Schools Serving Very Poor Children Need Financial Assistance. Instead Ohio Beats Them Up.

Ohio operates a test-and-punish accountability scheme that ranks and rates schools and school districts, and punishes school districts whose scores are low.  All the while, the state has diminished its effort to support public education and equalize funding.

In mid-September, for example, the state released school report cards awarding schools and school districts letter grades—“A” through “F.”  Like two other districts recently taken over by the state after receiving a series of “F” grades, East Cleveland will be seized by the state and assigned a state-appointed overseer CEO to replace its school superintendent and an appointed commission to replace the local school board.  East Cleveland—an economically and racially segregated inner-ring Cleveland suburban school district—is among Ohio’s very poorest.  Historically the residents in the community have voted high millage relative to their incomes to pay for their public schools despite the closure of local industry and the collapse of the economy.  The school districts in two other impoverished communities, Youngstown and Lorain, were taken over in recent years without a subsequent rise in test scores, the state’s chosen metric. Both received “F” grades again this year. The implementation of state takeover has been insensitive and insulting. Ohio’s Plunderbund reported in March that Krish Mohip, the state overseer CEO in Youngstown, feels he cannot safely move his family to the community where he is in charge of the public schools. He has also been openly interviewing for other jobs. Lorain’s CEO, David Hardy tried to donate the amount of what would be the property taxes on a Lorain house to the school district, when he announced that he does not intend to bring his family to live in Lorain.

EdChoice vouchers are a second high stakes punishment in the school attendance zones of “F”-rated schools. EdChoice gives families the opportunity to opt their children out of “failing” public schools by granting their children a chance to leave at public expense.  Writing for the Heights Observer, Susan Kaeser describes how this works in another Cleveland inner-ring suburban school district: “Access to EdChoice vouchers is tied to Ohio’s deeply flawed education accountability system.  If the aggregate test score data for an individual public school falls short, the school is defined as an EdChoice school.  Anyone residing in the attendance area of that school who could have attended that school is eligible for an EdChoice voucher… Nearly every district that has EdChoice designation serves many high-need students.”

Most students using EdChoice vouchers in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District which Kaeser describes are attending religious schools, and in fact real estate companies have been marketing houses in the state-designated neighborhoods as qualifying for EdChoice vouchers. Children can qualify for one of these vouchers as Kindergartners, without ever attending or intending to enroll in the public school that anchors the neighborhood. As Kaeser explains, “Once a student receives a voucher it can be renewed until the student graduates… Voucher use has grown exponentially as more schools were designated EdChoice and as recipients renew their vouchers.  This year, 176 Kindergarten students received first-time vouchers (without previously enrolling in a public school), adding to the total of more than 650 recipients.  The expected loss to the CH-UH district this year from EdChoice is $3.7 million….”  The rapid expansion of this program is fiscally unsustainable.

In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter tracks the impact statewide of Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers. Over the ten years since the program’s inception, it has grown from 3,100 to 22,153 students.  Fleeter explains: “EdChoice vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and up to $6,000 for students in grades 9-12.”  He continues, explaining that while the money ostensibly comes from the state, EdChoice is “funded through a ‘district deduction’ system… The deduction system means that the voucher student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the voucher is paid for by deducting the voucher amount from the district’s state aid.  This can often result in a district seeing a deduction for the voucher greater than the state aid that was received for that student, meaning that the district is in effect subsidizing the voucher program.”  While in FY 2007, $10,368,839 was spent statewide for EdChoice vouchers.  By FY 2017, the amount statewide had climbed to $102,688,259.  Over the decade, a total of $649,158,483 of state and local tax dollars was diverted from public schools to private school tuition through EdChoice vouchers.

All of Ohio’s school districts where students qualify for EdChoice vouchers are districts serving very poor children. And yet, last month in a new report Howard Fleeter explains: “(R)esidential taxpayers in the low wealth districts are paying taxes at nearly the same rate as are their higher wealth counterparts… The Tax Effort measure shows that when ability to pay is taken into account, the low wealth districts are levying taxes at the highest rate relative to their income, while the highest wealth districts are levying taxes at the lowest rate relative to income.”  Fleeter continues: “(T)he lowest wealth… districts have seen their share of total state and local resources fall from 26.4% in FY99 to 23.1% in FY19, while the highest wealth… school districts have seen their share of total state and local resources increase from 22.2% in FY99 to 23.4% in FY19.  Unsurprisingly… a variety of equity measures indicate that equity in state and local school operating revenues improved from FY99 to FY 09, but regressed somewhat from FY09 to FY19.”

When he was interviewed by Jim Siegel for the Columbus Dispatch, Fleeter was less technical and more candid about the state’s school funding formula: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Siegel reminds readers about the impact of the 2008 Great Recession, compounded by state tax cuts promoted by Governor John Kasich and passed by the legislature: “GOP leaders… eliminated the tangible personal property tax, which more than a decade ago generated about $1.1 billion per year for schools.  For a time, state officials reimbursed schools for those losses, but that has largely been phased out… And finally, there are Gov. John Kasich’s funding formula and fiscal priorities, including income-tax cuts that have meant an estimated $3 billion less in available revenue each year… Kasich crafted a new formula designed to drive funding to districts with the least ability to raise their own local funds, but Fleeter and public education officials have argued that it doesn’t quite work properly.”

