We’ll Have to Reduce Test-and-Punish. Talking about Social Emotional Learning Isn’t Enough

Silly me!  I didn’t realize until a couple of weeks ago that SEL is a thing.  SEL is a new term in educational circles: Social Emotional Learning.  I heard Linda Darling-Hammond—Stanford University emeritus professor, CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, and chair of an Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development—present the work of the commission, and then I started reading more about Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

It would appear that many of the educational academics promoting SEL are doing so as an effort to shift our schools’ focus away from the incessant drilling on basic language arts and math that has been driven by the high-stakes testing embedded in the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  NCLB and Race to the Top, that compounded NCLB’s punitive grasp on our public schools, have created fear-driven pressure to raise scores at any cost. The stakes are high: Schools have been closed or charterized, teachers fired or their salaries cut, and school districts trapped in state takeover.  And worse—in terms of the social and emotional health of children—students whose reading scores are too low at the end of third grade have been retained in grade for an extra remedial year.

The Learning Policy Institute has been intent about trying to help state education departments take advantage of the way the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) tweaks accountability.  ESSA eliminates direct federal punishments for low test scores by turning accountability over to states, but it says states must have their own plans to hold public schools accountable.  Beyond the required reporting of test scores and graduation rates, states can now add new factors, as long as the new factors are research-based. For example, the Learning Policy Institute has been explaining how research backs up the establishment of wraparound Community Schools.  Its publications have shown states how to demonstrate through research that Community Schools are a worthy of inclusion in states’ dashboards of factors by which schools can be judged and held accountable.

Now, it would appear that Darling-Hammond’s support of Social Emotional Learning, through her leadership on the Aspen SEL Commission, is an attempt to help states position SEL as a factor in their Every Student Succeeds dashboards by which schools can be held accountable.  In Education Week a year ago after Aspen released coverage of its new SEL Commission, Evie Blad reported: “The new federal education law requires schools to report new factors, like chronic absenteeism rates, in their public report cards, and it requires states to broaden how they measure school success.  No state decided to include direct measures of social-emotional learning in its accountability system.  Most cited cautions from researchers who’ve said existing measures are not sophisticated enough to be used for high-stakes purposes.  But mindfulness of students’ emotions, relationships, and development can help schools show improvement in other areas covered by the law, like attendance and achievement commissioners said.”  The Aspen Commission, we should assume, hopes its new report will beef up the research base on SEL.

I suppose it s worth establishing a research base to support education of the whole child if in some way measuring SEL will help states be more humane in evaluating what is being accomplished at school.  However, it is also essential to remember that the Every Student Succeeds Act makes two other factors primary in the states’ ESSA accountability reports: standardized test scores and high school graduation rates.  I wonder if inserting Social Emotional Learning right on top of test-and-punish doesn’t merely represent a contradiction in strategies. And figuring out metrics by which a state can judge how a district is doing at SEL and then holding schools accountable for SEL in the state’s accountability system seems bizarre.

Some of the puzzling language in the Aspen Institute Commission’s report is about showing states and school districts how to measure SEL so that it will count for school accountability: “Develop and use measures to track progress across school and out-of-school settings, with a focus on continuous improvement rather than rewards and sanctions.”  So far the advice seems pretty positive compared to what we’re doing now which is focusing on rewards and sanctions. But the report later vaguely suggests some kind of measurable outcomes: “Use a broader range of assessments and other demonstrations of learning that capture the full gamut of young people’s knowledge and skills… Use data to identify and address gaps in students’ access to the full range of learning opportunities in and out of school.”

Recently in his personal blog, the writer and education professor at UCLA, Mike Rose raised concerns about Social Emotional Learning: “(D)o we need all these studies to demonstrate what any good teacher knows: that the nature and quality of the relationship between teachers and students matter?… More broadly I worry that as we pay needed attention to the full scope of a child’s being, we will inadvertently reinforce the false dichotomy between thought and emotion.”

Rose harks back to a piece he wrote in 2013 in which he worried that, “Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to mean the skills measured by standardized tests of reading and mathematics.  And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they’ve needed quantitative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models….”  Rose worries about dividing education into a “cognitive/non-cognitive binary.”  “The problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned way economists carve up and define mental activity.  If cognition is represented by scores on ability or achievement tests, then anything not captured in those scores—like the desired qualities of character—is, de facto, non-cognitive.  We’re now left with a pinched notion of cognition and a reductive dichotomy to boot.”

