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.”

What Does the Slippage in NAEP Reading Scores Mean about our Schools? our Children? our Society?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is considered the most reliable indicator of trends in American public education. The test is administered to samples of students and is used to track long-range trends.  Nobody reports on the NAEP scores of specific students. Nobody judges schools by comparative scores on NAEP. Nobody evaluates teachers based on their students’ NAEP scores. NAEP has never been part of the accountability scheme imposed by No Child Left Behind.

Diane Ravitch explains what the NAEP is:  “We have only one authoritative measure of academic performance over time, and that is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP (pronounced ‘nape’).  NAEP is part of the U.S. Department of Education.  It has an independent governing board, called the National Assessment Governing Board.  By statute, the governing board is bipartisan and consists of teachers, administrators, state legislators, governors, business people, and members of the general public.”  (Reign of Error, p. 44)

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard expert on the construction and use of standardized tests and the way testing is distorted when the scores are used for high stakes school accountability (to compare and judge schools and teachers), explains why the NAEP scores are respected as an accurate measure of the overall trends in U.S. public schools: “NAEP… is  considered a very high-quality test. NAEP scores are not susceptible to inflation because teachers aren’t held accountable for scores and therefore have no incentive to engage in NAEP-focused test prep.  And NAEP scores are there for the taking.  In math and reading, NAEP is administered every two years, and the scores are available to anyone on the web.” (The Testing Charade, p. 57)

The most recent NAEP scores were released in late October, for the first time since 2017. For the NY Times, Erica Green and Dana Goldstein describe the results: “America’s fourth and eighth graders are losing ground in their ability to read literature and academic texts…. The average eighth-grade reading score declined in more than half of the states compared with 2017, the last time the test was given. The average scores in fourth-grade reading declined in 17 states.  Math scores remained relatively flat in most states.”

Of course, the papers have been filled with a lot of hand wringing—blaming the teachers—despairing the decline in our young peoples’ attainment.  Bill Mathis believes all this misses the point.  Mathis served as a design consultant for the National Assessment of Education Progress. He is currently a member of the Vermont State Board of Education and the managing director of the National Education Policy Center.  Mathis recently shared his analysis in a pithy column which first appeared in the Vermont Digger.  He has given me permission to reprint it here:

William J. Mathis: Beat the dead horse harder

The latest round of flagellation of dead horse flesh has been provoked by the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.  After 20 years of overall progress, many of the scores went down.  While all groups improved over the long haul, the gaps between white and other racial groups varied over time but generally remained in place.[i]  Education critics lament and proclaim, “It’s time to get tough! Let’s do some more of what didn’t work!” Meanwhile officials whisper measured words through steepled fingers saying they are “concerned,” that we must do more to ensure our students are well prepared to compete with China and “we have more work to do.” Still others claim that this exercise in numerology is helpful.

Put plainly, standardized tests have no meaningful relationship with economic development and they are poor definers of learning needs. Nevertheless, the NAEP is a valuable outside way of examining trends.

The scores dropped across the nation — which tells us one important thing. The causes are not found in local or state initiatives. Something bigger is at play. Since the scores themselves do not tell us why they are low, we have to look at broad contemporary events and circumstances. This means looking at the research and related social and historical events.

Such is the case with NAEP. The strongest predictor of standardized test scores is poverty.[ii]  In this latest release, the biggest drops were among disadvantaged students. Sean Reardon at Stanford has compiled a data base of all school districts in the nation and found that test scores are most affected by this single construct.[iii]

He goes on to note that schools are highly segregated by class and by race. In fact, society is showing signs of resegregating.[iv]  Resolving these gaps is our first threshold issue. High needs children are concentrated in high poverty schools which are, on average, less effective than schools with lower poverty.  In a vicious cycle, poor schools are provided lesser resources. Compounding the problem, the Census Bureau tells us the wealth gap has sharply increased across the nation. Many schools across the nation have not recovered from the 2008 fiscal crisis and the federal government has never provided the promised support for needy children.

Regardless, the schools were mandated to solve the test score problem.  The trouble was that the policymakers got it backwards. Poverty prevents learning.  It is the threshold issue.  Without resorting to what we knew, the dead horse was beaten once more with the No Child Left Behind Act.  We adopted the Common Core curriculum, punished schools, and fired principals and teachers whose misfortune was being assigned to a school with a high concentration of needy children.  It was literally expected that a child from a broken home, hungry and with ADHD would be ready to sit down and learn quadratic equations.  Nevertheless, the test-based school accountability approach emerged and still remains the dominant school philosophy.  While it is claimed that successful applications exist, the research has not been found that says poverty can be overcome by beating the dead horse.  The irony is that the tests themselves show that a test based system is not a successful reform strategy.

