job.'” (p. 244)

When, in 1997, Clinton held an event to celebrate charter schools at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center in California, the school’s founder, Don Shalvey, met another entrepreneur, a guy who had already sold a software company for $750 million, Reed Hastings, who later founded Netflix.  The two raised millions of dollars to sponsor a ballot issue that would raise the state’s cap on the number of charter schools. Eventually, without ever mounting the ballot referendum, they reached a compromise with California’s legislature to pass a bill to “increase the number of charters in the state from 250 immediately and add an additional 100 each year after that.” (p. 251)

Beyond Shalvey and Hastings’ efforts in California there were various strategies to grow the scale of the charter movement. In 1994, Clinton’s Department of Education launched the Charter Schools Program, “which provided new seed capital for opening charter schools.” (p. 243)  And there was the ongoing work of the NewSchools Venture Fund: “The NewSchools board and staff especially concentrated on ways to accelerate the scale and impact of the charter school model… NewSchools developed a model of creating a charter network called a charter management organization (CMO), which would be nonprofit but draw on market-based ideas and practices. NewSchools worked closely on this idea with Hastings and Don Shalvey… Shalvey did most of the legwork in developing University Public Schools (it would later change to Aspire), which he envisioned as a ‘scalable model’ that would bring ‘the customer focus and sense of responsibility of a top-notch service organization or consulting firm to public education.’ The name derived from its goal that all the low-income students who enrolled would go on to college or at least ‘aspire’ to do so… NewSchools provided the initial funding but tied the money to student performance and achievement.” (p. 256)

As the movement grew, so did problems for the public school districts where the charter chains located: “For most of the 1990s, charters represented a small portion of the total schools in most urban districts. The growth of CMOs and the new philanthropic investment changed that in the next decade as NewSchools helped to launch or expand twenty CMOs… For the first time, public schools in struggling urban neighborhoods found charter schools making a significant dent in their enrollments and funding. With the perpetual scarcity of funding and resources allocated for public education, it would have particularly deleterious consequences for many urban schools.” (p. 259)

Geismer summarizes the impact of the educational experiment Clinton launched: “Whether successful or not, charters remain effective symbols of the control that wealthy private forces have come to wield over public policy and the ways that the ethos of the New Democrats had a direct impact on the public sector. The Gates Foundation and the tech entrepreneurs of the NewSchools Venture Fund did not just get a seat at the decision-making table but wielded the financial power to control educational policy at the local, state, and federal level.” (p. 260)

More broadly Geismer examines the tragic limitations of Clinton’s experiment in using “the resources and techniques of the market to make government more efficient and better able to serve the people. Clinton and his allies routinely referred to microenterprise, community development banking, Empowerment Zones, mixed-income housing, and charter schools as revolutionary ideas that had the power to create large-scale change. These programs, nevertheless, uniformly provided small or micro solutions to large structural or macro problems. The New Democrats time and again overpromised just how much good these programs could do. Suggesting market-based programs were a ‘win-win’ obscured the fact that market capitalism generally reproduces and enhances inequality. Ultimately, the relentless selling of such market-based programs prevented Democrats from developing policies that addressed the structural forces that produced segregation and inequality and fulfilled the government’s obligations to provide for its people, especially its most vulnerable.” (pp. 9-10)

I definitely encourage you to read Lily Geismer’s Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality.

Ohio Legislature Must Ensure No More Children Are Held Back by 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law twenty years ago on January 8, 2022, has come to be known as America’s test-and-punish education law, designed by politicians, not educators, and based on manipulation of big data collected from all the states’ standardized test scores

“Test-and-punish” has become a cliche, whose meaning we rarely consider carefully. Unlike the politicians who designed the law, educators who know something about learning and the psychology of education have always known that the law’s operational philosophy couldn’t work. Fear and punishment always interfere with real learning.

The federal government has reduced the imposition of federal punishments when a school’s test scores fail to rise, but states are still required to rate and rank their public schools and to devise turnaround plans for the so-called “failing” schools.  And, despite that some test-and-punish policies were never federally required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), many states themselves adopted policies that reflected the test-and-punish ethos. Some of these policies remain in state law as a relic of the NCLB era.

Much of the No Child Left Behind era’s punitive policy was aimed at pressuring school districts and particular schools quickly to raise scores, but one test-and-punish policy which has been particularly hurtful to children themselves is the so-called “Third Grade Guarantee.”  In 2014,  Ohio adopted the Third Grade Guarantee as it was outlined in a model bill distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to ALEC’s A-Plus Literacy Act: “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

During the years of disruption amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio Legislature temporarily stopped holding children back in third grade.  Now the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reports on a new effort by two state legislatures to do the right thing and end Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee altogether: “State lawmakers pressed pause on the retention requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. No third-grade students from 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years were held back.” “State Rep. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville… and state Rep. Phil Robinson, D-Solon, want to make that permanent with HB 497.”

Staver begins her report by describing what educational research demonstrates is the serious damage the Third Grade Guarantee has caused among Ohio’s children: “More than 39,000 Ohio children have failed the statewide reading test and been mandated, with some exceptions, to repeat third grade since 2014. The idea being kids learn to read between kindergarten and third grade before reading to learn for the rest of their education. But educators, parents, school psychologists and early childhood researchers at Ohio State University’s Crane Center have spent the last decade questioning whether our Third Grade Reading Guarantee works. Whether the stigma of being held back was outweighed by gains in reading comprehension and student success.  A pair of state representatives think the answer is no, and they’ve introduced House Bill 497. The legislation would keep the state tests but not the requirement that those who fail must repeat third grade.”

Jeb Bush and his ExcelInEd Foundation have been promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee, but Staver traces Ohio’s enthusiasm for the Third Grade Guarantee to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “In 2010, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a bombshell special report called ‘Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters.’ Students, it said, who don’t catch up by fourth grade are significantly more likely to stay behind, drop out and find themselves tangled in the criminal justice system. ‘The bottom line is that if we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty… And the price will be paid not only by the individual children and families but by the entire country.'”

It was the old “A Nation at Risk” story about “failing” public education creating a mediocre America and a lagging economy.  In states across the country, anxious legislators capitulated to the anxiety driven narrative and failed to consider what being held back would mean for the children themselves—for their drive to learn to read, for their engagement with school, for their self esteem, and for what we have learned since is their accelerated risk of dropping out of school before high school graduation. Staver quotes Ohio’s former governor: “Gov. John Kasich made it the focus of his education overhaul, saying the time had come to ‘put an end to social promotion.'”

