What Does Educational Equity Mean?

Monday, May 17, 2021, marked the 67th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which banned racially segregated schools and unequal access to education. Over more than two decades, NAACP attorneys Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall built up a series of court precedents leading to the 1954 decision in Brown, which declared that educational opportunity, “where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” However, two-thirds of a century later in most places in the United States racial separation and inequity remain the conditions of our children at school.

Among advocates for educational equality, there has, for decades, been an ongoing conversation about the definition of equity. Iris Rotberg, a professor of education policy at George Washington University, recently published a column in which she quotes Thurgood Marshall’s definition all those years ago:  “We sit… not to resolve disputes over educational theory but to enforce our Constitution… I believe the question of education quality must be deemed to be an objective one that looks at what the state provides its children, not what the children are able to do with what they receive.”

Rotberg interprets Marshall’s words: “The government’s responsibility, therefore, is to ensure equal opportunity, not to debate its link to student achievement.”  She is interpreting Marshall’s definition of justice to mean equality of educational inputs and not a comparison of test score outcomes.  She is advocating that states be held accountable for equalizing resources and that we reject what has come to be known as outcomes-based school reform which punishes schools and school districts where scores don’t quickly rise.

In its Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Schott Foundation for Public Education called America’s attention to disparities in educational inputs by demanding that we stop judging schools exclusively by standardized-test-score achievement gaps and instead try to conceptualize and measure opportunity gaps faced by the children across many parts of our country.  This spring, for example President Biden has recently taken the same approach, asking us to recognize opportunity gaps by including a provision in the American Rescue Plan, the recent COVID relief bill, to expand the Child Tax Credit to $3,000 per child ($3,600 for children under six-years-old), and make it fully refundable for families too poor to pay enough taxes to benefit from this measure.  Biden has been concerned that until now the current Child Tax Credit has left out the poorest children in this country. Their extreme poverty has created an opportunity gap that affects every aspect of their lives.

In education policy itself, equality of school inputs is a matter of school funding. Congress addressed this issue back in 1965 by establishing Title I to provide federal compensatory funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty, but that program has long suffered from underfunding.

And during 2018 and 2019, in huge statewide Red4Ed walkouts in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma and big strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland and Chicago, schoolteachers helped us better grasp opportunity gaps. They protested that their students were suffering from shortages of school social workers, guidance counselors and school nurses; overcrowded classes of 40 students; lack of enriched curriculum and art and music; and shuttered school libraries.

Historically, as Thurgood Marshall recognized, unequal school funding has also accompanied school segregation as a driver of educational inequality.  When Reconstruction collapsed in 1868, legislators in the states of the former Confederacy did everything they could to segregate schools and drive money to the schools serving white children. In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black explains how, in post-Reconstruction constitutional conventions across the South, legislators not only segregated schools but also introduced the idea of making school funding reliant on local property taxes: “Make school funding dependent primarily on local tax revenues and give local officials more discretion in operating their schools. This would do two important things.  First, it would make vast inequality possible. Wealthy areas could spend as much on education as they wanted, and poor areas—areas heavily populated by blacks—would remain, well, poor. Second, wealthy white communities would effectively be relieved of the duty of supporting black education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 145)

In her recent column, Rotberg rejects the other failed education “reform” strategy lawmakers have been trying out for several decades: look at student outcomes as measured by standardized tests and then sanction schools and school districts that can’t quickly raise test scores: “(T)he United States focused on initiatives that had no direct link to equity, but that reformers hoped would raise student test scores and reduce the achievement gap—(in Marshall’s words) ‘what the children are able to do with what they receive.’… The second approach did little overall to make the country more equitable or to strengthen academic attainment.”  She is talking about outcomes-based accountability: ” ‘fixing’ the education system and rewarding or punishing teachers for students’ test scores… Three main reforms have dominated the education system and education policy research: charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools; holding teachers accountable for student performance; and curriculum standards to guide instruction. The results show little evidence that the reforms led to a more equitable society or to national gains in student achievement.”

