Slaying Goliath: Diane Ravitch’s New Book Traces a Quarter Century of Public Education Disruption

In her new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch summarizes, defines, and humanizes the widespread attack that has threatened public education across the United States in the past quarter century. And she tracks an encouraging backlash, a growing resistance led by dogged individuals, community organizations, and organized schoolteachers.

What’s been called corporate-accountability-based, test-and-punish school reform is something we’ve all watched over the years—nationally in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—statewide as school budgets have been stretched to pay for privatized charters or vouchers—and locally as our children began taking too many standardized tests, our local schools began receiving letter grades on state report cards, or students left the local public school for a nearby charter school.

With only scanty newspaper coverage to guide us, however, we may have struggled grasp the ideology behind this war on public education or see how all the lines of attack were converging to discredit public schools and the work of local teachers.  Diane Ravitch, the education historian, has done us all an enormous favor with this new book.

Ravitch defines the ideology of the war being waged on public education by a giant army. Ravitch names the so-called “school reform” movement a Goliath-sized experiment in disruption.  Goliath’s work can be seen in “the wreckage that the so-called ‘reform’ movement had created by demonizing teachers as if they were adversaries of their students and treating them as malingerers who required constant evaluation lest they fail to do their duty…. (in) the damage inflicted on public schools, their students and teachers, by heedless billionaires who had decided to disrupt, reinvent, and redesign the nation’s public schools…. (in) the work of some of the richest people in this nation: the Walton family, Bill Gates, Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers, Michael Bloomberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, Reed Hastings, Eli Broad, and a bevy of other billionaires, most of whom had made their fortunes on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or the tech industry.” These people and their organizations “often say their goal is to ‘disrupt’ public education, and I think in this instance they have accurately named themselves. They are Disrupters…. (T)he current disruption movement… is in fact a calculated, insidious, and munificently funded campaign to privatize America’s public schools, to break teachers’ unions, to tear apart communities, and to attack teacher professionalism… Disrupters are proponents of privatization… Disrupters view education as an entrepreneurial activity that should be ‘scalable’ and should produce ‘return on investment.'”

The Disrupters have brought us a dangerous narrative about “failing” public schools even though most of us appreciate our local public schools and the professional teachers who nurture our children. And the Disrupters have redefined the purpose of education: “In the new era of disruption, it seems quaint, antique actually, to speak of ‘love of learning’ as a goal of education, to speak of education as personal development and preparation for citizenship in a democratic society.  Where is the profit in such fuzzy goals? How could… (the profit) be measured?”

Who is Goliath and who is funding the war on public education? The funders are the giant philanthropies like Gates, Broad, Walton, and a host of others including Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, the Koch brothers, and the Bezos family. The movement is also funded by corporate donors, wealthy individuals, and hedge fund managers.  It is being promoted by advocacy groups like ALEC; the member state foundations of the State Policy Network—groups like the Goldwater Institute in Arizona and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan; national advocacy groups like Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and EdChoice—formerly the Friedman Foundation. There are lavishly funded think tanks paid to produce the so-called “research” on which the movement is based. And finally the movement has permeated states and local school boards through the work of ideologically aligned politicians. Ravitch names names in every category, but perhaps the most arresting is the list of Disrupter-aligned Republican state governors: Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis; Michigan’s Rick Snyder; Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal; Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence; Ohio’s John Kasich; Arizona’s Doug Ducey; Illinois’s Bruce Rauner; Georgia’s Nathan Deal; Kentucky’s Matt Bevin; and Tennessee’s Bill Haslam and Bill Lee.

Who makes up the Resistance? Ravitch calls our attention to the imbalance in this battle, beginning with the level of philanthropic support: “The number of foundations which support the Resistance is in the single digits, led by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. This is truly a David vs. Goliath matchup.”  Scholars and academic researchers have supported the Resistance with information: Harvard’s Daniel Koretz and his book The Testing Charade, David Berliner and Gene Glass and their book 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten American Public Schools, Christopher and Sarah Lubienski and their book The Public School Advantage, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein, Duke’s Helen Ladd, Rutgers’ Bruce Baker, Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, Finnish scholar Pasi Sahlberg, U. of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing and her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard, political economist Gordon Lafer and his In the Public Interest study of the cost of charters for the Oakland Unified School District, and the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado—to name just a few of Ravitch’s examples.  School teachers have organized Save Our Schools rallies and working together, the Badass Teachers Association and parents produced United Opt Out.  The Network for Public Education has pulled together education columnists, bloggers and community groups.  The Journey for Justice Alliance, led by Chicago’s Jitu Brown—one of the 2015 Dyett Hunger Strikers who fought to save the public Dyett High School from closure—has organized an army of parents, high school students, and local community activists from city to city.

Where were the major battlefields in the war on public education? Ravitch devotes short, readable chapters to some of the biggest fights. One chapter explores the damage wrought by high-stakes standardized testing; another presents the research on how a strategy based on incentives for raising scores and punishments for low-scoring school districts, schools, and teachers has undermined the morale of teachers and ruined kids’ enjoyment of school.  A chapter on school choice, deregulation and corruption begins: “Any organization that receives millions of dollars in public funds should be subject to public oversight and accountability.  Lobbyists for the charter industry have fought against accountability and oversight, claiming that any regulation would hinder innovation.”  We learn about disruptive reforms which faultered when they didn’t work out as promised: the Gates-funded Common Core Standards; Value Added Measure (VAM) evaluation of teachers by their students’ standardized test scores; and the Parent Trigger school takeover initiative. One chapter describes the philanthropy-funded takeover of the New Orleans school district after Hurricane Katrina, and the profusion of vouchers and charter schools foisted on Florida by Jeb Bush, his foundation, ExcelinEd.