For Rose, social and emotional work must be an essential part of every teacher’s daily practice—and something children learn in their experience of schooling. In an excellent 2014 article published by The American Scholar, Rose describes the characteristics of the best classrooms he visited on a journey across the United States to research his fine book, Possible Lives: “For all the variation… the classrooms shared certain qualities… The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration.  But there was also safety from insult and diminishment… And there was safety to take intellectual risks… Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Respect also has a cognitive dimension.  As a New York principal put it, ‘It’s not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to be challenging enough that it’s respectful.’  Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space.  And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed.  Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing.  These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility… (O)verall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

The people who are trying to make Social Emotional Learning part of states’ Every Student Succeeds accountability dashboards undoubtedly have good intentions. They are trying, once again to make normal child development and attention to the needs of the whole child primary goals in America’s public school classrooms.  Unfortunately, however, because standardized test scores and high school graduation rates—both highly measurable data sets—remain at the very center of ESSA’s federal demand for school accountability, Social Emotional Learning will always be on the side.

To improve the social and emotional climate in our schools today, we’ll need do go after what is really the problem—what Harvard’s Daniel Koretz calls “the testing charade.”

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Linda Darling-Hammond Disappoints in Cleveland City Club Address

Linda Darling-Hammond is a national figure in the field of education policy.  She is the President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford University, where she is an emeritus professor of education, and she headed up President Obama’s transition team for education. She is the author of several books including The Flat World and Education, in which she declares: “One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high quality education system for all children.” (p. 164)

Last Friday, Darling-Hammond delivered the weekly address at the Cleveland City Club.  I was disappointed.

Darling-Hammond declared that “we have left No Child Left Behind (NCLB) behind” and implied that its 2015 replacement, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, has erased the punitive philosophy of its NCLB predecessor.  Darling-Hammond then devoted most of her prepared remarks to Ohio’s adoption of one of her own research priorities—social-emotional learning—into the state’s new five-year strategic plan for education.  Darling-Hammond chaired the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which on January 15, 2019 published its final report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.

Of course one cannot blame an academic for focusing a major policy address on her own particular research interest. But I was disappointed nonetheless, because Darling-Hammond’s remarks so completely neglected what I and many others believe are alarming realities today in Ohio public school policy. More broadly she also failed to acknowledge catastrophic school funding shortages brought to national attention by striking school teachers for almost a year now from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona and in the past two weeks in Los Angeles, funding shortages caused by tax cuts and tax freezes and exacerbated when scarce tax dollars are redirected to privatized charter schools and voucher programs. Only after she had finished her prepared remarks and in answer to a question about Ohio’s punitive state school district takeovers, did she briefly comment on the enormous and controversial policies many in the audience hoped she would address.

Despite that Darling-Hammond told us she believes the kind of punitive high-stakes school accountability prescribed by No Child Left Behind is fading, state-imposed sanctions based on aggregate standardized test scores remain the drivers of Ohio public school policy. Here are some of our greatest challenges:

