Skepticism Grows About High-Stakes, Test Based School Accountability and Privatization

Nick Hanauer’s confession that neoliberal, “corporate accountability” school reform doesn’t work is not entirely surprising to me.  After all, No Child Left Behind was left behind several years ago.

And Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on our 25 year experiment with high stakes, test-based accountability, says: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge. Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale. Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents… The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary school math that don’t persist until graduation.”(The Testing Charade, p 191)

Nick Hanauer is a smart venture capitalist who has been paying attention, so it isn’t so surprising he has noticed that we still have enormous gaps in school achievement between the children raised in pockets of extreme privilege and the children raised in the nation’s very poorest and most segregated communities. Because he is an influential guy, however, I am delighted that Hanauer published his confession in The Atlantic:

“Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system… This belief system, which I have come to think of as ‘educationism,’ is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world…  But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way.  We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall.  School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy.  As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class… Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission… All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools… American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again… But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong.”

Hanauer—along with Bill Gates, the Waltons, and other philanthropists—has continued to invest heavily in the growth of charter schools.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss interviewed Hanauer last week about his recent confession: “In 2009 or thereabouts, I had an awakening. A friend sent me the IRS tax tables that showed the changes in income distribution that had occurred over the decades I had been working on education. The story those numbers showed was devastating.  When I graduated from high school in 1977, the top 1% of earners got less than 8% of national income. In 2007, 30 years later, that number had increased to 22.86%.  Worse, the bottom 50% of Americans’ share of national income had fallen from approximately 18% to 12%.  I was horrified by these trends, and frankly, shocked.  I had put so much work and so much faith in the Educationist theory of change, and all my work had amounted to nothing…. Nevertheless, I was under pressure to keep grinding on the same stuff in the same way, only harder.  You get a lot of strokes in the community for working on public education, and I did.  I was ‘the education guy.’  But it just didn’t feel right.”

Strauss describes how the priorities of hedge fund leaders, venture capitalists, and giant philanthropies dovetailed with the education priorities of the Obama administration, “which launched a $4.3 billion education initiative called Race to the Top.  It dangled federal funds in front of resource-starved states if they embraced the administration’s education priorities.  Those included charter school expansion, the Common Core, and revamping of teacher evaluation systems that used student standardized test scores as a measure of effectiveness….”

Barack Obama jumped on the education “reform”  bandwagon early, back in June of 2005, when, as the junior Senator from Illinois, he spoke at the launch of Democrats for Education Reform. In his, 2011, history of education “reform,” Class Warfare, Stephen Brill describes the players in the effort to lure Democrats into embracing corporate accountability for schools.  DFER was launched by a bunch of New York hedge fund managers when Obama was in New York City raising money to run for a second Senate term: “While in town he helped Boykin Curry, John Petry, and Whitney Tilson launch a group they had created called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Obama had agreed to be a guest at a party they had put together for people who shared their interest in school reform and wanted to get involved. Curry, Petry, and Tilson had chipped in a little of their own money plus some from a few friends, to start DFER.  The fourth member of their board was Charles Ledley, another value investor friend… Curry, Petry, and Tilson were immediately smitten with Obama, who seemed to talk about education reform as if it was no big deal for a Democrat to be doing so.  He recalled visiting a successful Chicago school where one teacher had complained to him about what she referred to as the ‘these kids’ syndrome that prevailed at traditional inner-city public schools, which, she explained, ‘was the willingness of society to accept that ‘these kids’ can’t learn or succeed.’… Obama… spent part of his talk extolling charter schools and what they demonstrated about how all children could learn if they had good teachers in good schools.” (Class Warfare, pp. 131-132)

Obama was, of course, merely articulating what had become the conventional wisdom among wealthy hedge funders, philanthropists, and even Democratic politicians. The term, “conventional wisdom,” was defined by economist, John Kenneth Galbraith as, “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” The “corporate school reform” conventional wisdom—about the failure of traditional public schools as the cause of a wide achievement gap between white children and children of color and between wealthy children and poor children—had been cast into law in the No Child Left Behind Act, passed with bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush in January of 2002.  The law was designed to pressure staff in low scoring schools to raise expectations for their students or their schools would be sanctioned with a cascade of ever more punitive consequences.  No Child Left Behind’s strategy was neither to increase public investment in the schools in the poorest communities nor to ameliorate child poverty.

