Brandon Johnson Beats Paul Vallas to Become Chicago Mayor: What Does This Say about School Reform?

On Tuesday night, Brandon Johnson, a former middle and high school teacher, a Chicago Teachers Union organizer, and a Cooke County Commissioner, was elected to be the next mayor of Chicago.

The public schools have been at the center of mayoral politics in Chicago since 1995, when a state legislative overhaul launched mayoral governance, the possibility of charter schools, and a cascade of test-and-punish reforms—a mix of policies that culminated in June of 2013 in the shutdown of 50 neighborhood public schools on the South Side and West Side after the rapid proliferation of charter schools. Paul Vallas, one of the candidates in Tuesday’s mayoral election, oversaw the launch of those school reforms as the Chicago Public Schools’ Chief Executive Officer from 1995-2001.

In mid-March, Chicago education reporters, Sarah Karp of WBEZ, and Nader Issa and Lauren FitzPatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times, characterized the mayor’s race between, “Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, versus Brandon Johnson, a Chicago Teachers Union official. Vallas built a long career on pledges he could give children a better education by reforming low-performing schools in dramatic and controversial ways. Johnson has spent his time organizing around better support for students and targeting the conditions around them in neighborhoods, decrying drastic reforms as disruptive to relationships kids need to succeed.  At the heart of the argument is whether teachers and schools are primarily to blame for low performance or whether a lack of investment in schools and communities is the main driver.”

Since 2011, Brandon Johnson has served as an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union; he is also in his first term as a Cooke County Commissioner.  Before that, he earned a masters degree in education and taught social studies for several years to middle schoolers at Jenner Elementary beginning in 2007. When the school closed, he moved to a high school.

School decline accelerated in 2014, when Chicago adopted student based budgeting, which pushed many neighborhood schools into a downward enrollment cycle and further reduced services available in the schools in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.  Brandon Johnson has pledged to end that cycle.  For WBEZ, Nader Issa and Sarah Karp explain Johnson’s position on this issue: “Johnson… says he would… focus on beefing up traditional neighborhood schools in an effort to end the ‘Hunger Games scenario’ where kids ‘apply to access a quality school.’ That includes fully staffed special education departments, librarians, art and music teachers and nurses and social workers, he said.” “Johnson would rather the school district’s central office end per-pupil funding and guarantee a baseline of resources for every school… This would reduce the role enrollment plays in whether a school can afford staff and, he says, help ensure every neighborhood can offer a quality education. He would focus on addressing poverty and trauma.”

Vallas campaigned on more police to a quell a years-long rise in gun violence. By choosing Brandon Johnson in this election, the majority of Chicagoans voted for neighborhood repair instead of police crackdown. In his campaign Johnson stressed the need for strengthening essential community institutions including neighborhood schools, trauma intervention services for students and families,  and a collaboration with Cooke County to improve improve mental health services.

What did Chicago voters reject when they elected Brandon Johnson?

Paul Vallas was the efficiency-hawk technocrat brought in as Chief Executive Officer in 1995 to launch Mayor Richard M. Daley’s and the Illinois Legislature’s plan for the Chicago Public Schools—to be operated under the mayor and an appointed school board.  Karp, Issa, and FitzPatrick describe Vallas as “the ultimate technocrat… aiming to solve societal problems with a sort of scientific approach, and who, without degrees in education, asserted that low-performing schools either needed to change or students should be allowed to choose a new one.” “The state legislature had just given Daley control over the city’s schools and Vallas was the first non-educator to hold the school system’s top job. Vallas leaned on standardized testing and fired staff at so-called ‘failing’ schools while holding back underperforming students.  He promoted a system of choice, opening 18 new schools, several of them magnet and selective enrollment high schools seen as a way to keep the middle class in Chicago. And he opened the city’s first charter schools amid a national movement to offer alternatives to traditional public schools.”

Pauline Lipman, an education researcher at the University of Illinois, Chicago, reminds us that, “When test scores flattened in 2001, Vallas left.  But the system he set up of ranking and sorting schools based on an inappropriate use of standardized tests, and disregarding the historical disinvestment and racism schools had suffered, laid the foundation for almost 200 school closings and turn-arounds and the education market that followed. These school closings, 90 percent predominantly Black, devastated Black communities in particular.  Vallas’s (2023) electoral campaign focuses on fighting crime, but the disruptions from the school closings that were a major factor in the destabilization of Black communities can be traced back to Vallas’s reign at CPS.”

Vallas left Chicago in 2001 for a stint in the School District of Philadelphia, where he also opened charter schools, and, in 2007, he was brought in to New Orleans to manage the mass charterization of the public schools that had been launched in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. Lipman, Camika Royal at Loyola University Maryland, and Adrienne Dixson at the University of Kentucky conclude: “From Chicago, to Philadelphia, to New Orleans—three school districts serving primarily students of color—Paul Vallas left a trail of top-down, punitive, destabliizing and fiscally irresponsible policies. Our research… reveals that rather than ‘restoring broken education systems,’ Vallas has a pattern of leadership that demoralizes teachers and undermines public education.”

In a profound 2018 book,  Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of neighborhood schools for the communities they serve—something that Paul Vallas has always failed to grasp but Brandon Johnson made the center of his campaign. Ewing describes how the school reforms launched by Paul Vallas over time affected one Chicago South Side neighborhood: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”

Ewing continues, describing the huge wave of Chicago school closures in the two decades following Vallas’s technocratic makeover: “These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-159)

These are the very issues that were at stake the 2023 mayoral race in Chicago. The voters chose Brandon Johnson.


Can You Believe It? In Ohio, the Science of Reading Has Been Proposed as Part of the Governor’s Budget

The battle over the “science of reading” was formally launched a couple of weeks ago in Ohio as part of Governor Mike DeWine’s budget proposal. The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reports: “In introducing his two-year budget proposal late last month, DeWine planted his flag with the so-called ‘science of reading’ camp that requires students to break down words into parts and sound them out and incorporate phonics and vocabulary lessons. His budget proposal contains $162 million over the next two years to get the science of reading instructional approach into all of Ohio’s public schools.”

My biggest concern about the die-hard promoters of the “science of reading” is that they utterly neglect the role of experienced public school teachers. Lobbyists promote the idea that kids learn to read according to whatever reading program or curriculum their school district purchases. The politicians listen to the lobbyists instead of the teachers who have been trained to teach reading. It has become an ugly habit here in Ohio for our political leaders to disdain and blame teachers.

Both of my children experienced formal reading instruction in the first grade class of Marlene Karkoska in a public elementary school in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Miss Karkoska did include phonics in her reading instruction, but she also included lots of fun.  And in that elementary school, the students spent a period in the school library every week when Carol Lee May, a certified school librarian, read them books and helped them choose books that fed their own curiosity and interests. As students got older, there were also all-school reading projects like the time everybody read and talked about Brian Jacques’ Redwall fantasy adventure series. As a mom, I got tired of hearing about the villains in these novels—rats, foxes, ferrets, weasels, and stoats—but the students loved the suspense. My son and his friends spent a lot of time speculating about how the books would work out in the end, and at the same time they confronted a relatively advanced vocabulary. There was some phonics in the reading curriculum, but the rest of all this reading activity was led by teachers who knew how to motivate students to read and read some more.

