Two Wise Articles about High School Graduation Requirements

This week brought two fine commentaries on today’s punitive high school graduation requirements. Stan Karp, an educator, demonstrates widespread flawed assumptions about the need for high school exit exams. And, in a stunning commentary, the Rev. Jesse Jackson exposes the serious flaw in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to demand that students present proof of a life plan in order to secure a high school diploma.

I hope Stan Karp, an educator and editor at Rethinking Schools Magazine, whose column is published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, is correct when he says it seems to be going out of style to use exit tests artificially to raise the bar for high school graduation: “In the last few years, 10 states have repealed or delayed high school exit exams. California, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona even decided to issue diplomas retroactively to thousands of students denied them due to scores on discontinued tests. Although 13 states still use exit testing for diplomas and policies are in flux in several others, the number is down from a high of 27 states during the testing craze promoted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Karp’s article exposes the flaws in the myth that high school graduation tests ensure that students hold what has been called “a high-quality diploma.”

Karp lives in New Jersey, which still uses a standardized testing bar for high school graduation. I live in Ohio, where a new graduation plan, scheduled to begin with the class of  2018, requires students to accrue a total score of 18 points from a batch of required end-of-course exams. Projections indicate about a third of Ohio’s high school seniors will not have accumulated enough points to graduate and will be denied a diploma in June of 2018.

Karp opposes high school exit exams, what he calls, “the trapdoors of the education world. These are the tests that tie scores to high school diplomas and push students who miss the mark out of school into the streets, the unemployment lines, and the prisons.” He summarizes the research demonstrating that high school exit exams don’t, as their fans promise, ensure that students are “college and career-ready.” From a report by the New America Foundation, Karp explains: “(R)igorous exit testing was associated with lower graduation rates, had no positive effect on labor market outcomes, and, most alarmingly, produced a 12.5 percent increase in incarceration rates.”

What was the promise and where did it go wrong? “Exit testing relies on several related, flawed premises. One is that standardized testing can serve as a kind of ‘quality control’ for high school graduates, guaranteeing that graduates are ‘college or career ready.’  Another is that they have ‘predictive’ value for future success in academic or workplace situations, and serve a useful gate-keeping function for institutions that ration access to opportunity.  But there is little evidence for these contentions.  The tests don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure—intelligence, academic ability, college readiness—and they don’t measure at all qualities that high schools should nurture in all young people, like responsibility, resilience, critical insight, and empathy. Although the passing or ‘cut’ scores on standardized exit tests can be manipulated to produce varied outcomes, their main impact is to narrow access to opportunity for some, not to produce better preparation for all… Like the SAT and ACT before them, scores on the new Common Core tests closely mirror existing patterns of inequality and privilege.  Expanding their use would reinforce those patterns rather than disrupt them.”

In a Chicago Sun-Times column this week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also worries about the way high school graduation requirements contribute to inequality.  Jackson examines the assumptions underneath Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new high school graduation proposal to require that, to earn their diplomas, high school seniors in Chicago’s public schools must present documentation of college or military enrollment or evidence of a job. (This blog covered Mayor Emanuel’s plan here.)  Jackson exposes Emanuel’s plan as another example of thinking that individuals should pull themselves up by their bootstraps through personal determination. At the same time Jackson lays bare a serious flaw: the problem isn’t so much each high school graduate’s lack of effort to make plan as it is society’s failure to ensure that students’ plans could possibly be realized.

Here are the realities Rev. Jackson describes in Chicago, his hometown: “Chicago has the worst black unemployment of any of the five biggest cities in the country. Across the U.S., a staggering 51.3 percent of young black high school graduates are unemployed or underemployed (that is, forced to work part time involuntarily or giving up on finding a job). A majority of young black high school graduates are looking for full-time work and can’t find it. The mayor’s plan does nothing to address this grim reality. Instead, it erects a paperwork hoop for kids to jump through that is likely to have very little to do with their plans for their lives. Why not go a step further down the reform road? Establish the requirement and then guarantee every graduate a job, with the city acting as an employer of last resort.”

Jackson compares Rahm’s graduation requirement to the 1996 welfare reform, whose technical name betrays what was intended—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—that blamed the victims for their poverty. Jackson believes the law  failed because it didn’t follow through with a viable way to expand work opportunity: “Emanuel’s plan is a faint echo of his mentor Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. In 1996, when Clinton’s welfare reform bill was passed, the rhetoric was all about impoverished single mothers going from welfare to work. The plan was to abolish the welfare guarantee and require that poor mothers go to work after a limited period of time. Great, everyone is for work over welfare. But in order to hold a job, impoverished single mothers need some way to care for their children, job training, a way to get to their job—and a job to get to. None of that was provided in the welfare reform bill that eventually passed.”

Jackson concludes: “Emanuel operates from the theory that poor graduates lack a plan for life after high school.  What they lack, however, is a real job or a real training program that would lead to a job. These kids grow up in impoverished neighborhoods and on mean streets. Often they come from broken homes, without adequate nutrition, with unstable housing. They attend schools with massive needs and inadequate resources. If they make it, they graduate into an economy that has little place for them.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand that students present a life plan and the states’ imposition of high stakes graduation exit exams do nothing to address the deeper problem of poverty and inequality that almost nobody ever mentions. Rev. Jackson’s commentary in a Chicago newspaper seems stunningly out of place in today’s plutocratic America where poverty has effectively been hidden. Rev. Jackson’s commentary is short; it is a must-read.

Teaching “Grit,” Blaming the Poor, and Undermining the Public Will to Address Poverty

Our preoccupation in American education with character formation defined as “grit” is integral to our culture’s rock-solid belief in the myth of the American Dream.  It doesn’t matter that economists today are documenting rigidifying inequality with the rise of incomes at the top, wage stagnation for families in the middle, and deepening poverty and segregation among those at the very bottom. It doesn’t matter that Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz explains: “There’s no use in pretending. In spite of the enduring belief that Americans enjoy greater social mobility than their European counterparts, America is no longer the land of opportunity.” (The Price of Inequality, p. 265)  And it doesn’t matter that last year Robert Putnam published a whole book about the increasing rigidity of social stratification in America: “Graphically, the ups and downs of inequality in America during the twentieth century trace a gigantic U, beginning and ending in two Gilded Ages, but with a long period of relative equality around mid-century… In the early 1970s, however, that decades-long equalizing trend began to reverse, slowly at first but then with accelerating harshness… (I)n the 1980s the top began to pull away from everyone else, and in the first decades of the twenty-first century the very top began to pull away even from the top.  Even within each major racial/ethnic group, income inequality rose at the same substantial rate between 1967 and 2011, as richer whites, blacks and Latinos pulled away ….”  (Our Kids, pp. 34-35)