Through various schemes to privatize education—EdChoice and several other voucher programs along with a large charter school sector—Governor Kasich and the Republican legislature have found another method, in addition to the flawed school funding formula, to divert needed state dollars out of public schools across the state.  State takeovers of struggling school districts and EdChoice vouchers are the clearest examples in state policy of punitive, top down programs that blame and punish local educators in poor communities instead of driving resources and support to communities serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Once again, it is appropriate to quote Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explaining in The Testing Charade just how high stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face the overwhelming challenge of student poverty:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

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Rick Hess’s Mistake: Failure of Test-and-Punish Is Not Limited to a Few Districts That Have Disappointed

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, has always been a corporate education reform kind of guy. That is why Hess’s honest analysis this week of the ultimate fraud of a succession of school district miracles—Washington, D.C.’s test score and graduation rate miracle under Michelle Rhee and those who followed her, Alonzo Crim’s Atlanta in the 1980s, Houston’s Texas Miracle under Rod Paige, Arne Duncan’s Chicago, and Beverly Hall’s Atlanta—is so refreshingly candid.

In all of these cases, as Hess points out, there was “a remarkable dearth of attention paid to ensuring that the metrics (were) actually valid and reliable.”  Second, it was “tempting for civic leaders and national advocates to accept happy success stories at face value—especially when they (were) fronted by a charismatic superintendent.” And finally “reformers and reporters (made) things worse with their lust for ‘celebrity superintendents’ and ‘model systems.’ Their fascination nurtur(ed) an echo chamber in which a handful of leaders (got) exalted, often for too-good-to-be-true results.”

One must give Hess credit for honestly admitting the failure of so much of what his own kind of school reformers have been exalting for the past quarter century—business school accountability for schools, driven by universal standardized testing, and evaluated by two primary outcomes—standardized test scores and graduation rates. But Hess makes a mistake when he attributes the problem to a few “model” school districts that have disappointed.

Hess’s explanation is inadequate.  Inadequate because the system itself—the whole idea of school reform based on high stakes testing—cannot work.  Daniel Koretz, the Harvard specialist on testing, tells us why in a recent book: The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.

Koretz defines the problem with high-stakes-test-based school accountability by exploring a primary principle of social science research. Forty years ago, Don Campbell, “one of the founders of the science of program evaluation,” articulated a core principle now known as “Campbell’s Law”: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” (p. 38)

How does Campbell’s Law describe the dilemma Frederick Hess identifies?  Koretz quotes Don Campbell himself describing the distortion that will follow when high stakes consequences are attached to a school district’s capacity to raise its aggregate test scores: “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence.  But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (p. 39)

In The Testing Charade, Koretz provides extensive evidence about all the ways high stakes tied to test scores have triggered Campbell’s Law—to invalidate the test results themselves and to undermine our education system and the experiences of teachers and students trapped by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act in a scheme to raise test scores at all costs.

One consequence is score inflation: “All that is required for scores to become inflated is that the sampling used to create a test has to be predictable… For inflation to occur, teachers or students need to capitalize on this predictability, focusing on the specifics of the test at the expense of the larger domain.” (p. 62)  We read about all the ways curriculum designers and teachers are incentivized to focus their classes on the specific elements of any particular academic discipline that have appeared on previous tests.

A second consequence, related to the first, is flat-out test-prep. Test prep narrows what is taught to students to the material that is tested and drills students about using clues in the test itself to come up with the right answers. Koretz identifies three kinds of bad test prep. Reallocation between subjects has been common when schools emphasize No Child Left Behind’s tested subjects—reading and math—and cut back on social studies, the arts, music and recess. Reallocation within subjects is when schools study past years’ versions of the state tests and ask teachers to focus on particular aspects of a subject.  Finally there is coaching. Schools and test-prep companies teach students to respond in a formulaic way to the format of the questions themselves. Koretz explains why all this has implications for educational equity: “Inappropriate test preparation, like score inflation, is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it—in particular, above the ‘proficient’ cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students…. Once again, disadvantaged kids are getting the short end of the stick.” (pp. 116-117)

And a third consequence, demonstrated in every one of Frederick Hess’s examples is cheating. Koretz examines the biggest cheating scandals, notably Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.  He notes: “Cheating—by teachers and administrators, not by students—is one of the simplest ways to inflate scores, and if you aren’t caught, it’s the most dependable.” Sometimes teachers or administrators erase and change students answers; sometimes they provide teachers or students with the test items in advance; other times teachers give students the answer during the test.  And finally sometimes schools “scrub” off the enrollment rolls the students who are likely to fail.

Koretz presents the questions around cheating by educators as morally fraught. After all, test scores are not simply a proxy for the quality of a school or a school district:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

In a system that, by its very structure, is guaranteed to trigger Campbell’s Law, Koretz wonders about the moral implications of cheating: “Just who is responsible?  Is it just the people who actually carry out the fraud or require it?  Or are those who create the pressures to cheat also culpable, even if not criminally?” (p. 91)

Like Frederick Hess, Daniel Koretz recognizes that although outcomes-based, test-and-punish school accountability has been hyped and celebrated, ultimately this kind of school policy has not improved schools as promised.  Koretz digs deeper, however, to expose that the system itself—not merely its abuse by particular educators in particular school districts—is deeply flawed.