Staver cites a 2019 report, Has Ohio’s Third-Grade Reading Guarantee Led to Reading Improvements?, from Ohio State University’s Crane Center, whose website describes it as “a multidisciplinary research center dedicated to conducting high-quality research that improves children’s learning and development at home, in school and in the community.” The report concludes: “We found no meaningful or significant improvements to Ohio’s fourth-grade reading achievement from the time the third-grade reading guarantee was implemented.”  Staver adds that Jamie O’Leary the Crane Center’s associate director, interprets the results: “O’Leary had some theories about why. The first was early learning…. Only 41% of children passed the Ohio Department of Education’s kindergarten readiness exam in 2018. Twenty-three percent needed ‘significant support.'”  Finally  O’leary worries about children’s stress inside and outside of school.

Poverty has clearly been a factor: “The districts retaining 2% or fewer of their students are overwhelmingly located in wealthy suburban neighborhoods.” Staver interviews Scott DiMauro, a current teacher and the president of the Ohio Education Association: “‘What that means… is that our must vulnerable students are the ones getting held back.’ That’s a problem for him because several studies suggest retaining children also decreases their chances of graduation. Notre Dame sociologist Megan Andrew published a study in 2014 about 6,500 pairs of students with similar backgrounds and IQ scores. The ones held back were 60% less likely to graduate high school. She hypothesized that since students routinely ranked retentions as ‘second only to a parent’s death in seriousness,’ the move was so ‘psychologically scarring’ that many never regained their confidence. DiMauro put it this way, ‘Instead of creating lifelong learners, we’re creating kids who hate to read.'”

To offer a contrasting opinion—support for the Third Grade Guarantee, Staver quotes Lisa Gray, the president of Ohio Excels. Staver describes Gray as “the lone opponent to testify against HB 497.” The  Ohio Excels website describes that organization’s history: “Ohio Excels was born in 2018. Leading that effort were former Greater Cleveland Partnership CEO Joseph Roman, Ohio Business Roundtable President and CEO Patrick Tiberi, Cincinnati Business Committee CEO Gary Lindgren, and Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer. Assembling an initially small group of business leaders, they created a non-partisan coalition committed to keeping the business community’s voice at the forefront of policy discussions of education and workforce issues.”

I am hopeful, as the Ohio Legislature considers permanently removing Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee by passing House Bill 497, that our legislators will study the research from the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy instead of paying attention to Ohio Excels.  For a long time policymakers have listened to the test-and-punish, corporate accountability hawks and neglected what they might learn from early childhood research and a basic class in educational psychology.  I share Scott DiMauro’s concern—that the Third Grade Guarantee is creating kids who fear failure, who dread being shamed by their peers, who hate to read, and who feel altogether alienated from school.

We Must Renew Efforts to End High-Stakes “Test and Punish” in U.S. Public Schools

As an opponent of federally mandated high-stakes standardized tests in the public schools, I have been worrying that, after educators were unsuccessful last year in pressing Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to stop the testing for the 2020-2021 school year during the pandemic, many opponents of test-based accountability have pretty much stopped pushing back on the testing.

In a column last week for Education Week, Rick Hess worries that supporters of high stakes testing are also struggling.  Rick Hess is the “public school accountability hawk” scholar-in-residence at the American Enterprise Institute. He writes: “During the pandemic, I’ve talked to a lot of educational leaders and advocates who believe in the importance of testing and school accountability—but feel like they’re swimming upstream in their efforts to maintain support for these issues. I’ve been struck at how tough many of them have found it to navigate the shifting political currents.”

If advocates on both sides of the school accountability debate are worried that COVID has drawn the public’s attention away from the effects of standardized testing on public education, it seems like a good time to renew advocacy for eliminating annual testing as the driving force in our public schools.

Hess’s subject in his recent column is the federally required administration of standardized achievement tests every year for all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The policy was put in place in 2002 by No Child Left Behind and continued in 2015 when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act. For two decades, proponents like Hess have described testing’s goal as holding schools accountable by imposing sanctions on the schools unable quickly to raise the aggregate test scores of their student populations.

Hess acknowledges more problems with standardized testing than I would have expected: “I suspect the current struggles are healthy—they’re a reminder of how much the momentum and machinery of the Clinton-Bush-Obama era allowed testing advocates to coast. Backed by federal mandates, huge foundation dollars, and media allies, they talked in sweeping assertions about the importance of testing and accountability. They’d insist that testing was the key to leaving no child behind… That reading and math tests revealed achievement gaps and that this was crucial to closing them. That the right standards would provide a foundation for the right tests, permitting complex teacher and school evaluation systems to drive system improvement… (T)esting has real shortcomings. State tests aren’t designed to improve instruction. The results don’t come back for months, and parents don’t get any actionable feedback from them.”

Despite his complaints about big problems with test-based school accountbility, however, Hess continues to believe that advocates must strengthen and improve their advocacy for continuing annual high-stakes testing: “Testing and accountability advocates can no longer count on being carried forward by powerful political patrons or deep-pocketed foundations. And, after multiple years of pandemic waivers, they can no longer count on Washington ordering states to hold the line. This should serve as a call to think anew about how to make the case for testing… It’s an opportunity to revisit how to ensure testing really is serving the needs of students, parents, and educators—and learn how to explain that in a distrustful era.”

The problem with Hess’s argument is that he fails to show that high-stakes testing accomplishes any positive purpose, and he neglects to identify much of the damage thrust upon our schools and our society by “test and punish” school accountability.

