Sorting Out the Debate About Educational Accountability

The watchword for the last quarter century’s school reform has been accountability: holding schools and school teachers accountable for quickly raising students’ scores on standardized tests. Sanctioning schools and teachers who can’t quickly raise scores was supposed to be an effective strategy for overcoming educational injustice. Test-and-punish has enabled us at least to say we’ve been doing something to hold schools accountable.

The politics of this conversation are pretty confusing—all going back to the federal education law, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and the debate about its replacement, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There was bipartisan agreement in 2001-2002 when NCLB was debated, passed, and signed into law that our society could close racial and economic achievement gaps by testing all students and then demanding that schools quickly raise the scores of underachieving students. In 2015 when Congress debated the law’s reauthorization, accountability-hawk Democrats stood by test-and-punish accountability; many Republicans, led by Senator Lamar Alexander instead pushed to expand states’ rights by lifting the heavy hand of the federal government and allowing states to design their own plans to improve so-called failing schools. Worrying that removal of universal testing would let schools off the hook, the Civil Rights Community has stood by NCLB’s testing plan. Many have continued to assume that universal testing exposes achievement gaps and that the exposure will motivate politicians and educators to address racial and economic disparities.

Test-and-punish school reform has been at the center of a conversation between Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Republican Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  An article by Caitlin Emma published over the weekend by POLITICO examines the history of No Child Left Behind vs. the Every Student Succeeds Act as a background for looking at how policy around school accountability has been evolving in the Trump administration. Emma describes the new ESSA, passed by a Republican Congress in 2015 and designed to return at least some authority for accountability back to the states. But Democrats prodded by Civil Rights leaders and some Republicans have stood by federally imposed accountability: “Critics… worry whether states will adequately track and provide equal opportunities for at-risk kids…. (Even) former Republican Rep. John Kline… an architect of the measure, has said he’s worried states are now getting away with testing plans that violate a key requirement of the law—that states administer the same test to all students annually.  The provision is critical (Kline believes) so that states are forced to report the performance of all students and the results for poor and minority students are not hidden from view, as they were for decades before federal testing requirements were enacted.”

Emma explains: “The Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed in 2015, was widely viewed by Republicans as a corrective to the federal overreach that followed… No Child Left Behind.”  Emma reports that last summer, when Jason Botel, an official in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education began reviewing the states’ applications for federal funds under the ESSA, Botel demanded that before he would approve some states’ plans, they must toughen their standards and demand more.  Powerful Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who had—during the 2015 reauthorization—supported a return of control to the states, formally complained to Betsy DeVos—“furious that a top DeVos aide was circumventing a new law aimed at reducing the federal government’s role in K-12 education. He contended that the agency was out of bounds by challenging state officials, for instance, about whether they were setting sufficiently ambitions goals for their students.”

For many of us who have, for fifteen years, closely followed educational accountability as mandated under No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, the entire debate seems wrong-headed and bizarre.  I am writing about those of us who care deeply about expanding opportunity for children segregated in schools where poverty is highly concentrated— schools where intense segregation by poverty is overlaid on segregation by ethnicity and race. The schools these children attend have, under federal policy, been derided by accountability hawks as “failing” schools.  Widespread blaming—of schools and school teachers—now dominates discussions of school reform even as sociologists increasingly document that family and neighborhood poverty pose overwhelming challenges for these children and their schools.

Much of the confusion and rancor arises because the public debate about school accountability conflates two very different questions:

  • Should the federal government be involved at all in telling states what to do about education?
  • Is test-and-punish accountability an effective strategy for improving public schools and closing opportunity gaps?

The original federal education law, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, addressed the first question as a response to the needs of children in primarily southern states, where schools serving black children had been underfunded and inadequate for generations. There are similar problems of inequity across cities today and forgotten rural areas. Poor children and children of color segregated in particular areas remain under served. The debate about this first question involves states’ rights vs. what has come to be accepted (by many of us) as the federal government’s responsibility to protect the rights of all children and ensure they are all well served. It is a heated question that remains underneath much of the debate about school reform.