Despite these economic realities, however, and even though most of us know that some people face overwhelming challenges, we sustain a contradiction by holding fast to our belief in the American Dream.  Heather Beth Johnson, a sociologist, and her team of researchers interviewed hundreds of people about their understanding of the rags to riches story.  Here is a typical transcript of one of those interviews: “*Interviewer: ‘Do you think there are some ethnicities, races, groups in this country that are more disadvantaged than others?’  *Responder: ‘Yeah.’  *Interviewer: ‘So you think there are certain groups… as a whole that have a harder time making it today?’ *Responder: ‘Sure. Definitely.’  *Interviewer: ‘Okay, now, what about the American Dream? The idea that with hard work and desire, individual potential is unconstrained… everyone gets an equal chance to get ahead based on their own achievement?’  *Responder: ‘That’s a very good definition.’ *Interviewer: ‘Do you believe that the American Dream is true for all people and that everybody does have an equal chance?’  *Responder: ‘Yes. Everybody has an equal chance, no matter who he or she is.’” (The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, pp. 146-147)

We pin our hopes on social mobility through hard work and desire. It is an especially appealing myth in an era when we know that addressing the problems of inequality, poverty, segregation, and massive inequity of school resources would be very difficult and very expensive. Yesterday for the NY Times, Kate Zernike reported on an effort in a handful of California school districts to teach “grit” and to make standardized tests evaluate whether students are learning and schools are teaching the character skills thought to contribute to success in life:  “As reward for minutes without misconduct, they win prizes like 20 seconds to kick their feet up on their desks or to play rock-paper-scissors.  And starting this year, their school and schools in eight other California districts will test students on how well they have learned the kind of skills like self-control and conscientiousness… ones that might be described as everything you should have learned in kindergarten but are still reading self-help books to master in middle age.”

Paul Tough, in his 2012 book How Children Succeed, lauded the idea that schools should focus on strengthening character.  He profiled the work of Angela Duckworth and her scale of character traits that included: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. (p, 76)  Duckworth herself is reported in yesterday’s NY Times piece, however, to oppose the idea of testing character: “‘I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,’ said Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur fellow who has done more than anyone to popularize social-emotional learning…. She resigned from the board of the group overseeing the California project, saying she could not support using the tests to evaluate school performance.”

Proponents of character education are defending such testing based on an ironic perversion of a provision of the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that adds one additional element in addition to standardized achievement test scores that states can choose themselves, but which they must submit to the U.S. Department of Education as part of their school evaluation plan. The outcomes-based No Child Left Behind never considered the vast disparities in opportunity created by inequitable school funding, for example, or inequitable access to guidance counselors or inequitable class size.  During the reauthorization process last year, the National Education Association lobbied hard for the addition of an Opportunity Dashboard as part of federally mandated school evaluation. The compromise with a conservative Congress, however, resulted in the addition of only one factor from the proposed dashboard that states could choose to add when they submitted their data to the U.S. Department of Education.  Here is how NEA describes what that extra factor is intended to be: “For the first time in ESEA’s long history, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that…. (t)o help ensure resource equity and opportunity for all students… state-designed accountability systems must include at least one ‘dashboard’ indicator of school success or student support—for example, access to advanced coursework, fine arts, and regular physical education; school climate and safety; discipline policies; bullying prevention; and the availability of counselors or nurses.”  California’s experiment with making that one extra factor a student’s score on a standardized character education test is a wacky and dangerous perversion of the law.

Of course, apart from the matter of whether character traits should be tested and schools judged by the results, there are the controversial strategies some schools are already using to “teach” character.  We have heard a lot this month about misguided practices being used to “build character” in no-excuses charter schools.  It has become known that in NYC, at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters, staff are taught that when a student cries, it means the child is paying attention and is more likely to shape up. We watched a video in which a Success Academy teacher berated a first-grade child and ripped up the student’s paper—a disciplinary technique, we were to assume, would strengthen character.  And then we learned from the child’s mother about her horror as she watched the video in which the teacher insulted her child in front of the child’s peers and undermined her daughter’s confidence.  Also well known is the behavior code used to teach character in KIPP (Knowledge is Power) charter schools, where students are expected to SLANT: Sit up—Listen—Ask and Answer questions—Nod—Track the speaker.

In the 2014 revision of his classic, Why School?, Mike Rose added an extra chapter, “Being Careful About Character,” in response to Paul Tough’s book and to what Rose surmised might be a dangerous educational strategy.  He warns: “When the emphasis on character is focused on the individual attributes of poor children as the reason for their subpar academic performance, it can remove broader policies to address poverty and educational inequality from public discussion… (W)e have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty.  My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.”

Rose continues: “We have a long-standing shameful tendency in America to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor… We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else.  We should use our science to figure out why that is so—and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.” (Why School?,  2014 Revised Edition, pp. 112-115)

Letter Grades, Assigned by States to School Districts, Tell Us Little about Real Opportunity

Ohio’s release last Friday of school district report cards that rate schools and school districts and assign letter grades for a range of calculations that remain incomprehensible to the general public has set me to thinking about opportunity.  The grades, after all, purport to rank and rate our state’s school districts according to their success or failure in serving all children. School district grades and ratings, however, are almost entirely abstract.  Experience is categorized, assigned numbers that become factors in algorithms, and described as a letter grade for each of a number of categories.

Consider instead what Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA education professor, says about opportunity: “(I)’m interested… in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind.  The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it.”  (Why School? p. 34) “(T)he creation of opportunity involves a good deal of thoughtful work on the part of the provider, and as well, demands significant effort on the part of the recipient… In this regard, I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation.  But what is the experience of opportunity?  Certainly one feels a sense of possibility, of hope. But it is hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal.  And all this takes place with people who interact with you in ways that affirm your hope.” (Why School? pp. 13-14)

By contrast, the Plain Dealer covers last Friday’s release of school district grades and rankings in the most abstract way—totally removed from any attention to the “experience” of attending school.  The newspaper covers the ratings almost as a sports competition—listing the top 20 school districts in Northeast Ohio and the top 20 school districts in the state.  All of them across the state are exurban, high income, and homogeneously white. They include the wealthiest outer ring suburbs of Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Lorain, Akron, and Youngstown.

