Outrage Continues as Standardized Testing Moves Forward in this COVID-19 School Year

Standardized testing—required this school year by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s U.S. Department of Education despite the disruption of COVID-19—is now happening in many public schools across the United States. But even as the tests are being administered, the anger and protests against this expensive, time consuming, and, many believe, harmful routine are not abating.

Last week, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported: “The Biden administration is facing growing backlash from state education chiefs, Republican senators, teachers unions and others who say that its insistence that schools give standardized tests to students this year is unfair, and that it is being inconsistent in how it awards testing flexibility to states. Michigan State Superintendent Michael Rice has slammed the U.S. Education Department for its ‘indefensible’ logic in rejecting the state’s request for a testing waiver while granting one to the Washington, D.C., school system—the only waiver that has been given. Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, whose state was also denied a waiver, said testing this year ‘isn’t going to show any data that is going to be meaningful for learning moving forward… The controversy represents the newest chapter in a long-running national debate about the value of high-stakes standardized tests. Since 2002, the federal government has mandated schools give most students ELA and math standardized tests every year for the purposes of holding schools accountable for student progress. The scores are also used to rank schools, evaluate teachers, make grade promotion decisions and other purposes.”

The Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) describes itself as a nationwide multi-racial coalition of education organizing and policy groups. In a powerful commentary, also published last week, Jitu Brown, J4J’s executive director, and Beth Glenn, a J4J policy strategist, describe the damage wrought by standardized-test-based school accountability across America’s poorest urban communities: “Today, we know that the communities hit hardest by the pandemic, racism and economic distress are the same ones harmed most by standardized resting. Standardized testing has been weaponized against Black and Brown communities. Low test scores have been used to deem schools ‘failing’ and (as) the rationale for their closure. For instance, although Black students only make up 36 percent of Chicago Public Schools, Black schools are 88 percent of the schools that have been closed or totally re-staffed. In the same city during the COVID pandemic, although Black people make up about 30 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 70 percent of the COVID deaths. These students have already shouldered more than their share of grief, isolation, digital deprivation, interrupted learning, and fear for themselves and their families.”

Brown and Glenn continue: “No educator needs to subject children to a stress-inducing bubble test to identify which students are hurting and in need of our support. In fact, we know that these tests do best at predicting a student’s economic status—which is knowledge we already have! …. (T)est scores have been used to justify taking away learning opportunities in art, music and enrichment, replacing experienced teachers with untrained temporary ones, expanding charters to compete and drain already underfunded schools, and to disinvest in and close those underfunded schools altogether.” “These tests saddle students with labels, haunt them with stereotypes, make school dull and disengaging, put targets on kids’ backs for disinvestment, and create displacement when their schools are ultimately closed because charter operators use student academic performance or behavior to push students out in order to make their own academic portfolio look more attractive to school boards.”

Brown and Glenn provide examples of charter schools pushing out the students who need the most help: “The Chicago… Noble Network of Charter Schools just apologized publicly for… ‘counseling students out’ to transfer them to other schools in order to improve the company’s numbers and denying entry to students with special needs. New York’s Success Academy just agreed to pay $2.4 million to five families of students with special needs for pushing them out with daily harassment calls to parents, constant removals from classrooms, and threats to call police and family services. It’s no accident that many believe those practices… were driven by the need to produce high test scores.”

Valerie Strauss quotes Bob Schaeffer, the acting executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, who believes that Miguel Cardona’s Department of Education has responded inconsistently and with poor attention to the COVID-19 resurgence that is once again shutting down in-person learning in particular school districts: “Department of Education staff seem to be issuing rulings based on whether an applicant goes through the motions of stating that it is offering some form of statewide exam, no matter how small a percentage of students is likely to take it and no matter how useless results from a skewed test-taking population might be… The goal seems to be testing solely for the sake of testing.”

In an action alert on Saturday, the National Education Association invited its members and supporters to submit a formal comment on the Department of Education’s guidance to require standardized testing in this COVID-19 year. “As part of the regulatory process, the U.S. Department of Education is seeking input from the public about standardized testing for the 2020-2021 school year…The official deadline for comments is May 7, 2021, but it is critical that you submit your letter as soon as possible.”  “While some states’ assessments are already moving forward, we are hopeful that the outcry from the public will force the Department to evaluate how harmful and ineffective standardized tests are and start working toward a new system that truly measures student learning… Your opposition to high stakes standardized tests will also send a message to state departments of education and state legislatures that data from this year should not be relied upon to evaluate educators, students, or schools.”

Please do respond to NEA’s action alert by submitting your personal letter.

Appreciating Organized Teachers and Their Unions in Teacher Appreciation Week

For over two decades our public schools have been trapped in a wave of massive education disruption—an effort to reform education by holding schools and teachers accountable for raising students’ aggregate test scores. But it didn’t work.  Overall test scores haven’t risen. When almost all U.S. public schools were on track to be declared “failing,” before the 2014 deadline when all American students were supposed to be proficient, Arne Duncan created waivers to blackmail states to agree to impose his pet policies if he would let them off the hook from No Child Left Behind’s accountability system. It is a truth universally acknowledged that No Child Left Behind left millions of America’s poorest children far behind.