The second question involves the strategy Congress chose for reforming schools in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Congress blamed teachers and schools and devised a law that was supposed to force schools and teachers to work harder and faster to improve test scores in schools where achievement lagged when all children in each state were tested on a single standardized test.  It is becoming clearer all the time that when Congress jumped behind test-and-punish accountability, it chose the wrong strategy.  A long and growing body of research demonstrates that test scores are far more aligned with a school’s aggregate economic level than with the work of the teachers or the curriculum being offered to students. Economists like Bruce Baker at Rutgers University also document enormous opportunity gaps as these same public schools in our nation’s poorest communities receive far less public investment than the schools in wealthy suburbs, schools serving children whose families also invest heavily in enrichments at home.

Here is just some of the prominent research from the past ten years that tries to answer the second question.

In 2010, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focused on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm. They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480. They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present. The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released a massive data analysis confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families 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 demonstrated 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.

In The Testing Charade, a book published just last month, Daniel Koretz of Harvard University blames test-and-punish accountability for enabling our society to pretend that we have been overcoming educational inequity at the same time we avoid making the public investment necessary even to begin addressing the problem: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)  “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)

The second question involves the overall direction of education policy, and it is important because we desperately need a better strategy. Blaming and punishing the schools with the lowest scores—by closing “failing” schools or privatizing them or firing their teachers and principals—has only further undermined the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities without addressing the opportunity gaps the tests identify.

Today’s Republican tax slashing agenda will only further reduce public investment in education.  And we are likely to keep on blaming the victims.

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Noticing and Helping Our Poorest Children and Their Public Schools

If you take a driving vacation and you use a laptop instead of a smartphone, you soon learn that the best place to find Wi-Fi in little towns is in the parking lot of the public library.  You don’t have to arrive during the hours when the library is open, and you can even sit in your car to check your e-mail or the news as long as you park very near the building, because the library’s Wi-Fi service is accessible beyond the walls of the building. I know this from long experience looking at e-mail in public library parking lots from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Red Lodge, Montana, to Laurelville, Ohio.  In our family, of course, we have broadband service at home and we need to use the library parking lot only on special occasions. But what about the people who lack this basic service?

In the New York Times last week, Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library wrote about internet access as a necessity. He explains that last year, the Federal Communications Commission declared: “Access to broadband is necessary to be a productive member of society. In June, a federal appeals court upheld the commission’s authority to regulate the internet as a public utility.”  But Marx, writing from New York City, describes what life is like for children in families who cannot afford the internet: “Here in the world’s information capital, New Yorkers are still scrounging for a few bars of web access, dropped like crumbs from a table. With broadband costing on average $55 per month, 25 percent of all households and 50 percent of those making less than $20,000 lack this service at home.”  Marx describes New York City’s children from his perspective at the library: “All summer, kids have been hanging out in front of the Morris Park Library in the Bronx, before opening hours and after closing.  They bring their computers to pick up the Wi-Fi signal that is leaking out of the building, because they can’t afford internet access at home. They’re there during the school year, too, even during the winter—it’s the only way they can complete their online math homework… People line up, sometimes for hours, to use the library system’s free computers. Go into any library in the nation and you’ll most likely see the same thing. They come to do what so many of us take for granted: apply for government services, study or do research, talk with family or friends, inform themselves as voters, and just participate in our society and culture—so much of which now takes place online.”

I thought about Marx’s column in conjunction with two other articles in the New York Times last week.  In The Millions of Americans Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Barely Mention: The Poor,  Binyamin Appelbaum explains that the presidential candidates’ “platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, (but) the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs; neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.”  Appelbaum quotes Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond: “We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda.”

Then there was Susan Dynarski’s piece that explores the way our society uses imprecise data to measure poverty among students at school: “A closer look reveals that the standard measure of economic disadvantage—whether a child is eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch in school masks the magnitude of the learning gap between the richest and poorest children.  Nearly half of students nationwide are eligible for a subsidized meal in school. Children whose families earn less than 185 percent of the poverty threshold are eligible for a reduced-price lunch, while those below 130 percent get a free lunch. For a family of four, the cutoffs are $32,000 for a free lunch and $45,000 for a reduced price one. By way of comparison, median household income in the United States was about $54,000 in 2014… The National Assessment of Education Progress, often called the Nation’s Report Card, publishes students’ scores by eligibility for subsidized meals. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, districts have reported scores separately for disadvantaged children, with eligibility for subsidized meals serving as the standard measure of disadvantage.”

