John Merrow and Thomas Toch Debate Michelle Rhee’s Strategy for Running Urban Schools

A debate about school reform has been raging on the pages of The Washington Monthly—between Thomas Toch, a defender of what is frequently called “corporate school reform” and John Merrow, the retired education reporter for the PBS NewsHour.  The subject: Washington, D.C. school reform as launched by Michelle Rhee and further evolved during the tenure of Kaya Henderson and others whom Henderson hired.  This now-old story about the D.C. public schools still matters, because the theories and practices introduced by Michelle Rhee a decade ago in the nation’s capital continue to drive the operation of urban school districts across the United States.

Thomas Toch formerly led the think tank Education Sector and now serves as the director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University. The July-August, Washington Monthly published Toch’s  Hot for Teachers, a paean to what he believes is a decade of public school improvement between 2007 and 2016 in the nation’s capital. Toch is careful to point out that his subject is broader than Michelle Rhee’s tenure that ended with her resignation in October of 2010. As Toch describes the elevation of test scores across the District, however, and as he celebrates a crackdown on “bad teaching,” improved recruitment and retention of teachers, and broad-scale, data-driven school management, Toch’s rhetoric betrays a pro-corporate-school-reform bias, which must filtered as one reads his story:

Toch appreciates charter schools: “Some 43 percent of D.C. students were enrolled in charters in 2013, up from less than 15 percent a decade earlier.  Many of these schools, with names like DC Prep, KIPP DC, and Achievement Prep, were earning attention for their innovative strategies and strong results.  Foundations heaped money onto them, and the young talent entering teaching through prestigious pipelines like Teach for America were keen to work in the schools.” He also celebrates Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s strategy for working with school teachers: “Rhee’s successors at DCPS have redesigned teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and performance-based promotions and compensation.”  Before Rhee resigned, “Kaya Henderson, who had been Teach for America’s D.C. director and then managed Rhee’s New Teacher Project work in the city, supervised the project as the new chancellor’s chief of human capital.  She worked with Jason Kamras, a Princeton graduate who had arrived in Washington a decade earlier through Teach for America…. At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, Henderson and Kamras launched the most comprehensive teacher measurement system ever implemented in public education.  It set citywide teaching standards for the first time ever… Under the new system, every teacher would be observed five times a year—three times by the administrators in their schools and twice by ‘master educators’ from the central office who would provide an independent check on principals’ ratings.”  Toch believes that fear is a useful strategy for making people work harder: “Rhee’s team deepened teachers’ angst…. Henderson ordered that student test scores make up 50 percent of teachers’ ratings if they taught tested subjects and grades. That turned out to be only 15 percent of the school system’s teaching force, but the move stoked anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s teaching ranks.”

Toch’s analysis continues beyond the transition from Chancellor Rhee to Chancellor Henderson. Noting that Henderson learned from Rhee’s mistakes, Toch emphasizes that after Rhee’s exit, Henderson introduced more support for good teaching—career ladders, for example, and collaboration among grade-level teams of teachers.  Toch does betray the top-down reformer’s bias, however: “There’s no doubt that the school reform stars aligned in Washington over the past decade: There was a rare infusion of talent in the central office; stable leadership enabled by mayoral control of city schools; freedom from key collective bargaining obstacles, and substantial funding, first from grants, then from savings from improvements in the city’s special education system.”

John Merrow, the retired PBS NewsHour reporter who has repeatedly investigated Michelle Rhee’s contentious tenure as the D.C. Chancellor, collaborated with Mary Levy to publish, in the September-October Washington Monthly, a rebuttal to Toch’s story.  Merrow has also expanded this story on his personal blog.  Merrow’s response to Toch centers on the Rhee years, because that is the subject Merrow knows best and because Merrow believes Toch’s distorted portrayal of a D.C. school improvement miracle is grounded in a biased understanding of Rhee’s troubled tenure.

Merrow points to gentrification as the source of much of the test score improvement in Washington, D.C.  He documents that achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and income have not closed: “Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students.  Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened.  From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called ‘others’ in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250-282.  Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the ‘proficient’ level remained an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among ‘others’ climbed from 22 to 53 percent.  An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined from 18 percent to 17 percent.  In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015, white proficiency was at 75 percent.”