Decades’ of research confirm that test scores primarily reflect the aggregate family wealth of a school district’s student population. When the preliminary scores from last spring’s Ohio tests were released in December (Final scores ratings just released last week are from last spring’s testing.), here is how, the Plain Dealer described research from Howard Fleeter, a Columbus school data analyst who has continued to examine the direct correlation of family wealth in Ohio’s communities with the letter  grades the state is assigning to its school districts:  “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase….  Ohio may have changed academic standards and its state tests last school year, but the recurring relationship between test scores and poverty remains the same…. Fleeter has reported the relationship between test scores and family income on an annual basis the last several years…. He repeated that analysis this week using preliminary test scores from the spring on Ohio’s new math, English, science and social studies tests…. As he does each year, Fleeter compared the percentage of students scoring ‘proficient’ or better on state tests in each school district to the percentage of students considered ‘Economically Disadvantaged’….”

Of course there are social and demographic implications when the state assigns letter grades to school districts and the newspaper covers all this as a competition and identifies “top” districts. Describing the danger of using school district test score grades as a guide to evaluating school districts, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein told the Cleveland City Club last February: “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.”

There are a number of categories in which Ohio’s school districts recently received grades—including one that is little discussed and seems more promising—“Value Added.”  But one indicator, based primarily on cut scores on standardized tests, is more important.  According to the website of the Ohio Department of Education, “The Indicators Met measure shows how many students have a minimum, or proficient, level of knowledge. These indicators are not new to Ohio students or teachers. They are based on a series of up to 35 state tests that measure the percent of students proficient or higher in a grade and subject…. The number of indicators “met” out of the total indicators determines the A-F grade on the report card.”

This year the “Indicators Met” category has more than the usual “F” grades because Ohio used a new PARCC test, which the legislature has now decided to abandon and find a new testing company.  Students’ scores dropped statewide.   Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s education reporter, notes that, “Six times fewer Ohio school districts received the top grade in a key measure on the new state report cards than last year…”  In a press release, State Representative Teresa Fedor warns, “Every grade on these report cards is tainted by unverified, arbitrary, poorly designed and implemented tests that have been thrown out by the Ohio legislature.  The flaws are so pervasive that the grades on the Ohio School Report Cards should not be counted for anything.  The state calls it a safe harbor (The state says it will not penalize school districts this year.), which should lead one to question: why are there report cards at all?”   And A.J. Wagner, a member of the state school board, warns: “The tests, and therefore the grades, violate standards of fairness… I urge students, parents, and communities to ignore them.”

Coincidentally, on Saturday, the Plain Dealer published an article that speaks not to the abstract and questionable school district grades but instead to an issue Mike Rose would likely agree is more closely connected to how students across Ohio experience opportunity: “Ohio high school students pay as much as $1,200 to participate in a school-sponsored sport, which critics say prevents students from lower-and middle-class families from signing up. School districts say they need to charge fees to offset growing costs outpacing state funding.”  The legislature is considering prohibiting the fees.

The school district in which I reside serves a high percentage of very poor students and a high percentage of students in the Cuyahoga County foster care system.  It posts a low state grade on “Indicators Met,” and a very high grade in the lesser described state report card category of “Value Added.” And, contrary to the trend by which Ohio school districts are increasing activity participation fees, our school district has paid careful attention to the distribution of opportunity by avoiding what the Plain Dealer on Saturday called “pay-to-play” fees that would prevent our poorest students from playing sports or participating in music programming.

Our family chose to educate our children in a very diverse, mixed-income school district where they would benefit from a heterogeneous group of peers, but in which the school district worked to ensure opportunity for all.  It was this experience we sought for our children who are now adults. I know many families whose children are currently enrolled who are pleased with our school district, whatever the state’s school district grades may say. Of course, in a very unequal society, it is important that all districts work persistently to make the experience of schooling more equitable.  But the state’s rating system doesn’t help in any way I can see.

Opportunity, according to Mike Rose, is “hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal.”  The school district grades and rankings tell us nothing about how school districts are expanding concrete pathways for children to experience opportunity.  Pay-to-play fees are just one way that some school districts are blocking those pathways.

Stop Blaming Public Schools for Jobless Economy

In recent weeks Fortune Magazine in Business Gets Schooled and the NY Times in The Counterfeit High School Diploma blamed public schools for turning out workers ill-equipped for today’s jobs.  Both articles allege that public school failure is causing our nation’s economic problems and the loss of our edge in the global marketplace. This is, of course, an old story, but according to economists, this story line may not describe our economic reality at all.

Robert Kuttner explains in a detailed and very readable piece, “The New Inequality Debate,” in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect, that although the consensus among economists used to be that economic inequality derives from a skills gap—between what employers need and job seekers present—the problem is instead about power on all kinds of levels—the power of employers over workers in these days of weakened unions—the power of wealth influencing the political system and so on.

Kuttner describes recent work by the British economist Anthony Atkinson and a new, more popular book by Robert Reich, who describes, “all the ways that political power by economic elites rigs the rules of how markets work—in favor not of efficiency, but of the rich and the powerful—increasing both inefficiency and inequality.  With increased market power comes increased concentration of wealth, and still more concentration of both political and economic power.”  Kuttner describes a growing consensus that includes not only Atkinson and Reich, but also prominent economists who have examined the waning power of unions—Larry Mishel at the Economic Policy Institute, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Pikkety, and now even Robert Solow, Jason Furman, Peter Orzag, and others.

Michelle Chen of The Nation counters the NY Times editorial that deplores the quality of today’s high school diploma with a report on the work of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which has tracked trends in the labor market for years. Chen summarizes EPI’s conclusions: “(H)istorical trend lines suggest that skills required in high school curricula today might often exceed those the job market demands—linked in part to the so-called ‘deskilling’ of certain conventional trades, which some economists argue is pushing highly trained workers ‘down the occupational ladder’ (read: baristas with BA’s).  If there is a gap in qualifications, it seems to center on overqualified workers who can’t find positions commensurate with their credentials. (By the way, the same research reveals steadily rising portions of high schoolers taking Algebra II, along with calculus, chemistry and physics—so maybe it’s not the school system lacking rigor, but the labor market).”

Chen explains that EPI “reverses the blame equation for young graduates by tracking barriers to secure employment that can’t be explained away by variations in academic rigor.  “(L)ong-term unemployment has consistently afflicted workers at all education levels, undercutting the notion that some magical pool of jobs is waiting to be claimed by those with just the right skill sets…  The perceived diploma crisis parallels the slippery rhetoric around the so-called ‘STEM crisis,’ which corporate giants have portrayed as a systemic lack of qualified graduates to fill scientific and technical positions.  Yet empirical analyses of STEM field job markets reveal distinctly little evidence of a widespread, systemic lack of graduates across STEM fields. Perhaps an immediate ‘shortage’ of software engineers might appear alongside a glut of chemistry PhDs, and plenty of science majors work outside their field. That could reflect graduates taking divergent paths to seek coveted good-paying jobs.  It certainly doesn’t mean science and tech are not important educational fields to develop.  But these patterns do not point to a structural educational crisis.”