Despite all the money and ideology invested to disrupt the public schools, Ravitch demonstrates that the Resistance is ultimately winning this battle. Test-and-punish didn’t work. No Child Left Behind declared that all children would be proficient before 2014 or their schools and teachers would be punished. But test scores didn’t budge. The NAACP released a major resolution demanding a moratorium on new charter schools until they are regulated in the public interest. The ACLU released studies on how charters secretly and illegally select the most promising students. Barbara Madeloni became president of the Massachusetts Education Association and in November of 2016, successfully organized the state’s teachers and citizens to defeat Question 2—a ballot initiative that would have lifted a rigid cap on the startup of new charter schools.  After the election, Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, dug through the records of funders of the pro-Question 2 campaign and discovered the bundling of illegal gifts from out of state donors.  Cunningham’s work put New York’s hedge-fund backed Families for Excellent Schools out of business when Massachusetts imposed huge fines.

Ravitch ultimately credits the RedforEd wave of teachers’ strikes in 2018-2019 for forcing the public to question Goliath’s narrative: “The teachers taught the nation a lesson… They united, they demanded to be heard, and they got respect.  That was something that the Disrupters had denied them for almost twenty years… The politicians thought that they could silence teachers by breaking their unions. They were wrong. Teachers learned that together they had power. And they won’t forget that lesson.”

Even though Goliath has not died, the giant’s energy is flagging.  Ravitch believes, the Resistance has taught us to keep on keeping on with all the skill and energy we can muster.  Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, will be on bookstore shelves on January 21.  It is now available for pre-order.  I urge you to get a copy and read it carefully.

Giving Thanks for Red for Ed — Teachers Striking for Justice in Public Schools

In their agreement at midnight on Halloween to end a ten day strike, Chicago’s teachers secured not only a salary increase, but also the promise that the school district will spend $35 million annually to reduce what have become in many schools outrageous class sizes. Teachers also won the guarantee of a full time nurse and social worker in every school by July of 2023.

A lagging recovery from the 2008 recession, compounded in many states by revenue shortages due to tax cutting and the expansion of school privatization at public expense, has left desperate conditions in traditional public schools across many states.  In response, the Chicago Teachers Union, like Red for Ed counterparts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, and Oakland, went on strike to expose primary staffing inadequacy in public schools where such conditions are pretty much invisible to the general public.  After all, most of us do not have the opportunity to go into schools and look around to see what’s happening there.

Red for Ed teachers’ strikes have also challenged statewide policies that have come to define our public schools during the corporate school reform era. The Los Angeles and Oakland strikes, for example, surfaced evidence that charter schools—over which California’s public school boards of education have had little control—steal essential dollars that should be spent on the majority of children and adolescents who attend the public schools.  In Arizona, the teachers’ strike helped put the spotlight on the alarming danger to public schools of a pending 2018 ballot initiative (which ultimately was voted down) to expand the state’s already expensive Education Savings Account neo-vouchers. Chicago’s teachers were able to expose untenable aspects of the 1995 Illinois state law that imposed mayoral governance on Chicago’s public schools—an appointed school board and punitive restrictions to disempower the Chicago Teachers Union itself. The strike also helped shine a light on problems with student-based budgeting and school closures, both of which have been at the center of Chicago’s portfolio school reform under former mayor Rahm Emanuel. While the final contract agreement which ended the strike did not eliminate all of these policies, the strike made their consequences visible and secured promises from key legislators in Springfield to address several of these concerns.

Two more Red for Ed teachers’ walkouts have occurred in the weeks since Chicago’s teachers settled. The first, in Little Rock, Arkansas on November 14, involved 1,800 members of the Little Rock Education Association. The strike was not about teachers’ salaries. The Little Rock teachers’ strike instead pushed back against the the Arkansas Board of Education’s plan to end the unpopular 2015 state takeover of Little Rock’s schools by dividing the district. The state Board of Education proposed to return “successful” schools to a local school board, to close eleven schools, and to hold the lowest scoring schools under state takeover. Because the schools the Arkansas Board of Education refused to release from state takeover are majority black and brown, teachers struck on November 14, to protest what teachers identified as a return to segregation.

For Jacobin Magazine, Eric Blanc reports: “The immediate roots of this week’s action go back to January 2015 when the Arkansas State Board of Education announced that it was taking over Little Rock’s schools due to low standardized test scores. By all accounts, the ensuing state takeover failed to accomplish its nominal goal of improving stability and educational opportunities for the town’s low-performing schools. Yet rather than return Little Rock School District to local control in 2020 as promised, the state board instead proposed in September of this year that it would continue to oversee so-called “F”-rated schools, those with the lowest scores… In a dramatic protest on the evening of October 9, thousands of teachers, support staff, students, and community members congregated on the steps of Central High… This public outpouring forced the state board to change tactics  At the next evening’s contentious Arkansas Board of Education meeting, it dropped the proposal to split Little Rock’s school district.  But surprisingly, the board then immediately proceeded to cease recognition of the LREA (Little Rock Education Association) as the educators’ representative, thereby scrapping the last remaining collective bargaining agreement for school workers in Arkansas. The decision was blatant retaliation against not only teachers but also Little Rock’s school support staff, who were in the midst of negotiating a pay raise.”  On November 14, teachers walked out in protest.

Not surprisingly in Arkansas, the Waltons, well known for funding attacks on public education, have for many years also been funding the campaigns of legislators likely to impose policies like the 2015 state takeover. Blanc continues: “The Waltons for decades have bankrolled Arkansas politicians, including Governor Asa Hutchinson, to break up unions and the public sector. They have paid for anti-union Astroturf organizations like the Arkansas State Teachers Association and leveraged their fortune to make standardized testing the live-or-die metric to judge Arkansas schools.”  The Arkansas State Teachers Association sounds like a teachers’ union, but what it is really?

For the Arkansas Times, Max Brantley explains: “Little Rock teachers are… complaining of a mass e-mail from the anti-union Arkansas State Teachers Association… warning teachers against striking. This group had a $362,000 startup grant from the Walton Family Foundation, no surprise given how notoriously anti-union Walmart has always been.  ASTA also has ties to a national anti-union organization founded by like-minded billionaires… ASTA also has been peppering state newspapers with op-eds touting their anti-union views.”