Making the strongest case against annual standardized testing is Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the construction of standardized tests and their uses at school. Koretz’s book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, written for a wide audience, is the most important book examining how high stakes testing has wrecked our public schools. Koretz cites something called Campbell’s Law to explain what No Child Left Behind brought us twenty years ago: “The more any quantitative social indicator 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 explains what happened to teaching and learning when policymakers attached high stakes to achievement tests that had been designed simply to measure what students are learning. The new purpose was accountability—creating consequences for the schools and the teachers in schools where scores failed quickly to rise. There are a number of ways high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum: “(T)he tested samples of content and skills are not fully representative, either of the goals of schooling broadly or of student achievement more narrowly…(H)igh-stakes testing creates strong incentives to focus on the tested sample rather than the domain it is intended to represent.” (The Testing Charade, p. 16-19)

Federally mandated high-stakes testing in U.S. public schools focuses only on math and reading: “The often unspoken premise of the reformers was that somehow… other subjects, such as history, civics, art, and music, aspects of math and reading that are hard to measure with standardized tests, and ‘softer’ things such as engaging instruction, love of learning, and ability to work in groups—would somehow take care of itself. It didn’t, and that shouldn’t have surprised anyone.  The second reason for the failure is that the system is very high-pressure… Narrowness and high pressure are a very potent combination… A third critical failure of the reforms is that they left almost no room for human judgment. Teachers are not trusted to evaluate students or each other, principals are not trusted to evaluate teachers, and the judgment of professionals from outside the school has only a limited role. What the reformers trust is ‘objective’ standardized measures. This was not accidental.” The Testing Charade, pp. 32-33)

Koretz explains how schools and school districts discovered ways to inflate their scores through test prep and drilling on the material that predictably appears on the tests year after year. But test prep hasn’t been the only consequence. Sometimes schools held struggling middle school students back a grade to prevent their being tested on the high school test. Sometimes teachers were caught providing students with the answers on the tests and in some places teachers were found to have erased and changed students’ answers on the tests. One instance of outright cheating happened in Washington, D.C. under Michelle Rhee, and in Atlanta, the superintendent and many educators were indicted.

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

What about the effects of high-stakes testing in society beyond the classroom?  No Child Left Behind imposed federal punishments by requiring that staffs at low scoring schools be reconstituted by firing principals and half the staff, or by requiring that schools be charterized, privatized, or shut down.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan used Race to the Top to force states to tie teachers’ evaluations to students’ test scores. In 2015, Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act and stopped imposing federally established harsh sanctions, but ESSA continues—in 2022—to require that every year all the states state must submit plans embodying sanctions to hold the lowest-scoring five percent of public schools accountable.

Here are some of the broader effects of ESSA. Today the federal government continues to require states to rank and rate schools based primarily on standardized test scores. The ranking and rating of schools brands low scoring school districts—usually the districts serving concentrations of poor children—as “failing” and drives middle class flight to wealthier exurbs, thereby accelerating racial and economic segregation. Some states continue to take over low-scoring schools and school districts and turn these districts over to appointed overseers or commissions.  School districts continue to shut down low-scoring schools. Many states locate charter schools and grant voucher eligibility in low scoring school districts. And even though researchers have demonstrated that students’ test scores are an unreliable and invalid way to evaluate teachers and despite that the federal government no longer requires states to use test scores for teacher evaluation, many states haven’t taken the trouble to repeal policies that evaluate teachers by their students’ scores. Many states continue to hold students back in third grade if their reading scores are low, and some states base high school graduation on the state test even for students who have successfully completed all of their required courses.

Rick Hess calls on proponents of high-stakes standardized testing “to think anew about how to make the case for testing.”  I call on opponents of standardized testing to present the reams of academic research documenting the damage wrought by federally mandated, test-based school accountability and to intensify pressure for the elimination of high-stakes testing in U.S. public schools.

Federally Mandated Standardized Testing: If Nothing Is Done to Change a Bad Public Policy, It Never Goes Away

The beginning of the new year is a good time to look around and consider that the way things are is not how they have to be. Annual standardized testing, the pivotal public policy that shapes U.S. children’s experience of public schooling today, is now recognized by most educators and many policy experts as a failed remnant of another time.

However, Miguel Cardona, our current U.S. Secretary of Education, has quietly allowed this policy to continue and permitted us all to cruise through one more school year without seriously confronting its implications. Even though Betsy DeVos cancelled the federal testing mandate in the spring of 2020 as COVID-19 struck, on February 22 of last year, an acting assistant secretary of education sent the state departments of education a letter announcing that—despite that some students were in class, others online, and some in hybrid online/in-person classes due to COVID-19—standardized testing would take place as usual in the 2020-2021 school year.  Despite considerable pushback from educators, that decision has never been reconsidered, and in the current school year federally mandated standardized testing is happening as usual.

Of course Secretary Cardona’s focus has been dominated by COVID’s disruption in public schools, and the problem is likely to continue as the new Omicron flareup threatens to intensify the pressure this winter despite the rollout of vaccines.  Even amidst these ongoing challenges, however, the time has come for the Secretary of Education to work with Congress to confront the overuse of standardized testing as the yardstick for measuring the quality of public schools and supposedly holding them accountable. Good leaders are responsible for initiating needed reforms when flawed public policy undermines the institutions where our children learn.

January 8, 2022 is the 20th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s signing the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It is worth remembering that until 2002, our society did not test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and compare the aggregate scores from school to school as a way to rate and rank public schools. School districts could choose to test students with standardized tests to measure what they had been learning, but until the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became law, there was no federally mandated high stakes testing across all U.S. public schools.

NCLB did not, as promised, enable every child to make Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient. Because, as research has demonstrated, out-of-school challenges affect students’ test scores, the whole high stakes testing regime didn’t improve overall school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps. Sadly, it did shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

Today states are required by No Child Left Behind’s 2015 successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to identify their state’s bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a way to blame and punish educators and supposedly “incentivize” them to work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe:

  • Many states publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns “a turnaround strategy.”
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score “proficient” on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools” and focuses the rest of the above punishments on the schools in the poorest communities.
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight to wealthy exurbs where aggregate test scores are higher.

Here are three academicians considering problems with high-stakes standardized testing from the point of view of their areas of expertise.

