Poverty and Its Effects on School Achievement Are Forgotten in the President’s Budget

On Friday the Trump administration released a very “skinny” budget that outlined a few priorities for each federal department without many details. Many members of Congress, as you have undoubtedly heard, are not happy with what they see, and the ideas in this budget will likely be changed and amended before a budget is passed by Congress. (See more details about the budget process and the President’s proposed education budget here.) There is enough in Friday’s proposed budget for the Department of Education, however, to demonstrate Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s priorities.

In the list of programs for the Department of Education, there are three different expansions of school school choice and privatization—Title I Portability, some kind of pilot of federal vouchers, and expansion by 50 percent of the Charter Schools Program that underwrites grants to states for the launch of new charter schools.  The K-12 education budget cuts after-school programs, two programs that help students prepare for and apply to college, and teacher preparation. There is nothing in Trump’s new education budget to expand the opportunity to learn for America’s poorest children in urban and rural public schools.

For fifteen years the United States has had a test-based accountability system in place supposedly to close achievement gaps, raise school achievement, and drive school staff to work harder. There is widespread agreement that No Child Left Behind (now to be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act) has failed to close achievement gaps and significantly raise overall achievement for the students who are farthest behind.

Among academic experts on education there is also widespread agreement about what needs to change to help students who struggle.  Expansion of school privatization and libertarian “freedom of choice” for a few students is definitely not the prescribed treatment for what is a much deeper set of problems.

Helen Ladd, a well-known professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, just published an extensive analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.  No Child Left Behind relied almost exclusively, Ladd writes, “on tough test-based incentives. This approach would only have made sense if the problem of low-performing schools could be attributed primarily to teacher shirking as some people believed, or to the problem of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ as suggested by President George W. Bush. But in fact low achievement in such schools is far more likely to reflect the limited capacity of such schools to meet the challenges that children from disadvantaged backgrounds boring to the classroom. Because of these challenges, schools serving concentrations of low-income students face greater tasks than those serving middle class students. The NCLB approach of holding schools alone responsible for student test score levels while paying little if any attention to the conditions in which learning takes place is simply not fair either to the schools or the children and was bound to be unsuccessful.”

At Stanford University, sociologist Sean Reardon has demonstrated widening residential segregation of our society by family income.  Reardon, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, shows that across 117 metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009. Reardon and Bischoff believe that economic, “segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area. Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”  Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime. Reardon demonstrates here that along with growing residential segregation by income has been a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

David Berliner, former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University and a past president of the American Educational Research Association, in a recent short column published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, explains how aggregate standardized test scores reflect Reardon’s findings: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained… Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste.”

In a piece published in The American Scholar, UCLA education professor Mike Rose suggests we, “Imagine… that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.  If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided…. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement.”  These are the full service, wraparound Community Schools that have been expanded in New York City, Cincinnati and some other places. Ironically some Community Schools incorporate funding for after-school and summer programs from federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, a program eliminated in Trump’s proposed budget.

Last August, members the Vermont State Board of Education wrote to then-education secretary John King about what they believed was needed in the rules the U.S. Department of Education was drafting to implement  the Every Student Succeeds Act: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.”

Even Andrew Rotherham, a corporate school reformer at Bellwether Education Partners, criticizes one of the proposals outlined in the President’s new budget: to experiment with turning Title I—the 1965 civil rights program to provide extra funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty—into a portable voucher program.  Even though Title I Portability is proposed as a public (not privatized) school voucher program, in which children could carry their extra Title I funding across school district boundaries, Rotherham like many others worries that children would carry Title I dollars away from school districts serving concentrations of poor children to wealthier school districts with a less urgent need for the money: “Right now, those dollars are targeted toward low-income students in higher poverty schools. The idea is to pancake them for more impact, given both the research on effective educational interventions and the reality of housing today for low-income Americans, which often concentrates poor students in schools. Trump’s idea, by contrast, is to spread this money around in amounts too small to make a real difference…. It’s school choice light with an added consequence of making Title I dollars less effective than they are today.”