The  Little Rock teachers’ strike focused on the urgent need to preserve one racially integrated school district with all schools returned to the local board of education, which will be elected in November of 2020.  Teachers also stood up for their right  to be represented by the Little Rock Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest public sector union.

This month’s second recent Red for Ed event closed schools across the state of Indiana on November 19th, as 15,000 teachers gathered in Indianapolis for a statewide rally. Chalkbeat Indiana‘s Emma Kate Fittes describes the walkout, which teachers dubbed a statewide rally because state law prohibits teachers’ strikes: “With so many teachers planning to be at the state capitol on the ceremonial opening day for the legislative session, more than 130 districts statetwide have cancelled classes, affecting about half of the state’s students.” “Better working conditions, higher pay, increased funding for public school classrooms, less emphasis on standardized testing and more respect—these are some of the things teachers say they will be fighting for Tuesday at a massive Indiana Statehouse rally.”

Fittes summarizes what teachers demanded: “The state’s largest union, Indiana State Teachers Association, is calling for lawmakers to take three actions: give schools $75 million of the estimated $400 million the state will bring in this year above its expected revenue, pass a hold-harmless provision to protect schools from any negative consequences related to low 2019… standardized test scores, and repeal new licensing requirements mandating 15 hours of unpaid professional development related to their community’s workforce needs.”

Salaries were a centerpiece of the Indiana rally on November 19. The Indianapolis Star‘s Arika Harmon reports that Indiana’s average teacher pay, $50,614, lags the average teachers’ salary in all the states surrounding Indiana: Kentucky, $52,952; Ohio, $58,000; Michigan $61,911; and Illinois, $65,721.

Further, Indiana has been rating and ranking schools and school teachers according to students’ performance on state tests, but the state changed tests in spring of 2019, and the teachers want their evaluations and their schools’ ratings held harmless because scores dropped sharply when new tests were introduced.

Finally, on November 19, teachers were protesting a state-imposed a “staff development” teachers must complete to renew their teaching certification. As though teachers are ignorant about the workplace outside their schools, they will now be required to engage in a workplace externship or learn about the workplace in some other way. Herron describes the requirement: “The new rules passed last year require teachers to log 15 hours of professional development related specifically to their community’s workforce needs—like available jobs and skills needed by local employers—before they can renew their teaching license.”

Teachers across Indiana declared that it is not their own misunderstanding of the demands of the workplace but instead the conditions in the schools where they work which are undermining their students’ education. The Indianapolis Recorder‘s Tyler Fenwick interviewed teachers at the rally including Trudie Ingram, a Gary, Indiana middle school science teacher. She explained how Indiana’s miserably inadequate funding for public education undermines opportunity for her students: “It’s a great hindrance for science because we don’t have the equipment and the technology… to keep students up to date on those things that are required for them if they’re going to go on to higher education to become science-related majors.”

For nearly two years teachers have built Red for Ed momentum across the states. Teachers have courageously raised their voices:

  • for smaller classes;
  • for enough school funding to ensure their schools have essential equipment and technology;
  • for enough school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses, and certified librarians;
  • for teachers’ salaries that provide a living wage;
  • against too much standardized testing that eats up classroom time and narrows the curriculum;
  • against branding schools in poor communities with letter grades;
  • against corporate state takeovers and school closures in the schools that serve poor communities; and
  • against the expansion of privatized charter schools and vouchers that eat up desperately needed public dollars.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, we must give thanks for teachers’ courage and energy as they continue to demonstrate our collective responsibility to provide all of our nation’s children with public schools which will enrich their lives and ensure our society’s future as an inclusive democracy.

What Does the Slippage in NAEP Reading Scores Mean about our Schools? our Children? our Society?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is considered the most reliable indicator of trends in American public education. The test is administered to samples of students and is used to track long-range trends.  Nobody reports on the NAEP scores of specific students. Nobody judges schools by comparative scores on NAEP. Nobody evaluates teachers based on their students’ NAEP scores. NAEP has never been part of the accountability scheme imposed by No Child Left Behind.

Diane Ravitch explains what the NAEP is:  “We have only one authoritative measure of academic performance over time, and that is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP (pronounced ‘nape’).  NAEP is part of the U.S. Department of Education.  It has an independent governing board, called the National Assessment Governing Board.  By statute, the governing board is bipartisan and consists of teachers, administrators, state legislators, governors, business people, and members of the general public.”  (Reign of Error, p. 44)

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard expert on the construction and use of standardized tests and the way testing is distorted when the scores are used for high stakes school accountability (to compare and judge schools and teachers), explains why the NAEP scores are respected as an accurate measure of the overall trends in U.S. public schools: “NAEP… is  considered a very high-quality test. NAEP scores are not susceptible to inflation because teachers aren’t held accountable for scores and therefore have no incentive to engage in NAEP-focused test prep.  And NAEP scores are there for the taking.  In math and reading, NAEP is administered every two years, and the scores are available to anyone on the web.” (The Testing Charade, p. 57)

The most recent NAEP scores were released in late October, for the first time since 2017. For the NY Times, Erica Green and Dana Goldstein describe the results: “America’s fourth and eighth graders are losing ground in their ability to read literature and academic texts…. The average eighth-grade reading score declined in more than half of the states compared with 2017, the last time the test was given. The average scores in fourth-grade reading declined in 17 states.  Math scores remained relatively flat in most states.”