In Ohio there has been considerable lobbying going on about Governor DeWine’s proposed new reading curriculum. The Plain Dealer‘s Hancock describes political pressure from Dee Bagwell Haslam, who with her husband, Jimmy, runs the Haslam Sports Group, “which owns the Cleveland Browns and Columbus Crew soccer team.” The Haslams “have given DeWine and (Lieutenant Governor) Husted’s campaign over $115,000 since 2017….” Dee Bagwell Haslam also serves on the board of Jeb Bush’s education think tank, ExcelinEd, which promotes not only the Science of Reading curriculum but also the Third-Grade-Reading Guarantee, which mandates holding kids back in third grade if they have not scored “proficient” on the state’s third-grade achievement test.  Last year, after the Ohio House voted 82-10 to stop the requirement that students be held back and the State Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution to end the Third Grade Guarantee, the Ohio Senate neglected to take up the bill, which died at the end of the legislative session.

Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd is by no means the only lobby behind such policies. The Thomas Fordham Institute, a prominent lobbyist at the Ohio Legislature, also promotes the science of reading. On Tuesday of last week, one of Fordham’s policy analysts, Jessica Poiner predicted what she believes is the policy the legislature will pass and pay for with the money in DeWine’s budget for the science of reading. I suspect that Poiner understands DeWine’s reading plan because the Fordham Institute may be the author of the plan.

Poiner explains: “DeWine has a three-step plan. First, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) will be charged with creating a list of high-quality core curriculum and instructional materials in English language arts, as well as a list of evidence-based reading intervention programs, that are aligned with the science of reading. Second, public schools will be required to use the materials and programs that appear on this list—and only those on the list—starting in the 2024–25 school year. Unless schools apply to ODE for a waiver (which they are permitted to do on an individual student basis in certain circumstances), they are forbidden from using any curriculum, materials, or reading intervention programs that utilize the three-cueing approach, which encourages students to make predictions and use context clues to identify words. Third, DeWine has pledged to provide funding to each school to pay for curriculum based on the science of reading.” (Underlining is mine.)

Poiner adds that DeWine has put enough money in his budget to pay for professional development and training to ensure that teachers know how to use the method he is imposing and to buy the “materials and programs” based on the “science of reading” approach.

I worry when politicians start prescribing policy based on campaigns by advocates who seek to promote their own theories and also to sell the programs and textbooks and materials they produce. Tom Ultican, a California teacher-blogger commented in December about the problem with this kind of partnership: “The Science of Reading movement is another example of oligarch spending diminishing professionalism in education. The combination of arrogance and too much money in a few hands is a disaster. It is probably true that many students with issues learning to read are not being well served, but turning to products from private companies to save the day is a mistake.”

Academic researchers recognize that helping children read is far more complex than buying a particular curriculum or set of materials.  In a brief prepared for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Furman University’s Paul Thomas summarizes the decades-long battle over the teaching of reading, and responds: “Scholars and literacy educators have… conducted extensive research…. In contrast to much of the public debate and policymaking, these researchers have found reading instruction and learning to be complex…. Overall, this robust research base supports policies and approaches that acknowledge a range of individual student needs and that argue against ‘one-size-fits-all’ prescriptions…  Among literacy educators and scholars, then, important reading debates continue but… without any identified silver-bullet solutions. The public debate is different. Since 2018, the phrase ‘science of reading’ has been popularized as loosely defined shorthand for the broad and complex research base characterizing how children learn to read and how best to teach reading. Simplifying the issue for the public and for political readers, and failing to acknowledge the full complement of research findings, prominent members of the education media have used the term… often as pro-phonics versus no phonics. Various types of vendors have also found the shorthand term ‘science of reading’ highly useful in branding and marketing specific phonics-oriented reading and literacy programs.”

Thomas recommends that policymakers “end narrowly prescriptive non-research-based policies and programs such as grade retention based on reading performance, high-stakes reading testing at Grade 3, mandates and bans that require or prohibit specific instructional practices, (and) ‘a one-size-fits all’ approach to dyslexia and struggling readers.”

Last week, progressive educator Steve Nelson published a wonderful blog post on the latest battle in the reading wars: “(S)eparating whole language from phonics is pointless. Reading is both things… Poor children in the United States have far fewer books…. Then they go to schools, often hungry, with unwieldy class size…. One unsurprising study about superior literacy levels in Finland mentioned class sizes as small as 8-10 compared to 30-40 in many urban American schools.”

Nelson concludes: “And we have a phonics problem? In many ways, we are a failing society. Income, wealth and opportunity are increasingly inequitably distributed. Education is the secret to upward mobility, most politicians claim. Then they bash teachers, cut budgets, and support charter and voucher schemes that further exacerbate inequality. We don’t have a phonics problem. We have racism/poverty/equity problems and we won’t solve our literacy woes until we honestly address those issues.”

The Plain Dealer‘s Hancock quotes the President of the Ohio Education Association, Scott DiMauro in what seems the most sensible response to Governor DeWine’s fixation on the science of reading: “Things tend to be dramatically oversimplified for political purposes… I don’t know of any teachers who are 100% pro-phonics or anti-phonics, pro whole language or anti whole language… I think the evidence is there are a whole lot of components of reading instruction that are all important in order to help students, and we’ve got to trust teachers to use their expertise to identify the specific needs of the students they serve.”

Advocates Who Want to Protect Ohio’s Public Schools This Year Must Pursue Three Priorities

On Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, the powerful Ohio Senate Education Committee held its first meeting in the new session of the Ohio Legislature.  In upcoming months, as the Legislature develops the next biennial state budget to be enacted by June 30, 2023, parents, educators, and citizens who care about the common good must pressure the Legislature to support the needs of Ohio’s public schools. Securing the needs of Ohio’s students in public schools will be a heavy lift in a legislature dominated by a conservative Republican supermajority.

The public schools, which serve 1.7 million of our children, don’t seem to be what’s on the minds of Ohio’s legislative leaders right now. Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee agenda featured two primary topics: Senate Bill 1, recently reintroduced to eviscerate the State Board of Education, and Senate Bill 11, a vast expansion of the state’s EdChoice private school voucher program.

Those who support Ohio’s public schools must focus on three priorities: (1) advocating for the full phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan which was embedded in the biennial budget in June of 2021 but never established in a stand-alone law; (2) opposing the vast expansion of EdChoice private school tuition vouchers; and (3) opposing the Legislature’s plan to politicize the Ohio State Board of Education by eviscerating its primary functions and moving them into a cabinet Department of Education and the Workforce under the political control of the governor.

Advocates Must Press for the Full Phase-in of the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan in the FY 2024-2025 State Budget.

