Bringing the Education Conversation Back to What Society Has Forgotten: Poverty and Inequity

In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein castigated conservative reformers who construct a narrative of government failure as the justification for privatization. Over the years, education writers have documented that the narrative of the overwhelming failure of American public schools is fake news—a distorted story to justify the expansion of charters and vouchers and to trash teachers and their unions.

Twenty years ago, in The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Bruce Biddle documented that school “reformers” were constructing a specious narrative of public school failure: “(O)n the whole, the American school system is in far better shape than the critics would have us believe; where American schools fail, those failures are largely caused by problems that are imposed on those schools, problems that the critics have been only too happy to ignore. American education can be restructured, improved, and strengthened—but to build realistic programs for achieving these goals, we must explode the myths of the Manufactured Crisis and confront the real problems of American education.” (The Manufactured Crisis, p. 12)

Then in 2012, tracing a trend of modest but consistent improvement over the decades in scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress, Diane Ravitch reached the same conclusion: “In the early years of the twenty-first century, a bipartisan consensus arose about education policy in the United States. Right and left, Democrats and Republicans, the leading members of our political class and our media seemed to agree: Public education is broken… Furthermore, according to this logic… blame must fall on the shoulders of teachers and principals… Since teachers are the problem, their job protections must be eliminated and teachers must be fired. Teachers’ unions must be opposed at every turn… (W)hat is happening now is an astonishing development. It is not meant to reform public education but is a deliberate effort to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling…  The reformers say they care about poverty, but they do not address it other than to insist upon private management of the schools in urban districts; the reformers ignore racial segregation altogether, apparently accepting it as inevitable… What began as a movement to ‘save minority children from failing schools’ and narrow the achievement gap by privatizing their schools has not accomplished that goal….” (Reign of Error, pp. 2-6)

Now Jack Schneider, an education professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, refutes the myth of school failure again—in a new book (due out in mid-August), Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality—and currently in a series of articles being published by The Atlantic. Schneider deconstructs the fake news of widespread school failure and identifies what needs to be improved. His analysis is urgently needed at a time when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is dominating the airwaves with a mindless, libertarian reiteration of the importance of parents’ freedom to choose. Schneider accepts the conclusions of sociologists like Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, who has demonstrated that the rich are retreating into wealthy enclaves where the schools are pockets of privilege. States reward these high scoring schools with “A” grades and punish schools in mixed income and poor communities with labels of failure—a self-reinforcing cycle that encourages further economic segregation and ignores society’s responsibility to its most vulnerable children.

Here is Schneider in a reflection published in late June, America’s Not-So-Broken Education System: “American education has some obvious shortcomings.  Even defenders of the schools can make long lists of things they’d like to change. But the root of the problem is not incompetent design, as is so frequently alleged. Nor is it stasis. Rather, it is the twofold challenge of complexity and scale. American schools are charged with the task of creating better human beings. And they are expected to do so in a relatively consistent way for all of young people. It is perhaps the nation’s most ambitious collective project; as such, it advances slowly.”

Schneider concludes: “Perhaps the most serious consequence of the ‘broken system’ narrative is that it draws attention away from the real problems that the nation has never fully addressed. The public-education system is undeniably flawed. Yet many of the deepest flaws have been deliberately cultivated. Funding inequity and racial segregation, for instance, aren’t byproducts of a system that broke. They are direct consequences of an intentional concentration of privilege. Placing the blame solely on teacher training, or the curriculum, or on the design of the high school—alleging ‘brokenness’—perpetuates the fiction that all schools can be made great without addressing issues of race, class, and power…  (I)t is important not to confuse inequity with ineptitude. History may reveal broken promises around racial and economic justice. But it does not support the story of a broken education system.”

In a second article published earlier this week, Schneider examines the policy consequences when ideologues convince politicians that public schools are a failure: “If the nation’s schools are generally doing well, it doesn’t make much sense to disrupt them.  But if they are in a state of decline, disruption takes on an entirely new meaning. Seizing on the presumed failures of the education system, reform advocates have pushed hard for contentious policies—expansion of charter schools, for instance, or the use of value-added measures of teacher effectiveness—that might have less traction in a more positive policy climate.”