Merrow describes what he calls “central office bloat”: “Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes…. Why so many of these teacher watchers?  Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers.” Merrow bemoans the result: a collapse of morale along with widespread resignations of teachers and school leaders.  Some of this is because staff are being moved among schools, enhancing disruptive change, but he notes: “Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.”

As he re-posts his Washington Monthly article on his personal blog, Merrow adds several pages of what he has documented over the years in his investigation of a years’ long cheating scandal in Washington DC, a scandal exposed by U.S.A. Today in March of 2011, but, as Merrow has documented repeatedly, never investigated.  He castigates Toch for (in his July-August article) dismissing the extent of the pressure Rhee was placing on school principals and the widespread reach of the cheating.

Here is some of Merrow’s rebuttal: “Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools.  The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor.  The ‘investigations’ Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both… Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions, that could be asked.”

Merrow poses the essential question: “Why would so many schools be driven to cheat?  In her one-on-one meetings with all her principals, Rhee insisted that they guarantee test score increases and made it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.  The adults who subsequently changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were intent on keeping their jobs, which depended on higher scores… The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in these meetings, made them guarantee test score increases. We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.”

Merrow dismisses Toch’s piece as corporate-school-reform hot air: “To remain aloft, a hot air balloon must be fed regular bursts of hot air.  Without hot air, the balloon falls to earth.  That seems to be the appropriate analogy for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the ten-year regime (2007-2016) of Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson.  Their top-down approach to school reform might not have lasted but for the unstinting praise provided by influential supporters from the center left and right—their hot air.  The list includes the editorial page of the Washington Post, (and) former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan….”

Merrow dubs Toch’s article this summer as merely another draft of hot air.  He blasts Toch’s argument “that Rhee and Henderson revolutionized the teaching profession in D.C. schools, to the benefit of students. ”  And he calls Toch a cheerleader who, “obscures a harsh truth: on most relevant measures, Washington’s public schools have either regressed or made minimal progress under their leadership.  Schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods seem to be thriving, but outcomes for low-income minority students—the great majority of enrollment—are pitifully low.”

Thomas Toch responds to Merrow’s allegations.  His response is printed by The Washington Monthly at the end of Merrow and Mary Levy’s report, Has D.C. Teacher Reform Been Successful?

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Harvard’s Daniel Koretz Indicts High Stakes Testing in “The Testing Charade”

Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, is a scathing indictment of our society’s test-and-punish school regime, formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and continuing in the most recent version of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Koretz, the testing specialist, is not so critical of standardized testing itself as he is of the high stakes sanctions that Congress attached to the annual tests in No Child Left Behind—punishments that have driven massive pressure on educators that has ruined our public schools:

“Pressure to raise scores on achievement tests dominates American education today. It shapes what is taught and how it is taught.  It influences the problems students are given in math class (often questions from earlier tests), the materials they are given to read, the essays and other work they are required to produce, and often the manner in which teachers grade this work. It determines which educators are rewarded, punished, and even fired. In many cases it determines which students are promoted or graduate. This is the result of decades of ‘education reforms’ that progressively expanded the amount of externally imposed testing and ratcheted up the pressure to raise scores.” (p. 1)

Daniel Koretz’s biography at the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes him as an expert on educational assessment and testing policy, and the book describes in considerable detail just how high stakes punishments for schools and teachers have corrupted the results of the tests themselves, narrowed the curriculum, and degraded teaching.

But my deepest interest in the book is Koretz’s depiction of how the testing that was supposed force teachers and schools to better serve poor children, raise their test scores and close achievement gaps has instead truncated opportunity for the very children it was supposed to help. How has test-and-punish narrowed the curriculum to basic reading and math in the poorest schools, and how has it forced teachers to focus on test-prep and coaching instead of enrichment?  How has test-and-punish forced the closing or charterizing of schools in poor neighborhoods? How has evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores resulted in firing principals and teachers in the poorest schools and exacerbated staff turnover?  And what about the children being held back in third grade due to a test score—even when they may be making real progress in reading and the adolescents denied a high school diploma?

Under current federal law, students and schools are given credit for proficiency only when children reach benchmark proficiency scores. A fourth grader who advances during the school year from a first to a third grade reading level will still fail to achieve the fourth grade cut score. Neither the child nor the teacher will be given credit for the child’s improvement: “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.” (pp. 129-130)

Reformers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124) Koretz explains at length and in detail the ways that teachers and principals whose jobs are threatened have resorted to raising scores—coaching for the test, drilling on materials likely to be covered, and in some cases where the pressure was greatest, cheating by erasing and correcting scores.