Two years ago, the Ohio Legislature began implementing a new “Fair School Funding Plan.” The new formula had been carefully designed over three years to fund the state’s public schools adequately and to distribute state funding equitably to ensure that students in poor as well as wealthy communities can thrive academically. Ohio’s school funding had been deemed unconstitutional over 25 years ago in DeRolph v. Ohio, when the school funding formula was deemed overly reliant on local property taxes.  The new Fair School Funding Plan, launched two years ago and based on funding the per-pupil cost of essential services needed by our state’s typical student and adjusted to add categorical funds to support services for students with special needs, was designed to be phased in over six years—three three biennial budgets.

However, the Legislature failed to establish the Fair School Funding Plan in a stand-alone law. It would be unfair, Senate President Matt Huffman said, to tie the hands of future legislatures because nobody can predict the economic constraints on future revenues. In June of 2021, the Legislature did basically fund the first two years of the Fair Funding Plan. Now in 2023, the Legislature needs to add funding for the second step. Right now, Ohio has the two year beginning of a Fair School Funding Plan, but no promise that the legislature will continue funding the full phase-in.

The Legislature also needs to correct one flaw.  Lawmakers neglected to conduct a promised cost study to evaluate the needs of school districts serving many children in poverty, and they began the phase-in of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid at a much slower rate than their phase-in of the rest of the plan. It is the responsibility of the current Legislature to correct those serious problems.

Continued phase-in of the Fair School Funding plan is not a sure thing. The Ohio Capital Journal’s Susan Tebben reports that Governor DeWine highlighted the Fair School Funding Plan among his budget priorities last week: “DeWine mentioned the plan in his speech, saying it should be funded, but Democrats are unsure what Republicans’ plans are for the third year of the six-year phase-in designed in the plan. The plan has only been funded for two years so far, because (Senate President, Matt) Huffman refused to assign funding priorities to future general assemblies.”

After the Governor presented his budget priorities, the Columbus Dispatch‘s Haley BeMiller and Anna Staver added: “Huffman… expressed skepticism about DeWine’s plan to fund schools. ‘The same concerns I mentioned when we passed the budget two years ago are still in place,’ he said.”

Advocates Must Vociferously Oppose Senate Bill 11, Yet Another Expensive Expansion of EdChoice Vouchers.

While Senate President Matt Huffman seems anxious about the expense of fairly funding the public schools, Huffman doesn’t seem a bit worried about the fiscal viability of a huge expansion of the EdChoice voucher program, now introduced as Senate Bill 11.  The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock explains that right now under the current EdChioce program, “Families are eligible for EdChoice scholarships by either living in the boundaries of a low-performing school or by household income. Currently a family of four can qualify for state money if the household income is at or below $69,375, or 250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines…” Under the proposed SB 11, “The limit would increase to 400% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, which would be $111,000 for a family of four….”

Most people worry that a huge expansion of the number of students taking EdChoice vouchers out of the school foundation budget will radically reduce funding for the state’s public schools. Instead Senate President Huffman argues that the expansion of vouchers will save money for the public schools. Hancock quotes Huffman enthusing that: “(I)ncreasing vouchers up to 400% of the federal poverty line covers most of the state’s residents… ‘Although it’s not a universal voucher, it practically speaking, is in many regards.'” Using specious math that fails to reflect the complex school funding formula, which distributes state funding to compensate for disparities in taxable property and aggregate family income from school district to school district, Huffman went so far as to claim: “As vouchers are expanded there’s more money available for public schools…”  Certainly Huffman is also ignoring that during the history of the EdChoice program, the majority of EdChoice vouchers have always been taken by families whose children already attend private schools. Assuming that trend would continue and more students already in private schools opt to take a voucher as a new entitlement, experts warn that Huffman’s defense of vouchers as a way to save money for public schools is an absurd argument.

Advocates Must Oppose Senate Bill 1 to Eviscerate the State Board of Education and Move Most of Its Responsibilities to a Department of Education and the Workforce under the Control of Governor.

Efforts to politicize the Ohio State Board of Education culminated in December when the Legislature came close to passing Senate Bill 178. (See here.) The effort collapsed in the final hours of the legislative session, but the bill was reintroduced immediately in January as Senate Bill 1.  The Ohio Capital Journal’s Susan Tebben describes the discussion of SB 1 at this week’s first meeting of the new session’s, Senate Education Committee: “Workforce development components of a bill to overhaul education in Ohio by taking power from the state school board and putting it under the governor’s office were applauded by supporters in an Ohio Senate committee Tuesday. Supporters ranged from businesses to career centers to the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, all of whom spoke out at the Senate Education Committee about the progress they believe the bill would make in developing workforce talent in the state, rather than bringing in employees from other states and countries.”

Tebben quotes Senator Bill Reineke describing bill he has introduced: “The bill’s focus is still the same: to improve academic and workforce skills to drive better accountability and outcomes for our kids’ education and career readiness.”  Tebben also quotes Reineke explaining that the bill also will, “guarantee homeschooling families the ability to home-educate their child by exempting a child from compulsory school attendance when that child is receiving instruction in core subject areas from their parents.”  She points to the irony that Reineke’s defense of homeschooling in Ohio “comes amid a new investigation by the Department of Education into what’s been reported as a pro-Nazi homeschooling network run by a couple from Upper Sandusky.”

As I listened to a December hearings on Senate Bill 1’s predecessor, SB 178 intended to reduce the power of Ohio’s state board of education, I heard the members of the committee frame their arguments about test-based accountability and expanding the workforce—abstract concepts that have little to do with education practice—which is the purview of the State Board. I listened to politicians discuss standardized test scores—numbers, percentages, and supposed trends measured by the numbers. The conversation did not once connect to what happens in a public elementary school classroom or in a comprehensive public high school. I listened to an ideological debate with little connection to the role of the State Board of Education, which is to shape education practice.

This year as Ohio’s law makers attempt once again to politicize the State Board of Education, advocates should demand that legislators attend to their own responsibility for education policy. The first step would be fully phasing in the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan as the Legislature drafts the FY 2024-2025 state budget, a phase-in that must include promised dollars for Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid.  A second step would be avoiding the catastrophic cost of a massive expansion of private school tuition vouchers. Finally, the Legislature should allow the State Board of Education, with several enthusiastic and well qualified new members elected in November, to get on with its work.

The Three Most Serious Problems for U.S. Public Education in 2023

The new year is a good time to stop and consider where our society stands in terms of its public priorities. During the first week of 2023, this blog will consider three overall problems of federal public education policy that undermine our public schools, their teachers, and our children. On Thursday, the topic will be serious concerns at the state level, with a focus on my state, Ohio.

In a wonderful post last week at Curmuducation, Peter Greene examined 11 different conditions that imperil public schooling as we begin 2023. Two of the threats to public schooling he identifies in the past year rise to a level of importance above all the others: “the Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” and “High Stakes Testing.”