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

Not only is the test-and punish regime unjust, but it also violates accepted theory about how children learn. Nobody thinks drilling and cramming for standardized tests is an inspiring kind of education, but in their 2014 rebuttal of the test-and-punish regime, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass point out that the test-and-punish era has also pushed out more important work at school: “Teaching problem solving and creativity is indeed possible, particularly when the teacher is an engaged teacher who uses culturally relevant pedagogical practices. But the issue lies not in whether it is possible, but in whether the teaching of these skills is disappearing…. (G)iven the current education system with its ever-increasingly test-based accountability systems, classrooms are becoming more controlled. Thus, environments in which problem solving and creativity are likely to be promoted are less evident… It should come as no surprise that when teachers focus on multiple ways of knowing and celebrate the wealth of knowledge their students bring to the classroom, collaborative environments spring up. In these environments, students and teachers participate in meaningful conversations about a variety of topics, including issues that are often of direct concern to their local community… It is through conversation, not didactic instruction, that students are able to articulate what they know and how they know it, while incorporating the knowledge of their peers and their teacher to further their own understanding.” (50 Myths and Lies, p. 238)

Finally, in Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, a fine new collection of essays edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, education historian Diane Ravitch summarizes the impact of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime: “Many schools were punished. Many teachers and principals were fired, their reputations in tatters… Nonetheless, Congress and state leaders remained fixated on raising test scores. NCLB remained in force until 2015, when it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which removed the deadline by which all students would be proficient and dropped some of the other draconian punishments. But what did not disappear was the magical belief that a federal mandate based on annual standardized tests would produce better education. In the grip of the policymakers’ obsession with testing and ranking and rating and sorting, schools that were important to their communities were closed or replaced or taken over by the state because their scores were too low. Forget the fact that standardized test scores are highly correlated with family income and affected by important factors like disabilities and language ability.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy,  p. 26)

When he campaigned for President in 2019, Joe Biden rejected standardized test-based school accountability. This year, 2022, is a good time for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to provide real policy leadership and ensure that President Biden can realize his promise.

New Research Yet Again Proves the Folly of Judging Teachers by Their Students’ Test Scores

The Obama Administration’s public education policy, administered by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, was deeply flawed by its dependence on technocracy. In the 1990s, Congress had been wooed by researchers who had developed the capacity to produce giant, computer-generated data sets. What fell out of style in school evaluations were personal classroom observations by administrators who were more likely to notice the human connections that teachers and children depended on for building trusting relationships to foster learning.

Technocratic policy became law in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed the omnibus No Child Left Behind Act. Technocratic policy reached its apogee in 2009 as Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top grant program became a centerpiece of the federal stimulus bill passed by Congress to ameliorate the 2008 Great Recession.

In an important 2014 article, the late Mike Rose, a professor of education, challenged the dominant technocratic ideology.  He believed that excellent teaching cannot be measured by the number of correct answers any teacher’s students mark on a standardized test. Rose reports: The “classrooms (of excellent teachers) were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. 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…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

In her 2012 book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch reviews the technocratic strategy of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top. To qualify for a federal grant under this program, states had to promise to evaluate public school teachers by the standardized test scores of their students: “Unfortunately, President Obama’s Race to the Top adopted the same test-based accountability as No Child Left Behind. The two programs differed in one important respect: where NCLB held schools accountable for low scores, Race to the Top held both schools and teachers accountable. States were encouraged to create data systems to link the test scores of individual students to individual teachers. If the students’ scores went up, the teacher was an ‘effective’ teacher; if the students’ scores did not go up, the teacher was an ‘ineffective’ teacher  If schools persistently had low scores, the school was a ‘failing’ school, and its staff should be punished.” (Reign of Error, p. 99).

Ravitch reminds readers of a core principle: “The cardinal rule of psychometrics is this: a test should be used only for the purpose for which it is designed. The tests are designed to measure student performance in comparison to a norm; they are not designed to measure teacher quality or teacher ‘performance.'” (Reign of Error, p. 111)

This week, Education Week‘s Madeline Will covers major new longitudinal research documenting what we already knew: that holding teachers accountable for raising their students’ test scores neither improved teaching nor promoted students’ learning:

“Nationally, teacher evaluation reforms over the past decade had no impact on student test scores or educational attainment. ‘There was a tremendous amount of time and billions of dollars invested in putting these systems into place and they didn’t have the positive effects reformers were hoping for.’ said Joshua Bleiberg, an author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University… A team of researchers from Brown and Michigan State Universities and the Universities of Connecticut and North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed the timing of states’ adoption of the reforms alongside district-level student achievement data from 2009 to 2018 on standardized math and English/language arts test scores. They also analyzed the impact of the reforms on longer-term student outcomes including high school graduation and college enrollment. The researchers controlled for the adoption of other teacher accountability measures and reform efforts taking place around the same time, and found that their results remained unchanged. They found no evidence that, on average, the reforms had even a small positive effect on student achievement or educational attainment.”

Arne Duncan is no longer the U.S. Secretary of Education. And in 2015, Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with a different federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), in which Congress permitted states more latitude in how they evaluate schoolteachers. So why is this new 2021 research so urgently important?  Madeline Will reports, “Evaluation reform has already changed course. States overhauled their teacher-evaluation systems quickly, and many reversed course within just a few years.”  Will adds, however, that in 2019,  34 states were still requiring “student-growth data in teacher evaluations.”

In 2019, for the Phi Delta Kappan, Kevin Close, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, and Clarin Collins surveyed teacher evaluation systems across the states.  Many states still evaluate teachers according to how much each teacher adds to a student’s learning as measured by test scores, a statistic called the Value-Added Measure (VAM).  Practices across the states are slowly evolving: “While the legacy of VAMs as the ‘objective’ student growth measure remains in place to some degree, the definition of student growth in policy and practice is also changing. Before ESSA, student growth in terms of policy was synonymous with students’ year-to-year changes in performance on large-scale standardized tests (i.e., VAMs). Now, more states are using student learning objectives (SLOs) as alternative or sole ways to measure growth in student learning or teachers’ impact on growth. SLOs are defined as objectives set by teachers, sometimes in conjunction with teachers’ supervisors and/or students, to measure students’ growth. While SLOs can include one or more traditional assessments (e.g., statewide standardized tests), they can also include nontraditional assessments (e.g., district benchmarks, school-based assessments, teacher and classroom-based measures) to assess growth. Indeed, 55% (28 of 51) of states now report using or encouraging SLOs as part of their teacher evaluation systems, to some degree instead of VAMs.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act eased federal pressure on states to evaluate teachers by their students’ scores, but five years since its passage, remnants of these policies linger in the laws of many states.  Once bad policy based on technocratic ideology has become embedded in state law, it may not be so easy to change course.