Ohio provides a perfect case study for Rotberg’s argument for the state’s provision of adequate and equitable public school resources. In recent decades, Ohio education policy has relied heavily on the test-and-punish philosophy that Rotberg bluntly rejects. Ohio ranks schools by their test scores and brands the poorest districts with “F”s and wealthy exurban schools with “A”s on the school report cards the state issues. Ohio has rapidly expanded private school tuition vouchers and the state has expanded charter schools, but Ohio’s mechanism for school privatization reduces fiscal resources in the public school districts serving poor children. The state locates EdChoice voucher qualification only in school districts with Title I schools and deducts the vouchers right out of the local school budgets. And it permits the location of privatized charter schools only in the school districts where standardized test score outcomes are low. The state has seized three of the states poorest school districts and imposed emergency overseers without any observable school improvement.

While all this was going on, Ohio entirely abandoned the state’s constitutional mandate requiring adequate and equitable school funding. This month the Legislature is considering a new Fair School Funding Plan as part of the budget which must be passed by June 30. Experts have regularly pointed out the collapse of the state’s school funding formula—leaving school districts overly reliant on unequal local property taxes.  In a House Finance Committee hearing on December 2, 2020, Ohio school funding expert Howard Fleeter explained: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a (working) school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.” Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton adds: “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”

In Ohio and across many states, it is a good time to reconsider Justice Thurgood Marshall’s definition of equity: “I believe the question of education quality must be deemed to be an objective one that looks at what the state provides its children, not what the children are able to do with what they receive.”

The Long Shadow of Poverty and School Segregation by Income

One of the serious problems posed by the likely Trump administration’s policy on public education is that it sidesteps entirely the deeply troubling challenges on the ground for children and their teachers.  While the only education idea being mentioned by the new administration is the rapid expansion of privatization—a kind of school choice which has shown itself not only to be unavailable to the poorest children but also threatening to the financial stability of the public schools in the poorest communities, there is indisputable evidence that the standardized test scores by which we now judge schools derive far more from poverty and economic segregation than the school teachers we are blaming.  Yet addressing poverty both outside the school and inside has slipped off the radar as, once again, the proposal to privatize is being prescribed as a remedy.

Last fall’s issue of the Russell Sage Journal, The Coleman Report and Educational Inequality Fifty Years Later (Vol 2, No 5) calls our attention back to the matter we need to be considering. The journal is edited by Karl Alexander, the Johns Hopkins University sociologist who authored a longitudinal study reaching back to the 1982 first grade year of a group of Baltimore’s young adults: The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood. Alexander introduces the collection of articles with a short history of 50 years of research on the topics of The Coleman Report: Is It Family or School? Getting the Question Right.  His topic and the subject of all the studies in this journal is to further untangle and identify the many strands of the opportunity gap across our nation’s schools.

Alexander explains that The Coleman Report, published in 1966, has been misconstrued over the years by those who have used it to prove that “schools make no difference” and to insist that we accept a binary explanation for school achievement as driven (or held back)  by either the school or the family.

Here, according to Alexander is what may be fairly concluded from the 1966 research of James Coleman and his colleagues: Family background is of great importance for school achievement; the influence of the family does not appear to diminish over the child’s school years. Neither the impact of one school or another nor the impact of facilities nor the impact of curriculum is as great as the impact of the student’s family background. Of in-school factors that matter to children, the teacher is the most important.  Finally, “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

Overall, writes Alexander as he summarizes the meaning of The Coleman Report: “Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all: The schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context.”  Alexander elaborates: “In fact, school influence on children’s achievement is so deeply embedded in children’s family life that they hardly are separate.  These tight linkages across institutional contexts additionally imply that the social organization of schooling, as constructed back then and still today, functions mainly to maintain or reproduce children’s place in the social order. To illustrate, in 2005 nationally, poor students were in the majority in 84 percent of schools with minority enrollments of 90 to 100 percent; in schools with minority enrollments of 10 percent or less, just 18 percent of schools had majority low-poverty enrollments.  The insight that the social composition of the student body is the strongest school-based correlate of student achievement, independent of the child’s family background, pinpoints the particular mechanism that channels family influence through the school: neighborhood residential segregation… High poverty neighborhoods and high-poverty schools are population aggregates.  Their properties do not inhere in any single family, and they have consequences beyond those located at the interior of family life… As the national commitment to school desegregation has waned, segregation at the school level has increased…”

Alexander briefly reviews five decades of research on the effects of family, school, and neighborhood (including residential segregation) and summarizes: “Attempts to parse the ‘whether’ of school versus family seek a definitive answer, but this false dichotomy fundamentally misconstrues the backdrop to children’s learning.  Family matters, to be sure, but school also matters, and it is how the two intersect that sets children on their developmental paths… In generating opportunity, family and school are indeed in tension, but it is a tension not captured in the ‘school versus family’ framing…. (W)hat counts is the balance between private family resources and public resources in support of children’s learning.  At present, the private and public resources invested in children’s schooling are highly unequal, and they favor families of means.”