Koretz concludes: “It is 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.  Cheating has become widespread. The public has been deceived into thinking that achievement has dramatically improved and that achievement gaps have narrowed. Many students are subjected to severe stress… The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary-school math that don’t persist until graduation… On balance, then, the reforms have been a failure.” (pp. 191-192)

Ohio Releases 2018 School Report Cards, Brands Poorest School Districts with “F”s

Yesterday, Ohio released school district report cards that reflect the test-and-punish theory that if we hold schools accountable for raising students’ test scores and graduation rates, teachers will somehow rise to the occasion and find a way to raise measured achievement to high levels.  Instead, the new state report cards demonstrate just what we already knew they would.  While the 2018 school report cards in Ohio have now become official and will subject the school districts branded with “F”s to punishments like state takeover, the state has been releasing unofficial, trial-balloon school and school district grades for several years now, and every time, the school districts in the state’s wealthiest communities got “A”s while city school districts, and inner-ring suburbs got “D”s and  “F”s.

This year, 28 school districts across Ohio earned “A” ratings. Twenty-three “A”-rated school districts are located in the state’s wealthiest suburban and exurban areas surrounding Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and Toledo. Eleven of the A-rated suburban districts are located in greater Cleveland, including five of Cuyahoga County’s privileged suburbs and six exurbs in the surrounding Geauga, Summit, Portage, Lorain and Medina Counties.  Five “A”-rated school districts are located in small towns—four in prosperous farming country in western Ohio.

Fourteen districts across Ohio received “F”s yesterday. These include the majority of the state’s largest cities: Cleveland, Canton, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.  Ohio’s other two big-city school districts—Cincinnati and Akron—earned “D” grades. The list of so-called “F” school districts also includes a number of very poor, segregated inner ring suburbs including East Cleveland and Euclid in greater Cleveland and North College Hill in greater Cincinnati. The two Ohio school districts currently under state takeover—Youngstown and Lorain—did not improve this year under state management; both earned “F” grades. Three school districts were waiting to learn whether the state would take them over if they earned an “F” again for the third time this year: Warrensville Heights in greater Cleveland and Trotwood-Madison in greater Dayton raised their scores to “D” and avoided the takeover. East Cleveland, among the very poorest and most racially segregated school districts in Ohio, will face state takeover, as its 2018 grade adds a third year to the district’s “F” ratings.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell has been reporting since 2013 (here and here) on what many Ohio researchers and educators believe is the correlation of the state’s school and school district grades with aggregate family income in the communities served by particular school districts.

More broadly, academic research, for half a century since the 1966 Coleman Report, has confirmed the correlation of school achievement—measured by standardized achievement tests and graduation rates—with aggregate neighborhood and family economic circumstances.  More recently, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon has shown that our society is resegregating by income with wealthy families and poor families moving to separate communities. Reardon also demonstrates that the number of mixed income communities is declining. Reardon has also shown that as our society is becoming more residentially segregated by family income, there has been a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.  The geographic distribution of Ohio’s 2018, “A”–“F” school grades demonstrates the growing residential segregation of our state’s metropolitan areas and the kind of economic achievement gap Reardon has identified.

In his important new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz describes the testing regime formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

A new report this week from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools additionally indicts what remains very unequal school funding.  While it has been repeatedly demonstrated that school districts where poverty is concentrated need extra money to meet their students’ many needs, these school districts across the United States have fewer dollars per pupil once state and local funding is combined: “Districts serving white and more affluent students spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars more, per pupil, than high poverty school districts and those serving majorities of Black and Brown students. The challenges faced by these schools—larger class size, fewer experienced teachers, the lack of libraries, science equipment, technology and counselors—all reflect a lack of resources.”  The report adds, “The Education Trust found that in 2015, on average, districts with large majorities of students of color provided about $1,800 (13 percent) less per student than districts in the same state serving the fewest students of color.”  Howard Fleeter, an economist and school funding analyst at the Ohio Education Policy Institute, confirmed in a recent report that Ohio’s current school funding formula fails to compensate for vastly unequal local fiscal capacity across Ohio’s school districts.

There are many reasons to be concerned about the broader implications of Ohio’s policy of awarding “A”–“F” grades to the state’s very unequally funded school districts—places which also reflect the geographic distribution of our society’s massive family economic inequality. While the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools and publish the results, and while ESSA says that standardized test scores and graduation rates must be part of the calculation, Congress does not require states to award a single “summative” grade to each school and school district.  Several years ago in greater Cleveland, a local fair housing agency, Heights Community Congress sponsored a well-attended program on how real estate websites—like Great Schools, which at the time published A-F grades for public schools (Great Schools now uses numerical ratings.)—have been redlining particular school districts and the neighborhoods in the attendance zones of particular schools. You would think these real estate websites have been violating the Fair Housing Act by steering families away from particular school districts, but they have been, in fact, merely using the information provided by the state of Ohio in the school report cards. The branding of public schools with “A”–“F” grades (or today’s Great Schools’ numerical system) encourages families who can afford it to avoid poor and mixed income school districts and buy homes in homogeneously white and wealthy exurbia.

Instead of branding Ohio’s poorest African American and Hispanic school districts with “F”s and punishing the state’s very poorest school districts with state takeover, the state should significantly increase its financial support for public schools in poor communities and encourage the development of full-service wraparound schools that provide medical and social services for families right at school.  Ohio’s system of branding the state’s poorest schools with “F” grades and imposing sanctions like state takeover undermines support for public education in school districts that desperately need strong community institutions.  The school district report cards also encourage segregation of the state’s metropolitan areas by race and family income.

Repeating My Recommendation: Please Read Daniel Koretz’s Book, “The Testing Charade”

How has high stakes testing ruined our schools and how has this strategy, which was at the heart of No Child Left Behind, made it much more difficult to accomplish No Child Left Behind’s stated goal of reducing educational inequality and closing achievement gaps?