Dynarski is a professor at the University of Michigan, and she describes student poverty in her state: “In Michigan, as in the rest of the country, about half of eighth graders in public schools receive a free or reduced-price lunch. But when we look more closely, we see that just 14 percent have been eligible for subsidized meals every year since kindergarten. These children are the poorest of the poor—the persistently disadvantaged… (I)n fact, there is a nearly linear, negative relationship between the number of years of economic disadvantage and math scores in eighth grade… It appears that years spent eligible for subsidized school meals serves as a good proxy for the depth of disadvantage. When we look back on the early childhood of persistently disadvantaged eighth graders, we see that by kindergarten they were already far poorer than their classmates.” Dynarkski recommends that we find a more accurate way to identify the children whose needs are greatest.

In his introduction to an issue of the  Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences that focuses on severe deprivation in America, Matthew Desmond aims to be more precise in defining degrees of poverty in our society: “Poverty is qualitatively different from ‘deep poverty’ (half below the poverty line), which in turn is a world apart from ‘extreme poverty’ (living on $2 a day)… There is poverty and then there is poverty… By ‘severe deprivation,’ we mean economic hardship that is (1) acute, (2) compounded, and (3) persistent.” Desmond adds that most of our public policy to address poverty was developed so long ago that it fails to address today’s realities: “Most research is rooted in theories now a few decades old…. developed before the United States began incarcerating more of its citizens than any other nation; before urban rents soared and poor families began dedicating the majority of their income to housing; before welfare reform caused caseloads to plummet….  In recent years, the very nature of poverty in America has changed, especially at the very bottom.”

Susan Dynarsky is not the first researcher to explore the importance of accurately measuring and addressing extreme poverty in public schools.  In the 2010 book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research studied Chicago’s public schools to locate the particular schools that serve many children who are experiencing what Dynarski and Desmond describe as persistent and severe deprivation. Here are the characteristics of the 46 schools they identified in Chicago that were far more severely challenged than surrounding schools (many of which serve relatively poor neighborhoods). Truly disadvantaged schools were 90-100 percent African American. “These schools served neighborhoods characterized by extreme rates of poverty.  On average, 70 percent of residents living in the neighborhoods around these 46 schools had incomes below the poverty line, and the median family income in 1990 was only $9,480.  In 6 out of 10 of these schools, more than 50 percent of the students lived in pubic housing.” The schools featured what the researchers call a “consolidation of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.”  “Many confronted an extraordinary concentration of student needs, including students who were homeless, in foster care, or living in contexts of neglect, abuse, and domestic violence.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp 23-24)

So… what are today’s federal prescriptions for such schools—the schools in every city that serve the very poorest children?  For the past two decades the demanded reforms have included closing the school and turning it over to a charter school or a management company, firing the principal and many teachers, and considering the students’ test scores as a good part of the formal teacher evaluation mechanism.  Many of these same punishments have become the accepted strategies for school reform across our big cities, and are likely to continue even though in the Every Student Succeeds Act the federal government is stepping back a bit from dictating mandatory prescriptions.

As Susan Dynarski explains, despite our capacity now days to make education data-driven, we haven’t even instituted a precise way to measure childhood poverty. And as Matthew Desmond points out, our public policies are not designed to address the real crisis of today’s childhood poverty.  A discussion of these very painful and controversial matters is not really part of the political agenda of either of our major political parties.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research outlines very concrete school improvement strategies to support the people working in the most stressed schools.  Many school districts are also expanding the number of full-service, wraparound Community Schools designed to house medical, dental, and mental health services, after school enrichment for children, job training for parents—social and medical services—right in the school building. We need to recognize that these are an excellent beginning.

But we also need to recognize that local institutions like public libraries and public elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are struggling to support children trapped in a level of poverty invisible to many of us unless we happen to walk by a public library where, at 7 o’clock in the morning, children are sitting on the steps trying to finish their homework with the Wi-Fi access they can find right outside the library.

America Tries to Fix Achievement Gaps on the Cheap without Addressing Opportunity Gaps

It is a truth universally acknowledged (in the research literature) that schools themselves do not cause achievement gaps and that schools by themselves cannot close achievement gaps.  But we prefer to believe something else.

We blame schools when they don’t close the gaps quickly. We close the schools or fire their principals and teachers.  Or we create state “achievement” districts with distant overseer superintendents who monitor test scores.  Or our states create emergency managers with absolute power to override union contracts and fire entire school staffs if they like.  Or, for so-called “efficiency,” we turn the schools over to private management companies.  Cause and effect logic doesn’t operate much in the realm of school “reform.”

