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.

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Why People Who Know REALLY Oppose Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

You no doubt know that Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, has devoted her fortune and her advocacy to promoting school privatization through expansion of vouchers and unregulated charters. DeVos believes that if parents are given a choice and enough money to choose, they’ll improve the product by voting with their feet. Her theory, if not the reality, is that bad schools will then close and children will be better served. As the Senate considers her confirmation, people who know a lot about public education are warning Senators to oppose her.  Here are highlights of four articles—all by experts—all from different points of view.  Please do follow the links and read the articles themselves.  They are all short.

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Brett McNeil, whose The High School Where Our Kids Belong appeared on Monday in the Chicago Sun-Times, describes himself as someone who shifted careers, seeking teaching mid-career, working in a Chicago public high school and a Chicago charter high school. Although he has now left teaching for work in journalism, he brings the seldom-heard perspective of a teacher from inside two contrasting high schools, and he explains: “(W)ith charter school champion Betsy DeVos set to preside over federal education policy, I thought I might highlight some key differences between the public and charter school models.”  He describes the two schools in which he taught: “Both schools have student populations that are predominantly minority—one African American, the other Latino. Both schools also have a large number of students receiving free or reduced lunches….”  McNeil contrasts the facilities, programs, and extras at the two schools. The public school has a library with librarians, a large gym and gym classes and a performing arts center, while the charter lacks a library, librarians, gym classes and performing arts. The public high school offers a range of enrichments—a video production lab; a 25-yard swimming pool and swim team; a band room, band classes and marching band; art classes; drama classes and a drama club; National Honors Society; an International Baccalaureate curriculum; an auto shop; a student council; an improv club; and a literary journal.  He describes the charter as occupying a “decommissioned” elementary school, and he explains that the facility still feels like a grade school.

McNeil’ conclusion captures a reality that would matter to a great many adolescents and their parents: “The public school, while not a feeder to the Ivy Leagues, looks and feels a lot more like what I suspect readers imagine when they read the words ‘high school.’ It’s a comprehensive institution, offers a breath of classes and activities to a wide range of students with varying abilities and interests, and it functions as a neighborhood hub. Parents and siblings attend plays, concerts, sporting events, the usual.”

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Sarah Carr is a journalist, editor of the Teacher Project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and the author of Hope Against Hope, a book about the transformation of New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina. Even Carr, who describes herself as a supporter of school choice, worries about DeVos based on Carr’s experience covering education for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from 2002-2007.  In  her recent piece at Slate, Betsy DeVos’ Big Education Idea Doesn’t Work, Carr explains that part of her assignment was reporting on the evolution of the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee: “Milwaukee’s program historically targeted low-income families, allowing them to use state-funded tuition vouchers to send their children to private schools and, as of 1998 religious ones. When I started reporting in Milwaukee, potential voucher school operators basically needed only a building occupancy permit—and a group of willing families with kids to open a school and rake in hundreds of thousands of public dollars. Not surprisingly, the schools’ quality ran the gamut: Some were run by accomplished, talented, and dedicated educators; others by criminals with no background in education.”  Carr explains that many parents continued to choose schools with poor academic records.

Carr declares: “DeVos is sounding an old tune in her insistence on the power of parental choice as a lever to improve education in America.”  Wisconsin has, “over the past 10 years…  started to require much more of voucher school operators…. Now schools in Milwaukee must survive an accreditation process, meet stricter hiring and financial standards, and administer the same state standardized tests as public schools.” She concludes: “The Milwaukee story, combined with substantial research showing that charter schools tend to perform better in states with rigorous vetting of charter operators, helped usher in a new phase of ‘school choice’ in many communities: one in which government agencies or designees play a more aggressive role in determining what constitutes quality education—and what does not.”

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Diane Ravitch and John Jackson both bring reservations about the nomination of Betsy Devos based on their experience working in the U.S. Department of Education.