Alexander adds, however, that even the poorest schools are positively impacting the lives and learning of their students: “But it also needs to be said that schools do not simply reinforce patterns of family advantage and disadvantage. Rather, poor children fall behind when their learning depends on the sparse resources available to them at home and in their communities. Their schools, even those burdened by concentrated poverty, help them to keep up academically. From research on summer learning loss we learn that the portion of school influence that is separable from family serves to lift up poor children, not hold them back.”

NY Times Muddles Education Debate

Last week, Connecticut Judge Thomas Moukawsher released a school funding decision in the case, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell.  Judge Moukawsher found Connecticut school funding unconstitutional, but at the same time his decision was anything but clear.  The Connecticut Supreme Court had already recognized the state’s allocation of educational resources and their alleged deficiencies, and had remanded the case back to the lower court with the expectation that the judge would examine the evidence and determine to what degree Connecticut’s level of investment in the plaintiff school districts meets the adequacy standard.  Writing for the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker, an expert on school finance and an attorney with the Education Law Center, explains: “At trial, the CCJEF plaintiffs (had) put forth overwhelming evidence of severe resource deficiencies of inputs such as: academic and social intervention for at-risk students and students with special needs; guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, services for English Language Learners, music, art and other subjects; and reasonable class size. Judge Moukawsher’s charge was to examine the resources in the districts at issue in the case…. However, nowhere in the opinion does the judge systematically look at the actual resources present or absent in each district.” (On Tuesday, this blog commented on the Connecticut decision).

In his decision, the Connecticut judge also chose to range far beyond the funding issue at the center of the case.  In his decision, Judge Moukawsher condemns a range of policies and practices in education that have little to do with school finance. The decision is confusing and the NY Times, which has covered the decision, has neither identified nor explained the pertinent issues. Instead, praising the decision as A Holistic Ruling on Broken Schools, the NY Times Editorial Board declares: “These rulings have focused mainly on money. But a sweeping opinion issued last week by a state judge in Connecticut went beyond criticizing funding policies. He ordered the state to revamp major aspects of the system—including special education services, teacher evaluations and hollow requirements that ‘in some places have nearly destroyed the meaning of high school graduation and left children rising from elementary school to high schools without knowing how to read’…. The blistering ruling should shame lawmakers, who have for decades looked away from the problem of educational inequality… After seeing the vast gulf between achievement levels and graduation rates in poor and wealthy communities, the judge chastised the state for standing on the sidelines, ‘imposing token statewide standards’ that had no demonstrable, verifiable connection to student learning.”  Using a complex school funding decision as a springboard for a wide ranging education policy debate before clearly exploring the meaning of the decision itself is a dangerous press strategy as we shall see.

Yesterday, the NY Times continued with its attempt to use the Connecticut court decision to jump start a national discussion about education policy under a headline that screams, Is School Reform Hopeless?  Kirsten Moran introduces a series of short articles representing all sides of the education debate with the question, “Why is failure so widespread and persistent in poor districts and how can it be resolved?” In a series of short commentaries, experts respond to Moran’s question by promoting their particular areas of expertise and their particular biases. The newspaper is careful to achieve balance by sampling proponents from both sides of the education war:

