Betsy DeVos: A Dilettante with an Ideology but No Real Policy Plan

I was struck by Dana Milbank’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Trump is Looking More and More like a Man Without a Plan. Milbank enumerates what has happened around a lot of the President’s proposals—redoing the Affordable Care Act, defeating the Islamic State, banning travelers from particular countries and cultures, cutting the federal budget. Ideas get articulated but the details are lacking or won’t stand up in court. Or there is a lot of flexibility on what’s really acceptable as long as something gets done. “Such policy anticlimaxes are becoming routine in Trump world. Tough rhetoric, big promises—and no substance. Trump looks more and more like a man without a plan… How presumptuous to expect Trump, after campaigning on historic tax reform, actually to have a proposal! The emerging evidence that Trump doesn’t have a plan for much of anything isn’t entirely bad. No plan is better than a bad plan… Having actual policies may just not be part of this president’s plan.”

Certainly the same pattern seems to be emerging in the U.S. Department of Education, where the Secretary is a wealthy philanthropist and dilettante who seems to have two priorities.  First, privatization of the public schools has been her lifelong lobbying mission.  Second, as a lifelong Republican married to a businessman, DeVos favors deregulation. Her commitment to these causes is ideological, however;  there is no evidence of a detailed policy agenda built on particular programs and a specific timeline for implementation.

Valerie Strauss captures the situation in her recent column.  Betsy DeVos, explains Strauss, has visited four schools officially since she was confirmed in February: one in Washington, D.C., one in Bethesda, and two in Florida: “The Education Department did not respond to a query about why these schools were selected. But consider this: In central Florida… the Michigan billionaire and her husband, Dick DeVos, own at least one home at Windsor, a private sporting club community on what the development’s website says is a ‘lush barrier island between the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean.’ …  Betsy DeVos has further ties to central Florida: Her father-in-law bought the Orlando Magic basketball team in 1991, and the family still owns it.” DeVos’s school visits may be a key to grasping her approach to her job: what’s convenient for her personally and what’s ideologically tied to her life as a lobbyist for school privatization, but not a policy plan for overseeing the civil rights of the nation’s 50 million children and adolescents in the public schools.

Neither does Betsy DeVos demonstrate that she has really paid attention to how to manage a department that, since 2002, has been charged by Congress with overseeing a huge federal apparatus for holding the nation’s schools accountable. Whether this test-and-punish accountability apparatus is good for our nation’s schools is another question, but if we wonder how Betsy DeVos thinks about this question, we may find the answer confusing. Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal policy reporter, covered a video interview in which Betsy DeVos responded to a question about whether the federal annual, high-stakes tests—required by Congress for all children in both the No Child Left Behind Act and its successor the Every Student Succeeds Act—are a good idea. These are the tests by which the Bush and Obama administration prescribed (with what I believe was an overly developed policy agenda) “turnaround” plans like closing or charterizing the lowest scoring schools or firing the principal and 50 percent of the teachers. These are the high-stakes standardized tests that are being administered by federal mandate this last week of March in many schools across the United States.

Klein quotes DeVos’s answer: “It’s really a matter for states and locales to determine how much testing is actually necessary for measuring what students are learning… I think it’s important to know and understand, however, what they are learning, and it’s important for parents to have that information, so that they can be assured that their students are in the right place… Testing is an important part of the equation, but I think it’s really a matter for the states to wrestle with, to decide how and how frequently the testing is actually done.” Notice that DeVos highlights the connection of testing to one of her favorite priorities—parental choice—parents’ need to be sure they have chosen the right place for their children.

Afterwards, according to Klein, a Department of Education spokesperson tried to explain that DeVos’s answer was perhaps grounded in the policy weeds of some experimental pilot programs introduced in the Every Student Succeeds Act. But it really seems that DeVos said she doesn’t think much of the annual standardized testing she is expected by federal law to oversee. Or maybe she doesn’t really understand the implications of the federal law she is expected to oversee.

