How We Define Teaching Makes All the Difference

In the beginning of I Married a Communist, a novel about the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, Philip Roth, who died in May of this year, introduces a character who, everybody would agree, is a model high school teacher. Mr. Ringold, the teacher, and his student (Nathan, the novel’s narrator) both live in Newark, New Jersey. Mr. Ringold teaches kids from his neighborhood, students he deeply understands. He cares about them, but more to the point, he cares about what they read and insists that they learn to think about it.

Here is a short excerpt, a dialog between Mr. Ringold and Nathan, then an adolescent, who rides his bicycle past the teacher’s house on the way to return books to the library:

“Mr. Ringold had stepped over to where the books had tumbled from the basket onto the pavement at the foot of the stoop and was looking at their spines to see what I was reading. Half the books were about baseball… and the other half were about American history.” One is about the life of of Tom Paine.

“‘You know what the genius of Paine was?’ Mr. Ringold asked me. ‘It was the genius of all those men. Jefferson. Madison. Know what it was.?'”

“‘No,’ I said.”

“‘You do know what it was,’ he said.”

“To defy the English.”

“A lot of people did that. No. It was to articulate the cause in English. The revolution was totally improvised, totally disorganized.  Isn’t that the sense you get from this book, Nathan? Well, these guys had to find a language for their revolution. To find the words for a great purpose.”

“‘Paine said,’ I told Mr. Ringold, ‘I wrote a little book because I wanted men to see what they were shooting at.”

The teaching continues as Roth sets up the plot through the first chapter of the novel. Mr. Ringold, attentive to every opportunity to challenge his student, holds himself accountable—personally responsible—for challenging Nathan to develop probing intellectual habits.

Compare Mr. Ringold’s understanding of education to what Stanford University education professor emeritus Larry Cuban recently described as the wave of school accountability that has swept the country since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983: “The current donor and business-led resurgence of a ‘modern cult of efficiency,’ or the application of scientific management to business can be seen at a host of companies and in U.S. schools…  Turn now to schooling. The… focus on student outcomes can be seen in the standards, testing, and accountability movement launched over three decades ago…. Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., ‘effective,’ using students’ test scores has occurred in many states and big city districts. Such outcome measures should not shock anyone familiar with the spreading influence of the business model (e.g. earning profits, market share, and return on investment) upon schooling.  Policymakers’ concerns over inefficiency in sorting effective from ineffective teachers… led to an embrace of an economic model of providing incentives to increase organizational productivity and efficiency… Faster and better teaching through new technologies producing improved student outcomes in less time and money….”

Technology and data are the key. Financial bonus incentives—not teachers’ personal responsibility for their students—are understood as the motivator. Forgotten is the human connection— the teacher questioning, cajoling, encouraging, enjoying learning with her students.

Cuban quotes Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Education Secretary, who was a primary driver of the cult of efficiency: “Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an add-on for a high-tech reproduction of current practice.  Again, we need to change the underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money. By far, the best strategy for boosting productivity is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.”

In the passage Cuban quotes, Duncan’s thinking is depersonalized. The subjects of the sentences—the forces conducting the educational action—are abstractions: technology, the military and “the best strategy.” It is as though Duncan, who never taught school prior to becoming CEO of the Chicago Public Schools or becoming U.S. Secretary of Education, lacks any feel for teaching.

Through all these years of data-driven, outcomes-based, efficiency-framed education theory, Mike Rose, the education writer and a UCLA professor of education, has continued to remind us that schooling must always be about human relationship. Rose just posted a new piece: Teaching As a Way of Seeing. He begins: “‘The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,’ says Hazel of her automotive technology instructor, ‘is that when she looks at you, she sees the finished product.’ What a remarkable kind of seeing Hazel describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible. Over the past several years, I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professionals in their fifties and sixties, about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives. A number of the people I talked to used some variation of Hazel’s statement about seeing, some visual metaphor of validation.”

Rose continues: “These teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior—or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend. Through the way they teach, through mentoring, or some other intervention, these teachers help develop the abilities they perceive. We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks.”

Rose quotes a high school teacher who aspires to be the kind of teacher Philip Roth created in Mr. Ringold: “‘I was a strange kid,’ a high school English teacher says reflecting back on his time in twelfth grade, ‘but not to [his English teacher] Mrs. Howard. She saw me the way I wanted to be seen. It changed my life. Every day I work to see kids the way they want to be seen.'”


Grassroots Education Activists Emerge in Wisconsin and Indiana to Counter Power of the One Percent

In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer outlines the ways in which the far-right has made attacks on public education the centerpiece of its state-by-state tax cutting, union bashing, school privatizing agenda.  Teachers walking out this spring in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and Colorado epitomize a backlash against the state-level, Red-wave assault against public education. Lacking visible walkouts and protests this spring, Indiana and Wisconsin have also epitomized the Red-wave policies that have undermined public schools in so many states. This year, even in these states without huge walkouts, organized support for traditional public schools has emerged to push back against the powerful, moneyed interests driving privatization. In Indiana a backlash is budding in November’s Indianapolis school board race, while in Wisconsin, a years-long push back by organized parents across the state has made public school funding the centerpiece of growing opposition to Scott Walker as he runs for re-election.

Lafer explains: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)


Indiana has epitomized the impact of explosive school privatization. Summarizing the period between the Great Recession in 2008 and 2016 in its new report, A Decade of Neglect, the American Federation of Teachers describes the impact of the diversion of tax dollars to two privatized systems—a charter sector and statewide vouchers: “In 2002, the state had 11 charter schools and no voucher programs. Currently 80 charter schools enroll some 40,000 students and receive more than $300 million in taxpayer dollars per year, while nearly 35,000 students receive $150 million in vouchers… (C)hanges to the state’s tax code have meant that these three school systems—traditional public schools, charter schools and voucher schools—are competing for less and less tax revenue.”

