Clueless Betsy DeVos Blames School Teachers, Doesn’t Get that Test-and-Punish Is Core Problem

After our new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited a Washington, D.C. middle school last week, she insulted the teachers there.  She said the teachers were “in receive mode,” and continued: “’They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child,’ DeVos told a columnist for the conservative online publication Townhall. ‘You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.’”

Let me point out that I have not noticed this “receive mode” among the teachers I know here in Ohio. Just last week Melissa Cropper, President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT), sent out a call for “activism now.”

Ohio requires far more testing than the annual test that was mandated by No Child Left Behind.  The new Every Student Succeeds Act  offers a way for states to develop their own accountability plans and a way to reduce—at least somewhat—over-reliance on test-and-punish.  Cropper is protesting the inaction of the Ohio Department of Education, which has just provided evidence that it will ignore the opportunity for states to have more latitude for shaping their plans for educational accountability rather than just have punitive sanctions imposed on them by the federal government. Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer reports: “Ohio’s proposed new state education plan under ESSA… avoids making any changes in state tests or even any recommendations, despite complaints of excessive testing of students dominating surveys and feedback sessions across the state.”  O’Donnell adds that Ohio’s draft plan isn’t final.

Cropper castigates the draft plan: “This plan is devoid of an overall vision for education and does nothing to move Ohio away from a testing culture and towards a culture that is more responsive to the needs of children.”  Why, wonders Cropper, does the Ohio Department of Education intend to submit its empty draft to the federal government on April 3, despite that the state doesn’t really have to submit its final draft until September 18?  Is the state rushing this along to avoid public input and discussion?

Cropper urges school teachers and members of the public: “Continue your activism. Take the online ESSA survey now.  In each section, feel free to add whatever comments you might have about the topic, but make sure to include something that indicates that the plan does nothing to change our current testing culture and that the state needs to wait until September to submit so that it can be rewritten to reflect the vision Ohio wants for its students.”  She adds that the Ohio Department of Education will accept comments until March 6.

Bill Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding amplifies Cropper’s plea for engagement by forwarding an e-mail notice from the Legislature’s Joint Education Oversight Committee, which is also holding hearings on Ohio’s ESSA draft plan: “The Joint Education Oversight Committee will be hearing testimony regarding Ohio’s State Plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act.  JEOC will hold two meetings on Thursday, March 2, 2017 at 2:30 PM and Thursday, March 9, 2017 at 1:30 PM in the Senate South Hearing Room. If you are interested in testifying please contact Haley Phillippi,  haley.phillippi@jeoc.ohio.gov or 614-466-9082 and indicate a date preference.” People wishing to testify should send their testimony to Phillippi 24 hours prior to the meeting.

The reason I was so amazed to hear Betsy DeVos criticize teachers as “in receive mode” is that, as part of a local education coalition in my own community, month after month, I listen to our teachers complain about the burden of testing and test prep on them and the students in their classes.  The teachers in our coalition were the people who demanded that we all read Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve, a plea for a return to progressive education.

While Betsy DeVos insulted teachers last week as “in receive mode,” in my community and my state, teachers are dismayed and up in arms about what they are receiving. Here in the words of Steve Nelson’s new book about progressive education—First Do No Harm, is the kind of pressure our teachers are irate about receiving from the U.S. Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Education: “Public schools all over America are judged by the standardized test results of their students. In many, perhaps most, communities the test results are published in local newspapers or available online. The continued existence of a school often depends on its standardized test scores… Neighborhood public schools are labeled ‘failing’ on the basis of test scores and closed, often to be replaced by a charter operation that boasts of higher test scores… What has occurred is a complex sorting mechanism.  The schools, particularly the most highly praised charter schools do several things to produce better scores…. (S)tudents  are suspended and expelled at a much higher rate than at the ordinary public schools in their neighborhoods. Several studies show that charter schools enroll significantly fewer students with learning challenges or students whose first language is other than English.” (pp. 68-69)  All this pressures school administrators to force teachers to teach to the test at all cost.

Steve Nelson’s definition of progressive education is exactly what the teachers in my community’s elementary, middle and high schools are demanding: “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.’ Conventional schools tend toward training and instruction, while progressive schools insist on learning and discovery. Perhaps the most powerful and misunderstood facet of progressive education is the notion of democracy. Progressive schools see themselves and their students as inextricably connected to the society in which they operate. The problems and fascinations of the world around them are the problems and fascinations they examine.” (p.11) He adds: “Education should cultivate the capacity to recognize and create beauty. School is a place where empathy and compassion should be honored and developed. The flames of curiosity should be fanned, not smothered. Skepticism should be sharply honed.” (p. 48)

The teachers I know describe how they slip progressive projects and exploration in around the edges of the demands made on them to prepare children for tests.  They also manage to save enough energy to respond when Melissa Cropper of OFT asks them to speak up for a better Ohio ESSA Plan.  We must join them in speaking up.