In a profound book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, the Harvard University psychometrician, Daniel Koretz explains succinctly why students’ test scores cannot possibly separate “successful” from “failing” schools and why students’ test scores are an inaccurate and unfair standard for evaluating teachers:

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

Closing Achievement Gaps Will Require Closing Opportunity Gaps Outside of School

Last week this blog highlighted Advocates for Children of New York’s new report documenting that more than 10 percent of the over one million students in the New York City Public Schools—101,000 students—are homeless. These students are living in shelters, doubled up with friends or relatives, or living in cars and parks. What are the academic challenges for these homeless children and other children living in families with minimum wage employment, unemployment, unstable housing, food insecurity and inadequate medical care?

Although federal law continues to require that states measure the quality of schools and school districts with standardized tests, all sorts of research documents that students’ standardized test scores are indicators of their life circumstances and not a good measure of the quality of their public schools. Students concentrated in poor cities or scattered in impoverished and remote rural areas are more likely to struggle academically no matter the quality of their public school.

Here are just two examples of this research.

In 2017, Katherine Michelmore of Syracuse University and Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan studied data from Michigan to identify the role of economic disadvantage in achievement gaps as measured by test scores: “We use administrative data from Michigan to develop a… detailed measure of economic disadvantage… Children who spend all of their school years eligible for subsidized meals have the lowest scores, whereas those who are never eligible have the highest. In eighth grade, the score gap between these two groups is nearly a standard deviation.” “Sixty percent of Michigan’s eighth graders were eligible for subsidized lunch at least once during their time in public schools. But just a quarter of these children (14% of all eighth graders) were economically disadvantaged in every year between kindergarten and eighth grade… Ninety percent of the test score gap we observe in eighth grade between the persistently disadvantaged and the never disadvantaged is present by third grade.”

In How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong, Douglas Downey, a professor of sociology at The Ohio State University describes academic research showing that evaluating public schools based on standardized test scores is unfair to educators and misleading to the public: “It turns out that gaps in skills between advantaged and disadvantaged children are largely formed prior to kindergarten entry and then do not grow appreciably when children are in school.” (How Schools Really Matter, p. 9) “Much of the ‘action’ of inequality therefore occurs very early in life… In addition to the fact that achievement gaps are primarily formed in early childhood, there is another reason to believe that schools are not as responsible for inequality as many think. It turns out that when children are in school during the nine-month academic year, achievement gaps are rather stable. Indeed, sometimes we even observe that socioeconomic gaps grow more slowly during school periods than during summers.” (How Schools Really Matter, p. 28)

In the context of this research, Downey examines the six indicators the Ohio Department of Education uses to evaluate public schools when it releases annual report cards on school performance. Although the state has ceased branding public schools with “A-F” letter grades, Downey explains that the state of Ohio continues to ignore the role outside-of-school variables in students’ lives when it blames educators and schools for low aggregate test scores:

“The report card for schools is constructed from six indicators and not a single one of them gauges performance independent of the children’s nonschool environments. First is achievement, which is based on the percentage of students  who pass state tests… By far, the biggest determinant of whether a school produces high or low test scores is the income level of the students’ families it serves… Second is the extent to which a district closes achievement gaps among subgroups. But performance on this indicator can also be influenced by factors out of the school’s control… Third, schools are gauged by the degree to which the school improved at-risk K-3 readers… Of course, it is much easier to make progress on this indicator if serving children who go home each evening to reinforce the school goals. Fourth, schools are evaluated on their progress, an indicator based on how much growth students exhibit on math and reading tests. This kind of indicator is better than most at isolating how schools matter, but again, growth is easier in schools where students enjoy home environments that also promote learning… Fifth, the graduation rate constitutes a component of the district’s (rating)… but this is only a measure of school quality if the likelihood of a child’s on-time graduation has nothing to do with the stress they experience at home, the access they have to health care, or the quality of their neighborhood.  Finally districts are evaluated on whether their students are prepared for success.  This indicator gauges the percentage of students at a school viewed as ready to succeed after high school… and is determined by how well the students performed on the ACT or SAT and whether they earned a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam… These report cards ‘are designed to give parents, communities, educators, and policymakers information about the performance of districts and schools,’ but what they really do is mix important factors outside of school with what is going on inside the schools in unknown ways.” (How Schools Really Matter, pp. 115-116)

What these reports and many others demonstrate is that we cannot expect that no child will be left behind merely because Congress passes a law declaring that schools can make every American child post proficient test scores by 2014. No Child Left Behind’s (and now the Every Student Succeeds Act’s)  policies—which have branded schools unable quickly to raise aggregate test scores as “failing schools”— have unfairly targeted school districts located in poor communities. In 2017, the Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz published The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better in which he shows that ameliorating opportunity gaps in the lives of children is not something schools can accomplish by themselves.

Koretz explains: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. 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) Koretz continues: “(T)his decision backfired. The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)

Ohio Legislature Has Created a Path to End State School District Takeovers: Will It Ever Be Fully Implemented?

This post is about bad public policy and how, once bad policy has been passed by a state legislature, it is hard to ever get rid of it.

Specifically the subject is Ohio House Bill 70, a failed law that has, over time, proven the failure of state takeovers of public-school districts as a strategy for raising students’ aggregate standardized test scores.  Ohio HB 70 is a relic of the kind of thinking Arne Duncan thrust upon our nation’s school districts.

In an October 2021 context, however, we can consider the story of Ohio’s six year experiment with state school district takeovers as a cautionary tale today when groups like FreedomWorks, No Left Turn in Education, Parents Defending Education, and Moms for Liberty are demanding that legislatures give oversight of their children’s history and government classes to parents and when a Utah legislator introduces a bill providing that “all materials for social science classes in K-12 (schools) be vetted and posted online for parents to review in advance.” Once state legislators pass ideological legislation, however unworkable it proves to be, it is very often difficult to amass enough bipartisan support for repeal.

Back in 2007, a think tank called Mass Insight, published The Turnaround Challenge, paid for with a big grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Turnaround Challenge prescribed rapid turnarounds of so-called “failing” public schools: “Despite steadily increasing urgency about the nation’s lowest-performing schools—those in the bottom five percent—efforts to turn these schools around have largely failed. Marginal change has led to marginal (or no) improvement. These schools, the systems supporting them, and our management of the change process require fundamental rethinking, not more tinkering.” Here is what Mass Insight proposed as the solution: “Require failing schools and their districts to either pursue more proactive turnaround strategies or lose control over the school. Make fundamental changes in the conditions under which those schools operate. Develop a local marketplace of partner/providers skilled in this discipline.”  The Turnaround Challenge became the bible for two of Arne Duncan’s most notorious programs: Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, both of which set out to condition federal grants to states on their rapid turnaround of public schools as a cure for low aggregate test scores. State takeovers or closing schools altogether were The Turnaround Challenge‘s ultimate penalty for public schools where scores did not quickly rise.