Koretz quotes Linda Darling-Hammond’s characterization of test-and-punish school accountability: “the kick the dog harder model of education reform.” And he explains: “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)  He suggests first that we stop judging all students and schools by benchmark scores. We must “set goals based on students’ growth, not the level of their performance.” (p. 235)

In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss interviews Koretz about his new book, and she publishes an excerpt.

While I have emphasized the sections in which Koretz shows test-and-punish hurting the schools that serve the poorest and most vulnerable children, Koretz is a testing expert, whose primary interest is how high stakes punishments attached to a regime of universal testing have corrupted the entire operation of public schools: “Reformers may take umbrage and say that they certainly didn’t demand that teachers cheat. They didn’t, although in fact many policy makers actively encouraged bad test prep that produced fraudulent gains. What they did demand was unrelenting and often very large gains that many teachers couldn’t produce through better instruction, and they left them with inadequate supports as they struggled to meet these often unrealistic targets. They gave many educators the choice I wrote about thirty years ago—fail, cut corners, or cheat—and many chose not to fail.” (p.244)

Koretz joins a growing number of critics who indict test-and-punish school accountability. What is significant about this book is the thorough and relentless critique by a testing expert who carefully and sometimes technically dissects the evidence.

America’s Dirty Secret

On Sunday, criticizing Ohio Senator Rob Portman for failing to speak out against Congress’s most recent attempt to throw away health care coverage for vulnerable families, Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer columnist and retired director of the editorial page, reminded readers that Portman’s wife serves on the board of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. And yet, Larkin explains, Portman voted earlier this summer to throw away significant health care coverage for children. Larkin quotes a letter to Congress signed by the heads of children’s hospitals throughout the country, a letter that wonders: “Children represent the future of the United States. Where are kids in these discussions? Do Congress and the White House see safeguarding children’s health care as a national priority?”

The struggles of poor children have been omitted from our two-decades’ discussion about school reform as well. No Child Left Behind said we would hold schools accountable, instituted a plan to punish schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores on standardized tests, and failed to invest significantly in the schools in poor communities. The failure to address the needs of poor children and their schools has been bipartisan. President George W. Bush and a bipartisan coalition in Congress brought us No Child Left Behind. President Obama pushed education policy that purported to “turnaround” the lowest scoring and poorest schools by closing or charterizing them. And Obama’s administration brought us the demand that states’ evaluation plans for teachers incorporate their students’ standardized test scores—without any consideration of the neighborhood and family struggles that affect poor children’s test scores or of the immense contribution of family wealth to the scores of privileged children.  Neither Bush nor Obama significantly increased the federal investment to help our nation’s  poorest urban and rural schools. The topics of rampant child poverty and growing inequality—along with growing residential segregation by income—have been absent from of our political dialogue.

Child poverty is well documented. Just last week the Economic Policy Institute presented a simple bar graph showing that one third of Native American and African American children are (still) in poverty.  Although child poverty declined for most racial and ethnic groups in 2016, here are the stark numbers that describe our society’s reality: While only 10.8 percent of white children live in poverty and 11.1 percent of Asian American children live in poverty, 33.8 percent of Native American and 30.8 percent of African American children live in poverty, along with 26.6 percent of Hispanic American children. These are alarming disparities. Native American and Black children are three times more likely to be poor than their white peers.  The Economic Policy Institute argues for raising the minimum wage; expanding refundable tax credits and the food stamp program, now called SNAP; and expanding Medicaid and affordable health care.  When was the last time you heard a politician seriously advocating for such programs?

In August, Elizabeth Harris of the NY Times once again outlined the extent of child homelessness in New York City—a devastating problem for families and children and for their public schools: “There were 100,000 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2015-16 school year, a number equal to the population of Albany… If current trends continue… one in every seven New York City public school students will be homeless at some point during elementary school.”

Harris quotes Anna Shaw-Amoah, a policy analyst at the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, the agency which released the data Harris describes: “In every school classroom, that’s two or three kids… And the challenges are not just about whether you’re currently living in a shelter or a doubled up setting, but did they have that experience last year, or did they have this experience in Kindergarten?  The instability really travels with students. If you fall behind in one year, it’s going to be harder to get on grade level the next year.”