We should also remind Betsy DeVos again and again that by reducing test-and-punish she could help everybody at school—superintendents, principals, teachers and children—escape education “in receive mode.”  If Betsy DeVos were honestly concerned that too many students are being trained and taught and instructed and that they are in schools that fail to emphasize deeper education—discovery, examination, problem solving, skepticism, curiosity and compassion, Betsy DeVos would be absolutely in agreement with the school teachers I know.

If Betsy DeVos really believed in progressive education, as Secretary of Education she could use her powerful position to support  teachers as they excite children’s curiosity and support their personal interests and development.

Lacking Checks and Balances, Government Brings Us a Tragicomic Mess

Today’s post is a lesson in basic civics.

When one party reigns supreme, as it does these days in the majority of  states and the federal government—when one party dominates the executive branch and the legislative branch—government leaders do pretty much whatever they want. They pass dangerous legislation and they pass outrageously trivial and sometimes noxious legislation. Even if you disagree and use all the avenues citizens are given to participate in our supposedly participatory democracy, your opinions may be completely ignored.

There are some lessons here—about the importance of courageous stances taken by legislators in the minority—about powerful voices in the community who help change and shift the debate—and about the need for the press to make sure the public is aware of the implications of the actions taken and to make sure everybody votes in the next election.

Ohio is a one party, super-majority Republican state.  I’ll demonstrate the importance of the three lessons with examples from Ohio just in this past week, but remember that the lessons very probably apply in your state and certainly to what is happening at the federal level.

Let’s begin with the lesson on the need for the press (and even bloggers) to make sure the public is informed about the implications of the actions taken. In a Valentine for school teachers, Ohio Governor John Kasich included in his state budget a requirement that to renew their teaching licenses, teachers will have to complete an externship with a business or local chamber of commerce. Here is Jackie Borchardt of the Cleveland Plain Dealer explaining the reasoning behind Kasich’s proposal: “The idea is the latest in Kasich’s push to better connect schools with their local business communities.  Requiring externships for license renewal was one of several recommendations made late last year by Kasich’s Executive Workforce Board.”

The response of teachers’ organizations to this ridiculous proposal has been muted. After all, teachers cannot afford to make themselves seem to want to be disconnected from their communities, and they cannot want to make themselves appear lazy either, especially in these times when teachers are routinely blamed and castigated. Fortunately, Ohio’s Plunderbund blog has exposed some of the serious issues in Kasich’s externships—such as the amount of bureaucracy that would be required merely to manage it. Plunderbund also raises some other concerns. These externships might take teachers’ attention away from children and the panoply of other accountability rules legislators have recently passed: “attention away from their full-time, salaried job of delivering the state-mandated academic content to our test-taking children across the state as also mandated by numerous state laws… (W)e believe this provision is beyond absurd. Beyond the usual absurd level of Kasich’s education reform proposals that he likes to dump in his budget bill…. Kasich, who famously compared teaching children to making pizzas, does not believe that teaching is a ‘real job.’ Educators who work tirelessly to educate children with all of their diverse needs on a daily basis? Apparently none of that… counts as ‘on-site work experience with a local business.'”

As a blogger, I’ll add that the belief-system underlying this new budget provision worries me. I guess our governor believes education’s purpose is merely job training. And I guess he believes all real jobs are in business. I’d suggest the governor and members of the legislature have mandatory externships in our public schools, and I don’t mean merely ceremonial celebrations like Principal-for-a-Day. Our state leaders ought to sit with high school English teachers as they grade the 150 essays from their five classes of 30 students, for example, along with preparing for class discussions about Hamlet or A Lesson Before Dying.  They ought to help teachers put together the portfolios of lesson plans and data that are now required for submission to the Ohio Department of Education as the way our state evaluates teachers. They ought to have to shadow special education teachers working with disabled children. They ought to spend whole days at school watching elementary school teachers shape the flow of the day with 25 tired children.

The second lesson is about powerful voices in the community who help change and shift the debate.  Last fall the Ohio Department of Education held large, facilitated meetings across the state when the federal government required public input into the development of states’ plans—to be submitted for approval by the U.S. Department of Education—to hold schools accountable.  The new Every Student Succeeds Act turns some of the power for developing criteria for accountability to the states. At our greater-Cleveland Ohio meeting, two priorities emerged through consensus. At my table, we all agreed that the state should reduce the amount of required standardized testing, but even more vociferously we insisted that the state stop labeling schools and school districts with A-F letter grades. We stopped our facilitator as she took notes, and we demanded that she use our words to insist on eliminating the letter-grade labels.  We told her that because the standardized test scores by which schools and school districts are graded tend to correlate in the aggregate with families’ economic level, the letter grades being assigned by the state to schools and school districts are branding as failures all the school districts that serve the poorest children.  The A-F school grading system is incentivizing economic and racial segregation by encouraging any families who can afford it to move to richer outer suburbs with fewer poor children. At the state’s greater-Cleveland meeting, when all the tables reported out, it became clear that our priorities were the priorities that dominated the entire regional meeting. Early in 2017, however, the state released its draft plan, and lo, neither of our greater-Cleveland priorities was mentioned.