And what about the misuse of data? “For the past 15 years, since the passage of No Child Left Behind, Americans have had access to standardized achievement scores for all public schools. But test scores tend to indicate more about students’ backgrounds than about the schools they attend. As research indicates, out-of-school factors like family and neighborhood account for roughly 60 percent of the variance in student test scores; teachers, by contrast—the largest in-school influence—account for only about 10 percent. And test scores convey little else about the many things parents and other stakeholders care about… They indicate nothing, for instance, about how safe students feel, how strong their relationships with teachers are, or how they are developing socially and emotionally. They indicate nothing about what teaching looks like, how varied the curriculum is, or the extent to which parents and community members are involved.  It’s impossible to know the quality of a school without knowing these things.”

I hope you will read both of Schneider’s articles. I look forward to reading his new book. Schneider brings the focus back to our collective responsibility to keep improving the public schools themselves—the public institutions we trust to serve all children, meet their many needs, and protect their rights.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Owes ALEC for Promoting Her Anti-Public Education Agenda

Today in Denver, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will deliver the lunchtime keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Last year, right after the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Mike Pence, then-Governor of Indiana and then-nominee for Vice President, went home to Indianapolis to deliver a keynote address at last year’s annual meeting of ALEC. What this means is that key people serving in the Trump administration are political extremists. We know that, of course, but it isn’t bad to stop and really take in the meaning of who’s in charge.

Esteemed education policy writers David Berliner and Gene Glass trace the history of ALEC: “In 1971 one Lewis F. Powell, Jr., a lawyer and member of 11 corporate boards, sent to the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce what has come to be known as the Powell Manifesto. (Powell was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court within a year of his having transmitted his manifesto.) In brief, Powell urged conservatives to adopt an aggressive stance toward the federal government, to seek to influence legislation in the interest of corporations, and to enlist like-minded scholars in an attack on liberal social critics… (T)he Powell Manifesto influenced the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute… and other powerful organizations… The Powell Manifesto spawned the powerful American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Formed in 1973, just 2 years after the Powell declaration, ALEC has been without question the most powerful influence on education policy in the United States during the past 3 decades.” (50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 7-8)

It is primarily state policy and funding under the fifty state constitutions, not federal policy, that shapes public schools. ALEC is the far-right’s tool for influencing state government.  For forty years, ALEC has been the operation turning the agenda of corporations and far-right think tanks into the bills that are introduced in state legislatures across the country. It is a membership organization for state legislators and for the corporate and ideological lobbyists who sit down together to craft model legislation—the very same bills, perhaps tweaked just a bit to localize them— that are then introduced in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Florida,  Kansas, and Arizona.

A lot of state legislatures have recently been discussing laws for Education Savings Accounts, for example, a new form of vouchers. Although you might have imagined that Betsy DeVos and her incessant rhetoric about tuition tax credits and education savings accounts is the reason for this wave of bills introduced seemingly everywhere, it is ALEC that should get the credit. Betsy DeVos owes ALEC big time. ALEC is the assembly line that turns her kind of ideas into prototype bills and then sends them along the conveyor belt of its state legislative members for consideration across the fifty state legislatures.

Here is economist Gordon Lafer describing ALEC’s power: “Above all, the corporate agenda is coordinated through the American Legislative Exchange Council… ALEC, the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level, brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation. According to the group’s promotional materials, it convenes bill-drafting committees—often at posh resorts—in which ‘both corporations and legislators have a voice and a vote in shaping policy.’ Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills. The organization claims to introduce eight hundred to one thousand bills each year in the fifty state legislatures, with 20 percent becoming law.” Lafer lists over a hundred corporations whose lobbyists also represent their interests on ALEC committees writing the bills. (The One Percent Solution, pp 12-14)

A huge irony is that the IRS persists in considering ALEC a tax-exempt nonprofit instead of classifying it as a lobbying organization, Common Cause has filed a formal complaint: “Common Cause filed an IRS whistleblower complaint against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in April 2012, charging the organization with tax fraud as it operates as a corporate lobbying group while registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity.” Despite that Common Cause has updated its complaint to keep it active—in 2013, 2015, and 2016—the IRS has not reconsidered.

