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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Mike Rose

Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education, died in August.  Those of us who value thinking about education practice, education philosophy, and education policy will deeply miss Rose’s blog and his wisdom. But we will continue to have his books, and now is a good time to revisit some of them.

Rose was an educator, not a technocrat. In our society where for a quarter of a century education thinkers and policymakers have  worried about the quality of the product of schooling as measured by standardized test scores, Rose calls our attention to the process: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate— or constructed at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity?”  (Why School?, p. 14)  In Why School?  Rose explores a very different philosophy of education than what was embodied in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top: “I’m interested here in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind. The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it. Yet it is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it, the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are.” (Why School?, p. 34)

In the mid-1990s, Rose spent several years traveling around the United States visiting the classrooms of excellent teachers. The product of this work is Possible Lives, perhaps the very best book I know about public schooling in the United States and about what constitutes excellent teaching. Rose begins the book’s introduction: “During a time when so many are condemning public schools—and public institutions in general—I have been traveling across the country visiting classrooms in which the promise of public education is being powerfully realized. These are classrooms judged to be good and decent places by those closest to them—parents, principals, teachers, students—classrooms in big cities and small towns, preschool through twelfth grade, places that embody the hope for a free and educated society that has, at its best, driven this extraordinary American experiment from the beginning… Our national discussion about public schools is despairing and dismissive, and it is shutting down our civic imagination. I visited schools for three and a half years, and what struck me early on—and began to define my journey—was how rarely the kind of intellectual and social richness I was finding was reflected in the public sphere… We hear—daily, it seems—that our students don’t measure up, either to their predecessors in the United States or to their peers in other countries… We are offered, by both entertainment and news media, depictions of schools as mediocre places, where students are vacuous and teachers are not so bright; or as violent and chaotic places, places where order has fled and civility has been lost.  It’s hard to imagine anything good in all this.” (Possible Lives, p. 1)

Here, however, are Rose’s conclusions in the book’s final chapter: “What I began to see—and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms in addition to whatever else we may understand about them, represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history: a faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society. These rooms were embodiments of the democratic ideal… The teachers I visited were working within that rich tradition. They provided example after different example of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals.” (Possible Lives, pp. 412-413)  In his stories of four years’ of visits to public schools, Rose presents our nation’s system of public schooling as a defining American institution.

Rose appreciates and celebrates the work of public school teachers: “To begin, the teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable.  They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal…  As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity… The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… A teacher must use these various kind of knowledge—knowledge of subject matter, of practice, of one’s students, of relationwithin the institutional confines of mass education. The teachers I visited had, over time, developed ways to act with some effectiveness within these constraints—though not without times of confusion and defeat—and they had determined ways of organizing their classrooms that enabled them to honor their beliefs about teaching and learning… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms. Thus the high expectations they held for what their students could accomplish… Such affirmation of intellectual and civic potential, particularly within populations that have been historically devalued in our society gives to these teachers’ work a dimension of advocacy, a moral and political purpose.”  (Possible Lives, pp. 418-423

With his strong interest in the life of the classroom and the experience of education, Rose definitely does not ignore education policy, but he looks at policy decisions from the point of view of the students, their families and the community.  Here is how he examines one of No Child Left Behind’s and Race to the Top’s strategies: —school closure as a turnaround policy: “Closing a school and transferring its students is unsettling in the best of circumstances… For low-income communities, the school is often one of the few remaining institutions. Transfer also brings to the fore issues with transportation, with navigating streets that mark gang turf, with shifting kids from the familiar to the strange. And all this happens in communities already buffeted by uncertainty about employment, housing, health care, and food on the table… Race to the Top… raises broad questions about innovation in public education and makes funding contingent on change… But the model of change has to be built on deep knowledge of how the organization works, its history, its context, its practices. The model of change in Race to the Top seems to be drawn from ideas in the air about modern business, ideas about competition, innovation, quick transformation, and metrics—an amalgam of the economistic and the technocratic.  This is not a model of change appropriate for schools….” (Why School? pp. 63-65)

Rose was not, however, a fan of the status quo; he was a believer in the need for ongoing school improvement, but not the technocratic, top-down, ideological school reform imposed in recent decades: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination… There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope.  Such is not the case now.  An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.” (Why School?, pp 203-204)  “My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school. Hand in glove, this motive and machinery narrow our sense of what school can be. We hear much talk about achievement and the achievement gap, about equity, about increasing effort and expectations, but it  is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on the ethical, social, and imaginative dimensions of human experience.” (Why School?, p. 214)

In the age of Teach for America, created by Wendy Kopp as her senior project at Princeton for the purpose of inserting brainy Ivy Leaguers into classrooms because their privileged backgrounds were thought to be gifts to the children of the poor, Mike Rose’s perspective is countercultural.  Rose instead wrote about the experiences of students discovering higher education as the first in their families to enroll in college. Lives on the Boundary and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education examine the work of community colleges, the challenges their students face economically as they struggle to pursue an education, and the personal meaning of their experiences apart from the job training they may acquire. And in The Mind at Work, Rose explores the intellectual demands of so-called blue-collar work.

I urge you to read or re-read some of these books as a way to celebrate Mike Rose’s legacy. None of these books feels dated. Rose’s writing is fresh and lucid. He will challenge you to examine the importance of public schooling in these times when corporate, test-based school accountability and school privatization continue to dominate too much of the conversation about education in the United States.

Why Disciplined Messaging on Public School Policy Is So Important

In some states, the new school year has already begun, the COVID Delta Variant is surging, and already everybody is worrying, and legitimately so, about whether and how public schools will reopen. But that is not really the deepest concern for many of us who care about the future of public schools.