Here is what Larry Mishel and Richard Rothstein posted last spring on the website of EPI: “It is especially telling that wages of college graduates, not just those of non-college educated workers, have been flat for a decade, and that young college graduates have been faring poorly, even prior to the 2008 recession.  According to a recent report of the New York Federal Reserve Board, the percentage of recent college graduates, ‘who are unemployed or under employed—working in a job that typically does not require a bachelor’s degree—has risen particularly since the 2001 recession.  Moreover, the quality of the jobs held by the underemployed has declined, with today’s recent graduates increasingly accepting low-wage jobs or working part time.’  In other words, skills gaps are responsible for neither our unemployment problems nor our wage problems.”

Chen sums up the mistake in our indictment of the public schools: “So before we blame schools—again—for ‘dumbing down’ standards, consider other deficits that high school graduates face in today’s economy: massive income inequality and stagnant wages, chronic financial crisis amid unsustainable housing costs and suffocating debts.  And youth are graduating to a bleak gap in the quality of work, with a rise since the recession in relatively low-paying jobs without benefits.”

This blog commented on Fortune‘s Business Gets Schooled and on the NY TimesThe Counterfeit High School Diploma.

Zuckerbergs’ New Philanthropy Promotes Charity over Justice

In Fire in the Ashes, a reflection on twenty-five years’ of writing about the challenges for families and schools in very poor communities, Jonathan Kozol considers the difference between charity and justice: “(C)harity has never been a substitute, not in any amplitude, for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education… (T)he public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give every child the feast of learning…. Charity and chance… are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” (p. 204)

Public education serves more than 50 million children in cities, towns, suburbs, and rural areas across the United States.  Public schools are the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent.  But these days, the policy that shapes our public schools is being increasingly driven by the focused investment of the wealthy philanthropists in the One Percent. Charity—by which wealthy donors choose their favorite worthy causes— has driven hedge fund money to Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies in New York City, invested Gates Foundation money in Hillsborough County, Florida to experiment with merit pay for teachers based on econometric measures, and resulted in Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to charterize a large number of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

Charity can be disruptive and experimental—try something new, see whether it works.  By its very definition, justice must be systemic, and it must embody the principles of adequate investment, equitable distribution of resources and opportunity, and stability.  Justice in the way we educate children across America can be achieved only if the institutions and laws of our society are framed to distribute distribute opportunity for all, not just for some who are especially “deserving” or whose parents know how to play the school choice game.  Public schools have historically shown themselves to be the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to have a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.

What brings all this to mind this week is the establishment of a new mega-philanthropy by Mark Zuckerberg along with a new report from The Institute for Policy Studies, Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400… and The Rest of Us.  Here are some of that report’s findings: “America’s 20 wealthiest people—a group that could fit comfortably in one single Gulfstream G650 luxury jet—now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people in 57 million households.  The Forbes 400 now own about as much wealth as the nation’s entire African American population—plus more than a third of the Latino population—combined.  The median American family has a net worth of $81,000.  The Forbes 400 own more wealth than 36 million of these typical American Families.”

The report’s authors, Huck Collins and Josh Hoxie, emphasize the shocking economic divide by race and ethnicity: “As of October 2015, the homeownership rate for white Americans stands at 71.9 percent.  By contrast, only 42.4 percent of African Americans own their own homes and only 46.1 percent of Latinos.  Ownership of corporate stocks, a valuable store and generator of wealth over time, appears even more skewed, with 55 percent of white households owning at least some stocks, but only 28 percent of African Americans and 17 percent of Latinos.” “An even more striking statistic: The wealthiest 100 members of the Forbes list alone own about as much wealth as the entire African American population of 42 million people.”

The authors explain some of the ways our society’s growing inequality matters: “According to research across several academic disciplines, extreme inequalities of income, wealth and opportunity undermine democracy, social cohesion, economic stability, (and) social mobility…. Extreme inequality corrodes our democratic system and public trust.  It leads to a breakdown in civic cohesion and social solidarity…. Too much inequality disenfranchises us, diminishing our vote at the ballot box and our voice in the public square.  Wealthy donors dominate our campaign finance and lawmaking systems….”

The authors list members of the Forbes Top 20, several of whom have been deeply involved in driving public policy in education—Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg and four different members of the Walton family.  Mark Zuckerberg stands out as this month’s example, because on December 1, after the birth of his first child, he set up what is described as a “limited liability corporation” as a way to distribute a mass of his fortune to charity during his own lifetime. Josh Hoxie describes how Zuckerberg’s new philanthropy will work:  “The Internal Revenue Code defines various kinds of tax exempt charitable entities and sets standards for their governance.  For example, all the tax returns of non-profits and charities are public and online.  If they make grants to other entities, those grants are reportable.  Directors’ names are disclosed and any hint of self-dealing or conflict of interest is a matter of record”  By contrast: “The records of an L.L.C. are completely private… Then there is the matter of lobbying and campaign contributions.  The L.L.C. can do both,” but “a regulated non-profit cannot enter the political realm without limits…  It looks like a vehicle for the Zuckerbergs to use as a plaything—to invest through and to promote their ideas—without having to sell their Facebook shares and pay tax.”

Notice that in their letter to their new daughter—in which they explain the establishment of their new L.L.C. as a “gift” in honor of her birth, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife profess a commitment to the common good, but at the same time, they reserve the right to define what’s good for the public: “Technological progress in every field means your life should be dramatically better than ours today.  We will do our part to make this happen, not only because we love you but also because we have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation.  We believe all lives have equal value, and that includes the many more people who will live in future generations than live today.  Our society has an obligation to invest now to improve the lives of all those coming into this world…. But right now, we don’t always collectively direct our resources at the biggest opportunities and problems your generation will face.”

Surely we must give the Zuckerbergs credit for their generosity, but there is something else happening here. According to the Zuckerbergs, all people have equal value. But there is also the assumption that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife have so much value they can define what’s best for the rest of us.  This is, of course, the classic definition of charity.  And the Zuckerbergs explain what they will be promoting as far as their L.L.C.’s investments in education: “(S)tudents around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the internet, even if they don’t live near good schools.  Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity.  We’re starting to build this technology now, and the results are already promising.”

In their report for the Institute of Policy Studies, Huck Collins and Josh Hoxie advocate for a very different idea about how the wealth of the Forbes 400 can be used by our society to create a promising future.  For those of us who may have forgotten what we learned in Civics Class, they explain the role of progressive taxation. Merely changing the current income tax rates for the highest earners, they write, would help society, reduce inequality, and  “have a negligible personal and economic impact on those households.” Congress could also tax capital gains as ordinary income and close one other loophole:  “One small yet particularly nefarious loophole in the capital gains tax gives hedge fund managers the ability to pay taxes on their income at the capital gains rate.”

