2022 Scores on NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card, Help Define the Meaning of the Pandemic

When fourth grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released last week, the NY Times headline writer informed us: “the pandemic erased two decades of progress in math and reading,” as though a long trend of public school improvement has now been set on a downward trajectory.

What happened instead is that schooling was utterly disrupted for the nation’s children and adolescents, just as all of our lives were interrupted in so many immeasurable ways. During COVID, while some of us have experienced the catastrophic death of loved ones, all of us have experienced less definable losses—things we cannot name.

I think this year’s NAEP scores—considerably lower than pre-pandemic scores—should be understood as a marker that helps us define the magnitude of the disruption for our children during this time of COVID. The losses are academic, emotional, and social, and they all make learning harder.

Schools shut down and began remote instruction in the spring of 2020, and many stayed online through the first half of last school year. While most public schools were up and running by last spring, there have been a lot of problems—with more absences, fighting and disruption, and overwhelming stress for educators. It is clear from the disparities in the scores released last week among high and low achievers that the disruption meant very different things to different children. It is also evident that the pandemic was a jolting shock to our society’s largest civic institution. It should be no surprise, then, that the attempt to get school back on track was so rocky all through last spring.

What is the National Assessment of Educational Progress?  The Washington Post‘s Donna St. George explains: “NAEP testing is done at public and private schools across the country that are randomly sampled, according to the National Center for Education Statistics… Test takers are randomly sampled, too—14,800 students in all, from 410 schools. More than 90 percent of schools were sampled in both 2020 and 2022.”

The NY TimesSarah Mervosh adds: “The National Assessment of Educational Progress is considered a gold standard in testing.  Unlike state tests, it is standardized across the country, has remained consistent over time and makes no attempt to hold individual schools accountable for results, which experts believe makes it more reliable. The test results (released last week) offered a snapshot for just one age group: 9-year-olds, who are typically in third or fourth grade.  More results, for fourth graders and for eighth graders, will be released later this fall on a state-by-state level.”

What do this year’s scores show us about the impact of the pandemic on public schooling in America?

While the NAEP is traditionally used to gauge the trajectory of overall educational achievement over time, and while the trajectory has been moderately positive over the decades, the results released last week cannot by any means be interpreted to mean a change of the overall direction of educational achievement.

Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz asked Stanford University professor Sean Reardon (whose research tracks the connection of poverty and race to educational achievement) whether “it will take another 20 years to raise scores once again.”  Reardon responded: “That’s the wrong question…. The question is: What’s going to happen for these (9-year-old) kids over the next years of their lives.” Schwartz describes more of Reardon’s response: “Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds, will be back to normal relatively soon, Reardon said. Instead, he said, we should look to future scores for 13-year-olds, which will present a better sense of how much ground these current students have gained.”

Schwartz reports: “Students at all levels lost ground during the past two years, but lower-performing students saw the biggest drops.”  The test does not in any way measure the factors that contributed to the drop in scores for students who were already struggling, but the results shouldn’t be surprising.  Some children live in families with internet access and enough computers that each of several children in the family could access online instruction simultaneously, while other children’s parents had to drive them to public library or fast food outlet parking lots to find any internet access at all. Some parents had sufficient time at home to supervise children and provide assistance during online instruction, while in other families, older siblings supervised younger siblings while trying to participate themselves in online instruction. Some children and adolescents simply checked out and neglected to log-on.

Diane Ravitch highlights another lesson we can very likely learn: remote instruction is an inadequate substitute for going to school.  Decades of research show that education is relational:

“The moral of the story is that students need to have human contact with a teacher and classmates to learn best. Virtual learning is a fourth-rate substitute for a real teacher and interaction with peers… The pandemic isolated children from their teachers. It caused them to be stuck in front of a computer… They needed human interaction. They needed to look into the eyes of a teacher who encouraged them to do better, a teacher who explained what they didn’t understand. The NAEP scores are a wake-up call. We must treasure our teachers and recognize the vital role they play in educating the next generation.”

Education Expert Demonstrates Why Gov. Youngkin’s Attack on Virginia’s Public Schools Is Wrong

I suspect that Glenn Youngkin, the governor of Virginia, knows very little, really, about public education.  He was an investment banker before he became a politician, and his children attend the elite, private Georgetown Prep. But Youngkin knows how to build political capital by frightening parents and the general public about so-called failures in the state’s public schools. He campaigned last year by promoting the racist idea that parents need more control over their kids’ schools to prevent the children’s being frightened or upset by the injustices that have scarred American history. And now, he has begun using test score data to try to paint the state’s public schools as failing.

The problem is that this time, as he tries to use the state’s scores on the “nation’s report card,” the National Assessment of Education Progress ( NAEP), to prove there is something drastically wrong with Virginia’s public schools, he and his so-called experts who just castigated the state’s schools in a new report seem to have misread the meaning of the test scores they denigrate. Youngkin’s claim is that too few Virginia students achieve the “proficient” cut score on the NAEP.

For the Washington Post, Hannah Natanson and Laura Vozzella report: “The Virginia Department of Education painted a grim picture of student achievement in the state in a report released Thursday, asserting that children are performing poorly on national assessments in reading and math and falling behind peers in other states.  The 34-page report on students’ academic performance, requested as part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s first executive order, says these trends are especially pronounced among Black, Hispanic and low-income students. The report further critiques what it calls school districts’ lack of transparency regarding declining student performance—and it laments parents’ ‘eroding’ confidence in the state’s public schools.”  The Youngkin administration’s new report contends that Virginia has been expecting too little of its public school students—that, while Virginia’s state test, the Standards of Learning or SOL, shows the state’s students are doing well, Virginia’s NAEP scores show the states’ students are not really “proficient.”

But Youngkin’s report ignores years of discussion about what the “proficient” achievement level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress really means.  In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch who once served on the NAEP’s Governing Board, took the trouble to explain: “All definitions of education standards are subjective…  People who set standards use their own judgment to decide the passing mark on a test. None of this is science.” Ravitch explains further precisely how the NAEP Governing Board has always defined the difference between the “proficient” standard and the “basic” standard: “‘Proficient’ represents solid achievement. The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB)… defines it as ‘solid academic performance for each grade assessed. This is a very high level of academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.’… ‘Basic,’ as defined by NAGB, is ‘partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.'” Ravitch concludes that according to the NAEP standard: “a student who is ‘proficient’ earns a solid A and not less than a strong B+” while “the student who scores ‘basic’ is probably a B or C student.” (Reign of Error, p. 47)

Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on the construction of standardized tests and their uses for high stakes school accountability devotes an entire chapter of his 2017 book, The Testing Charade, to the topic, “Making Up Unrealistic Targets.”  Koretz describes exactly how Glenn Youngkin appears to be manipulating the meaning of NAEP cut scores as an argument for blaming the schools and pressuring educators to prep students to improve test scores at any cost: “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…. (A)lmost all public discussion of test scores is now cast in terms of the percentage reaching either the proficient standard, or occasionally, another cut score… This trust in performance standards, however is misplaced… (I)n 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.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 119-121)

Natanson and Vozzella report that Virginia’s educators immediately pushed back against Youngkin’s new report: “The superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, Gregory C, Hutchings Jr., said the report inspired him to navigate to the NAEP website, where he discovered that Virginia students had consistently scored above the national average. ‘So, I’m not really understanding the whole premise of this report…. (which) was around us performing so much lower than everyone else.'”

