Is the Purpose of Public Education No Longer Self-Evident?

Here are words from the beginning of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

Busy working, maintaining house and yard, swimming in an ocean of information in our media-driven, consumer society, most of us aren’t, perhaps, likely to spend a lot of time considering these principles, but it would certainly be wonderful if the officials we have chosen as our leaders were to demonstrate that, for them, at least, these truths are self-evident.

After all, we’ve spent two and a half centuries making some progress by ensuring that our laws protect more than just the rights of men. And we have defined more precisely the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These struggles for redefinition have very often centered in the public schools—the right for the descendants of slaves to educational equality, the right for American Indian children to attend schools that reflect their indigenous cultures—the right for immigrant children to instruction in English and for the undocumented, the right to a K-12 public school education—the right of LGBT students to be safe, respected and understood.

Now it seems that our leaders have stepped back—even that they are willing to lead us backward.  For President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, what does not seem self-evident is “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  The most blatant recent example is Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, the notorious former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Abusing his position as a public official, Arpaio ran his department without concern for the rights of  the Hispanic residents of Phoenix—in flagrant violation of the rule of law. Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court. But the President, unfazed by the nature of Arpaio’s crime, called Arpaio a good man.  Here is the Washington Post: “(T)he White House’s official statement lauding Mr. Arpaio failed to mention the charge for which Mr. Trump had granted clemency: a criminal conviction of contempt of court for defying an order to halt racial profiling… Despite Mr. Trump’s suggestion that Mr. Arpaio was ‘convicted for doing his job,’ a federal judge found the former sheriff guilty of contempt when he refused to cease rounding up suspected undocumented immigrants on the basis of appearance alone. But Mr. Arpaio’s abuse of his authority as sheriff went well beyond racial profiling. With pride, he detained inmates in inhumane conditions and humiliated them in the name of deterring crime.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, like Trump, seems unclear that, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  In a keynote address earlier this summer, she wondered: “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families—and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” She added: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.” Demonstrating her unconcern for the government’s role in operating a  system of education to protect students’ rights, DeVos has begun limiting investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to the details of formal complaints as filed, without examining the three years of previous evidence to look for systemic violations. Her department has also wrapped up a large backlog of civil rights complaints without findings in most cases.

Trump and DeVos freely disparage the institution of public education—with DeVos persistently extolling privatized charter schools and various private school tuition voucher schemes.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes the damage being inflicted by Trump and DeVos on the very government institution for which they are responsible. After Trump once again disdained, at a recent Phoenix, Arizona event, “the failures of our public schools,” Strauss wrote: “But the larger effect of Trump’s remark is not that it is wrong but rather that it is part of a pattern of his — and of DeVos’s — to disparage public education as they promote programs that take resources away from public school systems…Such sentiments by Trump and DeVos, consistently expressed publicly, reinforce the myth that traditional public education is broadly failing students and that the answer is using public money for privately run and/or owned schools.”

Last week, in Losing Our Purpose, Measuring the Wrong Things, William Mathis, Vice-Chairman of the Vermont Board of Education and Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, considered what ought to be self-evident to all of us in an era when our leaders seem to have lost an understanding of the meaning of public education.  Mathis traces our problems not just to Trump and DeVos, but also to the test-and-punish accountability agenda of the Bush and Obama administrations: “By declaring schools “failures,” public monies were increasingly diverted to private corporations. Yet, after a half-century of trials, there is no body of evidence that shows privatized schools are better or less expensive. Large-scale voucher programs actually show substantial score declines. The plain fact is that privatization, even at its best, does not have sufficient power to close the achievement gap — but it segregates. It imperils the unity of schools and society. This proposed solution works against the very democratic and equity principles for which public systems were formed.”

Mathis calls us all to remember the purposes of public education: “For our first 200 years, the paramount purpose for building and sustaining universal public education was to nurture democracy. Written into state constitutions, education was to consolidate a stew of different languages, religious affiliations, ethnic groups and levels of fortune into a working commonwealth. As Massachusetts’ constitutional framers wrote, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, (is) necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties….In the nineteenth century, Horace Mann, father of the common schools movement, said, ’Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.’ Through the twentieth century, the popular view was that universal education would produce an equal and democratic society.”

Society has struggled, however, to ensure justice and realize the promise of our public schools: “But our social progress is checkered. Residential segregation and unequal opportunities still blight our society, economy and schools. Unfortunately, rather than addressing politically unpopular root causes, it was far more convenient to demand schools solve these problems… No serious effort was made to assure equal opportunities, for example. Thus, the achievement gap was finessed by blaming the victim. Instead of advancing democracy, our neediest schools were underfunded. The new purpose, test-based reform, appealed to conservatives because it sounded tough and punitive; to liberals because it illuminated the plainly visible problems; and it was cheap – the costs were passed on to the schools.”