Here is how Daniel Koretz begins to answer that question in his 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better: In 2002, No Child Left Behind “mandated that all states use the proficient standard as a target and that 100 percent of students reach that level. It imposed a short timeline for this: twelve years. It required that schools report the performance of several disadvantaged groups and it mandated that 100 percent of each of these groups had to reach the proficient standard. It required that almost all students be tested the same way and evaluated against the same performance standards.  And it replaced the straight-line approach by uniform statewide targets for percent proficient, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)…. The law mandated an escalating series of sanctions for schools that failed to make AYP for each reporting group.” Later, “Arne Duncan used his control over funding to increase even further the pressure to raise scores.  The most important of Duncan’s changes was inducing states to tie the evaluation of individual teachers, rather than just schools, to test scores… The reforms caused much more harm than good. Ironically, in some ways they inflicted the most harm on precisely the disadvantaged students the policies were intended to help.”

Koretz poses the following question and his book sets out to answer it: “But why did the reforms fail so badly?”

I recommend Daniel Koretz’s book all the time as essential reading for anyone trying to figure out how we got to the deplorable morass that is today’s federal and state educational policy.  I wish I thought more people were reading this book. Maybe people are intimidated that its author is a Harvard expert on the design and use of standardized tests.  Maybe it’s the fact that the book was published by the University of Chicago Press. But I don’t see it in very many bookstores, and when I ask people if they have read it, most people tell me they intend to read it. To reassure myself that it is really worth reading, I set myself the task this past weekend of re-reading the entire book. And I found re-reading it to be extremely worthwhile.

The book divides into three parts—an introductory section of several chapters—six or seven chapters in the middle that dissect the way high stakes testing has undermined education and damaged the education of our nation’s poorest children—and some wrap-up chapters. It is the middle part that is essential. While Koretz has some ideas near the end about where we go from here, his analysis of the damage caused is the crucial part. After all, this section at the heart of the book addresses the conversational dilemma many readers of this blog must face as often as I do. What can you say to the person who doggedly tells you that a particular school is a fine school because its scores are high and another school is a failure because its test scores are so low? This person, often well-intentioned, has lived with test-based school accountability for so long that he cannot imagine there is any other way to consider school quality. And anyway, he says, standardized testing is what we have to evaluate schools, so it’s what we need to use.

Koretz explains a 40-year-old social science rule first articulated by Don Campbell, who Koretz identifies as “one of the founders of the science of program evaluation.” Here is how Campbell stated what we now call “Campbell’s Law”: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” The rest of the central chapters in Koretz’s book explain precisely how the use of high stakes punishments tied to low test scores has triggered Campbell’s Law. What are the high stakes punishments?  First came the school turnarounds prescribed by No Child Left Behind —firing the principal and half the teachers, closing the school, charterizing the school.  Later Arne Duncan added the evaluation of teachers by students’ test scores—and schemes rewarding teachers whose students scored well and firing the teachers whose students post low scores. Koretz summarizes No Child Left Behind’s test-and punish strategy: “The reformers’ implicit assumption seemed to be that many teachers knew how to teach more effectively but were being withholding, and therefore confronting them with sanctions and rewards would be enough to get them to deliver.”

Three chapters explore how No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish strategy has distorted schooling itself and has undermined how teachers teach and how students learn.

  • Score Inflation: When the state achievement tests mandated by No Child Left Behind—the ones that would bring negative consequences for schools and teachers—were compared by experts like Koretz himself to another “audit” test such as the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP), which has no high stakes consequences, the researchers discovered that while the scores on the state test rose rapidly, NAEP scores remained flat.  Koretz comments: “(I)ncreases in scores are meaningful only if they signal similar increases in mastery of the domain.  If they do generalize to the domain, gains should appear on other tests that sample from the same domain.” He continues: “(A)ll that is required for scores to become inflated is that the sampling used to create a test has to be predictable… For inflation to occur, teachers or students need to capitalize on this predictability, focusing on the specifics of the test at the expense of the larger domain.”  And there are equity concerns here, because score inflation has occurred more often in schools serving poor students: “Ongoing work by my own group has shown… that it is not just the poverty of individual students that predicts the amount of inflation but also the concentration of poor students in a school… (S)chools with a higher proportion of poor students showed greater average inflation.” Teachers under pressure are finding a way to raise test scores without really teaching the students the material they are supposed to be learning.  Some schools have also inflated overall scores by focusing primarily on children right at the pass/fail level and paying less attention to students far behind.
  • Cheating: Koretz examines the big cheating scandals, notably Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.  He notes: “Cheating—by teachers and administrators, not by students—is one of the simplest ways to inflate scores, and if you aren’t caught, it’s the most dependable.” Sometimes teachers or administrators erase and change students answers; sometimes they provide teachers or students with the test items in advance; other times teachers give students the answer during the test.  And finally sometimes schools “scrub” off the enrollment rolls the students who are likely to fail.
  • Test Prep: Test prep narrows what is taught to students to the material that is tested.  Koretz identifies three kinds of bad test prep. Reallocation between subjects has been common when schools emphasize No Child Left Behind’s tested subjects—reading and math—and cut back on social studies, the arts, music and recess. Reallocation within subjects is when schools study past years’ versions of the state tests and ask teachers to focus on particular aspects of a subject.  Finally there is coaching. Schools and test-prep companies teach students to respond in a formulaic way to the format of the questions themselves. Koretz explains why all this has implications for educational equity: “Inappropriate test preparation, like score inflation, is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it—in particular, above the ‘proficient’ cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students…. Once again, disadvantaged kids are getting the short end of the stick.”

