Unequal Access to Educational Opportunity Is the Story of Today’s America

A highlight of the Network for Public Education’s recent national conference was the keynote address from Jitu Brown, a gifted and dedicated Chicago community organizer and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance.  His remarks made me think about the meaning of the last two decades of corporate school reform and the conditions today in his city and here where I live in greater Cleveland, Ohio.  It is a sad story.

Brown reflected on his childhood experience at a West Side Chicago elementary school, a place where he remembers being exposed to a wide range of information and experience including the study of a foreign language. He wondered, “Why did we have good neighborhood schools when I went to school but our kids don’t have them anymore? For children in poor neighborhoods, their education is not better.”

Brown described how No Child Left Behind’s basic drilling and test prep in the two subjects for which NCLB demands testing—math and language arts—eat up up more and more of the school day. We can consult Harvard University expert on testing, Daniel Koretz, for the details about why the testing regime has been particularly hard on children in schools where poverty is concentrated: “Inappropriate test preparation… is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it—in particular, above the ‘proficient’ cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students, and it is.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 116-117)

Of course, a narrowed curriculum is only one factor in today’s inequity.  Derick W. Black and Axton Crolley explain: “(A) 2018 report revealed, school districts enrolling ‘the most students of color receive about $1,800 or 13% less per student’ than districts serving the fewest students of color… Most school funding gaps have a simple explanation: Public school budgets rely heavily on local property taxes. Communities with low property values can tax themselves at much higher rates than others but still fail to generate anywhere near the same level of resources as other communities.  In fact, in 46 of 50 states, local school funding schemes drive more resources to middle-income students than poor students.”

Again and again in his recent keynote address, Jitu Brown described the consequences of Chicago’s experiment with corporate accountability-based school reform.  Chicago is a city still coping with the effect of the closure of 50 neighborhood schools in June of 2013—part of the collateral damage of the Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion—a portfolio school reform program administered by Arne Duncan to open charter schools and close neighborhood schools deemed “failing,” as measured by standardized test scores. On top of the charter expansion, Chicago instituted student-based-budgeting, which has trapped a number of Chicago public schools in a downward spiral as students experiment with charter schools and as enrollment diminishes, both of which spawn staffing and program cuts and put the school on a path toward closure.

As Jitu Brown reflected on his inspiring elementary school experience a long time ago, I thought about a moving recent article by Carolyn Cooper, a long time resident of Cleveland, Ohio’s East Glenville neighborhood: “I received a stellar education in elementary, junior high, and high school from the… Cleveland Public School system… All of the schools I attended were within walking distance, or only a few miles from my home. And at Iowa-Maple Elementary School, a K-6 school at the time, I was able to join the French Club and study abroad for months in both Paris and Lyon, France… Flash forward to this present day… To fight the closure of both Iowa-Maple and Collinwood High School, a few alumni attended a school facilities meeting held in October 2019 at Glenville High School… Despite our best efforts, Collinwood remained open but Iowa-Maple still closed down… Several generations of my family, as well as the families of other people who lived on my street, were alumni there.  I felt it should have remained open because it was a 5-Star school, offering a variety of programs including gifted and advanced courses, special education, preschool offerings, and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).”

In his keynote address last week, Jitu Brown explained: “Justice and opportunity depend on the institutions to which children have access.” Brown’s words brought to my mind another part of Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood less than a mile from Iowa-Maple Elementary School. If you drive along Lakeview Road between Superior and St. Clair Avenues, you see a neighborhood with older homes of a size comfortable for families and scattered newer rental housing built about twenty years ago with support from tax credits. You also see many empty lots where houses were abandoned and later demolished in the years following the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Separated by several blocks, you pass two large weedy tracts of land which were once the sites of two different public elementary schools—abandoned by the school district and boarded up for years before they were demolished. You pass by a convenience store surrounded by cracked asphalt and gravel.  Finally you pass a dilapidated, abandoned nursing home which for several years housed the Virtual Schoolhouse, a charter school that advertised on the back of Regional Transit Authority buses until it shut down in 2018.

My children went to school in Cleveland Heights, only a couple of miles from Glenville. Cleveland Heights-University Heights is a mixed income, racially integrated, majority African American, inner-ring suburban school district. Our children can walk to neighborhood public schools that are a great source of community pride. Our community is not wealthy, but we have managed to pass our school levies to support our children with strong academics. We recently passed a bond issue to update and repair our old high school, where my children had the opportunity to play in a symphony orchestra, and play sports in addition to the excellent academic program.

Jitu Brown helped organize and lead the 2015 Dyett Hunger Strike, which forced the Chicago Public Schools to reopen a shuttered South Side Chicago high school. Brown does not believe that charter schools and vouchers are the way to increase opportunity for children in places like Chicago’s South and West Sides and Cleveland’s Glenville and Collinwood neighborhoods.  He explains: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools…. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

In the powerful final essay in the new book, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Bill Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, agrees with Jitu Brown about what ought to be the promise of public education for every child in America:

“Let’s move forward guided by an unshakable first principle: Public education is a human right and a basic community responsibility… Every child has the right to a free, high-quality education. A decent, generously staffed school facility must be in easy reach for every family… What the most privileged parents have for their public school children right now—small class sizes, fully trained and well compensated teachers, physics and chemistry labs, sports teams, physical education and athletic fields and gymnasiums, after-school and summer programs, generous arts programs that include music, theater, and fine arts—is the baseline for what we want for all children.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 314-315) (emphasis in the original)

Ohio Legislature Has Created a Path to End State School District Takeovers: Will It Ever Be Fully Implemented?

This post is about bad public policy and how, once bad policy has been passed by a state legislature, it is hard to ever get rid of it.

Specifically the subject is Ohio House Bill 70, a failed law that has, over time, proven the failure of state takeovers of public-school districts as a strategy for raising students’ aggregate standardized test scores.  Ohio HB 70 is a relic of the kind of thinking Arne Duncan thrust upon our nation’s school districts.

In an October 2021 context, however, we can consider the story of Ohio’s six year experiment with state school district takeovers as a cautionary tale today when groups like FreedomWorks, No Left Turn in Education, Parents Defending Education, and Moms for Liberty are demanding that legislatures give oversight of their children’s history and government classes to parents and when a Utah legislator introduces a bill providing that “all materials for social science classes in K-12 (schools) be vetted and posted online for parents to review in advance.” Once state legislators pass ideological legislation, however unworkable it proves to be, it is very often difficult to amass enough bipartisan support for repeal.

Back in 2007, a think tank called Mass Insight, published The Turnaround Challenge, paid for with a big grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Turnaround Challenge prescribed rapid turnarounds of so-called “failing” public schools: “Despite steadily increasing urgency about the nation’s lowest-performing schools—those in the bottom five percent—efforts to turn these schools around have largely failed. Marginal change has led to marginal (or no) improvement. These schools, the systems supporting them, and our management of the change process require fundamental rethinking, not more tinkering.” Here is what Mass Insight proposed as the solution: “Require failing schools and their districts to either pursue more proactive turnaround strategies or lose control over the school. Make fundamental changes in the conditions under which those schools operate. Develop a local marketplace of partner/providers skilled in this discipline.”  The Turnaround Challenge became the bible for two of Arne Duncan’s most notorious programs: Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, both of which set out to condition federal grants to states on their rapid turnaround of public schools as a cure for low aggregate test scores. State takeovers or closing schools altogether were The Turnaround Challenge‘s ultimate penalty for public schools where scores did not quickly rise.

The consultants at Mass Insight assumed that schools alone could be quickly transformed to raise the scores of masses of children living in concentrated poverty, despite that research correlates standardized test scores with family and neighborhood income. The consultants blamed teachers and school administrators and assumed, in the case of state takeover, that a governance change would quickly create equal opportunity for the children and that achievement gaps would close despite that alarming opportunity gaps persisted.

In Ohio, the state did not try to turnaround schools by state takeover until the summer of 2015.  In a very important article this week, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reminds readers of this history: “The words ‘academic distress commission’ didn’t exist when Ohio House Bill 70 was introduced in 2015.  The 10-page bill was to allow schools to partner with local organizations and offer health care and social services. Then came the 67-page amendment—added into the bill, then passed by the full Ohio Senate and House on the same day, June 24, 2015. The amendment required academic distress commissions… to appoint a CEO to replace superintendents if the school district had prolonged ‘F’ grades on the state report card. The amendment gave the CEOs more control than the district superintendents ever had. CEOs can replace principals, close a school, reopen it as a charter school, and find a nonprofit or company to run a school.  If that doesn’t improve report cards, CEOs can suspend or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement with unions, except for reducing insurance benefits or the base hourly pay rate… CEOs took over schools in Youngstown in 2016, in Lorain in 2017, and in East Cleveland in 2018.”

Under HB 70, each of the three school districts was taken over by a state appointed Academic Distress Commission which appointed a CEO. The elected local school board continued to be elected and to meet, but it had no power.  Hancock reports that in “the three Ohio districts taken over by the state due to low standardized test scores, district report card grades have largely stayed the same.” For much of the ensuing six years, Youngstown and Lorain have endured bitter school board meetings, conflict between the elected board and the Academic Distress Commission, and widespread community outrage (See here, here, here and here.)