I absolutely agree with what I think Betsy DeVos said about the stupidity of annual standardized testing. Test-and-punish has neither closed achievement gaps nor boosted learning according to any report I’ve seen in the research literature. As Ohio state senator Mike Shoemaker once explained in a farmer’s terms, “You can’t fatten up a hog by weighing him.” But I wonder whether the Secretary of Education understands what she said. If I thought she had a concrete policy plan to eliminate the federal test-and-punish accountability system for public schools and school teachers, I’d be elated. But I suspect that wasn’t really what she meant. What did she mean?

Why does DeVos’s lack of a concrete plan matter?  Well, the ideas that were listed in the President’s proposed education budget are indicative.  There are three examples there of Trump’s and presumably DeVos’s ideas for privatizing education, but as people have tried to parse them out, nobody has been able to explain how they could really ever be implemented. Here is one analysis that shows these ideas are incomplete and poorly conceived.

Then there is DeVos’s commitment to de-regulation.  Yesterday the President signed a law repealing some of the Obama administration’s implementation rules for school accountability in the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Also repealed is another rule that would have ranked and rated colleges of education, including a provision that would have rated the colleges’ departments of education  on the test scores K-12 students posted after the graduates of the colleges were hired by school districts and became their teachers. Many people are delighted to see these rules go because they seemed misguided. But DeVos and Trump’s commitment to deregulation seems ideological, not policy-oriented. The next set of regulations to be thrown out the window are likely to be those the Obama Department of Education established to try to hold the notorious for-profit colleges accountable (the subject of a future post).  Protecting students from these predatory colleges that drive up student debt, fail to prepare students in career-tech programs for existent jobs, and cost the federal government millions of dollars in defaulted loans is a legitimate policy goal that ought to be pursued.  Deregulation as an ideological commitment is not a real policy plan.

There are some other dangers of politicians who operate without a plan. Advisors and staff people who do have a plan and who know how government works can step in to fill the void and hope a president or a secretary of education doesn’t really care about the details of policy or does not notice. Or policy can just sink into the morass of government inertia. We just do things just the way we’ve always done it for as long as anybody remembers.

Fortunately somebody is paying attention to what ought to be considered as the administration and Congress frame federal policy in public education.  Senator Patty Murray is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.  In a 20 page memo to her Senate colleagues, Murry critiques Betsy DeVos’s ideological commitment to privatization of public schools.  Murray explains: “The Trump Administration and some in Congress are pursuing an education agenda under the guise of providing students and families with so-called ‘school choice.’  Though, on its face, this promise may sound appealing, in reality, this so-called answer doesn’t work for students and families for a number of critical reasons. It ignores the needs of students in rural areas without private school options, ignores the threats posed to students with disabilities and students who may face discrimination, and ignores the parents who believe in their communities and want their children to be able to attend strong public schools in their neighborhoods… Privatization occurs when states, districts, or the federal government divert public funds to private education.”

Murray explains the problems that arise when schools are privatized.  Private schools, governed by private boards, do not have to be transparent.  In many places private schools are not required “to be accredited or employ teachers with the credentials necessary to teach in public schools, such as a Bachelor’s degree.”  Murray cites examples of fraud that have arisen as schools are privatized and less accountable, “including misusing public dollars for administrators’ own benefit.”  “Due to a history of discrimination and harassment of children in schools based on race, sex, national origin, religion, disability, immigration status, gender identity, and sexual orientation,” she writes, “Congress developed a system of civil rights laws to ensure every child in the United States has equitable access to education. However, Congressional proposals to create federal voucher programs disregard this history of discrimination and fail to reaffirm that any private schools receiving taxpayer dollars must be subject to certain civil rights laws, including the IDEA.”