I concluded what I presume was the lesson drawn by many of the participants: that in one-party Ohio, public participation is a sham. But earlier this week a group of school superintendents released a white paper on the very subjects our public hearing prioritized. Patrick O’Donnell reports for the Plain Dealer: “The state should stop grading schools and school districts with A though F grades, while also cutting the amount of state tests and making sure the tests help teachers teach students better, a group of local superintendents says. In a ‘white paper’ released Monday to state officials, superintendents from Lorain and western Cuyahoga County outlined several changes they say they wish the state had made—but didn’t—in its proposed testing and accountability plan under the federal Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA)… Because the state did not respond to the public’s concerns, superintendents from Amherst, Avon, Clearview, Columbia Station, Elyria, Keystone, North Olmsted, Oberlin, Olmsted Falls and the Lorain County Educational Service Center offered their own proposed changes.”  My gratitude to these school district leaders has nothing to do with believing that the Ohio Department of Education will entertain their ideas. Their white paper is important, however, for informing  parents and their communities that they listened, even if our one-party state leaders are deaf to such concerns. And they are encouraging parents and other community members not to give up.

Finally there is the third lesson about the importance of courageous stances taken by legislators in the minority.  You’ll remember that Ohio has a huge attendance problem at its unregulated online academies. The state legislature—beholden to political contributions from William Lager, who runs the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the two privately held, for-profit companies that manage ECOT—has refused to crack down even though the Ohio Department of Education has documented that ECOT ought to return $60 million of the more than $100 million it collected in tax dollars last year. The state paid ECOT for thousands of phantom students who were not logging in to participate actively in the kind of schooling ECOT provides.  In March of 2016, the Ohio Senate Minority Leader, Joe Schiavoni, introduced a bill for regulation of attendance at the e-schools.  When Peggy Lehner, chair of the state senate’s education committee, showed some interest in the bill, the senate’s president, Keith Faber, undercut her by shunting the bill to the finance committee, and the bill died at the end of the legislative session without seeing the light of day.

Patrick O’Donnell reports that Schiavoni, a dogged minority leader, just re-introduced his bill: “The Democratic leader of the state Senate has put online charter schools in his crosshairs again this year….  Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, of Boardman, reintroduced this week a bill from last year that would require e-schools to track and report student participation in online classes not just ‘offer’ them online and not make sure students learn anything. ‘It’s no longer acceptable for e-schools to simply place classes online and expect funding from the state,’ Schiavoni said.” O’Donnell explains that “Schiavoni’s bill would not affect previous years, but would make the law more clear for the future.”

The specificity of enforcement procedures in Schiavoni’s bill exposes just how outrageous has been the public rip-off by ECOT and other online schools.  O’Donnell explains that if the new bill passed, e-schools would have to “track student activity daily and report it to the Ohio Department of Education each month, not just make that information available to the state auditor if requested. Notify the state, the local school district and parents if a student fails to log in for 10 days. Broadcast all meetings of their school boards on the internet, so parents that live far away can watch… Count state test scores of students that spend 90 or more days at an e-school toward that school’s state report card, even if they leave.” Schiavoni provides that when the state auditor finds violations at an e-school, any money that was lost to the e-school from the local school district be returned to that school district.

Larry Obhof is the new Ohio Senate Majority Leader. It won’t be surprising, considering our state’s lack of checks and balances, if, like his predecessor, Obhof blocks any serious consideration of Senator Schiavoni’s bill.  But thanks to Senator Schiavoni, Ohioans have a clear explanation of the public ripoff by William Lager and ECOT.  

And thanks to Ohio Senator Joe Schiavoni, people all across the states can examine clear evidence that due to single-party dominance, power politics, and out-of-control political spending, it is virtually impossible to regulate the charter school sector in the public interest.

In Fine, New Book, Steve Nelson Urges New Education Path that Is Less Dangerous for Children

Steve Nelson’s new book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, is refreshing in the author’s declaration of privilege as he applies all that he has learned in nineteen years as Head of the Calhoun School, a private, progressive school in New York City to an analysis of what’s gone wrong in public school reform over the same period.