Here is Bill Mathis’s challenge for the future of public education: “If our purpose is a democratic and equitable society, test scores take us off-purpose. They distract our attention. Rather, our success is measured by how well we enhance health in our society, manifest civic virtues, behave as a society, and dedicate ourselves to the common good…  We must select leaders who embrace higher purposes and in John Dewey’s words, choose people who will expand our heritage of values, make the world more solid and secure, and more generously share it with those that come after us.”

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Bill Mathis Reflects on Trump’s Education Budget: A Paradise Lost?

Bill Mathis understands public education from his experience as an award winning local school superintendent, a member of a state board of education and an academic expert on education policy. Bill is the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year. He currently serves on the Vermont State Board of Education and chairs the legislative committee.

Mathis condemns President Donald Trump’s miserly 2018 federal education budget that undermines our nation’s principles: “In 1965, the federal government, driven by the obligation to provide equal opportunities to the least fortunate of our citizens, passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  It was intended to lift the nation by strengthening our poorest children and schools, improving the quality of teaching, opening the doors of higher education, and providing skills to adults…  And the emphasis was on building the common good.  By widely investing in our citizens, we invest in the health of our society. Those principles have found no refuge in the work of President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos; all that remains of these great purposes is a confusion of empty words….”

Mathis has given me permission to print his reflection on the meaning of the President’s federal budget proposal, released last week.

Bill Mathis

Trump’s Education Budget: A Paradise Lost?

“But all was false and hollow; though his tongue Dropp’d manna and could make the worse appear the better reason.     — John Milton, Paradise Lost, II.I.112

We had a vision of a more perfect nation where democracy and equality were more than aspirations. We believed we could make this piece of paradise real with the unity of the people and the purposefulness of our governments. But this has been reduced to an endless series of false and hollow incantations whose life-span is as transient as its denial in the next morning’s news cycle.

In 1965, the federal government, driven by the obligation to provide equal opportunities to the least fortunate of our citizens, passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It was intended to lift the nation by strengthening our poorest children and schools, improving the quality of teaching, opening the doors of higher education, and providing skills to adults. It embraced the ideal voiced by the late President Kennedy that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” And the emphasis was on building the common good. By widely investing in our citizens, we invest in the health of our society and economy.

Those principles have found no refuge in the work of President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos; all that remains of these great purposes is a confusion of empty words made to appear as if the worst were the better. Larded with phrases like “commitment to improving education” and “maintaining support for the nation’s most vulnerable students,” Trump proposes to slash federal education programs by $9.2 billion dollars, or 13.5%. This is on top of past unmet needs, since federal obligations to poor and special education children have never been fully met. Starved programs are now set to have their rations reduced or cut entirely.

With a remarkable lack of compassion, the Special Olympics budget was zeroed. Twenty-two programs are eliminated including community learning centers, arts, pre-school and teacher improvement.

Blind to clear evidence that every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education returns eight dollars in positive social outcomes such as reduced unemployment, stable families, less incarceration and the like, the Trump budget treats this wise and productive investment as another area to defund: Head Start and childcare are slotted for small reductions, while preschool development grants are entirely eliminated.

It doesn’t get any easier for poor and middle-class students as they get older. Loan forgiveness programs for new college graduates working in schools or government would be eliminated. Student loan interest would be increased. In Trump’s plan, 300,000 students would lose their work-study jobs.  In all, $143 billion would be removed over ten years.

Why make these cuts? The proposal calls for an increase in defense spending of more than $50 billion (a 10% increase) plus tax cuts for the wealthy – and that money has to come from somewhere. By these deeds, a capacity for war is valued more than the needs of the citizenry.

Yet, Trump says “education is the civil rights issue of our time.” This budget raises questions about whether his true objective is to cut civil rights. The proposal’s centerpiece is school choice. The budget seeks to funnel $1.4 billion, in new as well as repurposed funds, into private schools. The “civil rights” framing is stunning doubletalk, since a growing body of independent research shows that school choice segregates students by race, handicap and socioeconomic level.

While there are well-funded partisans who claim that school choice results in better education, an objective look at the data says otherwise. Four recent major studies have examined test-score outcomes for voucher students—in DC, Indiana, Ohio and Louisiana—and all four studies show these students doing worse than if they had stayed in public school. The results for charter schools don’t look good enough to justify the rhetoric. Charter schools and public schools perform about the same in terms of test-score outcomes, with poor schools and exceptional schools being distributed among both sectors. In short, school choice is not a way to increase achievement or equality.

At all levels, the the federal government’s long-standing commitment to tackling inequality is left behind. Instead the budget addresses these concerns by reducing services and by growing a competitive choice system that pits schools and families against each other. In this jarring half-light of contradictions, the worst is claimed to be the better.