The Network for Public Education’s Darcie Cimarusti traces the growing damage of school privatization in Indianapolis, which has enthusiastically adopted a plan called Portfolio School Reform. Cimarusti describes what is planned for the upcoming school year in Indianapolis: “When schools reopen in Indianapolis, Indiana in July, the doors of three legacy high schools will remain shuttered… Like many school closures, the recent shuttering of what was once three great high schools would disproportionately impact low-income children of color. Superintendent Lewis Ferebree cited budget concerns and declining enrollment throughout the district as justification. But as the traditional public high schools the community fought to keep open were closed, the district opened a charter high school co-founded by Mitch Daniels, former Indiana governor and education reform stalwart… Before Daniel’s new high school had even completed its first year, the Indianapolis Charter School Board approved the charter’s request to open an additional location.”

Cimarusti credits the gobbling up of Indiana’s storied public high schools by charters to schools competing against each other in a school district managed under the theory of Portfolio School Reform—a theory of school management being promoted across America’s big cities by the Gates-funded Center on Reinventing Public Education. The idea is that a local school board manages a mass of public and charter schools like a stock portfolio by shedding the poor investments and adding promising experiments in an ongoing way.  Portfolio School Reform was imported into Indiana, Cimarusti explains, by a local think-tank, The Mind Trust, which assembled money from large out-of-state as well as local pro-privatization funders: “The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis, Indiana based 501(c)(3)) nonprofit organization, brought the portfolio model to IPS. Over $80 million in local and national foundation money has poured into The Mind Trust’s coffers since 2016, with the Walton Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the John and Laura Arnold Foundation joining the local foundations already supporting Indianapolis’ portfolio model.”  The Mind Trust, whose influence has been growing for over a decade, also boasts support from local philanthropies—the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation and the Lilly Endowment.  “The Mind Trust enticed national reform entities to Indianapolis, including Teach for America, the New Teacher Project and Stand for Children.” Stand for Children, an Oregon based Astroturf organization, backed a successful slate to take over the Indianapolis school board in the 2014 and 2016 elections, and in 2014 Stand for Children successfully pushed through the state legislature an ALEC model law “to create Innovation Network Schools—schools that are overseen by the school district but managed by private operators. These include privately operated charter schools that gain instant access to existing public buildings and resources.”

This November, a slate of public school supporters is standing for election for the Indianapolis school board to fill three positions currently held by members supported by Stand for Children.  If the pro-public school candidates are elected, they will join Elizabeth Gore, the one member of the board who has courageously stood up against the Portfolio School Reform agenda, to form a majority. There is finally a chance, writes Cimirusti, that Indianapolis voters could take back their schools in November and derail the Mind Trust’s Portfolio School Reform juggernaut.


Journalist Jennifer Berkshire describes a public education-driven political upheaval in Wisconsin as Scott Walker fights for re-election in November: “To understand the nature of the movement that is emerging in Wisconsin, it helps to define what it isn’t.  There are no more huge demonstrations of the sort that engulfed the state Capitol building in Madison in 2011, in response to Walker’s infamous ‘budget repair bill.’  After weeks of intense protests, the measure to mostly strip the state’s public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights passed as Act 10 of the legislature’s 2011-2012 session. ‘We tried the big protests and they didn’t work,’ says Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.  ‘What you’re seeing now is that the battle has really gone local and grassroots.’… Today, the Wisconsin Public Education Network is at the forefront of a statewide effort to support Wisconsin’s public schools and the 860,000 students who attend them. DuBois Bourenane and a small army of parents, teachers, school officials and ordinary citizens are shining a relentless spotlight on the $2 billion in cuts made to the schools here by Walker and the GOP-led legislature, and demanding a fix to Wisconsin’s deeply inequitable school funding system.”

In A Decade of Neglect, the AFT summarizes what has happened in Wisconsin since 2008: “Faced with a $3 billion budget shortfall in 2011, Gov. Scott Walker and the newly elected Republican legislature cut the education budget by $1.85 billion. That same year, Walker signed the first in a series of tax cuts that have ultimately cost the state $4.7 billion. And, at the same time lawmakers made steep cuts in state support for schools, they also enacted limits on the amount of money school districts can raise at the local level.  Wisconsin public schools spent less per student in 2016 than they did in 2008; per-pupil spending was 6.4 percent less than in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.  And, between 2008 and 2016, the state dropped from 16th to 24th for per-pupil spending… Tax cuts enacted by Wisconsin lawmakers have disproportionately benefited the richest Wisconsin residents. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, the top 1 percent of taxpayers received a combined tax cut that was nearly 11 times as big as the combined tax cut received by taxpayers in the bottom 20 percent—even though 20 times as many taxpayers were in the group with the lowest income.”

School privatization in Wisconsin has also robbed the public school budget. Milwaukee’s voucher program—begun in 1990—is the nation’s oldest. The program has continually been enlarged, as Berkshire explains: “In 2013, Wisconsin lawmakers vastly expanded the state’s private school voucher program, which steers taxpayer dollars to private, mostly religious schools. The measure was backed by an aggressive, and extravagantly funded, lobbying effort by the American Federation for Children, the school choice organization started by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.”