Certainly far-right ideologues investing millions of dollars to push corporate school reform and promote school privatization are messaging their own agenda instead of focusing on whether or not schools reopen in person or whether students and/or teachers are required to vaccinate or wear masks. Newspapers, many of which are losing their education reporters to collapsing advertising budgets, have pretty much opted for the obvious topic—school reopening and masking requirements.  You can be sure, however, that ALEC is instead doggedly promoting the expansion of vouchers as its members lobby inside state legislatures, and Nina Rees, who leads the National Association of Public Charter Schools, is ignoring the effects of COVID-19 while she loudly demands that Congress continue to fund charter schools operated by for-profit charter management companies.

Message discipline is a priority for the far right, and, when Betsy DeVos was Trump’s education secretary, her consistent framing was, in one respect, a plus for public school advocates. She was the perfect foil we could attack week after week as she harangued against “government schools,” rejected the need for a “system” of education, and enthused about serving the needs of individual children and catering to the taste of individual parents. Not once did DeVos acknowledge the benefit of public schooling as the center of the social contract.

We could thank Betsy DeVos for keeping us on message, but Chris Lubienski of Indiana University, Amanda Potterson of the University of Kentucky, and Joel Malin of Miami University in Ohio worry about the longer term impact of the language of the far fight on public education policy. These education policy researchers remind us: “Language shapes the ways we think and feel about ourselves and others, institutions such as our schools, and (more generally) about our world. As applied to education policy, it matters whether our nation’s public schools are described as such, or if instead they are framed as ‘failing government schools,’ like they were by President Trump in his 2020 State of the Union Address. Accepting this truth about the power of language holds many implications. So what happens when language is used to build up narratives that contradict accumulating evidence? Can language reconfigure our perceptions of schools in ways that re-orient their purpose?  More specifically, we assert that disparaging language about our schools unhelpfully limits our policy imaginations. Likewise, we show how casting schools as ‘businesses’— and parents as ‘customers’—shapes commonsensical assumptions about the purposes of public schools, but ignores much of the research evidence about how public schools function…  Regarding this language and imagery, for educational leaders and community stakeholders, we encourage vigilant critical analysis of the language used regarding education.”

Certainly under President Biden, the situation for public schools has improved. Biden has articulated support for public schools and public school teachers. And apart from the language he uses, he has made a lot more federal funding available through COVID-relief.  He has promoted—in his FY22 federal budget proposal—investing in Title I with significantly more money for schools in America’s poorest communities, addressing the federal government’s decades-old failure to fund the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and radically expanding federal investment in wraparound Full Service Community Schools.  But Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Education Secretary, has failed to use language to frame a well conceptualized public school agenda. So far, he has chosen not to speak much at all about the past 20 years of corporate, high-stakes-test-based school accountability.

In the absence of vision from Secretary Cardona and with the rapid decline of sufficient exploration of the key issues in the press, it seems important to devote some serious attention to framing a disciplined set of principles. Lubienski, Potterson, and Malin’s article challenged me clearly to name the principles by which I frame this blog. That way, I’ll be able to check back every week or so to be sure I’m staying on-message.

Here are five principles which, I believe, make up the foundation of this blog.

  1. An equitable and comprehensive system of public schools—publicly operated and regulated by law—is essential for protecting the right of every child to appropriate and equitable services and for ensuring an educated public.
  2. School privatization threatens our public schools, threatens educational equity, and threatens who we are as a nation. No state can afford to support three education sectors—traditional public schools, charter schools, and publicly funded private schools.
  3. Rejecting high-stakes, test-based public school accountability is essential for the future of public education. High-stakes testing has narrowed and undermined what our teachers can do in America’s classrooms, undermined the reputation of public schools and public school teachers, driven privatization and public school closures, exacerbated racial and economic segregation, and undermined the future of children and adolescents living in concentrated poverty.
  4. Our society must ameliorate the effects of past and ongoing racial and economic injustice and aggressively support the public schools that serve our nation’s poorest children.
  5. Public school funding across America’s schools is urgently important. Taxation ought to be progressive and must raise enough money to pay for essential basic services including small classes and necessities like libraries and music and art programs. State and federal funding must be distributed equitably to compensate for the alarming disparities in local taxing capacity across America’s public school districts.

Two new books have pointed to the severity of today’s attack on public education even as the Biden administration has begun to turn more attention to the needs of public schools and away from the relentless Trump/DeVos attack. This winter and spring an alarming number of bills were introduced across the state legislatures to expand vouchers, and tiny clauses were hidden in state budgets to divert public revenue out of the public schools and into charter schools and an array of voucher and neo-voucher programs.

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire argue: “(T)he present assault on public education represents a fundamentally new threat, driven by a new kind of pressure group. Put simply, the overarching vision entails unmaking public education as an institution.  An increasingly potent network of conservative state and federal elected officials, advocacy groups, and think tanks, all backed by deep-pocketed funders, has aligned behind a vision of a radical reinvention.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. xix)

In Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional law professor Derek Black explores our nation’s history of public education as it is reflected in our founding documents and the fifty state constitutions, and as legal attacks have forced the courts to continue to explore how these documents protect  public schooling and students’ rights as our nation’s promises have been threatened.  Black worries that today’s threats are different in character:  “State constitutions long ago included any number of safeguards—from dedicated funding sources and uniform systems to statewide officials who aren’t under the thumb of politicians—to isolate education from… political manipulations and ensure education decisions are made in service of the common good. The larger point was to ensure that democracy’s foundation was not compromised.  But the fact that politicians keep trying and sometimes succeed in their manipulations suggests these constitutional guardrails are not always enough to discourage or stop powerful leaders. This also reveals something deeper: modern-day incursions into public education are so unusual that our framers did not imagine them. They anticipated that legislatures might favor schools in their home communities at the expense of a statewide system of public education. They anticipated that public education might suffer from benign neglect when legislatures, from time to time, became preoccupied with other issues. But they did not anticipate that legislatures would go after public education itself, treating it as a bad idea.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 232-233)