Nelson begins: “I am mindful of the position from which I write. Those of us in independent schools enjoy great privilege. This privilege allows us to draw our students into deeply satisfying and thoughtful lives. But we must recognize that these experiences should not be limited to only those children who are wealthy and/or lucky enough to enroll in our schools. Non-sectarian private schools enroll only about 6% of America’s children. So what about the other millions of children? Do we who carry privilege also bear responsibility? I think so.” (p.5)

This is a refreshing and deeply grounded book for these times when so many of our long-held values about education are being tested.

Nelson isn’t utopian; he doesn’t imagine that all public schools could possibly afford to indulge children in classes of 15 students where teachers personally appreciate each student’s learning style and developmental level, but he does believe the constructs of progressive education are a far better way to organize schools than the test-and-punish system that came with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

A good teacher, Nelson summarizes the history of progressive education from Socrates and Aristotle through Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, A.S. Neill, Rudolph Steiner, John Dewey, Francis Parker, Felix Adler, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and Howard Gardner.  He also explores the neurobiological and psychological research supporting progressive education.

What is Nelson’s definition of the kind of education he’d like to see for more American children in their public schools? “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.’ Conventional schools tend toward training and instruction, while progressive schools insist on learning and discovery. Perhaps the most powerful and misunderstood facet of progressive education is the notion of democracy. Progressive schools see themselves and their students as inextricably connected to the society in which they operate. The problems and fascinations of the world around them are the problems and fascinations they examine.” (p.11) He adds: “Education should cultivate the capacity to recognize and create beauty. School is a place where empathy and compassion should be honored and developed. The flames of curiosity should be fanned, not smothered. Skepticism should be sharply honed.” (p. 48)

Nelson’s critique is biting. Writing at the end of the Arne Duncan era, when mega philanthropy collaborated actively with government to drive “corporate reform,” Nelson comments: “In short, business leaders and free market economic principles have gained increasing control over education. Education has become highly dependent on philanthropy, as public funding has declined.  Philanthropists didn’t make their fortunes as violinists, so they bring their business perspectives to bear on the institutions they support. As the old saying goes, ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.’  Today’s economist-driven version of education reform is the hammer that mistakes America’s children, particularly the poorest kids of color, as nails to pound.”

Nelson considers just how A Nation at Risk misunderstood our educational challenges; how testing and the intense pressure of high stakes works in children’s brains to undermine memory; how children who are drilled never learn to question and inquire; how the no-excuses charter schools enforce compliance and destroy curiosity; how scripted learning aimed at test scores hurts children and makes it impossible for good teachers to do what they know best; and how our notion of IQ which focuses on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is insufficient and leaves out the seven other domains identified by Howard Gardner. And we learn why schools need to nurture these other domains through the arts and physical activity—the classes schools are cutting these days as test prep takes more and more time.

Nelson’s strength is his experience—nearly twenty years in his most recent position alone—working with children and adolescents at school. As he defends the needs of public schools that serve the mass of our children and emphasizes the need for reallocating our society’s resources, his focus is on what money can do inside a school to free the teachers to teach and create space for children to explore.  He doesn’t cover what he doesn’t know—meeting the children’s needs in a school where all the students qualify for free lunch, for example—assembling the resources and expertise for a quality English language program for immigrant children—finding the resources to serve severely disabled students.

Nelson style is fresh and engaging.  He is not ideological despite his strong belief in progressive schooling. He nudges schools and policy makers to move in a progressive direction. And while a lot of books about progressive education are dated, this one is very much up to date—exploring progressive education theory in the context of the destructive pressure of  “corporate reform” accountability.

While the book was written in the last year of so of the Obama Department of Education, it speaks clearly to the problems we are likely face in a Trump administration with Betsy DeVos as education secretary. As the Head of an exclusive New York City private school, Nelson knows precisely why the kind of school choice being promoted by Trump and DeVos won’t work: “The private schools where privileged parents send their kids are expensive and highly selective. I know. I’m the Head of one of them. Calhoun’s tuition is an embarrassing $48,000 per year—about average for Manhattan private schools. Poor families in New York City don’t have the ‘choice’ to attend Calhoun or any of the other private schools. At Calhoun we offer a great deal of tuition assistance so that our students are not all from wealthy families, but the glib come-on in support of privatization is inaccurate and dishonest. Try taking a $5,000 to $7,000 voucher to a place like Sidwell Friends, where the Obamas sent their daughters. Sidwell’s tuition is also about $40.000.” (p. 112-113)

Samuel Abrams, Expert on School Privatization, Condemns Business Strategy of Betsy DeVos

President-elect Donald Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos are all devotees of the privatization of public education. That’s the reason it is so fascinating to read Samuel Abrams’ analysis of their ideas about federal education policy.  Samuel Abrams is the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. And just last year he published Education and the Commercial Mindset, a book about the failure of Edison Schools and the challenges faced by KIPP along with some other charter school networks.