Harris continues: “The growing number of homeless children is part of the fallout of the city’s housing crisis, which has seen a growing number of families in city shelters as rents have risen, federal and state aid has dwindled, and a state rental assistance program ended… The typical homeless elementary school student missed 88 days of school…. Families who have lost their home must make the wrenching choice of leaving a child in a school they know, or transferring them to a school closer to where they are staying. Moving to a new school may further the feeling of dislocation but it makes it easier for the child to get to class.”

What effect does all this have on students?  “Homeless children were more likely than those with stable housing to be on the wrong side of a huge array of indicators. They were more likely to be suspended or drop out, more likely to face delays in being identified as needing special education services, and more likely to need services to help them learn English. Their proficiency rates on the state math and English exams for third through eighth graders were about 20 points lower than their classmates.”

John Merrow just published Addicted to Reform, a memoir about what he learned during his decades-long career as the education reporter for the PBS NewsHour. The most stunning section of the book describes the cost to our society of what Merrow derides as our society’s addiction to accountability-driven, test-and-punish school reform—the policies that were mandated by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Merrow devotes the second chapter of the book, “Calculate the Cost of School Reform,” to examining the education policy in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. He concludes: “Children, teachers, schools, and society have paid a price for school reform, however well-meaning some reformers may have been. Our addiction to school reform has caused significant collateral damage: a narrowed curriculum, thousands of hours spent on testing and test prep, a demoralized teaching force, the resignations of effective teachers fed up with excessive testing, time and money spent recruiting those teachers’ replacements, huge cuts and occasional bankruptcy proceedings in school districts because of dollars diverted to online for-profit charter schools, and the cumulative negative effects on the public’s view of schools caused by the drumbeat of criticism.”(p.54)

But Merrow’s strongest words are for all those who have refused to acknowledge the impact of poverty on the lives of children and who are content to do nothing about poverty:  “To me, the biggest hypocrites in the world of education are the advocates of school reform who preach that ‘poverty can never be offered as an excuse’ for poor student performance but then do nothing to alleviate poverty and its attendant conditions. What they are saying, bottom line, is that it’s the teachers’ fault when kids in poverty-ridden schools do poorly on tests or fail to graduate… Even if these so-called thought leaders genuinely believe that poverty is not an excuse, shouldn’t they be outraged that most states are actively making things worse for poor kids?  At least thirty states are systematically shortchanging poor areas when they distribute education dollars… ‘The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts….’” (pp.25-26)

Is It True that Nobody Really Knows What to Do to Help Struggling Schools?

Early this week, in a column for the Washington Post, Emma Brown wondered: “What should America do about its worst public schools?” Does anybody know?  Brown notes that not one of the plans states are submitting to the U.S. Department of Education, as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, seems to include a solid plan to help the lowest scoring public schools.

Brown explains: Congress thought it had answers for the problem of low-performing schools when it passed No Child Left Behind in 2001. The bipartisan law, meant to fight what president George W. Bush called ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations,’ laid out consequences for schools that failed to meet escalating performance targets. After a school missed targets for two years, students were allowed to transfer out. After three years, schools had to offer free tutoring. After four and five years, there was a menu of options, from replacing the curriculum to firing staff, reopening as a charter school, or turning over management to state authorities… A decade after the law passed nearly everyone agreed it was broken… Despite some bright spots and success stories, a federal analysis released this year showed that, on average, test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received the money than in those that did not.”

The new version of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), keeps the tests but turns the responsibility for school improvement back to the states. Brown adds: “Many in the education world, from state superintendents to teachers unions, applaud this hands-off trend. Each struggling school faces unique circumstances… and deserves a tailored solution shaped by community input—not a top-down directive from faraway bureaucrats.” But Brown quotes several people who worry that scores are unlikely to rise under the new law—most notably the far-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli, who surmises, “We don’t know what to do about chronically low-performing schools. Nothing has worked consistently and at scale.”

I certainly agree that nothing we’ve tried lately has worked consistently and at scale. The question about whether we know how to support the schools in our poorest communities, however, has been addressed over the years by academic experts and people with a range of experience in the schools that struggle.  It turns out there is widespread consensus about policies we ought to try.  Here are three examples.