In a recent post, blogger Thomas Ultican elaborates on the big-money philanthropic drive that introduced and expanded vouchers in Wisconsin: “The national money flowing into Milwaukee to privatize public education comes from the usual sources including the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and… the very conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.  In 2016, the Bradley Foundation gave generously to ALEC, Freedomworks Foundation, the Federalist Society and Betsy DeVos’s Mackinac Center.  Locally they gave $375,000 to the Badger Institute, $500,000 to the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) and  $100,000 each to Schools That Can Milwaukee and Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE). These appear to be yearly gifts.”

Across Wisconsin, however, a widespread backlash has emerged.  Berkshire describes the bipartisan strategy of parents and community members organizing in Wisconsin to defeat the power of the giant, money-driven anti-tax, anti-union and pro-privatization movement: “(T)he post-Act 10 brand of education activism is decidedly, even insistently, nonpartisan… (E)ducation activists here are making the case that public schools, and more importantly the children they serve, should be free from partisan rancor.”

Berkshire quotes Jim Bowman, who leads Fox Cities Advocates for Public Education: “‘We thought that being connected with the Democratic Party would undermine us,’ says Bowman, who also serves as a member of the Appleton Board of Education. The group appeals to… parents and other local residents of both parties who care about their schools and are unhappy about the steady depletion of resources. These ‘mad moms’ are then encouraged to pressure their local officials, through letters of testimony at public events, or by simply showing up at legislative meetings to send a signal that members of the public are paying attention to education policy.  And the more legislators hear from constituents that they care about public education, the better able they are to counter the influence of big donors and the corporate lobby. ‘Our goal is to make public education one of the top issues that legislators are hearing about so that they can’t just ignore their constituents,’ says Bowman”

For decades, as Gordon Lafer documents in The One Percent Solution, corporate school reform has been driven by a massive investment by the One Percent.  Thank goodness for the teachers who walked out this spring to promote the importance of public investment in the public institutions that have historically defined the strength of education in America.  And thank goodness for local activists in the very difficult, ideologically driven Red-wave states like Indiana and Wisconsin—parents and community members who are pushing back.  While public schools are certainly not perfect, they are the optimal way—operated under the law by democratically elected school boards—to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all 50 million children enrolled in public schools across the United States.

New Rules Proposed by DeVos Would Reduce Student Loan Forgiveness, Favor For-Profit Colleges

Betsy DeVos is busy eliminating regulation of for-profit colleges and reducing protection of the rights of students who use federal loans to attend them. President Obama’s administration had tried to crack down, but DeVos and her Department of Education are cozier with the for-profit college sector.

Last Wednesday, Betsy DeVos’s U.S. Department of Education proposed new rules to set the parameters for loan forgiveness when students file claims alleging their colleges have defrauded them. Under the new “borrowers’ defense to repayment” rules, DeVos expects the Department of Education to save money—approximately $700 million annually. Then on Thursday, the NY Times obtained a copy of draft plans to end what has been called the “gainful employment rule,” which has been used to shut down for-profit trade schools and colleges when their students are so unemployable they cannot pay off their federal loans.

Borrowers Defense to Repayment — Advocates for protecting the rights of student borrowers say the rules released last week will make it much harder for students who believe they have been defrauded to have their student loans cancelled. The very existence of many for-profit colleges depends on a steady revenue stream of federally backed student loans. After Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute were shut down, thousands of their former students filed claims for cancellation of loans used to pay tuition for programs that had been terminated.

For the Washington Post, Laura Meckler and Danielle Douglas-Gabrielle explain: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos moved Wednesday to make it harder for students who say they were defrauded by colleges to erase their debts, rolling back Obama-era regulations that for-profit colleges saw as threatening their survival. The proposed rules… require students to prove schools knowingly deceived them if they want their federal loans canceled. And it scuttled an Obama administration provision that allowed similar claims to be processed as a group. Instead, students will have to prove their claims individually. The rules are DeVos’s rewrite of an Obama-era regulation published in 2016 and part of that administration’s crackdown on for-profit colleges that critics say prey on vulnerable students. In ways big and small, the new version makes it harder for students to win debt forgiveness… The department aims to publish a final rule by Nov. 1 so that it can take effect for loans originating after July 1, 2019. The agency will allow 30 days for public comments on the proposal.”

Consumer and borrower advocates believe the standard of proof under the DeVos rules proposed last week favors the for-profit college industry and fails adequately to protect students. The NY Times’ Erica Green reports that DeVos has filled the positions who regulate for-profit colleges with former employees and advocates for the for-profits: “DeVos advisers include her senior counselor, Robert S. Eitel, and Diane Auer Jones, a senior adviser on postsecondary education, both of whom worked for Career Education Corporation, a company that operates for-profit colleges, and reached a $10.25 million settlement with the New York attorney general over charges that it had inflated graduates’ job placement rates. The department’s general counsel, Carlos G. Muñiz, worked as a consultant for the company.”

POLITICO‘s Benjamin Wermund adds that the newly proposed rules will reduce loan reimbursements to students whose colleges suddenly close as long as those colleges provide a phase out that allows students to complete some of their coursework: “Under the plan, the Education Department would no longer provide “closed school” discharges to students if the school offers an approved “teach-out” or a wind-down of their program — a move the agency predicts would reduce the amount of closed school discharges by $96.5 million each year.”

The newly proposed rules require students to prove they were intentionally defrauded. Meckler and Douglas-Gabrielle report: “Consumer advocates also said it is unrealistic to expect borrowers to prove that their college intended to mislead them. ‘How are borrowers supposed to prove intent? They don’t have any discovery rights. They don’t have the ability to get testimony from the person who lied to them about what they knew or didn’t know,’ said Abby Shafroth, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.”

