Congress Has Just Done Away with ESSA Accountability Rules: This Is Not a Tragedy

In 2001, Congress passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a new reauthorization of the 1965 federal education law. NCLB imposed test-based accountability on all of America’s public schools. Because NCLB and its punitive, test-and-punish mechanism became so controversial, it took nearly 15 years for Congress to agree on what was supposed to be its routine five-year reauthorization. Finally late in 2015, Congress came up with a replacement called the Every Student Succeeds Act, but it really left much of NCLB intact—including annual high-stakes standardized testing and a sanctions-based—instead of a school improvement, investment-based—strategy for improving public education.

In new 2017 academic evaluation of the No Child Left Behind Act, Duke University’s Helen Ladd reports, “Perhaps the most positive aspect of NCLB is that it generated huge amounts of data on student achievement in math and reading… A second positive component of NCLB, especially in the eyes of civil rights groups, is that schools are held accountable not only for the aggregate test scores of their students but also for the average test scores of subgroups of students whom they might otherwise ignore… A third arguably positive element of NCLB was its requirement that all teachers be ‘highly qualified.'”  In reality, however, there were serious problems with all these three things Ladd calls the law’s accomplishments. First another national test without high-stakes and punishments—the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)—already gathers plenty of data about our schools; second, NCLB never succeeded, as intended, in improving the achievement of the students in the subgroups it was supposed to help; and third, the law’s requirements for teachers, which later under the Obama administration, came to include strategies to fire teachers who couldn’t raise scores fast enough, have left the teaching profession demoralized.

Ladd also summarizes what she believes were the law’s serious flaws: “An initial problem with the test-based accountability of NCLB is that it is based on too narrow a view of schooling… NCLB… has narrowed the curriculum by shifting instruction time toward tested subjects and away from others… Further, NCLB has led to a narrowing of what happens within the math and reading instructional programs themselves… NCLB also encouraged teachers to narrow the groups of students they attend to… A second flaw is that NCLB was highly unrealistic and misguided in its expectations… A third major flaw is that NCLB placed significant pressure on individual schools to raise student achievement without providing the support needed to assure that all students had an opportunity to learn to the higher standards.”

The 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced NCLB didn’t really change most of these problems. It was still a test-and-punish law even though it turned responsibility over to the states to design the sanctions.  States were required to create their own school accountability plans and then get them approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The Obama Department of Education under Secretary John King spent last year writing and implementing rules for how the states are supposed to proceed with their required ESSA plans, and currently, a little over a year after the law’s passage, the states are in the process of developing the plans which they are supposed to submit to the U.S. Department of Education either in April or next September.

Except that Congress just threw out the rules. The House acted in February, and the Senate just voted last week, under something called the Congressional Review Act, to eliminate the Obama administration’s ESSA accountability rules.  It is expected that President Trump will sign the legislation.

And actually not a great many people are upset.  That is because NCLB and ESSA have been so misguided and so unpopular.

Here is how Dana Goldstein, in the NY Times, describes some of the rules Congress just eliminated: “The Obama regulations pushed states to weight student achievement measures, such as test scores and graduation rates, more heavily than other factors in labeling schools as underperforming.  The regulations also required schools to provide parents and the public with an annual report card detailing schoolwide student achievement data and other indicators of success.  Among the most contentious of the Obama rules was the one that required schools to test at least 95 percent of their students.”  I believe the state report cards are a terrible idea, as they are almost guaranteed to produce low rankings for the schools in the poorest communities.  And there are a couple of problems with what’s called “the 95 percent rule.” The rule was very likely designed to prevent schools from sending home on test day the students likely to post low scores—English learners or students lagging academically, for example. But the same rule is also said to be aimed at preventing parents from opting their children out of testing as a protest. ESSA says it permits opting out, but the 95 percent rule seems contrary to what the ESSA law itself says.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal education reporter, further explains changes in the 95 Percent rule : “Under the NCLB law, schools that didn’t meet that (95 percent) threshold automatically failed to make ‘adequate yearly progress,’ or AYP.  Under ESSA, there’s no such thing as AYP.  So states get to decide how to factor test participation into a school’s overall rating… The Obama administration wanted schools to take the testing participation requirement in the law seriously, so that states, districts, and educators could have data on how English-learners and students in special education were doing relative to their peers. So it used the now-dead-in-the-water regulations to call for states to take pretty dramatic actions for schools that didn’t meet the 95 percent threshold.  The choices laid out in the regs included lowering the school’s overall rating or putting it on a list of schools deemed in need of improvement… Now that the regs are being killed? We go back to ESSA, as it was written originally. Schools still must test 95 percent of their kids. But their state gets to decide what happens if they don’t meet that target.”

If this still sounds to you like too much worrying about test-and-punish and ranking and rating schools, you are not alone.  Here is Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania social studies teacher who blogs under the name Curmudgucation: “Lamar Alexander pointed forcefully at the rules hidden under the desk blotter and said, ‘Get that junk out of here.’ This week featured an assortment of testimonials both in favor of and opposed to the regulations. Conservative voices strongly favored the end of those regulations, finding them too restrictive and not allowing for states to opt out of the whole business. Well, some conservative voices—other conservative voices said, ‘Let’s keep at least some of them.’  Other voices said, ‘Hey, the history of States Rights when it comes to education is not exactly a history fraught with great success.’ And a smattering of voices said, ‘Good God—when Congress changes the rules every six months, it makes it really hard to run actual school systems.’  As I said at the top, there are no heroes to root for in this movie. The Obama regulations were far over and above the actual law and simply attempted to extend the same failed, unsupportable policies of the past fifteen years; they needed to go away. The regulations we get in their place will most likely provide the freedom for wholesale abuse, fraud, and social injustice in education….”