Diane Ravitch is an academic historian of education, and someone who, before a radical transformation based on the evidence of the failure of No Child Left Behind, worked as an Assistant Secretary of Education under Secretary Lamar Alexander in the George H.W. Bush administration. (In her 2010 book, Ravitch formally rejected her previous support for what is now called “corporate school reform.”) This week Ravitch addressed a public letter to now Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican, a promoter of school privatization, and currently the chair of the Senate HELP Committee, which is considering the DeVos nomination.

In her Open Letter to Senator Lamar Alexander about Betsy DeVos, Ravitch addresses Senator Alexander as an old friend.  She worries about what she heard from Betsy DeVos in the HELP Committee’s confirmation hearing: “When asked direct questions about important federal issues… (DeVos) was noncommittal or evasive or displayed her ignorance. She thinks that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should be left up to the states to decide whether or not to comply; she does not know it is a federal law and is not optional… She was unfamiliar with the terminology of education issues… I understand that she doesn’t like public schools and much prefers religious schools and privately managed charter schools, including those that operate for-profit… She would be the first Secretary of Education in our history to be hostile to public education. I have written extensively about the history of public education and how important it is to our democracy.  It seems strange to return to the early 19th century, when children attended religious schools, charity schools, charter schools, were home-schooled, or had no education at all.  This is not ‘reform.’  This is backsliding.  This is wiping out nearly two centuries of hard-won progress toward public schools that enroll boys and girls, children of all races and cultures, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English.  We have been struggling to attain equality of educational opportunity; we are still far from it.  School choice promotes segregation and would take us further away from our national goal.”

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Dr. John H. Jackson, President and C.E.O. of the Schott Foundation for Public Education served as Senior Policy Advisor in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights during the Clinton administration.  Jackson and the Schott Foundation for Public Education have been leaders in promoting justice in the public schools by advocating for closing the resource opportunity gaps that drive the racial and economic achievement gaps in test scores.  In Our Next Secretary of Education Should Know Education, Jackson affirms the right of “a freely elected president… (to) appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate” cabinet officials.  However, he observes that in her Senate confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos demonstrated that she, “lacks even the most basic knowledge and capabilities required for the responsibility of U.S. Secretary of Education… In fact, the hearing laid bare astonishing deficits in DeVos’s understanding of the obligations and authority of the Department of Education… Her inability to assemble the team and dedicate the time necessary to adequately prepare for one of the most predictable parts of the process and the job—the Senate Confirmation Hearing—should be alarming and offensive to Senate members on both sides of the aisle.”

Jackson, leader of a foundation, criticizes DeVos as a philanthropist: “DeVos is a well-heeled philanthropist who has championed the expansion of charter schools, school vouchers, and tuition tax credit programs… Yet possessing millions of dollars does not automatically make a philanthropist — or a philanthropic organization — more prepared or more credible.  As a funder dedicated to ensuring that all students in our public education system have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn, the Schott Foundation’s thought leadership has been sharpened through 25 years of experience working with and learning from parents, students, and educators in local communities, districts and public schools across the nation.  It’s clear that Mrs. DeVos has little in the way of federal education policy experience as she was rarely able to provide substantive answers to legitimate questions about her ideas and plans.  DeVos currently has no experience serving in public schools as an educator, administrator, board member or superintendent.  She has no earned degree in education.  She was neither a student of a public school nor the parent of one.  Furthermore, the results of her work championing school choice programs and privatization efforts in her home state of Michigan have been dismal.”

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While on Monday, the Democratic Senators in the HELP Committee requested an additional opportunity to question Ms. DeVos about her qualifications and her potential conflicts of interest, the Committee’s chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, has denied the request.  The committee members will vote on the DeVos nomination next Tuesday, January 31 at 10 AM. After the committee vote, the nomination will very likely move to the Senate floor.  Please continue to call your U.S. Senators to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the next Education Secretary.

Recent Important Coverage of Betsy DeVos, Part 2

After today, this blog will begin a two-week holiday break. Look for a new post on Tuesday, January 3, 2017.  Good wishes for the holidays!