Fortunately, last Friday, right after Youngkin’s report was released, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a column by James Harvey, the recently retired executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.  Harvey scathingly criticizes the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) for its confusing definition of “proficient.”  Like a lot of federal policy after Reagan’s 1983, A Nation at Risk report, which blamed the public schools for widespread mediocrity and and became the basis for standards-based school reform, the NAGB set its proficiency targets to drive higher expectations. Harvey writes: “Proficient doesn’t mean proficient. Oddly, NAEP’s definition of proficiency has little or nothing to do with proficiency as most people understand the term. NAEP experts think of NAEP’s standard as ‘aspirational.’ In 2001, two experts associated with NAGB made it clear that: ‘The proficient achievement level does not refer to ‘at grade’ performance. Nor is performance at the Proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject. That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

Harvey summarizes the decades-long controversy about National Assessment of Educational Progress cut scores: “What is striking in reviewing the history of NAEP is how easily its policy board has shrugged off criticisms about the standards-setting process. The critics constitute a roll call of the statistical establishment’s heavyweights…  (T)he likes of the National Academy of Education, the Government Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Brookings Institution have issued scorching complaints that the benchmark-setting processes were ‘fundamentally flawed,’ ‘indefensible,’ and ‘of doubtful validity,’ while producing ‘results that are not believable.'”

Harvey continues: “How unbelievable? Fully half the 17-year-olds maligned as being just basic by NAEP obtained four-year college degrees. About one-third of Advanced Placement Calculus students, the creme de la creme of American high school students, failed to meet the NAEP proficiency benchmark. While only one-third of American fourth-graders are said to be proficient in reading by NAEP, international assessments of fourth-grade reading judged American students to rank as high as No. 2 in the world. For the most part, such pointed criticism from assessment experts has been greeted with silence from NAEP’s policy board.”

In her introduction to Harvey’s piece, Valerie Strauss explains: “Youngkin isn’t the first politician to misinterpret NAEP scores and then use that bad interpretation to bash public schools.” Please do read Strauss’s introduction and James Harvey’s fine column to better understand how high stakes standardized testing has been used politically to drive a kind of school reform that manipulates big data but has little relevance to expanding educational opportunity.

New Research Yet Again Proves the Folly of Judging Teachers by Their Students’ Test Scores

The Obama Administration’s public education policy, administered by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, was deeply flawed by its dependence on technocracy. In the 1990s, Congress had been wooed by researchers who had developed the capacity to produce giant, computer-generated data sets. What fell out of style in school evaluations were personal classroom observations by administrators who were more likely to notice the human connections that teachers and children depended on for building trusting relationships to foster learning.

Technocratic policy became law in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed the omnibus No Child Left Behind Act. Technocratic policy reached its apogee in 2009 as Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top grant program became a centerpiece of the federal stimulus bill passed by Congress to ameliorate the 2008 Great Recession.

In an important 2014 article, the late Mike Rose, a professor of education, challenged the dominant technocratic ideology.  He believed that excellent teaching cannot be measured by the number of correct answers any teacher’s students mark on a standardized test. Rose reports: The “classrooms (of excellent teachers) were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

In her 2012 book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch reviews the technocratic strategy of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top. To qualify for a federal grant under this program, states had to promise to evaluate public school teachers by the standardized test scores of their students: “Unfortunately, President Obama’s Race to the Top adopted the same test-based accountability as No Child Left Behind. The two programs differed in one important respect: where NCLB held schools accountable for low scores, Race to the Top held both schools and teachers accountable. States were encouraged to create data systems to link the test scores of individual students to individual teachers. If the students’ scores went up, the teacher was an ‘effective’ teacher; if the students’ scores did not go up, the teacher was an ‘ineffective’ teacher  If schools persistently had low scores, the school was a ‘failing’ school, and its staff should be punished.” (Reign of Error, p. 99).

Ravitch reminds readers of a core principle: “The cardinal rule of psychometrics is this: a test should be used only for the purpose for which it is designed. The tests are designed to measure student performance in comparison to a norm; they are not designed to measure teacher quality or teacher ‘performance.'” (Reign of Error, p. 111)

This week, Education Week‘s Madeline Will covers major new longitudinal research documenting what we already knew: that holding teachers accountable for raising their students’ test scores neither improved teaching nor promoted students’ learning:

“Nationally, teacher evaluation reforms over the past decade had no impact on student test scores or educational attainment. ‘There was a tremendous amount of time and billions of dollars invested in putting these systems into place and they didn’t have the positive effects reformers were hoping for.’ said Joshua Bleiberg, an author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University… A team of researchers from Brown and Michigan State Universities and the Universities of Connecticut and North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed the timing of states’ adoption of the reforms alongside district-level student achievement data from 2009 to 2018 on standardized math and English/language arts test scores. They also analyzed the impact of the reforms on longer-term student outcomes including high school graduation and college enrollment. The researchers controlled for the adoption of other teacher accountability measures and reform efforts taking place around the same time, and found that their results remained unchanged. They found no evidence that, on average, the reforms had even a small positive effect on student achievement or educational attainment.”

Arne Duncan is no longer the U.S. Secretary of Education. And in 2015, Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with a different federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), in which Congress permitted states more latitude in how they evaluate schoolteachers. So why is this new 2021 research so urgently important?  Madeline Will reports, “Evaluation reform has already changed course. States overhauled their teacher-evaluation systems quickly, and many reversed course within just a few years.”  Will adds, however, that in 2019,  34 states were still requiring “student-growth data in teacher evaluations.”

In 2019, for the Phi Delta Kappan, Kevin Close, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, and Clarin Collins surveyed teacher evaluation systems across the states.  Many states still evaluate teachers according to how much each teacher adds to a student’s learning as measured by test scores, a statistic called the Value-Added Measure (VAM).  Practices across the states are slowly evolving: “While the legacy of VAMs as the ‘objective’ student growth measure remains in place to some degree, the definition of student growth in policy and practice is also changing. Before ESSA, student growth in terms of policy was synonymous with students’ year-to-year changes in performance on large-scale standardized tests (i.e., VAMs). Now, more states are using student learning objectives (SLOs) as alternative or sole ways to measure growth in student learning or teachers’ impact on growth. SLOs are defined as objectives set by teachers, sometimes in conjunction with teachers’ supervisors and/or students, to measure students’ growth. While SLOs can include one or more traditional assessments (e.g., statewide standardized tests), they can also include nontraditional assessments (e.g., district benchmarks, school-based assessments, teacher and classroom-based measures) to assess growth. Indeed, 55% (28 of 51) of states now report using or encouraging SLOs as part of their teacher evaluation systems, to some degree instead of VAMs.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act eased federal pressure on states to evaluate teachers by their students’ scores, but five years since its passage, remnants of these policies linger in the laws of many states.  Once bad policy based on technocratic ideology has become embedded in state law, it may not be so easy to change course.