She continues: “Privatization efforts provide a false sense of choice for many students and families. A more effective vision of school choice includes supporting strong, high-quality public schools that truly benefit all students and communities.  While many of them are far from perfect, and the work to improve them should never end, public schools have a historic role in bringing communities together and providing opportunities for all students to have a place to learn and grow… Every child in this country deserves a choice to attend an excellent public school. But in order for this to happen, defenders of privatization programs need to let go of their misguided ideas that… siphon away critical taxpayer resources… Instead, parents deserve real public school choices when it comes to their children’s education, including the choice to attend a high-quality neighborhood public school.”

“Something Is Happening and You Don’t Know What It Is…”

After reading John Merrow’s reflection on what is happening in the Trump-DeVos Department of Education, I woke up in the night thinking of Bob Dylan. John Merrow covered education for the PBS NewsHour for decades, and he just visited Washington, D.C., where he talked with old friends and contacts who see significant developments at the U.S. Department of Education.

Merrow describes the movement of education policy in the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration, but he is definitely not depicting a new spirit or a gathering momentum. This is definitely not a “the times, they are a-changin” moment.

I will, however, give Bob Dylan credit for naming what I think John Merrow has noticed: “Something is happening and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”

Here is John Merrow: “In his inaugural address, President Trump told the nation that we have an ‘education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.’ His proposed budget acts on his words, cutting federal education dollars by 13.5% or nearly $9 billion. His Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has called public education a disgrace and a disaster. Openly hostile to traditional public schools (which serve 90% of children) she plans to use the levers of power available to her to support vouchers, home schooling, on-line for-profit charter schools, and other alternatives… However, it’s also chaotic, because Trump’s White House does not trust any of the Cabinet departments and has installed ‘spies’ in all of them, including Education. These Trump loyalists, often called ‘Special Assistants to the Secretary,’ report to the White House, not to the Secretary of the department they’re assigned to. So things have to be beyond weird at 400 Maryland Avenue SW, the home of the Department of Education… I just came from Washington, where some Republicans and Democrats told me that ‘Lamar Alexander is really in charge.’… They seemed to be expressing the hope that Senator Alexander could and would rein in DeVos if she really got crazy. So, it’s bad, but it would be worse if Trump’s anti-public school people had their act together, which they do not.”

In all this John Merrow is able to derive some optimism: “Congress, which finally got out from under the widely-discredited No Child Left Behind Act when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, has now revoked regulations issued in the dying days of the Obama Administration.  That gives even more power back to states and districts, who must still file their ESSA accountability plans with the Department…. even though it’s not clear that anyone at the Department will read them, let alone approve them. Trump’s budget cuts federal dollars that have been supporting State Departments of Education, so it’s reasonable to infer that state officials are spending lots of time and energy trying to restore those budget cuts… So, with Washington engaged in in-fighting, and State Departments fighting to keep their feet firmly in the federal trough, who’s paying attention to local school districts?  Could this be a real opportunity for genuine local control?”

I wonder what gives John Merrow quite so much optimism about local control.  Since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January of 2002, there has definitely been a gross imbalance toward federal power, of course, with the test-and-punish strictures of the federal government conditioning the evaluations of school teachers and even the survival of particular schools on schools’ capacity to raise the test scores quickly. Federal law has demanded accountability even though the federal government itself entirely failed to build the capacity of the schools that have struggled.  Congress neglected to demand that funding between rich and poor school districts be equalized and failed as well to address the conditions that concentrated poverty imposes on the schools in our poorest communities.

Restoring some federal-state-local balance would be a very good thing. But it is wrong to imagine that if the federal role fades, school improvement will automatically evolve. The prophetic warning of the late Frederick Douglass should staunch our optimism:“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

If the federal government’s role in education policy dissipates into incompetence and in-fighting, other influential factions across the states and within local school districts are still likely to manage public schools in ways that further privilege the children of the powerful unless democratic pressure persists.

Here are merely two examples of how privileged interests are driving school policy.

