Even Though Schools Are Closed, Advocates Must Keep on Pushing to End Dangerous School “Deformer” Policies

Those of us who care about American public schools have spent nearly twenty years working to undo the damage of a school accountability and privatization movement that has ruined our schools, heaped pressure on teachers and children, and created a publicly funded, private education sector. School privatization on top of widespread state tax slashing has robbed education budgets—ensuring that our children can have neither the basic services they need nor the kind of stimulating, exciting and rigorous education our wealthiest society in the world ought to be able to provide for them.

The pause this month, as public schools are closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, has forced a lot of people to notice that public schools are a more important institution than many had perhaps realized.  We are noticing, for example, that virtual learning cannot substitute for real live teachers working personally to support children as they learn together. And we’ve been forced to notice all the ways we count on schools, as a universal system that provides care and supervision every day and even ensures that hungry children are fed.

At some point, however, schools will reopen, and when they do, I hope those of us who have been working for decades to repair the damage of twenty years of “school deform” won’t have been distracted.  Because we are a society with a short memory, it’s worth reviewing the goals we were working to realize before March, 2020 when the pandemic shut down our public schools.  There is a likelihood that the economic damage from the pandemic may bring added challenges, and we will no doubt be told that the new crisis, whatever it is, is the only thing that matters.

Diane Ravitch’s just-published book, Slaying Goliath, is a particularly timely guide for public school advocates in the months ahead. Ravitch explicitly traces how policy around the public schools has gone badly wrong, and she profiles the work of individuals and emerging movements to save public education after the failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. She also names the lavishly funded advocacy groups pushing policies that undermine public education; they are dogged people who are not going to give up.

Ravitch describes the proponents of test-based, corporate driven education policy as “Disrupters”: “Not every Disrupter believes exactly the same thing… Some believe that test scores are the goal of education… Others, like Betsy DeVos, believe that choice is an end in itself… The corporate leaders of this campaign admire disruptive innovation because high tech businesses do it, so it must be good.. They love charter schools because charters are start-ups without histories just like many new businesses in the modern corporate world… The concept of ‘creative destruction’ is derived from the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter… Corporate Disrupters approve of schools hiring inexperienced teachers with little or no training… because it costs less… Disrupters don’t like democratic control of education by elected local school boards…. They like mayoral control, where one person is in charge; the mayor can usually be counted on to listen to business leaders… The Disrupters oppose teacher tenure and seniority…. They are devoted to cutting taxes, cutting spending on public schools, and turning control of public schools over to private corporations….”  (Slaying Goliath, pp. 28-30)  “Years from now,” writes Ravitch, “historians will look back and wonder why so many very wealthy people spent so much money in a vain attempt to disrupt and privatize public education and why they ignored the income inequality and wealth inequality that were eating away at the vitals of American society.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 50.)

Certainly those of us who support public school improvement do not want merely to return to the past. Correcting injustices in our public system, improving teaching, and expanding the opportunity to learn for all children means neither returning to the past nor endorsing the status quo.  We do, however, agree with the goals Ravitch identifies as the traditional domain of constructive advocates for public schools: “Before the current era, true reformers wanted to make public schools better. They wanted public schools to have more resources. They wanted better prepared teachers or better curriculum, or better teaching materials. They wanted teachers to have higher salaries and smaller classes. They wanted districts to have modern buildings and better playing fields and better physical equipment. They wanted schools to be racially integrated so that all children had the chance to learn alongside others who were different from themselves. They wanted schools to have nurses, health clinics, social workers, psychologists, librarians and libraries, up-to-date technology, and programs for students with disabilities and English language learners.  They wanted all children to have equality of educational opportunity.  They wanted to have good schools with good teachers.” (Slaying Goliath, pp. 27-28)

Schools are closed this spring, but eventually our children and their teachers will return, and the well-funded Disrupters will be back at work trying to push their panoply of policies.

For those of us who stand with the public schools, here are four basic goals to remember throughout this interlude of school closures and as children and their teachers return to their classrooms:

SUPPORT ADEQUATE SCHOOL FUNDING     Champions of public education need to be prepared to advocate strenuously for states to maintain their support for public education even if another recession follows the coronavirus pandemic. After the Great Recession, school funding collapsed across the states. In a 2019 report, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documented that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels. Additionally, because decades of research confirm that segregation by family and neighborhood income is the primary driver of school achievement gaps, advocates will need to pay attention to broader public public programs designed to support families and ameliorate family poverty, press for more full-service wraparound Community Schools, and press for funding to support, rather than punish school districts where test scores are low.  It isn’t merely state budgets which have fallen behind.  This year, Democratic candidates for President have been supporting at least tripling federal Title I funding that invests in school districts where poverty is concentrated, and advocating that the federal government meet its 1975 promise of paying 40 percent of the cost of federally mandated programming under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Today the federal government is covering less than 15 percent of those costs.

PRESS FOR THE ELIMINATION OF HIGH STAKES STANDARDIZED TESTING     Standardized testing must be significantly reduced and must be decoupled from the kind of high stakes that have dominated federal and state policy since No Child Left Behind was enacted in January, 2002.  We now know that No Child Left Behind and the policies it mandated across the states did not work; scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have flatlined in recent years. Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains why using widespread standardized testing to drive teachers’ evaluations, school closures, the firing of school principals, state takeovers of schools, and the turnover of public schools to private operators not only left us with a succession of dangerous policies, but also undermined the validity of the tests themselves as states manipulated their scoring to avoid sanctions.  Further the attachment of high stakes undermined the education process in the schools where children were farthest behind—schools where teachers were forced to teach to the test or fall back on deadly drilling.  Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

SUPPORT CHILDREN BY PAYING ATTENTION TO WHAT TEACHERS’ STRIKES HAVE TAUGHT US     Teachers’ working conditions are our children’s learning conditions.  Across the country in 2018 and 2019, striking schoolteachers exposed inexcusable conditions in their public schools from West Virginia, to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago.  We learned about outrageous class sizes; shortages of counselors, school social workers, certified librarians, and school nurses; and salaries so low in some school districts that teachers cannot afford to pay rent on a one bedroom apartment.  Striking teachers have forced us to see the crisis that exists in some entire states along with the financial crisis that prevails across the nation’s urban school districts. Teachers have exposed our society’s failure to create the political will to fund the school districts that serve our poorest children.  Many states have persisted in punishing school districts where child poverty is concentrated and where test scores are low. Only a few states, most recently Massachusetts, with a new funding system, have made the effort significantly to help these districts where the need is greatest.

OPPOSE SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION:  CHARTER SCHOOL EXPANSION AND VOUCHER GROWTH STARVE PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF NECESSARY RESOURCES AND FAIL TO PROTECT STUDENTS’ RIGHTS AND THE INTERESTS OF THE PUBLIC     Disrupters have led us to deny that rampant privatization at public expense is destroying our public schools. However, research confirms that school privatization  through charter school expansion and the growth of vouchers siphons millions of dollars out of the public systems where the majority of our children remain enrolled.

Privatization poses additional problems beyond funding: School choice advocates frame their arguments in libertarian rhetoric about the rights of individuals. Rather, it is only through laws and government regulations that society can protect the rights of students to appropriate services—whatever their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—whether they are English language learners or disabled students with special needs. Private schools to which students carry public vouchers on the other hand, do not protect students’ rights. They can neither be required by law to protect children from religious indoctrination, nor to guarantee a full curriculum, nor even to teach history without bias or promote proven scientific theories. And in state after state the absence of adequate regulation has helped unscrupulous charter school operators steal scarce tax dollars as profits.

It is always worth remembering the warning of the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

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.