In a profound book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, the Harvard University psychometrician, Daniel Koretz explains succinctly why students’ test scores cannot possibly separate “successful” from “failing” schools and why students’ test scores are an inaccurate and unfair standard for evaluating teachers:

“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)

Mob Rule Is Un-American—at the Capitol on January 6 and at Your Local School Board Meeting

This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. A mob isn’t supposed to attack Congress to overturn the routine approval of the vote count in a Presidential election, and mobs of angry parents are not supposed to appear at local school board meetings trying to bully the school board to censor the books in classrooms or make teachers leave out the history of slavery or omit the theory of evolution.

I am neither an attorney nor a legal expert on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. But even I can tell that something weird is brewing when a right-wing PAC, The Conservative Action Project, sends an alert, Conservatives Urge Every Parent To Attend Their School Board Meetings in Defiance of the FBI, signed by a long list of people including attorneys like former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Trump defender Cleta Mitchell, demanding that parents attend local school board meetings to defy the FBI and demonstrate their First Amendment rights. Of course this action alert is carefully framed to ask parents “to use their rights to speak, to request documents under the Freedom of Information Laws, to engage in dialogue with elected school boards,” but the Conservative Action Project message to parents is a response to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s threat to involve the FBI when school board members are threatened with violence or outshouted and unable to do their work in the context of rude and violent parent protests.

Then there is last week’s bizarre Wall Street Journal commentary* by Philip Hamburger, a libertarian professor of law at Columbia University and president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a legal organization which describes itself this way: “NCLA views the administrative state as an especially serious threat to constitutional freedoms.” (*The link is to Diane Ravitch’s reprinting of this column, because the original is paywalled.)

Hamburger makes the following argument, based on his interpretation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, for direct parental control of the curriculum in public schools and for finding public education itself unconstitutional because parents’ free speech rights are being violated: “Education consists mostly in speech to and with children. Parents enjoy freedom of speech in educating their children, whether at home or through private schooling.” “Although the exact nature of this parental freedom is much disputed, it is grounded in the First Amendment…. (T)he freedom of parents in educating their children belongs to all parents… The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government educational speech for their own. Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling… (P)arents are… being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own… For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible.”

Here is the response of journalist, Jennifer Berkshire and education historian, Jack Schneider: “(O)ne might reasonably conclude that radicals are out to curtail the established rights that Americans have over the educational sphere. Yet what’s actually radical here is the assertion of parental powers that have never previously existed. This is not to say that parents should have no influence over how their children are taught. But common law and case law in the United States have long supported the idea that education should prepare young people to think for themselves, even if that runs counter to the wishes of parents… When do the interests of parents and children diverge? Generally, it occurs when a parent’s desire to inculcate a particular world view denies the child exposure to other ideas and values that an independent young person might wish to embrace or at least to entertain. To turn over all decisions to parents, then, would risk inhibiting the ability of young people to think independently.”

Last week, the Washington Post Editorial Board spoke up for the rights of children themselves and the importance to the public of students who have developed critical thinking skills: “Allowing one parent—or a group of parents—to bully, threaten and intimidate school officials into their way of thinking is not what our democracy is about. And it is not what learning should be about. It is chilling that a school administrator in Texas suggested that an opposing view of the Holocaust needed to be taught to comply with the state’s controversial law on curriculum content.  Everyone—parents, teachers, and school administrators, as well as politicians—needs to focus less on what books are being taught and more on giving students the skills to think critically and form their own judgments.”

Education historian, Diane Ravitch challenges Hamburger’s inaccurate depiction of the history of American public schooling: “Hamburger’s central critique of the public schools is that they were created by nativists out of fear of Catholicism and their central purpose was to homogenize all children and mold them into Protestants. He repeatedly asserts that the very idea of the public school was shaped by hostility to Catholics… Were there anti-Catholics who supported public schools? Yes. Were there nativists who hated Catholics and who feared that the Pope wanted to seize control of their city or state? Yes.  Was the primary purpose of the public school movement to stamp out the influence of Catholics? No. The overwhelming majority of Americans supported the growth of public schools because they believed that a democratic society needed educated citizens who were prepared for self-government. The Catholic school system grew and thrived. Catholic leaders thought their schools were unfairly denied public funding, but the idea of prohibiting the public funding of religious schools was broadly popular and appears in almost every state constitution. The public endorsed the proposition that society as a whole, though taxation, is responsible for maintaining a public school system that offers a free education for all who enroll.”

Without taking on the bizarre logic of Hamburger’s far-right legal argument that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech renders public schooling unconstitutional as a violation of parents’ rights, First Focus on Children’s executive director Bruce Lesley suggests  the chaotic result if a school board were to adopt the demands being shouted by parents to suppress what is deemed accurate science or history or to censor books we’ve all been reading for decades:

“(I)magine an elementary school of 450 students where 15 parents oppose the teaching of evolution, 19 parents believe the earth is flat, 28 are Holocaust deniers, 22 oppose white children learning about slavery, 7 believe in racial segregation, 21 believe in the concept of a school without walls, 49 demand the use of corporal punishment, 18 want to ban Harry Potter books from the school library, 26 want to ban any books that mention the Trail of Tears, 62 believe that parents should be allowed to overrule a physician’s decision that a child with a concussion should refrain from participating in sports, 87 oppose keeping their kids out of school when they have the flu, 9 believe that a child with cancer might be contagious, 29 believe that kids who are vaccinated should be the ones who quarantine, 72 support “tracking” in all subject areas, 32 believe students should not be taught how to spell the word “isolation” and “quarantine” because they are too “scary of words,” 104 don’t like the school neighborhood boundaries, 38 don’t like the bus routes, 71 parents want a vegan-only lunchroom, 4 demand same-sex classrooms, 5 oppose textbooks and want their children only reading from the Bible, and it can go on and on. The vast majority of parents do not agree with any of these things, and yet, parental rights extremists would insist schools must accommodate them, even if they are completely false, undermine the purpose of education, threaten the safety of children, or promote discrimination. How can a school operate if every parent can decide every aspect of the education of their child, as some are demanding? It cannot.”

Lesley juxtaposes Hamburger’s libertarian argument with the profound defense of public schooling by the late Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Earl Warren: “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” (Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954)

Diane Ravitch Offers Pithy Prescription to Help Secretary of Education Cardona Remedy Education Policy

By 2010, there were a lot of people who had grown very concerned about the No Child Left Behind Act and the use of annual high-stakes testing to identify so-called “failing” schools. It was a federal education scheme that imposed punishments on public schools serving America’s poorest students instead of providing help. The movement to condemn No Child Left Behind didn’t crystalize, however, until Diane Ravitch, the education historian and former school reformer, published a book about why she had been wrong.