Not only corporations but also national organizations and think tanks promoting a corporate, anti-tax, and school privatization agenda are ALEC members and have served on its Education Task Force, including the Alliance for School Choice, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the Walton Family Foundation. Others have been sponsors of programming or exhibitors at ALEC annual meetings, including the American Enterprise Institute, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, the Center for Education Reform, the Family Research Council, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, Ed Choice (formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice),  and the pro-voucher Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Member think tanks of the far right State Policy Network are also members of ALEC’s bill-writing task forces. Their staffs collaborate with ALEC’s corporate and legislative members to draft model bills. Examples of  State Policy Network member organizations are Ohio’s Buckeye Institute, the Illinois Policy Institute, Michigan’s Mackinac Center, North Carolina’s John Locke Institute, New York’s Manhattan Institute, and Arizona’s Goldwater Institute.

So what do we know about the agenda for education policy—endorsed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—that is being created and spread to the state legislatures along ALEC’s conveyor belt of prototype bills? Here is Gordon Lafer; “The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the (corporate) agenda… The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education…. Finally the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence…. (F)or those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education. In all these ways then, school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda….” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

Lafer continues—identifying ALEC’s role in all this: “In states across the country, corporate lobbyists have supported a comprehensive package of reforms that includes weakening or abolishing teachers’ unions, cutting school budgets, and increasing class sizes, requiring high-stakes testing that determines teacher tenure and school closings, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, diverting public funding into vouchers… lowering training and licensing requirements for new teachers, replacing in-person education with digital applications, and dismantling publicly elected school boards. Almost all of these initiatives reflect ALEC model legislation, and have been championed by the Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and a wide range of allied corporate lobbies.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 130)

I wish we had a U.S. Secretary of Education who would challenge ALEC’s agenda in the luncheon keynote today in Denver.

Poverty and Its Effects on School Achievement Are Forgotten in the President’s Budget

On Friday the Trump administration released a very “skinny” budget that outlined a few priorities for each federal department without many details. Many members of Congress, as you have undoubtedly heard, are not happy with what they see, and the ideas in this budget will likely be changed and amended before a budget is passed by Congress. (See more details about the budget process and the President’s proposed education budget here.) There is enough in Friday’s proposed budget for the Department of Education, however, to demonstrate Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s priorities.

In the list of programs for the Department of Education, there are three different expansions of school school choice and privatization—Title I Portability, some kind of pilot of federal vouchers, and expansion by 50 percent of the Charter Schools Program that underwrites grants to states for the launch of new charter schools.  The K-12 education budget cuts after-school programs, two programs that help students prepare for and apply to college, and teacher preparation. There is nothing in Trump’s new education budget to expand the opportunity to learn for America’s poorest children in urban and rural public schools.

For fifteen years the United States has had a test-based accountability system in place supposedly to close achievement gaps, raise school achievement, and drive school staff to work harder. There is widespread agreement that No Child Left Behind (now to be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act) has failed to close achievement gaps and significantly raise overall achievement for the students who are farthest behind.

Among academic experts on education there is also widespread agreement about what needs to change to help students who struggle.  Expansion of school privatization and libertarian “freedom of choice” for a few students is definitely not the prescribed treatment for what is a much deeper set of problems.

Helen Ladd, a well-known professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, just published an extensive analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.  No Child Left Behind relied almost exclusively, Ladd writes, “on tough test-based incentives. This approach would only have made sense if the problem of low-performing schools could be attributed primarily to teacher shirking as some people believed, or to the problem of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ as suggested by President George W. Bush. But in fact low achievement in such schools is far more likely to reflect the limited capacity of such schools to meet the challenges that children from disadvantaged backgrounds boring to the classroom. Because of these challenges, schools serving concentrations of low-income students face greater tasks than those serving middle class students. The NCLB approach of holding schools alone responsible for student test score levels while paying little if any attention to the conditions in which learning takes place is simply not fair either to the schools or the children and was bound to be unsuccessful.”