  • Under a Jeb Bush-style Third Grade Guarantee, Ohio still retains third graders for another year of third grade when their reading test scores are too low. This is despite years of academic research demonstrating that retaining children in a grade for an additional year smashes their self esteem and exacerbates the chance they will later drop out of school without graduating.  This policy runs counter to anything resembling social-emotional learning.
  • Even though the federal government has ended the Arne Duncan requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, in Ohio, students’ standardized test scores continue to be used for the formal evaluations of their teachers.  The state has reduced the percentage of weight students’ test scores play in teachers’ formal evaluations, but students’ test scores continue to play a role.
  • Aggregate student test scores remain the basis of the state’s branding and ranking of our public schools and school districts with letter grades—A-F,  with attendant punishments for the schools and school districts that get Fs.
  • When a public school is branded with an F, the students in that so-called “failing” school qualify for an Ed Choice Voucher to be used for private school tuition. And the way Ohio schools are funded ensures that in most cases, local levy money in addition to state basic aid follows that child.
  • Ohio permits charter school sponsors to site privately managed charter schools in so-called “failing” school districts. The number of these privatized schools is expected to rise next year when a safe-harbor period (that followed the introduction of a new Common Core test) ends.  Earlier this month, the Plain Dealer reported: “Next school year, that list of ineffective schools (where students will qualify for Ed Choice Vouchers) balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”
  •  If a school district is rated “F” for three consecutive years, a law pushed through in the middle of the night by former Governor John Kasich and his allies subjects the district to state takeover. The school board is replaced with an appointed Academic Distress Commission which replaces the superintendent with an appointed CEO.  East Cleveland this year will join Youngstown and Lorain, now three years into their state takeovers—without academic improvement in either case.
  • All this punitive policy sits on top of what many Ohioans and their representatives in both political parties agree has become an increasingly inequitable school funding distribution formula. Last August, after he completed a new study of the state’s funding formula, Columbus school finance expert, Howard Fleeter described Ohio’s current method of funding schools to the Columbus Dispatch: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Forty-two minutes into the video of last Friday’s City Club address by Darling-Hammond, when a member of the Ohio State Board of Education, Meryl Johnson asked the speaker to comment on Ohio’s state takeovers of so called “failing” school districts, Darling-Hammond briefly addressed the tragedy of the kind of punitive systems that now dominate Ohio’s public school policy: “We have been criminalizing poverty in a lot of different ways, and that is one of them… There’s about a .9 correlation between the level of poverty and test scores.  So, if the only thing you measure is the absolute test score, then you’re always going to have the high poverty communities at the bottom and then they can be taken over.” But rather than address Ohio’s situation directly, Darling-Hammond continued by describing value-added ratings of schools which she implied could instead be used to measure what the particular school contributes to learning, and then she described the educational practices in other countries she has studied.

In the context of the new report of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which she chaired, Darling-Hammond’s focus last Friday was social-emotional learning. The Commission’s new report emphasizes the need to broaden “the definition of student success to prioritize he whole child.”  The report recommends that our society: “Develop and use measures to track progress across school and out-of-schools settings, with a focus on continuous improvement rather than on rewards and sanctions.”

I wish Darling-Hammond had more pointedly applied the Commission’s findings to Ohio, where, while people applaud the goal, there have been serious questions about whether Ohio’s addition of social-emotional learning in the state’s new five-year strategic plan is workable in our underfunded and terribly punitive, high stakes testing environment. Some of the factors that affect a school’s capacity to support the social and emotional needs of students are small classes that ensure students are known and respected, enough counselors and school psychologists, the presence of the arts and enrichments, and the presence of play in the school lives of very young children. Ohio’s meager school funding and emphasis on high-stakes testing threaten all of these.

In these times we need to be especially attentive to the social and emotional needs of America’s students as the federal Department of Education steps away from policies designed to protect students’ safety and emotional well being. Remember that at the end of December, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded urgently important Obama-era civil rights guidance designed to reduce out of school suspension and expulsion, reduce racial disparities in suspension and expulsion, and increase in-school programs promoting restorative discipline.  Ohio’s new strategic plan to prioritize social-emotional learning in public schools is an important first nudge—pushing our state away from No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish. But there remains a long, long list of urgently needed policy changes. I wish Linda Darling-Hammond had been more supportive of our struggle in her address last Friday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another perfect formulation of Labaree’s concern is from the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. Barber adds another important component of public governance, however: the protection of the rights of students and families by law in public institutions: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

New Brief Examines Injustice in U.S. Public Education Fifty Years After the Kerner Commission Report

Fifty years ago, on March 1, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders released what has come to be known as the Kerner Commission Report (named for the Commission’s chair, Otto Kerner, then governor of Illinois), which concluded that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”  This week, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the release of that report, the Milton Eisenhower Foundation published a new book-length report, Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report.  The new book is a multi-disciplinary assessment, to be accompanied by a series of academic conferences, beginning this week at the University of California at Berkeley, and—specifically on the report’s conclusions about public education—at George Washington University.

We can read about the new report’s findings about public education—from the chapter written by Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond—in a short brief released this week by the Learning Policy Institute. Darling-Hammond begins: “Without major social changes, the (Kerner) Commission warned, the U.S. faced a ‘system of apartheid’ in its major cities. Today, 50 years after the report was issued, that prediction characterizes most of our large urban areas, where intensifying segregation and concentrated poverty have collided with disparities in school funding to reinforce educational inequality. While racial achievement gaps in education have remained stubbornly large, segregation has been increasing steadily, creating a growing number of apartheid schools that serve almost exclusively students of color from low-income families. These schools are often severely under-resourced, and they struggle to close academic gaps while underwriting the additional costs of addressing the effects of poverty-hunger, homelessness, and other traumas experienced by children and families in low income communities.”