Of course, the papers have been filled with a lot of hand wringing—blaming the teachers—despairing the decline in our young peoples’ attainment.  Bill Mathis believes all this misses the point.  Mathis served as a design consultant for the National Assessment of Education Progress. He is currently a member of the Vermont State Board of Education and the managing director of the National Education Policy Center.  Mathis recently shared his analysis in a pithy column which first appeared in the Vermont Digger.  He has given me permission to reprint it here:

William J. Mathis: Beat the dead horse harder

The latest round of flagellation of dead horse flesh has been provoked by the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.  After 20 years of overall progress, many of the scores went down.  While all groups improved over the long haul, the gaps between white and other racial groups varied over time but generally remained in place.[i]  Education critics lament and proclaim, “It’s time to get tough! Let’s do some more of what didn’t work!” Meanwhile officials whisper measured words through steepled fingers saying they are “concerned,” that we must do more to ensure our students are well prepared to compete with China and “we have more work to do.” Still others claim that this exercise in numerology is helpful.

Put plainly, standardized tests have no meaningful relationship with economic development and they are poor definers of learning needs. Nevertheless, the NAEP is a valuable outside way of examining trends.

The scores dropped across the nation — which tells us one important thing. The causes are not found in local or state initiatives. Something bigger is at play. Since the scores themselves do not tell us why they are low, we have to look at broad contemporary events and circumstances. This means looking at the research and related social and historical events.

Such is the case with NAEP. The strongest predictor of standardized test scores is poverty.[ii]  In this latest release, the biggest drops were among disadvantaged students. Sean Reardon at Stanford has compiled a data base of all school districts in the nation and found that test scores are most affected by this single construct.[iii]

He goes on to note that schools are highly segregated by class and by race. In fact, society is showing signs of resegregating.[iv]  Resolving these gaps is our first threshold issue. High needs children are concentrated in high poverty schools which are, on average, less effective than schools with lower poverty.  In a vicious cycle, poor schools are provided lesser resources. Compounding the problem, the Census Bureau tells us the wealth gap has sharply increased across the nation. Many schools across the nation have not recovered from the 2008 fiscal crisis and the federal government has never provided the promised support for needy children.

Regardless, the schools were mandated to solve the test score problem.  The trouble was that the policymakers got it backwards. Poverty prevents learning.  It is the threshold issue.  Without resorting to what we knew, the dead horse was beaten once more with the No Child Left Behind Act.  We adopted the Common Core curriculum, punished schools, and fired principals and teachers whose misfortune was being assigned to a school with a high concentration of needy children.  It was literally expected that a child from a broken home, hungry and with ADHD would be ready to sit down and learn quadratic equations.  Nevertheless, the test-based school accountability approach emerged and still remains the dominant school philosophy.  While it is claimed that successful applications exist, the research has not been found that says poverty can be overcome by beating the dead horse.  The irony is that the tests themselves show that a test based system is not a successful reform strategy.

Regardless of the dismal results, there is some reason to be optimistic. Policy researchers from across the spectrum agree that test based accountability has not been successful. On one end are Diane Ravitch and David Berliner who point to the lack of support provided to schools. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michael Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute agrees. They further agree that we must attend to social and emotional learning.

We live in troubled times. We face pathological shooters, communal activities are waning, our political establishment is wobbly, and basic economic well-being is threatened. We must certainly prepare the younger generations to be ready for the workforce, and that means keeping a sufficient number of independent measures of academic achievement, geared to the needed skills of society.  Yet, while we teach fundamentals, our most important obligation is to prepare all of our children to enhance the values of our heritage, guided by equality and democracy, as our paramount and universal values.

Thankfully. The public gets it. But it will not be solved by beating a dead horse.

Elizabeth Warren Releases Strong, Comprehensive Public Education Plan

The education plan Elizabeth Warren released on Monday is urgently important. Today, I am not going to focus on the math—whether Warren’s plan can be funded by the wealth tax she has also proposed. Neither am I going to speculate about whether, politically, she might be able to get Congress—and in the case of some of her proposals, the fifty state legislatures—to enact her ideas.

The paper she published on Monday matters, I believe, for a very different reason. Warren articulates a set of principles that turn away from three decades of neoliberal, corporate school reform—the idea, according to The American Prospect‘s Robert Kuttner, that “free markets really do work best… that government is inherently incompetent… and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market.”  Competition is at the heart of the system, all based on high-stakes tests, and punishments for the schools whose scores fall behind.

In her education plan, Warren endorses the civic and democratic principles which, from the nineteenth century until the late 1980s, defined our nation’s commitment to a comprehensive system of public education. Her plan incorporates the idea that while public schools are not perfect, they are the optimal way for our complex society to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures, by law, the rights and addresses the needs of all children. And she acknowledges the massive scale of the public commitment required to maintain an equitable education system that fairly serves approximately 50 million children and adolescents across cities and towns and sparsely populated rural areas.

I urge you to read Elizabeth Warren’s education plan.  Here I will highlight what I believe are her most important suggestions for overcoming the bipartisan, neoliberal, corporate reform agenda, formalized in 2002 in the No Child Left Behind Act, but dominating policy for more than a decade before that. Corporate education reform has driven federal policy in education during five recent administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump.

Warren emphatically demands that school privatization and the corruption that has accompanied the expansion of vouchers and charters be stopped.  This is an improvement from the position Warren advocated fifteen years ago. The NY TimesDana Goldstein reminds readers that in a book she published in 2003, Warren suggested a universal voucher program to expand choices for parents, but in recent years, Goldstein points out, Warren seems to have paid more attention to the impact on public schools of the expansion of school choice: “(I)n 2016, Ms. Warren, then in her first term as a senator from Massachusetts, spoke out against a ballot referendum that would have raised the cap on the number of charters that could open each year in her home state.”

In the plan she released on Monday, Warren begins the section on school privatization by condemning the ways charter schools and vouchers damage public schools: “To keep our traditional public school systems strong, we must resist efforts to divert public funds out of traditional public schools. Efforts to expand the footprint of charter schools, often without even ensuring that charters are subject to the same transparency requirements and safeguards as traditional public schools, strain the resources of school districts and leave students behind, primarily students of color… More than half the states allow public schools to be run by for-profit companies, and corporations are leveraging their market power and schools’ desire to keep pace with rapidly changing technology to extract profits at the expense of vulnerable students. This is wrong. We have a responsibility to provide great neighborhood schools for every student. We should stop the diversion of public dollars from traditional public schools through vouchers or tuition tax credits—which are vouchers by another name. We should fight back against the privatization, corporatization, and profiteering in our nation’s schools.”