Diane Ravitch used her blog post on this matter to sound like the academic historian that is her identity at New York University: “No Child Left Behind introduced an unprecedented level of federal control of education, a function traditionally left to the states. The federal contribution of about 10% of overall education funding enabled the government via NCLB to set conditions, specifically to require that every child in grades 3-8 must be tested in reading and math every year. Based on test scores, teachers and principals have been fired, and schools have been closed for not reaching unrealistic targets. NCLB was an intrusive, misguided, evidence-free law that was uninformed by knowledge of children, communities and pedagogy. Arne Duncan twisted the screws on schools with his absurd Race to the Top. Education is not a race, and there is no top.  But once again the standardized tests became the measure and the purpose of education. After 15 years of NCLB and RTTT, there is a great deal of wreckage, demoralized teachers, and widespread teacher shortages. And if the point of all that testing was to reach the top of international tests and/or close the achievement gaps among groups it didn’t happen.”

We shall have to wait to see what Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education does about re-creating any rules and also what her staff does about enforcement. Bigger issues remain, however, than the ESSA rules. President Trump has said he will expand military spending with deep cuts in domestic discretionary spending.  Programs threatened by these plans may be Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Protecting these programs must be a priority for those of us who worry about serving America’s most vulnerable students. And then there is  Donald Trump’s and Betsy DeVos’s other priority: privatizing education. These, not the ESSA regulations, are the key concerns.

Is DFER Fading or Poised for an Ongoing Political Role?

Shavar Jeffries, President of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), certainly made a strong attempt a couple of weeks ago to present DFER as a powerful and relevant advocacy organization when he commented on changes to the Democratic Platform that were less favorable to charter schools: “What happened in Orlando is little more than a bait and switch, one we are eager to fix, and which we hope is unreflective of Hillary Clinton’s priorities, as she has repeatedly supported standards and accountability and high-performing charter schools.  President Obama has made clear that the best way to strengthen our system is not just with more resources, but reforms that ensure our children are progressing.” “This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”  DFER has been one of the strongest and most consistent proponents of the education policies of President Barack Obama and his first Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

In a new, short history and profile of Democrats for Education Reform, Alexander Russo evaluates DFER’s role in the education politics of recent years and wonders about its future as the next President perhaps moves away from the policies of the Obama administration.  Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst shut down earlier this spring and merged its existing work into 50CAN, another school “reform” advocacy organization.  What will be the fate of DFER?

On its website, DFER defines itself as opposed to traditional public schooling where, “(M)illions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children.” As a PAC, DFER has sought to reposition the Democratic Party’s education policies to support test-and-punish accountability, more charters, and the connection of teacher evaluations to students’ test scores.

What exactly is DFER?  Russo explains: “First conceived around 2005, DFER didn’t really launch until June 2007, when it held a public event and established an online presence. While generally referred to by a single name, DFER grew to become several related organizations including a traditional nonprofit 501(c)(3) called Education Reform Now (ERN), a 501(c)(4) known as ERN Action, and the eponymous political action committee (DFER).  In addition to campaign fundraising and explicitly political efforts, DFER’s activities included policy development, state-level advocacy, and congressional lobbying such as during the recent renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. DFER’s efforts generated roughly S65 million over eight years…. The Broad and Walton Foundations were among its largest national funders.  By far the majority of its revenues was for policy and advocacy work through ERN and ERN Advocacy, rather than the explicit campaign work of the DFER PAC. Political giving made up only about $1.5 million of DFER’s annual budget.”  DFER was the brain child of New York hedge fund managers, including Whitney Tilson, one of the co-founders.

Joe Williams, an amiable former newspaper reporter, led DFER for most of the past eight years until he stepped down at the the end of last year, to be replaced by Jeffries.  Charles Barone has served as the policy director.  DFER has defined itself as an organization that has successfully promoted a particular brand of education policy among Democrats—what Russo quotes one analyst describing: “There’s no doubt that the Democratic Party has moved significantly more towards the reform side…”  Here is Russo’s own assessment: “What seems clear is that DFER emerged in the right place at the right time—and backed the right horses, including Barack Obama and Cory Booker. In remarkably short order, DFER and its allies became among the only folks that Obama could turn to for advice on how to fulfill his promise as a reform-minded Democratic president. Then, when Race to the Top (RTTT) turned into a competition among the states for scarce new federal education dollars, DFER basically went from not existing to helping shape federal policy in two years flat.”

In addition to supporting Obama and Cory Booker (and Booker’s One Newark plan), DFER is reported by Russo to have supported Andrew Cuomo in New York: “Cuomo would end up being a key ally on school reform when NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg was succeeded by reform critic Bill de Blasio.”  Other politicians favored with support from DFER are Dannel Malloy as governor of Connecticut, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Congressional Rep. George Miller of California, Rahm Emmanuel as Chicago mayor, and less successfully Adrian Fenty as D.C. mayor, and Shavar Jeffries in his failed bid to become a “school reform” mayor of Newark.

Russo reports that DFER takes some of the credit for displacing Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond as the prime candidate for Obama’s Secretary of Education: “DFER and its allies badmouthed Darling-Hammond as much as they could get away with, raising questions about her research and accomplishments. Then, in what would become one of DFER’s most frequently retold early accomplishments, Williams ‘leaked’ a memo addressed to the Obama transition team outlining both policy ideas and potential appointees for various White House and cabinet department positions. In it, DFER put forth the notion that NYC Chancellor Joel Klein might be too controversial for education secretary but Chicago’s Arne Duncan might be a good choice.  Whether or not DFER deserved all the credit for the Duncan nomination was debatable. He and Obama had overlapped in Chicago, visited schools together, and played pickup basketball together.”