First, last November in Lessons from NCLB for the Every Student Succeeds Act, William Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo of the National Education Policy Center examined the new law’s potential to improve schools: “(T)he new law continues to disaggregate data by race and by wealth (and adds new sub-groups) but shows little promise of remedying the systemic under-resourcing of needy students.  Giving the reform policies of high-stakes assessment and privatization the benefit of the most positive research interpretation, the benefits accrued are insufficient to justify their use as comprehensive reform strategies.  Less generous interpretations of the research provide clear warnings of harm. The research evidence over the past 30 years further tells us that unless we address the economic bifurcation in the nation, and the opportunity gaps in the schools, we will not be successful in closing the achievement gap.”  The report continues: “Above all else, each state must ensure that students have adequate opportunities, funding and resources to achieve state goals…  States must shift toward an assistance role and exercise less of a regulatory role… Under ESSA, school performance will now be measured using a system that incorporates one or more non-academic indicators…. These non-academic indicators provide states their strongest new tool for maximizing educational equity and opportunity…. States and districts must collaborate with social service and labor departments to ensure adequate personal, social and economic opportunities.”   Finally Mathis and Trujillo  recommend that any effective school improvement strategy would include, at the very least, early education, an extended school year and day, de-tracking, class size reduction, and school-community partnerships.

Second, just weeks ago, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization spoke for communities of color in a report from a year-long task force that has held a series of hearings across the United States. The specific topic of the NAACP’s report is the organization’s proposed moratorium on new charter schools until significant oversight of these schools is increased. But the NAACP’s task force felt compelled to add recommendations to its report about the urgent need to address generations of underfunding and inequality in the schools located in communities of color: “More equitable and adequate funding for all schools serving students of color. Education funding has been inadequate and unequal for students of color for hundreds of years. The United States has one of the most unequal school funding systems of any country in the industrialized world.  Resources are highly unequal across states, across districts, and across schools, and they have declined in many communities over the last decade.  In 36 states, public school funding has not yet returned to pre-2008 levels—before the great recession, and in many states inner city schools have experienced the deepest cuts.  Federal funds have also declined in real dollar terms for both Title I and for special education expenditures over the last decade.”

The NAACP concludes: “Invest in low-performing schools and schools with significant opportunity to close the achievement gap… To ensure that all students receive a high-quality education, federal, state, and local policies need to sufficiently invest in: (1) incentives that attract and retain fully qualified educators, (2) improvements in instructional quality that include creating challenging and inclusive learning environments; and (3) wraparound  services for young people, including early childhood education, health and mental health services, extended learning time, and social supports.”

Finally, writing a year ago to then-Education Secretary, John B. King about the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Vermont State Board of Education criticized what its members anticipated would be the continuation of too much testing and too many sanctions, without any real effort to address the impact of concentrated poverty on the students in the lowest scoring schools: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.  Consequently, the continuation of a test-based, labeling and ‘assistance’ model (broadly seen as punishment) has not only proven ineffective, but has had a corrosive effect on the confidence of the people.  The encouragement of privatization has been harmful to local democracy, has further segregated a too fragmented nation and has diluted rather than focused valuable resources.”

For all these reasons, on the very topic of ESSA’s potential for improving schools, this blog surmised last Friday that in a climate of tax cutting and austerity budgeting at the federal level and in many states, we won’t see much school improvement under ESSA. Across the states, schools are unequally funded, with struggling rural and urban schools overwhelmed as well by student poverty that is being exacerbated by budget cuts to the health and social service programs needed by the same students who attend the poorest schools. No Child Left Behind never delivered the necessary resources to jump-start school improvement nor has Congress attached significant resources to ESSA. And Trump’s budget proposal does not increase the Title I formula, the one federal funding stream designed to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty.

It turns out that the problem of struggling public schools is not really the lack of knowledge about what to do to begin helping the teachers and students in these schools. Our society instead has a moral problem: widespread lack of public will in the United States to help children trapped by concentrated poverty. We refuse to invest in the services that would enrich the lives of our poorest children and support their public schools. We keep talking instead about a far cheaper strategy: creating private lifeboats to help a few children escape.

How Will the DeVos Department of Education Implement the Every Student Succeeds Act?

Between 2002 and the end of 2015, many who care about U.S. public education lived and breathed strategies for ending No Child Left Behind’s rigid and punitive accountability mechanisms. The law was supposed to make all public schools accountable for improving schooling, especially for children in poverty and children in racial and ethnic groups who have historically been marginalized. NCLB was supposed to ensure that every child in America would be proficient by 2014. Its strategy was using fear as the motivator—driving everybody to work harder to avoid terrible sanctions like teachers being fired, schools being closed, and schools being turned over to private operators.

