National “Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education” Campaign Re-Launches This Week

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of educators and key policy experts gathered in Washington, D.C. to re-launch a campaign for holistic education and social policy reform to surround America’s poorest children and their families with the kind of educational opportunities their middle class peers take for granted. Seizing the occasion of the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to replace No Child Left Behind, advocates for expanding opportunity in America’s public schools have relaunched the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education, a campaign designed to push public policy away from blaming teachers and toward constructing a policy framework to support children and schools in poor and marginalized communities.

Broader, BOLDER’s new mission statement proclaims: “The Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education is grounded in the understanding that the kinds of educational opportunities—both within and outside of schools—that help well-off children thrive are the same opportunities that would most benefit children who lack access to them… Achievement gaps in test scores are not the root problem, but important symptoms of the underlying problems facing our schools…. Since poverty manifests itself in various ways and places in children’s educational trajectories, BBA addresses them at each stage….”

In a column published by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, Elaine Weiss, the campaign’s national coordinator, explains why the relaunch of the Broader, BOLDER Agenda is designed to coincide with the recent passage of a new federal education law: “ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) claws back some of the most problematic federal accountability requirements, and it emphasizes the need for social and emotional, as well as traditional academic, measures of success.  It also sets aside new money for investments in quality pre-kindergarten and for wraparound supports that help provide disadvantaged students equal opportunities to learn.  That said, ESSA comes nowhere near evening the education playing field…. ESSA fails to put forth a coherent strategy to address the high levels of poverty, (and) racial and socioeconomic isolation… that present major barriers to success for millions of American students and the schools serving them… With its relaunch, BBA establishes the framework for developing those policies.”

Broader, BOLDER’s new agenda folds together social and health support for families with school improvement: “As rates of child and family poverty grew during and in the aftermath of the Great Recession, poverty also became more concentrated in certain cities and neighborhoods.  This exacerbated the already difficult circumstances of children of color, who have long been disproportionately clustered in our country’s least resourced… and most isolated communities.  Widespread joblessness, crime, violence, and dysfunction combine with scant public and private resources to isolate families…. Indeed, research documents the severe obstacles to school success posed by these circumstances.”  The campaign links four strategies to alleviate out-of-school barriers to success:

  • Early Childhood Experiences: “That every student arrives at kindergarten with the benefit of high-quality early learning and necessary health, wellness, and family support services from birth.
  • After-school and Summer:  “Indeed, it is particularly critical that students who are less likely to be exposed to organized sports, activities such as the fine arts, music, and trips to museums, and challenging games like chess in other contexts enjoy those opportunities as part of their schooling.”
  • Health: “Not only should we expand the presence of health clinics in schools serving high-risk student populations, but enact policies to support those programs.”
  • Nutrition :”Every child should have consistent access to nutritious food all day and all year, and the school system, with support from other agencies, should be structured to provide it without stigma or barriers to access.”

The new campaign also presents four strategies to narrow opportunity gaps within and across schools:

  • adequate school funding, equitably distributed;
  • school accountability that measures not just test scores but also school conditions such as access to quality teachers and curricula;
  • an emphasis on preparing and fostering “a strong, experienced corps of professional educators”; and
  • robust and transparent regulation of charter schools to ensure they serve all children, avoid conflicts of interest, and responsibly steward our tax dollars.

In marked contrast to the past two decades’ accountability-driven agenda, framers of the new campaign confront what research confirms are the primary barriers to school achievement.  Leadership by chairs—Helen Ladd, Pedro Noguera, Paul Reville and Joshua Starr—and the appointment of a diverse and broadly experienced advisory board ensure a wide audience for the new campaign’s work.

Feds’ Misguided Demands in Race to the Top Create Expensive Policy Disaster that Damages Schools and Further Strains Education Budgets

Taken together, two important reports released on Thursday, September 12, paint a troubling picture of the plight of school districts facing complex demands with little money as the school year gets underway.  The first is from the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education and examines the evidence on the impact of the federal Race to the Top Competition (RTTT) now three years into its implementation:  Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement.  The second is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities‘ look at the trend in states’ expenditures for public education: Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession.

The Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education’s report traces the history and implementation of the federal Race to the Top program, the federal stimulus program launched in 2009 as a grant competition for states with the goal of “creating conditions for innovation and reform.”  The U.S. Department of Education judged grant applications according to how school districts would pledge to adopt standards and assessments, build data systems that measure student growth, tie teacher evaluation to students’ standardized test scores, and pledge to turn around the lowest scoring schools through closing schools, charterizing schools, and replacing the staff.