Eight years later Russo wonders if DFER’s influence may be waning: “As the Obama era ended and a new era loomed, there was the sense that school reform ideas—and DFER’s influence over Democratic candidates—were already on the decline.”  DFER has, according to Russo, reliably refused to oppose the unionization of school teachers even while it has been in conflict with many of the policy positions of the teachers unions and with Democrats who are raising concerns about charter schools. Russo wonders whether DFER’s policy agenda lacks fresh ideas today: “To critics, DFER seemed isolated, hollowed-out, and narrowed down to little more than a pro-charter PAC.  What had started out as a three-dimensional effort was now more two-dimensional, getting into the press and funding pro-charter campaigns but lacking any real membership base.

The organization was strong enough, however, to remain actively involved in the Congressional debate about the reauthorization of the federal education law: “During the consideration of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a longtime DFER friend Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) emerged as one of DFER’s champions.” Russo describes DFER’s dilemma in the opinion of then DFER president Joe Williams, “DFER and its allies couldn’t move their own agenda and were in retreat in terms of the public narrative, but they could block things when they needed to. ‘We still have votes,’ said Williams. The unions were in much the same place, according to Williams. ‘Neither side can advance.'”

Careful not to offend its backers, DFER has been cautious about broadening its agenda, explains Russo: “So far in 2016, DFER has not endorsed any Democratic presidential candidate, released any fundraising information about its efforts on behalf of the DNC, or announced any change in its focus on charters and accountability… Jeffries has been attempting to keep the Democratic candidates’ feet to the fire on school choice and accountability efforts. Just this week, Jeffries railed against changes in the Democratic Party platform limiting support to certain kinds of charters…”

Rick Perlstein on the Birth of Portfolio School Reform: Chicago—2003

There is nothing linear or didactic about historian-journalist, Rick Perlstein’s new piece in Jacobin Magazine, The Chicago School.  This is the story of a school district being ruined, and it doesn’t even touch on today’s financial mess—the failure of Illinois to distribute funds fairly—the risky bond investments that indebted the district in the financial collapse of 2008—the failures to pay into the pension funds and subsequent borrowing out of those same funds.  This is about a much broader topic, though Perlstein never uses today’s name—portfolio school reform.  Portfolio school reform—managed through mayoral governance and an appointed school board—is what has happened in Chicago and what has been copied across many of America’s biggest school districts. (It was later branded by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.) Portfolio school districts are places where school choice is expanded as an ongoing policy, with lots of charter schools and all schools—neighborhood schools as well as charters—managed like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and shedding the schools that seem to be failing.

In Chicago, business and civic elites came up with the idea, and they called it Renaissance 2010: “Travel back with me… to July of 2003, when the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago—comprised of the chairman of the board of McDonald’s, the CEO of Exelon Energy and the Chicago Board Options Exchange, two top executives of the same Fortune 500 manufacturing firm, two partners at top-international corporate law firms, one founder of an investment bank, one of a mutual fund, and the CEO of a $220.1 billion asset-management fund: twelve men, all but one of them white—published Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago’s Public Schools… They found hope… in a new kind of educational institution called a ‘charter school’—‘publicly-funded but independent, innovative schools that operate with greater flexibility and give parents whose children attend failing schools an option they do not have.’… ‘Chicago should have at least 100 charter schools,’ the Education Committee concluded.  ‘These would be new schools, operating outside the established school system and free of many of the bureaucratic or union-imposed constraints that now limit the flexibility of regular public schools.’ ”  The plan was based on competition: “The 103-page report thus deployed the word ‘data’ forty-five times, ‘score,’ ‘scored,’ or ‘scoring’ 60 times—and ‘test,’ ‘tested,’ and ‘testing,’ or ‘exam’ and ‘examination,’ some 1.47573 times per page.”

Power has always been at the heart of this kind of school reform: “And since these were the behind-the-scenes barons who veritably ran the city, it wasn’t even a year before the Chicago Public Schools headquarters on 125 S. Clark St. announced the ‘Renaissance 2010’ initiative to close eighty traditional public schools and open precisely one hundred charters by 2010.  Lo, like pedagogical kudzu, the charters came forth: forty-six of them, with names like ‘Infinity Math, Science, and Technology High School,’ ‘Rickover Naval Academy High School,’ ‘Aspira Charter School,’ and ‘DuSable Leadership Academy of Betty Shabazz International Charter School.’  Although, funny thing, rather than resembling the plucky, innovative—‘flexible’—startups the rhetoric promised, the schools that flourished looked like factories stamped out by central planning.  The skills most rewarded by Chicago’s charter boom became corporate marketing, regulatory capture, and outright graft.”

The Noble network opened 16 charter schools.  “Indeed, Noble runs just the kind of schools you’d expect to be sponsored by industrialists: their students are underprivileged waifs in uniform who are fined for minor disciplinary infractions,” and the school’s philosophy describes “strong leadership, meaningful use of data, and a high degree of accountability.  Other new schools, like the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, were subsidiaries of national for-profit companies like Edison Learning.  And, finally, there were three campuses—eventually ballooning to sixteen—run by the ‘neighborhood organization’ UNO.  UNO was basically an old-school machine organization, rife with padded contracts, nepotistic hires, and graft. Its CEO, Juan Rangel, was Emanuel’s 2011 campaign chairman.  In 2014, the network was charged with securities fraud.”