But, although teachers were fired, and schools were closed, and schools were turned over to private contractors, test scores did not rise appreciably and achievement gaps did not close.  And, because test scores in the aggregate reflect family and community economic levels, the schools that were closed or privatized were too often in the big city neighborhoods the law was supposed to help and the teachers who were fired were too frequently black and brown teachers living and teaching in those cities.

So… when Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with a newer version of the federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act, many people hoped for more support for the poorest schools in America’s big cities.  And supporters of public school improvement were not sorry that the Republicans who dominated Congress in December 2015 seemed to want to soften the “punish” part of test-and-punish. The testing part, unfortunately, remains: once every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  But the punish part was turned over to the states, who were told they must set goals for improving test scores and find ways to reach those goals.  It was all pretty vague—and lots of people worried that what it really meant was a return to states’ rights.  That worry paled, however, compared to a widespread consensus that it is impossible to punish schools into raising test scores.

Then a year later Betsy DeVos, the devoted privatizer and strong supporter of less regulation of education, arrived to lead the U.S. Department of Education. People began watching as, in the spring of this year, states began submitting their required ESSA plans—their goals for raising test scores and their strategies to push schools to reach those goals. Everybody was shocked in early July when DeVos, the de-regulator, allowed her department to demand that Delaware make its plan tougher on accountability. Here is Erica Green of the NY Times:  “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who made a career of promoting local control of education, has signaled a surprisingly hard-line approach to carrying out an expansive new federal education law, issuing critical feedback that has rattled state school chiefs and conservative education experts alike.”

Green describes Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, pushing back at the Republican Secretary of Education: “Proponents, especially congressional Republicans and conservative education advocates, believed that a new era of local control would flourish under Ms. DeVos…. But her department’s feedback reflects a tension between ideology and legal responsibility.”

It turns out that the person at the Department of Education who has been reviewing states’ ESSA plans is Jason Botel, an acting assistant secretary of education. (His appointment has not yet come before the Senate.) Botel is a longtime corporate school reformer whose background includes stints at KIPP charter schools and Maryland’s chapter of 50CAN, an advocacy organization supportive of strong accountability for public schools. Erica Green quotes Botel advocating for a strict interpretation of the wording of ESSA, which spells out that states’ plans must be ambitious: “Because the statute does not define the word ‘ambitious,’ the secretary has the responsibility of determining whether a state’s long-term goals are ambitious.”

Senator Alexander responded: “I think we have a case of an assistant secretary who hasn’t read the law carefully… The heart of the entire law… was that it’s the state’s decision to set goals, to decide what ‘ambitious’ means, to make decisions to help schools that aren’t performing well.” (What this means is a little unclear, as in the past test-and-punish was defined as “helping” schools that aren’t performing well.)

On Monday morning of this week, the Department of Education, in a notice published in the Federal Register, answered Senator Alexander’s concerns—clarifying what sort of evidence it will require from states to ensure their accountability plans are ambitious.  Here is Sarah Sparks of Education Week explaining how the Department will interpret the rules: “For the most part, the rules tweak or clarify existing rules to incorporate ESSA’s four increasingly rigorous levels of evidence: …To use an intervention or approach for school improvement under ESSA, it must be backed by research that is strong (experimental trials), moderate (quasi-experimental), or by promising studies that don’t meet the higher standards of rigor but still statistically control for differences between the students using an intervention and those in a control group. For topics aside from school turnaround where there just is no rigorous research, states and districts can test an intervention while conducting their own study.”

Also this week, Betsy DeVos signed off on the ESSA plan Delaware had presented and Botel had rejected, though the state tweaked the application a bit to satisfy the Department. Alyson Klein summarizes for Education Week: “Delaware made some tweaks to its plan, and clarified some things for the department. The state gave some more information to show why its goal of cutting the number of students who don’t score proficient on state tests in half by 2030 is, indeed, ambitious.  And it explained that all public high school students do, in fact, have access to the courses, tests, and other measures the state wants to use to figure out whether students are ready for college and the workforce. Delaware also moved science test scores to another part of its accountability system, at the behest of the feds… Apparently, all that was good enough to convince DeVos—who has final say over giving a state plan the thumbs up or down—to approve Delaware’s ESSA vision.”