If, as all these people who do the research and know the research literature explain, poverty and residential concentration of the poorest children in particular neighborhoods and schools is the most serious challenge for public education, then there are also many other alarming problems for children and their public schools embedded in the proposed budgets for other federal departments. The Community Development Block Grant and Home Program, both cancelled in the President’s budget, help pay for housing and also support  shelters and services for the homeless. The Trump budget erases the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps poor people pay for heating their houses in the winter. The budget eliminates the Legal Services Corporation. Even the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is reduced. And of course there is the matter of the 24 million people likely to lose healthcare in the next decade if the current version of the Affordable Care Act were to go forward.

We are hearing a lot about how the President’s proposed budget will affect the middle and working class. As is too often the case, we are not hearing about the implications for the poor. If our society is intent on improving educational achievement, it will have to happen in the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children. At the same time the federal government will have to help state and local governments address poverty and what concentrated poverty does to very poor families and their neighborhoods and public schools.

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National “Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education” Campaign Re-Launches This Week

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of educators and key policy experts gathered in Washington, D.C. to re-launch a campaign for holistic education and social policy reform to surround America’s poorest children and their families with the kind of educational opportunities their middle class peers take for granted. Seizing the occasion of the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to replace No Child Left Behind, advocates for expanding opportunity in America’s public schools have relaunched the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education, a campaign designed to push public policy away from blaming teachers and toward constructing a policy framework to support children and schools in poor and marginalized communities.

Broader, BOLDER’s new mission statement proclaims: “The Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education is grounded in the understanding that the kinds of educational opportunities—both within and outside of schools—that help well-off children thrive are the same opportunities that would most benefit children who lack access to them… Achievement gaps in test scores are not the root problem, but important symptoms of the underlying problems facing our schools…. Since poverty manifests itself in various ways and places in children’s educational trajectories, BBA addresses them at each stage….”

In a column published by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, Elaine Weiss, the campaign’s national coordinator, explains why the relaunch of the Broader, BOLDER Agenda is designed to coincide with the recent passage of a new federal education law: “ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) claws back some of the most problematic federal accountability requirements, and it emphasizes the need for social and emotional, as well as traditional academic, measures of success.  It also sets aside new money for investments in quality pre-kindergarten and for wraparound supports that help provide disadvantaged students equal opportunities to learn.  That said, ESSA comes nowhere near evening the education playing field…. ESSA fails to put forth a coherent strategy to address the high levels of poverty, (and) racial and socioeconomic isolation… that present major barriers to success for millions of American students and the schools serving them… With its relaunch, BBA establishes the framework for developing those policies.”

Broader, BOLDER’s new agenda folds together social and health support for families with school improvement: “As rates of child and family poverty grew during and in the aftermath of the Great Recession, poverty also became more concentrated in certain cities and neighborhoods.  This exacerbated the already difficult circumstances of children of color, who have long been disproportionately clustered in our country’s least resourced… and most isolated communities.  Widespread joblessness, crime, violence, and dysfunction combine with scant public and private resources to isolate families…. Indeed, research documents the severe obstacles to school success posed by these circumstances.”  The campaign links four strategies to alleviate out-of-school barriers to success:

  • Early Childhood Experiences: “That every student arrives at kindergarten with the benefit of high-quality early learning and necessary health, wellness, and family support services from birth.
  • After-school and Summer:  “Indeed, it is particularly critical that students who are less likely to be exposed to organized sports, activities such as the fine arts, music, and trips to museums, and challenging games like chess in other contexts enjoy those opportunities as part of their schooling.”
  • Health: “Not only should we expand the presence of health clinics in schools serving high-risk student populations, but enact policies to support those programs.”
  • Nutrition :”Every child should have consistent access to nutritious food all day and all year, and the school system, with support from other agencies, should be structured to provide it without stigma or barriers to access.”

The new campaign also presents four strategies to narrow opportunity gaps within and across schools:

  • adequate school funding, equitably distributed;
  • school accountability that measures not just test scores but also school conditions such as access to quality teachers and curricula;
  • an emphasis on preparing and fostering “a strong, experienced corps of professional educators”; and
  • robust and transparent regulation of charter schools to ensure they serve all children, avoid conflicts of interest, and responsibly steward our tax dollars.

In marked contrast to the past two decades’ accountability-driven agenda, framers of the new campaign confront what research confirms are the primary barriers to school achievement.  Leadership by chairs—Helen Ladd, Pedro Noguera, Paul Reville and Joshua Starr—and the appointment of a diverse and broadly experienced advisory board ensure a wide audience for the new campaign’s work.