Business, civic leadership, and local philanthropy came together to raise money to enhance the new school reform venture. Back in 2000, before it all began, came the Chicago Public Education Fund, which calls itself  “one of the first city-based philanthropic venture funds in the nation.” 2004 brought the Renaissance Schools Fund which rebranded itself as New Schools for Chicago in 2011.  The financial and thought leadership of the new Chicago schools venture has been provided by many people whose names are well known—Bruce Rauner; Arne Duncan; and local leaders like Terry Mazany of the Chicago Community Trust; Helen Zell, whose husband owns the Chicago Tribune; Kenneth Griffith, billionaire hedge fund manager; Marty Nesbitt, friend of Barack Obama and head of a firm that acquires companies; Penny Pritzker; and Deborah Quazzo of GSV Capital Management, who later served on Chicago’s appointed school board and who has also been accused of shady dealings around educational technology and the Chicago schools.

Perlstein fills in years’ of details about interwoven spheres of influence and policies instituted to enhance competition in a school district managed as though it were a stock portfolio: “Last year, the CPS shifted to something called ‘school based budgeting’… Where previously a principal could choose his or her teachers based on qualifications and experience, since personnel costs were charged to the entire school system, now principals have to cut personnel expenditures to the bone.  Say, by hiring three recent college grads, or six Teach for America kids, for the cost of a nationally-board-certified teacher with decades paying classroom dues.  Budgets are based on attendance.  Attendance is calculated on an ongoing basis.  In a system in which ‘neighborhood schools’ are vulnerable to losing students to ‘selective enrollment’ schools, this turns every school against each other… Although, in an irony, charter schools are often protected from this ruthless market dynamic.  Because, more and more, they are part of ‘networks”: miniature school districts that can shift burdens from one school to another….”

I urge you to explore more of the details in Perlstein’s story of Chicago—a microcosm of today’s school reform across America’s big cities—and to enjoy the intricate comparison of Chicago school reform to Charles Dickens’ heartless, utilitarian academy run by Thomas Gradgrind in the 1854 novel Hard Times.

Perlstein concludes with a story of the closure of a small, stand-alone charter—the kind that Albert Shanker first imagined when he thought about the idea of charter schools.  In Chicago’s competitive school marketplace, this small charter is being shuttered for lagging test scores, but tearful students and their families pack the auditorium to testify at the hearing preceding the closure: “The tears attest to a fact the school reformers are constitutionally incapable of understanding: schools are not like convenience stores.  They are living, breathing communities, congeries of qualitative values and human interrelationships, storehouses of trust, friendship, heritage, and other such difficult-to-quantify characteristics that can only but accrue over time, and which, once severed, can never be replaced.  The tears are products of the incredulity that grown men and women in positions of authority cannot grasp this simple human fact.”  “On the dias were a half dozen or so board members in bankers’ casual-Friday togs: people like a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers L.L.P. .., a municipal bond specialist, a lawyer, a practitioner of ‘tax planning and corporate creation,’ the president of a curriculum development company.”

Just to clarify, Perlstein adds: “It’s not that schools never fail, should never close.  It’s that they should not close without due consideration that a school is also a human institution, with its own interconnected ecology.  Keeping that community together has value in itself, and adds value.  When you shutter a school, you kill something: a network of trust, a web of relationships.  You have to start again from scratch.”

Here is a timely and very sad irony: Perlstein begins his article by quoting a post from the blog of beloved, Blaine Elementary Principal and long critic of portfolio school reform in Chicago, Troy LaRaviere: “Whenever I try to take a break from writing about CPS to focus on other aspects of my professional and personal life, CPS officials do something so profoundly unethical, incompetent, and/or corrupt that my conscience calls me to pick up the pen once more.”  On April 20, the date Perlstein’s article went to press, the Chicago Public Schools terminated Troy LaRaviere’s tenure as principal at Blaine Elementary School.  DNA Info, Chicago, reports: “Parents were notified late Wednesday of the abrupt change in leadership in an e-mail from Elizabeth Kirby, chief of schools strategy and planning for Chicago Public Schools.” LaRaviere has won awards for his school leadership and he has been nominated to run for president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.  He is quoted by DNA Info  in a post from March about the current financial crisis in the Chicago schools and the ongoing negotiations with the teachers union: “Our teachers have been battered by this administration’s attacks and forced to live with the blatant hypocrisy behind the calls for teacher financial sacrifices while the district continues to engage in wasteful spending, reckless borrowing and their steadfast commitment to steering CPS dollars to banks and investors that profit from our schools’ losses.”

Arne Duncan, Social Entrepreneur, Led U.S. Dept. of Education on Long Detour

Even though Arne Duncan has left Washington and John King now heads up the U.S. Department of Education, I have continued to puzzle about exactly what went haywire on a deep level during the seven years of Duncan’s tenure. When I learned last week that Duncan has taken a new job—opening a Chicago office for the Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ philanthropy—and that Duncan will, according to Emma Brown of the Washington Post, be supporting “entrepreneurs who can provide jobs in neglected neighborhoods and… (creating and expanding) training programs that equip young people with skills they need to get those jobs,” I began to think about Duncan in the context of social entrepreneurship.