Last week, after Hanauer published his admission that he no longer supports school reform based on high stakes, test-and-punish accountability and the reliance on privatization as a turnaround strategy, former President Barack Obama responded.  Valerie Strauss quotes the response to Hanauer tweeted by President Obama: “This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all.  As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.”  In his response to Hanauer, Obama doesn’t fully reject the school turnaround strategies embedded in his administration’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs, but he admits that he has himself done some rethinking.

It is significant that Nick Hanauer, one of America’s financial and philanthropic glitterati, is openly questioning corporate, accountability-based school reform ideas, and it is also a good thing that former President Obama, who promoted such policies, is listening.  But it should concern us all that the ideas and biases of the wealthy have such inflated influence on public policy these days. How did it happen that those who have shaped the conventional wisdom about education blamed the professionals in the schools instead of listening to school teachers?  And how did policymakers miss an enormous body of academic research that has shown for half a century that poverty and inequality are a primary cause of gaps in school achievement?

In November of 2016, in a brief from a leading center of academic research, the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo warn about Lessons from NCLB: “The No Child Left Behind Act was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with great fanfare and enthusiasm. Granting more power to states and curbing what was seen as federal overreach was well received.  Nevertheless, the new system remains a predominantly test-based accountability system that requires interventions in the lowest scoring five percent of schools.  The new law… shows little promise of remedying the systemic under resourcing of needy students.  Giving the reform politics of high-stakes assessment and privatization the benefit of the most positive research interpretation, the benefits accrued are insufficient to justify their use as comprehensive reform strategies. Less generous interpretations of the research provide clear warnings of harm. The research evidence over the past 30 years further tells us that unless we address the economic bifurcation in the nation, and the opportunity gaps in the schools, we will not be successful in closing the achievement gap.”

School reform, according to the theories of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, and giant philanthropies, is emblematic of the sort of policy—driven by elites— that Anand Giridharadas warns us about in his, 2018, book, Winners Take All: “What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things, but first things first, seek to protect themselves… We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (Winners Take All, pp. 10-11)

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.”

Extra: Valerie Strauss’s Clear, Sensible Description of Bush and Obama Education Policies

Now that Congress has passed and President Obama signed a new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, there have been many explanations of what has gone wrong since No Child Left Behind, the previous version, was signed into law in January of 2002.

This morning in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss summarizes much of that history in Don’t Blame George W. Bush for What President Obama Did to Public Schools.

Her piece is short and lucid.  I urge you to read it.

Chicago: Private Firms Cashing In on the Common Good

Rick Perlstein’s new piece, How to Sell Off a City, paints the landscape of the privatized metropolis.  Privatization is, of course, much broader—wars conducted by what used to be called Blackwater and by Kellogg, Brown & Root—prisons kept packed with folks on long sentences to build the profits of the Corrections Corporation of America —but Perlstein’s panorama is local.

“For over a decade now, Chicago has been the epicenter of the fashionable trend of ‘privatization’—the transfer of the ownership or operation of resources that belong to all of us, like schools, roads and government services, to companies that use them to turn a profit.  Chicago’s privatization mania began during Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, which ran from 1989 to 2011.  Under his successor, Rahm Emanuel, the trend has continued apace.  For Rahm’s investment banker buddies, the trend has been a boon.  For citizens?  Not so much.”

Chicago is a microcosm of our privatizing society.

  • Chicago was a big winner of a federal competitive “Hope VI” grant that “aimed to replace public-housing high-rises with mixed-income houses, duplexes and row houses built and managed by private firms.”  According to Perlstein, it hasn’t all quite worked out: “Meanwhile, the $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation drags on, six years past deadline and still 2,500 units from completion while thousands of families languish on the Chicago Housing Authority’s waitlist.”
  • There’s the deal that turned parking meters over to Chicago Parking Meters in an arrangement that, Perlstein’s sources estimate, has underpaid the city “by a factor of 10.”
  • Then there’s the deal by which the Chicago Skyway was leased for 99 years to an Australian firm. The city reaped $1.8 billion in immediate cash, but drivers using the road are now paying $4.50 in tolls, when it is estimated $2.50 would be the likely toll rate if the highway were still public.
  • Chicago Transit Authority now has a privatized Ventra “smart card” through an arrangement with a San Diego defense contractor, Cubic.  Cubic is making added profits because “the transit cards can double as debit cards.”  “But dig the customer fees… $1.50 every time customers withdraw cash from an ATM, $2.95 every time they add money to their online debit account… $2 for every call with a service representative…”  and so on.