Advocates for protection of borrower’s rights criticize the proposed rules because they require that students filing complaints submit to arbitration:  Green explains: “The proposal also restores ‘pre-dispute arbitration agreements,’ which allow colleges to force students to sign waivers saying they will settle their disputes with institutions through arbitration. The Obama administration had removed those agreements from its rule because they essentially forced to students to sign away their rights to sue and file federal claims, and shielded student complaints from the public.”

Gainful Employment Rule — The Obama administration began to crack down on trade schools’ unscrupulous recruiting practices and fraudulent promises that students would be prepared for jobs when the colleges’ programs were weak or worthless. Last Thursday, the NY Times Erica Green obtained a draft plan from the U.S. Department of Education to eliminate the Obama “gainful employment rule” altogether.

Green explains: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos plans to eliminate regulations that forced for-profit colleges to prove that they provide gainful employment to the students they enroll, in what would be the most drastic in a series of moves that she has made to free the for-profit sector from safeguards put in effect during the Obama era. The so-called gainful employment regulations put into force by the Obama administration cut off federally guaranteed student loans to colleges if their graduates did not earn enough money to pay them off. That sent many for-profit colleges and universities into an economic tailspin because so many of their alumni were failing to find decent jobs. The Obama regulations — years in the making and the subject of a bitter fight that pulled in heavy hitters from both parties who backed the for-profit schools — also required such schools to advertise whether or not they met federal standards for job placement in promotional materials and to prospective students.”

Green continues, describing implications of  the Department’s plan to eliminate the “gainful employment rule”: “The move would punctuate a series of decisions to freeze, modify and now eliminate safeguards put in place after hundreds of for-profit colleges were accused of widespread fraud and subsequently collapsed, leaving their enrolled students with huge debts and no degrees. The failure of two mammoth chains, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institutes, capped years of complaints that some career-training colleges took advantage of veterans and other nontraditional students, using deceptive marketing and illegal recruitment practices.”

Green reports that the department would continue efforts by the Obama administration to make available some information about for-profit colleges, but far less than the Obama administration required, and the Department of Education would no longer enforce the rule by withholding federal loans: “The existing database, created under the Obama administration, includes such data for more than 7,000 institutions, but it does not include program-by-program success rates for such certificates as nursing assistance, cosmetology or auto maintenance, nor does it contain the detailed employment statistics that the gainful employment regulations targeted… (I)t would eliminate the powerful threat to withhold access to guaranteed student loans from colleges whose graduates cannot find the work to pay them back. Few higher-education institutions could survive without federal student aid.”

DeVos’s plans to reduce regulations of for-profit colleges and trade schools should not be surprising. Not only has DeVos continued to hire former administrators from the for-profit college sector as well as lobbyists for the sector, but from the beginning, DeVos has shown her intent to roll back efforts begun by the Obama administration to protect the tax investment in student loans and to protect students from predatory recruiting by for-profit colleges whose programs are so weak that their students have been unemployable.

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss quotes Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who, when presented with the new rule changes, wondered, “Why would anyone deliberately hurt students who have been screwed over by scam schools?”

AFT Sums Up Ten Years of Public School Underfunding and Neglect with Details from Each State

The new report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), A Decade of Neglect, is one of the most lucid explanations I’ve read about the deplorable fiscal conditions for public schools across the states.  It explains the precipitous drop in school funding caused by the Great Recession, temporarily ameliorated in 2009 by an infusion of funds from the federal stimulus (a financial boost that disappeared after a couple of years), compounded by tax cutting and austerity budgeting across many states, and further compounded by schemes to drain education dollars to privatized charter and voucher programs all out of the same budget.

The report delineates the conditions tangled together over the decade: “While some states are better off than most, in states where spending on education was less in 2016 than it was before the recession, our public schools remain nearly $19 billion short of the annual funding they received in 2008, after adjusting for changes in the consumer price index… The recession ran from December 2007 through June 2009 and prompted a crisis setting off a chain of actions that resulted in significant budget cutting by our state governments. When the recession hit, it devastated state budgets. Job losses, lower wages, the crash in housing prices and the panic in the financial markets all worked to lower state tax revenues, while the demand for government services in the form of unemployment benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing and Medicaid assistance drove up expenditures.  The Brookings Institution estimated that by the second quarter of 2009, income tax collections were 27 percent below their prior-year levels, and total state taxes were 17 percent lower… The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report of education indicators recently found that U.S. spending on elementary and high school education declined more than 4 percent from 2010-2014…. Over this same period, education spending on average, rose 5 percent per student across the 35 countries in the OECD.”

Many states also adopted an ideology promising that tax cuts would bring the economy back. Sam Brownback’s Kansas experiment in supply side economics, however, exemplifies the failure to confirm these hopes. In Kansas the economy didn’t improve and state revenues collapsed.  Only in the past two years has the legislature there raised taxes—beginning an effort to undo the damage.  Overall, according to AFT’s report: “In 2016, 25 states were still providing less funding for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation… Eighteen of the 25 states that provided less funding for k-12 education reduced their tax effort between 2008 and 2015.”  The eight states that cut taxes most deeply were: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.  And, “In 38 states, the average teacher salary in 2018 is lower than it was in 2009 in real terms… According to the Economic Policy Institute, teacher pay fell by $30 per week from 1996-2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124. The gap between teachers and other college graduates has continued to widen and deep cuts in school funding leave states unable to invest in their state’s teacher workforce… In 35 states, between 2008 and 2016, the ratio of students to teachers grew.”