  • Prudence Carter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, explains that school reform won’t come cheaply, that schools need in-school wraparound health and social services to serve children in poverty, and that, “Schools have to attract experienced teachers and leaders with the right sensibilities and training to educate youth from diverse social and cultural backgrounds.”
  • Elaine Weiss of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education advocates for support for teachers who face daunting obstacles, and for in-school wraparound health and social services.  “Effective teaching and leadership,” she writes,”are, for sure, critical to great education, but reforms can’t be focused on removing and replacing individual educators without acknowledging the reality that schools are complex ecosystems situated within larger systems—their surrounding communities.”
  • Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, the organization that promotes a school governance plan called “portfolio school reform”—marketplace school choice in which appointed school boards open and lose schools as though the district were a business portfolio.  Not surprisingly, Lake writes that we need to truly equalize funding “by having state and local money follow students”—students carrying their funding to their school of choice. “All families deserve choices…. Every school should be expected to grow, get support and intervention, or be replaced by another promising set of educators.”
  • Carola Suarez-Orozco, a professor at UCLA whose specialty is the needs of English language learners, declares: “Our current accountability mandate is predicated on standardized assessments, but those assessments were not designed with English learners in mind… We… must prepare our teachers and administrators to learn how to serve these students and their families.”
  • Ron Ferguson, who directs the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, notes that while participants in Harvard’s seminars in closing the achievement gap agree that, “People are overwhelmed by the complexity of the challenge” of raising achievement and narrowing gaps, “some inner city schools decode the complexity and work through it. They create orderly climates that facilitate learning. Through extraordinary acts of persuasion, persistence and sometimes even coercion, leaders assemble skilled and relentless teaching and counseling staffs….”
  • Marguerite Roza at Georgetown University explains that a focus on rewriting funding formulas hasn’t “reversed a general trend of rampant school failure in poor districts.  Schools with greater concentrations of poor students, by and large, still do poorly.” Current reforms have, she writes “produced  a compliance-orientation to schooling that leaves school leaders in a virtual straitjacket.” “School leaders need more control of spending.”

As these experts speak briefly and superficially to their own specialties and sometimes their ideologies, we are not helped to put their comments into any sort of frame or context.  And we are left with the sense that problems in public education today are broad, confusing and hopeless. I do not believe our challenges are hopeless, but I do believe they must be sorted out and addressed clearly and directly.

Of course our education system is complex: Public schools serve 50 million children across a broad range of cities, suburbs, towns and rural areas.  Some students bring the challenges of their families—divorce or abuse; others bring the challenges of poverty. Some bring the need to learn English. Others need to learn despite physical and mental disabilities. A startling example of overwhelming need in the hometown of the NY Times is documented in a report released in August about the 82,000 homeless children enrolled in the public schools of New York City. Here are just a couple of facts from that report: “Forty percent of homeless elementary students living in shelters transferred (from one school to another) during the school year compared to just 9% of their housed peers.” “Across grade levels, homeless students living in shelters had higher rates of chronic absenteeism…. More than one in seven homeless students (15%) missed 40 or more days of school—roughly 20% of the school year.” Clearly there are no clear-cut, one-dimensional solutions to the mass of challenges facing our nation’s over 90,000 public schools.

What is very clear is that the Connecticut school funding decision is not the ideal lens through which we should examine American public schools’ many challenges.  Not only does the judge’s decision fail proactively to define how to remedy the shortfall in resources in Connecticut’s poorest school districts, but Judge Moukawsher wanders into other issues in which his decision raises thorny problems.  Attorneys at the Connecticut firm of Pullman & Comley LLC published an analysis: “The judge, however, did not stop at the funding issues. Judge Moukawsher reviewed not only the State’s school funding system but also the ‘major policies’ carrying these resources into action.  Finding many of these policies to be unconstitutional, the judged ordered the State—by March 7, 2017—to undertake the following additional actions…. submit an objective and mandatory statewide high school graduation standard…. submit a ‘rational, substantial, and verifiable definition of elementary education’… submit plans for a ‘rational’ system for evaluating and compensating education professionals…. submit new standards which ‘rationally, substantially, and verifiably link special education spending with elementary and secondary education’…. Finally the judge also appeared to order the State ‘to assume unconditional authority to intervene in troubled school districts’ and ‘redefine the relationship between the state and local government in education.'”

The analysis from Pullman & Comley LLC concludes: “This post cannot do justice to the significant issues raised by this decision…. That a judge has now ordered the legislature to address the State’s educational funding system as a result of this case may not be a surprise; the changes the judge has ordered (without any corresponding increase in the aggregate amount of spending) may lead to numerous school districts receiving significantly less state funding, some of which may not be ‘rich’ districts. Equally as important, the judge has mandated a veritable revolution in almost every aspect of public education, which could eviscerate many state laws and result in both intended and unintended consequences.  The orders with respect to the teacher evaluation and compensation system would lead to massive changes in the collective bargaining and teacher tenure systems… In special education, school districts may eventually be placed in the position of receiving less state funding for expensive out-of-district placements, but still facing the prospect that in the course of interpreting and applying federal and state special education laws, special education due process hearing officers will continue to order such placements… Finally, the judge’s ruling appeared to place a higher premium on high stakes testing at a time that there is a backlash against such testing.”