Hancock quotes Mark Ballard, President of Lorain’s elected Board of Education: “When people are appointed out of Columbus, and they don’t live in this community and don’t understand the dynamics of the community, it’s very frustrating… When people bring concerns to a locally elected member, there’s nothing they can do because there’s people out of Columbus really calling the shots.”

Hancock reports that in Ohio’s new FY 22-23 state budget, passed at the end of June, the Ohio Legislature created a possible path out of state takeover for the three school districts: “The new way out requires the districts to propose, and the Ohio Department of Education to approve, three-year improvement plans… If the district(s) (meet) a majority of the benchmarks after three years, they can return to normal operations…. However, the distress commissions will remain on as advisors to the district and don’t completely go away until after the district successfully hits most of the benchmarks in the three-year plan. If the districts fail to hit most of the benchmarks in their plan, they get two one-year extensions. If they can’t improve in that time, they will return to the control of the distress commissions. The districts (will) be run by superintendents during the transition.”

Here is a hopeful development: “Each district submitted its plan at the beginning of October. The Department of Education has until the end of the month to review them. It can request revisions, and the districts would have 15 days to respond.”

Everyone hopes that the three districts’ plans will be approved and that the state will work with the districts to return them to the control of their local school boards. Of course, with Ohio’s still underfunded school finance formula, there will not be a massive infusion of funding to support the needs of each district’s families and children. All three communities remain among Ohio’s poorest.  Hancock reports that state representative Michele Lepore-Hagan, a Democrat representing Youngstown, “questions whether the plans and revisions will ever be good enough to transition out of state control. ‘I hope seriously that this administration and the Ohio Department of Education are acting in good faith… We are concerned it might be a facade.'”

Ohio’s failed state takeover “turnaround” plan was a piece of ideological legislation passed in the middle of the night and based on what, at the time, was extremely popular, neoliberal corporate-style education policy. The children, families, and elected boards of education in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland continue to struggle under this plan which has proven to churn community upheaval and outrage in Youngstown and Lorain while it failed to raise aggregate standardized test scores. The current legislative reform plan does not even fully eliminate HB 70; its phase out, assuming it is finally completed, will take three more years.

State legislators ought to look what happened in Ohio with the last decade’s wave of ideological school reform and take heed. Today’s far right advocates—demanding freedom for parents to shape the school curriculum according to their personal beliefs—are proposing dangerous policies which, if they are enacted, will prove difficult to eliminate.

Is Mayor Lori Lightfoot Trying to Return Chicago to the Arne Duncan Era?

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has appointed a new CEO for the Chicago Public Schools, and everybody agrees he faces myriad challenges. He is Pedro Martinez, currently the school superintendent of the San Antonio (Texas) Independent School District, someone who grew up among 11 siblings in Chicago and was himself educated in the Chicago Public Schools.

Martinez is also the board chairman of Chiefs for Change, the corporate-reformer education leadership organization spun off from Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd (Foundation for Excellence in Education).

For WBEZ, Chicago’s best education reporter, Sarah Karp introduces Pedro Martinez: “Turning to a non-educator with deep Chicago ties, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot named former Chicago schools official and a current San Antonio schools superintendent Pedro Martinez as the next CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Martinez, who was born in Mexico and raised in Chicago, will be the first permanent Latino leader in the school district’s history… Martinez worked as CPS’ chief financial officer under former CEO Arne Duncan… Martinez is an accountant who has been called ‘analytics heavy.’  And in San Antonio, he has expanded charter schools as well as partnered with private organizations to take over failing schools. These ideas have been popular in Chicago, but they have fallen out of favor in recent years… Martinez has never taught or run a school as principal. And, thus, in choosing him, Lightfoot is rejecting the input of parents and others who said they wanted someone with a strong instructional background with ‘boots on the ground’ experience… Martinez is a graduate of the Broad Superintendent Academy training program. Critics say the Broad Academy promotes school leaders who use corporate-management techniques and that they work to limit teachers’ job protections and the involvement of parents in decision-making.”

The past year has been tense for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and for Chicago’s teachers. There has been ongoing disagreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lightfoot about what constitutes, during the COVID-19 pandemic, safe reopening in a school district filled with old buildings, but current tensions are overlaid upon a long history of conflict between the mayor and the teachers union under the mayoral governance and mayoral appointed school boards the Illinois legislature established back in 1995. Last April (2021), it was reported that, “Defying Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill… restoring the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain with the city over a wide range of issues, including class size, layoffs and the duration of the school year… The measure repeals Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which has restricted the CTU’s bargaining power since 1995, when state lawmakers gave then-Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the school district after several long strikes.”

Then in July, Governor Pritzker signed a bill that that will phase in a fully elected Chicago school board by 2027: “Until now, Chicago Public Schools was the lone district in Illinois with a school board appointed by the mayor.  But under the new legislation, the Chicago Board of Education will transition to a hybrid board of elected and appointed members before fully transforming into an elected body by 2027.”

My clipping file tracks problems with mayoral governance and  corporate, test-based school accountability in Chicago way back into the mid-1990s, with the disempowerment of Chicago’s groundbreaking local school councils, which sought to engage parents, teachers, and the community into the life of the neighborhood schools. In 1995, the Illinois legislature established mayoral governance of Chicago’s schools, gave the mayor the power to appoint the school board, and denied the Chicago Teachers Union the bargaining rights guaranteed to other teachers union locals.  Then came Renaissance 2010, the massive experiment under school CEO Paul Vallas, that sought—under Arne Duncan’s leadership—to open a mass of new charter schools to replace neighborhood public schools deemed “failing.”  Later Arne Duncan replaced Vallas as CEO.

Chicago has been the centerpiece of an experiment with an education governance plan called “portfolio school reform” in which the administration manages traditional and charter schools as though the district is a business portfolio—investing in the best schools and shuttering the so called “failures.”  And the problems were exacerbated under Mayor Rahm Emanuel with “student-based budgeting.” When students left for a charter school, the public school which lost enrollment lost funding, class sizes exploded, nurses were laid off, libraries were shuttered and substitute teachers were even hard to find as the school declined.  A downward spiral began to accelerate, and at the end of 2013, the school district’s mayoral appointed board closed nearly 50 public schools, with African American children making up 88 percent of the students affected.

In a press release last week, the Chicago Teachers Union expressed understandable concerns about Martinez’s ties to these corporate, test-based accountability initiatives which have, over time, disrupted neighborhoods and failed to turn around the huge school district as promised: “Mr. Martinez returns to a different Chicago than the city he left in 2009, as we move toward an elected school board and embrace the return of full bargaining rights for teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, clinicians, case managers, and librarians. Families, students, and community organizations are empowered leaders now, and have rejected the charter proliferation, the mass firing of Black female teachers, weakened worker protections, and top-down decision-making that were hallmarks of his time under former CPS CEO Arne Duncan.  Many of the failed strategies that our new CEO is accustomed to no longer exist in Chicago, as the experiments of education reform and privatization have proven to be a failure. Equity, justice and democracy, and student, parent, and educator voice are now at the forefront. Despite having no classroom or in-school experience, Mr. Martinez will have to be an independent thinker, a far better partner and collaborator than Mayor Lightfoot, and work with stakeholders to keep them safe, earn their trust, and meet high expectations.”

Karp reports: “In San Antonio, Martinez has partnered with charter schools and other private organizations to get them to take over challenged public schools.”

But in its press release, Chiefs for Change brags that Martinez has a strong record of improving public education for students in San Antonio: “During Martinez’s tenure, the number of… students attending low-performing schools has decreased by roughly 80 percent. Graduation rates have continued to rise, while dropout rates have continued to fall… In addition, San Antonio Independent School District has increased the number of students in dual-enrollment programs, allowing them to get college credit while still in high school… San Antonio Independent School District has also received national attention for its dual-language program, which existed in just two schools when Martinez arrived… and has since expanded to 61 campuses, more than half of all San Antonio Independent School District schools.”

What is clear is that Martinez faces enormous challenges posed by years of state policy and mayoral appointed school administrators who have alienated the district’s teachers and imposed unpopular experiments with school privatization and school closure which have undermined neighborhoods.

Because much has changed in Chicago since the time when Martinez worked for Arne Duncan as the school district’s chief financial officer, we must hope Martinez will take to heart the words of University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing in her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard, which examines the widespread 2013 neighborhood public school closures in Chicago:  “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

The Hubris of Billionaire Philanthropy and the Damage Wrought by the Common Core Standards

Hubris is definitely the tragic flaw in the modern, technocratic tragedy of educational experimentation by mega philanthropy. But there will likely be no tragic fall for a noble hero. The plot doesn’t operate like a classical tragedy. Bill and Melinda pose as our humble hero and heroine, sitting in front of a bookcase and dressed in nothing fancier than plain cashmere sweaters. There is no blood and no sensation. Today the weapon is billions of American dollars buying access to power and purchasing armies of ideological policy wonks. Most people haven’t even noticed the sins of our hero and heroine and there’s no hint of their impending downfall. The plot rises and falls and rises again when the perpetrators just start over with another massive experiment on the 50 million students in America’s public schools and their teachers. But the sin is hubris.