Most of us construct our understanding of the world as we observe our own particular communities.  If one doesn’t live in one of America’s big cities, it might be possible to have missed the following trends:

  • “U.S. childhood poverty rates have grown by more than 50% since the 1970s and are now by far the highest among OECD nations, reaching 22% in the latest published statistics.”
  • “In most major American cities, a majority of African American and Latino students attend public schools where at least 75% of students are from low-income families… For example, in Chicago and New York City, more than 95% of both Black and Latino students attend majority-poverty schools….”
  • “Today, about half as many Black students attend majority White schools (just over 20%) as did so in 1988, when about 44% did so.”
  • “In most states, the wealthiest (school) districts spend at least two to three times what the poorest districts can spend per pupil…. Furthermore, the wealthiest states spend about three times what the poorer states spend.”

Certainly public policy has failed to address these trends.  Since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January of 2002, our society has tested all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and then imposed sanctions on the schools unable quickly to raise test scores. The idea was to press teachers to expect more and work harder. The consequence has instead been a rush to blame the schools and teachers where scores remain low and to punish the lowest-scoring five percent of schools with mandated turnarounds—fire the teachers and principal or close the school, or turn it over to a charter school manager.

Darling-Hammond traces a mass of factors showing that as a society we identified the wrong problem, satisfied ourselves with blaming somebody, and ignored our responsibility collectively to confront primary social injustices that are the real cause of achievement gaps.  What we accomplished instead was discrediting public education and undermining support for teachers.

Darling-Hammond believes our problem is that we have stopped trying to do anything about racial and economic segregation: “In a study of the effects of court-ordered desegregation on students born between 1945 and 1970, economist Rucker Johnson found that graduation rates climbed by 2 percentage points for every year a Black student attended an integrated school… The difference was tied to the fact that schools under court supervision benefit from higher per-pupil spending and smaller student-teacher ratios… During the 1960s and ’70s, many communities took on efforts like these.  As a result, there was a noticeable reduction in educational inequality in the decade after the original Kerner report…. (S)ubstantial gains were made in equalizing both educational inputs and outcomes. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 targeted resources to communities with the most need, recognizing that where a child grows up should not determine where he or she ends up… However, the gains from the Great Society programs were pushed back during the Reagan administration, when most targeted federal programs supporting investments in college access and K-12 schools in urban and poor rural areas were reduced or eliminated, and federal aid to schools was cut from 12% to 6% of a shrinking total…By 1991, stark differences had reemerged between segregated urban schools and their suburban counterparts, which generally spent twice as much on education.”

About our current era, Darling-Hammond is very clear: “Despite a single-minded focus on raising achievement and closing gaps during the No Child left Behind era (from 2002 until 2015), many states focused on testing without investing in the resources needed to achieve higher standards.”  One investment that is affected by school funding is in the credentials of the teachers, explains Darling-Hammond: “In combination, teachers’ qualifications can have substantial effects. One large research study demonstrates: (S)tudents’ achievement growth was significantly higher if they were taught by a teacher who was certified in his or her teaching field, fully prepared upon entry (rather than entering through the state’s alternative… route), had higher scores on the teacher licensing test, graduated from a competitive college, (and) had taught for more than 2 years, or was Nationally Board Certified.”

Darling-Hammond concludes that to support our most vulnerable children and their schools, we will need radically to rethink our foundational values: “To survive and prosper, our society must finally renounce its obstinate commitment to educational inequality and embrace full and ambitious opportunities to learn for all our children. Although education is a state responsibility, federal policy is also needed to ensure that every child has access to adequate school resources, facilities, and quality teachers.”

Is DFER Fading or Poised for an Ongoing Political Role?