Let’s Not Lose Sight of the Urgently Important Debate about Federally Mandated High-Stakes Tests

It is worth remembering that until 2002, our society did not test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and compare the aggregate scores from school to school as a way to rate and rank public schools. School districts could choose to test students with standardized tests to measure what they had been learning, but until the No Child Left Behind Act was signed by President George W. Bush, there was no mandated high stakes testing across the states. We also ought to remember that NCLB did not, as promised, cause every child to make Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient. Because, as research has demonstrated, out-of-school challenges affect students’ test scores, the whole high stakes testing regime didn’t improve school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps.  Sadly, it did, however, shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

A lot of damage has followed as we have branded the schools serving concentrations of very poor children as failures and punished them through state takeovers, forced privatization, and even school closures.  We have condemned the teachers in these schools as failures. We have published the comparative ratings of schools and thereby redlined particular communities, and accelerated white flight and segregation.

Standardized testing for purposes of school accountability is now mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act, No Child Left Behind’s 2015 replacement. Last school year as COVID-19 struck, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cancelled the testing, but early this spring, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance mandating that the states would be required to administer standardized tests despite that COVID-19 had upended the school year with a mixture of in-person, hybrid, and online education.

In a letter, dated February 22, 2021, then acting assistant secretary of education, Ian Rosenblum informed states they must test students this year, but Rosenblum offered school districts some flexibility if they submitted applications for waivers. He also said that this year the federal government would not require states to use the tests for holding schools accountable through penalties for the lowest scoring schools. His letter explains what is permissible but it has spawned considerable confusion: “It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning. We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices… We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments. A state should use that flexibility to consider: administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments; offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. This could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021 school year.”

In March, 548 researchers from the nation’s colleges of education sent a joint letter protesting Cardona’s failure to cancel standardized testing in this 2020-2021 school year but at the same time affirming the Cardona plan not to use the tests  for high-stakes accountability. The researchers emphasize the danger of the past 20 years of test-and-punish: “We applaud USED’s recent decision to emphasize the importance of data for informational purposes, rather than high-stakes accountability. In light of research evidence, we wish to underscore the importance of continuing this practice in the future. For decades, experts have warned that the high-stakes use of any metric will distort results. Analyzing the impact of NCLB/ESSA, scholars have documented consequences like curriculum narrowing, teaching-to-the-test, the ‘triaging’ of resources, and cheating… The damage inflicted by racialized poverty on children, communities, and schools is devastating and daunting… Whatever their flaws, test-based accountability systems are intended to spotlight those inequalities and demand that they be addressed. But standardized tests also have a long history of causing harm and denying opportunity to low-income students and students of color, and without immediate action they threaten to cause more harm now than ever.”

This summer, press coverage of the issue of standardized testing has largely disappeared.  But suddenly there is some reporting, because McKinsey & Company, and a test publisher, NWEA have just released reports on tests conducted at the end of the school year.  What’s troubling is that while Secretary Cardona has defined the need for widespread testing for the purpose of gathering information, the new reporting is simply being used to document so-called “learning loss,” which many fear will stigmatize and discourage the children in America’s poorest communities.

Trying to explore both sides of the for-or-against standardized testing issue, Chalkbeat Chicago‘s Mila Koumpilova simply assumes that school districts will want to “quantify the academic fallout” from the pandemic and worries  that if testing is cut back this year, Chicago will lose (according to the old NCLB argument) the chance to hold schools accountable:  “The change also raises questions about what tests, if any, the district might use to rate its schools and evaluate its teachers and principals going forward. The MAP math and reading tests factored into the district’s controversial school ratings program, known as SQRP, as well as employee evaluations, admissions to selective enrollment and other competitive programs, and student promotion to the next grade.”

Koumpilova also assumes that our society needs something test makers brag their products will produce: the chance to prove with data that the poorest children were affected most seriously by the school closures and disruption of COVID-19. “New national data from NWEA shows the pandemic widened pre-pandemic test score gaps by race and economic status, and that those disparities were most pronounced for the country’s youngest students and those attending high-poverty schools. The results are considered among the most comprehensive national accounting so far of academic setbacks.  Without a benchmark to compare pre-pandemic growth, it’s not clear how Chicago would measure its own students’ academic progress.”

Without reminding readers that national testing companies have a vested interest in promoting their expensive products, the NY TimesSarah Mervosh simply quotes Karyn Lewis of NWEA, and one of the authors of new report on the importance of NWEA’s recent test results: “How much did the pandemic affect students?  The latest research is out, and the answer is clear: dramatically. In math and reading, students are behind where they would be after a normal year, with the most vulnerable students showing the steepest drops… ‘It’s a bitter pill to swallow,’ said Karyn Lewis, a senior researcher at NWEA and the lead author of the organization’s report… ‘It just keeps you up at night.’  For example, in math, Latino third graders performed 17 percentile points lower in spring 2021 compared with the typical achievement of Latino third graders in the spring of 2019. The decline was 15 percentile points for Black students, compared with similar students in the past, and 14 for Native students….  The report used data from about 5.5 million public school students in third through eighth grade who took the NWEA’s tests during the 2021 school year….”