America Tries to Fix Achievement Gaps on the Cheap without Addressing Opportunity Gaps

It is a truth universally acknowledged (in the research literature) that schools themselves do not cause achievement gaps and that schools by themselves cannot close achievement gaps.  But we prefer to believe something else.

We blame schools when they don’t close the gaps quickly. We close the schools or fire their principals and teachers.  Or we create state “achievement” districts with distant overseer superintendents who monitor test scores.  Or our states create emergency managers with absolute power to override union contracts and fire entire school staffs if they like.  Or, for so-called “efficiency,” we turn the schools over to private management companies.  Cause and effect logic doesn’t operate much in the realm of school “reform.”

Today, this blog will review the evidence about the root causes of school achievement gaps and then look at the new study released this month from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. about the achievement gap in place across America long before children enter Kindergarten.

Back in 1999, well before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act that set out to close achievement gaps through test-based accountability, Helen Ladd and colleagues writing a school finance book for the National Research Council declared, “Achieving the goal of breaking the nexus between family background and student achievement requires special attention.” (Making Money Matter, p. 47)

Ten years later, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focuses on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm.  They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480.  They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present.  The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released massive data reports confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income across America’s large metropolitan areas. Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In 2013, here is what the historian Michael Katz and the professor of education Mike Rose concluded at the end of a book of academic essays about the current wave of school reform: “(A) rough consensus which crosses political lines blames poor teaching, ineffective teacher preparation programs, teachers’ unions, the lack of accountability for results, and monopolistic public systems for the failures of student achievement measured, primarily, by test scores.  In mainstream reform discourse, teachers and their unions emerge as the major villains…. Powerful foundations, the national government, and the media… reinforce and disseminate these views.  The reform agenda includes two primary components: first, hold teachers accountable for student achievement… and second, break up public monopolies by introducing choice, mainly in the form of charter schools…. The fact of the matter is that the ‘problem’ of American eduction is to a large extent a problem of poverty. By international standards, American students who attend schools where only a small percentage of students come from families with income below the poverty line measure up well against the best in the world.” (Public Education Under Siege, pp. 223-224)

And in 2013, Diane Ravitch summarized the dilemma: “Still the question remains: Should we ‘fix’ poverty first or ‘fix schools first?  It is a false choice.  I have never heard anyone say that our society should ‘fix’ poverty before fixing the schools.  Most thoughtful people who want to help children and families speak of doing both at the same time, or at least trying.  Yet here are all these powerful people saying we should ‘fix’ the schools first, then, someday, turn our attention to poverty.  Or maybe they mean that fixing schools will take care of poverty.  The reformers’ case is superficially appealing.  It ought to be easier to ‘fix’ schools than to ‘fix’ poverty, because poverty seems so intractable.  Our society has grown to accept poverty as an inevitable fact of life and there seems to be little or no political will to do anything about it.  It should also be cheaper to fix schools instead of poverty, because no matter how much it costs to fix schools, it will surely be less than the cost of significantly reducing poverty in a society with great economic inequality like our own.  The problem is that if you don’t really know how to fix schools, if none of your solutions actually improve education, then society ends up neither fixing schools nor doing anything about poverty.”  (Reign of Error, pp 92-93)

In this context, Emma Garcia of the Economic Policy Institute just published research that documents Inequalities at the Starting Gate, sizeable achievement gaps relating to income inequality that are well established before children enter Kindergarten.

Here is Garcia’s conclusion:  “Gaps based on socioeconomic status are very significant and prevalent, while those based on race/ethnicity are largely sensitive to the inclusion of socioeconomic status…  These findings indicate that inequalities at the starting gate are largely the result of accumulated social and economic disadvantages; that socioeconomic status or social class, is the single largest predictor of early education gaps and that gaps based on race are primarily a result of the many factors for which race mediates and that minority groups disproportionately experience.”