I know the idea of social entrepreneurship is trendy right now, but because I was unable precisely to define it for myself, I went to the library and checked out David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.  After all, a blurb on the cover from a NY Times review says it is “A bible in the field.”  Social entrepreneurship is best known in a global sense—the Grameen Bank and all those NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are registered with the United Nations.  Bornstein writes, “Historically, these organizations have been defined in the negative—as nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations.  Today they are understood to comprise a new ‘sector,’ variously dubbed the ‘independent sector,’ ‘nonprofit sector,’ ‘third sector,’ or, the term favored in this book, the ‘citizen sector.’ (pp 4-5)

Bornstein explains that social entrepreneurs bring characteristics of business and competition into the way “the ‘noncommercial’ or ‘social’ business of society is structured. Around the world, this work has been dominated by centralized decision making and top-down, usually governmental, institutions. It has been managed a little like a planned economy.”  But, continues Bornstein, governments are often not ideal: “As in business, advancing new ideas and creating new models to attack problems require an entrepreneur’s single-minded vision and fierce determination, and lots of energy and time.  It is the kind of work that flourishes to the extent that society successfully harnesses and nurtures the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens… One of the essential differences between a planned and a market economy is the role of competition.  In the past, citizen sector organizations have been insulated from the forces of head-to-head competition.  However, as the sector continues to attract talent, competition is likely to intensify—particularly as social entrepreneurs seek to ‘capture’ the benefits of their innovations and as funders, journalists, and citizens come to demand better performance.”(p. 276)

Finally, Bornstein adds, “Historically, religious organizations and wealthy patrons were responsible for the delivery of social goods.  However, the rapid economic growth of the past two centuries allowed governments to tax private wealth to finance public goods—canals, schools, mental institutions, rural electrification, and the like.  With the rise of the welfare state in the twentieth century, the fulfillment of social needs came to be seen not only as the government’s responsibility, but one of its primary operational functions.  Government, however, remained insulated from the pressures and incentives that forced businesses to continually improve their products.” (p. 274)

We can see that, as Bornstein defines it, social entrepreneurship imports the values of business into what he calls the social sector.  He castigates government as top-down and abjures centralized decision making and the engine of a planned economy.  A society of social entrepreneurs will harness the wide-ranging talents and fierce determination of millions of citizens, create new models, inspire new ideas, vision and innovation, and hone it all through competition.

Because, as Bornstein reminds us, historically, religious organizations took care of many social needs (including education, the area with which Arne Duncan was most involved as U.S. Secretary of Education), let’s consider a respected religious leader’s understanding of the roles of charity and government for providing such services—the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin of New York’s Riverside Church: “Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable. Charity, yes always; but never as a substitute for justice.” (Credo, p. 56)

While Bornstein emphasizes the very American value of the power of the individual, government is the ultimate institutional expression of the collective in a democratic society and the essential institution for protecting the rights of citizens.  As the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan presided over a federal department historically designed to distribute Title I funds for supplying at least a measure of equity in our nation’s poorest schools, to regulate and fund services for children with special needs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to provide support for the nation’s school teachers through Title II, to oversee the protection of students’ civil rights, and a host of other functions.  Yet Duncan’s primary contribution was spawning a massive experiment in social entrepreneurship.  One example was the rapid expansion of charter schools launched by social entrepreneurs.  A serious problem with charters as a solution to America’s primary education challenges is the enormous mismatch in scale. Public schools in the United States serve 50 million children and adolescents, but, according to the National Charter School Resource Center, “As of the start of the 2015-16 school year, there are 6,723 charter schools in the United States.”

And what about diverting millions of dollars to Teach for America, a relatively small experiment in social entrepreneurship? Teach for America is supplying  8,800 active teachers in schools across 35 states this year, compared to 3.5 million teachers serving the nation’s public schools. According to a recent post by Diane Ravitch, “The U.S. Department of Education… (gave) Teach for America hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants since 2008.  Government funding comprised 38% of TFA’s budget in 2015, totaling $69.7 million that year alone….”   What if that money had been spent on a new federal program to provide incentives to attract the most experienced teachers to work in the public schools of cities like Gary and Flint?  What if the money had been spent instead on reducing class size by hiring additional public school teachers in Newark and Oakland?  In his book on social entrepreneurship, Bornstein describes the goal of harnessing and nurturing the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens.  How better to do this in the United States than by supporting the efforts of our nation’s 3.5 million credentialed public school teachers?

What about government’s regulatory function?  Only government has the capacity to protect the investment of taxpayers.  And surely the federal government is responsible for ensuring that public schools and the specific programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education serve the needs and protect the rights of the nation’s children.  Here are just two examples of the regulatory failure that was a hallmark of Duncan’s Department of Education.

  • In June of 2015,  the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools cited a 2012 audit by the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG)  that “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.  The OIG’s 2012 audit discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.”  The Alliance’s report explains that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement did not maintain records of the charter schools funded through grants to states and lacked internal controls and adequate training in fiscal and program monitoring.
  • In the fall of 2015, the federal Charter Schools Program awarded a grant of $71 million to Ohio to expand charter schools. The grant was put on hold only after Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and newspapers across the state demanded that the U.S. Department of Education insist that Ohio do a better job of regulating its charter schools before the U.S. Department of Education spends millions of dollars expanding what has been a mismanaged and unregulated program.

What about the Department’s failure to invest in expanding the essential, but chronically underfunded, public school programs that are the very reason for the existence of the U.S. Department of Education—Duncan’s failure to run government itself with vision? Under Arne Duncan, funds were diverted from the Title I formula to the competitive Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant programs.  While Title I awards funds by formula for educational enrichment in schools that serve a large number and high concentration of very poor children, Duncan’s competitive grant programs diverted money to states with winning grant proposals, reducing funds available to schools serving poor children in states that lost the competition. And too often, because one-time grants cannot be used to hire long-term teachers, the funds were spent on consultants.

