Ohio’s Poorest School Districts Need Support Instead of Punitive HB 70 State Takeover

Ohio is in the midst of a big fight about the state takeover of its lowest scoring school districts.  If a school district gets an “F” grade for three years running on the state’s school district report card, the state takes over the district under House Bill 70 and appoints an Academic Distress Commission, which appoints a CEO. The CEO, with almost complete control of the district, can fire and hire at will.  He or she is supposed to turn around the district. The community continues to elect a school board, but the elected school board has no power.

Youngstown and Lorain, the two school districts taken over three years ago, are still earning “F” ratings. Today in Lorain, there is a state of emergency because the community has entirely lost confidence in the CEO, David Hardy.  He has arrogantly refused to bring his family to live in the school district, and he has refused even to meet with the elected board of education. Peter Greene, who once taught in Lorain, has traced some of this ugly history in his blog and in Forbes Magazine.

The 2002, federal law, No Child Left Behind imposed a regime of standardized testing on America’s public schools. It outlined punishments for the schools that could not raise scores, with some pretty serious punishments if, after several years, a school could not demonstrate improvement. These prescribed punishments were called “turnarounds,” and the assumption was that it is possible just to turn around a school in a relatively short time. The federal turnaround sanctions included firing the teachers and half the staff, charterizing the school, turning the school over to an Education Management Organization (EMO), or closing the school.  Arne Duncan, who became Education Secretary in 2009, intensified emphasis on turnarounds in programs like Race to the Top.

While state takeover was not one of the  prescribed turnarounds in federal law, it has been a favorite in many states. Like many of the other turnaround strategies, it imposes a change in school governance. The assumption behind governance changes is simple: The people running the so-called failing school or so-called failing school district don’t know what they are doing and must be replaced by the appointees of federal or state politicians who know better. State takeover incorporates another assumption: The voters in the so-called failing school districts don’t know enough to elect a good school board whose members will choose a good superintendent.  So… the state must appoint someone from outside who will come in and oversee some major and possibly difficult changes to correct the failure of the district.

State takeovers have been tried for years across a number of states. They have never worked.  In New Jersey, for example, Newark’s schools and Camden’s schools have been returned to the local school boards after decades of failed state takeover. Michigan specialized in state takeovers—imposing “emergency fiscal managers” on local cities and school districts. The lead poisoning of Flint’s water supply was a program overseen by one emergency manager, a man who later moved on to be the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. Finally, Michigan has returned Detroit’s schools to its elected local school board, which has appointed a new and promising superintendent.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools explains that state takeovers are almost always imposed on communities like the three currently under state takeover in Ohio—Youngstown, Lorain, and (this year) East Cleveland: “These state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment in their public schools and consistent attacks on their property, agency, and self-determination.  In the past decade, these takeovers have not only removed schools from local authorities, they are increasingly being used to facilitate the permanent transfer of the schools from public to private management.”

In a recent interview with the Youngstown Vindicator, Ohio’s new governor, Mike DeWine acknowledges that something needs to be done, because the state school takeovers in Youngstown and Lorain don’t seem to be working out. He emphasizes again and again, however, that the state must intervene.  And I suspect that DeWine, like many in our punitive test-and-punish era, favors some sort of governance change.

But what if the problem is not governance? What if the people in charge of the schools in Youngstown and Lorain and now East Cleveland did know what they were doing, but the challenges they faced were daunting.

In Ohio, school funding fails to provide what people in even more affluent communities feel is essential. There are hundreds of moderate-income school districts in Ohio that must choose these days between nurses and certified school librarians and counselors and music programs.  Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are all communities, however, where over time the local tax base has collapsed as industry has shut down. These are communities of desperate and concentrated family poverty, places where virtually all of the students are poor. Ohio’s state basic aid and poverty assistance is far too meager to provide enough assistance.

Governor DeWine says he believes we must do something to improve opportunity for the children in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland.  Let’s suppose we try a different kind of experiment, and add the kind of resources striking teachers have been demanding  from West Virginia to California.