The election promises still resonate. Manufacturing was to be restored, the little guy would be taken care of, and the dispossessed would have a champion to restore an imagined great Utopia. Instead, it is a coarsened, contradictory and conflicted selfishness, which lessens the common good. It promises manna but takes from the needy to give to the rich. It is far more dangerous than an education appropriation. Its values threaten our democratic society. Instead of a paradise regained, it is a paradise lost.

William J. Mathis is the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center and vice-chair of The Vermont State Board of Education. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any group with which he is affiliated.             

Everybody Should Read This New Policy Brief: Lessons from NCLB for ESSA

In the context of President-elect Donald Trump’s promise that his education plan will be based on the ideology of increased privatization, it is refreshing and instructive to read the new research-based (seven and a half pages of footnotes for a 15 page paper) policy brief from the National Education Policy Center on Lessons from NCLB for the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The style is charming and the paper non-technical.  Anybody who cares about the role of the federal government in education ought to read it. It could profitably be the basis of conversation in a community group or a PTA.

Here is how its authors, Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo begin: “If Lyndon Johnson were alive today, he would undoubtedly be discouraged to see what has become of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that he signed into law fifty years ago as part of the War on Poverty… (O)ur lawmakers have largely eroded ESEA’s original intent.  Moving from assistance to ever-increasing regulation…. (a)t each step, our educational policies became more test-based, top-down, prescriptive, narrow and punitive, and federal support to build the most struggling schools’ capacity for improvement faded.”

How does the new version of the federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (passed last December) compare to its No Child Left Behind predecessor?  “(A)t its core, ESSA is still a primarily test-based educational regime. Annual standardized testing in reading and math is still mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Science testing at benchmark levels of schooling remains. The criteria for requiring schools to write improvement plans have been revised, yet standardized test scores continue to comprise the largest share of these criteria. Identification of schools in need of improvement continues to depend mostly on scores, but now also includes one or more other academic and quality indicators. Formerly rigid prescriptions for school reforms have been relegated to districts and states, although the expanded range of potential reforms still encourages and funds charter schools and requires other NCLB-like ‘corrective actions.’  State accountability systems must be federally approved and mechanisms such as turnaround-driven layoffs, conversions to charter schools, and school closures are likely to continue even though they have not been proven to consistently improve schools in struggling communities. Punishments for continued low test-performance persist. The most substantial difference is that the power to decide which test-based consequences for under-performing schools resides once again in the states, not the federal government.”

After an introduction, the short brief is organized into five sections: NCLB and ESSA: Commonalities and Contrasts—First-Order Lessons for ESSA—Lessons for State Accountability Systems—Recommendations for Policymakers and School Practice—and The Moral Imperative: Adequate Inputs and the Opportunity Gap.  Whether you are a parent, a citizen, a teacher, a state policymaker or a member of Congress, there is important information her for you, and the presentation is lucid and non-technical.

Mathis and Trujillo believe the primary lesson from No Child Left Behind is that, “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities…. Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools.”

What about the rationale often used to justify all the testing mandated by No Child Left Behind?  “One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality.  This has not happened.”

The authors refute the idea that high-stakes, test-based accountability improves learning. And they present research to show that the school turnarounds prescribed by NCLB caused “disruption, decreased efficiency, and human capital and organizational commitment losses” instead of helping children.  They reject test-based teacher evaluation, a strategy used by 74% of schools that received School Improvement Grants: “Evaluating teachers by test scores breaks down in several logical and empirical ways.  First, students must be randomly assigned, which is demonstrably not the case in school practice. Some teachers teach remedial classes while others teach advanced placement students.  Further, a given teacher could be (and has been) rated a success in one year and a failure in the next simply based on the students assigned. Second, the error rate inherent in this approach is so high that it simply precludes its use in high-stakes circumstances. Third, there is no general teaching factor that is universally applicable to all cases. This renders the model invalid for general application. Fourth, alternative explanations of gains (or losses) caused by factors outside the teacher’s control have typically not been properly considered. The use of value-added measures provoked the unusual response of a cautionary statement by the American Educational Research Association as well as a warning from the American Statistical Association.”

Recommendations for states?  “Above all else, each state must assure that students have adequate opportunities, funding and resources to achieve state goals.” “States must shift toward an assistance role and exercise less of a regulatory role.”  “States and districts must collaborate with social service and labor departments to ensure adequate personal, social and economic opportunities.”

And there is one special opportunity afforded by the Every Student Succeeds Act that was absent from No Child Left Behind: “Under ESSA, school performance will now be measured using a system that incorporates one or more non-academic indicators—chosen separately by each state. These non-academic indicators provide states their strongest new tool for maximizing educational equity and opportunity and bringing attention to the nation’s broader educational purposes.”