The first example is  at the local level.  On Wednesday, the NY Times published a column by Damon Hewitt, now the director of the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and formerly with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Hewitt protests the injustice of the way New York City selects the students for its  “eight ‘specialized’ city public high schools that include Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. About 28,000 students took the multiple-choice test required for admission, and 5,078 did well enough to secure a place. This system, while it might seem meritocratic, in fact leads to a shocking inequity. Even though black and Latino students make up nearly 70 percent of public high school students in the city, they routinely represent only 10 percent of those offered admission to the specialized high schools. This year the city offered admission to only 524 black and Latino students. The numbers are even lower at some of the most desired schools, such as Stuyvesant, which has space for nearly 1,000 freshmen and offered admission to only 13 black students… The sole criterion is a student’s score on the multiple-choice admissions test.”

Everybody knows, or should know, that test scores, in the aggregate, reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods. (See here and here.) In New York City, parents influential enough to do so scramble in Kindergarten and at the middle school transition to get their children into schools that are thought to prepare students for admission to the elite high schools.  And in New York City everybody knows that students whose parents can afford it are tutored for the admissions test for the elite high schools.  Hewitt concludes: “If the (DeBlasio) administration is truly committed to admitting black and Latino students who deserve to be in specialized high schools, it must find the courage to disrupt the status quo and ask the harder questions… What if the school district… and the State Legislature… started from scratch to create an admissions process that rewards those who do well in middle school?  What if school officials and the public actually believed there are many talented black and Latino students who can succeed in an elite setting?”

The second example is the state-by-state policy promoted by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education: the creation of state report cards that award letter grades based on standardized test scores to school districts and individual schools.  Some had pushed that the federal rules for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act require states to create summative ratings (like A-F school grades) for schools and districts in their state ESSA accountability plans.  Even though the Obama ESSA accountability rules were just scrapped by the new Congress, Education Week recently reported that at least 18 states have or are developing some form of A-F grading system for their schools: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.  Because, in the aggregate, test scores are highly correlated with family income and the overall economic level of neighborhoods where children live (See here and here.), such letter grades are currently branding and stigmatizing the schools in poorer communities with lower grades—ratings that are widely advertised on real estate websites like Zillow and Trulia.  The assignment of letter grades to schools is condemning schools and school districts in the poorest rural areas, and redlining school districts in big cities and inner ring suburbs. In metropolitan areas the school district grades—legitimized because they are created by state governments themselves—are incentivizing parents to choose the so-called “excellent” school districts in wealthy outer suburbs whose schools are A-rated. Across cities and their suburbs, the letter grades are driving residential segregation by both family income and race.

John Merrow has called our attention to the reality that in federal education policy, something is happening but we don’t quite know what it is. We can be sure of one thing, however.  A vacuum of power—even if it happens due to federal in-fighting or incompetence—is likely to serve the children of the powerful and not children who have historically been left out or left behind. For those of us who care about justice in public schools, it will be essential to figure out exactly what is happening and then to press hard for policies that expand opportunity for the poorest students and children who have long been marginalized by their race or ethnicity.

Poverty and Its Effects on School Achievement Are Forgotten in the President’s Budget

On Friday the Trump administration released a very “skinny” budget that outlined a few priorities for each federal department without many details. Many members of Congress, as you have undoubtedly heard, are not happy with what they see, and the ideas in this budget will likely be changed and amended before a budget is passed by Congress. (See more details about the budget process and the President’s proposed education budget here.) There is enough in Friday’s proposed budget for the Department of Education, however, to demonstrate Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s priorities.

In the list of programs for the Department of Education, there are three different expansions of school school choice and privatization—Title I Portability, some kind of pilot of federal vouchers, and expansion by 50 percent of the Charter Schools Program that underwrites grants to states for the launch of new charter schools.  The K-12 education budget cuts after-school programs, two programs that help students prepare for and apply to college, and teacher preparation. There is nothing in Trump’s new education budget to expand the opportunity to learn for America’s poorest children in urban and rural public schools.

For fifteen years the United States has had a test-based accountability system in place supposedly to close achievement gaps, raise school achievement, and drive school staff to work harder. There is widespread agreement that No Child Left Behind (now to be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act) has failed to close achievement gaps and significantly raise overall achievement for the students who are farthest behind.