I suppose it is understandable that such a decision may be viewed in some newsrooms as an opportunity not only to consider the perennial topic of adequate school funding, equitably distributed, but also to seize the judge’s wide-ranging critique as grounds for posing the provocative debate prompt, “Is School Reform Hopeless?”  I believe, however, that the choice by the NY Times to use the controversial Connecticut school funding decision as a springboard for discussion in what is already a highly charged and polarized policy environment can only confuse.

The importance of educating our children requires precise, reasoned, and informed reporting.

Atlanta Sentencing Trial: Whose Truth Is Really the Truth?

Yesterday, I watched live TV coverage of the final sentencing hearing in the Atlanta test cheating scandal. The Atlanta Journal Constitution describes yesterday’s sentencing of the educators who were convicted earlier this month on racketeering charges under a Georgia RICO statute: “Three former top administrators were given the maximum 20-year sentence Tuesday, with seven years to be served in prison and 13 on probation, and fines of $25,000 to be paid by each…  Lower-ranking educators—those who were principals, teachers and testing coordinators—received sentences of up to five years with at least one-year in prison and hefty fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.  All the defendants were granted first-offender status, meaning their record would be wiped clean after they served their time.”  Two of the educators accepted a plea deal at sentencing; they admitted guilt, received long probation and gave up their right to appeal.

What was clear to me as I listened to the judge, the defense attorneys, and one of the defendants who spoke eloquently is that the truth is more complicated than the facts that are supposedly exposed in a trial.

The judge demanded again and again and again that the defendants admit their culpability and fess up to the way they had harmed the children of Atlanta by changing the answers on the testing forms.  Judge Jerry Baxter clearly believes that if children score poorly on standardized tests, the schools can address their challenges, and catch them up, and raise their scores.  He continued to name the tragedy that too many students who have been graduating from high school cannot read.  In Judge Baxter’s version of what is true, someone who scores low can be remediated, caught up, and made college or career ready.  A teacher’s’ job is to make that happen.  Judge Baxter has internalized the scenario the No Child Left Behind Act is supposed to guarantee.  It is what was supposed to happen in Atlanta and what has been supposed to happen across the country.  We would institute standardized tests, and we would punish teachers and close schools when they didn’t make the students’ scores rise higher and higher.

The reality is that more than a dozen years of standardized testing under No Child Left Behind have made little difference.  Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not significantly budged.  Achievement gaps by race have not closed, and economic achievement gaps have widened.

But there was another reality present in the Atlanta courtroom.  One defendant spoke on his own behalf to ask for mercy.  His truth is very different than Judge Baxter’s.  He said he worked as an administrator in very poor schools in Memphis before he came to Atlanta.  In both cities some of the schools he oversaw were chaotic.  Some staff members were overwhelmed and performing poorly.  He worked to support the people working under him and to expect much from the teachers and principals for whom he felt responsible.  He believes the schools improved because of his hard work.  Other character witnesses spoke of school teachers and administrators who fed hungry children and helped students by providing clean clothes and even helping children with personal grooming so they wouldn’t have to be embarrassed. The educators being tried in Atlanta understand the realities for too many children in the schools of America’s big city ghettos, schools where our society segregates our poorest and most vulnerable children in places where everybody is poor.

Our test-and-punish education philosophy says that it’s the teacher’s fault when scores in very poor schools are low.  Others have pointed out that there is something about concentrated poverty that undermines the situation for children and teachers alike. Here are short statements from just three of the experts:

Gary Orfield: “The law raises the pressure for schools, by themselves, to produce equal outcomes while other social policies bearing on the lives of poor children have been cut back.  The dominant rhetoric has ignored the reality—reflected in countless studies over the past four decades—that poverty, low parent education, poor health, and inferior segregated schools all contribute powerfully to unequal outcomes, and that those conditions can only partially be addressed inside the schools.” (“Forward” to Why High Stakes Accountability Sounds Good but Doesn’t Work—And Why We Keep on Doing It Anyway)

Mike Rose and Michael B. Katz: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (Public Education Under Siege, p. 228)

Robert Putnam: “Do K-12 schools make the opportunity gap better or make it worse?  The answer is this: the gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them.  The American public school today is a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids.” (Our Kids, p. 182)

It seemed to me yesterday that what I was hearing in that courtroom was, on the one hand, the judge’s truth: the myth that testing will improve children’s achievement, and on the other, the educators’ truth—their grasp of the struggles they and their students face day-after-day in their schools.