Here is the second half of a two-part post—yesterday and today—to summarize recent news coverage about Betsy DeVos

You may feel you already know enough about Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. You may be disgusted that a one-cause activist and philanthropist has been appointed for an important federal position that oversees, for example, civil rights protection for children across America’s public schools, especially as her one cause has been the expansion of school vouchers—public dollars children can carry to private and parochial schools. Maybe you’ve already learned enough to be furious that yet another billionaire from the One Percent will be shaping federal policy for the schools that serve the 99 Percent. Maybe you are angry about DeVos’s lack of experience in education—and especially the schools operated by and for the public. Betsy DeVos graduated from Holland Christian High School and, as columnist Wendy Lecker has explained: “(S)he is wholly unqualified to be Secretary of Education. She has no education degree or background, and has never worked in, attended or sent her children to public school.”

But this two-part blog will help fill in any gaps in your understanding.  During DeVos’s confirmation hearing, and later, if she is confirmed and as her policy proposals roll out, you’ll have the facts at your fingertips as contributions to any and every conversation.  News reporting on DeVos this week has been particularly interesting, as newspapers have been assigning reporters to investigate in depth DeVos’s advocacy to reduce regulation of marketplace school choice, the influence of her religious beliefs, her partners and allies in the sphere of school choice advocacy, and the way in which DeVos’s ideologically driven philanthropy fits right in to the work of the Waltons, the Broads, and the Gates, although DeVos is far more driven by far-right anti-government, pro-voucher ideology.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the New York University education historian Diane Ravitch coined the term “The Billionaire Boys Club” to describe a new wave of mega-philanthropy—no longer responsive to the ideas of a range of grant seekers but instead driven by the strategies of foundation boards and staffs—and geared not simply to meeting the funding needs of supplicant nonprofits but instead to influencing the direction of policy.  In that book Ravitch warned: “Before considering the specific goals and activities of these foundations, it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

Now Ravitch has published an opinion piece for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Blame Big Foundations for Assault on Public Education, to explain how the Billionaire Boys have paved the way for the appointment of another— and this time more radical—philanthropist, Betsy DeVos to run the U.S. Department of Education. (The article is paywalled in The Chronicle, but Ravitch has provided a copy on her personal blog.)

In her new piece, Ravitch reviews the membership of the original Billionaire Boys Club and demonstrates its influence: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have promoted charter schools and school choice for the past decade. They laid the groundwork for extremist attacks on public schools. They legitimized taxpayer subsidies for privately managed charters and for ‘school choice,’ which paved the way for vouchers. (Indeed, as foundations spawned thousands of charter schools in the past decade, nearly half of the states endorsed voucher programs.) At least a dozen more foundations have joined the Big Three, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund.”  While Betsy DeVos’s philanthropic priorities are much farther to the right, Ravitch argues that the more centrist foundations have normalized school choice through their donations and as program officers from the Gates Foundation were brought in as key staff at Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education.

Ravitch argues that, working in concert, these foundations and their philanthropic gifts have shifted the broader conversation to normalize what has become known as “corporate school reform” and to promote school choice.  They have also created and funded think tanks to justify this work and created  a concerted messaging campaign to favor their agenda; “For years these groups have argued that, one, public schools are ‘failing’; two, we must save poor children from these failing schools; three, they are failing because of bad teachers; four, anyone with a few weeks of training can teach as well, or better.  It’s a simple, easily digestible narrative, and it’s wrong.”

I urge you to read Ravitch’s critique and refutation of the mega-philanthropists’ agenda.  As Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos to move the privatization agenda deeper and farther to the right, Ravitch reminds readers about something that none of today’s mega-foundations seems to be promoting: “(U)niversal public education under democratic control has long been one of the hallmarks of our democracy. No high-performing nation in the world has turned its public schools over to the free market.”

