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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motoko Rich’s Fuzzy Thinking in NY Times Piece on Common Core Tests

I am troubled by Motoko Rich’s NY Times piece earlier this week in which she worries that Test Scores Under Common Core Show That “Proficient” Varies by State.  Does Rich believe that the push for uniform academic standards (the Common Core standards) was really all about the tests? Does Rich really believe there is some kind of objective, universal, ideal test score standard—a model—to which we can compare all students and judge their academic standing?  Does she believe standardized tests are sufficiently comprehensive really to measure students’ accomplishments and compare them to each other?  Does she believe that cut scores derive from some kind of scientific principle?  Does Rich believe any of this matters?

Rich writes: “Ohio seems to have taken a page from Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.  Last month, state officials releasing an early batch of test scores declared that two-thirds of students at most grade levels were proficient on reading and math tests given last spring under the new Common Core requirements.  Yet similar scores on the same tests meant something quite different in Illinois, where education officials said only about a third of students were on track.  And in Massachusetts, typically one of the strongest academic performers, the state said about half of the students who took the same tests as Ohio’s children met expectations.  It all came down to the different labels each state used to describe the exact same scores on the same tests.”

Whether we need consistent academic expectations from place to place (the Common Core standards)  is a question that sparks enormous controversy, but that is not Rich’s topic this week.  She conflates two issues—consistent academic content and consistent cut scores from state to state on the Common Core tests: “That kind of inconsistency in educational standards is what the Common Core—academic guidelines for kindergarten through high school reading and math that were adopted by more than 40 states—was intended to redress.”  Rich writes her piece from Ohio, where the education department raised the cut score when it appeared that the mass of  children would fail the new tests.  In New York,  then state commissioner John King (our new acting U.S. Secretary of Education) set the cut score so high that 70 percent of the students appeared to fail.  Rich seems to believe that it is more important for students to appear to fail than for them to appear to succeed.  She would, I presume, advocate for cut scores that frighten America into toughening up.  What she fails to acknowledge is that cut scores are set by public officials, not by scientists.

Commenting on Rich’s piece, Diane Ravitch, who for several years was part of the governing board of the big test we call “the nation’s report card,” the National Assssment of Educational Progress, explains why consistency of cut scores across the states on the Common Core tests does not matter: “The good news is that we don’t need either of the Common Core tests to know how students in Oregon or Maine compare to students in other states. For that purpose, we have the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which compares states, measures achievement gaps. NAEP provides all the data anyone needs. I have yet to meet a parent who wanted to know how their child compared to children in other states. They want to know if they are getting along with other children, if they are doing the work that is right for their grade, if they are good citizens in school.”  About the Common Core tests themselves she adds: “The bad news is that Arne blew away $360 million on the tests, and the states have wasted hundreds of millions more to prepare for the tests, to buy new technology for the tests, and to change instruction to fit the tests.”

Arizona State University professor, Gene Glass, trained as a psychometrician, raises significant questions about our obsession in education with measuring and comparing and ranking. He writes:  “Around 1980, I served for a time on the committee that made most of the important decisions about the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  The project was under increasing pressure to ‘grade’ the NAEP results: Pass/Fail; A/B/C/D/F; Advanced/Proficient/Basic.  Our committee held firm: such grading was purely arbitrary, and worse, would only be used politically.  The contract was eventually taken from our organization and given to another that promised it could give the nation a grade, free of politics.  It couldn’t.”

Glass warns of the consequences: “Measurement has changed along with the nation.  In the last three decades, the public has largely withdrawn its commitment to public education.  The reasons are multiple: those who pay for public schools have less money, and those served by the public schools look less and less like those paying taxes.  The degrading of public education has involved impugning its effectiveness, cutting its budget, and busting its unions.  Educational measurement has been the perfect tool for accomplishing all three: cheap and scientific looking.”

Whether or not one likes the new academic standards established by the Common Core, it is important not to conflate the idea of  consistent academic content across the states with the issue of consistency of cut scores on the Common Core tests. And it is important to consider what one values.  Is the experience children and adolescents have at school the important thing, or is the measurement—by which we can compare students’ mastery of part of the academic content—what matters?

Gene Glass Gives Up on Psychometrics, Explains Danger of Test-and-Punish

Gene Glass is a seasoned professor of education—an expert in psychometrics, the science of measuring—who recently explained Why I am No Longer a Measurement Specialist.

Glass’s late career shift is a principled decision: “In the last three decades, the public has largely withdrawn its commitment to public education.  The reasons are multiple: those who pay for public schools have less money, and those served by the public schools look less and less like those paying the taxes.  The degrading of public education has involved impugning its effectiveness, cutting its budget, and busting its unions.  Educational measurement has been the perfect tool for accomplishing all three: cheap and scientific looking.”

In other words, Glass is tired of affiliating with the segment of educational academia that has created the tests used by cynical politicians and ideologues to justify blaming the schools that serve other people’s children along with the simultaneous underfunding of these schools.