Among academic experts on education there is also widespread agreement about what needs to change to help students who struggle.  Expansion of school privatization and libertarian “freedom of choice” for a few students is definitely not the prescribed treatment for what is a much deeper set of problems.

Helen Ladd, a well-known professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, just published an extensive analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.  No Child Left Behind relied almost exclusively, Ladd writes, “on tough test-based incentives. This approach would only have made sense if the problem of low-performing schools could be attributed primarily to teacher shirking as some people believed, or to the problem of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ as suggested by President George W. Bush. But in fact low achievement in such schools is far more likely to reflect the limited capacity of such schools to meet the challenges that children from disadvantaged backgrounds boring to the classroom. Because of these challenges, schools serving concentrations of low-income students face greater tasks than those serving middle class students. The NCLB approach of holding schools alone responsible for student test score levels while paying little if any attention to the conditions in which learning takes place is simply not fair either to the schools or the children and was bound to be unsuccessful.”

At Stanford University, sociologist Sean Reardon has demonstrated widening residential segregation of our society by family income.  Reardon, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, shows that across 117 metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009. Reardon and Bischoff believe that economic, “segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area. Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”  Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime. Reardon demonstrates here that along with growing residential segregation by income has been a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

David Berliner, former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University and a past president of the American Educational Research Association, in a recent short column published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, explains how aggregate standardized test scores reflect Reardon’s findings: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained… Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste.”

In a piece published in The American Scholar, UCLA education professor Mike Rose suggests we, “Imagine… that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.  If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided…. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement.”  These are the full service, wraparound Community Schools that have been expanded in New York City, Cincinnati and some other places. Ironically some Community Schools incorporate funding for after-school and summer programs from federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, a program eliminated in Trump’s proposed budget.

Last August, members the Vermont State Board of Education wrote to then-education secretary John King about what they believed was needed in the rules the U.S. Department of Education was drafting to implement  the Every Student Succeeds Act: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.”

Even Andrew Rotherham, a corporate school reformer at Bellwether Education Partners, criticizes one of the proposals outlined in the President’s new budget: to experiment with turning Title I—the 1965 civil rights program to provide extra funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty—into a portable voucher program.  Even though Title I Portability is proposed as a public (not privatized) school voucher program, in which children could carry their extra Title I funding across school district boundaries, Rotherham like many others worries that children would carry Title I dollars away from school districts serving concentrations of poor children to wealthier school districts with a less urgent need for the money: “Right now, those dollars are targeted toward low-income students in higher poverty schools. The idea is to pancake them for more impact, given both the research on effective educational interventions and the reality of housing today for low-income Americans, which often concentrates poor students in schools. Trump’s idea, by contrast, is to spread this money around in amounts too small to make a real difference…. It’s school choice light with an added consequence of making Title I dollars less effective than they are today.”

If, as all these people who do the research and know the research literature explain, poverty and residential concentration of the poorest children in particular neighborhoods and schools is the most serious challenge for public education, then there are also many other alarming problems for children and their public schools embedded in the proposed budgets for other federal departments. The Community Development Block Grant and Home Program, both cancelled in the President’s budget, help pay for housing and also support  shelters and services for the homeless. The Trump budget erases the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps poor people pay for heating their houses in the winter. The budget eliminates the Legal Services Corporation. Even the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is reduced. And of course there is the matter of the 24 million people likely to lose healthcare in the next decade if the current version of the Affordable Care Act were to go forward.

We are hearing a lot about how the President’s proposed budget will affect the middle and working class. As is too often the case, we are not hearing about the implications for the poor. If our society is intent on improving educational achievement, it will have to happen in the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children. At the same time the federal government will have to help state and local governments address poverty and what concentrated poverty does to very poor families and their neighborhoods and public schools.