Here is how she confessed her sins on the first page of the first chapter of that book:  “In the fall of 2007, I reluctantly decided to have my office repainted… At the very time that I was packing up my books and belongings, I was going through an intellectual crisis. I was aware that I had undergone a wrenching transformation in my perspective on school reform. Where once I had been hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets, I now found myself experiencing profound doubts about these same ideas. I was trying to sort through the evidence about what was working and what was not. I was trying to understand why I was increasingly skeptical about these reforms, reforms that I had supported enthusiastically. I was trying to see my way through the blinding assumptions of ideology and politics, including my own. I kept asking myself why I was losing confidence in these reforms… Why did I now doubt ideas I once had advocated? The short answer is that my views changed as I saw how these ideas were working out in reality.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 1-2)

Ravitch was not the first person to notice that something had gone terribly wrong, but she provided the first coherent analysis of the mass of factors and  ideas that had shaped a new and unfortunate direction for federal policy in public education.

Now Ravitch has done us all another favor.  In a short, concise analysis published by The Progressive, Ravitch adds another decade to her 2010 analysis. She shows readers precisely what President Joe Biden’s administration needs to do to turn away from privatization schemes and from public school reform based on punishing the school districts that serve our nation’s neediest children.  She urges the Biden Administration to focus intensely helping the nation’s most vulnerable public schools.

She begins:  “President Joe Biden will have his work cut out in repairing the damage done to U.S. education caused by Donald Trump and his one-time Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos. But Biden and his Secretary of Education…, Miguel Cardona, must also reverse at least twenty years of federal education policy, starting over with measures that allow teachers to teach and children to learn without fear of federal sanctions.”

Ravitch’s short summary of the history that has brought us to where we are today deftly takes us back to 1983 with the publication of The Nation at Risk.  She reminds us about George H.W. Bush’s summit of the nation’s governors, chaired by then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who later when he was President, paved the way for No Child Left Behind by launching the Education Goals 2000.  Ravitch writes: “Goals cost nothing, and they give the illusion of activity. In his ‘Goals 2000’ program, Clinton encouraged every state to write standards and give more tests… George W. Bush topped his predecessors during the 2000 campaign when he claimed that his education plan had produced a ‘miracle’ in  Texas. Test every child every year, he said, and honor schools where scores go up and embarrass schools where they don’t… By the end of 2001, Congress had passed his (No Child Left Behind) law, expanded to more than 1,000 pages, and Bush signed it on January 8, 2002.”

The rest is more familiar recent history.  When, “By 2014, few U.S. schools were on track to reach the law’s demand for 100 percent proficiency… Arne Duncan offered waivers to states from the law’s requirement.”  But he added to the troubles with his Race to the Top, which bribed the states to compete for $4.35 billion in federal funds, “but only if they met certain conditions… increase the number of charter schools… evaluate teachers based on the test scores of their students… adopt common national standards… and take swift punitive action against schools that did not raise their scores.”

Ravitch concludes: “The challenge for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, will be to abandon two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability and to remove any federal incentives to create privately managed charter schools… Cardona should begin by offering blanket waivers for the 2021 testing cycle.”

I am certain Ravitch submitted her new article for publication before last week, when a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education released guidance insisting that the federally mandated high stakes testing will continue this year despite COVID-19.  And I am sure she submitted it before Monday evening, when the U.S. Senate finally confirmed Miguel Cardona to his position as the new U.S. Secretary of Education.

We can hope that perhaps Biden and Cardona will somehow correct the Department’s mistaken new guidance that mandates the continuation of high stakes testing this year during COVID-19.  We can hope Secretary Cardona will listen to Ravitch and the huge chorus of parents, deans of colleges of education, teachers unions, the national Superintendents Roundtable and scholarly researchers who study the construction and use of standardized tests.

What is extremely hopeful is that our new President, Joe Biden, has seemed in the past at least to agree with Diane Ravitch’s analysis of what has gone wrong with federal education policy. Biden’s education plan during the campaign emphasized tripling funding for the federal Title I program to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty and fulfilling, within the next decade, Congress’s promise, when it passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, that the federal government would pay for 40 percent of the cost of the mandated programming. (Currently Congress is covering less than 15 percent of the cost.) Biden also advocated greater accountability for charter schools and eliminating federal funding flowing to the for-profit education management organizations that run huge chains of charters. And he declared his support for diminishing the role of high-stakes standardized testing.

If you read one education article this week, I urge you to read and re-read Diane Ravitch’s short, pithy piece in The Progressive.  Maybe even make yourself a copy and put it on your bulletin board or in your wallet and read it again once a month. I certainly urge Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to do the same thing.

Ravitch concludes “Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition… Why not try a radically different approach? Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of the students are greatest? Give the schools that enroll students with disabilities the resources that Congress promised but never delivered.  Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play. Now that would be a revolution!”

New Education Secretary, Dr. Miguel Cardona, Should Not Require Annual Standardized Testing in This COVID-19 School Year

Last weekend, the NY Times editorialized to demand that President Elect Joe Biden’s new Secretary of Education promptly “clear the wreckage” from Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education. The newspaper is correct to criticize Betsy DeVos’s abandonment of the department’s mission of protecting the civil rights of America’s public school students. And the editorial writers deserve praise for condemning DeVos’s dogged support for for-profit colleges and trade schools at the expense of indebted student borrowers.

But pretty quickly the Times editorial board steps into the old trap of endorsing federally mandated high stakes standardized testing and the collection of big data at the expense of the children and teachers who are struggling to make it through this school year being shunted back and forth from on-line schooling to in-person school and then back on-line as the COVID-19 numbers rise and fall. The editorial board has slipped into the No Child Left Behind mindset that values data over the lived experience of students and teachers:

“Mr. Cardona would need to pay close attention to how districts plan to deal with learning loss that many children will suffer while the schools are closed. Fall testing data analyzed by the nonprofit research organization NWEA suggests that setbacks have been less severe than were feared with students showing continued academic progress in reading and only modest setbacks in math. However, given a shortage of testing data for Black, Hispanic and poor children, it could well be that these groups have fared worse in the pandemic than their white or more affluent peers. The country needs specific information on how these subgroups are doing so that it can allocate educational resources strategically.”

That is, of course, what No Child Left Behind and its massive state-by-state testing regime was supposed to be about, except that nobody ever “allocated educational resources strategically” once we had all the big data. President Elect Joe Biden has explained that across the United States: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.” Despite wide agreement that twenty years of data-driven school accountability failed to drive investment into the poorest schools, the narrative has been deeply embedded into the conventional wisdom.

It will be up to our new Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to decide whether to cancel this spring’s federally mandated standardized tests in language arts and math for a second year. Betsy DeVos, to her credit, let the states and the nation’s public schools off the hook last year due to the chaos of the pandemic.

Last week the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized the past two decades of mandated standardized testing and the choice which now faces Education Secretary Cardona: “The annual spring testing regime—complete with sometimes extensive test preparation in class and even testing ‘pep rallies’—has become a flash point in the two-decade-old school reform movement that has centered on using standardized tests to hold schools and teachers accountable.  First, under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and now under its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, public schools are required to give most students tests each year in math and English language arts and to use the results in accountability formulas.  Districts evaluate teachers and states evaluate schools and districts—at least in part—on test scores.”