It is surely a very good thing for Arne Duncan to take a job as a social entrepreneur with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective. Emma Brown reports that he “hopes that creating new pathways to jobs will help stem the violence that has wracked Chicago, especially its impoverished neighborhoods on the West and South sides.”  He is reported to have told the Washington Post, “The thesis is, if we can help young men and women get real skills that will lead to real jobs and pay them to gain those skills, then you give them a reason to not sell drugs and not get caught in the violence.”  I wish him well in this endeavor as he returns to Chicago.

The problem is that during his stint as U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan thought about policy as though he were a social entrepreneur instead of using the power at his disposal to ensure that government could fulfill its most basic obligations. There is a role in our society for social entrepreneurs.  There is also a desperate need for well functioning government.  In Fire in the Ashes, a retrospective book about his years’ writing about children and schools, Jonathan Kozol affirms the need for charity at the same time he distinguishes the purpose of charity from the role of government: “Charity has never been a substitute, not in any amplitude, for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education… The public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give every child the feast of learning…. Charity and chance… are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” (p. 304)

Diane Ravitch Sums Up Botched Bush-Obama Education Record

I urge you to read Solving the Mystery of the Schools, Diane Ravitch’s fine article in the March 24 issue of the New York Review of Books.  Ravitch reviews two important books, Dale Russakoff’s The Prize—the story of the plot hatched by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to charterize Newark’s schools—and Kristina Rizga’s Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, but the most interesting part is Ravitch’s accurate, succinct, and devastating summary of public education policy in America during the Bush and Obama years.  This is Diane Ravitch the education historian summarizing the meaning of more than fifteen years of misguided policy.

Ravitch begins: “In recent years, American public education has been swamped by bad ideas and policies.  Our national leaders, most of whom were educated at elite universities and should know better, have turned our most important domestic duty into a quest for higher scores on standardized tests.”

The Bush era, marked by the passage and implementation of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, is, of course, over. Here is Ravitch’s summary: “The punishments for not achieving higher test scores every year were increasingly onerous. A school that fell behind in the first year would be required to hire tutors.  In the second year, it would have to offer its students the choice to move to a different school.  By the end of five years, if it was not on track to achieve 100 percent proficiency, the school might be handed over to a private manager, turned into a charter school, taken over by the state, or closed.  In fact, there was no evidence that any of these sanctions would lead to better schools or higher test scores, but no matter.”

Ravitch also summarizes the major education initiatives of the Obama era, even though a few months are left before President Obama’s term ends.  She explains: “After Bush left office and was replaced by Barack Obama, the obsession with testing grew even more intense.  Congress gave Secretary of Education Arne Duncan $5 billion in economic stimulus funds to encourage education reforms.  Duncan released a plan in 2009 called Race to the Top…. In order to be eligible to compete for a share of that money at a time of deep economic distress, states had to adopt Duncan’s strategies.  They had to expand the number of privately managed charter schools in the state; they had to agree to adopt ‘college-and-career-ready standards’ (which were the not-yet-completed Common Core State Standards).  They had to agree, moreover, to evaluate teachers in relation to the rise or fall of the test scores of their students; and they had to agree to ‘turn around’ schools with low test scores by firing the principal, or firing all or half of the staff, or doing something equally drastic.  The standardized tests immediately became more important than ever.”

In December, Congress rebuked Arne Duncan (who was by then leaving his position) by reauthorizing a version of the federal education law that significantly limits the power of the U.S. Secretary of Education.  But Ravitch is not optimistic there will be a change in the overall direction of federal education policy: “Like NCLB, the new law requires annual testing of students in grades three to eight in reading and mathematics, but it turns this responsibility over to the states.  ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) prohibits future secretaries of education from meddling in states’ decisions and contracts the federal role in education.  It also eliminates federal punishments for schools and teachers with low test scores, leaving those decisions to the states.  What is not abandoned is the core belief that standardized testing and accountability are the right levers to improve education.”

Both of the books Ravitch reviews are written by reporters who embedded themselves for four years in the places where they wanted to study education—Russakoff in Newark and Rizga at Mission High School in San Francisco. Both authors came to question the education orthodoxy of the Bush-Obama era.  Russakoff exposes the ideologically driven politics of the Christie-Booker effort to charterize Newark’s schools, and Rizga “realized that standardized test scores are not the best way to measure and promote learning. Typically, what they measure is the demographic profile of schools.  Thus, schools in affluent white suburbs tend to be called ‘good’ schools.  Schools that enroll children who are learning English and children who ware struggling in their personal lives have lower scores and are labeled ‘failing’ schools.”  San Francisco’s Mission High School serves 950 students from forty countries.

Ravitch concludes: “The authors of these two books demonstrate that grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent.  Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools… But a further lesson matters even more: improving education is not sufficient to ‘save’ all children from lives of poverty and violence.  As a society, we should be ashamed that so many children are immersed in poverty… every day of their lives.”

Senate Will Consider Confirming John King, but He’s Unlikely to Repair Arne Duncan’s Damage

The word was that John King would remain an acting U.S. Secretary of Education for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s administration.  In January, Lyndsey Layton reported for the Washington Post, “King… will retain the ‘acting’ modifier for the rest of President Obama’s time in office.  He has not been nominated by the president, and he will not undergo the confirmation process required of Cabinet-level officers under the Constitution.”  But just over a week ago, another report in the Washington Post announced, “President Obama has nominated John B. King Jr. to officially lead the Department of Education, where he has served as acting secretary since the start of the year.  Officials at the White House had said before the announcement that the president was encouraged by the bipartisan support King has received in Congress, especially the commitment Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has made for a speedy consideration of his nomination.”