Finally, we learn that some states will continue to attach high-stakes punishments to the testing despite that Secretary Cardona has rejected that purpose for this year. Michigan is imposing a third-grade guarantee to hold back students whose reading scores were too low at the end of this school year.  Benton Harbor, Michigan is one of that state’s poorest and most racially segregated school districts. The state has been threatening to dissolve the district or shutter its schools to erase a long running debt to the state, which underfunds school districts in Michigan’s poorest communities.  ProPublica‘s Annie Waldman shows us the struggles of third grade teacher, Ashlee Thompson, assigned to teach—online this year—all the third graders at her school, with 48 originally assigned, a number that grew to 53 and then 79 before the broke and indebted school district hired another teacher and reduced her online class size to 35. Waldman explains that a third-grade guarantee in Michigan will force school districts to retain low scoring students unless Governor Gretchen Whitmer can intervene, and we learn about several of Thompson’s students who face being held back despite the chaos of the current school year.  Research demonstrates that holding kids back damages kids’ self confidence and radically raises the chance they will eventually drop out of school.  Waldman profiles children trying to learn online in crowded and noisy homes, families struggling financially, a teacher overwhelmed with outrageous demands made by her school district as she struggles heroically with her own health problems and tries to raise her own children who are learning at home online as she tries to reach between 35 and 79 students every day.

It is evident that there is widespread disagreement about the meaning, uses, and purposes of standardized testing.  But what began in early spring as a significant discussion of these concerns has faded into spotty reporting about testing here and there and the documentation of learning loss. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa, sets out to explore the issues underneath testing this year, but his analysis quickly gets lost in the weeds of the debate about high-stakes testing and the political controversy that has been raging for years. As we emerge from a school year totally disrupted by COVID-19 and perhaps face another year disrupted by the new Delta Variant of the pandemic, it is a good time to examine the ways high-stakes standardized testing has affected our children, our public schools, and our communities.

And it is a good time to explore how much testing we actually need for the purpose of documenting the effects on children of last year’s disrupted schooling in wealthy and poor communities.  I believe that school districts and school teachers everywhere will begin the school year by learning to know their students,  assessing their students’ particular needs, and planning how to make learning exciting at whatever level the children begin the school year.

If the economic disparities exposed by standardized testing were to motivate states and the federal government to take steps to address economic inequality, then I would find the documentation of learning gaps to be more valuable.  In the meantime, Congress, state legislators, school district leaders and staff at state departments of education ought to be leery of the promotion of widespread testing by the testing companies that stand to profit from selling the tests.

Good Teachers Will Know How to Help Our Children Thrive after a Year of COVID-19 Disruption

This spring has been filled with a debate about whether or not standardized testing in public schools should be continued or cancelled. And right now there seems to be a widespread obsession with measuring students’ “learning loss” in this disrupted COVID-19 year. A lot of this anxiety about whether the COVID-19 generation will ever be able to catch up has less to do with the students themselves, however, and more to do with the fact that many people don’t really know what teachers do. Some people think of teachers essentially as babysitters; others imagine teachers merely lecturing all day in front of classrooms of students taking notes or dozing as they sit in rows of desks. Lots of people seem to imagine that teachers won’t know what to do with their students unless they see the scores on the federally required standardized tests in English language arts and math.

Back in the winter, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a letter from 74 national public education advocacy organizations and ten thousand individuals to the recently nominated education secretary, Miguel Cardona. In the letter asking Cardona to cancel standardized testing in this year of COVID-19 school closures and disruption, the writers concluded: “To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

Last week, as part of a series of columns this spring on how teachers can support students once back in school, Valerie Strauss published a wonderful piece by Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento.

As he reflects upon the students who spent much of the current school year online or on hybrid in-person/online schedules, Ferlazzo supports research showing that remedial classes—which go back and start with the basics one step at a time—are a bad plan. Ferlazzo agrees with researchers who have demonstrated that “accelerated” learning is a good idea, but he advises school districts not to spend a lot of money at the publishing houses and online companies promoting their expensive “accelerated learning” products:

“‘Accelerated Learning’ appears to be the buzzword of the day in education. It’s what all schools are supposed to be doing to help students recover from another buzzword—‘learning loss.’… I suspect that a fair number of people are going to try to make a lot of money off of ‘accelerated learning’ products and professional development over the next year and more.  And, though I agree that accelerated learning is what is called for right now (and always!), I also don’t think it’s anything new, don’t think it’s anything magical, and don’t think it’s anything that districts need to spend a lot of money to learn about. It is, in fact, what good teachers of English Language Learners have been doing for years. Good ELL teaching is good teaching for everybody!”

Of course, Ferlazzo is not writing about some of what teachers do in classes for non-speakers and non-readers of English. He isn’t writing about pattern practice drills or conversation “dialogues” that reinforce the rudiments of English syntax and help students learn the nuances of conversation. These parts of English language classes are more like mind-numbing remedial education.

Instead, Ferlazzo writes about something more complicated and more subtle: “ELL teachers know that whatever kind of schooling their students received or did not receive in their home countries, they nevertheless bring a wealth of experience and knowledge into the classroom. This knowledge includes social emotional learning skills like resilience, and understandings that can be connected to academic content. (They might not know specifically about Mardi Gras, but they will know about cultural celebrations; they may not know about the American Civil War, but they will know about conflicts in their home country/region; they may not know about the specific details of climate change, but they may know that one of the reasons their families were forced to leave their country might have been due to more recent drought conditions.)  During the pandemic… all of our students have acquired an enormous amount of other knowledge and skills.”