In a February report on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter, the Washington Post‘s  Valerie Strauss summarizes the three acts so far in the drama of Gates Foundation-funded school reform: “The Gates Foundation began its first big effort in education reform two decades ago with what it said was a $650 million investment to break large failing high schools into small schools, on the theory that small schools worked better than large ones… Bill Gates declared in 2009 that it hadn’t worked the way he had expected…. The next project for the foundation was funding the development, implementation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards initiative, which was supported by the Obama administration. It originally had bipartisan support but the Core became controversial, in part because of the rush to get it into schools and because of what many states said was federal coercion to adopt it… Meanwhile, Gates, while pushing the Core, showered three public school systems and four charter management organizations with hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and implement teacher assessment systems that incorporated student standardized test scores. School systems and charter organizations that took the foundation’s money were required to use public funds on the project, too.  By 2013, Bill Gates conceded that the Core initiative had not succeeded as he had expected, and a 2018 report concluded that the teacher evaluation project had failed to achieve its goal of improving student achievement in any significant way.”

Many of us who were paying attention noticed the collateral damage. When they took Gates money to break up big high schools, school districts had to hire a separate set of administrators and counselors for each small school—a very expensive proposition that ate up far more money than Gates provided. And students scheduled within their small schools struggled to find access to the advantages of a comprehensive high school—a journalism class, band and orchestra, arts electives like photography, technology courses. The experiment on evaluating teachers by students’ test scores and rewarding the teachers whose students posted high scores with financial bonuses collapsed after school districts had to absorb much of the cost.  In Hillsborough County, Florida, the district ended up using public revenues to cover $124 million that should have been spent on the ongoing education needs of the district’s students.

Strauss published part of the Gates Foundation’s 2020 annual letter, in which Melinda Gates describes the strategy of the Foundation’s education giving: “Consider this: The average American primary school classroom has 21 students. Currently, 18 of those 21 complete high school with a diploma or an equivalent credential… but only 13 start any kind of postsecondary program within a year of graduating. Only seven will earn a degree from a four-year-program within six years. It gets worse when you disaggregate by race. If every student in our classroom is Latinx, only six will finish their four-year degree program within six years. For a classroom of Black students, the number is just four. The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite. We believe the risk of not doing everything we can to help students reach their full potential is much, much greater. We certainly understand why many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders. But one thing that makes improving education tricky is that even among people who work on the issues, there isn’t much agreement on what works and what doesn’t.”

Notice that Melinda Gates assumes that “failing” schools are the causes of disparities in educational outcomes and that fixing the schools themselves—small high schools, grading teachers on students’ scores and offering financial incentives to successful teachers, and the Common Core standards—will somehow address the much deeper injustices for America’s children. There are libraries filled with research demonstrating that family and community economic circumstances compounded by racial and economic segregation and chronically inequitable school funding are the primary drivers of educational inequality, but the Gates Foundation has always dabbled in technocratic fixes and always failed to improve students’ outcomes.

On Monday, Valerie Strauss reprinted with the author’s permission some of Harvard education professor, Tom Loveless’s new book, Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding The Failure of Common Core, a new followup examination of one of Gates’ three failed initiatives.

Loveless explains: “The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) represent one of the most ambitious American education reforms of the past century.  Developed in 2009 and released in June 2010, the standards were designed to define what students should learn in mathematics and English language arts… from kindergarten through the twelfth grade… By the end of 2010, more than forty states and the District of Columbia had adopted the CCSS as official K-12 standards… A decade later, scant evidence exists that Common Core produced any significant benefit. One federally funded evaluation actually estimates that the standards had a negative effect on student achievement in both reading and math. Fortunately, the overall impact is quite small.”

The federal government is, by law, not permitted to establish a national educational curriculum, but Arne Duncan figured out how to skirt the law. The Gates Foundation paid for the development, implementation, and promotion of the standards; Duncan merely incentivized the states to adopt them when he made the adoption of educational standards a requirement for applying for a Race to the Top Grant.

Loveless continues: “If we conclude that CCSS had a minimal impact on student learning, perhaps the standards changed other aspects of education in a productive manner. Even if such a possibility is conceded, the policy’s extraordinary costs and the ferocious debate that it engendered outstripped such meager benefits. Billions of taxpayer dollars, from both federal and state coffers, were poured into making CCSS a success. Prominent philanthropies, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, funded a public relations campaign to fight back against political opposition. The nation’s three-million-plus public school teachers were asked to retool their instruction and use new curriculum materials aligned with Common Core; large numbers of students began failing new Common Core-aligned assessments; and many parents struggled to understand the strange new homework assignments that students were bringing to the kitchen table.”

Loveless summarizes what he says are the many lessons of the sad adventure of Gates’ purchase of public education policy via the Common Core. What was it that Gates Foundation policy wonks and Arne Duncan’s education department failed to consider? Please read Loveless’s careful analysis, but here are some of his conclusions: “Implementation of large-scale, top-down education policy transpires in a complicated system that is multilayered and loosely coupled in terms of authority and expertise. Common Core is not a federal policy, although it received crucial support from the federal government during the Obama administration but it is national in scope, originally involving more than forty states and Washington, DC. States have their own political offices and educational bureaucracies, of course, but consider some ballpark numbers for the nodes of political and organizational authority situated below the state level: approximately 13,600 school districts… 98,000 schools, and more than three million teachers…..  Navigating the vertical complexity of the K-12 educational system is daunting… the main lesson of the study was that schools shape state policies to fit local circumstances.”

Further, “Curriculum and instruction are particularly important because they constitute the technical core of the educational enterprise… They sit at the bottom layer of the system. Writing and adopting standards takes place at the top of the system, in the domain of politicians and educational officials… Successful implementation of standards not only depends on the willingness of implementers but also on the quality of the curriculum and instruction that local educators use to enact the standards… The publisher of a terrific K-8 math series may also publish a terrible reading series; a math program with strong second and sixth grade texts may be weak in first and fourth grades…  The two subjects that Common Core tackles, mathematics and English language arts, have long histories of ideological debates between educational progressives and traditionalists.”

In their hubris, Bill and Melinda and their foundation latched onto one big educational reform, but in their hurried launch, they forgot about a carefully coordinated and internally evaluated rollout of the standards and the high-stakes tests that were paired with the standards. They also neglected working at each level of the system with the professionals they assumed would grab on to their idea and make it work. Loveless considers what was left out of the process: “Once governments have decided on a policy decision, how does it become enacted in schools? Exploring that question compels an examination of the school system’s organizational structure and the flow of policy downward from policymakers to practitioners.” That is, of course, separate from another important issue: whether Gates’s experts developed and promoted the right standards.

Biden Offers Hope for Turning Around Awful DeVos Education Policy

This summer some people have said it seems like deja vu all over again. In 2009, right after Barack Obama was elected President, Education Secretary Arne Duncan used over $4 billion of the public education dollars Congress had appropriated as part of a huge federal stimulus package and attached rules that made states adopt Duncan’s own pet programs in order to qualify for the money.  Now Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have distributed CARES Act dollars in a way that favors DeVos’s favorite charter schools and private schools at the expense of what she calls “government” schools—the ones our society counts on to serve 50 million of our children.

The Secretary of Education—and in the case of Payroll Protection Program dollars, the Small Business Administration—can control the distribution of education stimulus dollars, because dispersing relief money is administered by the administration without direct Congressional oversight unless prohibitions for particular practices are written into the enabling legislation.

You will remember that as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Arne Duncan administered a $4.3 billion Race to the Top Program, a $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program, and a $650 million Innovation Grant program. Duncan and  the U.S. Department of Education conditioned these grants on getting states to change their own laws to adopt what were later recognized as the most controversial priorities of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education. To qualify for Race to the Top, for example, states had to promise to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores, agree to controversial turnaround plans that included school closure and privatization, and adopt “college-and-career-ready” standards, which, in practice, meant they were agreeing to adopt what became the overly constrictive, unwieldy and expensive Common Core and accompanying tests.  Underneath all of these programs was also a big change in the philosophy underneath federal education policy. Despite that races with winners always create losers, Duncan modeled his trademark education programs on the way philanthropies award funds: through competition. As the Department of Education diverted some Title I funds into competitive programs rather than simply awarding them through the Title I Formula, which is designed to supplement state and local funding for public schools serving concentrations of poor children, the Duncan programs enhanced education only for the children in the winning states and school districts.

Now Betsy DeVos has set out to divert some of the CARES Act relief funding, passed by Congress last March, to support privately operated charter schools and private schools instead of the public schools tor which most of the funds were intended by Congress. Public schools need federal stimulus relief to compensate for big budget cuts in state school funding as state budgets collapsed in the COVID-19 recession, and public schools need to make all sorts of expensive adjustments to ensure safety during the pandemic. But all over the country charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated were allowed to take advantage of their public/private status and take CARES Act Payroll Protection Program (PPP) dollars awarded through the Small Business Administration and intended to help small businesses maintain employment. The Network for Public Education recently reported: “The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools informed its members via email in March that it had successfully lobbied for charter schools to receive PPP funds and provided instructions on how much funding could be obtained.” “More than 1,300 charter schools and their nonprofit or for-profits and management companies secured between $925 million and $2.2 billion through PPP.”