Glass explains that after he was given an award for his 1966 dissertation, he was hired as a psychometrician by a major university. “Psychometrics,” he writes, “promised to help build a better world.  But twenty years later, the promises were still unfulfilled.  Both talent and tasks were too complex to yield to this simple plan. Instead, psychometricians grew enthralled with mathematical niceties.”

Then in 1980, Glass served for a time on the committee that governs the National Assessment of Education Progress, the test administered without any school identifiers or punitive consequences.  It is used to measure overall trends in American student achievement over time.  Glass reports, “The project was under increasing pressure to ‘grade’ the NAEP results: Pass/Fail; A/B/C/D/F; Advanced/ Proficient/Basic.  Our committee held firm: such grading was purely arbitrary, and worse, would only be used politically.”

But, of course, standardized testing has acquired political consequences over the years—culminating in the punitive test-and-punish federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002 and the Obama Race to the Top Program and NCLB waivers that have mandated that states use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their teachers.

Glass concludes: “When measurement became the instrument of accountability, testing companies prospered and schools suffered.  I have watched this happen for several years now.  I have slowly withdrawn my intellectual commitment to the field of measurement.  Recently I asked my dean to switch my affiliation from the measurement program to the policy program.  I am no longer comfortable being associated with the discipline of educational measurement.”

In the book Glass co-authored last year with long-time educational researcher, David Berliner, 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten American Public Education, the reader can see Glass and Berliner’s discontent with the way psychometrics is being manipulated by politicians to evaluate school teachers: “President Obama’s recent school reform initiative, Race to the Top, adds yet another seemingly sensible, but actually reprehensible, policy to the list of pressures on teachers…. One of the stipulations of the RTTT grant was that states had to implement a merit pay system based, in significant part, on student achievement scores.  States also are encouraged to base other personnel decisions (e.g. retention, tenure, termination, etc.) on student growth data… Most states have adopted a value-added measurement (VAM) method to statistically measure teacher performance based on student test scores.  VAMs are designed to measure student growth from year to year by controlling for non-teacher influence, such as student social class standing or English language competency.  But a host of other variables that are known to affect the growth of classroom achievement in any one year are totally unaccounted for.” (50 Myths & Lies, pp. 58-59)

Glass begins his recent column, “I was introduced to psychometrics in 1959. I thought it was really neat.”  Most of us don’t find the details of statistical measurement and control of variables “really neat.” We are paying the price for our own inattention to the details as politicians have sold us this latest bottle of snake oil. Gene Glass knows a lot about this arcane subject. We ought to listen to him as he gives up what he expected would be his lifelong calling.

Reports Add Up to Show Charter Fraud, Charter Failure, and Incapacity to Realize What Was Promised

In a new blog post Gene V. Glass, who, earlier this year with David Berliner published the excellent 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, recently posted, Are Charter Schools Greenhouses for Innovation and Creativity?  Glass declares: “The rationale for the charter school movement went something like this: ‘Public education is being crushed by bureaucratic regulation and strangled by teacher unions.  There is no room left for creative innovation; and tired, old traditional educators have run out of energy and ideas.  Let free choice reign!’ It sounded good, especially to people who were clueless about how schools actually run.  How have things actually worked out?  What new, revolutionary ideas have come out of the charter school movement that can teach us all about how to better educate the nation’s children?”  Glass describes the conclusion in his and Berliner’s new book: “that in our opinion the vast majority of charter schools were underperforming traditional K-12 public schools and that the charter school industry was shot through with fraud and mismanagement.”  You’ll have to check out his blog post to read the story of his confrontation with two young charter teachers who recently tried to prove to him that their school was more innovative than the surrounding public school district only to learn that the International Baccalaureate program their charter had just launched was introduced ten years ago and continues to be offered in the public schools.  Berliner’s critique of charters comes among a recent rash of news reports about the woes of the charter sector.

This blog just covered Robin Lake’s despairing critique of the charter school catastrophe in Detroit.  “No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control…’”  Lake is the executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education which has made the promotion of “portfolio school reform” (in which the portfolio contains a mix of public and charter schools from which parents can choose) its primary mission.  Her recent piece  suggests that she, a central promoter of charter schools, has no idea how to rein in school choice gone wild in Detroit.

Like Michigan, Texas is struggling to regulate the quality of its charter schools. The NY Times reports that one charter school district, the Honors Academy Charter chain, is currently operating seven schools even though Honors Academy Charters were formally closed under a 2013 law due to poor performance.  “Well into the new school year, all seven Honors Academy schools, which enroll a total of almost 700 students in Central Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, are still open,” despite that the district has lost its contract and its accreditation.  Although, “The state ordered the charter operator to turn over student records and its remaining state funds, and to find alternatives for its students,” “Honors Academy officials… decided to open their doors anyway.  They have argued that the provision forcing closure is unconstitutional.” Costs are being covered by $3.5 million left over from last year, most of it revenue from the state.   According to state officials, because the schools are now unaccredited, students attending Honors Academy schools will be unable to transfer coursework.  Parents interviewed by the reporter in the parking lot were unaware that the school had lost its charter to operate.