At Stanford University, sociologist Sean Reardon has demonstrated widening residential segregation of our society by family income.  Reardon, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, shows that across 117 metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009. Reardon and Bischoff believe that economic, “segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area. Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”  Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime. Reardon demonstrates here that along with growing residential segregation by income 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.

David Berliner, former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University and a past president of the American Educational Research Association, in a recent short column published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, explains how aggregate standardized test scores reflect Reardon’s findings: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained… Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste.”

In a piece published in The American Scholar, UCLA education professor Mike Rose suggests we, “Imagine… that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.  If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided…. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement.”  These are the full service, wraparound Community Schools that have been expanded in New York City, Cincinnati and some other places. Ironically some Community Schools incorporate funding for after-school and summer programs from federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, a program eliminated in Trump’s proposed budget.

Last August, members the Vermont State Board of Education wrote to then-education secretary John King about what they believed was needed in the rules the U.S. Department of Education was drafting to implement  the Every Student Succeeds Act: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.”

Even Andrew Rotherham, a corporate school reformer at Bellwether Education Partners, criticizes one of the proposals outlined in the President’s new budget: to experiment with turning Title I—the 1965 civil rights program to provide extra funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty—into a portable voucher program.  Even though Title I Portability is proposed as a public (not privatized) school voucher program, in which children could carry their extra Title I funding across school district boundaries, Rotherham like many others worries that children would carry Title I dollars away from school districts serving concentrations of poor children to wealthier school districts with a less urgent need for the money: “Right now, those dollars are targeted toward low-income students in higher poverty schools. The idea is to pancake them for more impact, given both the research on effective educational interventions and the reality of housing today for low-income Americans, which often concentrates poor students in schools. Trump’s idea, by contrast, is to spread this money around in amounts too small to make a real difference…. It’s school choice light with an added consequence of making Title I dollars less effective than they are today.”

If, as all these people who do the research and know the research literature explain, poverty and residential concentration of the poorest children in particular neighborhoods and schools is the most serious challenge for public education, then there are also many other alarming problems for children and their public schools embedded in the proposed budgets for other federal departments. The Community Development Block Grant and Home Program, both cancelled in the President’s budget, help pay for housing and also support  shelters and services for the homeless. The Trump budget erases the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps poor people pay for heating their houses in the winter. The budget eliminates the Legal Services Corporation. Even the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is reduced. And of course there is the matter of the 24 million people likely to lose healthcare in the next decade if the current version of the Affordable Care Act were to go forward.

We are hearing a lot about how the President’s proposed budget will affect the middle and working class. As is too often the case, we are not hearing about the implications for the poor. If our society is intent on improving educational achievement, it will have to happen in the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children. At the same time the federal government will have to help state and local governments address poverty and what concentrated poverty does to very poor families and their neighborhoods and public schools.

What Do Standardized Test Scores Really Measure? David Berliner Explains

David Berliner has been teaching about education policy and writing books on education and school psychology for decades. The best known for readers outside colleges of education are The Manufactured Crisis and 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools. Yesterday in a pithy column published by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, Berliner explains why none of our current strategies for school reform will work. Not corporate school reform. Not test and punish accountability. Not blaming school teachers. Not charter school and voucher strategies that allow some promising students to escape public schools—the plans favored by Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. Berliner’s analysis is definitive. He demonstrates that our society has been on the wrong path for decades.

The test scores by which our society now judges schools don’t really measure the quality of schools: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under the 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained.”  Berliner continues: “Similarly, as the families served by a school increase in wealth from the lowest quartile in family wealth to the highest quartile in family wealth, the mean score of all the students at those schools goes up quite substantially. Thus, characteristics of the cohort attending a school strongly influence the scores obtained by the students at that school.”