In addition, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos created guidance that redirects a disproportionate amount of a school district’s CARES Act public school relief assistance to the private schools located within the geographic boundary of the school district.  Congress distributed CARES Act education aid through the Title I Formula—which targets assistance to school districts with concentrations of poor children and ALSO provides that a school district will provide Title I services to impoverished students attending the private schools located within the district boundaries. However, DeVos set up CARES Act guidance to insist that the private schools would receive a portion of the CARES Act dollars proportional not just for the poor students enrolled in a private school, but instead for the private school’s full enrollment.

All this is, of course, extremely worrisome, because billions of CARES Act dollars needed in America’s public schools right now have found their way into charter schools, charter management organizations, and private schools. But there is an important difference in the way Arne Duncan was able to manipulate states to adopt his policies and what is currently happening.

Betsy DeVos has not been able to create the political to leverage to promote her policies in a way that they will survive her tenure.  Most of us hope Betsy DeVos’s effort to use CARES Act dollars to support charter schools and private schools is her final push, her final personal opportunity to expand and support privatized schooling at public expense. When, in 2009, Arne Duncan used federal stimulus to set up Race to the Top and his other grant competitions, he had just been appointed. He served as education secretary until December of 2015, when Congress finally got fed up with his top down intervention in the nation’s public schools and when his policies and the No Child Left Behind policies on which they were based had begun falling out of favor. Duncan’s signature strategy during his six year tenure was basically to use federal grants to bribe states to embed his pet programs into their own laws, a strategy which gave his programs lasting power because rescinding them would require action by each of the state legislatures which had adopted Duncan’s policies. For example, some states are still evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores, even though the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association have shown students’ test scores are invalid and unreliable for evaluating teachers.

If President Trump is re-elected and Betsy DeVos is re-appointed as education secretary, all bets are off.

But—and I’ll admit it is still a long time until November—I believe it looks increasingly unlikely that DeVos will be our education secretary beginning in 2021.  Further, there is no evidence that Congress has bought into her policies and no evidence that, apart from diverting CARES Act dollars and  making annual startup and expansion grants to particular charter schools and chains of charter schools under the 25-year-old federal Charter Schools Program, she has been able to inject her own favorite policies across the states. For four years President Trump has included her $5 billion Opportunity Scholarship tuition tax credit idea in the President’s proposed federal budget, and every year Congress has ignored the request.

If Joe Biden is elected in November, I believe we can look forward to an abrupt reversal of education policy. Biden will work to get the pandemic under control; then he will prioritize supporting the safe opening of public schools. He has also pledged to address what COVID-19 has shown us is the greatest challenge for our nation’s children: extreme inequality.

Joe Biden’s Education Plan prioritizes equity in the public schools: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high and low-income districts as well.  Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to preschool, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few.”  Biden’s plan notes that the average public school teacher’s salary hasn’t increased since 1996, and he pledges to ensure that teachers receive wages competitive with salaries of other professionals.  Over ten years, Biden pledges to provide federal funding to cover 40 percent of the cost of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a promise Congress made when the law was passed but a promise that has never been fulfilled. Currently Congress covers only just over 14 percent of the cost.  Biden would expand full service, wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building.

Last week, when American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten addressed a virtual AFT biennial convention, she bragged about Biden’s agenda for public education: “Imagine a world with: universal pre-K; debt forgiveness for educators; triple Title I funding, expanded Community Schools; supports for kids with special needs; high-stakes testing thrown out the window; charter school accountability; public colleges and universities tuition-free for families who earn less than $125,000. That’s not from an AFT resolution. That’s straight from the Democratic Party platform, born out of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations we helped draft.”

Joe Biden’s education plan differs radically from Betsy DeVos’s priorities. Biden, whose education plan aims to strengthen our nation’s 98,000 traditional public schools, supports neither expanding privately operated charter schools nor diverting money out of public school budgets to pay for private school vouchers or tuition tax credit programs. Although Betsy DeVos may have used the CARES Act to reward privatized charter schools and private schools and although she may try the same tricks in the rules for distributing any further stimulus dollars, I am increasingly hopeful that Betsy DeVos will be replaced next winter, and a new administration will be far more attentive to addressing the urgent needs in the nation’s public schools.

The Common Core Standards Died a Natural Death. Why Is Dana Goldstein Trying to Dig Them Up?

In a superficial article last Friday, NY Times education reporter Dana Goldstein exhumed an education reform that has, mercifully, already been buried: the Common Core State Standards.  The Common Core has pretty much faded out of the public consciousness, but now that Goldstein has chosen to examine the corpse, I wish she had done a careful job.

Goldstein explains that the Common Core Standards were created by “a bipartisan group of governors, education experts and philanthropists” and that, “The education secretary at the time, Arne Duncan, declared himself ‘ecstatic.'” Now, ten years after the experiment was launched, many of the over forty-five states that tried the Common Core have dropped it. They have recalibrated their curricula and dropped from their annual testing regime the standardized tests that were paired with the Common Core Standards, tests created by one of two test-development consortia: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (the PARCC test) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (the SBAC test).

In her article last Friday, Goldstein wonders whether recent U.S. test scores on the international PISA test and our own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) would be better if the Common Core were brought back: “The disappointing results have prompted many in the education world to take stock of the Common Core, one of the most ambitious education reform projects in American history. Some see the effort as a failure, while others say it is too soon to judge the program, whose principles are still being rolled out at the classroom level.”

Much of her story covers an interview with a Kentucky teacher who liked the Common Core. She also quotes one of the developers of the Common Core math standards, interviews other people who favor a nationally aligned curriculum, and talks with the program officer responsible for the Common Core at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  What she leaves out is the history and substance of the Common Core experiment, and she also omits all the reasons states have pretty much abandoned this project.

The Common Core State Standards were an attempt by Arne Duncan’s Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to impose common curricular standards across the country. The Common Core was to be another step in institutionalizing the movement for standards and test based school accountability that was originally cast into law by No Child Left Behind.  No Child Left Behind assumed that if states set tough standards, tested the students every year, and sanctioned schools unable to raise scores quickly, achievement would rise and all children would be proficient by 2014. But the federal government couldn’t, by federal law, impose a national curriculum. However, Arne Duncan figured out how to create incentives for states to buy into a national curriculum without its being federally imposed.  As part of the 2009 stimulus package created to infuse money across the states to address the Great Recession, Duncan created a federal competitive grant program—Race to the Top.  To qualify even to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states had to promise to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores and agree to controversial turnaround plans that included school closure and privatization. And states had to agree they would adopt “college- and career-ready” standards.

The states had the freedom to develop their own standards, but conveniently, the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers sat down with Bill Gates and together they agreed that the Gates Foundation would fund the development of Common Core Standards, which states could then use to meet Arne Duncan’s requirement that they adopt “college- and career-ready” standards in order to qualify for a Race to the Top grant.

There are certainly people who still believe in curriculum standards—even national standards—but there were a number of problems with the way the Common Core was rushed through. The substitution of new tests developed by the PARCC and SBAC consortia also intensified what many felt were unfair high stakes punishments being imposed on schools and on schoolteachers by No Child Left Behind.

The Common Core was developed by the same people who brought us test-based school accountability.  In her 2012 book, Reign of Error, written just as the Common Core standards and the tests paired with the standards were being rolled out, Diane Ravitch explains the top-down origin of these developments: “The U.S. Department of Education awarded $350 million to two consortia to develop national assessments to measure the new national standards. States and districts will have to make large investments in technology, because the new national assessments will be delivered online. By some estimates, the states will be required to spend as much as $16 billion to implement the Common Core standards.” (Reign of Error, p. 16) “The Gates Foundation… supported the creation, evaluation, and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in almost every state.  In addition, the Gates Foundation has joined in a partnership with the British publisher Pearson to develop online curriculum for teaching the Common Core standards.” (Reign of Error,  23)

One of the huge criticisms of the Common Core Standards is that their developers focused on pushing more difficult content knowledge without enough attention to the wide variation in children’s readiness and to normal variations in linguistic and cognitive development. In their 2014 book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass observe that teachers who know and understand their students, but are at the same time under intense pressure to raise scores, have less latitude to meet children’s particular learning needs: (U)nder the new Common Core State Standards, currently adopted by 45 states, teachers have little control over the curriculum they teach and the time they can allocate for instruction.” (50 Myths & Lies, p. 52)

What caused the most intense backlash—as more than 40 participating states substituted the PARCC and SBAC Common Core tests for the standardized tests the states had already been using annually under No Child Left Behind to judge schools—was that the PARCC and SBAC tests were benchmarked with much more demanding cut scores.  More schools appeared to be “failing.” And, for states to qualify for Race to the Top and the subsequent No Child Left Behind Waiver program, Arne Duncan demanded that states use the annual standardized tests as part of formal teachers’ evaluations.  When students’ test scores dropped catastrophically on the new PARCC and SBAC tests, there were growing news reports about teachers—sometimes long experienced and award-winning teachers—being fired or reassigned.  In some places, the teachers’ ratings based on the new test scores were published in newspapers to embarrass teachers into working harder. The replacement of No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which banned the Secretary of Education from involvement in states’ evaluation of teachers, was one result.  The other was the further discrediting of the Common Core experiment itself.