What is happening in North Carolina may not be illegal, but it ought to be. In his column Taking Note, PBS education correspondent John Merrow recently skewered Baker Mitchell, the North Carolina “businessman who has figured out a completely legal way to extract millions of dollars from North Carolina in payment for his public charter schools… Even though none of his publicly-funded schools is set up to run ‘for profit,’ about $19,000,000 of the $55,000,000 he has received in public funds has gone to his own for-profit businesses, which manage many aspects of the schools.”  This blog covered Baker Mitchell’s schools here.

Mark Weber, writing for New Jersey Spotlight, echoes Gene Glass’s critique that charter schools have never as a sector fulfilled what was promised.  Weber co-authored a recent report from Rutgers University that used readily available data from the state to demonstrate that charter schools segregate students. (This blog covered the Rutgers report here.)  In his short review for New Jersey Spotlight, Weber concludes: “On average, charters educate proportionately fewer students in economic disadvantage… than do the district schools in their communities.  Charters also educate fewer students with special education needs; further the students with those needs that charters do educate tend to have less costly disabilities.  In addition, the sector enrolls very few students who are English language learners.”  “‘Choice’ in schooling will likely lead to what we found in our report: the concentration of economically disadvantaged, special education, and Limited English Proficient students within district schools…  I see three core challenges in New Jersey’s urban schools: segregation, inadequate school funding, and child poverty.  None of these challenges will be solved by the expansion of charter schools.”

New Book from David Berliner: Update on Manufactured Crisis He Identified 20 Years Ago

In 1995, nearly 20 years ago, Arizona State University education professor David Berliner and University of Missouri professor Bruce Biddle published a prophetic book that anticipated the largely trumped up attack on public education that has brought us vouchers and charter schools; No Child Left Behind with its requirement that the school year be filled with test-prep and high stakes pressure on children and teachers alike; and Race to the Top and the other Obama programs that are transforming the Title I Formula—a civil rights program—into a philanthropy-like grant competition aimed at “incentivizing”  innovation.

In The Manufactured Crisis, Berliner and Biddle wrote:  “The Manufactured Crisis was not an accidental event.  Rather, it appeared within a specific historical context and was led by identifiable critics whose political goals could be furthered by scapegoating educators.  It was also supported from its inception by an assortment of questionable techniques—including misleading methods for analyzing data, distorting reports of findings, and suppressing contradictory evidence.  Moreover, it was tied to misguided schemes for ‘reforming’ education—schemes that would, if adopted, seriously damage American schools.”

Back in 1995, Berliner and Biddle identified serious problems challenging American society and our public schools—income and wealth inequity; stagnation of the economy; racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity; racial discrimination practiced for years against black Americans; segregation in suburbs and ghettos; violence and drugs; the aging of the population; competing demands for funds; and the restructuring of work.  They concluded, “Unfortunately, many people who propose reforms for education seem to be unaware of these problems and as a result their proposals are unrealistic.  Effective reforms must begin by taking these problems seriously.”  Berliner and Biddle also looked at myriad issues within the public schools themselves that need to be addressed.

Hot off the press this month is a brand new book from David Berliner and the National Education Policy Center’s Gene Glass: 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education.  I look forward to reading this book for ongoing help with responding to the manufactured crisis Berliner warned us about in 1995.

According to the publisher, Teachers College Press: “Two of the most respected voices in education and a team of young education scholars identify 50 myths and lies that threaten America’s public schools.  With hard-hitting information and a touch of comic relief, Berliner, Glass, and their Associates separate fact from fiction in this comprehensive look at modern education reform.  They explain how the mythical failure of public education has been created and perpetuated in large part by political and economic interests that stand to gain from its destruction.  They also expose a rapidly expanding variety of organizations and media that intentionally misrepresent facts…  Where appropriate, the authors name the promoters of these deceptions and point out how they are served by encouraging false beliefs.”

Here is what Jonathan Kozol says about the new book: “50 Myths and Lies is a powerful defense of public education and a discerning refutation of the reckless misimpressions propagated by a juggernaut of private-sector forces and right-wing intellectuals who would gladly rip apart the legacy of democratic schooling in America. It is a timely and hard-hitting book of scholarly but passionate polemic.”

To give you a taste of Berliner’s good sense and willingness to challenge conventional thinking, here is the text of a graduation address, The Teacher as Sisyphus,  he delivered last May at Manhattanville College.  Berliner moves quickly to his hard-hitting message without mincing words:  “Good evening.  First I want to assure you all that I will not stand long in the way of your celebration… Second I want to thank the administration of the college…. Third, I want to congratulate you graduates.  I also want to tell your parents, relatives, and friends gathered here today to remember something very important, namely, that the future pay of each of the graduates you care about depends on your ability, and your desire to pay your taxes!  Many of these graduates are likely to end up as workers for the common good, helping to serve us all.  And those who work for the common good—the police, firefighters, librarians, our teachers and other educators—are all paid from monies collected in taxes… I don’t want to be a scold on this wonderful day, but these graduates will need your support for their entire careers.”

Be watching for the new book by David Berliner and Gene Glass, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education.