Abrams is not an ideologue and in the book as he concludes his in-depth examination of KIPP schools, he doesn’t reject the idea of charter schools out of hand—nor, unlike many other critics, does he reject the punitive, behavior-modification discipline that dominates many of these schools. But he cautions there are no quick or simple ways to solve the problems poverty poses for our children, our schools and our society. Here is how he concludes the book: “Organizations like Achievement First, KIPP, and Mastery do great work despite the force of poverty, but their dependence on a finite supply of generous philanthropists, tireless teachers, and students as well as families capable of abiding by rigid academic and behavioral expectations limits their reach. These organizations have led the way in showing what can be accomplished for a subset of students by granting administrators significant autonomy, extending the school day, providing intensive remedial help, and raising expectations. The next step is to make these strategies work for all students in disadvantaged communities. Such replication would necessitate substantial public investment to hire additional staff. The result would ultimately comport with the community school concept, with afternoon programs in art, music, crafts, sports, and homework help as well as associated medical, dental, and counseling services. This paradigm would be all the more successful if schools were granted the freedom to broaden their curricula. That could happen if we reversed course and abolished our current accountability system, which we undoubtedly should… Much of our mistaken thinking about education policy derives from our commercial mindset.” (Education and the Commercial Mindset, p. 303)

So, what does Samuel Abrams think about the nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education?  Last weekend he told us in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times: “Donald Trump never tires of reminding us that he is a businessman, and in Betsy DeVos, he has nominated a Secretary of Education who endorses a business model for improving elementary and secondary schooling. The problem is it’s the wrong model. DeVos’ prescriptions include for-profit school management, taxpayer-funded vouchers to cover private school tuition and parental choice as the primary vehicle for regulation.  Yet where such free-market remedies have been tried, they have yielded disappointing results.”

As evidence, Abrams examines the case of Chile in the thirty years since privatization was expanded in the 1980s: “Socioeconomic segregation… intensified, the academic achievement gap among disadvantaged children and their middle-and upper-class peers persisted, for-profit school management provoked protest and reform, and teacher pay remained low.”  He also examines Sweden, where a “full-fledged voucher system” was adopted in the 1990s: “When investors financed the opening of hundreds of for-profit private schools there, many native-born Swedes opted for the new schools, leaving immigrant children behind. Sweden’s performance on international educational assessments declined, for-profit school management provoked protest and reform, and teacher pay fell.”

Abrams traces America’s interest in school privatization to Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who suggested in a 1955 essay that education is a commodity like groceries. Abrams counters: “The fundamental problem with the free-market model for education is that schools are not groceries.”  On vouchers, Abrams explains: “Only a few cities in the U.S. implemented voucher systems, but results in these cities—notably, Milwaukee, leading the way in 1990, followed by Cleveland and Washington—have… not vindicated Friedman’s forecast.”  Neither have charter schools—publicly funded but privately managed—improved education. Charter schools have, “posted uneven results, led to greater student segregation and in large part depressed teacher pay.  In no state has this been more true than DeVos’ home state, Michigan, which thanks to her efforts is home to far more commercially managed charter schools than any state in the country. After controlling for demographics, Michigan, according to a recent Urban Institute study, ranks 47th of all states in reading and math.”

Why does a school choice marketplace not work very well?  “Education is complex and the immediate consumer, after all, is a child or adolescent who can know only so much about how a subject should be taught. The parent, legislator and taxpayer are necessarily at a distance. Groceries, by contrast, are discrete goods purchased by adults who can easily judge each item according to taste, nutritional value and cost. Supermarkets can likewise be easily judged according to service, atmosphere and convenience.”

Everybody Should Read This New Policy Brief: Lessons from NCLB for ESSA

In the context of President-elect Donald Trump’s promise that his education plan will be based on the ideology of increased privatization, it is refreshing and instructive to read the new research-based (seven and a half pages of footnotes for a 15 page paper) policy brief from the National Education Policy Center on Lessons from NCLB for the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The style is charming and the paper non-technical.  Anybody who cares about the role of the federal government in education ought to read it. It could profitably be the basis of conversation in a community group or a PTA.

Here is how its authors, Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo begin: “If Lyndon Johnson were alive today, he would undoubtedly be discouraged to see what has become of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that he signed into law fifty years ago as part of the War on Poverty… (O)ur lawmakers have largely eroded ESEA’s original intent.  Moving from assistance to ever-increasing regulation…. (a)t each step, our educational policies became more test-based, top-down, prescriptive, narrow and punitive, and federal support to build the most struggling schools’ capacity for improvement faded.”