Strauss continues: “Supporters say that (the tests) are important to determine whether students are making progress and that two straight years of having no data from these tests would stunt student academic progress because teachers would not have critical information on how well their students are doing. Critics say that the results have no value to teachers because the scores come after the school year has ended and that they are not allowed to see test questions or know which ones their students get wrong. There are also concerns that some tests used for accountability purposes are not well-aligned to what students learn in school—and that the results only show what is already known: students from poor families do worse than students from families with more resources.”

Criticizing the NY Times editorial, Diane Ravitch elaborates as she suggests that Dr. Cardona should cancel the mandated state tests for a second year: “The results will be useless. The teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions, never allowed to discuss them, and never allowed to learn how individual students performed on specific questions. The results will be reported 4-6 months after students take the test. The students will have a new teacher. The students will get a score, but no one will get any information about what students do or don’t know… Anyone who thinks that it is necessary or fair to give standardized tests this spring is out of touch with the realities of schooling. More important than test scores right now is the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff.”

Writing for Education Week last month, Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of research and evaluation methodology  at the University of Colorado School of Education cautions that, Testing Students This Spring Would Be a Mistake. Like many experts, Shepard worries about the use of standardized tests for high stakes accountability: “Even under normal circumstances, high-stakes testing has negative consequences. State assessment programs co-opt valuable instructional time, both for week-long test administration and for test preparation. Accountability pressures often distort curriculum, emphasizing test-like worksheets and focusing only on tested subjects. Recent studies of data-driven decision making warn us that test-score interpretations can lead to deficit narratives—blaming children and their families—instead of prompting instructional improvements… Most significantly, teachers report that they and their students experience high degrees of anxiety, even shame, when test scores are publicly reported… Clearly it would be unfair to hold schools and teachers accountable for outcomes when students’ learning opportunities have varied because of computer and internet access, home learning circumstances, and absences related to sickness or family disruption. Testing this year is counterproductive because it potentially demoralizes students and teachers without addressing the grave problems exacerbated by the pandemic.”

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, a profound and thorough exploration of the past two decades of the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their schools and their teachers, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz concisely explains why the federal use of widespread standardized testing to drive teachers’ evaluations, school closures, the firing of school principals, state takeovers of schools, and the turnover of public schools to private operators has not only left us with a succession of dangerous policies, but also undermined the validity of the tests themselves as states manipulated their scoring to avoid sanctions.  Further the attachment of high stakes undermined the education process in the schools where children were farthest behind—schools where teachers were forced to teach to the test or fall back on deadly drilling.

Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “The more any quantitative social indicator is 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… 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.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

Nobody Should Be Wasting Time Worrying About When to Administer Standardized Tests

Parents, children, teachers, principals, and school superintendents are living through a time of unknowns. COVID-19 is raging across the states with many public schools operating only online. Some public schools, which have been able to open in person or on hybrid schedules, have subsequently been forced to close already reopened buildings or specific classrooms as COVID-19 cases arise and everybody quarantines.

In the midst of a chaotic situation with no good and stable solutions for many public schools, suddenly last week everybody started worrying about what to do about this year’s standardized tests. The Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reports that outgoing Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos postponed the winter administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the one test administered across all the states, the test that tracks school achievement over the decades and is not distorted by high stakes consequences.

Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Patty Murray (D-WA), the Democratic leaders of the House Education Committee, agreed to delay the NAEP, but said the nation needs some kind of measure of learning loss during the pandemic.  They released a statement declaring that annual state tests mandated under the Every Student Succeeds Act must surely be administered: “Existing achievement gaps are widening for our most vulnerable students, including students from families with low incomes, students with disabilities, English learners, and students of color. In order for our nation to recover and rebuild from the pandemic, we must first understand the magnitude of learning loss that has impacted students across the country. That cannot happen without assessment data.”

While I frequently agree with Representatives Scott and Murray, I think worrying about standardized testing right now ought to be a low priority, and I think the state-by-state achievement tests mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act are the wrong kind of test.  Neither do I believe that the mandated, annual state achievement tests are necessary to help teachers grasp their students’ learning needs during and following the widespread school closures and disruptions in the current school year.  Our schoolteachers are well trained professionals who are prepared to develop their students’ reading comprehension skills, to track problems with computational skills and mathematical conceptualization, and to help support their students emotionally after a period of disruption. The emphasis right now and when children return to classrooms must be supporting teachers facing the complex challenge of serving children who have been out of the classroom for too long. Standardized test scores very often don’t even arrive at schools for months after the tests are administered; they play little role in supporting teachers’ capacity to discern their students’ learning gains or losses.

If we are looking for complex data about the impact of the pandemic on public schools across communities and across states, at some point it will be realistic for the National Center for Education Statistics again to administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is designed as a national audit test to determine learning trends over time.  When it is practical to administer NAEP, certainly that test should happen.

The annual standardized tests, mandated first by No Child Left Behind and, since 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act, are designed for an entirely different purpose.  And ironically the purpose and use of these tests for holding schools accountable distorts the results as schools struggle to raise scores at any cost in order to avoid the high stakes punishments that Congress attached to these tests or forced the states to attach. What are these high stakes? States still have to submit to the U.S. Department of Education plans for how to turnaround their lowest performing schools according to these tests.  Some states still evaluate teachers according to their students’ scores. States rate and rank particular schools and school districts according to their aggregate test scores. Many states publish these rankings, which encourages real estate redlining as well as racial and economic segregation across metropolitan areas. Different states place voucher programs or charter schools in school districts where scores are low. Some states take over low scoring schools and school districts and turn them over to appointed commissions that supplant locally elected school boards.  Some school districts have claimed to use school closure as a so-called turnaround plan.

In a profound 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on standardized testing, documents research exposing flaws in the entire strategy of No Child Left Behind, which combined standardized testing with high stakes punishments for schools unable quickly to raise students’ test scores. Koretz explains social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are tied to a quantitative social indicator.  In this case, the social indicator is whether or not educators and particular schools can produce higher aggregate student test scores year after year:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is 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… 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.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

Koretz shows that imposing high stakes punishments on schools and educators unable quickly to raise students’ scores inevitably produces reallocation of instruction to what is being tested, causes states eventually to lower standards, causes some schools quietly to exclude from testing the students likely to fail. Under No Child Left Behind, the high stakes even led to abject cheating—as happened in Atlanta under Superintendent Beverly Hall.

What all this means is that the state achievement tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act—whether administered to students this year or put off until after vaccines are widely available and students return to their classrooms—are not an appropriate tool for measuring the long term impact of the pandemic on students’ lives and learning.

Ideological advocacy for holding public schools accountable drove the passage and implementation of the original No Child Left Behind Act. The idea was that educators can be motivated to work harder through fear if their schools are threatened with punishments.  The idea of attaching high stakes consequences for low test scores remains with us today. Last week Chester E. Finn, Jr., formerly of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and now affiliated with the Hoover Institution, published a widely read column in the Washington Post.  Twenty years ago, Finn strongly promoted No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish strategy, and clearly he continues to believe in using high stakes testing as a threat. Here is a paragraph from his recent column that Finn could easily have cut, pasted, and slightly updated from something he wrote back in 2001:

“The results from those state assessments are the main source of information about school performance and about pupil learning in the core subjects of the K-12 curriculum. The results also indicate whether America’s appalling — and persistent — achievement gaps are getting any narrower. These student statewide test results are the foundation of a school-performance measurement structure that the United States has been painstakingly constructing in the decades since being declared “A Nation at Risk” in 1983. The information from the tests is used at every level of the system. It enables parents to see how their children are faring on an “external” metric, beyond the grades conferred by their teachers, and it helps principals assess how their schools are doing. The results also equip superintendents to gauge what must be done to boost district-wide achievement, and they furnish state officials with the information needed to guide their assistance and interventions.”