I agree with Greene’s assessment, with one difference: He traces the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” in 2023 to the culture warriors who attack the teaching of so-called critical race theory, who won’t let teachers say “gay,” and who think teachers are somehow grooming children.  He’s right about that, but I think we should also remember that the culture war attacks are merely the most recent strand of a four-decades long attack that began in 1983 with the Ronald Reagan-era, A Nation at Risk report, which blamed the public schools for undermining America’s position in the world.

So… what do I believe are the three greatest perils facing public schooling as we begin 2023?

Peril #1: “High Stakes Testing” and the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement ” are together being used to discredit America’s system of public education.

In 2001, Congress prescribed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as the cure for A Nation at Risk‘s diagnosis of “failing” public schools. NCLB brought us high stakes school accountability as embodied in annual standardized testing along with punishments for the schools unable to raise test scores every year. The 2001, NCLB “solution” to our “failing” public schools was, of course, what Peter Greene calls this year’s second huge threat: “High Stakes Testing.” We need to remember that high states standardized testing is very much still with us. For decades now the press and the testing companies and the accountability hawks have bombarded society with the message that standardized test scores must stay on a perpetual upward trajectory. Even when a worldwide pandemic and consequent school closures temporarily disrupted the trajectory of ever rising scores, many people, therefore, came to fear that our children have “lost decades of improvement.”

But the damage of the annual high-stakes testing is deeper and more insidious in all the ways the testing undermines and discredits our public system of education.  Testing, with all of the drilling and narrowing what’s being taught, has undermined teaching. In NCLB, Congress also tied scores to teacher evaluation in a way that was shown to be unreliable. The federal government imposed sanctions like school reconstitution and mandatory charterization on public schools which struggled to raise scores. Thousands of students have been held back in third grade based on one test score even though there is evidence that being held back even once increases the probability that a student will drop out of school before graduating.  In the minds of the public, test scores now measure the quality of the school, the quality of the teachers, and the quality of each school district as the place to invest in a house. States are still required by the federal government to rank and rate the schools and to create school report cards that are published in the newspaper.

While some of the history of No Child Left Behind school accountability has faded in our memories, the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” is on a many levels still driven and entangled with “High Stakes Testing.”  And this year, as high stakes testing continues to undermine confidence in our schools and as the culture warriors and parents’ rights advocates clamor to discredit teachers, state legislators are feeling empowered to listen as EdChoice and the Heritage Foundation and the Goldwater Institute pressure them to redirect desperately needed tax dollars to privatized alternatives by growing voucher programs and expanding charter schools.

In the midst of all the controversy as we begin 2023, we’ve forgotten about a second peril.  This one is not part of Peter Greene’s list.

Peril #2:  Public Schools Across the United States remain alarmingly unequal.

First Focus on Children just released a new report: Big Ideas 2023, whose first chapter by constitutional scholar and author of Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black proclaims the importance of Reclaiming the Federal Role in Education: educational equity. Black reminds us that much of today’s conversation about public schooling seems to have drifted away from the goals of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act and one of the Department of Education’s primary programs, Title I:

“On most major measures, educational inequality is holding steady or on the rise. Achievement, segregation, and funding data all indicate that poor and minority students are receiving vastly unequal educational opportunities. For instance, predominantly minority schools receive about $2,000 less per student than predominantly white schools.  Even putting aside this inequality, overall government commitment to public education is receding. Since 2008, most states have substantially decreased school funding, some by more than 20%. The federal government has done little to stem the decline. Most disturbing, some states are currently taking steps to amend their state constitutions and make cuts to education even easier.”

Black explains that in 2015, Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act, but he adds that in the 2015 version Congress did not improve the federal education law: “Congress simply stripped the federal government of regulatory power and vastly expanded state discretion. For the first time in 50 years, the federal government now lacks the ability to make prompt improvements in student achievement or to demand equal resources for low-income students… Congress can realign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act… with its historic mission of improving academic achievement and equity for low-income students, but it should also enact better mechanisms to achieve those goals. First, ESEA must increase federal investment in education. An increased federal investment is also necessary if states are to accept the second step: strict prohibitions on the unequal distribution of educational resources by states. The final step is to expand preschool education to all low-income students—a goal the Department of Education has pushed in recent years, but which states seemingly lack the capacity to reach alone.”

Derek Black reminds us that there is an urgent need for the federal government to reclaim and act on its traditional role as the guarantor of educational equity.  But equity cannot be achieved  by schools alone, which brings us to the third peril.

Peril #3: In 2022, Congress chose not to ameliorate child poverty.

Over a decade ago in a 2009 report, Lost Opportunity, the Schott Foundation for Public Education made a stunning effort to redefine what No Child Left Behind called “achievement gaps” and to shift our nation’s goal to closing children’s “opportunity gaps” not only at school but also in the whole of their lives.  What are all the factors that affect a child’s “Opportunity to Learn”?  Research demonstrates that child poverty itself creates perhaps the most serious of our society’s opportunity gaps.

Here is David Berliner, a retired professor of education and the former president of the American Educational Research Association: “(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.”

Professor of education at the University of Colorado and director of the National Education Policy Center, Kevin Welner adds: “Can schools balance our societal inequality? If that inequality is left unaddressed, along with the harm it does to children, can policymakers reasonably expect an outcome of rough equality through focusing instead on building a dazzling public school system…?” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

While in 2021, as part of the American Rescue COVID relief bill, Congress temporarily expanded the Child Tax Credit, the expansion ended at the beginning of 2022. Then, last fall (2022) it appeared there was a chance that Congress would, as part of the year-end omnibus budget act, make the Child Tax Credit fully refundable, but the moment has now passed.

Writing for The New Republic, Grace Segers recounts what happened: “The implementation of the expanded child tax credit was akin to a social experiment in real time, with almost immediate results. During the six months it was in effect, the credit reached more than 60 million children in 36 million households. Due in large part to the expanded child tax credit, child poverty was cut nearly in half in 2021 compared to 2022, according to the Census Bureau. Food insufficiency also decreased significantly among families with children, dropping from a rate of 11 percent to 8.4 percent after the first monthly payment was distributed in July 2021.”

Segers continues: “The results of the credit’s expiration were as immediate as those of its implementation. January 2022 saw 3.7 million more children fall beneath the poverty line compared ‘to December 2021. That increase was particularly dramatic for Black and Latino children. Following the end of the expanded child tax credit, there was a 28 percent increase in the child poverty rate for Black children, and a 40 percent increase in the child poverty rate for Latino children from December 2021 to February 2022. The expiration of the expanded credit was also associated with a 25 percent increase in food insufficiency for families with children.”

Segers concludes that as the new Congress gets underway in January 2023 the chance for expanding the Child Tax Credit in the next couple of years is likely gone: “With Republicans taking control of the House in January, these final weeks of the year represented the last chance for the foreseeable future for the Democratic majority in both houses to reinstate the credit.”

With both chambers of Congress last year majority Democrat, 2022 was also probably the end of any chance in the immediate future to reduce reliance on mandated standardized testing accompanied by all of the high-stakes punishments for public schools or to shift attention back to the traditional role of the Department of Education—promoting educational equity at the federal level and incentivizing states to equalize their educational investment.