Ferlazzo suggests that good teachers know “how to look at their students through the lens of assets and not deficits.”

He suggests that good teachers will build their students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and explore. They will make “students feel they have some control over what they are being taught and how they are learning. Providing choice is an easy way for teachers to incorporate this quality” including well designed writing assignments and homework options. Good teachers build confidence instead of threatening students about falling behind: “Research says that no matter how much we say that people learn a lot from failure, most do not….”  Good teachers make their classrooms into settings for relatedness, “where students feel like the work they are being asked to do is bringing them into relationship with people they like and respect” including the teacher and other students through group work.  Finally, good teachers know how to make the subject matter of the class relevant to students’ lives, to their personal interests, and to what’s happening in the world.

Good teachers activate and provide prior knowledge. “Prior knowledge is not just what students bring to our classrooms. It is also knowledge that we strategically provide so they can access even newer content that we will be teaching… (W)e are better learners of something new if we can connect it to something we already know.”

Ferlazzo adds that good teachers make students comfortable emotionally by emphasizing supportive relationships, and organizing classes according to predictable routines. Good teachers use all sorts of “formative assessments”—“low stakes tools” that show the teacher what students can do and where they need help. Good teachers provide study organizers—charts and graphic organizers, note-taking strategies, writing frames and other techniques to help them be independent learners.  And finally, Ferlazzo advocates the use of some adaptive online instruction tools, though in this case, he is very clear: “Tech has its place in education, and it also has to be kept in its place… Really, if we were going to be able to ‘technify’ ourselves to academic excellence, wouldn’t that have happened in many places over the past 15 months?”

I am struck with the similarity of Ferlazzo’s definition of great “accelerated” learning as students return to school post-pandemic with education professor and writer Mike Rose’s basic definition of good teaching. Rose’s book, the 1995, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (with a new edition in 2006), is the story of a four year trip he took across the United States to observe excellent teaching.  Possible Lives came right before our nation fell into the trap of No Child Left Behind and the era of corporate, test based school accountability.  It is the very best book I know about great teaching.

Nearly 20 years after the publcation of Possible Lives, in an extraordinary 2014 article pushing back against the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top era’s school reform, Rose summarizes what he has learned about teaching over a career of observing great teachers: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

Mike Rose, a scholar who has studied good teaching over a long career, and Larry Ferlazzo, an experienced and thoughtful high school teacher, warn us not to underestimate what good teachers know how to do.

President Biden Is Investing to Help Children at School: Secretary Cardona Needs to Provide the Policy Vision

The Education Law Center headlined the press release about its annual Education Justice Lecture: “President Biden’s First 100 Days Set Stage for Overhaul of Federal Education Policy.”

The press release sounded exciting as it described Linda Darling-Hammond, the event’s primary speaker, “underscoring the backdrop of the multiple crises facing the United States and their impact on structural inequities and racism in the nation’s public schools.” It described Dr. Darling-Hammond explaining, “how these profound challenges are behind the President’s call for a comprehensive federal policy to support major investments and reforms in public education, including addressing discrimination and segregation, equitable funding and resources, universal preschool, wholistic student supports, investments in the teacher workforce and access to post-secondary education and college.”

Immediately I opened the link to Darling-Hammond’s presentation, where I found myself disappointed, even though she titled her remarks, “President Biden’s First 100 Days: A Transformation in Action”—and even though I agree that what Darling-Hammond reported is important.  She describes the American Rescue Plan Act which would, according to Darling-Hammond, definitely help children and families by expanding access to affordable health insurance; boosting families’ access to needed nutrition services; supporting and stabilizing child care and Head Start; supporting child mental health; offering stimulus payments, unemployment supplements, and tax credits for family medical leave; and most important of all, expanding the child tax credit and making it fully refundable. As Darling-Hammond stresses, the expansion of the child tax credit, if it becomes permanent, is projected to cut child poverty in the U.S. by half.

Darling-Hammond also summarizes the streams of money in the American Rescue Plan to help schools reopen, to help homeless students, to improve services for disabled students and to expand broadband infrastructure.  And she adds on significant proposals from the Biden administration in the President’s proposed budget—large increases in Title I and IDEA funding and over $400 million to build more full-service, wraparound Community Schools and even more in the Proposed American Families Plan for Pre-K, free community college, teacher training, and additional support for child care.

What I found was a report about the urgently important investments Biden has proposed, but Darling-Hammond’s summary missed what I was looking for, which was also what Darling-Hammond had promised: the plan for an “overhaul of federal education policy.”  The report is long on money and short on what I have been hoping Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona would provide: a major change of plans.

This is not to say that whatever amount of all this money is eventually appropriated by Congress will be unimportant.  Much of this investment is to support America’s poorest families with enough money to more comfortably care for their children. Generations of research demonstrate that poverty itself is the greatest barrier for children in general and for their engagement at school. (See here, here, and here.) Aggregate standardized test scores correlate with family and neighborhood income.  Helping families with food, healthcare and childcare, and enough money to provide for children’s basic needs will inevitably help children at school.

But the problem is that none of this gets at the big problem today in federal education policy and with the state policies that have been spawned by the federal government and are still required to some degree in education policy across the states. Secretary Miguel Cardona has kept in place the vast infrastructure of federally mandated standardized testing.  And even though the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) no longer mandates a cascade of punishments for so-called failing schools, as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did, ESSA does require states to rate and rank public schools and to submit to the U.S. Department a plan for turning around the lowest scoring five percent of schools.  And so, due to long-running federal policy, we have all kinds of practices based on standardized testing—the state school report cards that brand so-called “failing” school districts, school closures, the idea of charterization or privatization as a turnaround strategy, state takeovers of schools and sometimes entire school districts, evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores, the Third-Grade Guarantee, and high school graduation exams.  The federal government doesn’t require some of this anymore, but states still have to promise school turnarounds and lots of states still have the systems in place that they set up under NCLB.