Of course Chicago has also been one of the big laboratories for privatization of public education.  Perlstein reminds us that when President Barack Obama chose a member of the mayoral-appointed Chicago board of education, Penny Pritzker (the Hyatt Hotel heiress) to be Secretary of Commerce: “In June of 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a new appointment…. The appointee, Deborah H. Quazzo, is a founder of an investment firm called GSV Advisors, a business whose goal… is to drum up venture capital for ‘an education revolution in which public schools outsource to private vendors such critical tasks as teaching math, educating disabled students, even writing report cards.'”  Perlstein wonders, “Given the work her firm does in education, did she anticipate recusing herself from school board decisions that presented a conflict of interest?”  Instead, “Some of her companies that had preexisting contracts with CPS cut their prices after Quazzo joined the school board so their bills would fall under the threshold that would require review by district bureaucrats.  One of those bills came to precisely $24,999.  The threshold for review? $25,000, naturally.”

Then there has been the privatization of janitorial services for Chicago Public Schools, something principals have continued to decry as disastrous because, they have complained, the schools have become filthy.  Even as principals and teachers despaired about the conditions in their buildings, Aramark, the recipient of the $260 million, three year contract, laid off 470 school janitors, a 20 percent reduction.

Chicago has also been in the forefront of the movement to replace public schools, where teachers and other staff are protected by unions, with privately managed charters. “Of course, another thing that elites like about privatization is that it lets them lay off public employees—especially unionized ones.  In Chicago, privately run charter schools that replace traditional public schools are not covered by Chicago Teachers Union contracts, and most are not unionized…”  “All told, since 2009, the city has cut 5,000 jobs, in addition to laying off 1,700 public-school employees.”

Perlstein concludes: “Most privatization deals fail every public policy test.  There’s little record of successful competition between concessionaires to deliver service more efficiently. The very logic is faulty, because most government services are what economists call a ‘natural monopoly’—which turns out to be what makes it so attractive to capitalists in the first place: ‘Infrastructure is ultra-low-risk because competition is limited by a host of forces that make it difficult to build, say, a rival toll road,’ as Businessweek explained way back in 2007. ‘With captive customers, the cash flows are virtually guaranteed.'”

Perlstein quotes one Illinois politician, captivated by the seduction of the the rhetoric of competition, who commented: “The developers were thinking in market terms and operating under the rules of the marketplace.  But at the same time, we had government supporting and subsidizing those efforts.”  “The fan,” writes Perlstein, “was Barack Obama, then a young state senator.”

Obama & Duncan Merely Pretend to Address School Inequity

President Barack Obama’s proposed 2015 federal budget includes a new $300 million Race to the Top Opportunity initiative described as promoting equity in public schools.  While funding is frozen for the Department of Education’s large and important programs like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the budget, if passed by Congress, would create a new competitive grant program by which states could apply for federal funds, “to help states and districts create data systems that track characteristics such as teacher and principal experience and effectiveness, academic achievement, and student coursework.  It would also give schools resources to attract and retain effective teachers, extend learning time, bolster school culture, and help students non-cognitive skills,” according to Education Week‘s Alyson Klein.

Late last week, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a brand new study to bolster the need for the new Race to the Top Opportunity proposal.  According to Michele McNeill (Education Week‘s other expert on federal policy in education), the new “federal civil rights data show persistent and widespread disparities among disadvantaged students from prekindergarten through high school on key indicators…. Minorities and students with limited English proficiency are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers, attend a high school with limited math and science offerings, and be disciplined at higher rates than their white peers….”  In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reported striking facts documented in last week’s report:  approximately 40 percent of school districts fail to offer preschool and usually for only a few hours each day; Black, Latino, and Native American students lack access to a full range of courses, particularly math and science; one fifth of high schools do not provide a school counselor; and serious disparities exist in punitive discipline policies and grade retention by race.

It is definitely a good thing that President Obama and Arne Duncan are bringing attention to the need for equity in public schools, because opportunity gaps due to poverty, segregation, and tragically inadequate and unequally distributed school funding are the heart of what is wrong with public schooling in America.  Tragically, however, most of the substantive programs coming from Duncan’s Department of Education fail to address these very real problems and instead push punitive sanctions for the schools that struggle—school closure, transformation to a charter school, punishments for teachers who can’t quickly raise scores.  It is important that Obama and Duncan are finally discussing the deep and seemingly intractable challenge of inequality, but the programs they have been promoting for over five years now have little to do with remedying inequality.