Like Peter Greene, I believe there are major threats to public schooling as we begin 2023. In this time when Congressional action is unlikely, the questions for those of us who support public education are:

  • how to keep on pushing to clear out the awful lingering policy around test-based school accountability;
  • how to keep on pushing back against widespread attacks on public education itself; and
  • how to keep on speaking for the needs of our society’s poorest children as well as for the needs of their public schools.

We need to remember the importance of protecting public education—our nation’s system of publicly funded, universally available, and publicly accountable schools. Public schools are the optimal institution for balancing the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students.

Did Children’s Economic Conditions During the COVID- 19 Pandemic Affect Overall NAEP Scores?

Around the same time as the very low, COVID-driven, 2022 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released last week, Advocates for Children of New York published another shocking statistic: “The 2021-2022 school year marked the seventh consecutive year in which more than 100,000 New York City public school students experienced homelessness, a crisis which has now persisted through two Mayoral administrations and four school Chancellors. Even as total enrollment in City schools fell last year, the number of students identified as homeless increased by 3.3%, rising from 101,000 to 104,000.”

This blog will take a one-week fall break.  Look for a new post on November 10.

Last week’s NAEP scores showed that, across the United States, the most vulnerable and already low-achieving students experienced the biggest drops. Certainly that shouldn’t be surprising. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reported: “A survey conducted alongside the tests found that students with higher test scores had more access to supports while they were in remote learning. Top-performing eighth-graders were more likely than those at the bottom to have a desktop computer, laptop or tablet at all times; to have a quiet place to work at least some of the time; to have a teacher available every week to help; and to participate in real-time online lessons with their teacher every day or almost every day.”

New York’s statistics about student homelessness embody the most extreme case in the United States of school disruption during the pandemic, but what they expose is nonetheless significant more generally. Poverty impairs students’ access to schooling.

The NY TimesTroy Closson details the reality of student homelessness in NYC: “About 30,000 (students) lived in shelters. But about 69,000 were doubled up with other families and 5,500 other young people lived in cars, parks, or abandoned buildings, meaning they were likely to have less access to social services and other supports provided in the shelter system.” “The city is grappling with how to help its most vulnerable children recover from pandemic learning losses, while also integrating the more than 6,000 additional homeless (migrant) students who have enrolled in city schools over the past four months.”

In the case of New York City’s homeless children, school can be the most stabilizing institution in their lives, but the COVID disruption only compounded their problems. Closson explains: “Many students living in temporary housing struggled with staggering educational challenges during the pandemic, as they often could no longer rely on school buildings for crucial services like counseling. Some attended classes remotely from shelters that lacked reliable internet access. More than six in 10 homeless children living in shelters were defined as ‘chronically absent’ last year, which means they missed at least 10 percent of school days, more than double the rate of their peers in permanent housing. Even during more normal times, homeless students often face disruption, sometimes commuting long distances to their schools and transferring to new ones as they bounce between living situations, even though a federal law gives them the right to remain in the same school when they move. The regular upheaval hurts their academic performance. Only 60 percent of homeless high school students living in shelters graduate in four years. Their high school dropout rate is three times higher than that of students in stable housing.”

Of course, not all of the NAEP’s low-scoring students across the United States are homeless. The problem of student homelessness is acute in the nation’s biggest and most expensive metropolitan areas. Closson puts NYC’s vast student homelessness in some perspective: “While other large cities have similar rates of homelessness among students—in Los Angeles, for example, it is 11 percent—New York City’s vast size puts the problem on a different scale.”  First Focus on Children reports that, “In 2020, more than 1.2 million U.S. students were experiencing homelessness.”

The problems with digital access that faced NYC’s homeless children also affected a much larger and more broadly distributed group of children during the pandemic when most school systems shut town for periods of weeks or months or put students on hybrid in-person/remote schedules. Last April, after virtually all U.S. schools had reopened again full time, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss looked back at the stresses that had disrupted schooling.  She reported: (S)chool districts bought computers and other devices for families without them and arranged for low-cost internet service. But in 2021, a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults found the digital divide remained stubborn:  ‘The digital lives of Americans with lower and higher incomes remain markedly different…. In fact, the shares of Americans in each income tier who have home broadband or a smartphone have not significantly changed from 2019 to 2021.’  Forty-three percent of adults with lower incomes said they had no home broadband services, and 41 percent said they had no desktop or laptop computer. In households earning $100,000 or more a year, these were nearly universal. Low income families rely largely on smartphones to perform tasks ‘traditionally reserved for larger screens,’  the survey said. Students trying to do their schoolwork on a smartphone are certainly at a disadvantage to those who have larger screens.”

Last April, Strauss considered the lessons learned from the pandemic: “(F)or anybody paying the slightest bit of attention there is nothing on the list of pandemic school ‘lessons’ that we didn’t already know before COVID-19—and for a long, long time.  Ask any teacher—and there are at least 3 million full-time educators—and the vast majority will tell you that teaching and learning works better for most kids in person.”

Again last week when the 2022 NAEP scores were released, Strauss reminded us about the lessons we should already have learned: “After several years of a pandemic that upended schooling for millions of children, standardized test scores are coming back and the results are—can you guess?—bad. In most places, really bad, meaning much lower than before the pandemic. That’s what we just learned from the newly released results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which have sparked a tsunami of alarmed responses… A wake up call? Did we really need millions of dollars worth of standardized test scores to reveal that students were badly impacted by the pandemic? Ask most teachers and they can give you a clear picture of the achievement of their students without a standardized test. The thing is that in the United States, teachers don’t get asked much about education when key decisions are being made about teaching and learning.”

Ohio Senate Should End Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee by Passing HB 497

In June, the Ohio House of Representatives passed House Bill 497 by a margin of 82-10, thereby launching an effort in the current legislative session to end Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee.  It is urgently important that the Ohio Senate take up and pass House Bill 497 before the end of this year’s legislative session, or the House version will expire.

The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Chantal Brown reports that the Ohio Education Association has made lobbying for passage of HB 497 a top priority this fall, and the Ohio State Board of Education has been considering a resolution recommending the elimination of the Third Grade Guarantee.

Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee, enacted by the legislature in 2012 and implemented beginning in the 2013-2014 school year, requires that students who do not score “proficient” on the state’s third grade reading test must be retained for another year in third grade. Brown reports that,”Ohio has retained around 3,628 students per year.”

Jeb Bush and his ExcelInEd Foundation have been dogged promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee, but last May, the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver traced 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.’”