Regardless of the dismal results, there is some reason to be optimistic. Policy researchers from across the spectrum agree that test based accountability has not been successful. On one end are Diane Ravitch and David Berliner who point to the lack of support provided to schools. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michael Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute agrees. They further agree that we must attend to social and emotional learning.

We live in troubled times. We face pathological shooters, communal activities are waning, our political establishment is wobbly, and basic economic well-being is threatened. We must certainly prepare the younger generations to be ready for the workforce, and that means keeping a sufficient number of independent measures of academic achievement, geared to the needed skills of society.  Yet, while we teach fundamentals, our most important obligation is to prepare all of our children to enhance the values of our heritage, guided by equality and democracy, as our paramount and universal values.

Thankfully. The public gets it. But it will not be solved by beating a dead horse.

Ongoing Impact of the School Leadership Pipeline Created by Eli Broad’s Superintendents’ Academy

I think it is hard to discern what history will make of what’s going on right now. And it is especially difficult in the domain of education, because newspapers and their investigative reporting are fading. Education reform has also been dominated by powerful philanthropists and ideologues who operate out of the public eye—in the world of think tanks and training institutes and ideas festivals.

That is why I’m grateful this week for Jeff Bryant’s fine new article about Eli Broad and his Broad Academy for urban school superintendents, which has created a pipeline feeding its graduates into urban school districts and then promoting their careers even when things are not going well.  Bryant tells the story of John Covington, the unsuccessful school superintendent in Kansas City, who, in 2011, moved at Broad’s bidding to run Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority.  After a couple of years, when Covington was fired from the Michigan job, “(H)e was hired with a contract for $300,000 to start a new school reform initiative—for the Broad Foundation.”

If you are a Broadie, Bryant explains, you don’t have to be successful; you just have to be connected: “Covington’s story… sheds light on how decades of a school reform movement, financed by Broad and other philanthropists and embraced by politicians and policymakers of all political stripes, have shaped school leadership nationwide. Charter advocates and funders—such as Broad, Bill Gates, some members of the Walton Family Foundation, John Chubb, and others who fought strongly for schools to adopt the management practices of private businesses—helped put into place a school leadership network whose members are very accomplished in advancing their own careers and the interests of private businesses while they rankle school boards, parents, and teachers… The actions of these leaders are often disruptive to communities, as school board members chafe at having their work undermined, teachers feel increasingly removed from decision making, and local citizens grow anxious at seeing their taxpayer dollars increasingly redirected out of schools and classrooms and into businesses whose products and services are of questionable value.”

Here’s how John Covington’s tenure worked out in Kansas City and Michigan: “During his tenure in Kansas City, Covington generally angered teachers and parents and focused on leadership imperatives more familiar in the business community, such as ‘right-sizing.’  Student scores on standardized tests declined under his tenure, and after he left, the Kansas City district lost its accreditation due to continuing low achievement… Covington also left his Michigan position under a cloud of controversy over the lack of academic progress in the schools and questions about tens of thousands of dollars a month spent on travel expenses by his administration. The state-operated district he led was regarded as a failure and was shut down in 2017. But what Covington brought with him from Kansas City to Detroit was his connection to Broad and his relationships with private businesses—most notably, a software company called Agilix, its Buzz learning platform, and the School Improvement Network (SINET) consulting firm… Covington’s efforts to advance the interests of education-related businesses, while disrupting the community and accomplishing little on improving academic achievement, are recurring themes of many Broad network school leaders.”

Quoting Thomas Pedroni, an education professor from Wayne State University, Bryant divides the corporate school reform and school privatization movement into two groups. The first, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, are ideological privatizers who want to cut government out of education, slash taxes, and expand freedom of choice for parents. The second group, like Eli Broad, want a publicly funded school system but also, according to Pedroni, “want to limit who can make decisions about how that money is spent and to keep those decisions behind a managerial curtain.”  Bryant explains: “Broad-inspired school leaders are seen by Pedroni to be working to increase their collective power by disrupting community-based governance, creating mutually beneficial relationships with private businesses, and limiting the supply of leadership ideas that are acceptable for transforming schools.”

Specifically, writes Bryant, “Broad’s efforts to transform school governance and management include conducting a training center for school leaders; advocating for school governance models that emphasize business methodologies rather than democratic engagement; circumnavigating traditional teacher preparation programs by funding Teach for America; and supporting charter schools and organizations and political candidates that promote charters.” Most important, through the urban superintendent’s academy, Broad has created a pipeline of educational leaders who look out for each other through a network of consultants, education publishing companies, and even superintendent search firms which promote candidates who favor disruption as the way to turn schools around.