Two chapters in this middle section explore the ways No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish scheme has undermined equitable access to education in the schools in areas of concentrated poverty across our cities. The law that promised to leave no child behind not only encouraged test prep and cheating in the schools whose needs were greatest, but it also set impossibly tough and largely arbitrary test score targets for those schools and an impossibly short timeline for bringing students up to those targets.  And then the federal government set out to punish the schools and the teachers unable to meet the targets.

  • Making Up Unrealistic Targets: In this chapter, Koretz explains how No Child Left Behind’s standardized cut scores and timelines were set unrealistically and arbitrarily; the consequence was to label schools in poor areas as “failing” and to subject schools in areas of concentrated poverty to a series of punishments. Here is Koretz’s short summary: “Part of the blame for this failure lies with the crude and unrealistic methods used to confront inequity.  In a nutshell, the core of the approach has been simply to set an arbitrary performance target (the ‘Proficient’ standard) and declare that all schools must make all students reach it in an equally arbitrary amount of time.  No one checked to make sure the targets were practical.  The myriad factors that cause some students to do poorly in school—both the weaknesses of many of the schools they attend and the disadvantages some students bring to school—were given remarkably little attention. Somehow teachers would just pull this off… The trust most people have in performance standards is essential, because the entire educational system now revolves around them. The percentage of kids who reach the standard is the key number determining which teachers and schools will be rewarded or punished… But in fact, despite all the care that goes into creating them, these standards are anything but solid. They are arbitrary, and the ‘percent proficient’ is a very slippery number… A primary motivation for setting a Proficient standard is to prod schools to improve, but information about how quickly teachers actually can improve student learning doesn’t play much, if any, of a role in setting performance standards… However, setting the standards themselves is just the beginning. What gives the performance standards real bite is their translation into concrete targets for educators, which depends on more than the rigor of the standard itself… We have to say how quickly performance has to increase—not only overall but for different types of kids and schools. A less obvious but equally important question is how much variation in performance is acceptable.”
  • Evaluating Teachers: In 2009, beginning with Race to the Top and later as a condition for states to qualify for waivers from the worst consequences of No Child Left Behind, Arne Duncan’s Department of Education required states to change their laws to tie a percentage of teachers’ formal evaluations to students’ test scores. Myriad problems ensued. First of all, the required tests are in reading and math. What about the other teachers? Koretz describes Florida and Tennessee, which judged teachers in non-tested grades and subjects by the scores of students who were not in their classes, and in one case not in their schools.  Other states added tests in music, art, and physical education—subjecting students to added standardized testing—just for the purpose of state teacher evaluations.  Koretz explains the problems with Value-Added Modeling to evaluate teachers; many factors affecting students’ scores cannot be traced to any teacher and any teacher’s ratings seem to be unstable over several years.

I cannot imagine exactly how our society can recover from the our terrible test-and-punish misadventure and our labeling as “failing” the institutions and teachers who serve our poorest children.  What is heartening about The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better is the clarity with which Daniel Koretz presents our current dilemma: “We now know what many educators did.  Faced with unrealistic targets, some cut corners or simply cheated.  And perhaps because the system, in its zeal to address inequities, made the targets most unrealistic for educators serving disadvantaged kids, those kids—ironically—got the worst of it: the most test prep, the most score inflation, and apparently the most cheating.  And yet inflated scores allowed policy makers to declare victory, and the public received a steady diet of encouraging but bogus news about rapid improvements in the achievement gap…. On balance… the reforms have been a failure.”

Please read The Testing Charade.  We all need to understand and be able to explain how we’ve gone so far astray.

The Problems of Outcomes-Based School Accountablity

I am so tired of the narrative of “failing” schools—a story which is always accompanied by the story of “failing” teachers and their “failing” students. I find myself trapped in arguments about this subject in places where I don’t want to be talking about it—with good friends and relatives around dinner tables, at parties, during intermissions at concerts.  And even though I know a lot about the topic, I can never really win the argument, because the people with whom I am discussing it have always read about it in the newspapers where the test score comparisons are published.  This narrative has no reference whatsoever to what is happening in particular classrooms or particular schools or school districts. Many people with strong opinions have not been in a public school for decades.

The real subject here, of course, is what education is.  But the conversation instead is always a comparison of test scores as a proxy for the quality of a community and its schools.  One wants to get at the the real meaning and purpose of outcomes-based, test-measured school accountability, but that is hard to do in a casual conversation.  And underneath any conversation about “failing” schools are lots of realities about segregation—by class and also by race.

Research has documented growing economic inequality and segregation by family income. Sean Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist, used a massive data set to document the consequences of widening economic inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Then there is segregation by race.  Recently I had occasion to revisit a 2014 article by Richard Rothstein on the long-term effects of racism in our caste society: “Even for low-income families, other groups’ disadvantages—though serious—are not similar to those faced by African Americans. Although the number of high-poverty white communities is growing (many are rural)… poor whites are less likely to live in high poverty neighborhoods than poor blacks.  Nationwide, 7 percent of poor whites live in high-poverty neighborhoods, while 23 percent of poor blacks do so. Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place showed that multigenerational concentrated poverty remains an almost uniquely black phenomenon; white children in poor neighborhoods are likely to live in middle-class neighborhoods as adults, whereas black children in poor neighborhoods are likely to remain in such surroundings as adults.  In other words, poor whites are more likely to be temporarily poor, while poor blacks are more likely to be permanently so…. Certainly, Hispanics suffer discrimination, some of it severe… but the undeniable hardship faced by recent, non-English speaking, unskilled, low-wage immigrants is not equivalent to blacks’ centuries of lower-caste status. The problems are different, and the remedies must also be different….”