Taxes empower the public while philanthropic investments empower individuals who can collect their non-taxed profits in foundations and L.L.C.s which they can personally guide and control.

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, describes the difference between public and private power: “Philanthropy is a form of private capital aimed at achieving public outcomes, but it cannot substitute for public resources and public will…. First a privatizing ideology rationalizes restricting public goods and public assets of the kind that might allow the public as a whole to rescue from their distress their fellow citizens who are in jeopardy; then the same privatizing ideology celebrates the wealthy philanthropists made possible by the market’s inequalities who earnestly step in to spend some fragment of their market fortunes to do what the public can no longer do for itself.  Better philanthropy than nothing, but far better than philanthropy is a democratic public capable of taking care of itself with its own pooled resources and its own prudent planning.  The private philanthropist does for others in the larger public what they have not been enabled to do for themselves as a public; democracy on the other hand, empowers the public to take care of itself.” (Consumed, p 131)

Segregation, Inequality, Concentrated Poverty: How We Got Here

Last fall, after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, published The Making of Ferguson in the American Prospect.  Now after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore, Rothstein has posted a new summary of government policies that have, over the past century, created tragic conditions in America’s big cities, the kind of conditions that lead to rioting as an expression of widespread anger and despair.

In From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation, Rothstein writes, “Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on.  These are all good, necessary, and important things to do.  But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.”

Rothstein quotes from the report of the 1968 Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to explore the deeper causes of rioting that arose from protests, again in the context of police brutality.  The Kerner Commission concluded that, “what white Americans have never fully understood—but what the negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.  White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”  Rothstein, however, is more specific, attributing the concentrated poverty, segregation and inequality apparent across America’s big cities to government policies, not an accidental convergence of private choices.  The fact that such policies have been systemic is why we are seeing angry protests and rioting in so many places.  “When the Kerner Commission blamed ‘white society’ and ‘white institutions,’ it employed euphemisms to avoid naming the culprits everyone knew at the time.  It was not a vague white society that created ghettos but government—federal, state, and local—that employed explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations to ensure that black Americans would live impoverished and separately from whites.  Baltimore’s ghetto was not created by private discrimination, income differences, personal preferences, or demographic trends, but by purposeful action of government in violation of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments.  These constitutional violations have never been remedied, and we are paying the price in the violence we saw this week.”

In his examination of Baltimore, Rothstein cites formal policies going back to 1910, policies that have included building and health regulations combined with government sanctioned policies of real estate companies, the adoption of restrictive protective covenants that specified who could not purchase homes in particular neighborhoods, the barring of African Americans from qualification for Federal Housing Administration loans, insurance redlining practices, the implications of punitive contract home sales for African Americans, and most recently the targeting of African American buyers by those marketing subprime loans, a practice that has led to much higher rates of foreclosures in black neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore and Cleveland.  For all these reasons that have made it harder for blacks to purchase homes—the primary asset by which families build long term equity—Rothstein reports that today “black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth.”

So what does all this have to do with public education, the subject of this blog?  Just this week Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren released a study (not yet published at a site which can be linked) that re-analyzed older data that had seemed to show that moving away from segregated and highly impoverished neighborhoods did not make a difference for children’s life chances.  The new report documents—in dry academic language—that the places children grow up deeply affect their lifetime prospects and that if their families can move away from deeply impacted communities, children do better, especially if they move away when they are young.  “Overall, these results suggest that neighborhoods matter for children’s long-term outcomes and suggest that at least half of the variance in observed intergenerational mobility across areas is due to the causal effect of place.” “Urban areas, particularly those with substantial concentrated poverty, typically generate much worse outcomes for children than suburbs and rural areas…. We also find that areas with a larger African-American population tend to have lower rates of upward mobility.  These spatial differences amply racial inequality across generations….”

While we like to think that the Civil Rights Movement addressed our racial inequalities by eliminating de jure segregation across the South, Thomas Sugrue, the historian from the University of Pennsylvania, has explored what racial injustice looks like in today’s America:  “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States were in the Northeast and Midwest.  A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools.  The five states with the highest rates of school segregation—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California—are all outside the South.  Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third World levels among African Americans in nearly every major northern city, where the faces in welfare offices, unemployment lines, homeless shelters, and jails are disproportionately black.” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. xix) “The stark disparities between blacks and whites by every measure—economic attainment, health, education, and employment—are the results.  The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference.  It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined….” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. 540)

When he spoke at the Cleveland City Club in February, Richard Rothstein explained one of the new ways the segregation of institutions is being perpetuated these days—again by state governments, this time copying Jeb Bush’s Florida system of assigning letter grades for schools and school districts,  grades of ‘A’ through ‘F.’  The fact that the state school ratings track all the issues described by Rothstein, Chetty and Hendren, and Sugrue is never named.  The grades are said to describe the quality of the schools, but the conditions faced by the children and the teachers are overlooked. Here is what Rothstein told the Cleveland audience:  “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’…. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than ‘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.”

Atlanta Sentencing Trial: Whose Truth Is Really the Truth?

Yesterday, I watched live TV coverage of the final sentencing hearing in the Atlanta test cheating scandal. The Atlanta Journal Constitution describes yesterday’s sentencing of the educators who were convicted earlier this month on racketeering charges under a Georgia RICO statute: “Three former top administrators were given the maximum 20-year sentence Tuesday, with seven years to be served in prison and 13 on probation, and fines of $25,000 to be paid by each…  Lower-ranking educators—those who were principals, teachers and testing coordinators—received sentences of up to five years with at least one-year in prison and hefty fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.  All the defendants were granted first-offender status, meaning their record would be wiped clean after they served their time.”  Two of the educators accepted a plea deal at sentencing; they admitted guilt, received long probation and gave up their right to appeal.

What was clear to me as I listened to the judge, the defense attorneys, and one of the defendants who spoke eloquently is that the truth is more complicated than the facts that are supposedly exposed in a trial.

The judge demanded again and again and again that the defendants admit their culpability and fess up to the way they had harmed the children of Atlanta by changing the answers on the testing forms.  Judge Jerry Baxter clearly believes that if children score poorly on standardized tests, the schools can address their challenges, and catch them up, and raise their scores.  He continued to name the tragedy that too many students who have been graduating from high school cannot read.  In Judge Baxter’s version of what is true, someone who scores low can be remediated, caught up, and made college or career ready.  A teacher’s’ job is to make that happen.  Judge Baxter has internalized the scenario the No Child Left Behind Act is supposed to guarantee.  It is what was supposed to happen in Atlanta and what has been supposed to happen across the country.  We would institute standardized tests, and we would punish teachers and close schools when they didn’t make the students’ scores rise higher and higher.