Bryant profiles Robert Avossa, a 2011 graduate of the Broad Academy, who went on to be the school superintendent in Fulton County, Georgia, then superintendent in Palm Beach County, Florida, where, “After serving a little over three years, Aavossa abruptly resigned in 2018 to join publishing company LRP Media Group that specializes in the school leadership market.  LRP publishes District Administration, a long-running magazine distributed for free to qualified subscribers. The publication generates most of its revenues by selling advertising to companies that market education-related products. The same year Avossa joined LRP as senior vice president and publisher of education products, a short article in District Administration announced LRP had also acquired the National Superintendents Academy, a leadership professional development business previously owned by Atlantic Research Partners, the company owned by fellow Broad graduate Joseph Wise. The article includes a quote from the former managing director of the National Superintendents Academy, Peter Gorman, who was Avossa’s boss at Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools in North Carolina, where Gorman served as superintendent and Avossa as chief strategy and accountability officer.  Gorman is a graduate of the Broad Academy, class of 2004.  LRP’s events business includes professional development ‘summits’ for school leaders and a graduate style academy, al la Broad, where ‘motivated participants’ can learn from highly successful superintendents and executives. The events often feature speakers who are Broad Academy graduates….”

Bryant briefly quotes Diane Ravitch’s 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, a book in which Ravitch identifies the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations as a Billionaire Boys’ Club investing in corporate school reform. It is worth returning to a longer section of Ravitch’s book, in which she describes exactly who Eli Broad is: “Eli and Edythe Broad attended Detroit public schools. He received a degree in accounting from Michigan State University. With his wife’s cousin, Broad entered the home-building business and later bought a life insurance company that eventually became a successful retirement savings business called SunAmerica. That business was sold to AIG in 1999 for $18 billion, and Eli Broad became one of the richest men in the nation. He promptly created the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which invests in education, the arts, and medical research… Having been trained as an accountant and having made his fortune as an entrepreneur, Broad believes in measurement, data, and results. He created training programs for urban superintendents, high level managers, principals, and school board members, so as to change the culture and personnel in the nation’s urban districts…  In 2006, Broad invited me to meet with him…. He explained his philosophy of education management. He believes that school systems should run as efficiently as private sector enterprises. He believes in competition, choice, deregulation, and tight management. He believes that people perform better if incentives and sanctions are tied to their performance. He believes that school leaders need not be educators, and that good managers can manage anything if they are surrounded by smart assistants.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 212-213)

It wasn’t very long ago when Diane Ravitch exposed the problems of the No Child Left Behind Act and corporate education reform in that book. But it is too easy to forget exactly who continue to be the big philanthropic investors in public education policy and management. That is why Jeff Bryant’s new review of Eli Broad’s creation of a pipeline of corporate reformers is so important. The corporate reformers have not for the most part been people who know a lot about the civic purpose of America’s system of public education and they were, for the most part, not themselves educators. We are, however, living with the way they have remade our public schools through their philanthropic investments.

Decades of Academic Research Support Community Schools Strategy in New York City’s Renewal Schools

So-called “corporate” school reform has been defined by setting standards and testing students to see if they have met the standards.  Rewards and punishments follow for the teachers and schools said to have produced these results. The assumption has been that a school is a closed box that can turn around the lives of the enrolled students—all apart from the fact that students spend only six or seven hours of the day at school. Corporate school reformers said they would disrupt the stasis they thought defined bureaucratic public schools by offering rewards and punishments to motivate teachers to work harder and smarter. Many of these so-called education reformers came from the business schools and employed competition as their primary motivator. And the politicians who followed their advice brought us test score targets to be met and a promise quickly to make every child a winner.

We were warned in advance that this wouldn’t work as we planned.  Dr. James Comer at the Yale School Development Program created a multifaceted program to help schools support the most vulnerable children and to engage educators, parents and the community in this process of building trust and strong relationships.  In 1997, in his book Waiting for a Miracle, Comer described the results. While his staff and outside evaluators believed that the Comer schools had made important progress in improving the children’s education, Comer wrote: “Our best approximation suggests that after three years about a third of the schools make significant social and academic improvement, a third show a modest improvement which is often difficult to sustain, and a third show no gain.” (Waiting for a Miracle, p. 72) The Comer program suggested that seven years was a more realistic timeline to look for real school improvement.