Goldstein explains why she dug up the Common Core again last week for coverage in the NY Times. Recently released scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress were disappointing, and U.S. scores recently released from the international PISA test were not significantly improved.

Back in 2010, Bill Mathis at the University of Colorado at Boulder published a cautionary analysis of the Common Core for the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice. In the piece, Mathis warns against developing standards-based education policy as a way to make the U.S. appear globally competitive: “The Obama administration advocates for education standards designed to make all high school graduates ‘college- and career-ready.’ To achieve this end, the administration is exerting pressure on states to adopt content standards, known as the ‘common core,’ being developed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers…. Contentions about global competitveness provide a key rationale given for common standards, along with increasing equity and streamlining the reform process.  The analysis presented here suggests that the data do not support these contentions.  U.S. states with high academic standards fare no better (or worse) than those identified as having low academic standards.  Research support for standards-driven, test-based accountability systems is similarly weak.”

Mathis concludes: “The… common core standards initiative should be continued, but only as a low-stakes advisory and assistance tool for states and local districts for the purposes of curriculum improvement, articulation and professional development.  The… common core standards should be subjected to extensive validation, trials, and subsequent revisions before implementation… Given the current strengths and weaknesses in testing and measurement, policymakers should not implement high-stakes accountability systems where the assessments are inadequate for such purposes.”

In her 2012 Reign of Error, Ravitch agrees with Mathis: “Unfortunately, neither the Obama administration nor the developers of the Common Core standards thought it necessary to field-test the new standards.” (Reign of Error, p. 16)  One reason we all watched the launch and failure of a giant experiment is that the Common Core and PARCC and SBAC tests were rolled out without validation and trials.

Reign of Error was published as the Common Core was being implemented across the states and before anyone knew how the Common Core standards and accompanying tests from PARCC and SBAC would work. In her 2012 book, Ravitch remained carefully neutral about what to expect: “No one can say with certainty whether the Common Core standards will improve education, whether they will reduce or increase the achievement gaps among different groups, or how much it will cost to implement them. Some scholars believe they will make no difference, and some critics say they will cost billions to implement; others say they will lead to more testing. ” (Reign of Error, p. 315)

Diane Ravitch has written a new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, to be published on January 21st.  It is to be a history of several decades of corporate, accountability-based, test and punish school reform and privatization. When I read Slaying Goliath, I’ll be looking for Ravitch’s postmortem on America’s failed experiment with the Common Core State Standards.

Congress Should Defund the Charter Schools Program and Invest the Money in Title I and IDEA

The Network for Public Education published its scathing report on the federal Charter Schools Program three weeks ago, but as time passes, I continue to reflect on its conclusions. The report, Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride, is packed with details about failed or closed or never-opened charter schools.  The Network for Public Education depicts a program driven by neoliberal politicians hoping to spark innovation in a marketplace of unregulated startups underwritten by the federal government. The record of this 25 year federal program is dismal.

Here is what the Network for Public Education’s report shows us. The federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) has awarded $4 billion federal tax dollars to start or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools that have been started across the country. Begun when Bill Clinton was President, this neoliberal—publicly funded, privatized—program has been supported by Democratic and Republican administrations alike.  It has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been awarded to schools that never opened or that were shut down: “We found that it is likely that as many as one third of all charter schools receiving CSP grants never opened, or opened and shut down.”  Many grants went to schools that illegally discriminated in some way to choose their students and served far fewer disabled students and English language learners than the local pubic schools.  Many of the CSP-funded charter schools were plagued by conflicts of interest profiteering, and mismanagement. The Department of Education has never investigated the scathing critiques of the program by the Department’s Office of Inspector Genera; neither has the Department of Education investigated the oversight practices of the state-by-state departments of education, called State Education Agencies by CSP, to which many of the grants were made. Oversight has declined under the Department’s leadership by Betsy DeVos.

One of the shocking findings in the Asleep at the Wheel report is that a series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated this program as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship—by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits—as a substitute for public operation of the public schools. This use of the Charter Schools Program as a source for venture capital is especially shocking in the past decade under Presidents Obama and Trump, even as federal funding for essential public school programs has fallen. The Center on Budget and Policy priorities reports, for example, that public Title I formula funding dropped by 6.2 percent between 2008 and 2017.

The authors of the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report explain that the Department of Education itself justifies the high failure rate of schools receiving Charter Schools Program grants because the program’s purpose is to provide start-up money for entrepreneurs to experiment with innovative ideas for schools:  “CSP’s explanation for the high cost of failure was, ‘As with any start-up, school operators face a range of factors that may affect their school’s opening.  And as with any provider of start-up capital, the department learns from its investments.'”

Late in March, when the current Secretary of Education was questioned by members of the House Appropriations Committee about the findings in the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler quotes Betsy DeVos herself justifying the high rate of charter school failure with an argument that basically the Charter Schools Program provides venture capital to support entrepreneurship and innovation: “When you have experimentation, you’re always going to have schools that don’t make it, and that’s what should happen.”

The Department of Education took a big leap toward support for social entrepreneurship (and diminished attention to the Department’s traditional programming) under the leadership of Arne Duncan, who served as Secretary of Education between 2009 and  December of 2015.  To lead the Department’s Office for Innovation and Improvement, Duncan hired Jim Shelton.  Before joining the department, Shelton had, according to a Department of Education biography, earned two master’s degrees from Stanford in business administration and education.  He developed computer systems, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1993 before moving to the education conglomerate founded by Mike and Lowell Milken, Knowledge Universe, Inc.  In 1999, he founded LearnNow, later acquired by Edison Schools and then worked for Joel Klein to develop and launch his school strategy in New York City that closed public schools and opened more and more charter schools.  He became a partner in the NewSchools Venture Fund and then in 2003 joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the program director for its education division.

To be hired at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton had to be waivered from a federal law that bans people from moving into governmental positions in which they will work directly with their former employer.  In Shelton’s case, the danger was not that he would shower his former employer with federal government largesse, but instead that he would import the priorities and practices of his former employer—the Gates Foundation—directly into government. Shelton oversaw not only the Charter Schools Program but also Race to the Top, which made large federal stimulus grants to states, which had each been given (by the Gates Foundation) a quarter of a million dollars apiece to hire grant writers to develop creative ways to invest federal stimulus money to support the turnaround of so-called failing schools. To qualify, the states had to agree to Duncan’s prescribed turnaround plans and also promise to remove caps on the authorization of new charter schools. There is now widespread agreement that Race to the Top failed to fulfill its stated goal of improving school achievement. After leaving the department, Duncan and Shelton both continued their careers in grant-funded social entrepreneurship; at least their work has no longer been publicly funded. Shelton ran education programming for the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, and Duncan has been working for Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.

Meanwhile, Betsy DeVos now leads the U.S. Department of Education, and her leadership has further reduced oversight, according to the Asleep at the Wheel report: “Under the current administration, while Congressional funding for the CSP rises, the quality of the applications and awardees has further declined.”

The Charter Schools Program is the only one of DeVos’s school privatization initiatives whose budget Congress has increased.  The Network for Public Education traces its funding history: “The program was appropriated at $219 million in 2004.  The budget went up to $256 million in 2010, $333 million in 2016, then to $342 million in 2017, $400 million in 2018 and is now at $440 million for FY 2019.”  In his proposed FY 2020 budget, President Trump has asked Congress to add another $60 million.

When Organizations like the NewSchools Venture Fund or today’s mega-foundations experiment with educational innovation, the risk is underwritten by private capital or philanthropic grants from the Walton, Gates, or Broad Foundations, for example. And if the experiments fail, the money lost is private.  In the case of the federal Charter Schools Program, the Department of Education has been gambling with $4 billion of our tax dollars—money desperately needed by the public schools in our nation’s poorest communities—money that could have been invested, for example, in Title I for schools serving concentrations of poor children or in implementation of programs to meet the mandates of the IDEA.  At their inception, Congress promised to fund a significant part of the cost of both Title I and IDEA, but Congressional appropriations have chronically fallen short.  Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) has currently introduced the “Keep Our PACT Act,” which if passed would significantly increase the federal commitment to supporting federal these priorities. Van Hollen explains: “Title I, which gives assistance to America’s highest-need schools, is a critical tool to ensure that every child, no matter the zip code, has access to a quality education. However, it has been deeply underfunded, shortchanging our most vulnerable students living in poverty… (T)he Title I formula was underfunded by $347 billion from 2005-2017… Similarly, IDEA calls on the federal government to fund 40 percent of the cost of special education, but Congress has never fully funded the law. Currently, IDEA state grants are funded at just 14.7 percent.”

The Asleep at the Wheel report’s authors conclude: “The CSP’s grant approval process appears to be based on the application alone, with no attempt to verify the information presented.  Hundreds of schools have been approved for grants despite serious concerns noted by reviewers… The… lack of rigor and investigation in the review process, and the seeming willingness of the CSP program to offer grants despite concerns expressed by reviewers raise questions about whether this program is truly committed to jump-starting schools that hold the greatest promise of success, or whether simply letting 1,000 flowers bloom, and accepting the chaos and waste of repeated failure is really the operational model.”

For 25 years, the U.S. Department of Education has enabled, and Congress has funded, a failed, neoliberal, market-based, and unregulated charter school experiment.  In an article he published last spring, the McMaster University education theorist, Henry Giroux said it best: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public….”