While the report’s author, Elaine Weiss frames her conclusions about the implementation of Race to the Top with a mass of facts and measured language, overall the report depicts a policy disaster.  The report concludes that RTTT was designed to address the wrong issues; it made things worse for teachers and schools in many places; it cost a lot of money that could have been better spent in the Title I formula program; and it failed utterly to accomplish its stated goals of closing achievement gaps by race and economics, increasing high school graduation rates for black, brown and very poor children, and significantly improving the performance of teachers.

Weiss explores the literature about the out-of-school factors that drive opportunity gaps: poverty, disparities in early childhood experiences, disparities in access to physical and mental healthcare, food insecurity, increased residential mobility among poor families, disparities in chronic absence from school, after school and summer learning loss when there is not enriched programming outside of school, and myriad additional factors that accompany concentrated poverty.   RTTT addresses none of these challenges.

Evidence abounds also that Race to the Top’s strategies for addressing in-school shortcomings are not helping and have instead been damaging in many cases to the very schools and neighborhoods being targeted.  Describing reforms implemented under RTTT in  Washington, D.C., the report charges: “On the whole, changing school staff is unlikely to produce real, sustained improvement.  Results from ‘reconstitution’ in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS)—replacement of the principal and/or substantial proportions of the teaching staff—suggest the lack of effectiveness of this practice… DCPS reconstituted 18 schools between 2008-2010.  Of those, two have closed, and 10 have seen their test scores decline further…”

Weiss continues,  “With its focus on in-school policies that target and assess only a narrow set of academic issues, Race to the Top’s policy agenda fails to address multiple opportunity gaps that drive the majority of achievement gaps.  Even in the best of circumstances, then, Race to the Top could not achieve what it sets out to do.  That  mismatch is exacerbated by the initiative’s mandate that states fix a complicated, expensive set of problems on the cheap and in an unrealistically short period.”

In each of the winning states grant writers over-promised what states would be able to accomplish:  “In sum, virtually every state has promised to raise student achievement to levels higher than those of the currently highest-achieving state and/or to close race-, income-, and disability-based gaps to degrees that have never before been accomplished and that theory suggests may be actually impossible.  All of this is to be attained through the addition of roughly 1 percent to states’ education budgets over just four years.”  None of the states has come close to what it promised; many have made little progress, which should, perhaps not surprise, as the report documents that the turnaround plans required by the federal Department of Education in RTTT’s design are not aimed at deep causes of unequal school achievement.  Our nation will have to address poverty outside of school and the unequal funding of public schools that compounds the ravages of poverty.

Among the most worrisome in the report is the depiction of states’ struggles to evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores.  All twelve states are way behind their projected timelines because nobody has yet been able to develop a fair, reliable econometric or value-added system for evaluating teachers.  In this area, RTTT is reported to have harmed the schools and teachers serving vulnerable children:  “Race to the Top aims to improve the quality of the teacher pool by enhancing recruitment and retention strategies and using data-driven evaluations to inform teacher practice… Overall, however, they have increased their reliance on hiring young, non-certified teachers who rarely stay long enough to become proficient, rather than developing a strong corps with staying power.  And while they have invested heavily in linking student test scores and other measure of ‘growth’ to teacher effectiveness, as promised, states have devoted the bulk of the effort to identifying effective teachers to be rewarded, and ineffective teachers to be eliminated, rather than focusing on the vast majority in the middle who would benefit from targeted feedback, coaching, and professional development.”

Finally the dollars states sought when they submitted their elaborate grant proposals are meager, averaging only 1.21 percent of the budgets of the states that won the original competition.  The second report, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), puts the pitiful size of Race to the Top grants in perspective.  “States’ new budgets are providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than they did six years ago—often far less.  The reduced levels reflect not only the lingering effects of the 2007-2009 recession but also continued austerity in many states.”  Here are the facts according to CBPP: 34 states are providing less funding per student in 2013-2014 than they did before the 2008 recession; 15 states are sending less per student funding to local school districts this school year than last year; and in most states where state per-student funding has increased for this school year, it has not increased enough to make up for cuts that have occurred since 2008.  CBPP adds: The precipitous decline in property values since the start of the recession, coupled with the political or legal difficulties in many localities of raising property taxes, make raising significant additional revenue through the property tax very difficult for school districts.”

These are desperate financial times for school districts.  The CBPP report creates a very clear context for one of the conclusions of Broader, BOLDER’s report on Race to the Top:  “The sharp decline in resources and capacity due to the recession, budget cuts, and restructuring led many states to seek the RTTT funds, but the $4 billion spread across (the winning) states amounts to an average increase in state education budgets of just over 1 percent.  Yet, at the same time the agreements require substantial new investment.  This contrast between requirements and the resources to meet them has emerged as gaps in state capacity across several areas.”