It will be surprising if John B. King, Jr.—whether confirmed as secretary or continuing to serve as a mere acting secretary— accomplishes earth-shaking policy while he serves for the next few months.  The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized late in 2015 while Arne Duncan remained the Secretary of Education, and the new Every Student Succeeds Act is significant for unbuckling—at the federal level—teachers’ evaluations from their students’ test scores.  This is a significant correction by Congress, whose members reached bipartisan agreement to reduce Duncan’s overt attack on school teachers, and John King has said he will try further to repair that breach that attacked the millions of professionals we count on to fill our nation’s classrooms.  It’s unlikely, however, that King will further reduce test-and-punish, and he won’t have the power to undo the teacher blaming across the statehouses that Arne Duncan set in motion when his Department of Education conditioned the receipt of federal waivers on states’ passing their own laws to tie teachers’ evaluations to students’ test scores.  Pushing back that wave of legislation will require months and years of effort by advocates across the states.

But John King’s confirmation hearing has now been scheduled in the Senate on this coming Thursday afternoon, February 25.  So who is John King?

Carol Burris was an award-winning New York high school principal when John King was New York state’s Commissioner of Education.  Burris, now a retired educator and currently serving as the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, summarizes some of the milestones of John King’s career: “John King was a teacher for a total of three years—first in a private school and then in a charter.  For a brief time, he served as a co-director of Roxbury Prep (he was never a principal as he claims) a Boston charter middle school that had about 200 students when King was there.  He left to become Managing Director of the Uncommon Schools charter chain, which is regularly criticized for its high rates of student suspension.  While a doctoral student at Teachers College, King met classmate and Board of Regents member, Merryl Tisch.  In April of 2009, Tisch became the Chancellor of the Board of Regents.  In September 2009, John King was appointed deputy commissioner.  Two years later he was appointed commissioner… King was appointed senior adviser to Arne Duncan in 2014, and Acting Secretary of Education when Duncan left in December of 2015.”

Burris recounts what has become the well-known story of King’s mishandling of the roll-out of much harder Common Core tests in New York at the same time King and Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed New York’s legislature to enact evaluation of teachers by their students’ test scores: “By October of 2013, opposition to the Common Core and testing had grown so strong that King was encouraged by the State PTA to hold forums, the first of which took place in Poughkeepsie, New York.  King lectured for an hour and a half.  By the last half hour of the evening, the audience was both boisterous and impassioned, angered because there was limited opportunity to speak.  King then cancelled the rest of the scheduled forums… After continued pressure, some forums were re-scheduled; however, there were restrictions placed on who could attend, and the format was tightly controlled.”  Burris shares an assessment from the Lower Hudson Journal News characterizing John King as “tone deaf.”

During King’s tenure as New York’s deputy commissioner and his time as New York’s education commissioner, New York spent over $28,000,000 to develop its Common Core curriculum—and used its federal Race to the Top grant for this purpose. Burris, a high school principal during the roll-out of the new curriculum, is scathing in her criticism: “(T)he curriculum was a ‘breakout flop.’  Teaching strategies, often presented as scripts, were confusing. The time allotted for each lesson was longer than the instructional time allotted by most districts, resulting in rushed pacing…  Romeo and Juliet, which has been a classic part of ninth-grade English curriculum in most high schools, was reduced to excerpted readings in the modules, crowded out by non-fiction, which included Wizard of Lies: the Life of Bernie Madoff.”

King launched Common Core testing across the state before the curriculum had been fully rolled out, and to make matters worse, cut scores were set too high. Predictably test scores plummeted everywhere. Burris adds: “Perhaps the most reckless error made by the NYSED (NY State Education Department) under King, however, was setting the graduation standard on the Common Core math and English tests so high that the graduation rate, based on historical data, would have plummeted to about 35% when it was imposed.  In response to growing public resistance to the Common Core and its tests, the Board of Regents put off the unrealistic graduation standard from 2017-2022.”

As he heads toward a confirmation hearing and the rest of this year leading the U.S. Department of Education, John King is reported by the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown to be “trying to repair the Obama administration’s frayed relationship with teachers.”  “In one of his first major speeches as acting U.S. secretary of education, John King apologized to teachers for the role that the federal government has played in creating a climate in which teachers feel ‘attacked and unfairly blamed.'”

Brown, however, also interviews Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, who declares that officials at the Department of Education need to listen to teachers as they develop rules that will implement the new Every Student Succeeds Act.  Whether the Department consults professional educators will matter more than the acting secretary’s words of apology: “If policymakers truly listen to teachers in classrooms… then they will craft policies to teach and nurture the whole child—not just lift test scores.”

Congress Is Likely to Reauthorize Education Law. How Will We Undo Arne Duncan’s Damage?

Seven years ago today—on November 30, 2008—I picked up my Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer to see a story above the fold on the front page, a story whose headline screamed: Good Teachers Are Key to Student Achievement, but Bad Ones Are Hard to Fire.  The story itself purported to be a news analysis, part of a series, “a Plain Dealer project reporting on the state of teaching.”  But then there was the photo, of a truck parked in front of the National Education Association’s building in Washington, D.C.  It was one of those trucks that pulls nothing but a sign, and this one—with a picture of a wormy apple—said: “Vote for the Worst Unionized Teachers Who Can’t Be Fired.”  Whatever the content of the article, the message that Sunday morning came from the sign the truck was pulling along—“worst unionized teachers who can’t be fired.”

Then a few days later came David Brooks’ NY Times column about newly elected President Barack Obama’s pending decision about a Secretary of Education.  The new president had appointed Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor of education to head his education transition team, but there was enormous pressure from New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg for Obama to choose Joel Klein, who was at that time serving as Bloomberg’s appointed chancellor of the NYC public schools.