This blog has previously explored the Asleep at the Wheel report here and here.

The Difficulty of Cleaning Arne Duncan’s Awful Policies Out of the Laws of 50 States

Sometimes I find myself considering how our society arrived in 2019 at what striking schoolteachers this year have been demonstrating is an existential crisis for our system of public education.

Partly, of course, Betsy DeVos, our current Education Secretary, and all her friends including the Koch brothers have been working for years to substitute privatized, marketplace school choice for what many of us prize as our universal system of public schools. The idea of public education is a network of schools in every American community, schools that are publicly owned, regulated by law, and operated by locally elected school boards. Our society’s promise, an ideal we have increasingly realized through a history of making the dream accessible to more and more children, is that the public schools will meet all children’s needs and protect their rights.  Supreme Court cases and civil rights laws have expanded protection for children of all races and ethnic backgrounds, no matter their immigration status. The law protects services for children whose primary language may be other than English, for children who are disabled, and for children whatever their gender or sexual orientation.

But even with all her money, added to the money of her friends, and with the help of billionaire philanthropists who have served as her allies, Betsy DeVos isn’t powerful enough to have so thoroughly upended public education. We were all complicit somehow, although we didn’t collectively realize it, despite that many of us have been protesting along the way.

Over half a century ago, in The Affluent Society, economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “the conventional wisdom” to describe “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group.… the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”  In other words the conventional wisdom about hard and complicated subjects in public policy is made up of what we all believe because everybody else seems to believe it.

More recently, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have described how such conventional wisdom can somehow become acceptable despite plenty of contradictory evidence. Writing about the emergence of a bipartisan consensus about taxation and the role of government beginning in the Reagan era and continuing today, they write: “These changes did not go unnoticed or occur without pushback. Yet those who sought to defend or resurrect the ideas under siege found themselves caught in what communications experts call a ‘spiral of silence.’ In such a spiral, opinions become dominant because of acquiescence as well as acceptance. Even if individuals do not agree with an idea, their sense that it is shared broadly makes them reluctant to voice dissent. In time, this anticipation can create self-fulfilling cycles—a ‘spiral’—in which conflicting ideas are pushed to the periphery. When alternative understandings are no longer voiced confidently, we collectively forget their power.” (American Amnesia, p. 198)

Over the past quarter century, test-based school accountability and school privatization have quietly become fixtures of the bipartisan conventional wisdom about education. This year, striking public school teachers across the states have challenged the conventional wisdom by reinforcing, to use Hacker and Pierson’s words, “alternative understandings which have no longer been voiced confidently” to demand that we value the public schools that serve 90 percent of our society’s children.

No Child Left Behind, the 2002, omnibus federal education law, set up a scheme to judge schools by standardized test scores and punish low-scoring public schools until they improved their students’ scores. The scheme pretty much ignored resource inputs like equitable distribution of school funding, and it also ignored what has since then been repeatedly reconfirmed: that test scores are extremely highly correlated with children’s circumstances at home and in their neighborhoods. Concentrated poverty and segregation are central factors that the conventional wisdom glossed over.

This year striking schoolteachers have, for many of us at least, created a new receptivity to the facts.  Teachers have created a new context in which Nathan Robinson’s recent analysis in Current Affairs resonates in a new way.  This blog covered Robinson’s piece last week, but it is worth considering again.  Robinson specifically dissects Race to the Top, Arne Duncan’s plan, embodied in the 2009 federal economic stimulus, but Race to the Top merely magnified and intensified the strategy and specific details of No Child Left Behind, except that Race to the Top added another business strategy: competition.

Robinson explains that Race to the Top “gave $4.3 billion in funding to U.S. schools through a novel mechanism: Instead of giving out the aid based on how much a state’s schools needed it, the Department of Education awarded it through a competition.  Applications ‘were graded on a 500-point scale according to the rigor of the reforms proposed and their compatibility with four administration priorities: developing common standards and assessments; improving teacher training, evaluation, and retention policies; creating better data systems; and adopting preferred school-turnaround strategies.'”  The four turnarounds (originally defined in No Child Left Behind) were firing principals and teachers in so-called “failing” schools, closing these schools, or turning them into privately operated charter schools, or turning them over to an education management organization.

Looking back, Robinson wonders how our people permitted this to happen: “There is something deeply objectionable about nearly every part of Race to the Top.  First, the very idea of having states scramble to compete for federal funds means that children are given additional support based on how good their state legislatures are at pleasing the president, rather than how much those children need support.  Michigan got no Race to the Top money, and Detroit’s schools didn’t see a penny of this $4.3 billion, because it didn’t win the ‘race.’  This ‘fight to the death’ approach (come to think of it, a better name for the program) was novel, since ‘historically, most federal education funds have been distributed through categorical grant programs that allocate money to districts on the basis of need-based formulas.’… Once upon a time, liberals talking about how to fix schools would talk about making sure all teachers had the resources they need to give students a quality education.  Now, they were importing the competitive capitalist model into government: Show results or find yourself financially starved. The focus on ‘innovation,’ data, and technology is misguided, too.  Innovation is not necessarily improvement… When it came time, in 2016, to assess what Race to the Top had actually managed to accomplish, the administration conceded that ‘a vast literature examining the effectiveness of the types of policies promoted by Race to the Top provides no conclusive evidence on whether they improve student outcomes’….”

In one way, however, Arne Duncan was an extremely savvy politician. His Race to the Top competition magnified the test-and-punish policies of No Child Left Behind in 50 different ways and set them in concrete by bribing the 50 state legislatures to enact these policies into their own laws.  By dangling Race to the Top money in front of state legislatures in 2009 at the height of a recession, Duncan made it hard for state legislatures to resist temptation.  The result is that today, while Arne Duncan has left government to promote social entrepreneurship and work for a Chicago project of Lorene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, the educational policies of Race to the Top have been cast into the concrete of state laws, or at least buried in the statehouse sludge where nobody can remember them or identify them or pull them out.  And they have seeped into the conventional wisdom.

Here are some examples from my state, Ohio.

In No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top style, Ohio continues to identify so-called “failing” schools.  My state continues to use aggregate student test scores as the basis of a branding system that assigns schools letter grades—A-F,  with attendant punishments for the schools and school districts that get Fs.  And it publicly ranks our public schools and school districts from best to worst based on standardized test scores.

When a public school is branded with an F, the old school turnaround strategies from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—requirements that have now been dropped at the federal level—continue to apply in Ohio.  The students in the so-called “failing” schools can secure an Ed Choice Voucher to be used for private school tuition. And the way Ohio schools are funded ensures that in most cases, local levy money in addition to state basic aid follows that child. Ohio also permits charter school sponsors to site privately managed charter schools in so-called “failing” school districts.

The number of these vouchers and privatized charter schools is expected to rise next year when a safe-harbor period (that followed the introduction of a new Common Core test) ends.  Earlier this month, the Plain Dealer reported: “Next school year, that list of ineffective schools (where students will qualify for Ed Choice Vouchers) balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”

Ohio uses state takeover rather than school closure as the punishment when a school district has been rated F for three consecutive years. The school board is replaced with an appointed Academic Distress Commission which replaces the superintendent with an appointed CEO.  East Cleveland this year will join Youngstown and Lorain, now three years into their state takeovers—without academic improvement in either case.

In Race to the Top and later in his No Child Left Behind Waivers program, Arne Duncan demanded that states commit to evaluating teachers based on the Value Added that could, supposedly, be identified in their students’ standardized test scores. Ohio complied enthusiastically with Duncan’s teacher evaluation policies by making 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on the standardized test scores of the teacher’s students.  Then, finally, after the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association both condemned as unreliable the use of Value Added Measures for evaluating teachers, Congress ended the policy.  In the new federal education law, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, Congress removed the Arne Duncan requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores as a significant percentage of the evaluation of teachers. Only in the summer of 2018, however, did Ohio finally amend its Duncan-driven policy for teachers’ evaluations. Finally the Legislature folded the use of test scores into a more complex evaluation that, lawmakers said, tracks how teachers are using test score data to inform their instruction. The new system won’t be implemented until the 2020-2021 academic year, however, and it still incorporates students’ test scores in a vague way. Today in 2019, Ohio still makes 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on students’ standardized test scores.

In Ohio, No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top style punishment, not assistance, remains the strategy for the schools in our poorest communities. All this punitive policy sits on top of what many Ohioans and their representatives in both political parties agree has become an increasingly inequitable school funding distribution formula. Last August, after he completed a new study of the state’s funding formula, Columbus school finance expert, Howard Fleeter described Ohio’s current method of funding schools to the Columbus Dispatch: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

A growing consensus that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were misguided in their obsessive use of high stakes standardized tests is widely documented in the research literature. The biggest problem is that these policies targeted the public schools in the nation’s poorest communities for punishment.  In his 2017 book, The Testing Charade, Daniel Koretz, a testing expert at Harvard University, explains how test-and-punish works: “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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…  Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

From West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona to Kentucky to Los Angeles, schoolteachers have been striking all year to show us how all this has gone wrong—robbing their schools of essential programs and staff.  I hope these people who know the conditions in their schools better than the rest of us will continue to challenge the conventional wisdom of the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top Era.

