In Fine, New Book, Steve Nelson Urges New Education Path that Is Less Dangerous for Children

Steve Nelson’s new book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, is refreshing in the author’s declaration of privilege as he applies all that he has learned in nineteen years as Head of the Calhoun School, a private, progressive school in New York City to an analysis of what’s gone wrong in public school reform over the same period.

Nelson begins: “I am mindful of the position from which I write. Those of us in independent schools enjoy great privilege. This privilege allows us to draw our students into deeply satisfying and thoughtful lives. But we must recognize that these experiences should not be limited to only those children who are wealthy and/or lucky enough to enroll in our schools. Non-sectarian private schools enroll only about 6% of America’s children. So what about the other millions of children? Do we who carry privilege also bear responsibility? I think so.” (p.5)

This is a refreshing and deeply grounded book for these times when so many of our long-held values about education are being tested.

Nelson isn’t utopian; he doesn’t imagine that all public schools could possibly afford to indulge children in classes of 15 students where teachers personally appreciate each student’s learning style and developmental level, but he does believe the constructs of progressive education are a far better way to organize schools than the test-and-punish system that came with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

A good teacher, Nelson summarizes the history of progressive education from Socrates and Aristotle through Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, A.S. Neill, Rudolph Steiner, John Dewey, Francis Parker, Felix Adler, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and Howard Gardner.  He also explores the neurobiological and psychological research supporting progressive education.

What is Nelson’s definition of the kind of education he’d like to see for more American children in their public schools? “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.’ Conventional schools tend toward training and instruction, while progressive schools insist on learning and discovery. Perhaps the most powerful and misunderstood facet of progressive education is the notion of democracy. Progressive schools see themselves and their students as inextricably connected to the society in which they operate. The problems and fascinations of the world around them are the problems and fascinations they examine.” (p.11) He adds: “Education should cultivate the capacity to recognize and create beauty. School is a place where empathy and compassion should be honored and developed. The flames of curiosity should be fanned, not smothered. Skepticism should be sharply honed.” (p. 48)

Nelson’s critique is biting. Writing at the end of the Arne Duncan era, when mega philanthropy collaborated actively with government to drive “corporate reform,” Nelson comments: “In short, business leaders and free market economic principles have gained increasing control over education. Education has become highly dependent on philanthropy, as public funding has declined.  Philanthropists didn’t make their fortunes as violinists, so they bring their business perspectives to bear on the institutions they support. As the old saying goes, ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.’  Today’s economist-driven version of education reform is the hammer that mistakes America’s children, particularly the poorest kids of color, as nails to pound.”

Nelson considers just how A Nation at Risk misunderstood our educational challenges; how testing and the intense pressure of high stakes works in children’s brains to undermine memory; how children who are drilled never learn to question and inquire; how the no-excuses charter schools enforce compliance and destroy curiosity; how scripted learning aimed at test scores hurts children and makes it impossible for good teachers to do what they know best; and how our notion of IQ which focuses on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is insufficient and leaves out the seven other domains identified by Howard Gardner. And we learn why schools need to nurture these other domains through the arts and physical activity—the classes schools are cutting these days as test prep takes more and more time.

Nelson’s strength is his experience—nearly twenty years in his most recent position alone—working with children and adolescents at school. As he defends the needs of public schools that serve the mass of our children and emphasizes the need for reallocating our society’s resources, his focus is on what money can do inside a school to free the teachers to teach and create space for children to explore.  He doesn’t cover what he doesn’t know—meeting the children’s needs in a school where all the students qualify for free lunch, for example—assembling the resources and expertise for a quality English language program for immigrant children—finding the resources to serve severely disabled students.

Nelson style is fresh and engaging.  He is not ideological despite his strong belief in progressive schooling. He nudges schools and policy makers to move in a progressive direction. And while a lot of books about progressive education are dated, this one is very much up to date—exploring progressive education theory in the context of the destructive pressure of  “corporate reform” accountability.

While the book was written in the last year of so of the Obama Department of Education, it speaks clearly to the problems we are likely face in a Trump administration with Betsy DeVos as education secretary. As the Head of an exclusive New York City private school, Nelson knows precisely why the kind of school choice being promoted by Trump and DeVos won’t work: “The private schools where privileged parents send their kids are expensive and highly selective. I know. I’m the Head of one of them. Calhoun’s tuition is an embarrassing $48,000 per year—about average for Manhattan private schools. Poor families in New York City don’t have the ‘choice’ to attend Calhoun or any of the other private schools. At Calhoun we offer a great deal of tuition assistance so that our students are not all from wealthy families, but the glib come-on in support of privatization is inaccurate and dishonest. Try taking a $5,000 to $7,000 voucher to a place like Sidwell Friends, where the Obamas sent their daughters. Sidwell’s tuition is also about $40.000.” (p. 112-113)

Letter Grades, Assigned by States to School Districts, Tell Us Little about Real Opportunity

Ohio’s release last Friday of school district report cards that rate schools and school districts and assign letter grades for a range of calculations that remain incomprehensible to the general public has set me to thinking about opportunity.  The grades, after all, purport to rank and rate our state’s school districts according to their success or failure in serving all children. School district grades and ratings, however, are almost entirely abstract.  Experience is categorized, assigned numbers that become factors in algorithms, and described as a letter grade for each of a number of categories.