Today, this blog will review the evidence about the root causes of school achievement gaps and then look at the new study released this month from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. about the achievement gap in place across America long before children enter Kindergarten.

Back in 1999, well before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act that set out to close achievement gaps through test-based accountability, Helen Ladd and colleagues writing a school finance book for the National Research Council declared, “Achieving the goal of breaking the nexus between family background and student achievement requires special attention.” (Making Money Matter, p. 47)

Ten years later, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focuses on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm.  They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480.  They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present.  The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released massive data reports confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income across America’s large metropolitan areas. Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families 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.

In 2013, here is what the historian Michael Katz and the professor of education Mike Rose concluded at the end of a book of academic essays about the current wave of school reform: “(A) rough consensus which crosses political lines blames poor teaching, ineffective teacher preparation programs, teachers’ unions, the lack of accountability for results, and monopolistic public systems for the failures of student achievement measured, primarily, by test scores.  In mainstream reform discourse, teachers and their unions emerge as the major villains…. Powerful foundations, the national government, and the media… reinforce and disseminate these views.  The reform agenda includes two primary components: first, hold teachers accountable for student achievement… and second, break up public monopolies by introducing choice, mainly in the form of charter schools…. The fact of the matter is that the ‘problem’ of American eduction is to a large extent a problem of poverty. By international standards, American students who attend schools where only a small percentage of students come from families with income below the poverty line measure up well against the best in the world.” (Public Education Under Siege, pp. 223-224)

And in 2013, Diane Ravitch summarized the dilemma: “Still the question remains: 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.  Or maybe they mean that fixing schools will take care of poverty.  The reformers’ case is superficially appealing.  It ought to be easier to ‘fix’ schools than to ‘fix’ poverty, because poverty seems so intractable.  Our society has grown to accept poverty as an inevitable fact of life and there seems to be little or no political will to do anything about it.  It should also be cheaper to fix schools instead of poverty, because no matter how much it costs to fix schools, it will surely be less than the cost of significantly reducing poverty in a society with great economic inequality like our own.  The problem is that if you don’t really know how to fix schools, if none of your solutions actually improve education, then society ends up neither fixing schools nor doing anything about poverty.”  (Reign of Error, pp 92-93)

In this context, Emma Garcia of the Economic Policy Institute just published research that documents Inequalities at the Starting Gate, sizeable achievement gaps relating to income inequality that are well established before children enter Kindergarten.

Here is Garcia’s conclusion:  “Gaps based on socioeconomic status are very significant and prevalent, while those based on race/ethnicity are largely sensitive to the inclusion of socioeconomic status…  These findings indicate that inequalities at the starting gate are largely the result of accumulated social and economic disadvantages; that socioeconomic status or social class, is the single largest predictor of early education gaps and that gaps based on race are primarily a result of the many factors for which race mediates and that minority groups disproportionately experience.”

Garcia presents the demographic data that describes the children entering Kindergarten today: “Over half (52 percent) of white children are in the two highest socioeconomic quintiles (high-middle or high), while only 8.9 percent fall into the lowest SES quintile.  A similar pattern is true among Asian kindergartners: 59.9 percent are in the highest two quintiles, and 11.8 percent are in the lowest.  For black and especially for Hispanic children, however, the situation is reversed.  Over half (56.8 percent) of black children and over two-thirds (66.6 percent) of Hispanic children are in the two lowest quintiles, and fewer than one in 10 of either group are in the highest SES quintile (8.3 percent of black children and 6.8 percent of Hispanic children).  Another angle through which to see these numbers is the proportion of children who live in povery by race/ethnicity: 13.1 percent of white children, 17.3 percent of Asian children, and nearly half of black children (45.5 percent) and Hispanic children (46.3 percent).”

Garcia writes: “Overall, our results—showing significant socioeconomic-based gaps in cognative skills—confirm what multiple other research analyses (e.g. Reardon 2011) have found: that students’ levels of readiness and development are closely associated with their parents’ socioeconomic status.  Unadjusted differences in cognitive domains indicate that each move up a socioeconomic quintile in the SES distribution is associated with approximately a quarter of a standard deviation… improvement in performance in both math and reading, with students in the top quintile… scoring nearly a full standard deviation above students in the bottom quintile….”