Because, as Ravitch points out, Betsy DeVos’s experience is in far-right philanthropy, it might be expected that she’ll bring staff people with whom she is comfortable to run the U.S. Department of Education.  And this week, Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s most experienced reporter on federal education policy, has explored that very topic: Who Is Part of Ed.Sec. Nominee Betsy DeVos’ Policy Circle?  “After all,” begins Klein, “she and Trump have about 150 political appointee gigs to fill at the agency. In filling posts…. DeVos could decide to draw from a deep pool of folks she has worked with in education advocacy and political offices, including at the American Federation for Children, a political and advocacy organization she chaired until recently.  Many of them have ties to her home state of Michigan, including Josh Venable, a one-time aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is said to be helping with the transition. Like DeVos, they’ve been active in Republican politics, especially, and school choice  Also like DeVos, most haven’t served in state education agencies or school districts, at least not in recent years.” Venable has served as national director of advocacy and legislation for Jeb Bush’s pro-privatization Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Klein suspects that the DeVos-founded American Federation for Children will be sending several staff people to Washington to work in the U.S. Department of Education. What sort of experience would they bring?  “Over the past five years AFC has advanced school choice in a number of states, including Indiana, Nevada and Wisconsin…. The organization writes model legislation to help state lawmakers push vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits for school choice.”

Klein speculates that Greg Brock, executive director of AFC might be tapped.  For several years between 2000 and 2010, “Brock ran All Children Matter, a political action committee financed by DeVos and her husband, Richard ‘Dick’ DeVos.  The committee sought to elect lawmakers who were friendly to school choice, and target those who weren’t, including anti-voucher Republicans… Brock was also the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project,” the Michigan organization that has promoted charter schools and blocked state laws to regulate charters.  Other American Federation for Children staff described by Klein are Matt Frendewey, AFC’s communications director, and John Schilling, AFC’s chief operating officer.

Another DeVos insider, Greg MeNeilly, is currently chief operating officer of the Windquest Group, a company owned by the DeVoses.  “McNeilly has a long record both in GOP politics and with the DeVos family. He served as the campaign manager for Dick DeVos’ ultimately unsuccessful bid for governor of Michigan in 2006. And he was an architect of Michigan’s Right to Work law…. On the education front, he was the communications director of ‘Kids First! Yes!’ And from 1998 to 2000 he served as a political director for the Michigan Republican Party. He’s also currently on the board of GLEP (Great Lakes Education Project)…. (H)e’s known as an unofficial gatekeeper to Betsy and Dick DeVos.”

Klein also mentions Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor and driver of a national campaign to eliminate due-process job protection for school teachers and undermine teachers unions. Quite recently Campbell Brown launched what she claims is an objective education news website, The 74. Given Cambell Brown’s well-known biases, it is difficult to take seriously her claim of journalistic objectivity. About Campbell Brown, Alyson Klein notes: “She did however, write a warm blog post in support of DeVos’ nomination.”

Finally, to sum up the basic profile of Betsy DeVos, we can turn to Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker: Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools. “DeVos lobbied for school-choice voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives, intended to widen the range of institutions—including private and religious—that could receive funding that might otherwise go to both charter and traditional public schools… One can fully credit DeVos’s commitment to her cause—one might even term it her crusade—while also seeking to evaluate its effectiveness… Almost two-thirds of the state’s (Michigan’s) charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, which are not required to make the financial disclosures that would be expected of not-for-profit or public entities… And, despite the rhetoric of ‘choice,’ lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system.”

Mead reminds us: “Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good—as a centering locus for a community and as a shared pillar of the commonweal, in which all citizens have an investment… In one interview… DeVos spoke in favor of ‘charter schools, online schools, virtual schools, blended learning, any combination thereof—and, frankly, any combination or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.’ A preemptive embrace of choices that haven’t yet been thought of might serve as an apt characterization of Trump’s entire, chaotic cabinet-selection process. But whether it is the approach that will best serve current and prospective American school students is another question entirely.”

This blog has covered Betsy DeVos in previous posts:

What Will It Mean if Trump Extends the Privatization of Public Education?

In the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch asks: When Public Goes Private (in Education), as Trump Wants: What Happens?