What if every child in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland were provided enriched Pre-Kindergarten? What if all the children in these cities were provided enriched all-day Kindergarten in classes of 15 children? What if class size in the elementary grades in these communities were limited to 15 children in Kindergarten through third grade and classes in fourth through sixth grade were limited to 18 students?  What if every one of the schools in these communities had a nurse, a counselor, a social worker, a school psychologist and a certified librarian? In addition, what if the state supported wraparound health and human service supports for the children in these schools and their families?  What if all students whose primary language is not English were part of enriched bilingual programs?  What if the entire curriculum were made language-rich with reading and writing infused across all the classes? What if every child were engaged in accelerated conceptual mathematics? What if, after third grade, every one of these schools had an instrumental music program? What if every school had an art teacher and every high school a theater program? What if the elementary school libraries—many of them shuttered today across Ohio—were reopened and new books added? And what if the elementary school children in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland had a story-hour every week and, with the guidance of a certified librarian, a chance to choose books to check out?

Ohio prefers punishments as a response to its low-scoring public schools—the third grade guarantee—state report cards that rate schools and school districts with letter grades—the diversion of school funding out of low-scoring school districts to send children to charter schools and give them vouchers for private school tuition—and the ultimate punishment, state takeover. The federal government isn’t prescribing punishments like these any more, because it’s clear No Child Left Behind and its high-stakes testing strategy didn’t work. But Ohio continues to double down on  test-and-punish.

In an excellent 2017, book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz explains the correlation of aggregate standardized test scores with family and community economics and a primary reason why punishments like state takeover are so unfair: “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… 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)

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss shares a commentary in which the National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explain in more detail why standardized tests are the wrong way to evaluate school quality: “(W)e 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… 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.”

Ohio needs to stop using state takeover to beat up on its poorest Black and Brown school districts and support better education for the children in these communities.

Public Education Partners has drafted a model resolution endorsing the repeal of Ohio HB 70.  School boards and other organizations are invited to pass this resolution and submit it to Governor DeWine and members of the Ohio Legislature.

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Faith in High Stakes Testing Fades, Even Among the Corporate School Reformers

After a recent twenty-fifth anniversary conference at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell—a Gates funded education-reformer think tank, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum summarized presentations by a number of speakers who demonstrate growing skepticism about the high-stakes, standardized testing regime that has dominated American public education for over a quarter of a century.

Because the Center on Reinventing Public Education is known as an advocate for portfolio school reform and corporate accountability, you might expect adherence to the dogma of test-and-punish, but, notes Barnum:  “The pervasiveness of the complaints about testing was striking, given that many education reform advocates have long championed using test scores to measure schools and teachers and then to push them to improve.”

Then at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology School Access and Quality Summit early this month, Paymon Rouhanifard presented a major policy address challenging the use of high stakes testing to rank and rate public schools.  Rouhanifard was until very recently Chris Christy’s appointed, school-reformer superintendent in Camden, New Jersey.  Formerly he was the director in New York City of Joel Klein’s Office of Portfolio Management.  Rouhanifard describes the belief system he brought with him to Camden and describes how his five-year tenure as Camden’s superintendent transformed his thinking: “Our belief was that politics and bureaucracy had inhibited the progress Camden students and families deserved to overcome the steep challenges the city was facing…  We believed it was important for the district to segue out of being a highly political monopoly operator of schools….  This is a story about an evolution of my own thinking during that five-year experience…. What I’m referring to are the math and literacy student achievement data we utilize to drive so many of the critical decisions we make… My realization a few years ago was that I rarely asked questions about what these tests actually told us.  What they didn’t tell us.  And perhaps most importantly, what were the specific behaviors they incentivized, and what were the general trade-offs when we acutely focus on how students do on state tests.”

In 2013, at the beginning of his tenure, Rouhanifard introduced a school report card that rated each school primarily by students’ standardized test scores. Two years ago Rouhanifard eliminated his own school report cards.  He describes his realization: “We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized.  We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education…. I… believe the drawbacks currently outweigh the benefits.  That we haven’t been honest about the trade-offs.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, like Rouhanifard, held a position in Joel Klein’s “reformer” school administration in New York City.  Now the president of Bank Street College of Education, he was formerly Klein’s former deputy schools chancellor. Barnum explains that Polakow-Suransky has become an emphatic critic of the nation’s high-stakes standardized testing regime: “The biggest barrier to student learning and closing the achievement gap is the current system of standardized tests.”