Berliner adds that, while critics of public education complain about overall U.S. scores on international tests, our wealthiest students do as well as the highest scoring students in the world: “We learn that in the United States, wealthy children attending public schools that serve the wealthy are competitive with any nation in the world. Since that is the case, why would anyone think our public schools are failing? When compared with other nations, some of our students and some of our public schools are not doing well. But having ‘some’ failures is quite a different claim than one indicting our entire public school system.”

So, what is the real problem according to David Berliner? “(P)roblems of poverty influence education and are magnified by housing policies that foster segregation. Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste. The wealthy have cordoned off their wealth. They hide behind school district boundaries that they often draw themselves, and when they do, they proudly use a phrase we all applaud, ‘local control!’ The result, by design, is schools segregated by social class, and that also means segregation by race and ethnicity. We have created an apartheid-lite, separate and unequal, system of education.”

Berliner is not so naive as to believe it will be quick and easy to ameliorate housing segregation by income, race and ethnicity. He suggests changes within the schools that might help, at the same time acknowledging he is describing very expensive investments: “High-quality early childhood experiences; summer school to address summer loss; parent education programs to build skills needed in school; parent housing vouchers to reduce mobility (due to evictions and homelessness); after school programs such as sports, chess clubs, and robotics; a full array of AP courses; school counselors and school nurses at the ratios their professions recommend; professional development for teachers and establishment of school cultures of professionalism; pay for teachers at parity with what others at similar educational levels receive; and so forth.  Of course, this will all cost money.”

In his analysis Berliner does not go so far as to examine what is wrong with the so called “cures” being prescribed today based on the test scores he believes are a faulty measure of school quality. A couple of these practices are particularly poisonous.

The first is the practice by states of issuing statewide report cards that assign “A-F” letter grades to schools and school districts based primarily on standardized test scores. Today over 15 states assign letter grades for schools and school districts.  Jeb Bush’s  Foundation for Excellence in Education (where Betsy DeVos served on the board) promotes this practice and even has a model bill to establish such a program, The Accountability and Transparency Act, that can be introduced in any state legislature. In states that grade their schools with letter grades, not surprisingly school districts that serve exclusive communities of wealthy children tend to post “A” grades while schools in poor communities earn “F” grades. But the practice is not neutral in its consequences.  When states assign letter grades to schools and school districts, the states themselves are negatively branding schools and districts that serve concentrations of children living in poverty. States are essentially redlining school districts in cities and inner-ring suburbs while incentivizing parents to choose the homogeneous, wealthy, so-called “excellent” (A-rated) school districts in outer-ring suburbs. The letter grades drive housing segregation by both family income and race.

The second pernicious practice was embodied in the turnaround plans prescribed in the No Child Left Behind law and later in the School Improvement Grant program of the Obama administration. These programs targeted the lowest scoring 5 percent of schools for radical turnarounds—replacing staff, charterizing the school, or, worse, closing the school. We’ll have to wait to see if this practice continues under the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Trump administration. The 2015 Dyett Hunger Strike in Chicago called attention to the damage wrought when schools in the poorest neighborhoods are closed. Not only do students from the neighborhoods where schools are closed have to travel to more distant schools—often on public transportation and sometimes through dangerous areas, but also the poorest neighborhoods are too frequently left without an elementary school or a high school, essential institutions for anchoring a neighborhood or a community.

The punitive “school reform” practices of the past two decades (based on judging schools by their students’ aggregate test scores)  never affect wealthy areas where students post higher scores. They have been a failed “school reform” experiment on schools and communities where children are poor.  They are yet another burden dropped on our poorest citizens and their children. In his commentary this week, David Berliner presents conclusive evidence that we are blaming public schools for test scores that are instead strongly influenced by family and neighborhood economics.  Please read Berliner’s article.

New Book Gathers Research Proving False the Myths and Promises of NCLB and RTTT

What if it became fashionable to reform social work by ignoring the Schools of Social Work in our major research universities?  Or to run hospitals according to the theories of the Business Schools instead of Colleges of Medicine?