Today we know that the test-and-punish scheme of NCLB and ESSA didn’t work. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have never risen and achievement gaps measured by standardized tests have not closed. During the presidential campaign, President Biden himself spoke out against the current regime based on standardized testing.  Now we must look to Cardona to set a new and more constructive policy framework to go with the added investment.

Cardona is to be commended for quicker action to reverse Betsy DeVos’s disastrous college loan policies that have left graduates of for-profit trade schools with huge debts and worthless degrees.  But, in the area of education policy, he has hired Roberto Rodriguez as Assistant Secretary of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development.  And President Biden has hired Carmel Martin as Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy. These people helped implement Arne Duncan’s test-and-punish policies epitomized by Race to the Top and the Common Core Standards and both of them were involved with the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee back in 2001 during the drafting of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Cardona needs to acknowledge the failure of standardized test-based accountability and to define a well-formulated path forward.  At the very least he should begin to re-name educational inequity with the term, “opportunity gap,” which describes children’s lack of access to equal resources instead of the old test-score-based term, “achievement gap.” There are some policies that we know would help the nation’s most vulnerable children at school, many of them the things that schoolteachers taught us in the statewide walkouts and huge strikes of 2018-2019: smaller classes, more counselors and social workers, enriched curricula, and the reopening of school libraries staffed by certified school librarians.

President Biden has proposed to make more money available. Secretary Cardona needs to proclaim a vision for how the investments in K-12 public schools might best be spent.

Will Staff Returning from Obama/Duncan Years Compromise Biden’s Public Education Promises?

At the end of his first hundred days, President Joe Biden deserves credit for taking important steps to help public schools serving children living in communities where family poverty is concentrated.

First, the President promised during the campaign to triple funding for Title I schools, and the federal budget he has proposed for FY22 would accomplish two-thirds of that promise by doubling the federal investment in Title I, whose funding has lagged for decades behind what is needed for equity.

Second, in the American Rescue Plan federal stimulus passed in March, the President expanded and made fully refundable the Child Tax Credit. In his new American Family Plan he has proposed to extend these urgently needed changes in the Child Tax Credit until 2025.  The expansion of the Child Tax Credit will make it possible for America’s poorest families with children to qualify for this program for the first time. We know that poverty is an overwhelming impediment for children, and ameliorating child poverty is an important step toward helping America’s poorest children thrive at school.

During the campaign, Biden also promised to move public school policy away from two decades of standardized testing.  That is a promise he has, at least until now, entirely broken.

In a letter, dated February 22, 2021, Acting Assistant Secretary of Education, Ian Rosenblum informed states they must test students this year on the mandated annual high-stakes standardized tests, the centerpiece of the test-and-punish school accountability scheme introduced in 2002 by the No Child Left Behind Act.  Rosenblum said the Department of Education would permit flexibility for states which applied for wavers, but Rosenblum described the flexibility in gobbledegook: “It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning. We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices… We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments.  A state should use that flexibility to consider: administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments; offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. This could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021 school year.”  Not surprisingly there has been enormous inconsistency in which some states have been allowed to cut back or delay or pretty much cancel testing, while others were denied their requests.

Rosenblum released the federal guidance on testing before Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was confirmed, and everyone hoped he would rescind the policy.  But instead, Secretary Cardona  justified demanding standardized testing in this COVID-19 year, despite overwhelming problems with the practicality, consistency, reliability, and validity of the tests. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss quoted Dr. Cardona: “He said student data obtained from the tests was important to help education officials create policy and target resources where they are most needed… Cardona said… that he would be willing to ‘reexamine what role assessments’ play in education—but not immediately. ‘This is not the year for a referendum on assessments, but I am open to conversations on how to make those better.'”

One would have hoped that Dr. Cardona would be familiar with the huge debate that has consumed education experts and also many parents who have been opting out for years now. He assures us that mandated testing during this school year, which has been utterly disrupted by COVID-19, will be used to drive federal investment into the school districts where tests show students are suffering most.  However, standardized tests, as mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, were not designed to drive a system of test-and-invest. Instead federally mandated standardized tests are now the very foundation of a maze of policies at the federal level—and across the states—to identify so-called “failing schools” and to punish them with policies that rate and rank public schools, punish so-called failing schools by privatizing or closing them, evaluate schoolteachers by their students’ test scores, and require states to remove caps on charter schools.

Now, as the Biden Administration and Cardona’s Department of Education staff up, it is becoming apparent that Education Department and White House staff will include key people returning from President Barack Obama’s administration—people who helped design and implement these test-and-punish policies,

Last week, Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa reported that President Biden will nominate Roberto Rodriguez for the position of Assistant Secretary of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development in the Department of Education. Rodriguez was a special White House assistant to President Obama for education policy. And before that, he helped formulate accountability-based school reform as staff to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee when the No Child Left Behind Act was formulated in 2001.

In 2012, Education Week‘s Alyson Klein quoted Rodriguez bragging about Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program: “Mr. Rodriguez, the White house adviser, argues that the Race to the Top has spurred big and lasting change, including helping to advance the Common Core State Standards, which 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted. ‘We are going to take credit for helping to accelerate the adoption of these standards throughout the country.  Race to the Top clearly did  that.'” You will remember that in order to be able to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states had to promise to adopt formal standards, and after Bill Gates had funded the development of the Common Core, most states grabbed onto what was available.