Today, nearly two decades after the states were mandated to administer annual standardized tests and after No Child Left Behind imposed sanctions on the schools with the lowest scores, we know that the whole scheme failed to support children’s school achievement and failed to close achievement gaps. Some schools were charterized as a punishment; other schools were shut down; principals and teachers were fired.  And scores on the national audit test, the National Assessment of Education Progress (the NAEP), have fallen in some cases and in other cases remained flat.

I believe it is unnecessary—in the midst of a raging pandemic and a Presidential transition—to worry about when the federal government will mandate widespread standardized testing.  The bigger question is whether and how the federal government will manage a plan to get the pandemic under control and provide enough support to help states and school districts get all children and adolescents back in school.

I agree with Diane Ravitch, who explains: “Resumption of standardized testing is completely ridiculous in the midst of a pandemic. The validity of the tests has always been an issue; their validity in the midst of a national crisis will be zero. They will show, even more starkly, that students who are in economically secure families have higher test scores than those who do not. They will show that children in poverty and children with disabilities have suffered disproportionately due to lack of schooling.  We already know that.  Why put pressure on students and teachers to demonstrate what we already know?  At this point, we don’t even know whether all students will have the advantage of in-person instruction by March.  If anything, we need a thorough review of the value, validity, and reliability of annual standardized testing, a practice that is unknown in any high-performing nation in the world.  We are choking on the rotten fumes of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.”

Trump Fans Racism As He Rages Against Public High School History and Government Teachers

Last Thursday, President Donald Trump spoke at an event celebrating the anniversary of the signing of of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787.  Trump tried to turn the Constitution Day event held at the National Archives into a celebration of whitewashed American exceptionalism and an attack on how educators in our public schools teach history and government.

The Washington Post‘s Moriah Balingit and Laura Meckler cover the speech: “Trump, speaking before original copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence… characterized demonstrations against racial injustice as ‘left-wing rioting and mayhem’ that ‘are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools’… As he campaigns for reelection, Trump has repeatedly cast education that examines the nation’s failures as a betrayal, seeking to rally his base and tap into hostility toward protesters who have taken to the streets to denounce racial injustice and police brutality. His argument casts any criticism of the United States, even of slavery, as unpatriotic… Trump’s gambit seeks to turn local schools—already beset by a global pandemic and many other problems—into another front in the culture war he champions, positioning history teachers as opponents of American greatness along with kneeling football players, police misconduct protesters and racial-sensitivity trainers.”

Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa reports that on Thursday, Trump specifically attacked something called the 1619 Project, a curriculum developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the NY Times and the Pulitzer Center: “Earlier this month, he threatened to pull federal funding from schools that use the 1619 Project as a basis for classroom curriculum—however, Trump lacks the legal authority to do this. The Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits the federal government from endorsing or sanctioning schools for using a particular curriculum. On Thursday, the president also used his speech to announce that he would create the ‘1776 Commission’ that would be used to ‘promote patriotic education.’  He also announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities had awarded a grant to fund the creation of ‘a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.'”

In her blog, the education historian Diane Ravitch wonders: “Do you think he knows that federal law prohibits any federal official from interfering with curriculum or instruction in the schools?… Federal law 20 USC 1232a prohibits ‘any department, agency officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system…'”

The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, John Jackson challenges Trump’s push to censor the full implications of slavery from public school history classes: “Trump… doubles down on the notion, embraced by too many, that slavery is now over, no legacy or current injustices exist, end of conversation…  In fact it is a grave threat to our democracy to ignore—and fail to correct—the systemic racism that undergirds our nation’s public policies and practices. The violence against Blacks by the police may lead the headlines today, but the full story cannot be understood without taking a 400-year view of the legacy of slavery. The violence of law enforcement today cannot be separated from the violence that enforced slavery, laws prohibiting Blacks from learning to read and write, segregation, inequitable schools that deny educational opportunities to children, as well as redlining and real estate covenants that deny housing opportunities to families. Only by understanding the full breadth of our nation’s history can we see the common threads linking the myriad crises of today.”

When the NY Times Magazine published the 1619 Project a year ago in August, Education Week‘s Madeline Will described the kind of critical thinking the group of authors hoped the materials would inspire among high school students of American history and government: “The one full lesson plan in the curriculum is based on Hannah-Jones; essay, ‘The Idea of America.’ It asks students to consider the values stated in the Declaration of Independence and how they work—and fail—in American society today.  Then, students would read the essay and consider their own prior knowledge of slavery and the contributions of black Americans to U.S. society… There’s a list of questions for students to discuss in class, including: What did you learn about major figures in U.S. history, like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, and why do you think this information wasn’t included in other historical resources?  Other activities to engage students include creating a new timeline of U.S. history, starting with the year 1619 (the year the first slaves were sold by pirates to American colonists), and creating an infographic that visualizes racial inequity in the United States and its links to slavery.”

I urge you to read Hannah-Jones essay, The Idea of America, for a fascinating exploration of the origins of slavery, its history, the role of Reconstruction and its replacement by Jim Crow. Hannah-Jones challenges assumptions at the core of our national mythology, but her essay’s purpose is constructive and patriotic: “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’  But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.  Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves—black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights. Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.”

Not only is it fascinating to explore Hannah-Jones’ article that drives the 1619 Project, but it is essential to consider why, as we move closer to the November election and as his desperation grows, President Trump is so belligerently fanning the flames of racism.  We can turn to Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, academics who just published a new book, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality , on today’s political climate. In the deliberate tone one might expect from two professors in a Political Science 101 class, Hacker and Pierson explicate why Trump is alleging, without any reference to the facts, that America’s public schools are undermining white America:

“We see a political system in which a once-moderate party now tightly orbits the most reactionary elements of America’s emergent plutocracy. And we see a political system in which, despite that party’s embrace of unpopular economic policies, tens of millions of Americans of modest means don’t just vote for that party but have become increasingly tribal in their loyalty to it. (p. 3) “As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged.” (p. 4) “What Republicans learned as they refined their strategies for reaching… voters is that issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities. Issue positions can inform identities, but it is identities—perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat—that really mobilize… This fateful turn toward tribalism, with its reliance on racial animus and continual ratcheting up of fear, greatly expanded the opportunities to serve the plutocrats.” (p. 117) (All citations are to Let Them Eat Tweets).