Congress Has Just Done Away with ESSA Accountability Rules: This Is Not a Tragedy

In 2001, Congress passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a new reauthorization of the 1965 federal education law. NCLB imposed test-based accountability on all of America’s public schools. Because NCLB and its punitive, test-and-punish mechanism became so controversial, it took nearly 15 years for Congress to agree on what was supposed to be its routine five-year reauthorization. Finally late in 2015, Congress came up with a replacement called the Every Student Succeeds Act, but it really left much of NCLB intact—including annual high-stakes standardized testing and a sanctions-based—instead of a school improvement, investment-based—strategy for improving public education.

In new 2017 academic evaluation of the No Child Left Behind Act, Duke University’s Helen Ladd reports, “Perhaps the most positive aspect of NCLB is that it generated huge amounts of data on student achievement in math and reading… A second positive component of NCLB, especially in the eyes of civil rights groups, is that schools are held accountable not only for the aggregate test scores of their students but also for the average test scores of subgroups of students whom they might otherwise ignore… A third arguably positive element of NCLB was its requirement that all teachers be ‘highly qualified.'”  In reality, however, there were serious problems with all these three things Ladd calls the law’s accomplishments. First another national test without high-stakes and punishments—the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)—already gathers plenty of data about our schools; second, NCLB never succeeded, as intended, in improving the achievement of the students in the subgroups it was supposed to help; and third, the law’s requirements for teachers, which later under the Obama administration, came to include strategies to fire teachers who couldn’t raise scores fast enough, have left the teaching profession demoralized.

Ladd also summarizes what she believes were the law’s serious flaws: “An initial problem with the test-based accountability of NCLB is that it is based on too narrow a view of schooling… NCLB… has narrowed the curriculum by shifting instruction time toward tested subjects and away from others… Further, NCLB has led to a narrowing of what happens within the math and reading instructional programs themselves… NCLB also encouraged teachers to narrow the groups of students they attend to… A second flaw is that NCLB was highly unrealistic and misguided in its expectations… A third major flaw is that NCLB placed significant pressure on individual schools to raise student achievement without providing the support needed to assure that all students had an opportunity to learn to the higher standards.”

The 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced NCLB didn’t really change most of these problems. It was still a test-and-punish law even though it turned responsibility over to the states to design the sanctions.  States were required to create their own school accountability plans and then get them approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The Obama Department of Education under Secretary John King spent last year writing and implementing rules for how the states are supposed to proceed with their required ESSA plans, and currently, a little over a year after the law’s passage, the states are in the process of developing the plans which they are supposed to submit to the U.S. Department of Education either in April or next September.

Except that Congress just threw out the rules. The House acted in February, and the Senate just voted last week, under something called the Congressional Review Act, to eliminate the Obama administration’s ESSA accountability rules.  It is expected that President Trump will sign the legislation.

And actually not a great many people are upset.  That is because NCLB and ESSA have been so misguided and so unpopular.

Here is how Dana Goldstein, in the NY Times, describes some of the rules Congress just eliminated: “The Obama regulations pushed states to weight student achievement measures, such as test scores and graduation rates, more heavily than other factors in labeling schools as underperforming.  The regulations also required schools to provide parents and the public with an annual report card detailing schoolwide student achievement data and other indicators of success.  Among the most contentious of the Obama rules was the one that required schools to test at least 95 percent of their students.”  I believe the state report cards are a terrible idea, as they are almost guaranteed to produce low rankings for the schools in the poorest communities.  And there are a couple of problems with what’s called “the 95 percent rule.” The rule was very likely designed to prevent schools from sending home on test day the students likely to post low scores—English learners or students lagging academically, for example. But the same rule is also said to be aimed at preventing parents from opting their children out of testing as a protest. ESSA says it permits opting out, but the 95 percent rule seems contrary to what the ESSA law itself says.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal education reporter, further explains changes in the 95 Percent rule : “Under the NCLB law, schools that didn’t meet that (95 percent) threshold automatically failed to make ‘adequate yearly progress,’ or AYP.  Under ESSA, there’s no such thing as AYP.  So states get to decide how to factor test participation into a school’s overall rating… The Obama administration wanted schools to take the testing participation requirement in the law seriously, so that states, districts, and educators could have data on how English-learners and students in special education were doing relative to their peers. So it used the now-dead-in-the-water regulations to call for states to take pretty dramatic actions for schools that didn’t meet the 95 percent threshold.  The choices laid out in the regs included lowering the school’s overall rating or putting it on a list of schools deemed in need of improvement… Now that the regs are being killed? We go back to ESSA, as it was written originally. Schools still must test 95 percent of their kids. But their state gets to decide what happens if they don’t meet that target.”