Essentially that is what the past two decades have done to education. Generations of learning theory, educational philosophy, and child psychology out the window. Revert to Gradgrind’s idea, satirized in Charles Dickens’ 1854, Hard Times—classrooms made of, “little vessels… there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.” Bring in Teach for America with its Ivy Leaguers—posting high SATs and spilling over with knowledge—to pour in facts. Consult the Business Schools to make schools efficient; talk to tech wizard entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley; listen to gurus promoting competition in Departments of Social Entrepreneurship.

In Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms the education research professors and philosophers and psychologists and the people who teach teachers how to teach strike back. The National Education Policy Center has gathered two decades’ of thinking by academic educators about accountability-based, test-and-punish school reform. If you were to undertake a research paper on the impact of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, here collected in this new volume is much of the scholarship you’d need. These studies and articles are organized in several sections—foundations of market-based reform, the evidence about sanctions-based school policy, false promises and myths that underpin recent “reforms,” effective and equitable policies needed for operation of our public schools, and a conclusion—lessons (for federal and state policy makers) that, research says, should be part of implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, last December’s update of the federal education law.

The editors introduce the book’s contents: “This volume presents a comprehensive collection of the most rigorous research evidence about both the test-based reforms and policies that have become the new normal, and the less common, most promising strategies for the future.  In many cases, the chapters reproduce previously published solid research that has existed for some time, but that has been ignored by decision-makers when designing successive iterations of federal and local education policy. Other chapters provide new analysis of some of the most recent reforms.” “In its entirety, the scholarship in this volume points overwhelmingly to one unambiguous conclusion—heavy-handed accountability policies do not produce the kinds of schools envisioned under the original ESEA (passed in 1965 as the centerpiece of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty). By punishing, rather than nurturing, our most fragile schools and children, the policies steer us further away from ESEA’s initial goals to foster a more democratic, equitable system of schooling for all students. They do so by diverting attention away from the conditions in which our most challenged schools are embedded.” (pp. xix-xx)

The book includes David Berliner’s profound paper, “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform,” published in the Teachers College Record in 2006. For the new volume, Berliner has penned a 2016 introduction—itself a profound summary of the conclusions of the esteemed academics whose papers fill this book: “It is now clearer than it was a decade ago that life for poor people in the United States is hurting our nation, not just the schools, about which I wrote… We might now call many of the problems I describe (in the 2006 paper) an opportunity gap.  In our country, so prideful of the fact that we are the land of opportunity, the existence and growth of this gap is even more abhorrent and more embarrassing than it might be elsewhere. We now know that the gap in educational achievement, as measured by standardized tests, between the child born of a family at the 90th percentile in wealth, and the child born to a family at the 10th percentile in wealth has grown significantly. In the 1940s the gap was about .6 of a standard deviation, but now it is about 1.25 standard deviations. The educational achievements of the children of the rich and the poor are vastly different… Educators now know, though politicians seem not yet to understand, that the No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB) and its successor, Race to the Top (RTTT) are failures. Besides stipulating impossible goals (NCLB) or invalid measures for evaluating teachers (RTTT), both pieces of legislation looked to the schools to solve some of the problems that plague our nation. Schools cannot do that… As the late Jean Anyon put it, attempting to fix schools that serve the poor, without also trying to fix the neighborhoods in which they are embedded, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.” (pp. 437-438)

The subtitle of NEPC’s new volume is Lessons for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  We’ll hope the politicians begin listening to the experts.

Ohio Researcher Proves–Yet Again–That Test Scores Measure Primarily Family Income

Like the rest the country, Ohio is trapped in a test-and-punish education accountability system that castigates public schools when students’ test scores are persistently low. It is a system that punishes already vulnerable institutions—closing and charterizing schools in the places where scores are low, giving vouchers to help children “escape” so-called “failing” schools, and rating teachers by students’ scores. Ohio practices all of these policies.  The flaw inherent in such a system is that standardized test scores continue to correlate with the aggregate income of the families whose children are enrolled in schools and school districts.  Researchers have demonstrated again and again that, despite that poor children surely can learn and many do thrive academically, aggregate test scores are pretty much an economic indicator, not a measure of the academic quality of the school.  Test score gaps are in place before children enter Kindergarten, and they rarely close as children move through the grades.