But it turns out that promoters of the Third-Grade Guarantee ignored other research showing that when students are held back—in any grade—they are more likely later to drop out of school before they graduate from high school.  In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney reported: “Half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

Why does holding children back make them more likely to drop out later? In their book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass explain the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems…Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” Berliner and Glass continue: “Researchers have estimated that students who have repeated a grade once are 20-30% more likely to drop out of school than students of equal ability who were promoted along with their age mates. There is almost a 100% chance that students retained twice will drop out before completing high school.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 96-97)

In a recent report examining the impact of Third-Grade Guarantee legislation across the states, Furman University’s Paul Thomas explains that short term gains in reading scores after students are held back are likely to fade out in subsequent years as students move into the upper elementary and middle school years. But, Thomas quotes the National Council of Teachers of English on how the lingering emotional scars from “flunking a grade” linger: “Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • “retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • “basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • “retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.”

Here is what Thomas recommends instead: “States must absolutely respond to valid concerns about reading achievement by parents and other advocates; however, the historical and current policies and reforms have continued to fail students and not to achieve goals of higher and earlier reading proficiency by students, especially the most vulnerable students who struggle to read.” Specifically, Thomas urges policymakers to eliminate: “high-stakes policies (retention) around a single grade (3rd) and create a more nuanced monitoring process around a range of grades (3rd-5th) based on a diverse body of evidence (testing, teacher assessments, parental input)…. Remove punitive policies that label students and create policies that empower teachers and parents to provide instruction and support based on individual student needs.”

Last May, the Akron Beacon Journal Editorial Board pressed Ohio’s House to pass HB 497: “Unfortunately, the policy of holding struggling readers back in third grade shows that an aggressive tactic can create unintended consequences… Some 39,000 children have failed the statewide reading test since 2014, with most being forced to repeat third grade…. Politicians 10 years ago clearly overstepped in setting up this requirement. They apparently didn’t listen closely to educators who know that children feel stigmatized by being held back, and as Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro told a reporter, can come to hate reading.”

I urge the Ohio State Board of Education to pass the resolution its members have been considering to condemn the Third Grade Guarantee.  And when the Ohio Senate convenes again in a lame duck, post-election session, the Senate leadership should promptly bring House Bill 497 to the floor for passage.

Continued Misuse of Test Score Data to Rate and Rank Schools

Zachary Smith, the Plain Dealer‘s current data wonk, just published another article ranking Ohio’s schools, Ranking Ohio Public High Schools from 1 to 823, based on Ohio’s 2022 state school report card’s Performance Index.  A few weeks ago he ranked all of the state’s school districts by the same Performance Index.

Ohio released its annual state school report cards in mid-September and changed its ratings from A-F to a five star system.  At the time, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported that because the state’s schools were dealing with COVID all of last year and the federal government, therefore, eliminated demands for school improvement plans, the state would not calculate an overall summative rating for schools and school districts: “This year the Ohio Department of Education is not offering an overall rating for each school and district, due to the reprieve on sanctions. In future years, there will be an overall star rating.”

This year the stars were awarded in five categories: Achievement, Early Literacy, Graduation Rate, Progress, and Gap Closing.  A new category was added, “College, Career, Workforce and Military Readiness,” but there was were no stars assigned this year in this area due to ongoing COVID recovery.

While the state did not assign any overall summative grade for schools and school districts this year, reporter Zachary Smith discovered—in the state’s description of the category of “Achievement”what he considers an overall way to rank the state’s schools. In its description of measuring Achievement,  the state lists a “Performance Index” number for each school and school district.  The state says it calculates the Performance Index based primarily on aggregate standardized test scores: “The Achievement component represents the number of students who passed the state tests and how well they performed on them. This component includes three additional performance indicators —the Chronic Absenteeism Improvement Indicator, End-of-Course Improvement Indicator and Gifted Indicator.” Based on Performance Index scores, Smith and the Plain Dealer have been ranking the state’s school districts and high schools.

The problem is that test scores are known to reflect a community’s family economics more than they measure the quality of a school or school district. I wish Smith would go back a couple of years to look at Rich Exner’s profound 2019 Plain Dealer article on Ohio’s school report cards. See How Closely Ohio School Report Card Grades Trend with District Income. Here is an example of one of Exner’s bar graphs, which profoundly depict the story.

Two weeks ago, Jack Schneider, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and Joel Boyd, the superintendent of the Lowell Public Schools, explained that the correlation of standardized test scores with family income has been an issue from state to state through the past two decades since No Child Left Behind thrust us into school accountability based on standardized test scores: “As research indicates, test scores are highly indicative of the inequalities that afflict our communities, and are not a valid basis for determinations about overall school performance… Scholars have repeatedly shown (that) the leading predictors of student standardized test scores are demographic variables like family income and parental educational attainment.”

Schneider and Boyd show how test scores this year particularly are likely to reflect the disparate economic realities for families during the COVID pandemic: “Imagine that in one school community, students were insulated from the worst effects of the pandemic. Parents were able to work from home, oversee remote schooling, and offer additional support. Young people felt safe, and their families remained intact. Family resources were deployed for educational purposes and enrichment. The pandemic was a challenge, but one that was mitigated to a significant degree.  In the other school community, students felt the effects of the pandemic acutely. Family members became sick, were hospitalized, and may have even died.  Working in so-called essential fields drew caregivers away from home during the day. Internet was often slow and unreliable, and students competed for quiet space with siblings. Young people felt vulnerable, frightened, and isolated.”

The No Child Left Behind Act, formulated in 2001 and signed into law on January 8, 2002, restructured public education by demanding quantitative, standardized-test-based school accountability and by using sanctions to punish the public schools struggling to raise aggregate scores.  Gail Sunderman was one of NCLB’s early critics as the lead author of NCLB Meets School Realities, published for the Harvard Civil Rights Project in 2005, in collaboration with James Kim and Gary Orfield. Sunderman is now a research scientist in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Research and director of the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

Sunderman reminds readers that No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, but the new law still requires states to rate their schools and put the lowest scoring schools on corrective action plans. Here are Sunderman’s concerns today about the damage wrought by state school rankings: “There’s… evidence that state school rating systems often reflect personal and ideological preferences of state leaders… States with a more liberal orientation… are more likely to incorporate indicators related to school quality and indicators of student success, such as growth measures, while states with a more conservative leaning maintain a focus on student test scores…  While school rating systems may be a practical means to a political end, their educational value is questionable. Despite the proliferation of school rating systems, there is very little peer-reviewed, empirical research on their effects on student performance, and school and teacher practices…  Summative ratings also tend to obscure the well-documented relationship between student achievement scores and demographic variables, most notably race and socioeconomic status. An analysis of the Maryland five-star rating system, for instance, examined why no high-poverty schools earned a five-star rating, but when the researchers adjusted ratings to account for economic disadvantage, the number of five-star schools increased.”

Sunderman concludes: This inability of summative school ratings to distinguish school performance from student demographic variances disproportionately harms schools serving marginalized children and inflates the quality of schools serving wealthy and white students.”

This blog previously covered Ohio’s 2022 school ratings here.