Privatization of our schools is not new, but many of its promoters have been obscuring its growth over the past two decades by calling it something different: “For the past fifteen years, the nation’s public schools have been a prime target for privatization. Unbeknownst to the public, those who would privatize the public schools call themselves ‘reformers’ to disguise their goal. Who could be opposed to ‘reform’? These days, those who call themselves ‘education reformers’ are likely to be hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and billionaires, not educators. The ‘reform’ movement loudly proclaims the failure of American public education and seeks to turn public dollars over to entrepreneurs, corporate chains, mom-and-pop operations, religious organizations, and almost anyone else who wants to open a school.”

Why have people been so anxious to undermine the institution, historically unique to the United States, of a system of publicly operated, publicly owned, publicly regulated schools designed to serve all of the nation’s children?  “The motives for the privatization movement are various. Some privatizers have an ideological commitment to free-market capitalism; they decry public schools as ‘government schools,’ hobbled by unions and bureaucracy. Some are certain that schools need to be run like businesses, and that people with business experience can manage schools far better than educators. Others have a profit motive, and they hope to make money in the burgeoning ‘education industry.’ The adherents of the business approach oppose unions and tenure, preferring employees without any adequate job protection and merit pay tied to test scores. They never say, ‘We want to privatize public schools.’ They say, ‘We want to save poor children from failing schools.’  Therefore, ‘We must open privately managed charter schools to give children a choice,’ and ‘We must provide vouchers so that poor families can escape the public schools.'”

Ravitch is an education historian, and her story of the growth of privatization under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama—a trend President-elect Donald Trump has promised to swell—captures the essential elements of what has happened: “The privatization movement has a powerful lobby to advance its cause. Most of those who support privatization are political conservatives.  Right-wing think tanks regularly produce glowing accounts of charter schools and vouchers along with glowing reports about their success. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing organization funded by major corporations and composed of two thousand or so state legislators, drafts model charter school legislation, which its members introduce in their state legislatures… If the privatization movement were confined to Republicans, there might be a vigorous political debate about the wisdom of privatizing the nation’s public schools. But the Obama administration has been just as enthusiastic about privately managed charter schools as the Republicans. In 2009, its own education reform program, Race to the Top, offered a prize of $4.35 billion that states could compete for. In order to be eligible, states had to change their laws to allow or increase the number of charter schools, and they had to agree to close public schools that had persistently low scores. In response to the prodding of the Obama administration, forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently permit charter schools.”

Ravitch lists some of the powerful hedge-fund-backed organizations that lobby for the spread of charter schools—Democrats for Education Reform and Families for Excellent Schools.  And she implicates the role of philanthropy in subsidizing the privatization of education: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, the Bloomberg Family Foundation, the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Fisher Family Foundation, Reed Hastings  of Netflix, Jonathan Sackler of Purdue Pharma that makes Oxycontin, and Michigan’s Dick and Betsy DeVos who made their fortune through Amway.

Ravitch’s piece is a book review of Samuel Abrams’ Education and the Commercial Mindset and Mercedes Schneider’s School Choice: The End of Public Education? These are important books, and I urge you to read Ravitch’s piece as a book review.

But the importance of this article is as an excellent, brief, historical summary of the privatization of education—interesting for all readers, but of particular value for the general reader who has not become deeply immersed in the issues of today’s education war.  The summary is accurate, and Ravitch is very clear about what is at stake.  She describes a resolution passed in October by the NAACP, “which called for a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, until they stop expelling the students that pubic schools are required to educate, until they stop segregating the highest-performing students from others, and until ‘public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.'”

Ravitch concludes: “(T)here is no evidence for the superiority of privatization in education… When there is a public school system, citizens are obligated to pay taxes to support the education of all children in the community… We invest in public education because it is an investment in the future of society… Whatever its faults, the public school system is a hallmark of democracy, doors open to all.  It is an essential part of the common good. It must be improved for all who attend and paid for by all.  Privatizing portions of it, as Trump wants, will undermine public support and will provide neither equity nor better education.”

How Has Opposition to Corporate School Reform Evolved?

The Republicans began their convention here in Cleveland yesterday, and the Democrats will meet soon in Philadelphia. The political season is upon us, with not much attention to the policies that affect our public schools. But I believe support for important reform in public schools has evolved considerably over the past couple of decades, despite that we still see intense advocacy for corporate reform supported by philanthropists and think tanks promoting the supposed efficiency of markets.