Garcia attributes these results to the challenges experienced by children living in the lowest SES quintile and the enrichments being showered upon children in the top quintiles as inequality widens and affluent children are exposed to added travel and other programs and lessons.  Robert Putnam agrees. In his new book on the impact of rising inequality on children’s opportunity, Putnam describes the investments of middle and upper class parents in child-rearing: “Concerted cultivation refers to the child rearing investments that middle-class parents deliberately make to foster their children’s cognitive, social, and cultural skills, and, in turn, to further their children’s success in life, particularly at school…  Parents from all social backgrounds nowadays invest more money and more time in raising their kids than was true a generation ago…. but because affluent, educated families have not only more money but also more time… they have been able to increase their investments much faster than poor parents…. As a result, the class gap in investments in kids has become wider and wider.” (Our Kids, pp. 118-124)

Emma Garcia concludes her new report with suggestions about closing the opportunity gaps that exist long before children reach Kindergarten.  She absolutely endorses expanding the affordability, availability and quality of child care and pre-Kindergarten education.  She also advocates improving funding and programming in the public schools in our poorest communities.  But she adds: “The most straighforward way to decrease poverty among children and thus increase the resources available to them is to boost their parents’ incomes” including “policies aimed at increasing  overall wages and employment, especially at the lower rungs of the employment and wage ladders.” “Raising the minimum wage would also help ensure that parents working full-time do not have to rely on public assistance to provide their children with the basic necessities… We could also make those wages go further by increasing the earned income tax credit and child tax credit….  Raising incomes for middle-and low-social class families is key to ensuring their children do not grow up in poverty… Closing education gaps… calls for policies that address…  structural factors that influence a child’s odds of growing up poor.”

In NYC, Farina Replaces “Test-and-Punish” with “Support-and-Improve.” Wow!

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign slogan last fall described New York as a tale of two cities.  He was referring to alarming income inequality exacerbated by the policies of former mayor Michael Bloomberg.  The metaphor of two cities also captures the contrast in philosophy between the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, a contrast that has never been exposed more plainly than it was this week.

On Wednesday, New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, went to  P.S. 503/P.S. 506 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn to deliver her second major policy address.  She announced a new philosophy of school improvement and the abandonment of letter grade ratings for public schools.

Then on Thursday, charter school diva Eva Moskowitz closed her Success Academy charter schools and led students, parents, and teachers at a rally in support of charter schools, a rally that was coordinated with a huge TV ad buy that cost nearly half a million dollars.  The ads—that ran most of the week—malign the public schools and promote school choice.

Farina’s policy address, filled with the kind of intangibles that must be the heart of any real school improvement, was described by the press primarily for its promise that the New York Public Schools will abandon a rating system that assigns public schools grades of A-F and instead publish School Quality Snapshots.  The Chancellor says the new Snapshots will, “provide the first balanced picture of a school’s quality—and reflect our promise to stop judging students and schools based on a single, summative grade…  The Snapshot will provide rich details about the life of the school by capturing successes, challenges, and strategies for improvement.  This is a totally new approach.  We are no longer penalizing a school for its weaknesses.”

It is important to stop for a second and think about what we are really reading here.  The New York City School District is abandoning a philosophy of test-and-punish and adopting a philosophy of support-and-improve.

Anyone who has been reading the literature about turning around the schools maligned by the federal testing law No Child Left Behind as “failing” or “in need of improvement” knows that New York City under Mayor Bloomberg was a leader in experiments that closed so-called “failing” schools and emphasized school choice by expanding privatized charters.  And anyone who has been following this conversation over the past dozen years knows that one of the best alternatives to the wave of punitive school reform is described in a book from the University of Chicago: Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Sadly Rahm Emanuel has not followed the advice of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.  Carmen Farina just announced that New York City will adopt this plan.

Bryk is a sociologist, and Organizing Schools for Improvement is about shaping the cultural dynamics of a public school to support professional educators—thus enabling them to nurture children.  Farina describes what she calls “six essential elements that have driven continual school improvement and moved students to the next level… rigorous instruction, a supportive environment, collaborative teachers, effective leadership, strong family-community ties, and a culture of continuous learning and trust.”  She explains, “We are looking beyond test scores and focusing on making sure that each school has what it needs for sustained and continuous growth.  And we have developed a framework that mirrors the essential elements we see in schools that continually improve… We built our framework around an established body of research conducted by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues from the University of Chicago.”