Shavar Jeffries, President of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), certainly made a strong attempt a couple of weeks ago to present DFER as a powerful and relevant advocacy organization when he commented on changes to the Democratic Platform that were less favorable to charter schools: “What happened in Orlando is little more than a bait and switch, one we are eager to fix, and which we hope is unreflective of Hillary Clinton’s priorities, as she has repeatedly supported standards and accountability and high-performing charter schools.  President Obama has made clear that the best way to strengthen our system is not just with more resources, but reforms that ensure our children are progressing.” “This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”  DFER has been one of the strongest and most consistent proponents of the education policies of President Barack Obama and his first Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

In a new, short history and profile of Democrats for Education Reform, Alexander Russo evaluates DFER’s role in the education politics of recent years and wonders about its future as the next President perhaps moves away from the policies of the Obama administration.  Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst shut down earlier this spring and merged its existing work into 50CAN, another school “reform” advocacy organization.  What will be the fate of DFER?

On its website, DFER defines itself as opposed to traditional public schooling where, “(M)illions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children.” As a PAC, DFER has sought to reposition the Democratic Party’s education policies to support test-and-punish accountability, more charters, and the connection of teacher evaluations to students’ test scores.

What exactly is DFER?  Russo explains: “First conceived around 2005, DFER didn’t really launch until June 2007, when it held a public event and established an online presence. While generally referred to by a single name, DFER grew to become several related organizations including a traditional nonprofit 501(c)(3) called Education Reform Now (ERN), a 501(c)(4) known as ERN Action, and the eponymous political action committee (DFER).  In addition to campaign fundraising and explicitly political efforts, DFER’s activities included policy development, state-level advocacy, and congressional lobbying such as during the recent renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. DFER’s efforts generated roughly S65 million over eight years…. The Broad and Walton Foundations were among its largest national funders.  By far the majority of its revenues was for policy and advocacy work through ERN and ERN Advocacy, rather than the explicit campaign work of the DFER PAC. Political giving made up only about $1.5 million of DFER’s annual budget.”  DFER was the brain child of New York hedge fund managers, including Whitney Tilson, one of the co-founders.

Joe Williams, an amiable former newspaper reporter, led DFER for most of the past eight years until he stepped down at the the end of last year, to be replaced by Jeffries.  Charles Barone has served as the policy director.  DFER has defined itself as an organization that has successfully promoted a particular brand of education policy among Democrats—what Russo quotes one analyst describing: “There’s no doubt that the Democratic Party has moved significantly more towards the reform side…”  Here is Russo’s own assessment: “What seems clear is that DFER emerged in the right place at the right time—and backed the right horses, including Barack Obama and Cory Booker. In remarkably short order, DFER and its allies became among the only folks that Obama could turn to for advice on how to fulfill his promise as a reform-minded Democratic president. Then, when Race to the Top (RTTT) turned into a competition among the states for scarce new federal education dollars, DFER basically went from not existing to helping shape federal policy in two years flat.”

In addition to supporting Obama and Cory Booker (and Booker’s One Newark plan), DFER is reported by Russo to have supported Andrew Cuomo in New York: “Cuomo would end up being a key ally on school reform when NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg was succeeded by reform critic Bill de Blasio.”  Other politicians favored with support from DFER are Dannel Malloy as governor of Connecticut, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Congressional Rep. George Miller of California, Rahm Emmanuel as Chicago mayor, and less successfully Adrian Fenty as D.C. mayor, and Shavar Jeffries in his failed bid to become a “school reform” mayor of Newark.

Russo reports that DFER takes some of the credit for displacing Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond as the prime candidate for Obama’s Secretary of Education: “DFER and its allies badmouthed Darling-Hammond as much as they could get away with, raising questions about her research and accomplishments. Then, in what would become one of DFER’s most frequently retold early accomplishments, Williams ‘leaked’ a memo addressed to the Obama transition team outlining both policy ideas and potential appointees for various White House and cabinet department positions. In it, DFER put forth the notion that NYC Chancellor Joel Klein might be too controversial for education secretary but Chicago’s Arne Duncan might be a good choice.  Whether or not DFER deserved all the credit for the Duncan nomination was debatable. He and Obama had overlapped in Chicago, visited schools together, and played pickup basketball together.”

Eight years later Russo wonders if DFER’s influence may be waning: “As the Obama era ended and a new era loomed, there was the sense that school reform ideas—and DFER’s influence over Democratic candidates—were already on the decline.”  DFER has, according to Russo, reliably refused to oppose the unionization of school teachers even while it has been in conflict with many of the policy positions of the teachers unions and with Democrats who are raising concerns about charter schools. Russo wonders whether DFER’s policy agenda lacks fresh ideas today: “To critics, DFER seemed isolated, hollowed-out, and narrowed down to little more than a pro-charter PAC.  What had started out as a three-dimensional effort was now more two-dimensional, getting into the press and funding pro-charter campaigns but lacking any real membership base.