Our public schools across America are situated in very different communities—small towns of all sorts, small cities, big cities, poor neighborhoods, rich neighborhoods—schools whose children speak English and other schools where for many children, English is not the primary language. Within all this diversity, however is the reality of segregation by race, and according to Reardon, growing segregation by family income.  In more and more places across America, children live in pockets of extreme poverty or pockets of extreme affluence.   While teachers can work with all the outside-of-school variables the children bring to their classrooms—including intensifying segregation by income, there is much of the experience of each child that schoolteachers cannot control. Children are neither blank slates nor empty vessels into which knowledge can be poured.

On Sunday morning, the subject of “failing” schools and “failing” teachers and “failing” students arrived on my doorstep in Patrick O’Donnell’s Plain Dealer article about what key Ohio legislators believe is dangerous: that too many students graduated from high school this year because of “soft” alternative pathways to graduation.  These alternative pathways were only for the 2018 school year— because educators successfully lobbied that the new graduation tests were so hard that all sorts of young people would be denied graduation.  O’Donnell tells us the educators’ fears were well grounded: “More than a third of this spring’s high school graduates from some urban areas would never have received their diplomas under Ohio’s new graduation requirements, were it not for some temporary and easier ‘pathways’ added to avert a statewide graduation ‘crisis.’ In Akron and Columbus, new test-based requirements would have prevented more than a third of this year’s graduates from marching at ceremonies in caps and gowns. In Cleveland, the impact of the controversial new standards would have been even stronger. The higher expectations would have wiped out diplomas for nearly half of the seniors who received them. Those students instead graduated using special one-time alternate pathways created just for this year to ease the transition to the new standards.”

This is the “failing” schools narrative at work.  If you can find a way to read this without noticing legislators’ indictment of those “failing” schools in Akron and Columbus and especially in Cleveland, Rep. Andy Brenner, Chair of the Ohio House Education Committee, will correct you: “What’s going on that they’re not able to get kids up to being college and career-ready?”

Contrast the understanding of education by outcomes-based education accountability hawks like Andy Brenner with the understanding of learning depicted in the new documentary film about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  Mr. Rogers—influenced by prominent experts in child development like Barry Brazelton and Margaret McFarland—defined education as relating to children, listening to children, and responding to children’s questions and needs and concerns.  For Mr. Rogers, education was not teacher- or school-driven but instead happened in relationship—building a child’s understanding from the foundation within the child. A teacher guides instead of lecturing; a teacher responds instead of driving material into a child’s brain.  A teacher starts where the child is.

Contrast such a developmental understanding of teaching and learning with the model framed by an outcomes-driven reformer intent on pouring in enough testable material to get enough adolescents to pass the tests and produce a career-ready cohort from each high school. The outcomes-based reformer worries about the so-called quality of the diploma; the educator in Mr. Rogers’ mold considers beginning where the child is and helping that child realize her or his promise.

In this year’s very best book on education, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz describes the flaws in outcomes-based school accountability. The title explains the book’s importance for our times: The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.

Koretz is a psychometrician.  While he is neither a child psychologist nor a specialist in child development, Koretz describes the omission of all sorts of essential parts of education, including the kind of teaching Fred Rogers believed was important: “A… critical failure of the reforms is that they left almost no room for human judgment. Teachers are not trusted to evaluate students or each other, principals are not trusted to evaluate teachers, and the judgment of professionals from outside the school has only a limited role. What the reformers trust is ‘objective’ standardized measures…. (T)he focus of reform in the United States has been to rely as much as possible on standardized measures and to minimize human judgment, even though the result was to leave a great deal of what is most important unmeasured—and therefore to give educators no incentive to focus on it.  This is one of the most fundamental flaws of test-based accountability and one of the most significant reasons for its failures.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 34-35)

Koretz explains how outcomes-based education is undermining our very understanding of education—and undermining teaching: “Not only is bad test prep pervasive. It has begun to undermine the very notion of good instruction… One of the rationales given to new teachers for focusing on score gains is that high-stakes tests serve a gatekeeping function, and therefore training kids to do well on tests opens doors for them… Whether raising scores will improve students’ later success… depends on how one raises scores.  Increasing scores by teaching well can increase students’ later success… In the early days of test-based accountability, some observers worried that educators were coming to confuse the test with the curriculum… Some of today’s teacher educators, however, make a virtue of this mistake. They often tell new teachers that tests, rather than standards or a curriculum should define what they teach… Why does this matter so much? To start, it encourages reallocation—that is, focusing instruction on the tested sample rather than the domain or the curriculum that it is supposed to represent… What we want is for students to gain the ability to apply knowledge and skills to problems they actually encounter—not to ensure their proficiency in applying them only to test items that look exactly like the ones they will confront in the main test at the end of the year.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 112-116)

Finally, Koretz speaks directly to the problem in Ohio, where alternative pathways to high school graduation have been needed to ensure high school graduation for large percentages of students in the state’s poorest cities but where students in affluent suburbs with schools to which the state awards “A+” grades merely sail through the new graduation requirements. Outcomes-based education accountability hawks set benchmarks more easily reached by the privileged, but we blame the schools and teachers in poorer communities—and with high school graduation benchmarks, we penalize the students themselves.

Koretz explains: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Sometimes I think I ought to carry a copy of Koretz’s book in my purse, though I’d be written off as such a bore if I were to pull it out and read from it when somebody at a party begins bragging about their school—rated “A+” by the state of Ohio—while the school across town gets an “F.”  Everybody ought to take Daniel Koretz’s book to read at the beach this summer.