New Ohio School Report Cards Rate Schools on 5-Star System Instead of Letter Grades, But the Results Still Fail to Recognize What Schools Do

In mid-August, this blog posed the following question: “How has standardized, test-based school accountability changed the way we understand public schooling?” Here is how that post answered the question: “The most basic critique of accountability-based school reform is that its frame is entirely quantitative. School accountability based solely on aggregate standardized test scores fails to measure the qualitative process of education as experienced by students and practiced by teachers.”

Despite the growing critique of high stakes, test-based school accountability, the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, requires states to rate their schools and intervene in the schools where aggregate student test scores have not risen significantly.  For years, Ohio has assigned “A” through “F” letter grades for each school and school district, based primarily on standardized test scores.  Last Thursday, however, Ohio released a new state report card evaluating each of the state’s 610 school districts and each individual public school by substituting a five-star system for the letter grades.

Because the U.S. Department of Education has relaxed—during and immediately following the pandemic—the demand that states develop correction plans to turn around the lowest scoring schools, Ohio will grant schools another year of the pandemic-driven reprieve on the imposition of state-imposed improvement plans. Neither will the state aggregate the school ratings into one overall summative score for each school and school district during this year. The Plain Dealer’s Laura Hancock reports, “This year the Ohio Department of Education is not offering an overall rating for each school and district, due to the reprieve on sanctions. In future years, there will be an overall star rating.”

A new five-star rating system is the key change this year. Ohio has rated schools with up to five stars in six categories.  According to Hancock, “The Ohio Department of Education created a 17-page guide to understanding the report cards, which shows how stars will be used….”  Here are the six categories on which schools are being rated and the method for computing the rating, according to Hancock:

  • “Achievement: This component represents whether student performance on state tests met previously established thresholds. It also considers how well students performed on tests overall…
  • “Early Literacy: This area measures reading improvement and overall proficiency scores for students in kindergarten through third grade.
  • “Graduation: This measurement looks at the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate and the five-year cohort graduation rate…
  • “Progress: This measurement looks at the growth students are making based on their past performances…
  • “Gap Closing: This component measures the reduction in educational gaps for student subgroups based on income, race, ethnicity, or disability.
  • “College, Career, Workforce and Military Readiness: This component looks at how well prepared Ohio’s students are for future opportunities, whether training in a technical field or preparing for work or college. This is a relatively new measurement and the full data won’t be completely reported until the 2024-2025 school year. There also won’t be a star ranking for this area.”

In its new rating system, the Ohio Department of Education leaves in place a system based on the assumption that school quality can be measured accurately and summarized with a quantitative methodology. Interestingly, four of the six categories in Ohio’s new system depend on a school’s or a school district’s aggregate test scores, which have for years been highly correlated with a school population’s overall family income. The new five-star method is assumed to be better than the assignment of letter grades even in our age of emojis, where people are quite comfortable with inferring a clear meaning from a visual display of symbols like stars.

A serious problem with the new ratings is that it is utterly unclear whether and how the ratings in any way measure what educators are doing differently from district to district. I looked at the 17-page guide to interpreting the scores.  In the section describing the “Early Literacy” measure, the guide explains: “The Early Literacy Component measures reading improvement and proficiency for students in kindergarten through third grade.”  It is based on students’ third-grade “Language Arts Proficiency” test score, how many students are promoted to fourth grade, and “two consecutive years of data to evaluate how well schools and districts are doing at providing supports needed to help struggling readers become on track with their reading.”

The 17-page guide does not acknowledge the research of Sean Reardon, the Stanford University educational sociologist, who comments on the opportunity gaps that come to school with children as they enter Kindergarten: “We examine… test score gaps because they reflect… differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… (D)ifferences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

There is nothing in the guide to the Early Literacy measure on the new Ohio State School Report Card that acknowledges the early gaps in preparation for reading that children present as they enter Kindergarten. Surely the new Ohio School Report Card’s Early Literacy measure is as much a measure of young children’s experiences outside of school—parents who read with them, and exposure to enriched child care, Pre-Kindergarten, and public library story hours—as it may be to their in-school experiences before they take the third-grade Language Arts Proficiency test that is so key to this measurement.

There are several reasons the Ohio Department of Education chose not to create one overall summative rating for each school and school district this year. The pandemic affected school districts differently with some districts forced to use more online services during COVID-19 upswings and with widely disparate access to the internet and home computers among the state’s children.  State officials imply that they want this year’s five star ratings to be a helpful guide for school districts. But a reporter, grasping the public’s hunger for comparisons, found a way to rank the districts in order merely by adding up each district’s total number of stars and publishing the state’s school districts in order from top to bottom.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter begins his report: “While the new Ohio school report card gives a star rating to various performance categories, there is no overall performance grade assigned for this year. So calculated the total score for all 607 districts… to show which schools scored the best across the board.”

I predict that, even without assigning an overall letter grade for schools and school districts, Ohio’s new, much touted five-star rating system will continue to promote educational redlining across Ohio’s metropolitan school districts.  Prospective home buyers will read the five-star system the same way they have been reading the “A” through “F” letter grade school district rating system. They will continue to want to live in the school districts with the most stars, and the system will, thereby, exacerbate economic and racial segregation as people who can afford it continue to move to pockets of privilege in exurbia. After all, in a follow-up report, the Plain Dealer‘s Jeremy Pelzer notes that “‘suburban, higher-income districts in Northeast Ohio and around the state, not surprisingly, generally received higher report-card ratings…. A dozen school districts in Ohio received perfect scores across the board, including four in Northeast Ohio: Aurora City School District, Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools, Highland Local Schools in Medina County, and Solon City Schools.”  All are higher-income exurbs.

Ohio’s new school rating system appeared just a week after the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published an overall critique of school accountability as measured quantitatively primarily by a district’s aggregate standardized test scores.  Strauss reminds readers that, “For several decades now, education policymakers have been obsessed with data-driven accountability—usually with standardized test scores as the key metric. The approach has failed to achieve any of the goals supporters have championed, such as closing the achievement gap, and has instead brought us things like pep rallies to get students excited to take standardized tests and methods to evaluate teachers based on the scores.”

Strauss publishes a piece written by two Northwestern University researchers, both sociologists, who have been evaluating our society’s obsession with ranking and rating.  Simone Ispa-Landa and Wendy Espeland declare: “We are a nation obsessed with lists and rankings, not just for dishwashers and other consumer products. We track our steps, rate our sleep, and go to hospitals with the ‘best ratings.’… In our research, we find that, across institutions, school leaders are pressured to devote enormous time and energy to ‘improving the numbers,’ even when this comes at the expense of making changes that, in private, they acknowledge would be far more impactful for students. Because rankings and other measures change how school leaders do their work and make decisions, current accountability policies have far-reaching implications for school discipline and student mental health at a moment of intense national crisis in child and youth well-being… We should acknowledge that one-size-fits-all metrics do not fairly measure what matters most in many schools…. We should reward schools for innovation, for creating programs that will take time to evaluate. Simple numbers promote simple solutions and can prevent promising programs with long-term positive implications from taking root. Before we head into another school year, let’s look at dismantling the ranking systems that are burdening our administrators… and preventing authentic improvement.”