In a piece at The74, the  Thomas Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio quotes Polakow-Suransky: “All of us were well-intentioned in pushing this agenda, but the tools we developed were not effective in raising the bar on a wide scale.”

While the Thomas Fordham Institute has endorsed corporate school reform including high-stakes, test-based accountability, Fordham’s Pondiscio now acknowledges that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, U.S. public schools have become mired in an education culture defined by test-based accountability.  Though he seems unclear on the way forward, Pondiscio now advocates for serious reconsideration: “The challenge is not testing vs. not testing.  It’s not accountability vs. none.  Both bring benefits of different kinds, and both are required by a federal law that’s not going to change anytime soon.  The challenge is to develop a policy vision that supports—not thwarts—the classroom practices and long-term student outcomes we seek… The problem is the reductive culture of testing, which has come to shape and define American education, particularly in the kinds of schools attended by our most disadvantaged children.”

There are some who remain faithful to the school reformer dogma. The Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Robin Lake tries to change the subject: “We need a more productive debate about school accountability, not tired arguments over testing.” And Matt Barnum quotes Sandy Kress—still a tried-and-true believer in the No Child Left Behind regime he helped create: “Research shows clearly that accountability made a real difference in this country in narrowing the achievement gap and lifting student achievement.”

Of course, research does not clearly show that Sandy Kress’s kind of No Child Left Behind accountability made a real difference.  Here is Harvard’s Daniel Koretz, in the authoritative book he published a year ago, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.  It is perhaps this volume by an academic expert on testing that has helped change the minds of some of the corporate school reformers quoted above.  Koretz writes: “It is no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge.  Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale.  Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents.  Cheating has become widespread.  The public has been deceived into thinking that achievement has dramatically improved and that achievement gaps have narrowed.  Many students are subjected to severe stress, not only during testing but also for long periods leading up to it.  Educators have been evaluated in misleading and in some cases utterly absurd ways  Careers have been disrupted and in some cases ended.  Educators, including prominent administrators, have been indicted and even imprisoned.  The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary-school math that don’t persist until graduation.  This is true despite the many variants of test-based accountability the reformers have tried, and there is nothing on the horizon now that suggests that the net effects will be better in the future. On balance, then, the reforms have been a failure.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 191-192)

Introducing readers to Don Campbell, “one of the founders of the science of program evaluation,” Koretz defines the problems inherent in our society’s quarter century of high-stakes, test-and-punish school accountability by quoting Campbell’s Law:  “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intend to monitor.”  Campbell directly addresses the problem of high stakes testing to rank and rate schools:  “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)

How has the testing regime operated perversely to undermine the schools serving our society’s most vulnerable children—the ones we were told No Child Left Behind would catch up academically if only we created incentives and punishments to motivate their teachers to work harder?  “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 may 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)

Besides imposing unreasonable and damaging punishments on the schools and teachers serving our society’s poorest children, Koretz believes our commitment to a regime of punitive testing has distracted our society from developing the commitment to address the real needs of children and schools in places where poverty is concentrated: “We can undoubtedly reduce variations in performance appreciably, if we summoned the political will and committed the resources to do so—which would require a lot more than simply imposing requirements that educators reach arbitrary targets for test scores.” The Testing Charade, p. 131)

Top-Down Control of Schools Is Alluring—But It Never Works

Jal Mehta, a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has published at Salon an excerpt from his new book, The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling. Mehta’s analysis of the history of public school reform in the United States is fascinating.

I disagree with the elitism of Mehta’s critique of today’s schooling in the last section of the article, and I’ll clarify my critique right at the beginning.  Mehta blames today’s teachers: “The people we draw into teaching are less than our most talented; we give them short or nonexistent training and equip them with little relevant knowledge…”

What we need, according to Mehta, is to improve teachers and then reduce bureaucratic regulation.  I believe we certainly ought to do our best to train teachers and we ought to attract promising candidates to become teachers, but I do not think our education problems today derive primarily from incompetent teachers.  International studies clearly demonstrate that American schools in wealthy communities produce among the world’s highest scores.  And as many have pointed out, there is no reason to believe that all of our nation’s teaching talent has avoided the schools where children’s scores are low.  Broader social problems like rising inequality and hypersegregation of students by race and poverty have been demonstrated again and again to impact children’s learning.