Michelle Rhee’s D.C. Education Revolution Continues to Collapse

The Associated Press‘s Ashraf Khalil explains: “As recently as a year ago, the public school system in the nation’s capital was being hailed as a shining example of successful urban education reform and a template for districts across the country. Now…. after a series of rapid-fire scandals including one about rigged graduation rates, Washington’s school system has gone from a point of pride to perhaps the largest public embarrassment of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tenure… A decade after a restructuring that stripped the decision-making powers of the board of education and placed the system under mayoral control, city schools in 2017 were boasting rising test scores and a record graduation rate for high schools of 73 percent, compared with 53 percent in 2011… Then everything unraveled.”

Teachers jobs were threatened if they didn’t raise test scores and increase graduation rates by passing students no matter what. Money was an incentive, with bonuses rewarding successful teachers. The Washington Post revealed that last year, while the district bragged about declining suspension rates, the reports were a fake. Many high schools were suspending students  without documentation.

Then an investigation by Washington, D.C.’s NPR station WAMU, uncovered that Ballou High School had been covering up massive student absences. Many students had been chronically absent and missed so many days of classes that mandatory course failure should have followed. But teachers failed to mark students absent, and students who were failing classes were being allowed to complete inadequate credit recovery projects so that they would pass courses and be allowed to graduate.

A district-wide investigation into practices during the 2016-2017 school year revealed that the problem wasn’t just at Ballou, but had spread district-wide. Khalil reports that, “about half of those Ballou graduates had missed more than three months of school and should not have graduated due to chronic truancy. A subsequent inquiry revealed a systemwide culture that pressured teachers to favor graduation rates over all else—with salaries and job security tied to specific metrics.  The internal investigation concluded that more than one-third of the 2017 graduating class should not have received diplomas due to truancy or improper steps taken by teachers or administrators to cover the absences.  In one egregious example, investigators found that attendance records at Dunbar High School had been altered 4,000 times to mark absent students as present. The school system is now being investigated by both the FBI and the U.S. Education Department.”

The school district responded this past winter by tightening attendance monitoring and enforcing course requirements.  In April of this year, the Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reported that, “Fewer than half of the seniors in the District’s traditional public school system are on track to receive their diplomas in June…. The city released a first batch of data in February, which showed that 42 percent of seniors attending traditional public schools were on track to graduate, while 19 percent were considered ‘moderately off track.'”

Last week Stein updated the story, reporting that 60 percent of seniors earned diplomas on time this month: “The school system said this week that 415 students who were considered ‘moderately off track’ in April received their diplomas in June. Forty students who were ‘significantly off track’ graduated… Many of the off-track students enrolled in credit-recovery courses to graduate on time.”  She adds that some students are likely to graduate after completing summer school.

Stein tracks the graduation rates by student demographics and finds them to be predictable and unfortunate: “At Banneker High, a selective-application school, 99 percent of seniors graduated this month—the highest rate in the District. The lowest rates belonged to Anacostia (42 percent), Coolidge (44 percent) and Ballou (45 percent).

In a puzzling development, Stein reports: “The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation last week allowing high school seniors who missed more than six weeks of class to receive their diplomas by discounting absences from the first three quarters of the school year.” The members of the Council are reported to have reasoned that students shouldn’t be held accountable for attendance rules that were tightened only after the graduation crisis was discovered.  Mayor Muriel Bowser has said she is not supportive of the emergency law, but she has not yet made a choice to sign or not to sign it.  Stein added : “But Bowser, whose signature is necessary for the reprieve to go into effect, has said she opposes it.  She said last week she is considering her options, and her office said Wednesday there is no update on her decision.”  If the law is signed, students will receive their diplomas late, as commencement exercises have already taken place.

What has been occurring in the D.C. public schools in recent years—allowing students to miss so much school they become chronically absent and hiding the fact that they are not in school—assigning short and easy credit recovery projects when students are failing classes—has been driven by promises to make the D.C. Public Schools a model. Michelle Rhee set up a system to pressure teachers and school administrators to by threatening to fire those who failed and paying merit bonuses to those who can make themselves look successful.  In a new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz explains why making graduation rates the primary measure of success, will taint the process and undermine the results. Koretz writes about Campbell’s Law, a well known principle in the social sciences: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” (The Testing Charade, p. 38)

When Michelle Rhee had been the leader of the D.C. Public Schools for several years, John Merrow, now retired from the PBS NewsHour, documented a major test score cheating scandal driven by Rhee’s demand that teachers raise test scores and her techniques for getting scores to rise: making teachers’ and principals’ evaluations, hiring and firing, and merit bonuses depend on educators’ capacity to raise scores. Later under former Chancellor Kaya Henderson, rising graduation rates became a second primary metric.  Koretz explains how Campbell’s law actually works: “(W)hen you hold people accountable using a numeric measure—vehicle emissions, scores on a test, whatever—two things generally happen: they do things you don’t want them to do, and the measure itself becomes inflated, painting too optimistic a view of whatever it is that the system is designed to improve.”(The Testing Charade, p. 38)  Koretz elaborates: “(Y)ou can take Campbell’s Law to the bank. It’s going to show up in any high-pressure accountability system that is based only on a few hard numbers.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 46-47)

Koretz predicts the consequences of the kind of school reform Michelle Rhee brought to Washington, D.C.:  cheating, lowering standards—what has happened in the D.C. graduation scandal, and excluding people with bad numbers—what may have happened in the D.C. schools when suspension rates were fudged.