Another problem is that the new research merely replicates an enormous body of existing research that already documents these problems. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues to point out that the states (where the responsibility for school funding primarily rests) are spending less on public education than in 2007, before the Great Recession.  Due to the lingering effects of the recession in some states and the popularity of low taxes and austerity budgeting, 34 of the 50 states are spending less today.  The Education Law Center has just released the third edition of Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card, which examines the condition of the 50 state school funding systems and rates the states on the basis of funding level, funding distribution, state fiscal effort, and public school ‘coverage.’

Then  just a year ago a Congressionally convened Equity and Excellence Commission released a report that not only documented massive inequality of opportunity across our nation’s public schools but also suggested exactly what the President and Congress could do to address it: “There is no constitutional barrier to a greater federal role in financing K-12 education.  It is, rather, a question of our nation’s civic and political will; the modest federal contribution that today amounts to approximately 10 percent of national k-12 spending is a matter of custom, not a mandate.  The federal government must take bold action in specific areas.”  Here are the first four of the Commission’s twelve suggestions:

  • “Direct states, with appropriate incentives, to adopt and implement school finance systems that will… provide a meaningful educational opportunity for all students….”
  • “Enact ‘equity and excellence’ legislation that: targets significant new federal funding to schools with high concentrations of low-income students, particularly where achievement gaps exist….”
  • “provide incentives for states to explore and pursue ways to reduce the number of schools with concentrated poverty, because schools without concentrated poverty cost less to run than schools with concentrated poverty.”
  • “Reassess its enforcement regime with respect to issues of school finance equity….”

Notice that the Commission is speaking of the need for an enormous federal investment—far more than $300 million— and that the Commission is suggesting that the Office of Civil Rights do far more than a research study on inequality.  According to the Commission, the Office of Civil Rights must enforce equity, perhaps by conditioning federal assistance on states’ efforts to ameliorate injustice.

Beyond expanding the federal goverment’s capacity to enforce states’ move toward equity, there, ironically, already exists the ideal federal program by which the federal government could invest significantly to help school districts serving very poor children.  This is the Title I formula program, frozen in the President’s proposed 2015 federal budget.  Title I is the federal civil rights program created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act to equalize opportunity by sending federal money to schools serving a large number or high concentration of very poor children. Title I is a formula program that distributes federal money to all schools whose children qualify.  It is a program that has never been fully funded.  The President and Congress could fully fund Title I and could even adjust the formula to do a better job of targeting money to schools that face enormous challenges in communities where poverty is highly concentrated.

Pursuing equity through Race to the Top instead of the Title I formula is a virtual impossibility.  Race to the Top, like Arne Duncan’s other competitive grant programs, is a competition.  Races with winners always create losers.  There are millions of poor children spread across the fifty states.  When five or ten states win a Race to the Top competition in any one year, the poor children  and their schools in all the rest of the states are the losers.  And it is essential to remember that the money for Race to the Top comes right out of the Title I program, thereby reducing the formula program that was designed with equity as its very foundation.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson describes the moral implications of the substitution of competitive programs like Race to the Top for the Title I civil rights formula program:  “There are those who would make the case for a Race to the Top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Darling-Hammond Deplores Failure of No Child Left Behind and Test-and-Punish

This morning, December 26, Linda Darling-Hammond spoke with Steve Inskseep on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.  You can listen or read the transcript here.

Darling-Hammond is the Stanford University professor who was considered seriously by President Barack Obama back in 2008 to be his Secretary of Education, although Obama eventually went with his Chicago buddy, Arne Duncan.

Here Darling-Hammond looks at the failure—evident after ten years—of President George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act that set the bar for test score passage so high that, without the waivers now being offered by Arne Duncan’s Department of Education, all schools in the United States would be rated a failure in 2014, the deadline the 2002 law established as the time all children across the United States would be proficient.

According to Darling-Hammond, No Child Left Behind has neither improved school achievement nor closed achievement gaps: “basically the story for the United States over the last decade or more is flatline.”