If this still sounds to you like too much worrying about test-and-punish and ranking and rating schools, you are not alone.  Here is Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania social studies teacher who blogs under the name Curmudgucation: “Lamar Alexander pointed forcefully at the rules hidden under the desk blotter and said, ‘Get that junk out of here.’ This week featured an assortment of testimonials both in favor of and opposed to the regulations. Conservative voices strongly favored the end of those regulations, finding them too restrictive and not allowing for states to opt out of the whole business. Well, some conservative voices—other conservative voices said, ‘Let’s keep at least some of them.’  Other voices said, ‘Hey, the history of States Rights when it comes to education is not exactly a history fraught with great success.’ And a smattering of voices said, ‘Good God—when Congress changes the rules every six months, it makes it really hard to run actual school systems.’  As I said at the top, there are no heroes to root for in this movie. The Obama regulations were far over and above the actual law and simply attempted to extend the same failed, unsupportable policies of the past fifteen years; they needed to go away. The regulations we get in their place will most likely provide the freedom for wholesale abuse, fraud, and social injustice in education….”

Diane Ravitch used her blog post on this matter to sound like the academic historian that is her identity at New York University: “No Child Left Behind introduced an unprecedented level of federal control of education, a function traditionally left to the states. The federal contribution of about 10% of overall education funding enabled the government via NCLB to set conditions, specifically to require that every child in grades 3-8 must be tested in reading and math every year. Based on test scores, teachers and principals have been fired, and schools have been closed for not reaching unrealistic targets. NCLB was an intrusive, misguided, evidence-free law that was uninformed by knowledge of children, communities and pedagogy. Arne Duncan twisted the screws on schools with his absurd Race to the Top. Education is not a race, and there is no top.  But once again the standardized tests became the measure and the purpose of education. After 15 years of NCLB and RTTT, there is a great deal of wreckage, demoralized teachers, and widespread teacher shortages. And if the point of all that testing was to reach the top of international tests and/or close the achievement gaps among groups it didn’t happen.”

We shall have to wait to see what Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education does about re-creating any rules and also what her staff does about enforcement. Bigger issues remain, however, than the ESSA rules. President Trump has said he will expand military spending with deep cuts in domestic discretionary spending.  Programs threatened by these plans may be Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Protecting these programs must be a priority for those of us who worry about serving America’s most vulnerable students. And then there is  Donald Trump’s and Betsy DeVos’s other priority: privatizing education. These, not the ESSA regulations, are the key concerns.

What Do Standardized Test Scores Really Measure? David Berliner Explains

David Berliner has been teaching about education policy and writing books on education and school psychology for decades. The best known for readers outside colleges of education are The Manufactured Crisis and 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools. Yesterday in a pithy column published by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, Berliner explains why none of our current strategies for school reform will work. Not corporate school reform. Not test and punish accountability. Not blaming school teachers. Not charter school and voucher strategies that allow some promising students to escape public schools—the plans favored by Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. Berliner’s analysis is definitive. He demonstrates that our society has been on the wrong path for decades.

The test scores by which our society now judges schools don’t really measure the quality of schools: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under the 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained.”  Berliner continues: “Similarly, as the families served by a school increase in wealth from the lowest quartile in family wealth to the highest quartile in family wealth, the mean score of all the students at those schools goes up quite substantially. Thus, characteristics of the cohort attending a school strongly influence the scores obtained by the students at that school.”