Here is an example of the result: “(W)hile some states are doing better than others, no state is really doing well enough.  California is a leader on many of the measures used in this report.  But there are less than one tenth the number of school librarians as is recommended.  Most school districts don’t have a nurse and there are only about a quarter of the recommended number of school counselors.”

One result is growing inequity: “Our system is upside down. The Education Trust finds that districts with the highest poverty are able to spend $1,000 less per pupil than the districts that are the wealthiest.. (T)he school districts ‘serving the largest populations of Black, Latino, or American Indian students receive roughly $1,800, or 13 percent, less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color.’  Research from the Education Law Center and Rutgers University similarly finds that there are only 20 states which, on average, devote more resources to high poverty districts than districts without poverty. Only seven states provide ten percent or more.”

Schemes to add marketplace school choice, at public expense, financially burden the public school districts where choice is expanded: “(W)hen money leaves a public school because a student has enrolled in a different system, it is difficult for that school to cut services without affecting the programs for students who remain… Second, (charter and voucher) schools can react to incentives in the marketplace and the school finance system by configuring their programs to encourage or discourage certain enrollment.  To the extent that the traditional public school system is expected to accept all children, districts disproportionately bear the costs of these shifts.  For example, we know that charter schools tend to enroll fewer high-cost special education students than traditional public schools… Moody’s Investors Service, the bond rating agency, found that not only do charter schools tend to proliferate in areas where school districts already are under economic and demographic stress, but that charter schools tend to ‘pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs.'”

The new report is extensive and organized to make it readily searchable, state by state.  It also explores states’ diminishing investment in their colleges and universities.

What the report cannot answer is why our society has permitted such a significant drop in our financial commitment to educating our children. Have we lost track of the importance of education funding overall as revenue has dropped across the states and as other services, also suffering from lack of funding—health care, social services and housing support programs—compete for scarce funding? As the students attending public schools are increasingly poor, Black, and Hispanic, and as the wealthy have increasingly isolated themselves in exclusive enclaves which can fund their schools with ample local tax dollars, have we stopped caring as much about our responsibility to the millions of children and adolescents enrolled in the public schools of poorer communities?  The report paints a worrisome financial picture.  What it suggests about our values and perhaps our diminishing sense of public obligation is deeply troubling.

Who Controls Education Policy? The Power of the One Percent versus The Power of Educators

This blog will take a one-week summer break. Look for a new post on Tuesday, July 31.

For a long time it has been clear that the policy agenda for school privatization is being underwritten by the One Percent, while traditional public schools are the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent. During this spring and summer, we have been reminded of the role of organized teachers for reminding us about the needs of public schools’ powerless constituents—our children.

First we watched the teachers’ walkouts all this spring across far-right, tax-slashing states which have been starving their public education budgets.  Then in June, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against teachers unions in the case of Janus v. AFSCME , a decision that will threaten the viability and power of public sector unions to advocate on behalf of the public institutions staffed by the members of these unions.  The Janus decision will discourage union membership and deny public sector unions money for organizing and bargaining. Who was behind the case? The Chicago Tribune explains the role of wealthy Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, who worked with well-endowed, private libertarian organizations—the National Right to Work Foundation, the Illinois Policy Institute and the Liberty Justice Center—to bring the case and litigate it.

The Illinois Policy Institute is the Illinois member of the State Policy Network (SPN) of far-right, state-by-state think tanks which collaborate with the American Legislative Exchange Council to promote far-right bills across the 50 statehouses.  The Center for Media and Democracy describes the State Policy Network: “The State Policy Network (SPN) is a web of so-called “think tanks” that push a right-wing agenda in every state across the country. Although many of SPN’s member organizations claim to be nonpartisan and independent, an in-depth investigation by non-profit, non-partisan investigative reporting groups, the Center for Media and Democracy and Progress Now, reveals that SPN and its affiliates are major drivers of the right-wing, ALEC-backed agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders, all while reporting little or no lobbying activities.”

The role of the One Percent to drive education policy is much broader than its role in promoting the Janus case.  For Jacobin Magazine, Molly Gott and Derek Seidman map the role of “corporations, banks, and billionaires” driving a far right agenda across the states: “The teachers’ strikes… represent a major pushback by public sector workers against the right-wing agenda of austerity and privatization… The key forces driving the austerity and privatization agenda are similar across all the states that have seen strikes: Billionaire school privatizers. A small web of billionaires—dominated by the Koch brothers and their donor network, as well as the Waltons—have given millions to state politicians who will push their pro-austerity, pro-school privatization agenda… Regional corporate forces.  Major corporations in each state, often from the fossil fuel industry, are key drivers and beneficiaries of the pro-austerity, tax-cutting policies that have gutted school funding…. Koch-backed think tanks. A slew of state-level front groups—many tied to the State Policy Network, a national network of think tanks funded by the Kochs, Mercers, Waltons, and other billionaires—serve as a key PR wing for the anti-teacher, privatization agenda.”

Gott and Seidman trace the collaboration of this coalition to cut taxes and undermine public education in each of the states where teachers walked out this spring to protest their rock-bottom salaries and the deplorable conditions in their schools.  Remembering that public schools serve the 99 Percent (Quite literally 90 percent of America’s children are enrolled in public schools.), one learns from Gott and Seidman who is really behind public school policy in many states.