One of the most artificial aspects of corporate school reform was the setting of achievement test targets and short timelines as a motivator.  No Child Left Behind established that all American children in public schools would be proficient by 2014 or their schools and teachers would be punished. As we moved closer to 2014, everybody began to realize that making all schools produce high scores wasn’t working.  When it became apparent that almost all American schools would fall behind in raising what was called each student’s Adequate Yearly Progress, Arne Duncan, then Secretary of Education, began issuing No Child Left Behind Waivers to states which would promise to meet his particular school reform priorities in exchange for his willingness not to declare that state’s schools “failing.”

Slowly it began to be admitted that students’ lives outside school affect their test scores, and that schools alone cannot solve the serious challenges resulting from concentrated poverty.  In 2012, Diane Ravitch described achievement gaps as a complex challenge in children’s lives—not merely the result of the quality of a particular school: “Such gaps exist wherever there is inequality, not only in this country, but internationally.  In every country, the students from the most advantaged families have higher test scores on average than students from the least advantaged families.” (Reign of Error, p. 57)

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

Here we are in 2019, when many educators have realized that something has to be done at school to address the needs of children living in communities where poverty is concentrated. A broad-based movement to make schools a social service and healthcare center for families and to add preschool and after school and summer programs at school has emerged.  These are called Community Schools. Here is how the Children’s Aid Society in New York City defines a Community School: “The foundations for community schools can be conceptualized as a Developmental Triangle that places children at the center, surrounded by families and communities.  Because students’ educational success, health and well-being are the focus of every community school, the legs of the triangle consist of three interconnected support systems: A strong core instructional program… expanded learning opportunities… and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.” (Building Community Schools: A Guide for Action, p. 1)

This week the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a new piece by the National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and Julia Daniel pleading with the New York City Schools not to give up on NYC’s 2014 expansion of Community Schools. When he made Community Schools the centerpiece of his Renewal Program for the city’s struggling schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested he would improve the schools rather than following his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s strategy of shutting down such schools.

But lately De Blasio is being criticized because the school turnarounds have not been quick enough.  In October, Eliza Shapiro, writing for the NY Times, suggested, “New York knew some schools in its $773 million plan were doomed. They kept children in them anyway.” The New York Schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, responded by affirming  De Blasio’s original goal: “Four years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a bold—and correct—investment in 94 of New York City’s most underserved schools.  Rather than giving up on these students and schools, the city invested in them… The Renewal graduation rate has climbed from 52 to 66 percent.  Attendance has increased from 84 percent to 89 percent.  Chronic absenteeism has fallen from 47 to 36 percent.  Suspensions have decreased by 54 percent… While we have not yet decided the future of the Renewal initiative, we will never stop investing in the kinds of programs that have allowed us to improve so many schools that would have closed under prior administrations.”

In their new piece, New York City Offers Some Unpleasant Truths about School Improvement, Kevin Welner and Julia Daniel defend Mayor de Blasio’s plan for Community Schools, although they point out that the Renewal School program underestimated the amount of time it takes to build the kind of trust and relationships James Comer wrote about and to address the challenges poverty poses for children: “The Renewal program—which also supports schools in the city’s larger Community Schools Initiative (CSI)—assists schools by increasing supports, training, and resources for students and teachers. The CSI increases family and community engagement and creates collaborative structures and practices…. These approaches—extended learning time, family and community engagement, collaborative leadership, and integrated student supports—are fundamental to community schools models and informed by decades of research showing that out-of-school factors have an overwhelming influence on student outcomes.  In turning to this evidence-based approach, the mayor should be applauded.”

Welner and Daniel recognize that a three year timeline isn’t enough: “Fortunately, with the initial (three-year) results now in, we do see encouraging improvements… Yet as is the case with all major reform efforts, there have also been challenges that must be addressed….  For example, these schools have been hampered by high levels of principal turnover.  Further, a quarter of the initial Renewal schools have been closed for not meeting the program’s ambitious goals.”

The National Education Policy Center’s purpose is to bring the peer-reviewed research of the academy to bear on the policy that shapes public schools.  Welner and Daniel starkly assess the impact of child poverty on school achievement and the optimal ways schools can address these challenges:

“Here, we need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement.  A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities.

“Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty.  While schools are important—and can certainly be crucial in the lives of some students—policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism….

“But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.

“We need to acknowledge these two realities—seemingly in tension: (1) that education reforms can be very helpful, if they’re the right ones and if we’re patient and committed; but (2) we as a society are deceiving ourselves if we think we’ll transform educational outcomes without addressing economic inequality.”