What seems clear is that ESSA enforcement is not Betsy DeVos’s top priority. It also seems that the Department, under DeVos’s leadership, is not going to make waves with powerful Congressional Republicans like Lamar Alexander.

It is also clear that federally driven, test-based school accountability is not going away. One can only hope that academic researchers and the Department of Education will watch carefully to see if any of the evidence-based strategies states impose under ESSA as the response to low test scores do begin to deliver real improvement in our nation’s struggling schools.

My prediction is that in a climate of tax cutting and austerity budgeting at the federal level and in many states, we won’t see much school improvement. Across the states schools are unequally funded, with struggling rural and urban schools overwhelmed as well by student poverty that is being exacerbated by budget cuts to the health and social service programs needed by the same students who attend the poorest schools. No Child Left Behind never delivered the necessary resources to jump-start school improvement nor has Congress attached significant resources to ESSA.  And Trump’s budget proposal does not increase the  Title I formula, the one federal funding stream designed to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty.

How Did We Stop Honoring School Teachers? Why Does It Matter?

In the past month I have had the same heartbreaking conversation with school teachers from several different school districts. These teachers describe the following reality: school administrators—under intense pressure to raise test scores to protect their own jobs and to protect the reputations and rankings of their school districts—are exerting intense pressure from the top which sometimes includes threats, curriculum packages imposed from on-high, and consultants in classrooms correcting teachers’ practices in front of students. One teacher described a colleague reduced to tears because she was made to wear earbuds in the classroom and be corrected (by consultants in the back of the classroom) on her teaching technique while she was working with the students.

Today when we think about school teachers, we have been conditioned to believe that the biggest mission of those who would improve schools is to get rid of bad teachers.  But weeding out bad teachers is not the biggest problem, which is that morale in many public schools is so low that many teachers—including excellent teachers—are just giving up and changing careers.  In lots of states there are teacher shortages because fewer and fewer college students consider teaching to be a desirable career.

Sure there are some weak teachers; we all remember our worst teacher. Nobody thinks employing poor teachers is a good idea. But good administrators have the means to counsel these people out of the profession and the teachers’ unions themselves have developed peer mentoring along with peer assessment programs that are helping teachers in local school districts improve the practice of all teachers and encourage the poorest teachers to find other work.

Public policy is largely to blame for today’s crisis in teacher morale. The federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, driven by accountability but very little in extra resources to support the professionals who staff our schools, was designed to “incentivize” teachers through fear.  School ratings were tied to what was supposed to be ever-rising test scores. The law threatened teachers to work harder and smarter and blamed teachers when the test-score needle didn’t move quickly. Then Arne Duncan’s No Child Left Behind waivers—to permit states to stop some of the law’s most punitive requirements—were awarded to states when they complied with additional, Duncan-approved, federal requirements that included tying a large percentage of teachers’ formal evaluations to students’ standardized test scores. Nearly 20 years of punitive federal policies have had precisely the effect that could have been predicted, even if it wasn’t the law’s stated purpose. There has been a collapse in our society’s trust in teachers (even if polls continue to show that parents admire their own child’s teacher). Teachers were supposed to work harder and smarter, but because all test scores didn’t significantly rise, many people seem to have concluded that teachers don’t work hard and aren’t very smart.  It is as though we’ve had a national ad campaign to smear school teachers.

Here is Parker Palmer—whose books explore the idea of teaching as vocation—writing 20 years ago and predicting why our test-and-punish policies would be so damaging to teachers: “Teachers make an easy target, for they are such a common species and so powerless to strike back. We blame teachers for being unable to cure social ills that no one knows how to treat; we insist that they instantly adopt whatever ‘solution’ has most recently been concocted by our national panacea machine, and in the process we demoralize, even paralyze, the very teachers who could help us find our way.” (The Courage to Teach, p 3)  “(I)n every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning… Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness.  They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves… The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.” (The Courage to Teach, pp. 10-11)  I wish all teachers would read or reread Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, for these days our teachers are disheartened.