  • In Arizona: “Arizona governor Doug Ducey is a longtime Koch ally…. The Koch brothers poured $1.4 million into Ducey’s 2014 gubernatorial run, and he recently headlined a Koch donor retreat. Ducey’s chief of staff used to be president of the Koch-funded Americans for Responsible Leadership… The Koch donor network also funds the Goldwater Institute, Arizona’s anti-teacher SPN affiliate. Trump backer Rebekah Mercer is on the Goldwater board, and a former Ducey official now heads up the Institute… Arizona corporations fund the Arizona Education Project, which spent more than $1 million on pro-Ducey education ads before the teachers’ strike.”
  • In Oklahoma: “The fossil fuel industry drives the state’s austerity agenda. Three companies—Devon Energy, Chesapeake Energy, and Continental Resources, whose CEO Harold Hamm is worth $18.8 billion—succeeded in getting an ultra-low tax rate of just 2 percent on new drilling wells for the first three years of operations.” Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has close ties to the Koch network and to ALEC.
  • “West Virginia has steadily slashed corporate taxes since 2006… Oil, gas, and coal dominate West Virginia and are key pushers of austerity… The Koch-backed SPN has two affiliates in West Virginia—the Cardinal Institute and the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia.”

Gott and Seidman provide similar details about Kentucky, Colorado, and North Carolina, where massive political power is wielded by Art Pope, founder and CEO of Variety Wholesalers, a chain of discount stores.

Big money investors are not all supportive of tax-slashing and austerity budgeting. But they do tend to support privatized alternatives to traditional public schools. The Associated Press‘s Sally Ho traces Bill Gates’ role as the driver of the expansion of charter schools in the state of Washington. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has supported a pro-charter think tank, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, located at a University of Washington branch campus but spreading its ideology of charter school expansion across the fifty states through its network of “portfolio school reform” school districts.  Gates has not only invested in think tanks and foundation driven research; he has also invested politically in the expansion of charter schools in his home state of Washington:

“Dollar for dollar, the beleaguered movement to bring charter schools to Washington state has had no bigger champion than billionaire Bill Gates. The Microsoft co-founder gave millions of dollars to see a charter school law approved despite multiple failed ballot referendums. And his private foundation not only helped create the Washington State Charter Schools Association, but has at times contributed to an entire year’s worth of revenues for the 5-year-old charter advocacy group. All told, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given about $25 million to the charter group that is credited with keeping the charter schools open after the state struck down the law, and then lobbying legislators to revive the privately run, publicly funded schools… (Gates) gave at least $4 million to help pass a state charter school law, though the concept had failed three times at the ballot.  Voters eventually approved a charter school law in 2012, making Washington one of the last states to adopt the schooling model.  After the state’s highest court ruled in 2015 that the charter law’s funding model was unconstitutional, the Gates-backed state charter group shepherded almost $5 million to keep the lights on at six charter schools and urged legislators to pass a new law.  In 2016, its political arm called Washington Charters Action was created, and an affiliated political action committee has already given small amounts to dozens of state lawmakers up for election this fall.”

Finally we can turn to the New York Post, where Melissa Klein reports on the investment by hedge fund billionaires in New York City’s charter schools: “The city’s 227 charter schools are privately run, but get public money for each student and also raise private donations.  Nearly half belong to nonprofit management organizations like the Success Academy network.”  Success Academies is supported by the Success Academy Foundation: “The foundation was set up in 2012 with a mission to support the Success Academy schools.  It has taken in $1 million in donations in the last two years—with the cash coming each year, all from a single undisclosed donor. A Success Academy spokeswoman said the foundation’s sole function was ‘supplementing the compensation of the CEO.'”

Eva Moskowitz is the CEO of Success Academies, and her compensation is extraordinary.  Klein reports: “Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the 46-school Success Academy network, received a pay package totaling $782,175 in 2016.  The nonprofit network paid Moskowitz $195,000 in base compensation and she received another $255,000 in salary plus a $300,000 bonus from the affiliated Success Foundation.” Richard Carranza, the new chancellor of New York City’s public schools that serve 1.1 million students, earns an annual salary of $345,000—less than half of Moskowitz’s pay package.

In a society where the One Percent controls the public policy shaping the schools where 90 percent of us send our children, I am grateful for the power balance provided by teachers unions through their organizing power and policy advocacy.  Teachers unions represent over 5 million teachers who work every day with the mass of our society’s children.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the recent annual meetings of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, meetings where leaders, “are coming out swinging after a Supreme Court ruling that dealt a blow to labor organizations’ ability to collect fees. Even as conservative groups are waging a social media campaign to persuade teachers to drop out of their unions, the presidents of the National Education Association, the largest public union in the country, and the American Federation of Teachers delivered tough speeches this month at their annual conventions… The Guardian newspaper recently published a story saying: ‘Documents obtained by The Guardian reveal that a network of radical conservative think tanks spanning all 50 states is planning direct marketing campaigns targeted personally at union members to encourage them to quit.'”

The NY Times Erica Green adds: “Conservative groups that bankrolled the Janus case have begun a nationwide push to inform public workers of their new rights to opt out… ‘This is a game-changer, a tremendous victory for worker freedom,’ said Erica Jedynak, the New Jersey state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group backed by Charles G. and David H. Koch.  Americans for Prosperity is among the organizations working with a Michigan-based conservative group, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy to focus on states that have high numbers of public workers, such as New York, New Jersey and California.”

The battle will continue. The stakes are high as teachers unions push to retain their dues-paying members and their power as the only real balance for the giant voice these days of the One Percent.

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser Just Did the Right Thing for D.C. Public Schools

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser just vetoed her first bill in the three years she has served as mayor of the nation’s capital.

Washington, D.C.’s public schools are under mayoral control.  Earlier this year, a scandal was exposed in which the school district—under pressure to show rapid improvement—had been allowing thousands of students who had been missing weeks of school to graduate. Then last month, the City Council passed an emergency law to allow some of this year’s high school seniors who have missed more than six weeks of class—unexcused—to receive their diplomas.