Asks Darling-Hammond, “Will we move from a test-and-punish philosophy—which was the framework for No Child Left Behind — to an assess-and-improve philosophy?”  She concludes: “Well, you know, in general, our schools do better with the challenges they have to face, than I think is true of most high-achieving nations around the world. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty, mortality, lack of health care, homelessness of any developed country in the world at this point. And we have unequal funding, so that we give more money to the education of rich kids than poor kids. So our affluent districts in schools do quite well, and are still the envy of many in the world. Our low-income schools and districts are struggling with all these responsibilities and challenges and very little and inadequate public support. And yet, they perform extraordinarily well, given the circumstances they have to meet. Our system of schools is resilient, but we have to fix these problems.”

Federal Register Notice Spells Out Arne Duncan’s Priorities

Have you, by chance, found yourself wondering if it can really be true that the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama is actively supporting school privatization through the expansion of charter schools?  Maybe it isn’t true, you thought.

To help you sort out the role that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is playing in privatization of public education, I’ll share the little blurb that caught my eye in the December 3, 2013 e-news blast on public education from Politico:

TODAY’S FEDERAL REGISTER: PRIORITIES FOR CHARTER SCHOOL GRANTS: The Education Department is pondering whether grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter school projects should be weighted based on whether they improve efficiency through economies of scale, improve accountability, recruit and serve students with disabilities and English-language learners more effectively and combine technology-based instruction with classroom teaching. There are other proposed definitions relating to graduation rate and student achievement. Weigh in during the next 30 days. http://1.usa.gov/IDkgmy

Yup.  Right there in the Federal Register it says the Department of Education is making grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter schools.  And then Politico provides a kind of laundry list of possible priorities for the granting: make charters more efficient? more accountable? more inclusive of English language learners and children with disabilities? more technology-based?  Much as the Federal Register is not my favorite periodical for casual reading, I followed the link to try to untangle how the Department of Education plans to spend our tax money and what are the issues on which we all have a chance to weigh in during the next 30 days.

The Department’s notice in the Federal Register makes it very clear that the Department of Education actively supports the expansion of charter schools.  Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants, says the notice, are designed “to increase national understanding of the charter school model by… providing financial assistance for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools; evaluating the effects of charter schools… expanding the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the Nation; and encouraging the States to provide support to charter schools for facilities financing….”  Because the program being described in yesterday’s Federal Register notice is for CSP National Leadership Activities, the blurb describes this particular initiative: “The purpose of the CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities is to support efforts by eligible entities to improve the quality of charter schools by providing technical assistance and other types of support on issues of national significance and scope.”

Yesterday’s Federal Register notice is not a request for proposals, but is instead to announce proposed “priorities, requirements, and definitions” that will apply when the Department of Education actually launches the competition.  “The Department most recently conducted competitions for CSP(Charter School Program) Grants for National Leadership Activities in FYs 2006 and 2010.  In those competitions, we invited applications for projects designed to improve stakeholder capacity to support high-quality charter schools but did not require or give competitive preference to particular types of projects… To ensure that projects funded with CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities in future years address key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale, the Department proposes the priorities in this notice.”  They are:

Improving Efficiency through Economies of Scale: “Compared to charter schools, traditional public schools tend to have higher student enrollment, which may result in lower average costs per student…” says the notice.  Grant applicants are asked to join in consortia to design “projects of national significance and scope that promote shared systems for acquiring goods or services to achieve efficiencies….”

Improving Accountability: “While there are many high-performing charter schools across the nation, charter school performance varies significantly and too many persistently low-performing charter schools are not held accountable for their results.”  Grant seekers would be expected to create “projects of national significance and scope to improve authorized public chartering agencies’ capacity to conduct rigorous application reviews, monitor and oversee charter schools… close underperforming schools, replicate and expand high-performing schools, maintain a portfolio of high-quality charter schools, and evaluate and communicate the performance of that portfolio…”

Serving Students with Disabilities: “As public schools, it is essential that charter schools provide equitable access and appropriate educational services to all students, regardless of disability, as set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)…”  Grant seekers would propose “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for students with disabilities…”

Serving English Learners: “From 2001 to 2010 the number of students identified as English Learners increased significantly, growing from approximately 3,700,000 to 4,660,275 nationwide…” “This proposed priority is for projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for English Learners….”

Personalized Technology-Enabled Learning: “Learning models that blend traditional, classroom-based teaching and learning with virtual, online, or digital delivery of personalized instructional content offer the potential to transform public education….”  Grant applicants would be proposing “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to improve achievement and attainment outcomes for high-need students through the development and implementation in charter schools  of technology-enabled instructional models….”