The consultants at Mass Insight assumed that schools alone could be quickly transformed to raise the scores of masses of children living in concentrated poverty, despite that research correlates standardized test scores with family and neighborhood income. The consultants blamed teachers and school administrators and assumed, in the case of state takeover, that a governance change would quickly create equal opportunity for the children and that achievement gaps would close despite that alarming opportunity gaps persisted.

In Ohio, the state did not try to turnaround schools by state takeover until the summer of 2015.  In a very important article this week, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reminds readers of this history: “The words ‘academic distress commission’ didn’t exist when Ohio House Bill 70 was introduced in 2015.  The 10-page bill was to allow schools to partner with local organizations and offer health care and social services. Then came the 67-page amendment—added into the bill, then passed by the full Ohio Senate and House on the same day, June 24, 2015. The amendment required academic distress commissions… to appoint a CEO to replace superintendents if the school district had prolonged ‘F’ grades on the state report card. The amendment gave the CEOs more control than the district superintendents ever had. CEOs can replace principals, close a school, reopen it as a charter school, and find a nonprofit or company to run a school.  If that doesn’t improve report cards, CEOs can suspend or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement with unions, except for reducing insurance benefits or the base hourly pay rate… CEOs took over schools in Youngstown in 2016, in Lorain in 2017, and in East Cleveland in 2018.”

Under HB 70, each of the three school districts was taken over by a state appointed Academic Distress Commission which appointed a CEO. The elected local school board continued to be elected and to meet, but it had no power.  Hancock reports that in “the three Ohio districts taken over by the state due to low standardized test scores, district report card grades have largely stayed the same.” For much of the ensuing six years, Youngstown and Lorain have endured bitter school board meetings, conflict between the elected board and the Academic Distress Commission, and widespread community outrage (See here, here, here and here.)

Hancock quotes Mark Ballard, President of Lorain’s elected Board of Education: “When people are appointed out of Columbus, and they don’t live in this community and don’t understand the dynamics of the community, it’s very frustrating… When people bring concerns to a locally elected member, there’s nothing they can do because there’s people out of Columbus really calling the shots.”

Hancock reports that in Ohio’s new FY 22-23 state budget, passed at the end of June, the Ohio Legislature created a possible path out of state takeover for the three school districts: “The new way out requires the districts to propose, and the Ohio Department of Education to approve, three-year improvement plans… If the district(s) (meet) a majority of the benchmarks after three years, they can return to normal operations…. However, the distress commissions will remain on as advisors to the district and don’t completely go away until after the district successfully hits most of the benchmarks in the three-year plan. If the districts fail to hit most of the benchmarks in their plan, they get two one-year extensions. If they can’t improve in that time, they will return to the control of the distress commissions. The districts (will) be run by superintendents during the transition.”

Here is a hopeful development: “Each district submitted its plan at the beginning of October. The Department of Education has until the end of the month to review them. It can request revisions, and the districts would have 15 days to respond.”

Everyone hopes that the three districts’ plans will be approved and that the state will work with the districts to return them to the control of their local school boards. Of course, with Ohio’s still underfunded school finance formula, there will not be a massive infusion of funding to support the needs of each district’s families and children. All three communities remain among Ohio’s poorest.  Hancock reports that state representative Michele Lepore-Hagan, a Democrat representing Youngstown, “questions whether the plans and revisions will ever be good enough to transition out of state control. ‘I hope seriously that this administration and the Ohio Department of Education are acting in good faith… We are concerned it might be a facade.'”

Ohio’s failed state takeover “turnaround” plan was a piece of ideological legislation passed in the middle of the night and based on what, at the time, was extremely popular, neoliberal corporate-style education policy. The children, families, and elected boards of education in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland continue to struggle under this plan which has proven to churn community upheaval and outrage in Youngstown and Lorain while it failed to raise aggregate standardized test scores. The current legislative reform plan does not even fully eliminate HB 70; its phase out, assuming it is finally completed, will take three more years.

State legislators ought to look what happened in Ohio with the last decade’s wave of ideological school reform and take heed. Today’s far right advocates—demanding freedom for parents to shape the school curriculum according to their personal beliefs—are proposing dangerous policies which, if they are enacted, will prove difficult to eliminate.

Another Year of Meaningless Standardized Testing: Will Congress Ever Reconsider the High-Stakes Testing Mandate?

While this fall the education news has been filled with conflicts about vaccine and mask mandates and fights about Critical Race Theory, the results of last year’s standardized testing in public schools have begun to arrive.

That is, the scores have begun to be reported from the school districts that administered the mandatory tests last spring.  All the states were required to conduct the testing despite that some schools had opened in-person, others were remote and some were on hybrid schedules. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona did, however, offer states some flexibility.  They could put off the testing until summer or even this fall depending on their circumstances, and they could exempt some students and schools under difficult circumstances.

Because the school year was disrupted by the arrival of COVID-19 in March of 2020 Betsy DeVos had cancelled testing in 2019-2020, but last February, even before Miguel Cardona was confirmed as education secretary, an acting assistant secretary of education, Ian Rosenblum sent a garbled letter that mandated some form of the universal standardized testing: “We remain committed to supporting all states in assessing the learning of all students. The Department is, therefore, offering the following flexibility with respect to your assessment, accountability, and reporting systems for the 2020-2021 school year… We are inviting states to request a waiver for the 2020-2021 school year of the accountability and school identification requirements… A state receiving this waiver would not be required to implement and report the results of its accountability system, including calculating progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress or indicators, or to annually meaningfully differentiate among its public schools using data from the 2020-2021 school year… Each state that receives the accountability and school identification waivers would be required to continue to support previously identified schools in the 2021-2022 school year, resume school identification in the fall of 2022, and ensure transparency to parents and the public… It remains vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success. The Department will therefore maintain all state and local report card requirements, including the requirements to disaggregate data by student subgroup… As a condition of waiving accountability and school identification requirements, the Department will require all states to publicly report disaggregated chronic absenteeism data and, to the extent the state or school district already collects such information, data on student and educator access to technology devices.”