How does the new version of the federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (passed last December) compare to its No Child Left Behind predecessor?  “(A)t its core, ESSA is still a primarily test-based educational regime. Annual standardized testing in reading and math is still mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Science testing at benchmark levels of schooling remains. The criteria for requiring schools to write improvement plans have been revised, yet standardized test scores continue to comprise the largest share of these criteria. Identification of schools in need of improvement continues to depend mostly on scores, but now also includes one or more other academic and quality indicators. Formerly rigid prescriptions for school reforms have been relegated to districts and states, although the expanded range of potential reforms still encourages and funds charter schools and requires other NCLB-like ‘corrective actions.’  State accountability systems must be federally approved and mechanisms such as turnaround-driven layoffs, conversions to charter schools, and school closures are likely to continue even though they have not been proven to consistently improve schools in struggling communities. Punishments for continued low test-performance persist. The most substantial difference is that the power to decide which test-based consequences for under-performing schools resides once again in the states, not the federal government.”

After an introduction, the short brief is organized into five sections: NCLB and ESSA: Commonalities and Contrasts—First-Order Lessons for ESSA—Lessons for State Accountability Systems—Recommendations for Policymakers and School Practice—and The Moral Imperative: Adequate Inputs and the Opportunity Gap.  Whether you are a parent, a citizen, a teacher, a state policymaker or a member of Congress, there is important information her for you, and the presentation is lucid and non-technical.

Mathis and Trujillo believe the primary lesson from No Child Left Behind is that, “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities…. Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools.”

What about the rationale often used to justify all the testing mandated by No Child Left Behind?  “One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality.  This has not happened.”

The authors refute the idea that high-stakes, test-based accountability improves learning. And they present research to show that the school turnarounds prescribed by NCLB caused “disruption, decreased efficiency, and human capital and organizational commitment losses” instead of helping children.  They reject test-based teacher evaluation, a strategy used by 74% of schools that received School Improvement Grants: “Evaluating teachers by test scores breaks down in several logical and empirical ways.  First, students must be randomly assigned, which is demonstrably not the case in school practice. Some teachers teach remedial classes while others teach advanced placement students.  Further, a given teacher could be (and has been) rated a success in one year and a failure in the next simply based on the students assigned. Second, the error rate inherent in this approach is so high that it simply precludes its use in high-stakes circumstances. Third, there is no general teaching factor that is universally applicable to all cases. This renders the model invalid for general application. Fourth, alternative explanations of gains (or losses) caused by factors outside the teacher’s control have typically not been properly considered. The use of value-added measures provoked the unusual response of a cautionary statement by the American Educational Research Association as well as a warning from the American Statistical Association.”

Recommendations for states?  “Above all else, each state must assure that students have adequate opportunities, funding and resources to achieve state goals.” “States must shift toward an assistance role and exercise less of a regulatory role.”  “States and districts must collaborate with social service and labor departments to ensure adequate personal, social and economic opportunities.”

And there is one special opportunity afforded by the Every Student Succeeds Act that was absent from No Child Left Behind: “Under ESSA, school performance will now be measured using a system that incorporates one or more non-academic indicators—chosen separately by each state. These non-academic indicators provide states their strongest new tool for maximizing educational equity and opportunity and bringing attention to the nation’s broader educational purposes.”

Here is the moral assessment that concludes this short, readable brief: “The nation has become a majority of minorities and the common good requires all students to be well educated.  Yet, we have embarked on economic and educational paths that systematically privilege only a small percentage of the population. In education, we invest less on children of color and the economically impoverished. At the same time, we support a testing regime that measures wealth rather than provides a rich kaleidoscope of experience and knowledge to all… The greatest conceptual and most damaging mistake of test-based accountability systems has been the pretense that poorly supported schools could systemically overcome the effects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation by rigorous instruction and testing.”

It’s Time States Stop Bullying Schools by Imposing Tests with Bogus, Artificially High Cut Scores

The Ohio State Board of Education is meeting today and tomorrow in Columbus, and in conjunction with the State Board meeting, something unusual is happening. School superintendents and members of local boards of education are expected in Columbus for a protest rally to demand that something be done to ameliorate a high school graduation crisis caused by the state’s new, and very demanding, end-of-course graduation exams. About a third of Ohio’s current high school juniors are behind where they need to be in passage of these exams in order to graduate on time in June of 2018.

Cut scores on standardized tests are a political calculation. There is nothing scientific about the measurement of proficiency by the standardized tests our state use today. Politicians, not psychometricians, set cut scores that determine who passes and who fails.  Too often the people setting the cut scores are anxious to “protect the quality of the diploma” and guarantee “college-and-career-ready.”  For fifteen years now across the country, politicians have been trying to drive school policy by using test scores as a way to bludgeon educators into raising expectations. The implications for young adults left without a high school diploma are rarely considered.