Garcia presents the demographic data that describes the children entering Kindergarten today: “Over half (52 percent) of white children are in the two highest socioeconomic quintiles (high-middle or high), while only 8.9 percent fall into the lowest SES quintile.  A similar pattern is true among Asian kindergartners: 59.9 percent are in the highest two quintiles, and 11.8 percent are in the lowest.  For black and especially for Hispanic children, however, the situation is reversed.  Over half (56.8 percent) of black children and over two-thirds (66.6 percent) of Hispanic children are in the two lowest quintiles, and fewer than one in 10 of either group are in the highest SES quintile (8.3 percent of black children and 6.8 percent of Hispanic children).  Another angle through which to see these numbers is the proportion of children who live in povery by race/ethnicity: 13.1 percent of white children, 17.3 percent of Asian children, and nearly half of black children (45.5 percent) and Hispanic children (46.3 percent).”

Garcia writes: “Overall, our results—showing significant socioeconomic-based gaps in cognative skills—confirm what multiple other research analyses (e.g. Reardon 2011) have found: that students’ levels of readiness and development are closely associated with their parents’ socioeconomic status.  Unadjusted differences in cognitive domains indicate that each move up a socioeconomic quintile in the SES distribution is associated with approximately a quarter of a standard deviation… improvement in performance in both math and reading, with students in the top quintile… scoring nearly a full standard deviation above students in the bottom quintile….”

Garcia attributes these results to the challenges experienced by children living in the lowest SES quintile and the enrichments being showered upon children in the top quintiles as inequality widens and affluent children are exposed to added travel and other programs and lessons.  Robert Putnam agrees. In his new book on the impact of rising inequality on children’s opportunity, Putnam describes the investments of middle and upper class parents in child-rearing: “Concerted cultivation refers to the child rearing investments that middle-class parents deliberately make to foster their children’s cognitive, social, and cultural skills, and, in turn, to further their children’s success in life, particularly at school…  Parents from all social backgrounds nowadays invest more money and more time in raising their kids than was true a generation ago…. but because affluent, educated families have not only more money but also more time… they have been able to increase their investments much faster than poor parents…. As a result, the class gap in investments in kids has become wider and wider.” (Our Kids, pp. 118-124)

Emma Garcia concludes her new report with suggestions about closing the opportunity gaps that exist long before children reach Kindergarten.  She absolutely endorses expanding the affordability, availability and quality of child care and pre-Kindergarten education.  She also advocates improving funding and programming in the public schools in our poorest communities.  But she adds: “The most straighforward way to decrease poverty among children and thus increase the resources available to them is to boost their parents’ incomes” including “policies aimed at increasing  overall wages and employment, especially at the lower rungs of the employment and wage ladders.” “Raising the minimum wage would also help ensure that parents working full-time do not have to rely on public assistance to provide their children with the basic necessities… We could also make those wages go further by increasing the earned income tax credit and child tax credit….  Raising incomes for middle-and low-social class families is key to ensuring their children do not grow up in poverty… Closing education gaps… calls for policies that address…  structural factors that influence a child’s odds of growing up poor.”

New Reports Confirm Charter Schools Promote Racial Segregation in CT and NC

For more than half a century since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, our society has believed we value policies that support racially integrated public schools.  In the past two decades, however, the rapid growth of the publicly funded but privately managed charter school sector has promoted racial segregation.  Reports released this month from Connecticut and North Carolina document that when parents choose schools in the charter marketplace, they tend to segregate their children in schools dominated by large majorities of children of their own race.

Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee, of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, describe Connecticut School Integration that has been accomplished in the public schools and intentionally diverse magnet schools that were the result of remedies in Sheff v. O’Neill, the 1989 school funding and desegregation lawsuit in Hartford.  “The Sheff case was a long struggle by a group of outstanding civil rights lawyers, plaintiffs and local residents who supported the change and those who worked with them… The efforts have not eliminated segregation or ended racial achievement gaps but it is the only state in the Northeast that is going in a positive direction and it has created voluntary processes that have clearly reduced severe segregation in a time devoid of national leadership.”

While the extraordinary inter-district magnet schools with specialty curricula and the inter-district enrollment program that Sheff created have increased the mixing of students from city and suburb and demonstrated that black, white and Hispanic students can happily and successfully learn together, Connecticut’s charter sector, by contrast, has become highly segregated.  Orfield and Ee explain: “A 2014 report by Connecticut Voices for Children concluded that ‘a majority of the magnet schools and technical schools were ‘integrated’… but only 18% of charter schools.’  In fact ‘the majority of charter schools were instead ‘hypersegregated’ with a student body composed of more than 90% minority students.'”  Orfield and Ee recommend that in Connecticut, where public and magnet schools have become more integrated, “Charters should come under the state’s diversity policies and requirements and should have goals, recruitment strategies, public information and transportation policies to foster diversity including diversity of language background.”