Warren names the reforms needed to rein in school privatization:

  • She is the only candidate so far who explicitly advocates ending the federal Charter Schools Program, which has used tax dollars as a sort of venture capital fund to stimulate the expansion of charter schools with grants to states and charter management companies. Her declaration is emphatic: “End federal funding for the expansion of charter schools: The Federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), a series of federal grants established to promote new charter schools, has been an abject failure… As President, I would eliminate this charter school program and end federal funding for the expansion of charter schools.”
  • Like other candidates, Warren proposes to ban for-profit charter schools, but she goes farther by opposing all the arrangements by which nonprofit charter schools are now, quite legally, managed by huge for-profit ventures: “Ban for-profit charter schools: Our public schools should benefit students, not the financial or ideological interests of wealthy patrons like the DeVos and Walton families. I will fight to ban for-profit charter schools and charter schools that outsource their operations to for-profit companies… Many so-called nonprofit schools—including charter schools—operate alongside closely held, for-profit service providers. Others are run by for-profit companies that siphon off profits from students and taxpayers… (M)y plan would ban self-dealing in nonprofit schools to prevent founders and administrators from funneling resources to service providers owned or managed by their family members.”

In her new plan, Warren also addresses the funding crisis in the public schools which serve our nation’s poorest children. She begins by acknowledging the efforts of schoolteachers—on strike this year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Los Angeles to Oakland and ongoing right now in Chicago—to call attention to their underfunded schools that cannot afford to provide the basics that more privileged American public school students take for granted: “(O)ur country’s educators have taken matters into their own hands—not only in the classroom, but also in the fight for the future of our country. Teachers have been battling for public investment over privatization, and for shared prosperity over concentrated wealth and power. Educators… across the country have carried the #RedforEd movement from the streets to state capitol buildings, striking not just to get the compensation they deserve, but to condemn the diversion of funding from public schools to private ones, to increase funding to reduce class sizes and improve their schools, and to expand services that will make their students’ lives safer and more stable.”

Warren’s proposals for school funding equity are extensive.

  • Warren would quadruple the federal investment in Title I to better support public school serving children in poverty.  And, in contrast to programs like Race to the Top which incentivized the expansion of charter schools, Warren would offer federal funding incentives to states if they would make their own school funding formulas more equitable.
  • She would federally fund 40 percent of the cost for school districts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Education Act. That is what Congress promised in 1975 when the law was passed. Last year, writes Warren, Congress funded the law at a paltry 15 percent.
  • Warren endorses the goal of making 25,000 public schools into full-service, wraparound Community Schools by 2030. “Community Schools are the hubs of their community. Through school coordinators, they connect students and families with community partners to provide opportunities, support, and services inside and outside the school. These schools center around wraparound services,” incorporate medical and social services, and provide expanded learning time and after school programs.
  • She commits to expanding the capacity of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to ensure that all students are treated fairly under the law.  She also commits to providing federal funding for the kind of magnet school and transportation programs which three decades ago enabled school districts to voluntarily integrate, both racially and economically.
  • Warren commits to strengthening public school programs for the 10 percent of American students who are English language learners, to ensuring that the needs of immigrant students are fully addressed, and to supporting American Indian students in public schools.

As part of a section of the report devoted to, “providing a warm, safe, and nurturing school climate for all our kids,” Warren buries one of her most important principles: “As President, I’ll push to prohibit the use of standardized testing as a primary or significant factor in closing a school, firing a teacher, or making any other high-stakes decisions, and encourage schools to use authentic assessments that allow students to demonstrate learning in multiple ways.”

It is difficult to imagine how Warren would accomplish this goal, because high-stakes testing as the measure for school quality is, thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, embedded to varying degrees in the fifty state laws. It is, however, refreshing to have a Presidential candidate strongly advocate for eliminating high stakes testing as the way we evaluate schools and schoolteachers across the United States. Half a century of academic research, most recently culminating in a new study by Stanford University professor, Sean Reardon, has demonstrated that a school’s or school district’s standardized test scores do not measure the quality of a school or the teachers in a school.  Instead standardized test scores correlate almost perfectly with the median income of families in the school or district. No Child Left Behind mandated that all public school children be tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school, that their scores be used to judge their schools, and that the schools unable quickly to raise scores be punished.  Race to the Top then demanded that states tie teachers’ evaluations to the same test scores. Although the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, eased some of this, a test-and-punish regime based on mandated high-stakes testing still drives school accountability across the United States.

Warren is proposing to turn around decades of policy that punishes public schools and the nation’s poorest students and their teachers. None of the other Democratic candidates for President has released such a comprehensive plan. I hope the release of Warren’s new plan will stimulate discussion of these issues among Democrats running for President.  In the debates so far, none of the moderators has asked the candidates about their policies regarding  public education.  It’s time for some serious conversation about the public schools.

(This blog recently named seven important principles candidates for President ought to embrace to address the many ways charter schools damage our public schools.)

Even Though ESSA Dropped the Requirement, 34 States Still Evaluate Schoolteachers by Students’ Test Scores

Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reports this week that 9 of the 43 school districts which adopted the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers have stopped using students’ scores for teacher evaluation. This is an important development because all sorts of research has shown that students’ scores are unreliable as a measure of the quality of a teacher.  But too many states are still evaluating their teachers with unreliable algorithms based on students’ test scores.

Barnum reminds us about the history of using students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers: “The push to remake teacher evaluations was jump-started by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, which offered a chance at federal dollars to states that enacted favored policies—including linking teacher evaluation to student test scores… Philanthropies—most notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—provided support for a constellation of groups pushing these ideas.”

Evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores also became a condition for states to qualify for a No Child Left Behind Waiver. After it became apparent that No Child Left Behind was going to declare a majority of schools “failures” because they were not going to be able to meet the law’s rigid schedule, in 2011, the federal government offered to relax some of the law’s most punitive consequences by offering states waivers from No Child Left Behind. But to qualify for a waiver, states had to promise to enact some of Arne Duncan’s pet policies. Using students’ standardized test scores for evaluating schoolteachers was one of the requirements for states to qualify for No Child Left Behind Waivers.  Education Week explained: “In exchange, states had to agree to set standards aimed at preparing students for higher education and the workforce. Waiver states could either choose the Common Core State Standards, or get their higher education institutions to certify that their standards are rigorous enough. They also must put in place assessments aligned to those standards. And they have to institute teacher-evaluation systems that take into account student progress on state standardized tests, as well as single out 15 percent of schools for turnaround efforts or more targeted interventions.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Barnam explains the impact of these federal requirements: “Between 2009 and 2013, the number of states requiring test scores to be used in teacher evaluations spiked from 15 to 41, including Washington, DC.”

But in 2015, Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  And  the new law was partly shaped by a protest against Arne Duncan’s misguided teacher evaluation scheme. Barnum explains: “The backlash culminated with the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which explicitly bars future secretaries of education from doing what Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan did—trying to influence how teachers are evaluated.”

At the time, the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton described how the new ESSA would specifically stop the U.S. Secretary of Education from intervening in the formulation of state laws by limiting, “the legal authority of the education secretary, who would be legally barred from influencing state decisions about academic benchmarks, such as the Common Core State Standards, teacher evaluations and other education policies.”

Barnum outlines many of the problems with the schemes states set up to comply with Arne Duncan’s requirement that—to qualify for a Race to the Top grant or a NCLB waiver—states must judge teachers by students’ scores: “States that complied with federal urging to overhaul their evaluation systems struggled with exactly how to measure teachers’ performance. Classroom observations were usually the biggest factor, with tests playing a key role. But since many teachers do not have a standardized test corresponding to their grade and subject, some districts created new tests or had teachers create their own, raising concerns about overtesting. In other instances, teachers were evaluated in part by student performance in subjects they didn’t teach—the situation for half of New York City teachers in 2016. In many states, the new evaluations debuted just as new academic standards and tests were being implemented, frustrating teachers and their unions who felt they were being held accountable for unfamiliar material without adequate training.”

It became popular to use statistical algorithms called Value Added Measures (VAMs) of student learning rather than merely the aggregate benchmark scores of a teacher’s students as the basis of each teacher’s evaluation. However, in 2014, the American Statistical Association, and in 2015, the American Education Research Association released evidence that calculations trying to measure each teacher’s discrete contribution to her students’ learning were statistically flawed. The American Statistical Association warned: “Research on VAMs has been fairly consistent that aspects of educational effectiveness that are measurable and within teacher control represent a small part of the total variation in student test scores or growth; most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers… The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences. The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling.”

The problem is that a lot of states continue to use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.  Education Week‘s Madeline Will explains: “Now 34 states require student-growth measures in teacher evaluations… Ten states and the District of Columbia dropped the requirement, while two states (Alabama and Texas) added a student-growth requirement during the same time period. Among the states that do still require an objective measure of student growth, eight do not currently require that the state standardized test be the source of the data. Instead, districts can use measures like their own assessments, student portfolios, and student learning objectives to determine teachers’ contribution to student growth….”

The 2015 replacement for No Child Left Behind—the Every Student Succeeds Act—ended the federal policy pushing states to judge teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. It is reprehensible that so many states are still holding on to this kind of discredited teacher evaluation scheme.

Tim Slekar on the Exodus of Schoolteachers from Their Chosen Profession

Tim Slekar is the Dean of the College of Education at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin.  Early in September, Slekar was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio, an interview recommended to me by a public school teacher who said it is the best statement she has heard of the truth about public education today.

You can listen to Slekar explain what is described in many places as a growing shortage of public school teachers.  Slekar believes we are not merely experiencing a shortage of teachers;  what is happening instead is an exodus of public school teachers from their chosen profession. If it were a classic labor shortage, explains Slekar, pay would be raised, conditions would be made better, and enrollment in teacher training programs would grow.  All of this would attract more people to teaching, according to how a labor market is supposed to work.  But, argues Slekar, fewer and fewer people now want to be schoolteachers.  He explains that in his office, he has listened as parents of his college students beg their children to choose another profession instead.

Slekar believes that teachers are being driven out of the profession by the impossibility of working under the conditions imposed by test based school accountability, a strategy designed to be punitive. The goal was to make teachers work harder and smarter for fear their schools would receive a low rating. Test based accountability was a bipartisan strategy designed in the 1990s and cast into law in 2002 in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required schools to test students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Schools were then judged by their aggregate test scores, and the lowest scoring schools were punished.

Slekar also has a blog, Busted Pencils, where he has covered this subject extensively.  In a post last April, Slekar declares: “Accountability—loved by Democrats and Republicans—has almost become a religious movement. In fact the idea of even questioning the usefulness of test based accountability can cause enraged panic in accountability zealots. ‘How will we know what children are falling behind?’ ‘How will we close the achievement gap if we don’t measure it?’ ‘How will we fire bad teachers without the data?’ ‘How will we know what schools to close?’… Time for the hard truth.  Test based accountability has done one thing well. Over the past 35 years, we have beyond any doubt, measured and confirmed the achievement gap. That’s it. Nothing else.”

He continues: “However, test based accountability has destroyed the profession of teaching and caused a mass demoralization and ‘X’odus from public school classrooms. Oh, and let’s not forget about the thousands of hours of lost instruction time in the sciences, social studies, arts, music, and anything else that doesn’t conform to basic literacy and numeracy skills.”