Ohio’s brand new school report cards—still based largely on each school’s aggregate standardized test scores—neglect to reflect the experiences created by fine educators who meet students where they are and help them experience educational opportunity in classes that are respectful, challenging and emotionally safe.

How Has Standardized Test-Based School Accountability Changed the Way We Understand Public Schooling?

Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, Frederick Hess, head of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas Fordham Institute, have been arguing this summer about whether public school reform based on test-and-punish school accountability is dying. For decades, these three men have been central to defending the changes embedded into federal law by the 2002, No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and into state laws across the United States as Arne Duncan’s Department of Education made states comply with these educational theories to qualify for federal Race to the Top grants in 2009.

While these three proponents of accountability-based school reform disagree on where this movement stands today, they all agree on what it is. Petrilli remembers how he defined school reform back in 2006: “There is now a Washington Consensus in education. It has been entrenched since the middle of the Clinton Administration, was integral to the crafting of NCLB in 2001, and for the most part remains intact today. It embraces three big ideas. First, that the nation’s foremost education objective should be closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Second, that excellent schools can overcome the challenges of poverty. And third, that external pressure and tough accountability are critical components of helping school systems improve.”

Petrilli explains further how these ideas coalesced: “These ideas took shape as a series of federal mandates, most visibly enshrined in NCLB. States had to set academic standards in English language arts, math, and science; to test students annually in math and reading and regularly in science; and to create accountability systems that would not only report results, but also intervene in chronically low performing schools in very specific ways—the law’s ‘cascade of sanctions.’ Meanwhile, as NCLB was debated, enacted, and implemented, the charter school movement expanded rapidly….”

Finn and Hess add: “This early 21st-century focus on accountability and choice signified a pair of important shifts in Americans’ understanding of K-12 education. In the era before A Nation at Risk, people generally gauged school quality on the basis of inputs, resources, and reputation, not student-learning outcomes… Yet by the time Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, a ‘good ‘ school had come to mean one with high reading and math scores… (and) the right of parents to select their child’s school was increasingly taken for granted.”

Finn and Hess trace a retreat from the heavy hand of the federal government as the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind. They believe the “school choice” strand of school reform is definitely thriving today, but the focus on test-and-punish school accountability has faded.  Importantly they admit that this kind of school reform did not achieve its stated goal of closing achievement gaps as measured by test scores: “Did the movement do any good while it lasted? It certainly yielded unprecedented transparency regarding student achievement. It produced a massive expansion of charter schooling and parental choice. And it pushed educational outcomes to the center of the national conversation about opportunity and economic growth. Yet there’s scant evidence that it improved student outcomes, especially in the upper grades. Meanwhile, by enlisting Uncle Sam as the nation’s school superintendent, reformers helped entangle education fights with broader clashes over politics and culture. Along the way, they narrowed school curricula, dismissed the concerns of middle-class parents, and defined success using a race-centric notion of achievement gaps.”

Petrilli reaches a very different conclusion: “Let’s take a look at the real world shall we? The charter school sector continues to grow, energized by the lackluster response of traditional public schools to the pandemic. The Common Core standards remain in place in a majority of states, even if they go by different names. Annual testing is still here—with better, tougher tests than we had a decade ago. High-quality instructional materials aligned to the standards continue to gain market share. And that’s not to mention the explosion of private school choice (mostly supported by Republicans) or the progress on school funding equity (mostly supported by Democrats)…. Energizing grass-roots support for standards-based reforms would be fantastic….”

Finn and Hess are correct that the wave of support for technocratic school accountability has utterly faded from the national political conversation. But, while Petrilli’s allegation about a wave of high-quality instructional materials over the past two decades is highly questionable, and although there is abundant evidence that public school funding equity has not thrived under the “school reformers” agenda, I think MIke Petrilli has a point. Even while what he calls “the Washington Consensus” has faded, the consequences of test-and-punish school accountability are still very much with us. Our kids in public schools still have to be tested every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and the federal government still forces states to rate and rank public schools by their aggregate test scores.

The most profound long term impact of the whole school reform agenda is deeper, however, than Mike Petrilli acknowledges. The meaning of standardized test-based school accountability is best captured by rhetorician Robert Asen in recent book, School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy. Asen believes that the school reformers significantly changed the way America thinks, imagines, and talks about public education: “In a bipartisan manner, accountability and standards functioned analogously to the roles of central banks and other regulatory market institutions in establishing common measures of educational value and exchange. Various actors, from state education officers to individual families, could participate in educational markets confident that they could exchange with others through commensurable means. Testing and test scores served as market valuations and currency. Individual schools, local districts, and states could market themselves to individual and institutional investors as sound opportunities. Test scores also provided market actors with the information they needed to make comparative choices among various education providers.” (School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, p. 81)

The era of test-and-punish set the stage for thinking of education as a consumer marketplace.

Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff would explain that the movement for school accountability based on standardized test scores changed the frame in which we conceptualize our public schools: “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or a bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out our policies… You can’t see or hear frames. They are part of what cognitive scientists call the ‘cognitive unconscious’—structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences: the way we reason and what counts as common sense. We also know frames through language. All words are defined relative to conceptual frames… Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense.” (Don’t Think of an Elephant!, p. xv)

The most basic critique of accountability-based school reform—whose impact is currently being debated by some of its strongest adherents—Finn, Hess, and Petrilli—is that its frame is entirely quantitative. School accountability based solely on aggregate standardized test scores fails to measure the qualitative process of education as experienced by students and practiced by teachers. Here we can turn to the late Mike Rose, a professor of education and a discerning writer.

Rose considers students’ lived encounters with schooling: “I’m interested… in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind. The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it. Yet it is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it, the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are.” (Why School?, p. 34) “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity? Certainly one feels a sense of possibility, of hope. But it is hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal.  And all this takes place with people who interact with you in ways that affirm your hope.” (Why School?, p. 14)

What about the school reformers’ quantitative attempts to measure and evaluate the quality of teachers? (Reminder: A central requirement for states to qualify for a Race to the Top grant was that states evaluate teachers  based on their students’ aggregate standardized test scores.)  In an important 2014 article, Rose challenged this technocratic frame based on his qualitative observations of teachers when he visited their classrooms: 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.”

Although many of us, if asked, will qualitatively describe our own schooling or our children’s schooling from our values and personal experience, aren’t we still likely to cling to the frame of test-based accountability when we think broadly about American public education?  As we read Mike Rose’s descriptions of what really matters in students’ experience and in the practices of their teachers, aren’t many of us tempted to wonder if his thinking isn’t old fashioned? Could most of us even conceptualize a society without quantitative evaluation and the ranking of schools and school districts even though we know that No Child Left Behind’s policies failed to equalize educational opportunity and leave no child behind? I wish I did not fear that, as a society, we are a long, long way from being able to reject the worn out school accountability frame brought to us by the likes of Checker Finn, Rick Hess, and Mike Petrilli.