The conversation in Congress this week—the markup of the new bipartisan bill that has been proposed in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, the law that set in motion test-and-punish school reform—is really about the same thing.  A lot of the discussion is about the validity of testing and what test scores should be used for.

There is a lot of of talk, much of it rhetoric at all levels, and a lot of misunderstanding—in Congress—in the Atlanta courtroom—and in state legislatures where there are threats to cut the taxes that pay for small classes and enough counselors so that teachers have more support.  What  I haven’t heard anyone seriously discussing are the steps our society would need to take to ameliorate family poverty and to address what is a rapidly growing trend for America’s children to be educated either in wealthy enclaves in the far suburbs or in what are now the tragically underfunded schools that serve the children in our urban ghettos.  Two societies—separate and unequal—with fewer children all the time in middle class schools.

We can send teachers to jail for cheating when it is demanded that they provide a quick fix for our society’s greatest tragedy, but that isn’t going to help the children in Atlanta’s poverty schools or the children in any other poor city.

As I watched the courtroom proceedings yesterday, I thought about the words of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin: “One of the attributes of power is that it gives those who have it the ability to define reality and the power to make others believe in their definition.”  (CREDO, p.60) Or at least the power to make others accept their definition.  As a society we need to do considerable soul searching.

Poverty, Inequality, Blocked Opportunity, and the No Child Left Behind Reauthorization

In a recent analysis at the California website Capital & Main, Bill Raden reflects: “It’s been just over 30 years since war was declared on America’s public schools.  The opening salvo came with 1983’s A Nation at Risk, the Reagan-era Department of Education report that alleged that lax schools and ineffective teachers constituted a dire threat to national security.  Yet three decades later, and in spite of the opening of a second front comprised of school vouchers, a 2.57-million student charter school network and a classroom culture tied to test preparation, the nation’s education outcomes have barely budged, and rather than narrowing the education gap, the chasm between rich and poor appears only to be significantly widening.  But what if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions got it all wrong in the first place?  That’s the conclusion being drawn by a growing number of researchers who, armed with a mountain of fresh evidence, argue that 30 years of test scores have not measured a decline in America’s public schools, but are rather a metric of the country’s child poverty—the worst among developed nations—and the broadening divide of income inequality.”

“What if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions got it all wrong in the first place?”  It is the essential question, especially this year as Congress once again considers the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Act, whose most recent version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a version that folded teacher bashing, punishing struggling schools instead of helping them, and privatizing schools into the law of the land.  But the news is not new to researchers, who have for some time been reporting evidence that refutes such an assumption. Test-and-punish school reform, long supported by politicians, has been exhaustively questioned over the years by academic research.

Raden interviews Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara, the husband and wife directors of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Orfield tells Raden, “I studied a really rich district in Massachusetts, and the kids from the housing projects in the city were just hugely behind when they arrived at school.  The schools actually made as much progress each year as the (wealthier) kids did, but the gap never closed at all.  So the schools were doing their job, but society wasn’t.”  Gandara adds, “I think fundamentally the problem is that other developed nations have social systems that support families and children in a variety of ways: with childcare, with good health care, with recreational opportunities—with lots of things that support healthy development.  We have dumped it all on the schools and said, ‘We’re really not going to provide any of these services. You deal with it, schools.'”