A big problem is that Arne Duncan induced state legislatures to embed his favorite ideas into the laws of the 50 states. It isn’t going to be so easy to get them cleaned out.

More Education News from Chicago: WBEZ Publishes the Troubling History of Chicago’s Public School Closures

It is quite a week for education news from Chicago.  Yesterday this blog covered the first teachers’ strike at a charter school network, UNO-Acero Charter Schools in Chicago.

Today’s post considers nearly two decades of closures of traditional neighborhood schools in Chicago.  Chicago’s closure of so-called “failing” schools began in 2002. Two years later, Chicago’s technocratic model of test-based, punitive, turnaround-based school reform was formalized into Renaissance 2010, the program led by Arne Duncan. The “turnaround” idea—later brought by Duncan into federal programs— was to punish schools posting low test scores by firing teachers and principals, closing schools, and replacing them with privately operated charter schools.  It was an early example of an ideology the inventor of this kind of school policy calls “portfolio school reform“—the idea that a district manage its schools, public and charter alike, as though they are a stock portfolio. Keep and invest in the schools that raise scores, and shed the failures.

The “portfolio” model features disruption as a virtue and condemns stability as the product of bureaucracy and tradition.  It is a business-school idea whose proponents have forgotten to consider that real children, parents and communities are involved, and that there might be human damage from this kind of disruption. The theory involves test scores, moving kids around, and formulas to determine which buildings are being optimally utilized. The ideology dreams up a spiral of continuous growth in the number of high-scoring schools.

On Monday, Chicago’s WBEZ published a history of the Chicago school closures which have been the centerpiece of this plan: “In the time it has taken for a child to grow up in Chicago, city leaders have either closed or radically shaken up some 200 public schools—nearly a third of the entire district…. These decisions, defended as the best and only way to improve chronically low-performing schools or deal with serious under-enrollment, have meant 70,160 children—the vast majority of them black—have seen their schools closed or all staff in them fired… 61,420 black children affected. The number of children who have lived through a Chicago school closing since 2002 is jaw dropping, and the impact on the black community in particular has been profound. A total of 70,160 Chicago students have experienced either a school closing or a total re-staffing of their school firsthand; of those, 88 percent are black. That’s a wildly disproportionate number… Some 7,368 Latino children have lived through a school shakeup.  Meanwhile, white students have been nearly untouched.  In almost 17 years, just 533 white students have experienced a closing.”

WBEZ reporters attempt to remain agnostic about whether this sort of school reform has been a good or bad thing in Chicago. They report that school achievement as measured by tests has improved, but they also add details that make it hard to know what caused higher scores. One place scores have risen is in the growing number of highly selective schools in Chicago. The reporters add, however, that the rest is only speculative: “And to the core question of whether school shakeups made a difference for the students they were meant to help at chronically low-performing schools, there is no easy answer.  The city still considers 10 percent of district-run schools so low performing they need ‘intensive support,’ though it considers nearly 80 percent to be in ‘good standing.’  That’s a much rosier picture than in 2002, but both the tests used to evaluate students and the accountability systems used to evaluate schools have  changed dramatically, making comparisons fraught.  And even if it were possible to compare to 2002, it’s impossible to say what’s behind any improvement.”  “After nearly two decades, the school system is still confronting the same two problems that prompted it to begin shuttering schools in the first place. It still struggles with chronically low-performing schools.  And despite the pain and protests that accompanied so many school closings, the system has a more dramatic under-enrollment problem today than it did when it started shutting down schools in 2002.”

WBEZ‘s reporters also interview students, parents and teachers who have been forced to change schools, many of them dislocated more than once—separated from friends, beloved teachers, family traditions and neighborhoods. The reporters reference the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s report on the mourning process that has affected students and families not only in the schools that were shut down but in the schools that received masses of new students, where significant readjustment followed.

And WBEZ reporters also talk with Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago sociologist whose profound new book portrays widespread grieving across Black Chicago for the loss of community institutions woven into the lives of generations of families and their neighborhoods: “‘It’s heartbreaking,’ said Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociology professor whose recent book examined the 2013 school closings in Bronzeville and their impact on the African-American community.  Ewing said the ‘astronomical’ numbers show school closings have ‘actually become part of the fabric of blackness in Chicago for many people.’  She said school closings play into social instability, ‘and the fact that so many black Chicagoans feel like this city is not a stable or a safe place to stay—and are leaving.'”  The reporters add that Chicago Public Schools have lost 42,000 students since 2013. The assumption is that school closures have been part of the motivation for families to move to Chicago’s suburbs or to Northwest Indiana.

Ironically on Monday, the same day WBEZ published its history of Chicago’s school closures, a Cook County judge blocked the Chicago Public Schools’ plan (see here, here, and here) to close another predominantly African American school, the National Teachers Academy, this one located in the South Loop. Chicago Public Schools had planned to convert the building into a high school to serve the area just south of downtown, an area lacking a high school. The District immediately announced it would accept the judge’s ruling.  It will keep the National Teachers Academy open as an elementary school to prevent further disruption among students, their families, and the community.

Parents have been protesting the planned closure of the highly rated, majority black, traditional public National Teachers Academy for several years. The school district had announced it would move National Teachers’ Academy students to join South Loop Elementary, where the students are mostly white. Chicago Public Schools has always promised, however, that students from closed schools would not be moved to a lower-scoring school.  In October, test scores at National Teachers Academy topped scores at South Loop. The judge’s decision, however, was decided on what the judge accepted as a civil rights violation.  The Sun-Times Lauren Fitzpatrick explains: “NTA families had organized nearly two years ago to loudly fight CPS’ plans to take over their building…. Their lawsuit alleged that CPS violated the rights of NTA students, who are mostly African-American, under the Illinois Civil Rights Act….”

In Chicago, as the school district has closed public schools, it has also allowed the number of charter schools rapidly to expand.  In another action on Monday of this week, the school district recommended closure of two charter schools deemed under-performing.  For the Sun-Times, Lauren Fitzpatrick adds: “Officials also denied applications for three new privately managed, publicly funded schools seeking to open, though all five operators can appeal to a state board that has overturned CPS’s decisions in the past… And the same school board was set Wednesday to consider applications for three new charter schools, amid plummeting enrollment and finances that have improved but are no means plentiful.”

What is clear is that Chicago’s experiment with “portfolio school reform” continues.  The new WBEZ history concludes: “In the 2019 mayoral race, candidates are already weighing in on school closings—and it’s obvious the city’s next mayor faces an under-enrollment crisis. Chicago has more under-enrolled schools today than it did in 2013, before it closed 50 underutilized schools. It’s been losing 10,000 children annually for the last several years.”

How would Chicago be different today if policy makers had thought about the people who would be effected by school closures and examined what have turned out to be the inevitable fiscal implications of continually opening charter schools to expand the portfolio of choices? I believe hindsight is clearer than the WBEZ reporters want to admit. Researchers at Roosevelt University have documented, for example, that the competition created by the rapid expansion of charter schools resulted in the closure of traditional public schools and also contributed to a financial crisis in the Chicago Public Schools.

In her new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing suggests additional considerations: “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (pp. 158-159)

Beware Democrats Trying to Burnish the Reputation of Corporate School Reform

Suddenly Democrats who bought into corporate school reform seem to be worried that their ideas—underwritten in federal law for over fifteen years—are slipping out of the public consciousness and losing public support.  This summer as we approach midterm elections, Democrats who have enthusiastically supported corporate school reform are scurrying to burnish their own reputations and extend the life of their favorite education strategies by repackaging their ideology ahead of the November election to help elect state candidates sympathetic to their cause.

Some history: How did so many Democrats join with Republicans around a school reform agenda based on business-school incentives, high-stakes accountability and marketplace competition in the form of privatized charter schools?

For over two decades In Washington, D.C., business-driven school reform has been a bipartisan cause. Political leaders in both major parties have relentlessly pursued school reform dominated by a business-accountability strategy that was embedded in the language, philosophy, and operation of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind. In 1989, Republican President George H.W. Bush launched a movement based on standards, assessments, and accountability by convening an education summit of the nation’s governors, a conference chaired by a Democrat, Bill Clinton of Arkansas. The purpose was to agree on national education goals and standards. Then in 2001, when—in a bipartisan effort—Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with a new name, “No Child Left Behind,” the federal government mandated its own accountability reforms. After President Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education pursued the very same philosophy by making a portion of the huge federal stimulus, intended to shore up the economy after the 2008 economic crisis, available to states for school reform. Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program required states to compete for billions of dollars through Race to the Top.  To qualify, states had to rewrite laws to permit rapid growth in the number of charter schools; promise to punish so-called “failing” schools or turn them over to charter management organizations; and change laws to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ test scores. Both political parties supported education policy based on two business strategies: high stakes, test-based accountability to “incentivize” educators to work harder and marketplace competition through the introduction of charters schools.

The standards movement became the education policy of both political parties and all the recent Administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama.