Ohio recently abandoned its Ohio Graduation Test and made passage of state-provided, end-of-course exams the bar for high school graduation, but it still seems there is big trouble. Patrick O’Donnell reports for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “About one-third of high school juniors across Ohio are in danger of not graduating on time, according to estimates that have superintendents warning of a graduation ‘apocalypse’ and the state considering rewriting requirements for the class of 2018… This year’s 11th-graders are the first subjected to new state rules requiring students to score well on new state tests to graduate, beyond earning credits and strong grades in their schools.  Students earn ‘points’ toward graduation based on how well they score on seven end-of-course exams. The tests are more demanding than the old Ohio Graduation Tests that students had to pass before—so much more that proficiency rates have fallen dramatically and students are not earning enough ‘points ‘ to be on track to graduate.”

After a protest last spring by A.J. Wagner, a member of the state board of education, the state board of education lowered the bar on the new end-of-course Geometry and Integrated Math II exams last June. But O’Donnell explains that Wagner did not get all of the adjustments he predicted would be necessary: “When Wagner asked the rest of the board to adjust graduation requirements this summer, the board agreed to only minor changes, not the large ones he wanted.” In contrast to Wagner, the chair of the state board is committed to setting a high bar, no matter the collateral damage for students in the class of 2018: “(B)oard President Tom Gunlock has said he doesn’t want high graduation rates just so everyone feels better for a short time, while students don’t have skills they need to succeed in the workplace.”

Does widespread failure on this year’s new end-of-course exams mean that Ohio’s high schools are suddenly expecting less of their students and the students are learning less in their classes? No. It simply means that state policy makers imagined they could drive higher expectations across the state’s schools by setting the cut score higher and reducing the number of students who pass.  Politicians imagined that schools would be able to respond by demanding more of students, but here is the problem. This is the first year of the tests.  The Columbus Dispatch quotes Hilliard Superintendent John Marschhausen, “We don’t even have the item analysis for last year’s exams… We know what the kids scored, but we don’t know what they need help with.” An official from the Olentangy schools also complained to the Dispatch that students have been scoring lower than they should partly because the exams are administered on the computer, while students are more accustomed to paper and pencil tests.

The reality, of course, is also that children living in poverty are even less likely to have access to computers at home and less opportunity to feel comfortable with online exams.  O’Donnell reports that, “School districts have been sorting out where their students stand since receiving new state report cards this fall and several have started sending letters to parents informing them of their teenager’s progress.  The Cleveland school district is just sending those letters out, with about 50 percent of students behind where they need to be to graduate.”

It seems some members of the State Board and the Legislature are amenable to making adjustments—either reducing for now the number of points (earned by passing state tests) required for graduation, by phasing the new requirements in over time as high schools become accustomed to the requirements of the new tests, or by expanding alternative paths to graduation.  The fact that school superintendents and school board members—exhausted by the state’s shifting demands over many years and often split by the disparate impact of state accountability on suburban, rural and urban districts—are rallying together in Columbus today may serve as a motivator for the state’s politicians to respond to their public.

What Will a Trump Administration Mean for Supporters of Public Education?

We don’t know very much about President-Elect Donald Trump’s ideas about education. Although, during the campaign, Trump briefly presented a plan for a $20 billion block grant program for states to expand market-based school choice, and although he has hinted that he will reduce the role of the U.S. Department of Education and particularly its civil rights enforcement division, there has been no substantive explanation or discussion of these ideas.

One thing we do know for sure, however, is that every branch of our federal government will be dominated by Republicans—the Presidency, the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court.

A new President whose plans we do not know.  The absence of checks and balances. Federal public education policy that has for years been undermining support for the institution of public education.  Those of us who believe improving the public schools is important have good reason to be nervous, even afraid.

After all, in 2000 and especially after we were distracted in September of 2001 by the attacks on the World Trade Center, we were unprepared to speak to the federal test-and-punish education law, No Child Left Behind. We failed to connect the dots between an accountability-driven, poorly funded testing mandate and the destruction of respect for school teachers and the drive for school privatization that lurked just under the surface of federal policy.  And in 2008, we didn’t anticipate the collusion of government technocrats and philanthro-capitalists that emerged when the federal stimulus gave billions of dollars to the U.S. Department of Education for competitive experiments with top-down turnarounds to close and privatize schools and attack teachers.

Advocates for improving public schools—particularly the schools in the struggling neighborhoods of our cities where poverty is concentrated—were unprepared.  We struggled to define what it all meant. Why had accountability replaced nurturing children as the mission of the schools? How are achievement gaps affected by opportunity gaps?  What did it mean that everyone had come to define school quality by test scores without any attention to the capacity of communities to provide the necessary conditions for teaching and learning?  How had it happened that everybody was suddenly focused on so-called “failing” schools?  Why did everyone suddenly feel that it was appropriate to blame and castigate school teachers who were said to be protecting adult interests instead of putting students first? And how had it happened that so many people prized the innovation that was supposed to come with charter schools unbound from bureaucratic regulations, and yet those in charge no longer worried about strengthening the oversight necessary for protecting children’s rights and the expenditure of tax dollars?  How had so many people come to accept that the market would take care of all this?