In 2010, Diane Ravitch, the education historian who had supported corporate reform as a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, did an about face in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  Basic Books has recently published a revised edition. To mark the new edition of Ravitch’s important book, Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post recently published an interview with Ravitch and in a subsequent column an excerpt from the revised edition. Ravitch’s description of the evolution of her own thinking seems to me a good summary of the developing consensus of today’s thoughtful advocates who want to preserve a strong system of public education that serves all children and protects their rights.

When she published The Death and Life of the Great American School System in 2010, Ravitch rejected her previous support for the kind of accountability-based school “reform” defined by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act because, she said, she had discovered it didn’t work.  It neither raised overall school achievement nor closed gaps in scores among racial and economic groups of children. In her 2010 book, Ravitch also categorically rejected the Obama-Duncan philosophy of education epitomized by Race to the Top and the Bloomberg-Klein commitment to the explosive growth of charter schools that dominated the enormous New York City school district at the time.  She castigated the ideas of a group of super-wealthy philanthropists she called The Billionaire Boys Club: Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons.

In her interview last month with Strauss, Ravitch describes her delight when Basic Books invited her to publish a revised edition, because over time her thinking has continued to develop: “As time passed, I realized that there was one key point in the book that I found embarrassing. In the final chapter, I reiterated my long-standing support for national standards and a national curriculum… The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that national standards and a national curriculum was another truly bad idea.” Ravitch describes the new edition in which: “I quite bluntly admit… that the pursuit of national standards, national curriculum and national tests is a dead end… Even in states that have the same standards and tests, there are achievement gaps, reflecting wealth and poverty. Politicians continue to claim that making tests harder will make students smarter. But tests are not an instructional method; they are a measure… What we now know, because of the failure of the Common Core, is that increasing the difficulty of the material to be learned and the rigor of the tests widens the achievement gaps. Children who are already struggling to keep up will fall farther behind.”

When Strauss asks how Ravitch believes the anti-corporate-reform movement, of which Ravitch has been a leader, has changed the conversation, Ravitch answers: “Fewer people today believe that charters have some special magic; more people understand now that those with the highest scores exclude low-performing students or push them out.  The virtual charter industry, which in my view is a Ponzi scheme, has been thoroughly debunked by research reports and newspaper exposes… Our biggest failure to date is that we have not been able to break through to government officials. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton showed that they understood the widespread parent opposition to high-stakes testing or the dangers of privatization.”

Asked about the two likely candidates of the major political parties, Ravitch answers: “My first guess is that (Hillary Clinton) will follow the same policies as Obama, but within the confines of the new federal law, ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act).  The ESSA is only marginally better than No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top.  Many of her advisers come from the (nonprofit) Center for American Progress, which has strongly supported testing, test based teacher evaluation, Common Core, charter schools, and all of the other errors of the Obama administration. But she is a very smart woman. I am hopeful that she will forge her own path.”

About Donald Trump, Ravitch comments: “He has said two things: ‘I love charter schools.’ ‘I will get rid of Common Core.’  I am willing to bet that he has no idea what Common Core or charters are.  He doesn’t know that the president and the Education Department has no power to ‘get rid of Common Core.’  The charter industry should welcome its new friend, one who shares their disregard for public schools.”

In a follow-up column, Strauss prints an excerpt from the new edition of The Death and Life of the Great American School System—an excerpt that defines Ravitch’s primary concern today:

“Education is integrally related to the society in which it is embedded. It is intended to improve society by improving the knowledge and skills of the people, but it works incrementally over years, not overnight… But schools cannot by themselves solve the problems of poverty and inequality… School reform therefore must occur in tandem with social reform. A good place to start is investing in prenatal care…. Next in an agenda of social reform would be an investment in early childhood education, from birth to five years.  Children’s intellectual, emotional, and social development is likely to be impaired if they lack the basic necessities of life during these crucial years… Poverty matters. An exceptional school here or there may break the pattern for a tiny number of students… but the pattern will persist so long as social conditions remain unchanged, so long as there are districts and schools with intense concentrations of students who are both racially segregated and impoverished. We must set national goals to reduce poverty and increase racial integration.  Schools, too must certainly improve…  After many years in which the nation has placed its highest priority on test-based accountability, we have little to show for it other than small increments in test scores, billions squandered on testing and test preparation, and vast numbers of teachers and administrators demoralized by utopian goals and harsh sanctions.”