The organization was strong enough, however, to remain actively involved in the Congressional debate about the reauthorization of the federal education law: “During the consideration of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a longtime DFER friend Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) emerged as one of DFER’s champions.” Russo describes DFER’s dilemma in the opinion of then DFER president Joe Williams, “DFER and its allies couldn’t move their own agenda and were in retreat in terms of the public narrative, but they could block things when they needed to. ‘We still have votes,’ said Williams. The unions were in much the same place, according to Williams. ‘Neither side can advance.'”

Careful not to offend its backers, DFER has been cautious about broadening its agenda, explains Russo: “So far in 2016, DFER has not endorsed any Democratic presidential candidate, released any fundraising information about its efforts on behalf of the DNC, or announced any change in its focus on charters and accountability… Jeffries has been attempting to keep the Democratic candidates’ feet to the fire on school choice and accountability efforts. Just this week, Jeffries railed against changes in the Democratic Party platform limiting support to certain kinds of charters…”

Congress Ought to Do Something Radical, Take ESEA Back to Its Original Purpose: Equity

In a news blast last week, the Education Law Center challenged Congress to “compel states to fund schools fairly” in any legislation it might pass to reauthorize the federal education law that we currently call No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Supposedly aides in the relevant House and Senate committees are working on a compromise between very different House and Senate versions passed earlier this year of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Whether any kind of compromise can be moved forward in the current Congress remains a question.

In pushing Congress to address equity in the reauthorization, the Education Law Center proposes that Congress add an element to the compromise that neither Senate nor House included in the very different bills passed by the two chambers—an element so unthinkable these days that it hasn’t even been part of the conversation.  This is, of course, ironic, as the 1965, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)  (of which NCLB is merely the latest reauthorization) was originally designed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  The purpose of its largest program, Title I, was to infuse federal funds into schools that serve either a large number or a high percentage of students living in poverty.

Writing of this year’s ESEA reauthorization debate, the Education Law Center points out: “Conspicuously absent from the debate is the critical need for federal policy to motivate the States to fairly fund their public schools. Federal funding accounts for only about 10% of preK-12 funding.  The states, through their finance systems, determine the lion’s share of school funding, how it’s distributed, and the mix of state and local revenue.  Only a handful of states provide sufficient levels of funding and distribute that funding fairly to address student need as documented in Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.  Many states have been unable or unwilling to make their funding systems more equitable and adequate.  It is crucial that federal education policies pressure states to improve funding fairness.”

The Education Law Center references the report of the Equity and Excellence Commission chartered by Congress itself in 2013, a document that charges: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American Schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

The version of the ESEA reauthorization that the House passed earlier this year contains a dangerous provision, Title I portability—a public school Title I voucher a poor child could carry to any public school to which she or he might move. Title I portability would actually increase school funding inequity by rendering Title I less effective to address what is a rapidly growing trend in many cities—the concentration of very poor children in particular neighborhoods and schools. Title I was designed to drive additional federal funds to schools where poverty is concentrated.  If Congress were to enact Title I portability, a poor student whose family moved to a wealthier school would instead carry the funding away from the school in the poorer neighborhood where many poor children remain concentrated. Many also worry that a public Title I portability voucher program could easily be the  top of a slippery slope toward Title I private school vouchers that would further drain funding from poor urban school districts.

The Education Law Center adds that while neither House nor Senate version of the ESEA reauthorization increases overall funding for Title I, both propose damaging changes in the distribution of an already far too small pot of money: “This year, the Senate passed a version of the ESEA that would allocate more Title I funds to southern and western states at the expense of northern and eastern states. The House passed a version that would allocate Title I funds away from large cities in favor of smaller school districts… The ESEA reauthorization bill recently passed by the Senate changes Title I by taking away a built-in reward to states that exhibit high “effort” in school funding. “Effort” measures state spending on education relative to state fiscal capacity. If this change to Title I is accepted by the conference committee, states would lose an important incentive to adequately fund their schools.”

The Education Law Center’s news blast concludes: “Under Title I, about $14.5 billion is provided annually to school districts, an amount that has remained flat for several years… What’s needed is a commitment from the President and leaders in Congress to take up the deep and longstanding inequities that inhibit educational progress in most states.”