These are the tests that Congress requires under the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act, the tests first required two decades ago by No Child Left Behind for all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. They are the foundation of a two-decades-old scheme to hold schools accountable. In his abstract and garbled letter, Rosenblum did say that states that applied for waivers would not have to use the test scores in this one year to hold schools accountable.

Now, the scores from the tests for the states whose schools did administer the tests last spring—and not in the summer or this fall, as Secretary Cardona permitted—are coming in.  For example, Michigan’s Bridge Magazine reported: “The share of students scoring at a level considered ‘proficient’ or higher in English language arts dropped from 2019… in grades 3-7.  The share of students considered ‘proficient’ or higher inched upward for grades 8-11.  Scores in math nosedived in the seven grades in which the test is administered… dropping by more than 5 percentage points in grades 4, 5, and 6. Less than 30 percent of fifth-and sixth-graders who took the test score at a level considered ‘proficient’ or higher… Still it’s likely that the true learning skid is even worse than the data… indicates. In typical years, schools are required to have at least 95 percent of students take the M-Step. That federal rule was relaxed this school year because of the pandemic—schools had to give the test, but students, particularly those taking classes online, could opt out… The percentages of students who took the English language arts and math M-STEP tests in the spring ranged by grade and subject from 64 percent to 72 percent, and varied wildly between school districts.”

So, what does all this mean?  That is the subject of a profound blog post from a retired Michigan teacher and wonderful writer who used to have a regular column in Education Week, Nancy Flanagan.  Flanagan explains: “Here’s the truth: this set of test scores tells us nothing for certain. The data are apples-to-oranges-to bowling balls muddled.  If anything, if you still believe test scores give us valuable information, the data might be mildly encouraging considering what students have encountered over the past 18 months… The problem is this: You can’t talk about good schools or good teachers or even ‘lost learning’ any more, without a mountain of numbers.  Which can be inscrutable to nearly everyone, including those making policies impacting millions of children.”

Remembering a Michigan state school board meeting she attended following the passage of No Child Left Behind, Flanagan describes how she began to grasp of what’s wrong with our national testing regime: “(T)he Board was doing what they were supposed to do: managing the data generated by federally imposed standardized testing, grades 3-8.  Until that meeting, I assumed that there was a hard, established science to setting cut scores. I thought scores were reasonably reliable, valid measures of learning and there were pre-determined, universal clusters of students who would be labeled proficient, advanced, below basic or whatever descriptors were used. I assumed there were standard, proven psychometric protocols—percentage of correct answers, verified difficulty of questions and so on. I was familiar with bell curves and skewed distributions and standard deviations.”

Flanagan continues: What surprised me was how fluid—and even biased—the whole process seemed. There was, indeed, a highly qualified psychometrician leading the discussion, but a lot of the conversation centered on issues like: ‘If we set the Advanced bar too low, we’ll have a quarter of the students in Michigan labeled Advanced and we can’t have that! If we move the cuttoff for Basic to XX, about 40% of our students will be Below Basic—Does that give us enough room for growth and enough reason to put schools under state control?’  The phrase ‘set the bar high’ was used repeatedly. The word ‘proficient’ became meaningless.”

Bob Schaeffer, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has been tracing the impact of No Child Left Behind’s testing mandate for two decades. Now, watching the release of data from the tests that were administered last spring, Schaeffer summarizes what has happened this year: “Earlier this year, thousands of parents, educators and community leaders endorsed a call to suspend high-stakes standardized testing in America’s public schools because the results would not be valid, reliable, or useful. Critics of testing have made that argument for years, but they seem especially relevant given that tests were being given during a pandemic that had upended education since spring 2020.”  Now: “States are releasing their spring test scores, and … wait for it… the results are exactly as predicted.  Scores declined across the board, and historically underserved students fell further behind.”

Schaeffer points out the flaw in the justification Secretary Cardona used to justify requiring testing this year: “So far, there’s little evidence demonstrating that data from this round of standardized exams is being used to address the pandemic’s expected impact, as testing advocates had promised. It’s hard to find examples of states or cities targeting additional resources to schools serving the neediest students..”

Schaeffer wonders: “Were spring 2021 exams really helpful in promoting academic quality and educational equity?  Or was this just another politically driven ‘testing for the sake of testing’ exercise? ”

The question—What to do about too much ineffective standardized testing?— has much larger implications than for just last school year and the current school year. On January 8, 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. As our nation anticipates the 20th anniversary of test-and-punish school accountability, we all ought to demand that Secretary Cardona and Congress reconsider the entire two decades of the failure of federal policy demanding that states turn around the schools deemed “failing” based on their aggregate test scores. We know that the premise of No Child Left Behind—that all American students could be made to score “proficient” by 2014—was proven a failure.

The National Education Policy Center’s newsletter this week questions the myth underneath the No Child Left Behind Act—that schools can be quickly turned around so that they suddenly raise low aggregate test scores and close achievement gaps. Opportunity gaps among students are far more complicated:

“(D)ifferences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S. arise primarily outside of schools… Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economic inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income, and wealth…  There are two primary ways to change this. The first way is the most obvious: directly reducing poverty by improving the social safety net…. Yet most U.S. policymakers have instead embraced a second approach, at least rhetorically… provide children with high-quality public schooling…. placing enormous expectations on the public school system.”

Instead of a No Child Left Behind demand that schools alone close opportunity gaps, the National Education Policy Center is researching “insights about the need to integrate school-centric and social-system reforms and programs….”

Secretary Cardona and Congress ought to pay attention, especially now as Congress considers funding  President Biden’s Build Back Better program for extending the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, establishing federally funded universal pre-Kindergarten and expanding of Full-Service Community Schools.

The Danger of Conflating Public School Stability with Preservation of the Status Quo

Two major education organizations have recently released public opinion polls describing—after last year’s disruption by the COVID-19 pandemic—Americans’ opinions about public education in general and respondents’ views of their own communities’ public schools.  It is fascinating to compare the sponsoring organizations’ interpretations of the meaning of the results they discovered.