Orfield has been confronting the strategies embedded in NCLB for many years, as have other researchers at the Civil Rights Project, whose April 2009 study by Heinrich Mintrop and Gail Sunderman came to the same conclusion.  In the forward to that report, Orfield wrote: “Now, as the country thinks about what to do next, it is important to focus on some fundamental design problems with the NCLB that undermine its very important goal of increasing the equity and success of American schools.  The first is that it was not designed around real educational experience, nor does it utilize what research has shown about the sources of educational inequality or the possibilities and conditions necessary for reform work.  Instead, NLCB is based on the dual assumptions that children are falling behind very largely because educators don’t care enough and that deadlines and strong sanctions imposed by the federal government can cure the problem so that all subgroups of children will become proficient by 2014.  The second problem is that it often punishes schools that are making a positive difference for students, discouraging the staff and undermining future prospects for the school.  The third is that it has a very narrow definition of education that not only diverts attention from other vital goals but also produces a strong focus on tactics that create a semblance rather than reality of success in those limited areas.  The fourth is that all schools are being required to attain goals that are impossible to attain on any broad level…. At the same time, the law raises the pressure for schools, by themselves, to produce equal outcomes while other social policies bearing on the lives of poor children have been cut back  The dominant rhetoric has ignored the reality—reflected in countless studies over the past four decades—that poverty, low parent education, poor health, and inferior segregated schools all contribute powerfully to unequal outcomes, and that those conditions can only partially be addressed inside the schools… Blaming schools and their teachers takes the pressure off political leaders (and privileged communities) to play a serious role in solving the problems in a society that tolerates a level of child poverty higher than any other nation of similar stature.”

Academic research has continued to document the trends that have been known since James Coleman conducted research in the 1960s that identified students’ poverty and segregation as challenges to academic achievement.

In Public Education Under Siege, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) educator Mike Rose and historian Michael B. Katz describe the greatest problem for public education in America: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (p. 228)  In 2013, the Southern Education Foundation documented the poverty concentration across America’s cities:  “The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools.  Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011. In 38 of the 50 states, no less than half of all children attending public schools in cities… were low income.” Low-income children make up 83 percent of all children in Mississippi’s cities, 78 percent in New Jersey’s cities, 75 percent in Pennsylvania’s cities, and 73 percent in New York’s cities.  In Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois and Oklahoma, according to the report, poor children also make up more than 70 percent of the public school enrollment in cities.  In Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Perspectives and Strategies for Challenging Times (Harvard Education Press, 2012) Thomas Timar, a professor at the University of California at Davis explains: “While manifestations of the achievement gap are to be found in rural, suburban, and urban areas, the evidence is rather compelling that the achievement gap is largely a problem of urban education:  Black children are more likely to live in conditions of concentrated poverty…. Child poverty rose in nearly every city from 1970-1990…. Urban students are more than twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools…. In 1990, the child poverty rate for the United States as a whole was 18 percent. For the ten worst cities it was between 40 and 58 percent.” (p. 232)  In America’s large cities many children live in extreme poverty, that is half the federal poverty line, which is around $11,925 for a family of four. Children in such circumstances are very likely to struggle at school. The census tells us that although 12 percent of white children in the United States are poor, 39 percent of Black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty—more than a third in both of those groups.

Standardized test scores have always served in large part as a wealth indicator. According to a chapter by Christopher Tienken and Yong Zhao in Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance (Oxford University Press, 2013): “as a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112) And from long-time education researcher David Berliner:  “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives…  But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.”

Our society continues to become increasingly segregated not only by race but also by income—with the rich living near each other in wealthy enclaves and the poor concentrated in intergenerational ghettos.  Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon documented in 2011 research that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

There is one exhaustive new book that connects the dots between poverty, inequality and school achievement.  In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015) Robert Putnam asks: “Do K-12 schools make the opportunity gap better or make it worse?  The answer is this: the gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school, and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them.  The American public school today is as a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids.”  (p. 182)

In Reign of Error (Knopf, 2013), Diane Ravitch’s indictment of the education “reform” movement, she wonders why, with the enormous mountain of evidence that we must help poor children with poverty and segregation, we persist in assuming the problem can be fixed by punishing teachers: “Should we ‘fix’ poverty first or ‘fix’ schools first? It is a false choice.  I have never heard anyone say that our society should ‘fix’ poverty before fixing the schools.  Most thoughtful people who want to help children and families speak of doing both at the same time, or at least trying.  Yet here are all these powerful people saying we should ‘fix’ the schools first, then, someday, turn our attention to poverty… The reformers’ belief that fixing schools will fix poverty has no basis in reality, experience, or evidence.  It delays the steps necessary to heal our society and help children.  And at the same time, it castigates and demoralizes teachers for conditions they did not cause and do not control. ” (pp. 92-98)

Once again, the Congressional debate about reauthorizing NCLB seems to be falling apart.  I think this is probably a good thing.  There is no agreement about reducing test-and-punish. The civil rights community, alarmed by the continuing racial achievement gap, is understandingly demanding that someone be held accountable—-through continued annual testing and disaggregated reporting, and Congress seems ready to accept that test-and-punish must continue.  Congress seems at the same time poised to push for a continuation of austerity budgeting by extending the sequester that would cripple our federal government’s capacity to do anything at all about addressing poverty.  While the data about what’s wrong isn’t new, there is a massive consensus among the experts about what is blocking opportunity for so many of our society’s children at school and at home.  That conversation needs to seep into our political conversation.  What can we do to make that possible?