Even Though Schools Are Closed, Advocates Must Keep on Pushing to End Dangerous School “Deformer” Policies

Those of us who care about American public schools have spent nearly twenty years working to undo the damage of a school accountability and privatization movement that has ruined our schools, heaped pressure on teachers and children, and created a publicly funded, private education sector. School privatization on top of widespread state tax slashing has robbed education budgets—ensuring that our children can have neither the basic services they need nor the kind of stimulating, exciting and rigorous education our wealthiest society in the world ought to be able to provide for them.

The pause this month, as public schools are closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, has forced a lot of people to notice that public schools are a more important institution than many had perhaps realized.  We are noticing, for example, that virtual learning cannot substitute for real live teachers working personally to support children as they learn together. And we’ve been forced to notice all the ways we count on schools, as a universal system that provides care and supervision every day and even ensures that hungry children are fed.

At some point, however, schools will reopen, and when they do, I hope those of us who have been working for decades to repair the damage of twenty years of “school deform” won’t have been distracted.  Because we are a society with a short memory, it’s worth reviewing the goals we were working to realize before March, 2020 when the pandemic shut down our public schools.  There is a likelihood that the economic damage from the pandemic may bring added challenges, and we will no doubt be told that the new crisis, whatever it is, is the only thing that matters.

Diane Ravitch’s just-published book, Slaying Goliath, is a particularly timely guide for public school advocates in the months ahead. Ravitch explicitly traces how policy around the public schools has gone badly wrong, and she profiles the work of individuals and emerging movements to save public education after the failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. She also names the lavishly funded advocacy groups pushing policies that undermine public education; they are dogged people who are not going to give up.

Ravitch describes the proponents of test-based, corporate driven education policy as “Disrupters”: “Not every Disrupter believes exactly the same thing… Some believe that test scores are the goal of education… Others, like Betsy DeVos, believe that choice is an end in itself… The corporate leaders of this campaign admire disruptive innovation because high tech businesses do it, so it must be good.. They love charter schools because charters are start-ups without histories just like many new businesses in the modern corporate world… The concept of ‘creative destruction’ is derived from the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter… Corporate Disrupters approve of schools hiring inexperienced teachers with little or no training… because it costs less… Disrupters don’t like democratic control of education by elected local school boards…. They like mayoral control, where one person is in charge; the mayor can usually be counted on to listen to business leaders… The Disrupters oppose teacher tenure and seniority…. They are devoted to cutting taxes, cutting spending on public schools, and turning control of public schools over to private corporations….”  (Slaying Goliath, pp. 28-30)  “Years from now,” writes Ravitch, “historians will look back and wonder why so many very wealthy people spent so much money in a vain attempt to disrupt and privatize public education and why they ignored the income inequality and wealth inequality that were eating away at the vitals of American society.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 50.)

Certainly those of us who support public school improvement do not want merely to return to the past. Correcting injustices in our public system, improving teaching, and expanding the opportunity to learn for all children means neither returning to the past nor endorsing the status quo.  We do, however, agree with the goals Ravitch identifies as the traditional domain of constructive advocates for public schools: “Before the current era, true reformers wanted to make public schools better. They wanted public schools to have more resources. They wanted better prepared teachers or better curriculum, or better teaching materials. They wanted teachers to have higher salaries and smaller classes. They wanted districts to have modern buildings and better playing fields and better physical equipment. They wanted schools to be racially integrated so that all children had the chance to learn alongside others who were different from themselves. They wanted schools to have nurses, health clinics, social workers, psychologists, librarians and libraries, up-to-date technology, and programs for students with disabilities and English language learners.  They wanted all children to have equality of educational opportunity.  They wanted to have good schools with good teachers.” (Slaying Goliath, pp. 27-28)

Schools are closed this spring, but eventually our children and their teachers will return, and the well-funded Disrupters will be back at work trying to push their panoply of policies.

For those of us who stand with the public schools, here are four basic goals to remember throughout this interlude of school closures and as children and their teachers return to their classrooms:

SUPPORT ADEQUATE SCHOOL FUNDING     Champions of public education need to be prepared to advocate strenuously for states to maintain their support for public education even if another recession follows the coronavirus pandemic. After the Great Recession, school funding collapsed across the states. In a 2019 report, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documented that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels. Additionally, because decades of research confirm that segregation by family and neighborhood income is the primary driver of school achievement gaps, advocates will need to pay attention to broader public public programs designed to support families and ameliorate family poverty, press for more full-service wraparound Community Schools, and press for funding to support, rather than punish school districts where test scores are low.  It isn’t merely state budgets which have fallen behind.  This year, Democratic candidates for President have been supporting at least tripling federal Title I funding that invests in school districts where poverty is concentrated, and advocating that the federal government meet its 1975 promise of paying 40 percent of the cost of federally mandated programming under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Today the federal government is covering less than 15 percent of those costs.

PRESS FOR THE ELIMINATION OF HIGH STAKES STANDARDIZED TESTING     Standardized testing must be significantly reduced and must be decoupled from the kind of high stakes that have dominated federal and state policy since No Child Left Behind was enacted in January, 2002.  We now know that No Child Left Behind and the policies it mandated across the states did not work; scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have flatlined in recent years. Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains why using widespread standardized testing to drive teachers’ evaluations, school closures, the firing of school principals, state takeovers of schools, and the turnover of public schools to private operators not only left us with a succession of dangerous policies, but also undermined the validity of the tests themselves as states manipulated their scoring to avoid sanctions.  Further the attachment of high stakes undermined the education process in the schools where children were farthest behind—schools where teachers were forced to teach to the test or fall back on deadly drilling.  Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “The more any quantitative social indicator is 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… 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.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

SUPPORT CHILDREN BY PAYING ATTENTION TO WHAT TEACHERS’ STRIKES HAVE TAUGHT US     Teachers’ working conditions are our children’s learning conditions.  Across the country in 2018 and 2019, striking schoolteachers exposed inexcusable conditions in their public schools from West Virginia, to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago.  We learned about outrageous class sizes; shortages of counselors, school social workers, certified librarians, and school nurses; and salaries so low in some school districts that teachers cannot afford to pay rent on a one bedroom apartment.  Striking teachers have forced us to see the crisis that exists in some entire states along with the financial crisis that prevails across the nation’s urban school districts. Teachers have exposed our society’s failure to create the political will to fund the school districts that serve our poorest children.  Many states have persisted in punishing school districts where child poverty is concentrated and where test scores are low. Only a few states, most recently Massachusetts, with a new funding system, have made the effort significantly to help these districts where the need is greatest.

OPPOSE SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION:  CHARTER SCHOOL EXPANSION AND VOUCHER GROWTH STARVE PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF NECESSARY RESOURCES AND FAIL TO PROTECT STUDENTS’ RIGHTS AND THE INTERESTS OF THE PUBLIC     Disrupters have led us to deny that rampant privatization at public expense is destroying our public schools. However, research confirms that school privatization  through charter school expansion and the growth of vouchers siphons millions of dollars out of the public systems where the majority of our children remain enrolled.