As I read all this, of course, my first thought is about what I am not being asked to comment on.  Is investing tax money in charter schools that are privately operated a good idea?  Is the Department’s assumption correct that such schools are more innovative than traditional public schools?  Despite this program’s goal of creating “projects of national significance and scope,” haven’t the larger “national” Charter Management Organizations been unable to demonstrate that they are on the whole better than traditional public schools?

And what might be my response to the five priorities, beginning with the first priority: creating economies of scale? One question comes to mind: instead of creating huge consortia of privatized charter schools, wouldn’t we be better able to realize such economies by returning our focus to improving traditional public schools in which economies of scale are a natural part of the system?  Why create a whole other infrastructure when we have a relatively workable system already?

My experience here in Cleveland makes me wonder about the political feasibility of the second priority—granting money to encourage states and non-profits to regulate charters.  Charters are usually created and operated in state law, and despite that our Cleveland mayor created  just the sort of regulatory capacity the Department is proposing in this priority—a Transformation Alliance to oversee charters and to close those that are failing our children or stealing the state’s money—when it came time for the Ohio legislature to embed the Cleveland mayor’s regulatory plan into law, legislators in the pocket of William Lager (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) and David Brennan (White Hat Management Company) ensured that the the statute they passed lacked the teeth that would have enabled the Transformation Alliance to close the bad schools.

The third and fourth priorities are deeply troubling because they suggest that the Department of Education has somehow drifted from its important role as a protector of children’s civil rights.  The federal role in education has historically been to expand opportunity and access to education for children in groups who have been under-served.  Title I has provided federal dollars for schools serving a large number or high concentration of children in poverty.  IDEA guarantees and funds services for children with disabilities.  Other regulations and funding streams support the education of immigrant and migrant children and children learning English.  That the Department of Education is proposing to make grants to develop programs to encourage charters to begin serving these children seems bizarre, when the same Department of Education has an Office of Civil Rights whose function is to enforce that all publicly funded schools will provide appropriate services for these children as their right.  Why is the Department offering grant money to encourage provision of the services that the same Department is legally responsible for ensuring that these schools have already been providing?

This is not a new issue.  In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Recovery School District in New Orleans, because the mass charterization of the schools after Hurricane Katrina left students with disabilities poorly served.  According to SPLC:  “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), requires that New Orleans public school students with disabilities receive equal access to educational services and are not unlawfully barred from the classroom. This law applies to both charter schools and publicly operated schools. The law specifically requires that students with disabilities are identified so that they can receive needed services — including an individualized education plan and services to ensure that children with disabilities can transition productively into adulthood. These students have a federal right to receive counseling, social work and other related services that are necessary to ensure that these youth obtain an education…  Despite this federal law, some students with disabilities in New Orleans public schools have been completely denied enrollment as a result of their disability, forced to attend schools lacking the resources necessary to serve them and punished with suspensions in record numbers. Still, other students’ disabilities are being completely overlooked due to a failure to identify them.”

The fifth priority seeks to promote controversial on-line learning.  We know that the virtual, e-charters—K-12 being the largest and most notorious—have the worst academic record of  any kind of school and that they are known to suck millions of dollars out of state public school budgets.  And the idea of blended learning—larger classes, fewer teachers, and more computers—is being questioned as a pedagogical theory, while it is known to cut costs for personnel.

What we can confirm by reading yesterday’s Federal Register is that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is squarely behind charters.  It is also fully engaged in the practice of competitive grant funding.  I3 money—money for the Office of Innovation and Improvement—is proposed in the President’s 2014 budget at $150 million.  I would personally prefer to see this money put into the long-underfunded, Title I Formula program to improve the public schools in the poorest communities where families struggle and state school funding lags across virtually all the states.  These are the communities now subject to punitive sanctions like school closures.

A Powerful Reflection on Inequality for This Thanksgiving

The Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a teacher and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary.

His blog post for this Thanksgiving lifts up the research on widening inequality in America and the inequality he observes in Chicago.

Thomas explores the implications of growing inequality not only for those trapped in poverty but also for the sequestered affluent. What does it mean for all of us that the powerful—including an increasing number of our leaders—are more and more insulated?

Expanding Accountability through Rating and Ranking of Colleges: A Bad Idea

In Silly Season at the U.S. Department of Education, Dr. Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, explores serious concerns about President Obama’s recent proposal that the federal government bring the kind of accountability that has been imposed on K-12 public education to colleges and universities.  The President and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have proposed that the Department of Education rate and rank colleges and universities and make federal aid and loans more available to students at those institutions that make themselves accountable to federal standards.