Public Schools—the Mortar that Holds the Community Together (Garrison Keillor)

Jeff Bryant, who writes a weekly column for the Educational Opportunity Network, recently discussed the difference between conceptualizing education reform around inputs and outcomes.  Today our federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, and all the federal competitive grant programs like Race to the Top that prescribe punitive turnarounds for schools that can’t produce high test scores are designed to measure outcomes.  The very concept of achievement gaps is defined by test scores—outcomes.

Outcomes are important surely.  As parents we hope for successful outcomes for our children: a high school diploma—college graduation—a job.  Then there are the intangible outcomes we look for: mental health, contentment, ethical character, the capacity to stick with whatever one undertakes. Parents quickly realize there are too many variables; their children are human and invariably complex.  We do the best we can, but we cannot guarantee outcomes.

Neither can the community guarantee positive outcomes for all of its children, though in 1889, John Dewey, our premier education philosopher challenged us to do our best:  “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  Dewey’s idea is about inputs, however.  He challenges us to hold ourselves personally responsible for educating all children.  Today there is ample evidence that we are not even coming close to providing adequate educational inputs for our society’s poorest children.

Brand new census data demonstrate that, “Public elementary and secondary education revenue fell in fiscal year 2012 for the first time since 1977, when the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting public education finance data annually.  Public elementary and secondary school systems received $594.5 billion in total revenue in fiscal year 2012, down $4.9 billion, or 0.8 percent, from fiscal year 2011….”  “State governments were the leading source of revenue ($270.4 billion), closely followed by revenue from local sources ($264.6 billion).  Almost two-thirds, or 65.3 percent, of revenue from local sources came from property taxes.  Public school systems received $59.5 billion in revenue from the federal government, a decrease of $14.2 billion, 19.2 percent, from the previous year.”

While society cannot promise to close achievement gaps (outcomes), we are fully capable of addressing opportunity gaps—the differences in resources that society provides for children and schools from place to place.  Notice, for example in the census data, that over half of local funding derives from property taxes, among the most unequal forms of tax revenue. Heavy reliance on local property taxes only magnifies disparities in family resources in an America where some children live in pockets of concentrated poverty and others in pockets of concentrated affluence.

Here are some input-based reforms that ought to be our priority because we know they would support and improve the public schools in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods.  We could fully fund the Title I formula to assist all the schools serving very poor children.  The federal government could condition receipt of Race to the Top or School Improvement Grants on states’ making their school funding formulas more equitable.  We could seriously consider expanding pre-kindergarten in every state; the federal government could help make this significant reform affordable and could create incentives for states to consider it.  We could ensure that all children have well-qualified teachers with college-based certification; strengthen class offerings in all high schools to ensure that all students have access to physics, chemistry, and advanced math; reduce class size;  bring back an adequate number of counselors, school nurses,  libraries and librarians in the poorest schools; add challenging classes in the humanities and instrumental music in the schools that have lost such programs.  These are mere examples of ways to close opportunity gaps—all inputs-based improvements our society could easily guarantee.

Today policy makers argue about school reform abstractions defined via outcomes: the Common Core standards and tests, value-added-measures to rate teachers, third-grade reading scores as a mechanism for determining grade promotion, or awarding letter grades to schools based on their test-score rankings. Promoters of outcomes-based school reform claim test-based accountability is unbiased and objective.  Another way to describe such policy is “distant” and “calculating.”  The Rethinking Schools editorial board even recently pronounced that outcomes-based school reform “disguises class and race privilege as merit.” (Check out this blog’s reflection on that editorial here.)

Speaking about Newark, New Jersey, New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera decries today’s outcomes-based school reform because it is cold and impersonal while school improvement would pull together the efforts of educators and the entire community to support its children: “It’s often driven by these outsiders who have no ties, no history with a community, no long-term relationship.”  Garrison Keillor, like Noguera, reminds us that public schools are very human institutions: “When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together.  You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.” (Homegrown Democrat, p. 190)