I wish the rest of us would sit down and read or reread Mike Rose’s wonderful 1995 book, Possible Lives.  Rose, a professor of education at UCLA, spent four years touring America’s public schools. Here is how he describes the book in the preface to a 2005 edition: “This book is a documentary of the possible, recorded from a journey through America’s public schools. The good classroom is the focal point of the journey, and we will spend time in many of them, learning about our children, their teachers, the surrounding communities, and the idea of public education. In doing so, we will learn about America itself. Such a journey seems more needed now than when Possible Lives was published just more than a decade ago.  In the midst of the culture wars that swirl around schools, the fractious, intractable school politics, the conservative assault on public institutions, and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose and grand vision of the common public school… I’m… struck by how the teachers in this book talk to young people. By turns, their exchanges with students are comical, sober, challenging, inviting, probing, quizzical, supportive—in short they take their students seriously as thinkers, as young people with a mental life and a desire to be competent… The way a teacher talks to students—the way any of us talk to each other—either opens up or closes down thought… Implicit in the activity of the teachers in Possible Lives are theories of teaching and learning…. (N)ew teachers (not to mention parents or any adult who works with children) need an orientation to cognition and learning that encourages a nuanced perspective on the developing mind.”  Possible Lives profiles good teachers from across America in cities, small towns, and even a one room country school.

In a 2015 piece published in The American Scholar, Rose once again reflects on the teachers he observed while writing Possible Lives.  Rose describes the professional challenges teachers face every day in their classrooms, this time contrasting today’s technocratic emphasis on gimmicks and the sequencing of particular techniques to the real work of a teacher: “If you pare down your concept of teaching far enough you are left with sequences of behaviors and routines—with techniques… What is new is the nearly exclusive focus on techniques, the increased role of digital technology to study them, and the attempt to define ‘effective’ by seeking positive correlations between specific techniques and, you guessed it, students’ standardized test scores… Techniques don’t work in isolation.  The sequencing of questions, for example, is a crucial skill, but it depends on the teacher’s knowledge of the material being taught, children’s typical responses to this material, the kinds of misconceptions and errors they make, and the alternative explanations and illustrations that might help them.  A teacher can’t ask meaningful questions for long without this kind of knowledge. In equal measure, the effectiveness of techniques, particularly for classroom management, is influenced by students’ sense of a teacher’s concern for them and understanding of them… This pinched notion of teaching (through a sequence of techniques) combined with a ‘no excuses’ stance toward low achievement yields a troubling response to economic inequality: the belief that the right kind of education can overcome poverty.”

Rose summarizes the qualities of the fine teachers and classrooms he observed: “For all of 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 own children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration  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. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Several years ago, I was invited by a friend on the staff of the high school in my own community to visit classes for a morning. This is an inner-ring suburban public high school, majority African American with well over fifty percent of students living in poverty. My own children graduated from this high school, which is why I was so touched to be invited back for a visit. I spent an hour in several fine classrooms, but one stands out as an example of the kind of classroom Rose describes. The class is what is called at our high school a social studies elective, a political philosophy class for high school juniors and seniors. It is significant that this class is not required for Ohio’s graduation exam requirement, which allows this teacher some freedom. The students were in the midst of reading Voltaire’s Candide, the topic of the day’s discussion, and the teacher handed out copies of a list of fifteen questions to guide the day’s conversation. He asked the students collectively to decide which questions they thought were so obvious they could cross them off without discussion (usually the more literal questions), and then led the conversation for the rest of the hour by inviting students to name the questions they would like to discuss. One young woman became so engaged she hoisted herself up onto the radiator behind her for a better view of the students across the room. The teacher made a careful effort to engage all the students, often passing over a loquacious young woman to make a space for the quieter students. Finally the teacher wondered about Voltaire’s attitude toward religion, and the students felt safe enough to raise their questions. No one had been able to work this out very well, and all felt comfortable admitting that. What followed was considerable conversation about whether Voltaire is criticizing religion or hypocrisy. At the end of the hour, the teacher challenged the students to think about that question as they finished the book.  I came home admiring the intellectual safety of that classroom where earnest teenagers were encountering such a book for the first time.

Really, the national branding of teachers as failures might have caused you to wonder if such classrooms exist any more. Schools today are also relatively guarded places. Because of the school shootings in recent years and all the worry about school security, you likely won’t have an opportunity to make a visit to your community’s high school. Once again, however, Parker Palmer is reassuring. If you can find a way to visit one of your community’s schools, “Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization that they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills. But you will also witness teacher after teacher transcending these conditions and caring for young people in remarkable ways… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.” (Parker Palmer’s “Forward” to Stories of the Courage to Teach by Sam Intrator, p. xviii)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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