After serving in the Obama White House, Rodriguez became CEO of an organization called Teach Plus, whose website claims its mission is “to empower excellent, experienced, and diverse teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that advance equity, opportunity, and student success.”  Progressive educator and writer,  Steve Nelson reads that mission a little differently: “On the surface it is dedicated to developing ‘teacher leaders.’ The clear sub-text is to inculcate the values of anti-union reform in a generation of young teachers. Sort of like Teach for America, graduate school edition. They rail against seniority as job security, asserting with no basis that subpar teachers are retained in times of cost cuts because of union protection. They also claim that unions stifle innovation. Teach Plus has received more than $27 million from the Gates Foundation and has among its donors the Walton Family Foundation and an all-star roster of philanthropic sources dedicated to so-called reform… For several decades public education has been a battlefield between committed educators with little money or power and committed non-educators with lots of money and power.”

Roberto Rodriguez will face Senate confirmation to his new position. But if he is confirmed, he will join an administration that includes a former Obama era colleague now serving in the Biden White House.  Diane Ravitch reports that Carmel Martin holds the the same position—Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy—that Roberto Rodriguez held in the Obama Administration.

The 74‘s Kevin Mahnken provides some background on Carmel Martin: “Carmel Martin is one of the most powerful education experts in Washington, a top Democratic policy adviser…. So why haven’t you heard of her?  ‘Carmel’s a ghost,’ said Andrew Rotherham, a longtime education commentator and founder of the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners. ‘You’re not going to find lots of published stuff by her. She’s that archetype that you can work with on various issues, an inside-game person, but she’s set herself up for this moment because she doesn’t have this crazy-long paper trail.'”  Martin also was staff to Senator Ted Kennedy back in 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act gathered bipartisan steam. Mahnken describes Martin as a defender of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and the Common Core standards when she served in Obama’s White House and of Arne Duncan’s policy demanding that states evaluate teachers by their students’ scores.

Secretary Cardona’s has kept everyone’s eyes myopically focused on school reopening after COVID-19. But we all need to pay closer attention to the other policy initiatives that will emerge from Cardona’s Department of Education. Diane Ravitch worries: “that Rodriguez and Carmel Martin will make policy, not Secretary Cardona or Deputy Secretary-designate Cindy Marten. Biden is looking to the future with his sweeping domestic policy plans. But in education, he is looking in the rear-view mirror to the architects of Obama’s failed programs.”

How the Bad Old Third Grade Guarantee May Be Reborn to Hurt Children in the Post-COVID Era

On Friday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss republished an article about learning loss, an article that raises some very serious concerns about what will happen next fall when we can presume that most children will be back in school.

The article is by a former teacher, now an editor at a website called Edutopia.  Steven Merrill writes: “It’s perfectly sensible to worry about academic setbacks during the pandemic… But our obsessive need to measure academic progress and loss to the decimal point—an enterprise that feels at once comfortably scientific and hopelessly subjective—is also woefully out of time with the moment… If there’s a pressing need for measurement, it’s in the reckoning of the social, emotional, and psychological toll of the last 12 months.  Over 500,000 Americans have died.  Some kids will see their friends or favorite teachers in person for the first time in over a year…  Focusing on the social and emotional needs of the child first—on their sense of safety, self-worth, and academic confidence—is not controversial, and saddling students with deficit-based labels has predicable outcomes… (I)f we make school both welcoming and highly engaging… we stand a better chance of honoring the needs of all children and open up the possibility of connecting kids to topics they feel passionate about as we return to school next year.”

We know that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is requiring states to administer the usual, federally mandated standardized tests for this school year. Cardona says he doesn’t intend for the tests to be used for school accountability, but instead to see which schools and school districts need the most help—a strange justification because the tests were designed for and have always been used for holding schools and teachers and even students accountable. And the punitive policies these tests trigger in schools across the country are well established. What if state legislatures and state departments of education merely use the test scores in this bizarre post-COVID school year to trigger the same old punishments we’ve been watching for years now?

For example, consider the Third Grade Guarantee, which originally came from Jeb Bush’s right-wing, Foundation for Excellence in Education, or as it is now called ExcelinEdCarly Sitrin, for Politico’s Recovery Lab recalls the history: “Republican school choice policymakers in the early 2000s… zeroed in on the third grade, passing the stricter third grade reading laws in place today.  Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was a huge proponent, as was Betsy DeVos… If a child is not reading at a third-grade level, they should be held back until they can. Some states pepper in funding incentives and additional literacy coaches to help kids upgrade their reading skills. Others leave these support measures out or include more anemic versions.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) creates model far-right legislation—bills that can be simply adapted and introduced in state legislatures across the country.  Back in 2012, the Third Grade Guarantee was included in an ALEC model law.  According to Chapter 7, Section 2 (C) of the ALEC model law, “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

There is, however a downside to retaining students, even in the elementary school years. Children who are held back a grade are stigmatized as failures and more likely than other children to drop out of school before high school graduation. In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney summarized: “Half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

And David Berliner and Gene Glass report the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems…Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 96)

Sitrin profiles the dilemma in this COVID-19 school year of students in Tennessee, where policy makers have decided that, depending on standardized test scores, students whose third-grade reading scores are lagging will be held back in third grade, on top of missing out on all of the last year of schooling with their peers.