In a second paper, published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, scholars from Duke University document that segregation of charters has been an accelerating trend in North Carolina.  The paper, “The Growing Segmentation of the Charter School Sector in North Carolina,” by Helen F. Ladd, Charles T. Clotfelter, and John B. Holbein, is behind a paywall, but an early draft, can be downloaded here from among the papers presented at the 40th annual conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy.  The Duke researchers describe a study conducted between 1999 and 2012 and conclude: “The state’s charter schools, which started out disproportionately serving minority students, have been serving an increasingly white student population over time.”  The authors also conclude that rising test scores in North Carolina’s charters are not the result of improved school quality—as has been suggested by promoters of charter schools—but are instead the result of a shift in population as many charters have come to enroll students with higher average family income: “Our analysis of the changing mix of students who enroll in charter schools over time… leads us to believe that a major factor contributing to the apparent improved performance of charter schools over the period (of the study) may have as much or more to do with the trends in the types of students they are attracting than improvements in the quality of the programs they offer…  Taken together, our findings imply that the charters schools in North Carolina have become segmented over time, with one segment increasingly serving the interests of middle class white families.”

Reporting on the Duke study for the Washington Post, Jeff Guo explains that North Carolina laws governing charter schools may be contributing to the diminishing number of minority students in North Carolina’s charter schools: “One problem is that disadvantaged students have less of a chance to attend a charter school.  First, they or their parents have to be plugged in enough to know which are the good charter schools and motivated enough to apply.  Then, they need to have the resources to actually attend the charter, because unlike regular public schools, charter schools in North Carolina do not have to offer transportation or lunch to students.  For poor students who rely on school buses and free meal programs, the costs associated with attending a charter school may discourage them from the opportunity.”

As school districts across the South have remedied de jure segregation and been released from their court orders and after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2007 that race cannot be the sole basis of voluntary desegregation plans to remedy segregation by race, neither the federal government nor the states have been proactively supporting school integration.  It is another thing altogether, however, when market-based charter schools, which are said by their promoters to be public schools, are freed from the existing civil rights policies that govern public schools and that our society still claims to value.

Helen Ladd: A-F Letter Grades for Schools Hide What We Must Do to Support School Children

Helen Ladd, professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and her husband, Edward Fiske, a former education editor of the NY Times, recently published an analysis of the meaning of North Carolina’s new A-F rating system for public schools.  They write: “Whatever their limitations… the letter grades sent a clear message about what North Carolina needs to do to improve outcomes for kids.  In a nutshell, we need to figure out how to break the link between poverty and achievement in our schools… The most striking pattern that emerged from the letter grades from the NC Department of Public Instruction was the near-perfect correlation between letter grades and economic disadvantage.  The News & Observer reported that 80 percent of schools where at least four-fifths of children qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch received a D or F grade, whereas 90 percent of schools with fewer than one in five students on the subsidized lunch program received As or Bs.”

Ladd and Fiske believe that public policy ought to treat the conditions social scientists have identified again and again as the reasons, in the aggregate, that students struggle at school: “When it comes to making effective education policy, the issue is not whether family background is correlated with educational achievement. The question is how we choose to deal with this empirical reality. The ideal policy response, of course, would be attack poverty itself.  Achievement gaps did narrow in the years following Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” in the 1960s.  But doing so would take a long time. A second possible response would be to put one’s head in the sand and simply ignore the relationship. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the dominant federal policy initiative of the Bush and Obama administrations’ No Child Left Behind policy has done.  NCLB sets the same high—and ultimately unreachable—achievement expectations for all students, and it then holds schools accountable for assuring that all students meet them.  The inherent futility of this approach—echoed in the criteria that guide North Carolina’s system of letter grades for schools—helps explain why the administration has had to grant waivers to so many states.”

Ladd and Fiske suggest that while our society grapples with how to address the challenges of family poverty, federal and state education policy should, “address the particular challenges that disadvantaged children face as they pursue their education,” with three strategies currently being implemented by the East Durham Children’s Initiative: locate health clinics and social services at school, institute high quality early childhood and pre-school programs, and provide stimulating and fun summer programs to prevent “summer learning loss.”  These are the programs at the heart of full-service, wrap-around Community Schools and Promise Neighborhoods, of which the East Durham Children’s Initiative is an example.