Berliner adds that, while critics of public education complain about overall U.S. scores on international tests, our wealthiest students do as well as the highest scoring students in the world: “We learn that in the United States, wealthy children attending public schools that serve the wealthy are competitive with any nation in the world. Since that is the case, why would anyone think our public schools are failing? When compared with other nations, some of our students and some of our public schools are not doing well. But having ‘some’ failures is quite a different claim than one indicting our entire public school system.”

So, what is the real problem according to David Berliner? “(P)roblems of poverty influence education and are magnified by housing policies that foster segregation. Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste. The wealthy have cordoned off their wealth. They hide behind school district boundaries that they often draw themselves, and when they do, they proudly use a phrase we all applaud, ‘local control!’ The result, by design, is schools segregated by social class, and that also means segregation by race and ethnicity. We have created an apartheid-lite, separate and unequal, system of education.”

Berliner is not so naive as to believe it will be quick and easy to ameliorate housing segregation by income, race and ethnicity. He suggests changes within the schools that might help, at the same time acknowledging he is describing very expensive investments: “High-quality early childhood experiences; summer school to address summer loss; parent education programs to build skills needed in school; parent housing vouchers to reduce mobility (due to evictions and homelessness); after school programs such as sports, chess clubs, and robotics; a full array of AP courses; school counselors and school nurses at the ratios their professions recommend; professional development for teachers and establishment of school cultures of professionalism; pay for teachers at parity with what others at similar educational levels receive; and so forth.  Of course, this will all cost money.”

In his analysis Berliner does not go so far as to examine what is wrong with the so called “cures” being prescribed today based on the test scores he believes are a faulty measure of school quality. A couple of these practices are particularly poisonous.

The first is the practice by states of issuing statewide report cards that assign “A-F” letter grades to schools and school districts based primarily on standardized test scores. Today over 15 states assign letter grades for schools and school districts.  Jeb Bush’s  Foundation for Excellence in Education (where Betsy DeVos served on the board) promotes this practice and even has a model bill to establish such a program, The Accountability and Transparency Act, that can be introduced in any state legislature. In states that grade their schools with letter grades, not surprisingly school districts that serve exclusive communities of wealthy children tend to post “A” grades while schools in poor communities earn “F” grades. But the practice is not neutral in its consequences.  When states assign letter grades to schools and school districts, the states themselves are negatively branding schools and districts that serve concentrations of children living in poverty. States are essentially redlining school districts in cities and inner-ring suburbs while incentivizing parents to choose the homogeneous, wealthy, so-called “excellent” (A-rated) school districts in outer-ring suburbs. The letter grades drive housing segregation by both family income and race.

The second pernicious practice was embodied in the turnaround plans prescribed in the No Child Left Behind law and later in the School Improvement Grant program of the Obama administration. These programs targeted the lowest scoring 5 percent of schools for radical turnarounds—replacing staff, charterizing the school, or, worse, closing the school. We’ll have to wait to see if this practice continues under the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Trump administration. The 2015 Dyett Hunger Strike in Chicago called attention to the damage wrought when schools in the poorest neighborhoods are closed. Not only do students from the neighborhoods where schools are closed have to travel to more distant schools—often on public transportation and sometimes through dangerous areas, but also the poorest neighborhoods are too frequently left without an elementary school or a high school, essential institutions for anchoring a neighborhood or a community.

The punitive “school reform” practices of the past two decades (based on judging schools by their students’ aggregate test scores)  never affect wealthy areas where students post higher scores. They have been a failed “school reform” experiment on schools and communities where children are poor.  They are yet another burden dropped on our poorest citizens and their children. In his commentary this week, David Berliner presents conclusive evidence that we are blaming public schools for test scores that are instead strongly influenced by family and neighborhood economics.  Please read Berliner’s article.

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.