Gates Foundation’s Mega Philanthropy Keeps on Colliding with Democracy

In her annual letter summing up the year’s accomplishments of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, offers a sort of mea culpa to explain what has happened in the organization’s philanthropy in education. Gates has been at the forefront of strategic philanthropy, by which a foundation sets the priorities and tries to accomplish particular reforms its chosen “experts” have identified.

Here is what Desmond-Hellmann confesses, specifically regarding the Foundation’s push for the Common Core Standards: “Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards.  We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators—particularly teachers—but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning… This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart.  The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”  Desmond-Hellman also explains that the Gates Foundation is committed to evidence-based experimentation: “From the beginning, Bill and Melinda wanted their foundation to be a learning organization; one that evolves and course corrects based on evidence.”

Desmond-Hellmann doesn’t seem to question the wisdom of the foundation’s strategy, merely that the Foundation missed engaging all the stakeholders.  And she seems to assume that a sort of apology will cover any worry about the collateral damage inflicted by mega-experiments, most particularly the experiments that were abandoned.

The Los Angeles Times, responded to Desmond-Hellman and the Gates Foundation in a stunning and scathing editorial about the damage inflicted.  The newspaper’s editors recount the history of Gates’ experimentation in education:

  • “The Gates Foundation’s first significant foray into education reform, in 1999, revolved around Bill Gates’ conviction that the big problem with high schools was their size… The foundation funded the creation of smaller schools, until its own study found that the size of the school didn’t make much difference in student performance. When the foundation moved on, school districts were left with costlier-to-run small schools.”
  • “Then the foundation set its sights on improving teaching, specifically through evaluating and rewarding good teaching… In 2009, it pledged a gift of up to $100 million to the Hillsborough County, Fla., schools to fund bonuses for high-performing teachers, to revamp teacher evaluations and to fire the lowest-performing 5%…  (T)he Gates Foundation changed its mind about the value of bonuses and stopped short of giving the last $20 million; costs ballooned beyond expectations, the schools were left with too big a tab and the least-experienced teachers still ended up at low-income schools.  The program, evaluation system and all, was dumped.”
  • More recently the foundation has been investing in the development and implementationof the Common Core Standards, the subject of last week’s sober explanation of problems in what Desmond-Hellmann says was the roll out.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board concludes: “(T)he Gates Foundation has spent so much money—more than $3 billion since 1999—that it took on an unhealthy amount of power in the setting of education policy… Philanthropists are not generally education experts, and even if they hire scholars and experts, public officials shouldn’t be allowing them to set the policy agenda for the nation’s public schools.  The Gates experience teaches once again that educational silver bullets are in short supply and that some educational trends live only a little longer than mayflies.”

In a recent column on the impact of Gates’ investment in the promotion of charter schools in the state of Washington, Joanne Barkan reflects further: “Gates, who has no training as an educator or researcher, easily dismisses the work of professionals in the field, but it’s never been clear how well, or even if, he knows their work.  He appears continually in the media promoting his chosen policies, but he doesn’t engage in depth—at least not publicly—with experienced educators or scholars who disagree with him.  His entree into policy-making is money, not expertise.”

And Diane Ravitch, who identified the work of the Billionaire Boys in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (which is just being republished in a revised edition), defines the problem of large-scale, money-driven experimentation on America’s school districts and 50 million children: “There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.  These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be.  They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.” (pp. 200-201)

Joanne Barkan quotes Bill Gates from an interview in May 2015, when he discussed the challenges democracy poses for his foundation: “It’s not easy. School boards have a lot of power, so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power, so teachers need to see the models that are working.” “We’re not making as much progress as I’d like. In fact of all the foundation areas we work in, I’d say this has proven to be the most difficult.” “It’s a very big system… very resistant to change. The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system. So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful.”