Imposing an A-F school rating system is more stylish these days, however.  Such a plan is being formally launched in Ohio next fall as school begins.  Here is what Richard Rothstein, who, like Helen Ladd has studied the ways poverty makes it harder for children to post high standardized test scores, told the Cleveland City Club last week: “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools. And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools. Many of these schools, that are rated A because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents, may add less value to their students than schools rated F, where parents may be working the kind of contingent schedules I described earlier. Those F schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than the A schools, but most people don’t understand that. And so if you label schools with A-F ratings, people who attend a C school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an A school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these A-F ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

The editors of Rethinking Schools magazine explained the same issue very succinctly just last year.  They said that school accountability based on high-stakes standardized tests merely disguises class and race privilege as merit.

Two Important Articles Describe Widespread Attack on Core Value of Public Education

Here is a particularly strong critique of what the North Carolina legislature is doing to undermine that state’s public schools.  Helen Ladd,  one of the chairs of the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education campaign and a professor of public policy at Duke University and Edward Fiske,  former education editor of the NY Times, describe their experience two years ago working with North Carolina’s state board of education to craft what was known as a “Vision of Public Education in North Carolina.”  They continue by describing how in 2013, that commitment was dismantled when the North Carolina “General Assembly, with the assent of Gov. Pat McCrory, enacted a sweeping set of new laws that represent a frontal assault on public education…”

Ladd and Fiske write:  “If one were to devise a strategy for destroying public education in North Carolina, it might look like this: Repeat over and over again that schools are failing and that the system needs to be replaced.  Then make this a self-fulfilling prophecy by starving schools of funds, undermining teachers and badmouthing their profession, balkanizing the system to make coherent planning impossible, putting public funds in the hands of unaccountable private interests and abandoning any pretense that the goal is to prepare every child in our state to succeed in life.”

Writing for the Education Opportunity Network and the Campaign for America’s Future, Jeff Bryant devotes this week’s commentary to the same theme.  He examines the situation in North Carolina and also tracks a much broader attack on public schools across the states.  “For quite some time, there has been a well-orchestrated, well funded, and extremely influential movement to literally get rid of public schools.”

Bryant traces an attack on the very survival of public schools  and castigates pundits and commentators who accuse public school supporters of unwillingness to compromise.  He corrects those who assume there is always a middle way by pointing out that in today’s extremely polarized education debate, “what ‘traditional public schools’ face is not so much a gentleman’s dispute as it is an existential threat.”  “All these factors—the deliberate assault on public schools and the declining resources, despite growing challenges—never seem to be considered in arguments by a pundit class that continues to rebuke public school supporters for being strident and uncompromising.”

Entirely different core values underpin the public school system that has historically served our children in the United States and the kind of education based on privatization and individual family choice that today’s school “reformers” endorse. That the two philosophies of education are radically different is a primary reason it’s impossible to find a compromise, middle way between privatized school choice and a system of traditional public education.

Education theories of privatization and school choice value individualism, competition, efficiency, deregulation, innovation, private management and creative disruption—closing so called “failing” schools and opening alternatives in an endless cycle as in a business portfolio.   Historically our society has instead built our education system for civic as well as personal benefit upon a foundation of democratic governance and oversight by elected school boards. We have counted on a vast and stable publicly owned system designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children.

Education writer Mike Rose would ask us to make ourselves consciously aware of the values embodied by our public schools as a strategy for protecting America’s public education system as a community asset.  In the 2014 revised and expanded edition of his classic philosophy of education, Why School?, Rose writes: “How we think about and voice the purpose of education matters. It affects what we put in or take out of the curriculum and how we teach that curriculum. It affects how we think about students—all students—about intelligence, achievement, human development, teaching and learning, opportunity, and obligation.  And all of this affects the way we think about each other and who we are as a nation.”  (Why School? 2014 edition, pp. 216-217)

I urge you to read the article by Ladd and Fiske and Jeff Bryant’s column this week. I also encourage you to find a copy of the 2014 edition of Mike Rose’s Why School?   This blog has explored the problems for public schools in North Carolina in these two very recent posts: here and here.)