Here is the moral assessment that concludes this short, readable brief: “The nation has become a majority of minorities and the common good requires all students to be well educated.  Yet, we have embarked on economic and educational paths that systematically privilege only a small percentage of the population. In education, we invest less on children of color and the economically impoverished. At the same time, we support a testing regime that measures wealth rather than provides a rich kaleidoscope of experience and knowledge to all… The greatest conceptual and most damaging mistake of test-based accountability systems has been the pretense that poorly supported schools could systemically overcome the effects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation by rigorous instruction and testing.”

Please Read Bill Mathis’ Profound Reflection on the Public Purpose of Education in America

According to his biography posted at the National Education Policy Center, “William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year. He currently serves on the Vermont State Board of Education and chairs the legislative committee.”  Bill Mathis brings a long career of experience—a local, state, and federal perspective—to his thinking about public schools.  An excellent writer, Mathis has penned a short defense of the public role of public schools in the United States.  I urge you to read Mathis’ paper in full.  Here is just a taste.

“We have made great progress in establishing a universal education system, as evidenced by graduation rates being at an all-time high.  Yet, substantial disparities in educational resources, opportunities, and outcomes continue to undermine our vision—and ultimately our society… Given the broad scope of inequities in schools and in society writ large, the most sensible approach would be to inventory the full range of social and economic needs, and address the multiple factors—which extend well beyond the traditional boundaries of schools—that contribute to the enduring and increasing opportunity gap that children experience in schools.  Fair housing policies, investments in distressed neighborhoods, good jobs, and policies that reduce income disparities are all essential… Misreading the achievement gap as an indicator of school failure rather than a measure of unequal opportunities, some economists suggest that simply improving math scores will eradicate economic malaise.  This mindset provided the rationale for the prevalent reform philosophy of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: test scores will make the nation strong, and those scores can be improved by pedagogy and driven by punishments, regardless of the vast differences in student circumstances.  This approach failed.”

Mathis worries, “Unfortunately, with the ascendance of test scores and international economic competitiveness as education’s most loudly proclaimed purposes, the nation has forgotten that universal public education was established primarily for the benefits it provides to the common good… (E)ducation is the bedrock of democracy.  It is different from a private good or a market commodity.”

Changing course from the disastrous policies of the past quarter century will, according to Mathis, require reconsidering the purpose of public education—its goals including “civic responsibility, democratic values, economic self-sufficiency, cultural competency and awareness, and social and economic opportunity.”  Our society will need to ensure the fundamental resources for all schools and especially in high-poverty neighborhoods, and develop public policy “that is supportive of equal opportunity…rather than high-stakes purposes….”

Mathis calls us to recommit ourselves to the long valued public purpose of schooling.

What the Public Thinks vs. What the Media Says about Public School Reform

In a short, readable reflection,  Going the Wrong Way?  What the Public Says about Education ReformBill Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center, former Vermont school superintendent, and educational researcher, explores the disconnect between the state of public education reform and the concerns of the public.  His reflection was written to mark the beginning of the school year and the recent release of the 45th Phi Delta Kappa-Gallup poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools.

Mathis declares, “A couple of findings jump out: Most people have not heard of many of the nation’s biggest reform efforts and when they have, they are increasingly dissatisfied with the top-down, test-driven market-model orientation of these initiatives.”  He surmises that perhaps one reason most people have never heard of the Common Core Standards much discussed among policy experts is “because they were developed outside of the normal governmental oversight.”

He reports that the public has soured on mandated standardized tests, that most parents are pleased with their own child’s school, and that “the public sees the greatest problem is the lack of financial support—the number one concern for the last 45 years.”  According to Mathis, “This view is supported by the fact that the United States is the only developed nation where educational spending on needy children is lower than for other children.”

As a companion piece to Mathis’ article, you may also want to read Anthony Cody’s concerns: Education Nation, 2013: Will NBC News Use the Gates Foundation’s Facts Again? Or Can We Get a Real Dialogue Going?  He wonders whether this year, in the fourth edition of NBC’s Education Nation series (set to air between October 6 and October 8) we can expect objective news coverage or whether the sponsor’s biases will again provide the framework for the programming.

Anthony Cody is a former public school science teacher in Oakland, California and now a blogger at Teacher Magazine and advocate for supporting public school teachers and improving public schools.

The Education Nation series on NBC has been sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has in the past portrayed Gates Foundation’s priorities as if they are the news.  Cody reminds us that, “Two years ago, Brian Williams opened Education Nation‘s Teacher Town Hall event with an interview with Melinda Gates, saying: ‘Gates Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event, and the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world.  It’s their facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation.'”

Reading Mathis’ and Cody’s reflections together exposes the role of money these days in developing and promoting public education policy and at least part of the disconnect Mathis describes between the priorities of the public and the reality of the politics.