Surprisingly perhaps, Betsy DeVos has brought trouble for the corporate education agenda (much of which she agrees with) because she is such an extremist.  She is an ideologically-driven, decades-long, educational libertarian proponent of privatized vouchers.  She promotes extreme, and unpopular ideas—disregard for First Amendment separation of church and state, and support for private school tuition vouchers which have never been embraced by Democrats.  She has also shown herself to be embarrassingly ignorant about the institution of American public education and the role of the federal department she was appointed to oversee. Ironically, DeVos (a promoter of school choice) has made some Democrats more cautious about charters; some now worry that charter schools are merely the gateway to vouchers. And DeVos’s deplorable leadership has distracted everyone—turning the conversation away from the movement for business driven, test based school accountability.

Today:  Suddenly corporate reformers in the Democratic Party are worried about the loss of their project.  Their concerns intensified last spring following the walkouts by classroom teachers across states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, walkouts that brought the nation’s attention back to the importance of public education and the fact that through all the years of accountability-driven school reform, we have neglected the urgent need to fund public education at a level that pays the teachers, keeps class size down, and makes it possible to replace outdated textbooks. Corporate education reformers also face another worry: Now that enough time has passed and academics have been studying the record, it has become clearer and clearer that the strategies of No Child Left Behind and the diversion of tax dollars to charters didn’t improve school achievement, didn’t improve teaching, and didn’t do what corporate reform promised. These policies didn’t help children who had been left far behind by educational inequity, and they didn’t close achievement gaps. Billions of dollars have been spent, but children’s overall educational outcomes haven’t changed.

Warning:  Don’t be fooled as you watch these guys scurrying around trying to salvage corporate school reform and salvage their reputations.  Corporate school reform is losing its luster in in Democratic circles, where attention has moved to what the corporate reformers forgot about—inadequate and inequitable funding of public education, paltry teacher salaries, and the danger of tax cuts to state budgets.

Don’t be fooled by DFER:  One such effort to repackage and reframe has been undertaken by Democrats for Education Reform, a PAC founded in 2007, whose mission has always been to promote corporate school reform as a cause among Democrats. DFER began in New York as a project of hedge fund managers who took on charter school expansion as their cause.  Later DFER formed affiliates across several states.  In this election year summer of 2018, DFER hired the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct a national marketing poll and frame a new  communications strategy.

In a report by THE 74, the conservative education news website founded by Campbell Brown, reporter Taylor Swaak describes DFER’s new marketing campaign, designed by the Benenson Strategy Group based on its new poll: “For DFER… the findings demonstrate that most Americans are what they call ‘education progressives’—a result that would seem to contradict reports of a splintering within the Democratic party over issues like school choice and merit pay… The poll, on top of informing a new social media campaign, anchored the organization’s latest announcement that it will spend more than $4 million this year—an exponential hike from the reported $83,456 it spent in 2016—on ‘priority races.’  These include gubernatorial contests in Colorado, New York, and Connecticut, and the (state) superintendent’s race in California. Certain beliefs of ‘education progressives,’ such as charter school expansion, may put them at odds with other self-described progressives within the party.”

Marketing strategists help an organization frame its policy agenda to appeal to its target audience.  In this case marketing means making the language vague.  Swaak quotes DFER’s president, Shavar Jeffries describing the new DFER campaign to define an “education progressive”: “Being an education progressive means doing anything and everything we can to improve public schools for all—especially for poor students and students of color.” “Doing anything and everything” is a phrase that is so vague as to be impossible to explicate.

Benenson Strategy Group intends its public opinion poll to help DFER talk to what people want to hear, even if it omits particular public policies that might really affect schools. Here are some of the findings from its marketing poll: “Voters, especially Democratic primary voters and voters of color, believe we have a responsibility to do everything we can to give every child a great education, and that means we need faster change in our schools to prepare students for the future.” “Key Democratic constituencies believe strongly that we can’t go back to the way things used to be in schools. We need to keep bringing in new ideas and finding new ways to improve schools.” “Voters strongly believe that we need more funding to improve public schools, but funding alone is not enough…. Voters also want to see new ideas and real changes to the way public schools operate.”  From its marketing poll and from all of these “principles,” Benenson Strategy Group concludes that real “education progressives” strongly support a policy agenda built around funding equity; school choice including charter schools, magnet schools and career academies; teacher quality and preparation; accountability; and more financial aid to support higher education.  (Emphasis in Benenson’s document.)

Democrats for Education Reform hasn’t changed.  It is the same old DFER, with the very same priorities. POLITICO‘s Caitlin Emma reports: “The organization… advocates for a host of school reform policies nationwide like strong test-based accountability and high-quality… charter schools.” But DFER will now be marketing this agenda to appeal to those who define themselves as “education progressives.”  And I presume DFER will generously lavish praise on folks who accept this agenda as exemplifying what it means to be progressive.

Don’t Be Fooled by Arne Duncan’s new book, How Schools Work:  Arne Duncan has been a towering figure in the history of corporate school reform. He didn’t enter the picture in a visible way until 2004, when he became the manager of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s big new Portfolio School Reform project: Renaissance 2010—a plan to increase school choice in Chicago by phasing out “failing” or under-enrolled schools and launching 100 new charter schools by 2010.  In the spring of 2009, Duncan became President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary and brought corporate school reform into federal policy as Race to the Top became central to the federal stimulus after the 2008 economic collapse.  Race to the Top emulated business competition: States competed for grants and qualified for federal funds by adopting concrete pieces of the corporate school agenda like closing “failing” schools, charterizing so called “failing schools, and agreeing to change state laws to make teachers accountable in their formal evaluations for their students’ standardized test scores.

These days Arne Duncan is on a book promotion tour, and a first stop was CBS’s Face the Nation, where he followed the same sort of playbook as the Benenson Strategy Group is framing for DFER. Duncan explains to Margaret Brennan: “I think investing in our lowest performing schools is some of the hardest and most important work we can do.  Margaret, I don’t want to leave any kid behind or say they can’t make it.  As a nation we had more than 2,000 dropout factories a few years back.  We now have less than eight hundred… Our high school graduation rates are at all time highs.  Those (Race to the Top and School Improvement) grants were a small piece of that.  There are many things that go into that. And again, this is, we’ve got a long-long way to go, but to see high school graduation rates at all-time highs and to see many fewer students going to dropout factories. Those are things we feel really good about.”

Duncan’s book has not received positive reviews—from the supporters of traditional public schools or from corporate school reformers. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss despairs: “Arne Duncan never learns…. His new book starts with this sentence: ‘Education runs on lies.’ Really?  Education doesn’t run on lies (the sentence begs the services of a good editor), and Duncan makes clear several pages later that he means the ‘education system’ runs on lies, which isn’t accurate, either. There is not a monolithic ‘education system’ in the country that spews lies. There are, rather, more than 13,000 school districts in the United State, locally operated. Some of the people who run them may indeed tell likes about student achievement—though, to be fair to them, Duncan said a lot of things during his tenure that critics said were sheer fiction.”

Strauss continues, presenting a litany of Duncan’s own flawed policies that he continues to defend: “What he did focus on was pushing teacher evaluation systems that relied in large part on standardized test scores—a method of assessment that experts warned was unreliable. He also emphasized expanding charter schools and adopting and implementing Common Core State Standards, spending $360 billion to create Core-aligned standardized tests that he said would be ‘an absolute game-changer’ for public education. They weren’t…  He spent $7 billion between 2010 and 2015—exceeding the $4 billion spent on Race to the Top—on School Improvement Grants, but a major (U.S. Education) department report found no positive effect on student achievement. Many teachers found his policies to be so abhorrent and detrimental to education and their profession that the National Education Association… called for him to step down in 2014.”

Then there is the equally scathing critique written by the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess, and published in Education Next, a mouthpiece of the corporate school reform movement. Hess charges: “Especially for a guy who presents himself as a truth teller bent on exposing education’s ‘overripe and rotten lies,’ Duncan shows a disconcerting tendency to waffle…  Even as he repeatedly declares his faith in tests and vaguely asserts that Race to the Top and the Common Core fueled significant gains, Duncan never once mentions that in fact NAEP gains stalled out under his watch, even falling between 2013 and 2017.  And for a guy who repeatedly professes his talismanic faith in the power of data, Duncan is remarkably willing to set data aside when it is convenient.”

Research in very recent years has called Arne Duncan’s policies—and all of corporate school reform—into question. Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better is not a critique of policies originated by Betsy DeVos—the one issue voucher promoter who has (mercifully) never been able to enact any real K-12 education policy initiatives of her own.  Koretz’s book is a scathing critique of Arne Duncan’s policies—and Koretz’s critique applies, by the way, to the supposed rising graduation rates that Duncan bragged about on Face the Nation.  Studies by Bruce Baker at Rutgers, researchers at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, and the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research have now exposed the ways that the rapid expansion of charter schools undermines the financial viability of the host school district and undermines public schools as community institutions that anchor vulnerable neighborhoods.

It is becoming clearer as the years pass that corporate school reform—including high states test-and-punish and the rapid expansion of marketplace school choice through charter schools—failed to address the needs of the 50 million students in America’s public schools.  Neither did corporate school reform close achievement gaps.  In fact the diversion of federal and state dollars to such programs has redirected needed funds out of states’ school budgets and undermined the institution we all count on—public education.

It is important to understand that these efforts by Democrats—who allowed themselves to capitulate to a far-right, business- and competition-driven school reform agenda—are merely a sign of desperation as they watch their agenda lose popular support.