Phi Delta Kappa International describes its mission: “Established in 1906, PDK International supports teachers and school leaders by strengthening their interest in the profession through the entire arc of their career.”  As an organization supporting public school educators, this year PDK probed how the pandemic affected parents’ attitudes and more broadly the opinions of adults in general toward public education.  PDK’s executive director Joshua Starr interprets the new poll results: “For 53 years, PDK has polled the American public on their attitudes toward the nation’s public schools…  (A)s we all know, the 2020-21 school year was anything but typical. So, we decided to take a different tack, setting aside our usual approach to the survey and… zeroing in on the questions that matter most right now: How have the public schools performed during the pandemic, and what are Americans’ main concerns about the coming 2021-22 school year? The results offer a rare glimmer of hope at a difficult time. Not only have the nation’s educators persevered through the hardest school year in memory, but according to our findings, most Americans—especially parents with children in the public schools—remain confident in their local schools’ ability to provide effective instruction and leadership.”

In contrast, several of Education Next‘s corporate reformers describe the new poll from the point of view of that publication. Education Next is edited by  Paul E. Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  Peterson’s program, a pro-corporate reform think tank, is housed in the Harvard Kennedy Center and is separate from Harvard University’s department of education. Education Next is the house organ for Peterson’s program.

Here is the spin of Peterson and three colleagues as they describe the results of the new Education Next poll: “Calamities often disrupt the status quo… Yet not all such catastrophic events lead to an appetite for change… The 15th annual Education Next survey investigates how Americans are responding to the worst pandemic since 1919.  In the realm of education, a desire for sweeping reform might well be expected, given the pandemic’s particularly severe toll on K-12 schooling…  In the political sphere, expectations for large-scale innovation are running high…  Our survey results should temper expectations for major shifts in any political direction and post a warning to advocates of any stripe. At least when it comes to education policy, the U.S. public seems as determined to return to normalcy after Covid as it was after the flu pandemic a century ago… The shifts are not large enough to be statistically significant for some items: in-state tuition for immigrant children, higher salaries for teachers when the respondent is informed of current pay levels, testing students for accountability purposes, tax-credit scholarships, and merit pay.  On other items, such as preschool education, the survey does not include information on the state of opinion in both 2019 and 2021, but we find no evidence of a surge in demand for change and reform.  All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

The Phi Delta Kappa poll should reassure those who have been worried that masses of parents have given up on public schools disrupted by long sessions of virtual schooling and hybrid in-class/online schedules.  “Majorities of Americans give high marks to their community’s public schools and public school teachers for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic during the 2020-21 school year.  Further, the public is broadly confident in schools’ preparedness to handle the challenges ahead in 2021-22. Teachers fare especially well in these assessments.  About two-thirds of adults overall, and as many K-12 public school parents, give their community’s public school teachers an A or B grade for their pandemic response.  Parents are almost as positive about their community’s public schools more generally, giving 63% As or Bs, though the positive rating slips to 54% among all Americans… People whose public schools mainly used a hybrid model are 7 to 17 points more apt than those with fully remote schools to be confident in their schools’ preparedness to reopen fully this fall…. Confidence on catching up on academics and dealing with social-emotional impacts is higher still among those whose schools mainly used in-person learning.”

Education Next compares polling results from its 2019 poll to this year’s survey, and points to declining support in every single category of policy change, from the kind of reforms Education Next supports—merit pay for teachers, annual testing, Common Core state standards, national standards in general, charter schools, universal private school tuition vouchers, low-income vouchers, and tuition tax credits; to reforms public school supporters prefer—more school spending and increased teacher salaries, to reforms in higher education—free public four-year college and free public two-year college. The Education Next poll even asks respondents about the impact of teachers unions: “A plurality of Americans (50%) say unions made it neither easier nor harder to reopen schools in their community.” “In short,” explains Education Next, “The public seems tired of disruption, change, and uncertainty. Enthusiasm for most, perhaps all, policy innovations has waned… All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

It is significant that these polls highlight something that neither organization names explicitly: Public schools are the only widespread institution outside the family itself that parents can count on to support their children, to shape a dependable family routine, to support parents as they learn to understand and appreciate their children’s challenges and gifts, and simply to introduce children to their broader community in a safe and structured setting.

Despite the worries reported in the press that parents might have lost faith in their public schools due to the incredible challenges posed by COVID-19 and some reports speculating that children will leave in droves to online or private alternatives, PDK’s poll affirms that most people will return their children to the public schools they continue to count on as the essence of their communities.

Education Next‘s spinners, determined to impose their set of technocratic reforms, forget to identify public schools as essential institutions and forget that public schools represent the identity and the history of each community. In describing the poll, Education Next conflates the meaning of stability with something else entirely: returning to the status quo.  People who love the stability of their community’s public schools may desperately want school improvement, but they generally don’t choose the kind of technocratic change Education Next supports and includes in its new poll: merit pay, annual standardized testing, the Common Core state standards, national standards, privately operated charter schools, and publicly funded tuition vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

Parents and members of the community whose grandchildren and neighbors attend public schools more likely define essential change in the context of particular improvements needed for safety, security, and educational opportunities for the community’s children and adolescents: the return of a shuttered school library—small classes to bring more personal attention for each child—the return of a school nurse—an art program—a school orchestra—enough guidance counselors to ensure that all high school seniors have help with their college applications—better chemistry labs and a Calculus class at the high school—an additional school social worker—Community School wraparound services to support families who need medical care, better after-school programs, and summer enrichment.  Most families don’t look to find this kind of reform in a privatized charter school or by carrying a voucher to a private school.

Education sociologist Pedro Noguera reminds us, “What I try to remind people is that despite their flaws, public schools are still the most stable institutions in many cities, particularly the poor cities. The job now is to figure out how to make them better, not simply how to tear them down, especially given there’s no other institutions stepping up.”

Recently as I explored the books of the late Mike Rose, a profound advocate for the importance of America’s system of public education, I found this passage examining what ought to be the definition of school reform. Rose was not a fan of the status quo; instead he was a strong believer in the need for ongoing public school improvement: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination.” (Why School? p. 203)

Rose continues: “My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school. Hand in glove, this motive and machinery narrow our sense of what school can be. We hear much talk about achievement and the achievement gap, about equity, about increasing effort and expectations, but it  is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on the ethical, social, and imaginative dimensions of human experience.” (Why School?, p. 214)

Mike Rose would have been reassured by this year’s Phi Delta Kappa poll, which demonstrates that parents are sticking with the public schools—not leaving in droves as some people had feared.  Rose would have called us all to keep on fighting to ensure that our public schools are well resourced to ensure that every child discovers opportunity at school.