Now, once again, Howard Fleeter of Ohio’s Education Tax Policy Institute, has documented that in Ohio, the schools that can brag of the highest test scores are located in the wealthy suburban school districts and the so-called “failing” schools are those that serve children living in poverty.  The ratings attached to school districts by the state based on test scores thus create further incentives for more families to abandon poorer and mixed income communities and move to expensive outer ring suburbs. This blog recently covered how school ratings by Zillow, the online real estate guide, contribute to segregation in the same way.

Here is how the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes Fleeter’s findings: “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’….”  And just as he has found previously, aggregate test scores correlate with the income level of the families who reside in the school district.

Fleeter’s analysis, according to O’Donnell, demonstrates that last spring when Ohio administered PARCC tests of language arts and math and tests designed by the American Institutes for Research to measure science and social studies, the highest-scoring 20 percent of districts (serving only 17.4 percent of students who qualify for free-or-reduced-price lunch) had 86.2 percent of students scoring proficient in math.  The bottom-scoring 20 percent of school districts (serving 77 percent of students who qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch) had only 44.3 percent of students scoring proficient in math.

The press release from the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials (who sponsored the new study) quotes Fleeter: “This means that those districts performing the best on the tests have the lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students, while districts with the lowest performance have the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students.”  Posted with the press release are the tables that represent Fleeter’s analysis.

While Fleeter’s conclusions should sound an alarm in a state that uses test scores as the primary factor to determine “A” through “F” grades in a punitive accountability system for schools and school districts, Fleeter merely proves once again what researchers have been demonstrating for half a century.  Last year, for example, in Our Kids, after exhaustively examining the experiences of children in schools through the lens of wealth vs. poverty, Harvard’s Robert Putnam concludes: “(T)he gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school, and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them.” (p. 182)

Here are the words of the respected researcher David Berliner, in a 2014 article published by the Teachers College Record: “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… (S)tories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives about our land and people, celebrated in the press, on television, and in the movies. But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American.  These stories of success reflect real events, and thus they are certainly worth studying and celebrating so we might learn more about how they occur.  But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students… (O)ut-of-school variables account for about 60% of the variance that can be accounted for in student achievement.  In aggregate, such factors as family income; the neighborhood’s sense of collective efficacy, violence rate, and average income; medical and dental care available and used; level of food insecurity; number of moves a family makes over the course of a child’s school years; whether one parent or two parents are raising the child; provision of high-quality early education in the neighborhood; language spoken at home; and so forth, all substantially affect school achievement.”

In the 2013, Closing the Opportunity Gap, two researchers—Christopher H. Tienken and Yong Zhao explain: “(A)s a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112)

When are we going to pay attention to what has been conclusively documented?  Instead in Ohio, public school districts serving poor children are punished in several ways by state policy.  Children in so-called “failing” schools qualify for EdChoice vouchers that extract money from a school district’s budget for every child who takes a voucher to a private or parochial school.  The new Youngstown Plan, quietly fast-tracked through the legislature in June, permits the takeover and charterization of so-called “failing” school districts. It is aimed at Youngstown schools this year, but any district with three years’ of “F” ratings will be targeted in the future.  And Ohio, like all the other states that applied to the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, had to incorporate students’ test scores as a significant part of state teacher evaluations. We don’t merely blame the teachers; these days we formalize our blame right into each teacher’s personnel file.

Describing Fleeter’s new data connecting Ohio students’ test scores to their families’ economic circumstances, O’Donnell quotes the press release from the study’s sponsoring organizations, who say they will use Fleeter’s new data as a way, “to push for more focus on the educational needs of these students by urging lawmakers to look for additional ways to address these significant disparities.”  O’Donnell notes that in the past these organizations have used Fleeter’s research to advocate (unsuccessfully) for changes in the state funding formula to help poorer school districts.