The reality is that more than a dozen years of standardized testing under No Child Left Behind have made little difference.  Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not significantly budged.  Achievement gaps by race have not closed, and economic achievement gaps have widened.

But there was another reality present in the Atlanta courtroom.  One defendant spoke on his own behalf to ask for mercy.  His truth is very different than Judge Baxter’s.  He said he worked as an administrator in very poor schools in Memphis before he came to Atlanta.  In both cities some of the schools he oversaw were chaotic.  Some staff members were overwhelmed and performing poorly.  He worked to support the people working under him and to expect much from the teachers and principals for whom he felt responsible.  He believes the schools improved because of his hard work.  Other character witnesses spoke of school teachers and administrators who fed hungry children and helped students by providing clean clothes and even helping children with personal grooming so they wouldn’t have to be embarrassed. The educators being tried in Atlanta understand the realities for too many children in the schools of America’s big city ghettos, schools where our society segregates our poorest and most vulnerable children in places where everybody is poor.

Our test-and-punish education philosophy says that it’s the teacher’s fault when scores in very poor schools are low.  Others have pointed out that there is something about concentrated poverty that undermines the situation for children and teachers alike. Here are short statements from just three of the experts:

Gary Orfield: “The law raises the pressure for schools, by themselves, to produce equal outcomes while other social policies bearing on the lives of poor children have been cut back.  The dominant rhetoric has ignored the reality—reflected in countless studies over the past four decades—that poverty, low parent education, poor health, and inferior segregated schools all contribute powerfully to unequal outcomes, and that those conditions can only partially be addressed inside the schools.” (“Forward” to Why High Stakes Accountability Sounds Good but Doesn’t Work—And Why We Keep on Doing It Anyway)

Mike Rose and Michael B. Katz: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (Public Education Under Siege, p. 228)

Robert Putnam: “Do K-12 schools make the opportunity gap better or make it worse?  The answer is this: the gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them.  The American public school today is a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids.” (Our Kids, p. 182)

It seemed to me yesterday that what I was hearing in that courtroom was, on the one hand, the judge’s truth: the myth that testing will improve children’s achievement, and on the other, the educators’ truth—their grasp of the struggles they and their students face day-after-day in their schools.

The conversation in Congress this week—the markup of the new bipartisan bill that has been proposed in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, the law that set in motion test-and-punish school reform—is really about the same thing.  A lot of the discussion is about the validity of testing and what test scores should be used for.

There is a lot of of talk, much of it rhetoric at all levels, and a lot of misunderstanding—in Congress—in the Atlanta courtroom—and in state legislatures where there are threats to cut the taxes that pay for small classes and enough counselors so that teachers have more support.  What  I haven’t heard anyone seriously discussing are the steps our society would need to take to ameliorate family poverty and to address what is a rapidly growing trend for America’s children to be educated either in wealthy enclaves in the far suburbs or in what are now the tragically underfunded schools that serve the children in our urban ghettos.  Two societies—separate and unequal—with fewer children all the time in middle class schools.

We can send teachers to jail for cheating when it is demanded that they provide a quick fix for our society’s greatest tragedy, but that isn’t going to help the children in Atlanta’s poverty schools or the children in any other poor city.

As I watched the courtroom proceedings yesterday, I thought about the words of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin: “One of the attributes of power is that it gives those who have it the ability to define reality and the power to make others believe in their definition.”  (CREDO, p.60) Or at least the power to make others accept their definition.  As a society we need to do considerable soul searching.

Detroit Community Alliance Releases Scathing Report on Detroit Public Schools Disaster

Detroit has been under state takeover for fifteen years, and at the same time Detroit has been a test case for unregulated portfolio school reform with a large for-profit charter sector. School achievement hovers at the lowest level in the nation as measured by test scores.  On Monday night a new Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren released a scathing report on the condition of the city’s schools including a set of urgent recommendations the coalition believes will help Detroit get the situation under control.

Although the Coalition’s report does not suggest how the community can negotiate a path through the politics of a powerful and very conservative philanthropic and advocacy sector including the extreme-right Dick and Betsy DeVos (Americans for Prosperity) and the ultra-conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative Republican governor and Michigan legislature, and a politically influential for-profit charter sector, community leaders in Detroit—including philanthropies, civic organizations, religious leaders, state legislators, teachers and school principals, charter school leaders, and the business community—must be commended for putting together an incisive analysis of what has gone wrong.  The report’s authors seem to have few illusions about the difficulties they will face to get their recommendations implemented: “The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren has laid out a comprehensive plan to make quality schools the new norm for Detroit families. Completed in a little over three months, it’s a first step on the long road back to excellence.”

Here is how the report’s authors describe Detroit’s realities: “Fifteen years after the state took over our school system, three years after the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) took control of the city’s lowest-performing schools, academic achievement remains tragically low, by far the worst of any big city in the country.”  Detroit is part of a network of Portfolio School Districts that combine traditional public and charter schools, and the authors do not propose to eliminate the city’s charter sector, while they do insist that it be regulated and that services be coordinated across the district’s traditional public and charter schools.

As the report declares: “No other city in the country has a system of schools quite like that of Detroit.  It is hardly a system but instead an uncoordinated hodgepodge of schools that are not educating Detroit’s schoolchildren well.”  “Detroit’s 119,658 students attend hundreds of different schools, which are run by 14 different entities (authorizers and districts).  These numbers don’t even take into account the many suburban schools that enroll mostly Detroit students.”   According to the report, 25,816 Detroit students attend suburban schools through an inter-district choice plan by which students carry their $7,246 in state aid with them from Detroit to surrounding school districts.  Such an arrangement advantages suburban districts which are also hemorrhaging enrollment in a region that is losing overall population.  In Detroit’s schools services are fragmented, and as the report declares: “There is no coherence or stability… no efficiency… no local responsibility or accountability.”

The report devotes a section to the devastating financial challenges for the Detroit Public Schools (DPS).  “DPS pays $53 million a year on debt service for its operating budget. That’s $1,120 per student before any instruction occurs.”  Since 2002, the number of school-aged children in Detroit has declined from 196,638 to 119,658 in 2013, a drop of 40 percent.  At the same time a publicly funded charter sector has grown explosively, the district has been struggling to downsize its operations including the need to accommodate children across the residential neighborhoods of a geographically large school district. Family poverty has increased:  “Overwhelmingly the population loss came from the middle-and higher-income segments of the city, leaving the schools with a higher percentage of students in poverty, many of whom are identified to have special needs.”  Transportation to and from school is overwhelming for many families: “Currently there is no mechanism for all schools (DPA, EAA, and public charters) to financially support an equitable and practical transportation system.”  “Given the amount of choice occurring and the absence of high-quality neighborhood schools, transportation is a major barrier.  The average Detroit student commutes 3.4 miles each way to and from school.  Ten percent travel more than 6.7 miles each way.  More than 75 percent of students rely on walking, city buses, or cars to get to school.  But the bus system is sometimes unreliable, 25 percent of Detroit families do not have cars, and walking is not an option when schools are so far from home.”