According to Bryk and his colleagues—and to Farina—the building of relational trust among the professionals in a public school is key.  Bryk and his colleagues describe school improvement as akin to baking a cake:  “Taking this analogy further, four of the organizational supports—parent-community ties, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate, and the instructional guidance system—can be conceived as a list of essential ingredients. Should a core ingredient be absent, it is just not a cake….   We can think of relational trust as the oven heat that transforms the blended ingredients into a full, rich cake. Finally, standing behind all of this is the head chef, in our case, this is the school principal, who orchestrates the collaborative processes of school transformation.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, p. 203)

In her address, Farina lists major changes instituted or launched since she took over the schools last winter:  pre-kindergarten for more than 50,000 students, major expansion of after school programming for students in middle school, the addition of 40 minutes each week (right in the union contract) for teachers to involve families in creative ways, the development of more than 40 new full-service community schools with wrap-around services that may include health clinics and parent support services, new staff development for counselors and school social workers, enhanced programs and support for English language learners, expansion of arts education, enhancement of career and technical education, enhanced professional learning opportunities for teachers and time (again set aside in the contract) for such activities, and collaboration among public schools for support and improvement.  Farina succinctly summarizes what’s changing in New York’s public schools: “We are no longer forcing change on people, we’re creating change with people.”

Of course, there has already been complaining that this is all intangible.  How can anyone measure it?  How can parents digest the information that will be released, when the letter grades were so simple and clear?  And of course the first person to leap in with criticism is Eva Moskowitz, the $500,000-per-year CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools whose supporters raised what Capital New York reports is $479,200 for a TV ad buy.  Many board members of Moskowitz’s  Success Academy charter schools also serve as the leaders of the ads’ sponsor, Families for Excellent Schools.  The spots, Don’t Steal Possible, malign the public schools, which are depicted as stealing opportunity from children.  According to Capital New York, Eva Moskowitz declared, “Our school system is stealing possibilities from New York’s children.”  We are reminded that Families for Excellent Schools also “sponsored a multimillion dollar ad buy earlier this year attacking de Blasio after he initially blocked three of Moskowitz’s charters from moving into existing public schools and sharing the space. He lost that political battle, in part because of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s strong and public support of Moskowitz… Cuomo also denied de Blasio his plan to charge wealthier charters rent.”

If they are given time, Farina’s policies to strengthen school organizations to support teachers and to connect schools with the children’s families are likely to expand what’s possible for children in New York City.  Farina explains: “One size does not fit all… Likewise, schools have unique qualities that cannot be captured in a letter grade.  They are not restaurants…  One way we will support schools is to evaluate their performance based on multiple measures….  This is no longer a competition.”

The question is whether New York’s citizens and the rest of our culture—that worships competition and invests hope in numerical ranking and rating—will risk trying something new.  Do we any longer even understand the importance of supporting human relationship and building community? Will we give New York City’s new learning philosophy a chance to improve the educational experience of over a million children in the public schools?

The Language of School “Reform” Distracts Us from the Needs of Children and Their Schools

Despite its name, if you drive along Lakeview Road between St. Clair and Superior  in Cleveland, Ohio, you cannot see Lake Erie.  Today your view will be of boarded up houses.  About a third of the two-family  houses that line Lakeview and the sidestreets that cross it are boarded up. If you go to Zillow’s real estate map, you’ll find that most of these houses are listed as “foreclosed–auction.”   There are lots covered with weeds or grass where there used to be houses before the foreclosure crisis.  Sometimes enterprising neighbors have planted a garden in an empty lot next door.  There is a four block interval between the recently bulldozed lots that were once the sites of two different public elementary schools—boarded up for years before they were demolished.  The most viable institution is St. Aloysius Catholic Church at the corner of St. Clair Avenue, but the only other two institutions left on this mile-long stretch of Lakeview itself are a convenience store surrounded by cracked asphalt and gravel, and the Virtual School House, a charter school that advertises on the back of Regional Transit Authority buses.  The Virtual School House occupies an ancient, decrepit nursing home that was toured several years ago by a not-for-profit group considering it for rehab as permanent supportive housing for the homeless, but the building wasn’t really considered suitable.

I have driven along Lakeview Road twice in the past month.  Both times I have thought about the children living in this neighborhood.  I know that their standardized test scores are likely lower than we would wish at the public school that is much farther away than before Lakeview Road’s schools were demolished.  I am certain their school is considered a “failing” school.  Low-performing.  In need of turnaround.  Perhaps closure.  I have thought about the irony, on my trips down Lakeview Road, that these days we are likely to define the “education problem” in such neighborhoods as the teachers.  Our policies blame those who would choose to teach here.  Schools in our cities fail these days because of teachers’ seniority rights and the cost of any raises they have been able to negotiate. It is all set up to benefit the adults at the school and to meet their needs, but we need to fix things so that these schools put students first. Right?