Consider instead what Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA education professor, says about opportunity: “(I)’m interested… in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind.  The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it.”  (Why School? p. 34) “(T)he creation of opportunity involves a good deal of thoughtful work on the part of the provider, and as well, demands significant effort on the part of the recipient… In this regard, I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation.  But what is the experience of opportunity?  Certainly one feels a sense of possibility, of hope. But it is hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal.  And all this takes place with people who interact with you in ways that affirm your hope.” (Why School? pp. 13-14)

By contrast, the Plain Dealer covers last Friday’s release of school district grades and rankings in the most abstract way—totally removed from any attention to the “experience” of attending school.  The newspaper covers the ratings almost as a sports competition—listing the top 20 school districts in Northeast Ohio and the top 20 school districts in the state.  All of them across the state are exurban, high income, and homogeneously white. They include the wealthiest outer ring suburbs of Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Lorain, Akron, and Youngstown.

Decades’ of research confirm that test scores primarily reflect the aggregate family wealth of a school district’s student population. When the preliminary scores from last spring’s Ohio tests were released in December (Final scores ratings just released last week are from last spring’s testing.), here is how, the Plain Dealer described research from Howard Fleeter, a Columbus school data analyst who has continued to examine the direct correlation of family wealth in Ohio’s communities with the letter  grades the state is assigning to its school districts:  “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase….  Ohio may have changed academic standards and its state tests last school year, but the recurring relationship between test scores and poverty remains the same…. Fleeter has reported the relationship between test scores and family income on an annual basis the last several years…. He repeated that analysis this week using preliminary test scores from the spring on Ohio’s new math, English, science and social studies tests…. As he does each year, Fleeter compared the percentage of students scoring ‘proficient’ or better on state tests in each school district to the percentage of students considered ‘Economically Disadvantaged’….”

Of course there are social and demographic implications when the state assigns letter grades to school districts and the newspaper covers all this as a competition and identifies “top” districts. Describing the danger of using school district test score grades as a guide to evaluating school districts, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein told the Cleveland City Club last February: “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools. And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools. Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F,’ where parents may be working the kind of contingent schedules I described earlier. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than the ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that. And so if you label schools with ‘A’-‘F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A’-‘F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

There are a number of categories in which Ohio’s school districts recently received grades—including one that is little discussed and seems more promising—“Value Added.”  But one indicator, based primarily on cut scores on standardized tests, is more important.  According to the website of the Ohio Department of Education, “The Indicators Met measure shows how many students have a minimum, or proficient, level of knowledge. These indicators are not new to Ohio students or teachers. They are based on a series of up to 35 state tests that measure the percent of students proficient or higher in a grade and subject…. The number of indicators “met” out of the total indicators determines the A-F grade on the report card.”

This year the “Indicators Met” category has more than the usual “F” grades because Ohio used a new PARCC test, which the legislature has now decided to abandon and find a new testing company.  Students’ scores dropped statewide.   Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s education reporter, notes that, “Six times fewer Ohio school districts received the top grade in a key measure on the new state report cards than last year…”  In a press release, State Representative Teresa Fedor warns, “Every grade on these report cards is tainted by unverified, arbitrary, poorly designed and implemented tests that have been thrown out by the Ohio legislature.  The flaws are so pervasive that the grades on the Ohio School Report Cards should not be counted for anything.  The state calls it a safe harbor (The state says it will not penalize school districts this year.), which should lead one to question: why are there report cards at all?”   And A.J. Wagner, a member of the state school board, warns: “The tests, and therefore the grades, violate standards of fairness… I urge students, parents, and communities to ignore them.”

Coincidentally, on Saturday, the Plain Dealer published an article that speaks not to the abstract and questionable school district grades but instead to an issue Mike Rose would likely agree is more closely connected to how students across Ohio experience opportunity: “Ohio high school students pay as much as $1,200 to participate in a school-sponsored sport, which critics say prevents students from lower-and middle-class families from signing up. School districts say they need to charge fees to offset growing costs outpacing state funding.”  The legislature is considering prohibiting the fees.

The school district in which I reside serves a high percentage of very poor students and a high percentage of students in the Cuyahoga County foster care system.  It posts a low state grade on “Indicators Met,” and a very high grade in the lesser described state report card category of “Value Added.” And, contrary to the trend by which Ohio school districts are increasing activity participation fees, our school district has paid careful attention to the distribution of opportunity by avoiding what the Plain Dealer on Saturday called “pay-to-play” fees that would prevent our poorest students from playing sports or participating in music programming.