We watched with dismay as all this came to pass, but we were unprepared to name it, unprepared to think through how it all worked, unprepared to do something about it.

But there is an important development these days among advocates for public schools—the people who agree that we need to promote equity and justice in education’s public sector.  Advocates today share broad consensus around the following priorities:

  • driving long-denied public investment to improve the public schools in our poorest communities where family poverty is concentrated, and correcting inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding;
  • addressing family poverty that, research has demonstrated again and again, is likely to undermine children’s achievement at school;
  • ensuring that public dollars are not diverted and that charter schools do not operate as parasites destroying their host school districts;
  • supporting school teachers as a strong, stable cadre of professionals;
  • reducing reliance on standardized testing and eliminating high stakes punishments including turnarounds;
  • rejecting privatization of education and ensuring strong oversight by government of the institutions that serve our children and spend our tax dollars;
  • eliminating widespread overuse—especially in the schools serving our society’s poorest children—of the practices of suspending and expelling students and the widespread obedience-driven discipline practices imposed on poor children when more privileged children attend schools where they are encouraged to question and engage.

At the national level, organizations supporting justice and equity in public education are now unified across a range of constituencies and sectors to endorse and work for these values and priorities.  Here are just some of the centers of advocacy these days:

  • The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is a broad coalition of unions—the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Service Employees International Union; civil rights and community organizing groups–Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, Center for Popular Democracy, Journey for Justice Alliance; and academic, philanthropic and justice advocacy groups—the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the Gamaliel Network, and the Schott Foundation for Public Education.
  • The NAACP and Black Lives Matter have recently come together in the civil rights community to challenge privatization and lack of oversight as charter schools have expanded.
  • The Network for Public Education is an alliance of advocates including school teachers, activists, and bloggers in support of strong and inclusive public schools and in opposition to unregulated charter schools and to over-reliance on high stakes testing.
  • The National Education Policy Center, located at the University of Colorado, publishes academic research and reviews research from other agencies on education policy.
  • The Education Law Center, and its Education Justice program, and Public Advocates and other school law attorneys are working for school funding equity and civil rights protection.

Last week the education writer, Jonathan Kozol, reminded us about what most of us now know how to articulate but what, ten or fifteen years ago, we would have struggled to say: “Slice it any way you want. Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in the interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy.  What this represents is a state supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters.  It isn’t good… for democracy.”

Today we are well-aware of the organizations that have persistently undermined support for public education and at the same time pressed for an unregulated school marketplace as the alternative: the Hoover Institution; the Heritage Foundation; the American Enterprise Institute; the Thomas Fordham Foundation; Michigan’s Dick and Betsy DeVos and their many far-right organizations; New York hedge fund managers spreading their billions across New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts via the dark money Families for Excellent Schools; the New Schools Venture Fund; the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington that promotes portfolio school reform; the Gates, Walton, and Broad venture philanthropies spending billions promoting charter schools; the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan that granted billions of dollars—without much oversight at all according to the Department’s own Office of Inspector General— to states to expand charter schools; and the American Legislative Exchange Council that promotes school privatization across the states via its large membership of state legislators.

The same election that brought us President-Elect Donald Trump also brought evidence that today’s public school advocates have become organized  and effective. Question 2 to expand the growth of charter schools went down to resounding defeat in a Massachusetts referendum, and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s plan for state takeover and charterization of Georgia’s struggling public schools was also soundly defeated at the polls.  Voters responded to protect the idea of public education when the stakes for public schools were clearly defined by well organized and well informed advocates.

During a Donald Trump administration we must stay organized, raising our voices persistently to name and frame our concerns with precision and passion.  A public education system is the best institution to meet the needs of all kinds of children and protect their rights through law.  Our public schools are, of course, imperfect.  It is our responsibility to pay attention and ensure that our schools work for all children.  Democracy makes our role as citizens possible and requires engaged citizenship.

Looking back on his life as an education professor and advocate for education, Bill Ayers suggests something that will be particularly important for us to remember under the presidency of Donald Trump: that public education is the institutional embodiment of the values that define our democracy. “Education for free people is powered by a particularly precious and fragile ideal. Every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a work in progress and a force in motion, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and creative force, each of us born equal in dignity and rights, each endowed with reason and conscience and agency, each deserving a dedicated place in the community of solidarity as well as a vital sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect.  Embracing that basic ethic and spirit, people recognize that the fullest development of each individual—given the tremendous range of ability and the delicious stew of race, ethnicity, points of origin, and background—is the necessary condition for the full development of the entire community, and, conversely, that the fullest development of all is essential for the full development of each. This has obvious implications for education policy.” (Demand the Impossible, p. 161)