John Merrow: “Test-Based Accountability Has Failed Miserably”

Scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the NAEP, a national test considered the best gauge of our public schools over time, were released this week.  Math scores declined and reading scores flat-lined.  The test is administered across the country every other year.  The 2015 scores for students in grades 4-8 were released last fall, while 2015 scores for 12th graders were released this week.

Diane Ravitch knows a lot about the NAEP.  Appointed by President Bill Clinton, she served on the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years. She describes what this test is: “NAEP is an audit test. It is given every other year to samples of students in every state and in about 20 urban districts. No one can prepare for it, and no one gets a grade. NAEP measures the rise or fall of average scores for states… in reading and math and reports them by race, gender, disability status, English language ability, economic status, and a variety of other measures.”

Here is how Liana Heitin, a reporter for Education Week, describes the 2015 test results for high school seniors:  “Much like their 4th and 8th grade peers, high school seniors have lost ground in math over the last two years…. In reading, 12th grade scores remained flat, continuing a trend since 2009.”

It is interesting to consider that this year’s high school seniors were beginning their formal education just as No Child Left Behind’s  school accountability scheme was getting underway.  The law was signed by President George W. Bush in January of 2002 and in the early stages of implementation in the fall of 2003, as these students started Kindergarten. They are the first generation of students educated entirely in the era of high stakes test-and-punish. The goal of No Child Left Behind, as its name tells us, was to improve school achievement for all students and most particularly to close achievement gaps for those left behind.

Among this year’s high school seniors in that first NCLB generation, it is the students in the lowest-scoring 10 percent of the students tested who demonstrated that they have fallen farthest behind. Heitin explains: “Perhaps the most striking detail in the test data… is that the lowest achievers showed large score drops in both math and reading.  Between 2013 and 2015, students at or below the 10th percentile in reading went down an average of 6 points… the largest drop in a two-year period since 1994.  The high achievers, on the other hand—those at or above the 90th percentile—did significantly better in reading, gaining two points on average, while staying stagnant in math.”

What about achievement gaps? Heitin continues: “The data also show that large racial and ethnic achievement gaps have persisted.  White and Asian students continue to significantly outperform their black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native peers.  While 47 percent of Asian students and 32 percent of white students scored at or above proficient in math, just 7 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students did the same. There were no changes in the black-white and white-Hispanic score gaps for math or reading between 2013 and 2015.”

Reporters have asked whether the drop in scores might indicate that high school seniors are not taking the test seriously.  Heitin reports that NAEP officials replied: “Students are not interacting with this assessment any differently than they have in the past.”

John Merrow, the long-experienced and now-retired PBS education reporter, explains what he thinks these scores mean:

“It turns out that scores are down five points over the last 23 years on the (poorly named) ‘National Assessment of Educational Progress.’  The newest NEAP scores also reveal a widening gap in math and reading between those who score well and those who do not.  That has to be particularly disappointing to those reformers who go on and on about ‘Closing the Achievement Gap.’… (P)erhaps it’s time someone pointed out that test-based accountability, which has meant more drill and test prep and cuts in art, music, drama and all sorts of other courses that aren’t deemed ‘basic,’ has failed miserably—and there are victims.

“Students have been the losers, sentenced to mind-numbing schooling. Teachers who care about their craft have been the losers.  Craven administrators who couldn’t or didn’t stand up for what they know about learning have been the losers.  Add to the list of losers the general public, because the drumbeat of bad news has undercut faith in public education.

“There are winners: The testing companies (particularly Pearson), the academics who’ve gotten big grants from major foundations, profiteers in the charter school industry, and ideologues and politicians who want to undermine public education.

“As I see it, the underlying message of the newest NAEP results is that ‘The emperor has no clothes.’  We’ve actually known this for some time, so isn’t it time to acknowledge the truth?”