And what about Mehta’s worry about bureaucratic regulation? Today’s catastrophic experiment with unregulated charters demonstrates the precise reason why the kind of oversight we have today in public school districts is important: we need regulations to protect the children, to protect the rights of the teachers, and to protect the investment of the public.  I am concerned that like many education critics, Mehta situates his critique within the schools when I believe the serious problems in urban education are located in society itself.  (Mehta actually admits to the role of broader social problems, but then turns back to improving teaching as a more viable strategy for raising achievement.)

All that said, Mehta’s history of test-and-punish—the first two-thirds of his article—is a brilliant analysis of the failure during the 20th century of “repeated efforts to ‘order’ schools from above… Why have American reformers repeatedly invested such high hopes in these instruments of control despite their track record of mixed results at best?  What assumptions about human nature, individual psychology, organizational sociology, teachers, and students underlie these repeated efforts to ‘rationalize’ schooling?  Politically, why have the recent movements triumphed despite the resistance of the strongest interest group in the arena, the teachers unions?”

Mehta describes “Taylorism,” a movement that transformed schools before 1920 after muckrakers criticized an “inefficient patchwork” of schools.  “At the top of this pyramid was a group of city superintendents, who utilized rudimentary tests and cost accounting procedures to compare teachers and schools in an effort to hold practitioners accountable…. Using scientific management techniques, they transformed a set of one-room schoolhouses into the bureaucratic ‘one best system’ of city administration that still persists today.”  Then in the 1960s and 1970s another movement “generated more than 70 state laws seeking to create educational accountability…. The supporting logic this time came not only from industry but also from the U.S. Defense Department, whose pioneering quantitative techniques were transposed to education.”

Both of these movements and today’s wave of test-and-punish share what Mehta describes as “the allure of order.”  “In the name of efficiency, all three sought to reduce variation among schools in favor of greater centralized standardization and control…. In each of these cases power shifted upwards, away from teachers and schools and toward central administrators.  Similar conceptions of motivation drove the three sets of reformers, each using some version of standards and testing to incentivize teachers to do their biding.  Each of the movements prized quantitative data and elevated a scientific vision of data driven improvement over a more humanistic view of educational purposes.”

Mehta continues: “By comparative standards, America has a weak welfare state, a decentralized education system, a segregated and unequal social geography, an under-professionalized educational field, and very high expectations for its schools.  Within this context, ‘crises’ of schooling are inevitable…. Policymakers… quite reasonably seek to act but act within constraints imposed by a fairly conservative political economy.  They want to improve schools, but they cannot (or perceive they cannot) integrate students by race or income level or provide significantly stronger social supports.  Within this context, a logic of scientific rationalization is an attractive solution. Backed by science and drawing on the logic of industry, it promises to impose efficiency across an unruly educational landscape—centralizing a decentralized system, holding educators accountable, and protecting taxpayer money.  Unfortunately, standards and accountability are a weak technology to produce the outcomes policymakers seek.”

By all means we ought to do all we can to attract great candidates to our colleges of education and we ought to improve the education of our prospective teachers and support them with ongoing enrichment.  However, I continue to believe that unless we reduce inequality, address segregation by race and also by class, and ameliorate child poverty, our schools will be challenged by the very difficult circumstances in children’s lives. I agree with Mehta that, “Education reformers have it all wrong; accountability from above never works.”  He adds: “Great teaching always does.”  I would correct Mehta by pointing out that concentrated poverty in a hypersegregated school setting challenges even the best teachers.

NCLB Was A Failure: PBS Reporter John Merrow Condemns Myopic Fixation on Testing

This week John Merrow, the PBS education reporter and columnist, insists that we tell ourselves the truth, even though some of our leaders want to keep pretending that test-based school reform is our path to universal academic prowess.  You’ll remember of course, that 2014 is the year the No Child Left Behind Act projected all American children would be above average.  Except it didn’t work.