There is a book which clearly examines all the problems with test based school accountability, a book written by Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on the construction and use of standardized tests.  The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better was published in 2017 by the University of Chicago Press, which is currently offering it on sale at the considerably reduced price of $11.00.

Daniel Koretz demonstrates how standardized testing in schools is corrupted—and how education itself is corrupted—when standardized tests become the basis of high-stakes accountability. The problem epitomizes the operation of Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the education process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

Koretz demonstrates the many ways that testing undermines education—how scores can be inflated by various kinds of direct test preparation: cutting back on the important subject matter that isn’t tested; spending time within a particular subject on the material known to be emphasized by a particular test; and even in some cases cheating: “The entire logic of our reforms depends on rewarding the schools that do better and punishing those that don’t. However, because in most contexts we can’t separate score inflation from legitimate improvements, we are sometimes rewarding people who game the system more effectively, and we are punishing educators who do good work but appear to be doing relatively less well because they aren’t taking as many shortcuts. On top of that, we are holding out as examples to be emulated programs that look good only because of bogus score gains and overlooking programs that really are good because the teachers using them are doing less to game the system. In other words, the system can propagate bad practice.” (The Testing Charade, p. 64) (emphasis in the original)

Finally there is the problem—confirmed in a recent study by Stanford University’s Sean Reardon—that standardized test scores reflect primarily a school’s or a school district’s aggregate family income.  The tests do not accurately measure the quality of the school. In a series of very simple bar graphs, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s data wonk, Rich Exner also demonstrates the striking correlation of Ohio’s school district grades on the state’s school report card with family income and parents’ level of education.

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

In the recent Wisconsin Public Radio interview, Tim Slekar emphasizes that in the United States, over a trillion dollars has been spent on standardized tests and the data systems that process the results.  As a professional educator, he recommends the money be spent instead to surround children with the best children’s literature because reading is at the heart of education. He would also spend part of the money on wraparound programs to ensure that the poorest children are well fed, they are healthy, and they have care and enrichment in after school programs.

In a recent legislative hearing of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, one state senator twice posed the following question: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?” This legislator’s attack on teachers epitomizes Tim Slekar’s diagnosis of the cause of an exodus of schoolteachers from their profession.

We now know that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—and all the state-by-state test based accountability these federal policies spun off—did not improve the education of our nation’s poorest children, who are still being left behind.

I wonder how long it will be before we stop allowing our elected leaders to get away with shifting the blame onto teachers while they—the policymakers—fail to invest the resources and power of government in equitable school funding and in programs to support the needs of our society’s poorest children.

As Ohio Budget Negotiations Drag On, Conference Committee Should Leave State School Takeovers Out of the Budget

This morning, July 1, marks the beginning of a new fiscal year for Ohio. Yesterday was the deadline for passage of a new budget to pay for the functions of state government for the next biennium—fiscal years 2020 and 2021.  But instead over the weekend, members of the Legislature passed a 17 day budget extension to keep the state operating while members of the Senate/House conference committee wrangle.

One of the biggest conflicts between House and Senate is over the misguided state school district takeovers established in the 2015, House Bill 70, a bill which was fast tracked through the Legislature without open hearings.

HB 70 has proven a catastrophe.  You may remember that just two months ago, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal Ohio state school takeovers.  Not only did the Ohio House pass HB 154 to undo HB 70, but its members did so in spectacular, bipartisan fashion by a margin of 83/12. The House also included the repeal of HB 70 in HB 166, the House version of the FY 20-21 biennial budget.

The Ohio Senate has also been considering state school district takeovers. Distrusting teachers, school administrators, and locally elected school boards in Ohio’s poorest school districts where test scores lag, members of the Ohio Senate removed from the budget bill the House language to repeal the state school takeovers.  Senator Peggy Lehner and the Senate Education Committee she chairs convened a working group to create a complicated amendment to replace the current HB 70 state takeovers with another form of state control called the Ohio School Transformation Plan. Lehner’s committee is dominated by members of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Lobbyists from the far-right Thomas Fordham Institute and the business lobby, Ohio Excels, have also been pressing for the Senate’s School Transformation Plan.

As of this morning, we do not know whether the Senate will succeed in getting Lehner’s amendment for the Ohio School Transformation Plan inserted into the final Ohio budget.  Advocating that the Legislature eliminate state takeovers, the editorial board of the Toledo Blade reported on Friday that House Speaker Larry Householder “wants the conference committee to put a moratorium on school takeovers in the pending budget bill and later work out a resolution.”

Because the elimination of HB 70 state school takeovers is so urgently important, today’s blog post will review what this blog has—over the past two months—explained are alarming problems with the Ohio School Transformation amendment Lehner and her committee have tried to include in the Senate Budget.

Here is a bit of history.  In June of 2015, House Bill 70 was rushed through the Legislature to prescribe that, based on aggregate standardized test scores, the state would take over any school district with three years of “F” ratings on the state report card.  The school districts in Youngstown and Lorain have been operating under state appointed Academic Distress Commissions and their appointed Chief Executive Officers for four years.  East Cleveland is currently undergoing state takeover.  Academic Distress Commission-appointed CEOs In Youngstown and Lorain have proven autocratic in their disdain for the locally elected school boards who, under HB 70, continue to be elected but have no remaining power.  Both CEOs have refused to live in or educate their own children in communities where they oversee the public schools.  David Hardy, Lorain’s CEO, has managed to make enemies of the mayor, the city council, the locally elected school board, the teachers, the students at the high school, and even several members of the Academic Distress Commission who appointed him.

In addition to the school districts in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland, other Ohio school districts facing state takeover in the next two years are: Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill. What dominates every one of these school districts is the concentration of poverty.  Many of these communities are majority black and brown.