On December 5, 2008, Brooks, a school “reformer” through and through, framed what had already become a polarized battle—“reformers” vs. teachers’ unions: “On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards.  On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.  During the presidential race, Barack Obama straddled the two camps.  One campaign adviser, John Schnur, represented the reform view in the internal discussions.  Another, Linda Darling-Hammond, was more likely to represent the establishment view… Each camp was secretly convinced that at the end of the day, Obama would come down on their side… Obama never had to pick a side.  That is, until now.  There is only one education secretary, and if you hang around these circles, the air is thick with speculation…   (O)ne morning a few weeks ago, I got a flurry of phone calls from reform leaders nervous that Obama was about to side against them…  (T)he union lobbying efforts are relentless and in the past week prospects for a reforming education secretary are thought to have dimmed… The candidates before Obama apparently include: Joel Klein, the highly successful New York chancellor who has, nonetheless, been blackballed by the unions; Arne Duncan, the reforming Chicago head who is less controversial; Darling-Hammond herself; and some former governor to be named later, with Darling-Hammond as the deputy secretary.  In some sense the final option would be the biggest setback for reform.  Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements.  If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.  The stakes are huge.  For the first time in decades, there is real momentum for reform.”

The wave of articles that surfaced that week was noticeable, and in my office in the United Church of Christ’s justice ministries, I felt compelled to trade turns with someone else in the rota of staff who wrote the little Witness for Justice columns each week.  On December 15 that year, I described my fear: “(A)s I write, there is an attack on public school teachers by advocates who seek a Secretary who would base pay on test scores, deny tenure, intensify the test-and-punish mechanisms of No Child Left Behind, and rely far more on charter schools.  These critics deride public school improvement as mere ‘weak, status-quo’ reform.”

Fast-forward seven years, and here we are at the end of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure. Duncan’s policies have been so widely disliked in their implementation that there seems to be bipartisan Congressional consensus, unheard of these days, to undo the damage everybody has come to believe happened due to Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama and Duncan’s Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants and No Child Left Behind waivers.  Duncan has resigned as of the end of 2015, and will be replaced by John King, an acting secretary as a placeholder for the last year of President Obama’s term.

And if Congress acts this week finally (after several previous tries) to reauthorize the federal education law called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we may find ourselves without the version we’ve been living with now for 14 years—No Child Left Behind.

While some of the “punishments” promoted by Duncan for so-called failing schools were originally outlined in 2002 in the original test-and-punish No Child Left Behind Act, Duncan and his Department were the ones who worked out how the “turnaround” plans that fired teachers and principals and closed or charterized schools would be imposed on our nation’s poorest schools.  While the problems in the economy were evident by December of 2008, nobody could have imagined the competitive grant programs that Duncan’s Department of Education created as part of the 2009 federal stimulus package.  These were the programs by which states applied for federal grants and eventually waivers from No Child Left Behind’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” system that had begun to attach the label of “failing” to far too many public schools in every state.  Duncan’s Department developed hoops states had to jump through even to apply for these federal grants—remove any state statutory caps on the number of charter schools that can be launched in any one year—intensify Value Added, econometric evaluations of school teachers based on their students’ test scores—embrace college-and-career-ready standards for all students.  Because the Department of Education cannot by federal law prescribe curricula, the Department merely incentivized states to adopt “more rigorous” standards, which in practical terms meant joining one of the two Common Core Curriculum consortia—PARCC or Smarter Balanced.

David Brooks’ words from December 2008 were prophetic: “Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements.  If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.”  As Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan was never one for grand pronouncements, but his Department’s actions have utterly transformed education policy across the fifty states.  State legislatures changed state laws to try for Race to the Top grants and to secure their waivers.  States removed caps on the launch of new charters, and then vastly expanded the number of charters with help from billions of dollars in federal Charter School Program grants. But nobody in the federal government imposed any oversight and only in the most careful states has there been regulation to protect children and taxpayers from unscrupulous profiteers.  Schools have been closed as a “turnaround” policy in many cities as children have been forced to relocate via public transportation in many cases, with some crossing dangerous gang boundaries. The American Statistical Association and now the American Educational Research Association have condemned the use of Value Added Measure algorithms for evaluating teachers because the formulas are unstable and fail to measure many of the qualities of a good teacher.

There is wide agreement that the bipartisan Congressional consensus that seems to have been reached on a plan to reauthorize No Child Left Behind is primarily a repudiation of Arne Duncan’s tenure and policies.

In a profound article, School Reform Fails the Test: How Can Our Schools Get Better When We’ve Made Our Teachers the Problem and Not the Solution?, Mike Rose the writer and UCLA professor of education wonders: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?  Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high states testing… had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development.  I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that teachers endure, but serious, extended engagement of the kind offered by the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project…. Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success.  All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have a direct link to local health and service agencies… Extra tutoring would be provided… Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students.”

Assuming that in the next week or so both houses of Congress affirm the agreement, passed the week before Thanksgiving by a Senate/House conference committee, to reauthorize the federal education law, the question will be where do we go from here?  Mike Rose’s vision describes where many of us would like education policy to go.  But Arne Duncan has ensured that Congress cannot just undo the explosive growth of charters or quickly take back the unworkable schemes for evaluating teachers that state legislatures have passed to qualify for federal No Child Left Behind waivers (even though the waivers themselves will be rendered unnecessary once No Child Left Behind is gone), or help states improve their curricula and avoid the ugly politics around the Common Core for which they have already signed up and invested millions of dollars. These policies have now been enacted into the laws of the fifty states. Amending or eliminating these policies will have to be accomplished one state legislature at a time and will require concerted state-by-state advocacy.

Cliches come to mind. The cats are out of the bag. Pandora’s box has been opened. It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.