What, to my knowledge, has never been seriously contemplated by Ohio’s legislature or state department of education is changing the state policy that, based on students’ aggregate test scores, punishes poorer school districts (with low state ratings and rankings, vouchers, and threatened state takeover) and punishes their teachers for choosing to teach in low-wealth school districts.  In an ironic twist in Ohio, this month the charter schools Ohio dubs “dropout recovery schools” are campaigning to do just that.  Ohio judges charter schools by aggregate test scores as well, and these schools allege Ohio should change the system that punishes them for serving students who come from so-called “failing” schools in the poorest urban school districts.

I would certainly be satisfied if Ohio found a way to design a new evaluation system that accurately examined schools themselves apart from the income-correlated test scores of the students.  But any new system must decouple state evaluations of schools from standardized test scores in both traditional public schools and charter schools. Any new system also needs to put the spotlight on disparities in inputs, not just on test score outcomes.  How much revenue is each school district capable of raising from its tax base?  How well is the state compensating for inequity?  What about small classes, access to advanced curricula, guidance counselors, art and music?

David Berliner—Witness in Vergara Courtroom—Denies He Called Any Teachers “Grossly Ineffective”

Last week I blogged on the California teacher tenure decision in Vergara v. California. I concluded overall that, “The Vergara attorneys sought to portray the needs of children as separate and very different from the needs of their teachers.  In fact, teachers and children in our poorest communities share the need for society to invest in improving their public schools.”

But what had struck me as I read the decision was the supposed statistical evidence incorporated right into the decision itself by Judge Rolf Treu to prove that tenure among teachers violates the civil rights of California’s poorest children of color.  I was particularly struck by the judge’s interpretation of evidence from respected education researcher David Berliner, professor emeritus at Arizona State University and a long supporter of teachers and their need for unions.  I wrote about my puzzlement: “In one case the judge seems to have extrapolated from what he heard—from expert David Berliner, who is described to have “testified that 1–3 % of teachers in California are grossly ineffective.”  Treu continues, “Given that the evidence showed roughly 275,000 active teachers in this state, the extrapolated number of grossly ineffective teachers ranges from 2,750 to 8,250.”

I thank Diane Ravitch who posted The Statistical Error at the Heart of the Vergara Decision, for bringing to my attention an important piece published on June 12 by Jordan Weissmann, the senior business and economics correspondent for Slate.  Weissmann interviewed David Berliner by telephone about his testimony that between one and three percent of California’s teachers are grossly ineffective:  “But where did this number come from?  Nowhere, it turns out.  It’s made up.  Or a ‘guesstimate,’ as David Berliner, the expert witness Treu quoted, explained to me when I called him on Wednesday.  It’s not based on any specific data, or any rigorous research about California schools in particular.  ‘I pulled that out of the air,’ says Berliner…. ‘There’s no data on that.  That’s just a ballpark estimate, based on my visiting lots and lots of classrooms.'”

Neither does Berliner claim the descriptor, “grossly ineffective,” used by True in his decision.  Weissmann writes that Berliner denies use of “grossly ineffective” in his court testimony.  Berliner e-mailed Weissmann part of the court’s transcript (which you can read in Weissman’s piece) to prove that he never described California’s teachers as “grossly ineffective.”

In Weissmann’s interview with David Berliner, Berliner explains: “In hundreds of classrooms, I have never seen a ‘grossly ineffective’ teacher.  I don’t know anybody who knows what that means.”  Berliner told Weissman he believes test scores are not a good way to evaluate teachers.  Teachers “might do other things well in the classroom that don’t show on an exam, like teach social skills, or inspire their students to love reading or math.”

Weissmann also interviews Stuart Biegel, a UCLA law professor and education expert who testified in the trial.  Weissmann asked Biegel whether he thought the judge’s questionable extrapolation, right in the court decision, of Berliner’s speculation about 1-3 percent ineffective teachers would affect the appeal of the case.  Biegel responded that he believes there are even bigger problems in the logic of Treu’s decision:

“If 97 to 99 percent of California teachers are effective, you don’t take away basic hard-won rights from everybody.  You focus on strengthening the process for addressing the teachers who are not effective, through strong professional development programs, and, if necessary, a procedure that makes it easier to let go of ineffective teachers.”