I have lived in greater Cleveland for almost 40 years, and certainly I am not surprised by what I can see in any particular neighborhood.  But my drive down Lakeview Road a month ago made me come home and pull some books off my shelf.  I looked at Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, a study by Anthony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research that examined essential supports that will be necessary in 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools in Chicago. In a school district where many schools are troubled with poverty, the researchers identified these 46 schools that are poorer than the rest. The families they serve are 96 percent low income: 64 percent of adult males in these families are unemployed; the median family income is $9,480; and the percentage of families living below the poverty line is 70 percent. Bryk and his colleagues prescribe strategies for improving the schools that serve children in such neighborhoods, but they point out that realistically,  “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused, and so on.  Classroom activity can understandably get diverted toward responding to these manifest personal needs.  Similarly, it can be difficult at the school level to maintain collective attention on instructional improvement when the social needs of children continue to cry out for adult attention.”

I sat down and read the whole of Thomas Sugrue’s history of post-WWII Detroit: The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.  I learned that after the Great Migration, African Americans struggled to get good jobs in the auto plants except during the labor shortage of the war years.  Even a list of chapter titles connects the dots: “‘Detroit’s Time Bomb’: Race and Housing in the 1940s — ‘The Coffin of Peace’: The Containment of Public Housing — ‘The Meanest and the Dirtiest Jobs’: The Structures of Employment Discrimination — ‘The Damning Mark of False Prosperities’: The Deindustrialization of Detroit — ‘Forget about Your Inalienable Right to Work’: Responses to Industrial Decline and Discrimination — Class, Status, and Residence: The Changing Geography of Black Detroit — ‘Homeowners’ Rights’: White Resistance and the Rise of Antiliberalism — ‘United Communities are Impregnable’: Violence and the Color Line — and Crisis: Detroit and the Fate of Postindustrial America.”

Then I re-read sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s relatively new book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality.  Sharkey locates public schools as merely one part of a complex urban ecology: “Inequality does not exist exclusively at the level of the individual or the family; rather, various forms of inequality are organized or clustered in social settings like neighborhoods, schools and political districts, and these social settings represent crucial sites at which American inequality is generated, maintained, and reinforced.  Perhaps the most powerful evidence… is that a wide range of social phenomena such as violence, joblessness, and physical and mental health outcomes tend to be clustered together in space… Our nation’s educational system is just one of many institutions that link individuals’ residential locations with their life chances.”

Today, however, we prefer to adopt the rhetoric of the marketplace as we think about urban schools.  Blame teachers.  Blame their unions.  Bring in charters.  We have adopted a narrative that posits that if we offer school choice, parents will become their own entrepreneurs who will propel their children out of the neighborhood on a wave of opportunity.  It is appealing rhetoric and the story itself embodies a happy ending that is unlikely to happen very often on Lakeview Road.

Finally I went back to one of my very favorite books on public education and opportunity, Mike Rose’s Why School?.  Rose cautions us to be precise in the language and metaphors we use to frame our educational challenges: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.  Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose.  We should also ask why why we’re evaluating.  To what end?  Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us.”

Rose quotes historian Michael Katz who writes about the arrogance and distance of policy strategists who pose market solutions like the Virtual Schoolhouse on Lakeview Road: “Market models seem appropriate to us when we deal with strangers—with the alien collectivity rather than the familiar individual.”

Instead Rose suggests we adopt the language of school investment and improvement—the same kind of basic support that Anthony Bryk and his colleagues in Chicago imagined for their 46 “truly disadvantaged schools.”  Here are Rose’s words:  “Poor schools need stability and shoring up of the resources they do have.  They need long-term development of teachers and principals who are familiar with their struggles and committed to the students in their communities.  These schools need to be tightly connected to social and health services—for many of their students carry big burdens—having some of those services on the school site, if possible.  The schools should become focal institutions in their communities, involving parents and networking with existing community groups and agencies working for educational and economic improvement, becoming a neighborhood meeting place and a center for civic activity.”

The right language helps, doesn’t it.  Let’s use it to demand leadership for change.