Last week, Mayor Bowser vetoed the emergency law which applied to approximately 26 of this year’s high school seniors— as the District continues to address a major graduation crisis. The new law would have permitted the students to graduate from D.C. high schools in August, despite their poor school attendance.

In her veto statement, Mayor Bowser explains: “The Chancellor has worked diligently over the past several months to ensure that our students are attending school… D.C. Public Schools has invested substantial time and resources to ensure that all students who are off track have pathways to graduation or promotion through summer school, credit recovery, or competency-based courses at its Opportunity Academies.  Ultimately, we believe that mastering the content through one of those alternatives will set students up for long-term success in college or career, and this legislation undercuts individualized graduation plans created for each student.”

Writing for the Washington Post, Fenit Nirappil explains the significance of the legislation Bowser just vetoed: “The measure, passed by the D.C. Council on a 12-to-1 vote last month, came as the school system started enforcing long-ignored attendance policies following a graduation scandal.  Lawmakers said it was unfair to punish students by changing the rules during the school year. The legislation applied only to seniors who satisfied all other academic requirements to graduate. The measure also would have allowed students in lower grades with significant numbers of absences to advance to the next grade. At the time the measure passed, it was believed 26 seniors would be affected by the legislation… Leaders of the District’s public schools had sharply criticized the emergency reprieve.”

During the past decade, there has been enormous pressure on school principals and teachers to demonstrate rapid school improvement. District leaders have sought to make Washington, D.C.’s public schools appear to be a national model.  You’ll remember that under Michelle Rhee and her successor Kaya Henderson, teachers’ and principals’ evaluations depended on educators’ capacity to produce metrics-driven deliverables—higher test scores at first, and later an ever-rising high school graduation rate. You’ll remember that under Michelle Rhee, principals and teachers were fired if they couldn’t quickly raise test scores.

More recently, teachers report they have been instructed not to fail students, no matter what. They have been asked to ensure that students have enough credits for the District to keep on raising its graduation rate. Last winter the press discovered that many students across Washington, D.C.’s high schools were being given passing marks despite missing so much school that the District’s rules said they had been chronically absent and must be failed in their classes.  Many of last year’s high school graduates were reported to have missed so much school they were not qualified to have graduated.

The new emergency rules passed by the City Council in June—the rules Mayor Bowser just vetoed—appeared  to be designed to satisfy concerns by members of the Council about acute challenges posed for students by extreme poverty.  In June, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported: “(T)he proposed regulations come in the wake of a city-commissioned report that found that 1 in 3 high school graduates in 2017 received their diplomas despite accruing too many absences or improperly enrolling in makeup classes… Following the release of the city-ordered report in January, teachers and community members said that students have lives complicated by unstable homes, jobs and responsibilities for taking siblings to schools. In such an environment, attending school each day, in full, can prove challenging… The introduction of the updated rules Friday… suggests that school leaders are acknowledging the obstacles confronting students… The regulations allow schools to decide if they want to alter their academic days, including adding periods to the day to accommodate students who struggle to attend school during standard hours.”

In her veto statement, Mayor Bowser reinforces her intention to end the lax attendance policies that have plagued the District’s public schools. But at the same time, she reinforces the need for the school district to maintain consistent requirements for students.  While school leaders have created individualized assistance for students with personal challenges, Bowser declares that students’ personal needs neither diminish nor undermine the expectation that, to graduate from high school, students need to complete a full academic program.

The Problems of Outcomes-Based School Accountablity

I am so tired of the narrative of “failing” schools—a story which is always accompanied by the story of “failing” teachers and their “failing” students. I find myself trapped in arguments about this subject in places where I don’t want to be talking about it—with good friends and relatives around dinner tables, at parties, during intermissions at concerts.  And even though I know a lot about the topic, I can never really win the argument, because the people with whom I am discussing it have always read about it in the newspapers where the test score comparisons are published.  This narrative has no reference whatsoever to what is happening in particular classrooms or particular schools or school districts. Many people with strong opinions have not been in a public school for decades.

The real subject here, of course, is what education is.  But the conversation instead is always a comparison of test scores as a proxy for the quality of a community and its schools.  One wants to get at the the real meaning and purpose of outcomes-based, test-measured school accountability, but that is hard to do in a casual conversation.  And underneath any conversation about “failing” schools are lots of realities about segregation—by class and also by race.

Research has documented growing economic inequality and segregation by family income. Sean Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist, used a massive data set to document the consequences of widening economic inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Then there is segregation by race.  Recently I had occasion to revisit a 2014 article by Richard Rothstein on the long-term effects of racism in our caste society: “Even for low-income families, other groups’ disadvantages—though serious—are not similar to those faced by African Americans. Although the number of high-poverty white communities is growing (many are rural)… poor whites are less likely to live in high poverty neighborhoods than poor blacks.  Nationwide, 7 percent of poor whites live in high-poverty neighborhoods, while 23 percent of poor blacks do so. Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place showed that multigenerational concentrated poverty remains an almost uniquely black phenomenon; white children in poor neighborhoods are likely to live in middle-class neighborhoods as adults, whereas black children in poor neighborhoods are likely to remain in such surroundings as adults.  In other words, poor whites are more likely to be temporarily poor, while poor blacks are more likely to be permanently so…. Certainly, Hispanics suffer discrimination, some of it severe… but the undeniable hardship faced by recent, non-English speaking, unskilled, low-wage immigrants is not equivalent to blacks’ centuries of lower-caste status. The problems are different, and the remedies must also be different….”