The School Transformation Plan—which the Ohio Senate hopes to include in the now-stalled state budget—pretends to leave the power for running the school district in local hands.  It pretends not to be a state takeover.  But in fact under the plan, while local people are still in place, their decisions will now be overseen by a new state agency.  Local school administrators will now also operate under the “guidance” of an outside consultant approved by the state agency.  Here are the details of the Senate’s plan:

  • The proposed amendment establishes a statewide School Transformation Board made up of the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction; the Chancellor of Higher Education; and three individuals, appointed by the Governor and with experience and expertise in education policy or school improvement. The School Transformation Board would hire an executive director and would be required to approve school improvement plans developed in the school districts deemed in need of transformation.
  • The Ohio Department of Education would create and maintain a list of “approved school improvement organizations” which may be not-for-profit, or for-profit, and may include an educational service center. The approved school improvement organizations would serve as consultants to the school districts deemed “failing.”
  •  A school district which has earned an “F” rating for three consecutive years would be required to choose one of the approved school improvement organizations, which would, in the first year the school is under “transformation,” conduct what the plan calls a “root cause review of the district.” The consulting organization would review the district’s leadership, governance, and communication; curriculum and instruction; assessments and effective use of student data; human resources and professional development; student supports; fiscal management, district board policies; collective bargaining agreements currently in force; and “any other issues preventing full or high-quality.”
  • The state’s School Transformation Board would then establish—in each district being transformed—a local School District Improvement Commission including three members appointed by the state superintendent; the president of the teachers union, who would be a non-voting member; a representative of the business community appointed by the municipality’s mayor; the president of the elected board of education—all of whom must reside in the county where the school district is located.  The School Improvement Commission would be required to appoint a School Improvement Director.
  • After the consulting school improvement organization has conducted the root cause analysis, the local School Improvement Commission would convene a committee of community stakeholders district-wide and also at each of the district’s schools to create a district-wide improvement plan and a school-improvement plan for each school. These school improvement plans would be submitted to the statewide School Transformation Board for approval.
  • The school district’s School Improvement Director would have enormous powers under the Senate’s Transformation Proposal: to replace school administrators; to assign employees to schools and approve transfers; to hire new employees; to define employee job descriptions; to establish employee compensation; to allocate teacher class loads; to conduct employee evaluations; to reduce staff; to set the school calendar; to create the budget; to contract services for the district; to modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; to establish grade configurations of the schools; to determine the curriculum; to select instructional materials and assessments; to set class size; and to provide staff professional development.  The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.
  • Additionally—and here the plan copies the school turnaround options in the now-discredited federal No Child Left Behind Act—the Senate’s Transformation Proposal would empower the local School Improvement Director to reconstitute the school through the following methods: “change the mission of the school or the focus of its curriculum; replace the school’s principal and/or administrative staff; replace a majority of the school’s staff, including teaching and non-teaching employees; contract with a nonprofit or for-profit entity to manage the operations of the school… reopen the school as a community (Ohio’s term for charter) school… (or) permanently close the school.” The Senate’s proposal specifies: “If the director plans to reconstitute a school… the commission shall review the plan for that school and either approve or reject it by the thirtieth day of June of the school year.”
  • Additionally, “the director may limit, suspend, or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement entered into, modified, renewed, or extended on or after October 15, 2015.”
  • Beginning on July 1, 2020, school districts would enter the process earlier—after only one year of an “F” rating: “Beginning July 1, 2020, this section shall apply to each city, local, and exempted village school district that receives an overall grade of “F”… for the previous school year.  Each district that receives such a grade shall be designated with ‘in need of improvement’ status and undergo a root cause review….  After receiving the root cause review, each school district to which this section applies shall create an improvement plan for the district, if recommended by the review, and for each of the district’s schools that received an overall grade of “F” or “D.”

The Senate’s proposed Ohio School Transformation Plan’s rests on several mistaken assumptions. The plan assumes: first, that test scores are a pure and accurate measure of what a school district is accomplishing, and second, that school governance is the problem. The assumption is that a state approved School Improvement Director with support from consultants will know how to raise test scores quickly. Years of state takeovers in other states have failed to confirm that aggregate test scores can be rapidly raised. And nobody I know can tell me where there are consultants who actually know how to transform a school district’s aggregate standardized test scores in a year or two. There is also evidence that such an obsession with raising test scores narrows the curriculum and distorts schooling.

In an excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research, examined essential supports that would be necessary in 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools in Chicago, the poorest schools in a school district where many schools are troubled with poverty. The families these school serve are 96 percent low income: 64 percent of adult males in these families are unemployed; the median family income is $9,480; and the percentage of families living below the poverty line is 70 percent. Bryk and his colleagues prescribe strategies for improving the schools that serve children in such neighborhoods, but they point out that realistically,  “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused… ” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, p. 173)

The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explain why standardized tests are the wrong way to evaluate school quality: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the use of standardized testing, demonstrates that high-stakes standardized testing is a flawed way to measure the quality of a school.  Standardized test scores in the aggregate merely tell us that the so-called “failing school” is likely to be located in a neighborhood or community where the residents are struggling with poverty:

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

The Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan is merely another top-down scheme to prescribe governance changes as the cure when a district’s test scores lag. It is a paternalistic plan that assumes school district administrators don’t know enough and teachers aren’t working hard enough. Like the federal law that didn’t work, the Ohio Senate’s School Transformation Plan assumes that the legislators can snap their fingers and prescribe that school districts will leave no child behind. It assumes that school districts can cure our society’s failure to overcome the tragedy of concentrated family poverty.

Instead of inserting the Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan into the 2020-2021 biennial state budget, the Ohio Legislature should consider carefully the needs of Ohio’s school districts serving concentrations of children living in poverty. The Ohio Senate needs to pass HB 154 to eliminate the catastrophic HB 70 state takeovers. Then the Legislature needs to invest significantly in smaller classes, more counselors, more social workers, more nurses, more librarians, more wraparound social and medical services, and more school enrichment. The state needs to begin adequately supporting rather than punishing its very poorest school districts.