In August, Tamar Lewin, writing for the N.Y. Times summarized the President’s plan: “to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend…  Mr. Obama hopes that starting in 2018, the ratings would be tied to financial aid, so that students at highly rated colleges might get larger federal grants and more affordable loans. But that would require new legislation.”

While it is a good idea to encourage universities to serve more low-income students, all of the issues in the President’s plan are far more complicated than they appear.  Dr. McGuire questions whether it will be possible for the government to rank colleges by their educational outcomes: “Plenty of people who actually do know what they’re talking about have raised numerous legitimate issues about the ability of this government to implement a collegiate rating system based on some pretty dubious data.”

Dr. McGuire explains that while expanding access for low income students is a desirable and worthy goal, colleges must find a way to finance the additional services and courses such students need. She questions the value of ranking colleges and universities by their graduation rates: “Institutions that do a great job providing access for low income students take the risk of lower graduation rates since the students do not progress through the system in the same way as the more privileged traditional students…. Women students stand to lose a lot in this new regulatory scheme… these are students who share characteristics like working nearly full-time, raising children as single parents, are self-supporting, attend school part-time in some semesters, being the first generation in college, commuting to campus, often attending multiple institutions…”

President Obama also proposes to measure and compare the earnings of graduates as part of his college ranking scheme. While Dr. McGuire doesn’t address this factor, it represents a worrisome trend in many of the policies of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education: quantifying and monetizing as the way to define value.  If a teacher or a social worker feels called to such a vocation and does a good job, should we measure that person’s lifetime contribution by the work itself or by the salary paid for that work?  Should we we be developing a college ranking system that rewards institutions that produce sports stars and financial tycoons and embeds the worst values of consumer capitalism into the policies of the U.S. Department of Education?

Competitive Grants: Winners and Losers? or A Just System for All?

Bill Phillis is the Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. Bill was Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction when I met him over twenty-five years ago.  I have always known him to be a champion for justice for Ohio’s children.

The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding is the coalition that brought the DeRolph School funding case back in the early 1990s. In DeRolph v. State, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled four times that Ohio’s school funding is inadequate, inequitably distributed, and overly reliant on local property taxes. Then just over ten years ago, new members were elected to the Ohio Supreme Court, and the Court released jurisdiction in the case, in essence telling the legislature it was not required to produce a remedy.

This morning Bill critiques the idea of competitive grant programs as part of school funding.  At this time when our federal education policy emphasizes competition in programs like Race to the Top, Bill advocates for making the school funding system work to provide education as a civil right for all children.  He emphatically rejects the path we seem to be following instead—creating competitions by which some schools or school districts can qualify for public funding, while others are the losers.

I like to quote the Rev. Jesse Jackson on this subject because his formulation is so pithy and so profound: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

But this morning, I urge you to read the post I am reprinting from Bill Phillis below.  He opposes Ohio’s “Straight A” fund, our statewide Race to the Top.

Competitive Grants:  Winners and Losers?  What About Constitutional “Thorough and Efficient” for All?

William Phillis, Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding,  10/30/2013

The Straight A Fund–a state (Ohio) version of Race to the Top (RTTT)–attracted over 550 proposals seeking over $800 million. $100 million will be awarded in FY 2014. Competition for grant awards is momentous for the winners. For those students who attend districts that have no or limited art, music, AP courses, transportation and technology, the funds could be better used for basic programs and services via the school foundation program. For those districts that have students struggling with the 3rd Grade Guarantee, most assuredly, those funds could be better used across the board for that purpose. Funding for pre-school children would definitely be a better use of that funding. (Early childhood education, including the coaching of parents is the best vehicle available for breaking the poverty cycle.)

When a level playing field is accomplished, when a thorough and efficient system is provided throughout Ohio, when a uniform set of high quality educational opportunities are in place in every zip code, then and only then, would competitive education grants be justified. A thorough and efficient system of public common schools is the most urgent responsibility of state government. The Straight A Fund might be a rational scheme down the road after the state’s constitutional responsibility is met.

Incidentally, both the Economic Policy Institute and the U.S. General Accounting Office report that Race to the Top provides little solace for RTTT advocates. Among other things, RTTT is falling short of expectations. It would have been more rational to put the funds into the basic programs and services and level the education playing field; likewise, with the Straight A Fund.
William Phillis
Ohio E & A