Our public schools across America are situated in very different communities—small towns of all sorts, small cities, big cities, poor neighborhoods, rich neighborhoods—schools whose children speak English and other schools where for many children, English is not the primary language. Within all this diversity, however is the reality of segregation by race, and according to Reardon, growing segregation by family income.  In more and more places across America, children live in pockets of extreme poverty or pockets of extreme affluence.   While teachers can work with all the outside-of-school variables the children bring to their classrooms—including intensifying segregation by income, there is much of the experience of each child that schoolteachers cannot control. Children are neither blank slates nor empty vessels into which knowledge can be poured.

On Sunday morning, the subject of “failing” schools and “failing” teachers and “failing” students arrived on my doorstep in Patrick O’Donnell’s Plain Dealer article about what key Ohio legislators believe is dangerous: that too many students graduated from high school this year because of “soft” alternative pathways to graduation.  These alternative pathways were only for the 2018 school year— because educators successfully lobbied that the new graduation tests were so hard that all sorts of young people would be denied graduation.  O’Donnell tells us the educators’ fears were well grounded: “More than a third of this spring’s high school graduates from some urban areas would never have received their diplomas under Ohio’s new graduation requirements, were it not for some temporary and easier ‘pathways’ added to avert a statewide graduation ‘crisis.’ In Akron and Columbus, new test-based requirements would have prevented more than a third of this year’s graduates from marching at ceremonies in caps and gowns. In Cleveland, the impact of the controversial new standards would have been even stronger. The higher expectations would have wiped out diplomas for nearly half of the seniors who received them. Those students instead graduated using special one-time alternate pathways created just for this year to ease the transition to the new standards.”

This is the “failing” schools narrative at work.  If you can find a way to read this without noticing legislators’ indictment of those “failing” schools in Akron and Columbus and especially in Cleveland, Rep. Andy Brenner, Chair of the Ohio House Education Committee, will correct you: “What’s going on that they’re not able to get kids up to being college and career-ready?”

Contrast the understanding of education by outcomes-based education accountability hawks like Andy Brenner with the understanding of learning depicted in the new documentary film about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  Mr. Rogers—influenced by prominent experts in child development like Barry Brazelton and Margaret McFarland—defined education as relating to children, listening to children, and responding to children’s questions and needs and concerns.  For Mr. Rogers, education was not teacher- or school-driven but instead happened in relationship—building a child’s understanding from the foundation within the child. A teacher guides instead of lecturing; a teacher responds instead of driving material into a child’s brain.  A teacher starts where the child is.

Contrast such a developmental understanding of teaching and learning with the model framed by an outcomes-driven reformer intent on pouring in enough testable material to get enough adolescents to pass the tests and produce a career-ready cohort from each high school. The outcomes-based reformer worries about the so-called quality of the diploma; the educator in Mr. Rogers’ mold considers beginning where the child is and helping that child realize her or his promise.

In this year’s very best book on education, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz describes the flaws in outcomes-based school accountability. The title explains the book’s importance for our times: The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.

Koretz is a psychometrician.  While he is neither a child psychologist nor a specialist in child development, Koretz describes the omission of all sorts of essential parts of education, including the kind of teaching Fred Rogers believed was important: “A… critical failure of the reforms is that they left almost no room for human judgment. Teachers are not trusted to evaluate students or each other, principals are not trusted to evaluate teachers, and the judgment of professionals from outside the school has only a limited role. What the reformers trust is ‘objective’ standardized measures…. (T)he focus of reform in the United States has been to rely as much as possible on standardized measures and to minimize human judgment, even though the result was to leave a great deal of what is most important unmeasured—and therefore to give educators no incentive to focus on it.  This is one of the most fundamental flaws of test-based accountability and one of the most significant reasons for its failures.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 34-35)

Koretz explains how outcomes-based education is undermining our very understanding of education—and undermining teaching: “Not only is bad test prep pervasive. It has begun to undermine the very notion of good instruction… One of the rationales given to new teachers for focusing on score gains is that high-stakes tests serve a gatekeeping function, and therefore training kids to do well on tests opens doors for them… Whether raising scores will improve students’ later success… depends on how one raises scores.  Increasing scores by teaching well can increase students’ later success… In the early days of test-based accountability, some observers worried that educators were coming to confuse the test with the curriculum… Some of today’s teacher educators, however, make a virtue of this mistake. They often tell new teachers that tests, rather than standards or a curriculum should define what they teach… Why does this matter so much? To start, it encourages reallocation—that is, focusing instruction on the tested sample rather than the domain or the curriculum that it is supposed to represent… What we want is for students to gain the ability to apply knowledge and skills to problems they actually encounter—not to ensure their proficiency in applying them only to test items that look exactly like the ones they will confront in the main test at the end of the year.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 112-116)

Finally, Koretz speaks directly to the problem in Ohio, where alternative pathways to high school graduation have been needed to ensure high school graduation for large percentages of students in the state’s poorest cities but where students in affluent suburbs with schools to which the state awards “A+” grades merely sail through the new graduation requirements. Outcomes-based education accountability hawks set benchmarks more easily reached by the privileged, but we blame the schools and teachers in poorer communities—and with high school graduation benchmarks, we penalize the students themselves.

Koretz explains: “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)

Sometimes I think I ought to carry a copy of Koretz’s book in my purse, though I’d be written off as such a bore if I were to pull it out and read from it when somebody at a party begins bragging about their school—rated “A+” by the state of Ohio—while the school across town gets an “F.”  Everybody ought to take Daniel Koretz’s book to read at the beach this summer.