In recent speeches Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, is also advocating for equity, though NEA’s request is even more humble: get funding fairness at least into the conversation.  Eskelsen Garcia and the NEA are asking Congress to include more reporting on disparities in the opportunity to learn by mandating a national “opportunity dashboard” that would expose inequity.  Patrick O’Donnell interviewed Eskelsen Garcia for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “She said the worst failure of No Child Left Behind is that it expected all students to meet test score targets, without paying any attention to how poverty affects how much kids learn.  Expecting scores to rise without solving underlying socioeconomic issues was never realistic, she said. Garcia wants the federal government to report things like student access to Advanced Placement classes, kindergarten, nurses and arts or foreign language classes, along with test results.  The dashboard would also list attendance and graduation rates, data on teacher qualifications, class sizes and the availability of libraries and technology. ‘What we are asking for is a very powerful advocacy tool that will give us data. We will be able to use that information to call out what needs to be called out.'”

Congress certainly needs to increase the Title I allocation, keep the formula fair, and report data on access to opportunity as well as data on test scores. But during the Obama administration the U.S. Department of Education has also demonstrated that the federal government has an additional tool.  Arne Duncan has created huge grant competitions that have conditioned application for federal funds on states’ incorporating federal priorities into their own laws and rules.  As conditions for Race to the Top money, states were required to remove caps on the number of new charter schools that could be opened.  To get a waiver from the most onerous penalties of NCLB, states accepted a federal requirement that they tie teachers’ evaluations to their students’ test scores.  States have been receiving federal money on the condition that they agree to close or charterize so-called “failing” schools.  As part of the ESEA reauthorization, Congress could just as easily create incentives for states to close opportunity gaps by equalizing their state school funding formulas.

In her 2010 book, The Flat World and Education, Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond describes the kind of school funding reform Congress ought to be considering as its members reauthorize the federal education law: “It is exhausting even to recount the struggles for equitable funding in American schools, much less to be engaged in the struggles, year after year, or—more debilitating—to be a parent or student who is subject day-by-day, week-by-week to the aggressive neglect often fostered in dysfunctional, under-resourced schools.  One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity….” (p.164)

Or go back to Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 classic, Savage Inequalities, as timely today as when it was published a quarter century ago: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’  Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.” (p. 83)

Concern for Equity Merely Buried in New Darling-Hammond Policy Brief: But It’s Still There

Congress is talking about reauthorizing the federal testing law—the law whose recent version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB)  but that originated in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), passed as part of the War on Poverty.  The debate in Congress seems to be slowly falling apart because of deep partisan disagreement about the role of the federal government in education policy. The Congressional debate does, however, provide an important opportunity to explore some of the issues in the law as it stands currently.

Here are two quotes that encapsulate two of my greatest concerns.  The first is from Gary Orfield, the political scientist and demographer who leads the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.  In a forward to a 2009 Civil Rights Project analysis of No Child Left Behind, Orfield worried that, “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… Blaming schools and their teachers takes the pressure off political leaders (and privileged communities) to play a serious role in solving the problems in a society that tolerates a level of child poverty higher than any other nation of similar stature.”  Orfield worries that No Child Left Behind holds schools accountable for factors that schools cannot control and then blames schools and teachers in poor communities.  He points out that many such schools support their students and help them learn, but they cannot post students’ test scores in aggregate that match the scores of children in more privileged communities in a society that is increasingly segregated not only by race but also by family economics.

The education historian  Diane Ravitch, in a short piece last month on How to Fix No Child Left Behind, names a second and closely related concern: “Any genuine fix to NCLB would recognize that the administration of President George W. Bush took a wrong turn by changing ESEA from a law devoted to equity to a law devoted to testing and accountability.  The switch from ESEA to NCLB was a substitution of punishment and sanctions for direct federal aid to the neediest districts.  ESEA and the federal aid it supplied were supposed to help poor children, not convert their schools into test-prep factories or close them or privatize them… Restore the original purpose of the ESEA: equity for poor children and the schools they attend.  These schools need more money for smaller classes, social workers, nurses, and librarians, not more testing.  Designate federal aid for reducing class size, for intensive tutoring by certified teachers and for other interventions that are known to be effective.”