While Teachers’ Walkouts Highlight Inadequate Funding of Schools, Inequity Remains Unaddressed

This blog has recently been tracking the walkouts of teachers in states where legislators have been chronically underfunding public education, states where teachers’ pay ranks among the lowest in the nation.  (See here, hereherehere and here.) These are states in the heartland, many where the children and the teachers are mostly white.  The walkouts by teachers have been happening in all Red states that lack political checks and balances because their governors and both houses of their legislatures are dominated by far-right Republicans.  Schoolteachers are walking out to call their legislators’ attention to the fact that rampant tax cutting is cheating the children. These teachers are calling everybody’s attention to the plain fact that in these states funding for the public schools has been dropping.  The recent walkouts by teachers have put a face on the problem of inadequate school funding.

But there is another very different school funding problem across America.  Very often it is a problem not centered in the capital city of the state—the place where the legislature meets.  In Michigan where Lansing is the capital city, this problem is greatest in Detroit. In New York, where Albany is the capital city, this problem centers in New York City, Syracuse and Buffalo.  In Wisconsin, where Madison is the capital city, this problem centers in Milwaukee. And in Illinois, where Springfield is the capital city, this problem is most serious in Chicago.  This other problem, of course, is alarming school finance inequity, exacerbated when legislators from rural areas and small towns fail to grasp the challenges for children and teachers in the schools of our largest cities, all of them segregated by race, all of them struggling with concentrated poverty, and virtually all of them encircled by rings of wealthy suburban school districts.

This is, of course, not a new problem. In 1991, Jonathan Kozol lamented: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’ Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (Savage Inequalities, p. 83)

In the introduction to a 2005 edition of his landmark 1996 history of Detroit, Thomas Sugrue explores what he calls “the urban crisis”: “It is dangerous to let our optimism about urban revitalization obscure the grim realities that still face most urban residents, particularly people of color. Acres of rundown houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, and shuttered stores stand untended in the shadow of revitalized downtowns and hip urban enclaves. There has been very little ‘trickle down’ from downtown revitalization and neighborhood gentrification to the long-term poor, the urban working class, and minorities…. And despite some conspicuous successes–often against formidable odds—community development corporations have made only a small dent in the urban economies and housing markets. Local nonprofits have the will but ultimately not the capacity to stem the larger processes of capital flight that have devastated the city… American cities have long reflected the hopes as well as the failures of the society at large. From the mid-twentieth century to the present, American society has been characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor, between communities of privilege and those of poverty. Despite a rhetoric about race relations that is more civil than it was in 1950, racial divisions by income, wealth, education, employment, health, and political power remain deeply entrenched.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, pp. xxv-xxvi)

In 2011, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon, used a massive data set to document the widening economic inequality that Kozol and Sugrue had been describing and to show the consequences of widening inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

So, what did our society do to respond?  In 2002, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which demanded that states test students every year and use the scores to evaluate schools and their teachers. Punitive turnarounds were prescribed for the bottom five percent of schools—virtually always in the poorest neighborhood of our cities where poverty is concentrated—and those turnarounds included firing principals and teachers, closing schools, or charterizing them. The law operated through threats and punishments for schools unable to raise scores quickly without acknowledging that such schools might need greater investment to build the capacity and services so that the schools themselves would not be overwhelmed by the challenges brought by concentrations of children struggling with extreme poverty.

In an extremely important 2017 book, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz describes nearly two decades of damage wrought by this test-and-punish law, which was premised on the belief that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: The law’s framers “acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, p. 123-124) “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Bill Mathis and Kevin Welner summarize the way our society responded when, despite widening inequality and growing economic and racial segregation, federal law imposed sanctions and turnarounds on urban public schools: “As policy makers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policy makers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty.  Moreover districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding.  The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less.  This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.  In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts.  Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio districts,’ and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack.” (“The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance,” a brief that is part of a 2016 series from the National Education Policy Center, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking)

Just as in today’s battles for education funding—in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—teachers have pushed back against the punitive school turnaround policies promoted by the federal government during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. In one memorable instance, a teachers union courageously confronted underfunded school “reform” based on school turnaround through school closure.  In the fall of 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union, having worked closely with parents and community groups across the city, went on strike to protest not only teachers’ salaries and benefits, but also Illinois’s notoriously inequitable school funding, and also the power of mayoral governance under Rahm Emanuel and his prescribed “portfolio” school reform plan.  In her book, The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein describes the leadership of CTU president Karen Lewis: “Lewis called Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reform agenda—especially his policy of using low test scores to select fifty schools for closure in poor neighborhoods, sometimes replacing them with non-unionized charter schools—‘a corporate attack on public education… This is warfare now.’ ” (The Teacher Wars, p. 221)

We must hope that this month’s walkouts by teachers create enough pressure to force legislators to raise school funding that is adequate to the need to invest in schools and in teachers’ salaries in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. The problem of inequity, however, is more daunting. Despite an enormous body of scholarly research and writing by academics and despite decades of work by social justice activists and organizers, we have not developed the political will to distribute sufficient funding to meet the needs of public schools in urban communities where poverty is concentrated.  The Kerner Commission named the problem of inequity 50 years ago:  “No American-white or black-can escape the consequences of the continuing social and economic decay of our major cities. Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society. The great productivity of our economy, and a federal revenue system which is highly responsive to economic growth, can provide the resources. The major need is to generate new will–the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary, to meet the vital needs of the nation.”