The report emphasizes that school choice must be brought under control and the public schools stabilized and improved to staunch the rapid loss of students to suburban school choice and unregulated charters.  The mechanisms of an unregulated education marketplace have turned Detroit Public Schools into a school district of last resort for the children with the greatest needs and the least capacity to escape through school choice: “DPS is educating a disproportionate share of special education students, partly because individual public charter schools do not have the capacity to accommodate these students’ needs. Going forward, a task force should determine whether Wayne RESA or another entity should provide citywide coordination and consolidation of special education and bilingual services across all schools in Detroit (DPS and public charter schools).  Services must give equal access, offer an equitable funding model, and be provided at the neighborhood level when possible.”

The report recommends substantial and far-reaching overall reforms:

  • Return governance of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) to an elected school board.  DPS should transition from emergency management….
  • “Charter authorizers and charter school boards should improve transparency, focus more on quality, and better coordinate all charter schools.  We also believe that changes to state law or local practice must be made to ensure that charters schools adopt best practices for charter authorizing….
  • “The state should assume the DPS debt…  Create a new nonpartisan entity, the Detroit Education Commission (DEC), to coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions in partnership with Regional Councils to incorporate neighborhood-level input
  • “Establish advisory School Leadership Teams that include parents, staff, and students so that all schools create a culture of shared responsibility.
  • “Empower and fund the State School Reform Office (SSRO) and State School Reform District (SSRD).  The SSRO/SSRD should inherit the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) (the state’s takeover agency for struggling schools) central administration and execute its responsibilities.  The inter-local agreement between the DPS Emergency Manager and Eastern Michigan University should be terminated.  The SSRO should audit and assess EAA schools in Detroit and create a plan to responsibly transition those schools back to DPS….
  • “Create shared systems of data, enrollment, and neighborhood transportation.  These improvements will help solidify school choice in Detroit by making it easier for parents to learn about the quality of their options when enrolling their children.” (emphasis in the original)

Each section of the report includes its own more specific prescriptions to remedy particular problems.  The report’s authors seek to return the school district to local governance including, “local decision-making so that those elected by the people of Detroit set the policies that drive what happens in our schools and are held accountable for results.”  The goal is to ensure, “that those closest to the kids—teachers, staff, principals, and parents—are empowered to make key educational decisions at the school level.” The report seeks, “a coherent system of neighborhood schools with a consistent and transparent set of rules.”  In the section on governance, after advocating rapid transitioning out of state emergency management, the authors recommend  holding charter school authorizers more accountable and creating “a new nonpartisan board/legislative body… to coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions.  Members will be appointed by the mayor of Detroit.”

The report demands, “fair student funding that does not penalize current and future generations of schoolchildren for the past mistakes of the state.”  The authors recommend that the state pay for a study of what it costs in Michigan today to provide adequate services for children in public schools, a costing-out study to be completed by the end of 2015.

Teachers are the heart of the schools, and the report suggests the creation of, “a citywide strategy to recruit, develop, compensate, and retain high-quality teachers, school leaders, and other staff for all schools in Detroit.”  This does not mean destroying the teachers union: “Our coalition recognizes that in fact, unions have been advocates for meaningful, research-based education reform.  Therefore, collective bargaining agreements must be honored… and the right of employees to unionize should not be undercut.”

A community facing desperate conditions in the schools that serve its children has come together to demand that the state phase out top down control, provide adequate funding, and help to establish regulation of an out-of-control charter sector.  The question will be whether Detroit’s leaders can wield enough political power on behalf of  a very poor and disenfranchised population in a state dominated by far right philanthropists and think tanks and influential for-profit charter operators.

A Musical Performance: Collaborative Learning, Authentic Assessment, Opportunity to Learn

Earlier this week my husband and I attended a concert that happens in our school district every four years.  It is sponsored by a small nonprofit organization that promotes equity and opportunity to learn across our school district’s elementary and middle schools and that rents Severance Hall, the gorgeous, art deco home of the Cleveland Orchestra, for these quadrennial concerts to showcase our district’s school music program.  This year the concert happened, ironically, during the first-ever week of Ohio’s PARCC (Common Core) standardized test. But the test our students took on Tuesday night at Severance Hall was different.

Musical performance is the definition of authentic learning and assessment, and the recent concert was a test that our students definitely passed (despite that their performance will not affect our schools’ ratings based on state assessments and the PARCC). To use the lingo of the day, musical performance also perfectly exemplifies collaborative learning.  Elementary singers stayed on pitch and instrumentalists and singers came together from both of our middle schools in an honors chorus and an honors orchestra to perform together as they will in a year or two when they get to high school. The high school concert band sounded great playing a tricky piece with complicated percussion and lots of brass. A high school a capella choir sang a moving  “Shenandoah” with such intricate harmony and sensitive dynamics it made us cry, and then different student conductors led the next two selections.  When the high school symphony played a movement from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, a girl with blue hair played perfect bassoon solos. A recent graduate returned from Morehouse College to accompany a gospel ensemble on the piano and to sing a solo. I attended the dress rehearsal for part of the afternoon, and watched while the high school symphony and a huge choir prepared selections by John Rutter and Beethoven—adjusting the dynamics again and again in the huge and unfamiliar concert hall to ensure that the oboe was audible in one section and the orchestra didn’t overwhelm the choir in another. A jazz combo played for a pre-concert reception, men’s barbershoppers sang on stage, a harpist played a Beatles tune in the ticket lobby, and a mass choir with pit orchestra opened with a show tune by Frank Loesser.

Contrast all this with today’s dominant myth about education, described by NY Times columnist Paul Krugman in a column in last Monday’s paper.  Krugman describes what can be called “the world is flat” myth, which casts our nation’s economic future amidst a vast competition in a connected techie world.  This story alleges that the nation’s economic growth—and hence our future—is being imperiled by our public education system, which is mediocre at best.   Krugman explains: “The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change.  This ‘skills gap’ is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated.  So what we need is more and better education.”  Krugman, a Nobel prize-winning economist as well as a NY Times columnist, rejects this myth: “There’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers…  Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.”

Krugman tells us that corporate profits continue to soar, but something besides education is preventing widespread well being and feeding the rapid growth of inequality:  “As for wages and salaries, never mind college degrees—all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance.  Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power.”  Krugman suggests some solutions for improving the economy: “Levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families.  We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize.”