Our family chose to educate our children in a very diverse, mixed-income school district where they would benefit from a heterogeneous group of peers, but in which the school district worked to ensure opportunity for all.  It was this experience we sought for our children who are now adults. I know many families whose children are currently enrolled who are pleased with our school district, whatever the state’s school district grades may say. Of course, in a very unequal society, it is important that all districts work persistently to make the experience of schooling more equitable.  But the state’s rating system doesn’t help in any way I can see.

Opportunity, according to Mike Rose, is “hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal.”  The school district grades and rankings tell us nothing about how school districts are expanding concrete pathways for children to experience opportunity.  Pay-to-play fees are just one way that some school districts are blocking those pathways.

Network for Public Education Rates States’ Support for Public Education

On Tuesday afternoon, the Network for Public Education (NPE) released a report that evaluates the states by what is today an unconventional set of standards. States earn points if they have valued school teachers and supported the professionalization of teaching. States earn points for having invested in adequate school funding equitably distributed and for investing in research-proven programs.  And they gain points for reducing poverty and integrating schools racially and economically. The report takes away points from states that have attached high stakes to the federally mandated standardized tests. NPE removes points from states that have privatized schools.

Here is NPE’s description of the principles affirmed in the new report: “NPE values specific policies that will make our public schools vibrant and strong—a well-trained, professional teaching force, adequate and equitable funding wisely spent, and policies that give all students a better opportunity for success, such as integrated schools and low stakes attached to any standardized tests they take. We applaud those states that have resisted the forces of privatization and profiteering that in recent years have been called ‘reforms.'”

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, our society has increasingly evaluated schools by the test score outcomes they are said to “produce”  with lessening attention to measures of opportunity—the resource inputs necessary for ensuring that children have well-prepared teachers, small enough classes for children to be known and supported by an adult, enough funding for competitive salaries, and a rich curriculum including the arts. The report ranks the states by their policies that guarantee the provision of such resource opportunities.

In the section on “professionalization of teaching,” the report confronts policies in some states that view teachers “as interchangeable—experience is discounted, even viewed as a flaw.”  Instead, “Teaching should be a long-term career commitment.  Research shows that experience matters and leads to better student outcomes, including increased learning, better attendance and fewer disciplinary referrals.  Advanced content degrees, especially in mathematics and science, have a positive effect on student learning and good pre-service field experience builds teacher effectiveness, confidence and job satisfaction.”

Money matters, and provides smaller classes and more support staff.  “More spending is positively associated with better learning outcomes,” but, “During the past decade… the gap in spending between rich and poor districts grew by 44 percent.”  The report ranks states by their school funding adequacy and the equitable distribution of resources across school districts.

The report ranks states by their investment in specific programs known to support children, especially those whose needs are greatest: “We believe we must invest tax dollars in the classroom to reduce class size and invest in early childhood education.  Because the relationship between students and teacher is vital, we are also concerned about the growth in online learning and virtual schools.”

The Network for Public Education also rates the states on the degree to which they have adopted what NPE views are the most damaging policies of test-based accountability and privatization.

Standardized tests are made more damaging for students, teachers and schools by the high stakes that are attached:  “Every time high stakes are attached to test scores to determine grade retention, high school graduation, the dismissal of a teacher, or a school closing, there are negative consequences for students.  In NPE’s rating system, the states that lose the most points are the states that have attached the most high-stakes consequences to their testing.

In her introduction to the report NPE founder and president, Diane Ravitch declares NPE’s commitment to public education as a “pillar of our democratic society”: “We believe that public schools can serve all students well, inspire their intrinsic motivation, and prepare them to make responsible choices for themselves and for our society.  Public education creates citizens.  Its doors are open to all, regardless of their race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or disability status… Educating all children is a civic responsibility, not a consumer good.  Sustaining a public education system of high quality is a job for the entire community, whether or not they have children in public schools….” States gain points if they have invested in strengthening public schools. States lose points if they have privatized public education with vouchers, charters, or parent trigger laws that, “take the governance of schools out of the hands of democratically elected officials and the local communities they serve, and place it in the hands of a few individuals—often elites or corporations with no connections to the community.”

I think NPE’s greatest contribution is in its definition of the principles by which the new report suggests we evaluate schools—by identifying the factors that expand opportunity and by showing which states have instead moved toward test-based accountability and privatization.  The report is more interesting than the letter grades it assigns.

My only quarrel with the report is in its final category that evaluates states on their chance for success depending on the amount of family poverty in each state and the degree of racial integration in each state.  Today’s policy makers are not responsible for the basic demographics they have inherited in their states.  What they can control are the policies they enact to ameliorate poverty and reduce segregation by race and economics.  The report would be stronger if this category focused on specific policies some of the states have enacted—efforts to ensure affordable housing, policies to increase the minimum wage, laws to outlaw just-in-time employment scheduling.  And despite current U.S. Supreme Court decisions that severely reduce permissible remedies for racial segregation, some states have developed innovative plans, for example, Hartford, Connecticut’s magnet schools.  The report would be stronger if it awarded points for the practical and innovative efforts some states have made.