Privatization poses additional problems beyond funding: School choice advocates frame their arguments in libertarian rhetoric about the rights of individuals. Rather, it is only through laws and government regulations that society can protect the rights of students to appropriate services—whatever their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—whether they are English language learners or disabled students with special needs. Private schools to which students carry public vouchers on the other hand, do not protect students’ rights. They can neither be required by law to protect children from religious indoctrination, nor to guarantee a full curriculum, nor even to teach history without bias or promote proven scientific theories. And in state after state the absence of adequate regulation has helped unscrupulous charter school operators steal scarce tax dollars as profits.

It is always worth remembering the warning of the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Challenges for America’s Forgotten and Overlooked Rural Public Schools

Incompetence and bureaucratic rigidity in Betsy DeVos’s U.S. Department of Education is denying the nation’s poorest rural schools the delivery of federal money these districts have already budgeted for essential services.

The NY TimesErica Green reported last week: “More than 800 schools stand to lose thousands of dollars from the Rural and Low-Income School Program because the department has abruptly changed how districts are to report how many of their students live in poverty. The change, quietly announced in letters to state education leaders, comes after the Education Department said a review of the program revealed that districts had ‘erroneously’ received funding because they had not met eligibility requirements outlined in the federal education law since 2002.  The department said it would strictly enforce a requirement that in order to get funding, districts must use data from the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates…. For about 17 years, the department has allowed schools to use the percentage of students who qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced-price meals, a common proxy for school poverty rates, because census data can miss residents in rural areas.”

Senators from rural states—Maine’s Susan Collins, Montana’s Jon Tester—have protested, and it looks as though Congress and the Education Department will find a way to solve the problem.  But here is what happened in the school districts that received the notice: “The department’s notifications rattled rural districts, which have come to rely on the program to supplement the costs of services that are far less accessible to rural students, like technology, mental health and guidance counselors, and full-day kindergarten. Congress created the Rural Education Achievement Program, recognizing that rural schools lacked the resources to compete with their urban and suburban counterparts for competitive grants.  The program is the only dedicated federal funding stream for rural school districts….”

It is easy to forget about the challenges for rural school districts, but in November, the Rural School and Community Trust released the newest in a series of reports on the state of rural education across the United States. The numbers are striking: “(N)early 7.5 million public school students were enrolled in rural school districts during the 2016-17 school year—or nearly one of every seven students across the country. The number is even larger when counting students who attend rural schools, including rural schools within districts classified as ‘non-rural.’  By this measure, more than 9.3 million—or nearly one in five students in the U.S.—attend a rural school. This means that more students in the U.S. attend rural schools than in the nation’s 85 largest school districts combined. Nearly one in six of those rural students lives below the poverty line, one in seven qualifies for special education, and one in nine has changed residence in the previous 12 months… Many rural school districts across the U.S. are very small: The median enrollment for U.S. rural districts is only 494 students, and at least half of rural districts in 23 states enroll less than the median.  In Montana, North Dakota, and Vermont, at least 90 percent of rural districts have fewer than 494 students.”

As our society struggles to crawl out from under the burden of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime, it is too easy to forget the complexity of our society’s public education endeavor.  Describing the schools he visited during a four year journey to research the wonderful Possible Lives, Mike Rose describes something we too often forget in an era when data and business school disruption have been pushed as the centerpiece of education policy in the federal government and across the states: “Schools are nested in place—for all their regularity, they reflect local history, language, and cultural practice. Yet it is also true—and we are not good at tolerating the ambiguity—that this wildly uneven array of schools contributed profoundly to the literacy and numeracy of the nation. Out of local effort and varied conditions emerged the common good.” (Why School? pp. 209-212)

In a fascinating recent NY Times column, Sarah Vowell explores the irony of the case of Espinoza v. Montana, currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.  It is a case whose tuition-tax-credit-voucher-supporting plaintiffs are trying, ironically, to establish that the Montana constitution’s prohibition of spending public dollars on religious schools interferes with free exercise of religion. Instead the Montana delegates in the state’s most recent, 1972 constitutional convention declared in their newly revised version of the Montana constitution their commitment to limiting the expenditure of desperately needed public dollars to the state’s public schools.

Vowell argues that private school tuition vouchers are fully inappropriate (and the Constitutional convention delegates knew this) in a state which epitomizes the urgent needs of rural public schools. She writes: “Article X Section 1, of the ’72 Constitution proclaims that it is the duty of the state to ‘develop the full educational potential of each person.’  That is an expensive ideal in a desolate wasteland.  Public schools are supposed to be a volume business, but tell that to the Great Plains. The state of Montana has about 60,000 fewer inhabitants than the number of students enrolled in New York City’s public school system.”  She continues, explaining that in Montana, “the poorest schools often have the smallest class sizes.” Vowell is describing the sort of high school with maybe 2 or 7 students in its graduating class; she even depicts an old friend near Bozeman who rode her horse to a tiny school. In Montana, the total public school enrollment across the state in 2018-19 was 161,691 students.

When I read Vowell’s column—being from Montana myself—I remembered Mike Rose’s observation that “schools are nested in place,” and they are vastly different from community to community even in rural Montana. Vowell lives down south in Bozeman, but in my part of northern Montana—on the Hi-Line along U.S. Route 2 and the old Great Northern railroad line—students riding horses to school would freeze to death pretty quickly.  But Vowell is correct: One thing that doesn’t vary from one tiny town to another is that classes are really small and the services for children extremely stretched.  My hometown, Havre, with about 9,000 people, is the largest town along the 564 mile stretch of road between Williston, North Dakota and Kalispell, an area that encompasses four Native American nations and dozens of tiny towns that are cold in the winter. Havre High School enrolled 508 students in grades 9-12 last school year. Shelby, the next big town going west, enrolls 115 students in its high school. In one county between Havre, and Shelby the towns of Chester, Joplin, Inverness and Galata bus their students on a long ride to a unified high school which enrolls 58 students in grades 9-12. (Montana high school enrollment data)

The Espinoza push for tuition-tax-credit vouchers is inappropriate in a state where a town is lucky to be able to sustain even a tiny public school (assuming Betsy DeVos’s Education Department restores the essential dollars it just slashed in an act of bureaucratic short-sightedness).  There are no school choices available in towns in the hundred miles east of Havre—from Chinook to Zurich, Harlem, Dodson, Wagner and Malta—and none in the hundred miles to the West—from Kremlin to Gildford, Hingham, Rudyard, Inverness, Joplin, Chester, Tiber, Galata, Devon, Dunkirk, and finally Shelby.

Mike Rose begins a new and very thoughtful blog post by recognizing the blindness that continues to affect public policy in education: “Over the past eight or nine months, I have been writing in this blog about perception and knowledge. How we gain knowledge, how background and social location affect that knowledge, whose knowledge counts, how the context or setting from which we perceive and know matters.” Referencing Diane Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath, Rose recognizes all sorts of things that threaten America’s public schools these days—from ideology (the Espinoza Case) to incompetence (Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education) to a fixation on the methodology of the business schools and the high-tech advocates. Like Diane Ravitch, Rose asks us to trust the experts, “teachers and parents who are close to conditions on the ground, who know the young people in their communities, know their schools and the textured daily life of classrooms, know teaching from the inside, live it, and understand a great deal about the complex social and cognitive dynamics of learning.”