Interestingly, last Monday the NT Times printed a sort of double whammy with an op ed piece on the same theme as Krugman’s column, an op ed from Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.  Mishel rejects tax cuts as any kind of solution to the problem of inequality: “What has hurt workers’ paychecks is not what the government takes out, but what their employers no longer put in—a dynamic that tax cuts cannot eliminate… Taxation does not explain why middle-income families are having a harder time making ends meet, even as they increase their education and become ever more productive.”  In fact tax cuts are counter-productive because they collapse society’s capacity to respond to rising inequality.  Mishel’s prescription is similar to Krugman’s: raise the minimum wage; protect workers’ right to unionize and bargain collectively, and keep people on salary instead of turning work over to so-called independent contractors. “Because wage stagnation was caused by policy, it can be reversed by policy, too.”

Narrowing inequality, as Krugman and Mishel tell us, cannot be accomplished merely by improving education,  It will instead require policies that support the people who do the work, not merely the titans who manipulate high finance. But educating our children remains absolutely central to who we are as a people.  Think about that concert earlier this week. What made the evening of music especially important is that the concert presented a public school music program in a school district where the children are not affluent. Sixty percent of the students in our school district qualify for free lunch; they are not the children of the powerful financiers Paul Krugman describes. Enriching their skills to make and enjoy music and their opportunity to collaborate in the creation of something beautiful is our gift to them from the public. Public schools can’t get rid of inequality, but they are one way that our society can expand opportunity for our children.

Education Funding Equity: A Technocratic Justification vs. Jonathan Kozol’s Rationale

In a memorable keynote address fifteen years ago I heard Jonathan Kozol declare, “People say that spending money on education is just throwing money at the problem. We ought to try that. It might work.”

Certainly investing in public school equity and improvement has not been the trend in recent years.  About ten years ago, New York set up a new school funding formula to send more money to poorer school districts to remedy the lawsuit in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, but when the Great Recession hit, New York’s general assembly stopped funding the plan it had created.  At about the same time the legislature of Pennsylvania created a formula for the purpose of equalizing school funding, but in came Governor Tom Corbett who cut a billion dollars out of the state’s education budget, and the new formula died.  Kansas has radically cut taxes and slashed education funding accordingly; it is mired in a lawsuit to try to force the state to fund education.  And last Friday the state supreme court in Texas agreed to hear an appeal of what the Associated Press calls “the gargantuan school finance ruling” that found “the way the state pays for public schools is unconstitutional, saying funding levels are inadequate and are unfairly distributed around the state.”

For extremely sensible advice on public policy around budgets and expenditures, I recommend the reports from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which last October released a paper on climbing investment in prisons across the states and an accompanying drop in state allocations for public education.  “Even as states spend more on corrections, they are underinvesting in educating children and young adults, especially those in high-poverty neighborhoods.  At least 30 states are providing less general funding per student this year for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation; in 14 states the reduction exceeds 10 percent.  Higher education cuts have been even deeper: the average state has cut higher education funding per student by 23 percent since the recession hit, after adjusting for inflation.  Eleven states spent more of their general funds on corrections than higher education in 2013.  And some of the states with the biggest education cuts in recent years also have among the nation’s highest incarceration rates. This is not sound policy.”

Noting that while crime has dropped overall, the share of offenders arrested who are subsequently sent to prison has dramatically risen at the same time the length of stay in prison for each offender has also risen, the report suggests, “If states were still spending the same amount on corrections as they did in the mid-1980s, adjusted for inflation, they would have about $28 billion more available each year for education and other productive investments.”

As for spending priorities for education, “Unfortunately, a number of states provide less funding for high-poverty schools than for low-poverty schools, while some others provide about the same funding to high-and low-poverty districts.  As of 2011, only 14 states provided at least 5 percent more funding per student for high-poverty districts than low-poverty districts. Further, many states provide inadequate funding for schools overall… None of the states with the ten highest incarceration rates ranked in the top half of states for school funding per student in 2011.”

Surely it would seem that in a compassionate and just society—a society whose citizens believe in equality, fairness, and the American Dream—these numbers would be an adequate motivator for reform.  But in case a commitment to the common good isn’t enough to motivate us these days, there is a new opinion piece by Noah Smith for Bloomberg View—a sort of plutocrats’ justification for public school spending, Throw More Money at Education.

Smith references a longitudinal economic paper, just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, that justifies school funding by demonstrating a correlation with children’s future earnings.  The paper comes from economists C. Kirabo Jackson, Ricker Johnson and Claudia Persico. “The economists find that spending works.  Specifically, they find that a 10 percent increase in spending, on average, leads children to complete 0.27 more years of school, to make wages that are 7.25 percent higher, and to have a substantially reduced chance of falling into poverty.  These are long-term, durable results.  Conclusion: throwing money at the problem works.  Here’s the hitch: The authors find that the benefits of increased spending are much stronger for poor kids than for wealthier ones. So if you, like me, are in the upper portion of the U.S. income distribution, you may be reading this and thinking: ‘Why should I be paying more for some poor kid to be educated?’ After all, why should one person pay the cost while another reaps the benefits?”

To convince such a skeptic, Smith counts the ways increasing spending might be worth the investment: “When poor Americans become better workers, it doesn’t just boost their wages.  It also boosts the profitability of the companies where they work.”  “The more industries can use U.S. workers instead of Chinese workers, the more industries will base their production in the U.S.”  “If you own a business, you might need to hire some low-income people.”

Later in his piece, Smith adds some non-business benefits to his list.  “Having more educated poor people makes for a better civil society… It might also be nice not to have to live behind the isolating walls of a gated community. One way to reduce crime, of course, is to pay for more police and increase incarceration rates.  But another way is to improve education.” “At the risk of sounding grandiose, let me go even further: Education is really the difference between a cohesive society and a collection of people who happen to live next to each other.”

Ah… we learn that Noah Smith and Jonathan Kozol really agree, but Smith imagines that Kozol’s old-fashioned approach—preaching ethical public policy—is too dated for a technocratic, efficient America.

In case you are moved by the old fashioned way of presenting the case, here is what Jonathan Kozol writes: “In paying taxes for the sustenance of public schools, we’re not just buying something for ourselves. We’re buying something for the benefit of the community in which we live, and for the state and, ultimately, for the nation. In other words… with all the serious challenges they face and all of the inequities they bear… (public schools are) instruments of an intended decency—a decency that is, admittedly, not realized now in many sectors of the public system as it stands, but one that generations of Americans have ardently believed, and most believe today, to be worth striving for.” (2007, Letters to a Young Teacher, p. 147)