Writing about the flat, unimproved scores among high school seniors released last week by the National Assessment for Education Progress, Merrow challenges our society’s complacent, bipartisan support for test-and-punish accountability—the school reform philosophy enshrined in federal law in January, 2002.  He writes: “Any thinking person, Republican or Democrat, looking at those numbers squarely in the face would have to question the path we are on.  No one in power seems to want to do that.”

For a particularly lucid analysis of the NAEP scores that were released last week, Merrow refers us to Guy Brandenburg’s blog.  Brandenburg writes:  “Perhaps you read or heard that the 12th grade NAEP reading and math scores, which just got reported, were “flat.”  Did you wonder what that meant?  The short answer is: those scores have essentially not changed since they began giving the tests!  Not for the kids at the top of the testing heap, not for those at the bottom, not for blacks, not for whites, not for Hispanics.  No change, nada, zip.  Not even after a full dozen years of Bush’s looney No Child Left Behind Act, nor its twisted Obama-style descendant, Race to the Top.”

The NAEP 12th grade test has been administered only since the mid-1990s, which means there are not four decades of scores, as with the 4th and 8th grade versions, but the data that has been collected for 12th graders covers the years since the passage of No Child Left Behind, America’s federal testing law, and the years of Arne Duncan’s experiment with setting aside billions of Title I dollars for competitive grant programs like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants for the purpose of raising test scores.

Brandenburg calls his blog: “Just a blog by a guy who’s a retired math teacher”—clearly a retired math teacher who knows how to present numbers visually.  I urge you to check out his graphs which are stunning for their flat lines—flat lines for 12th grade students in the 90th percentile, the average  scorers, and those in the 10th percentile—flat lines for 12th grade black students, Hispanic students, Asian/Pacific Islander students, and white students.  Brandenburg interprets the flat lines to “mean that there has been essentially no change, despite all the efforts of the education secretaries of Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama.  And despite the wholesale replacement of an enormous fraction of the nation’s teachers, and the handing over of public education resources to charter school operators.”

Merrow condemns Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and pro-testing pundits for their myopia—a fixation on scores rising or dropping by a point or two here or there.  “What Mr. Brandenburg has done,” writes Merrow, “is look for long-term patterns, something those in authority are not prone to do.”  Merrow’s conclusion: Our flat-lined test scores are not a reason to double down on test-and-punish accountability—not through the Common Core, not through any system that makes raising test scores the definition of quality education.

Darling-Hammond Deplores Failure of No Child Left Behind and Test-and-Punish

This morning, December 26, Linda Darling-Hammond spoke with Steve Inskseep on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.  You can listen or read the transcript here.

Darling-Hammond is the Stanford University professor who was considered seriously by President Barack Obama back in 2008 to be his Secretary of Education, although Obama eventually went with his Chicago buddy, Arne Duncan.

Here Darling-Hammond looks at the failure—evident after ten years—of President George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act that set the bar for test score passage so high that, without the waivers now being offered by Arne Duncan’s Department of Education, all schools in the United States would be rated a failure in 2014, the deadline the 2002 law established as the time all children across the United States would be proficient.

According to Darling-Hammond, No Child Left Behind has neither improved school achievement nor closed achievement gaps: “basically the story for the United States over the last decade or more is flatline.”

Asks Darling-Hammond, “Will we move from a test-and-punish philosophy—which was the framework for No Child Left Behind — to an assess-and-improve philosophy?”  She concludes: “Well, you know, in general, our schools do better with the challenges they have to face, than I think is true of most high-achieving nations around the world. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty, mortality, lack of health care, homelessness of any developed country in the world at this point. And we have unequal funding, so that we give more money to the education of rich kids than poor kids. So our affluent districts in schools do quite well, and are still the envy of many in the world. Our low-income schools and districts are struggling with all these responsibilities and challenges and very little and inadequate public support. And yet, they perform extraordinarily well, given the circumstances they have to meet. Our system of schools is resilient, but we have to fix these problems.”