Finally, Welner and Daniel recommend that in New York City, “De Blasio should remain committed to the Renewal program—a program based on decades of rigorous research and already showing meaningful benefits for underserved students… When we look across the nation and see other leaders chasing silver bullets, or ignoring educational inequity altogether, we should rejoice that New York and its mayor are engaged in the demanding yet essential work of partnering with communities to address basic needs….”

More on the Public Purpose of Our Public Schools and the Role of Public Governance

There has recently been a debate among guest writers in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” column in the Washington Post. The Network for Public Education’s  Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch published a defense of public governance of public schools, a column which critiqued a new report from the Learning Policy Institute.  The Learning Policy Institute’s Linda Darling-Hammond responded with a defense of the Learning Policy Institute’s report, which defends school choice including privately governed and operated charter schools. Finally Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris responded to Darling-Hammond’s response. This blog weighed in here last week.

As it happens, Stanford University emeritus professor of education, David Labaree enhances this conversation with a new column on the public purpose of public education at Phi Delta Kappan: “We Americans tend to talk about public schooling as though we know what that term means.  But in the complex educational landscape of the 21st century… it’s becoming less and less obvious….”

A spoiler: There is no equivocation in Labaree’s analysis.  He is a strong supporter of public education, and he worries that by prizing the personal and individualistic benefit of education, our society may have lost sight of our schools’ public purpose: “A public good is one that benefits all members of the community, whether or not they contribute to its upkeep or make use of it personally.  In contrast, private goods benefit individuals, serving only those people who take advantage of them. Thus, schooling is a public good to the extent that it helps everyone (including people who don’t have children in school). And schooling is a private good to the extent that it provides individuals with knowledge, skills, and credentials they can use to distinguish themselves from other people and get ahead in life.”

Labaree traces the history of public education through the 19th and early 20th centuries, but he believes more recently: “Over the subsequent decades… growing numbers of Americans came to view schooling mainly as a private good, producing credentials that allow individuals to get ahead, or stay ahead, in the competition for money and social status.  All but gone is the assumption that the purpose of schooling is to benefit the community at large. Less and less often do Americans conceive of education as a cooperative effort in nation-building or collective investment in workforce development.”

Labaree does not explicitly address growing school privatization, but he generalizes about the growing individualistic American ethos that accommodates privatization: “At a deeper level, as we have privatized our vision of public schooling, we have shown a willingness to back away from the social commitment to the public good that motivated the formation of the American republic and the common school system. We have grown all too comfortable in allowing the fate of other people’s children to be determined by the unequal competition among consumers for social advantage through schooling. The invisible hand of the market may work for the general benefit in the economic activities of the butcher and the baker but not in the political project of creating citizens.”

Labaree holds the education of citizens as among the central purposes of our grandparents and their forebears as they envisioned public schools: “The goal of these schools wasn’t just to teach young people to internalize democratic norms but also to make it possible for capitalism to coexist with republicanism. For the free market to function, the state had to relax its control over individuals, allowing them to make their own decisions as rational actors. By learning to regulate their own thoughts and behaviors within the space of the classroom, students would become prepared both for commerce and citizenship, able to pursue their self-interests in the economic marketplace while at the same time participating in the political marketplace of ideas… But when the public good is forever postponed, the effects are punishing indeed. And when schooling comes to be viewed solely as a means of private advancement, the consequences are dismal for both school and society.”

Beyond Labaree’s philosophical defense of public education’s communitarian purpose and his condemnation of our society’s love of individual competition today, there are other concerns with the abandonment of public purpose and the abandonment of public governance of education.  We can no longer ignore the failure of our state legislatures to protect the tax dollars raised by the public but ripped off by unscrupulous edupreneurs who build mansions and take lavish trips with the money they steal in states which have failed to prevent conflicts of interest and outright fraud by operators of privatized schools. We can no longer ignore the instability for students when privately governed charter schools suddenly shut down without warning—often in the middle of the school year. And we can no longer ignore the impact of the rapid authorization of charter schools and growth of voucher programs as they suck money out of states’ already meager public education budgets and at the same time destabilize their host school districts.

Labaree connects the growth of school privatization with our society’s competitive individualism which reserves a spot at the top for able children of the privileged and settles for cheaper alternatives for the children we have always left behind. I once heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson poignantly describe the ethical lapse in a system featuring individualism: “There are those who would make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Another perfect formulation of Labaree’s concern is from the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. Barber adds another important component of public governance, however: the protection of the rights of students and families by law in public institutions: “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)