Sitrin profiles the family of David Scruggs Jr., who has helped his second grader in Nashville with online schooling all year: “For a year, the Scruggs worked to keep their kids from falling behind as the pandemic forced children to stay home… Now, the Scruggs and thousands of families like them in Tennessee and more than a dozen other states face a reckoning with how well they succeeded in their new role as substitute teachers. In the coming months, under a new, stricter state policy, if their son doesn’t do well enough on a standardized reading test next year, he could be forced to repeat a grade… Tennessee’s new law, enacted during a rushed statehouse voting session in January, dictates that if a third-grade student cannot read at grade level as measured by standardized tests, they will be held back until they can. The retention bill was one of several education measures fast-tracked with the support of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in an attempt to respond to COVID-related learning loss… (I)n 18 states, including Tennessee, this decision will be made not by parents and their children,, but by state officials.”

Stephen Merrill worries that states’ test-and-punish policies will merely further stigmatize the most vulnerable students who will be “sorted in a way that will only exacerbate the equity issues… Can we—should we, in the aftermath of the clarifying events of the last year—find the will to challenge the testing regime, return some agency to both our teachers and our students, bring the science of learning into our classrooms, and honor all children with challenging, engaging work that ushers in a new, better, fairer era in education?”

Outrage Continues as Standardized Testing Moves Forward in this COVID-19 School Year

Standardized testing—required this school year by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s U.S. Department of Education despite the disruption of COVID-19—is now happening in many public schools across the United States. But even as the tests are being administered, the anger and protests against this expensive, time consuming, and, many believe, harmful routine are not abating.

Last week, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported: “The Biden administration is facing growing backlash from state education chiefs, Republican senators, teachers unions and others who say that its insistence that schools give standardized tests to students this year is unfair, and that it is being inconsistent in how it awards testing flexibility to states. Michigan State Superintendent Michael Rice has slammed the U.S. Education Department for its ‘indefensible’ logic in rejecting the state’s request for a testing waiver while granting one to the Washington, D.C., school system—the only waiver that has been given. Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, whose state was also denied a waiver, said testing this year ‘isn’t going to show any data that is going to be meaningful for learning moving forward… The controversy represents the newest chapter in a long-running national debate about the value of high-stakes standardized tests. Since 2002, the federal government has mandated schools give most students ELA and math standardized tests every year for the purposes of holding schools accountable for student progress. The scores are also used to rank schools, evaluate teachers, make grade promotion decisions and other purposes.”

The Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) describes itself as a nationwide multi-racial coalition of education organizing and policy groups. In a powerful commentary, also published last week, Jitu Brown, J4J’s executive director, and Beth Glenn, a J4J policy strategist, describe the damage wrought by standardized-test-based school accountability across America’s poorest urban communities: “Today, we know that the communities hit hardest by the pandemic, racism and economic distress are the same ones harmed most by standardized resting. Standardized testing has been weaponized against Black and Brown communities. Low test scores have been used to deem schools ‘failing’ and (as) the rationale for their closure. For instance, although Black students only make up 36 percent of Chicago Public Schools, Black schools are 88 percent of the schools that have been closed or totally re-staffed. In the same city during the COVID pandemic, although Black people make up about 30 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 70 percent of the COVID deaths. These students have already shouldered more than their share of grief, isolation, digital deprivation, interrupted learning, and fear for themselves and their families.”

Brown and Glenn continue: “No educator needs to subject children to a stress-inducing bubble test to identify which students are hurting and in need of our support. In fact, we know that these tests do best at predicting a student’s economic status—which is knowledge we already have! …. (T)est scores have been used to justify taking away learning opportunities in art, music and enrichment, replacing experienced teachers with untrained temporary ones, expanding charters to compete and drain already underfunded schools, and to disinvest in and close those underfunded schools altogether.” “These tests saddle students with labels, haunt them with stereotypes, make school dull and disengaging, put targets on kids’ backs for disinvestment, and create displacement when their schools are ultimately closed because charter operators use student academic performance or behavior to push students out in order to make their own academic portfolio look more attractive to school boards.”

Brown and Glenn provide examples of charter schools pushing out the students who need the most help: “The Chicago… Noble Network of Charter Schools just apologized publicly for… ‘counseling students out’ to transfer them to other schools in order to improve the company’s numbers and denying entry to students with special needs. New York’s Success Academy just agreed to pay $2.4 million to five families of students with special needs for pushing them out with daily harassment calls to parents, constant removals from classrooms, and threats to call police and family services. It’s no accident that many believe those practices… were driven by the need to produce high test scores.”

Valerie Strauss quotes Bob Schaeffer, the acting executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, who believes that Miguel Cardona’s Department of Education has responded inconsistently and with poor attention to the COVID-19 resurgence that is once again shutting down in-person learning in particular school districts: “Department of Education staff seem to be issuing rulings based on whether an applicant goes through the motions of stating that it is offering some form of statewide exam, no matter how small a percentage of students is likely to take it and no matter how useless results from a skewed test-taking population might be… The goal seems to be testing solely for the sake of testing.”

In an action alert on Saturday, the National Education Association invited its members and supporters to submit a formal comment on the Department of Education’s guidance to require standardized testing in this COVID-19 year. “As part of the regulatory process, the U.S. Department of Education is seeking input from the public about standardized testing for the 2020-2021 school year…The official deadline for comments is May 7, 2021, but it is critical that you submit your letter as soon as possible.”  “While some states’ assessments are already moving forward, we are hopeful that the outcry from the public will force the Department to evaluate how harmful and ineffective standardized tests are and start working toward a new system that truly measures student learning… Your opposition to high stakes standardized tests will also send a message to state departments of education and state legislatures that data from this year should not be relied upon to evaluate educators, students, or schools.”

Please do respond to NEA’s action alert by submitting your personal letter.