For a long time Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University, has been an advocate for expanding the opportunity to learn for poor children by increasing society’s investment in their schools.  I was therefore surprised the other day to receive a joint policy brief by Darling-Hammond and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education in collaboration with Paul Hill and the Center on Reinventing Public Education.  The two organizations are generally diametrically opposed on school policy, but this brief is titled Accountability and the Federal Role: A Third Way on ESEA.  While I am not a fan of NCLB’s requirement for annual testing, Darling-Hammond and Hill agree that No Child Left Behind’s annual testing should continue, though it should include broader measures: “Parents and the public need to know whether children are learning what they need to graduate high school, enter and complete four-year college, or get a rewarding, career-ladder job.  Student test scores can provide valuable information but they should be used in combination with other valid evidence of school effectiveness…. Assessments of schools should focus on meaningful learning, not just on what is easiest to test… Because a students’ level and pace of learning in any one year depends in part on what was learned previously and on the efforts of many professionals working together, the consequences of high and low performance should attach to whole schools, rather than to individual educators.”

Darling-Hammond and Hill suggest that while testing ought to continue, the heavy hand of the federal government should be restrained: “School leaders must have sufficient authority, flexibility, and resources to lead their schools and must take affirmative responsibility for fostering school-wide collaboration aimed at continuous improvement in teaching and learning.  States and school districts must have and exercise multiple options when children learn at low rates that threaten their adult opportunities, including remedying resource shortfalls, supporting teacher and leader improvement, changing school staffing, redesigning or replacing chronically ineffective schools, assigning schools to new managers, and allowing families to choose other school options.”  So… even though there should be some flexibility in the punishments for so-called “failing” schools, there ought to be more local flexibility, though sanctions ought to include firing teachers or principals, replacing ineffective schools, or expanded school choice.  But at least there is a small mention of “remedying resource shortfalls.”

The policy brief ends with particular implications for Congress to consider in the discussion about reauthorizing ESEA: Congress should require annual testing of student learning disaggregated by racial, ethnic and economic subgroups.  Testing should include multiple measures, not mere standardized tests.  Congress should neither prescribe the punishments for low-scoring schools “nor require mechanical use of test scores to drive consequences for schools.”  Rather Congress should require states to devise review systems to determine when intervention is needed in particular schools. Congress should make performance agreements with states and provide incentives for states to improve districts and schools and raise graduation rates and should impose consequences when states fail to comply.

And finally—two paragraphs from the end of the six page policy brief, a fifth implication is named: “ESEA should also create incentives for states to recognize and remedy systematic differences in the financial and human resources available for the education of similar students, and for districts to remove internal barriers to funding equity and transparency.”  Ah, what a relief.  I had wondered if  Linda Darling-Hammond had become less-concerned about improving the fiscal capacity of the poorest school districts to serve their children. But the issue of the federal government’s necessary role for resource equity and funding is still there, though  buried deep in the new policy brief.

Through some research I discovered that by publishing a series of peer-reviewed academic papers, Darling-Hammond has been collaborating with colleagues to  “develop a new paradigm” to explain accountability for college and career readiness.  In the paper that introduces this academic project she writes: “Genuine accountability….  should rest on three pillars: a focus on meaningful learning enabled by professionally skilled and committed educators, supported by adequate and appropriate resources.”  The pillars are then diagrammed: Meaningful Learning, Professional Capacity, and Resource Accountability.

Academic papers on education theory are abstract.  Instead of clarifying the issues in something as complicated as reauthorizing the federal education law, such academic papers can be confusing.  By contrast the paper that Darling-Hammond added to the research she is assembling to explain the importance of the third pillar—equity of resources, a paper by David Sciarra and Molly Hunter, attorneys and school finance experts from the Education Law Center, is written in very clear terms:  “Resource accountability is realized by investing sufficient educational resources, equitably distributed to ensure access to quality teaching, a rigorous curriculum, and other essentials for all students, including those in poverty, learning English, and with other special needs. Resource accountability is a prerequisite for meaningful learning enabled by professionally skilled and committed educators, the two other pillars of a comprehensive approach to accountability.”  “Also, the effective use of public school funding is an oft-ignored but crucial step toward ensuring equal educational opportunity for all students.”

We need to insist that the federal government’s role in ameliorating poverty and addressing vast inequality of school resources—the original purpose in 1965 of Title I in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—be neither lost, nor ignored, nor forgotten as Congress debates the law’s reauthorization.