In her new book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch defines recent decades as an age of education disruption: “Today’s Disrupters…. want to reinvent education, reimagine it, replace it with another approach, either through technology or a market-driven choice system in which government supplies the funds and parents send their children wherever they want. Not every Disrupter believes exactly the same thing…. Some believe that test scores are the goal of education… Others, like Betsy DeVos, believe that choice is an end in itself… The Corporate leaders of this campaign admire disruptive innovation, because high-tech businesses do it…. The concept of ‘creative destruction’ is derived from the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Whether or not it is useful in the business world, it is not useful in the lives of children, who need stability, not disruption. Corporate Disrupters approve of schools hiring inexperienced teachers with little or no training, such as Teach for America recruits… Such teachers are paid less than experienced teachers, and few will stay long enough to expect a pension or expensive health benefits… Disrupters like to move fast and break things, including school systems, historic schools, communities, and the lives of students, families and education professionals. They take pride in disrupting established institutions and other people’s lives… Disrupters are unmoved when students and parents plead for the life of a community school slated for closure. Corporate Disrupters do not respect the teaching profession… Disrupters don’t like democratic control of education by elected local school boards…. They like mayoral control, where one person is in charge; the mayor can usually be counted on to listen to business leaders…. The Disrupters oppose teacher tenure and seniority, which they consider to be barriers to removing ineffective teachers. They prefer untenured teachers who are willing to work long hours without extra pay and who are likely to change careers after two or three years of teaching.” (Slaying Goliath, pp 27-50)

Ravitch concludes: “Years from now, historians will look back and wonder why so many very wealthy people spent so much money in a vain attempt to disrupt and privatize public education and why they ignored the income inequality and wealth inequality that were eating away at the vitals of American society.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 50)

Back in the early 1990s, education policy debates were more likely to focus on inequitable and inadequate school funding from state to state and on what to do about growing racial and economic segregation. Advocates worried about disparities in access to opportunity across neighboring school districts. School funding court cases were likely emphasize disparities in inputs—money spent on experienced teachers, money spent to achieve smaller classes, money spent for advanced curriculum, money for support staff and enrichments like art and music.  But after the mid-1990s the emphasis changed; court cases were now framed on how much funding would be needed to raise outcomes as measured by standardized test scores. As the entire conversation shifted to raising test score outcomes, so much that matters in education fall by the way.  And when test scores didn’t rise, privatizers were waiting to seize the so-called “failing” schools.  School accountability pushed the old injustices aside. Test score outcomes, not disparities in inputs, became the focus through the years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. And fighting the privatization of public schools became a necessary endeavor.

In the past couple of years, before the coronavirus came upon us and before schools shut down to protect students, the narrative had begun to shift back to what is important: building the political will to guarantee every child opportunity in the public schools. That guarantee, of course must be defined in terms of inputs—public investment across the states. I give thanks to organized teachers for this shifting narrative.

Schoolteachers and teachers unions have been instrumental in forcing our society once again to see what have become outrageous resource disparities—inputs—in public schools across the United States.  In this Teacher Appreciate Week, I want to express my gratitude to the #RedforEd school teachers who went on strike through 2018 and 2019.  Striking teachers have forced us all to examine the implications of school policy that emphasizes test-and-punish school accountability overlaid upon an institution whose revenue base has fallen.  Public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have demonstrated the untenable conditions their schools have suffered as revenue has collapsed—children struggling in classes of 40 students, teachers pushed out of the profession when their salaries fall so low they cannot afford to rent an apartment, and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses.  The education budget crisis is widespread and deep.  But teachers have been willing to keep up the fight even when the gains are modest or slow to come.  When their states failed to live up to promises, teachers have been willing to strike again, and smaller strikes across other states have continued to reinforce the message.

In a its most recent, 2019 report that compares states’ spending on education to where it was in 2008 prior to the Great Recession, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities credits teachers’ strikes with forcing some reluctant states to address urgent but long overlooked school funding needs: “Last year, teachers struck or engaged in other protests in five of the 12 states that cut formula funding particularly deeply after the last recession—Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Lawmakers in four of those five states—all but Kentucky—boosted school formula funding last year, at least partially in response to the protests. The funding boosts were substantial, especially in Oklahoma, where lawmakers increased formula funding per student by 10 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia also increased funding substantially, with the hikes ranging from 3 percent to 9 percent per student after inflation.”

And teachers showed us, in Los Angeles and Oakland particularly, that school districts have been devastated when an out of control charter school sector sucks money out of the local schools. In research released in conjunction with the Oakland strike, we learned that the school district loses $57.3 million every year when students take their funding to charter schools.

This year, organized teachers were leaders in another urgently important effort. When by mid-December, nobody had raised the needs of public schools in any of the debates held among a big field of Democratic candidates for President in 2020, teachers unions were instrumental in bringing 7 of the candidates to Pittsburgh for the Public Education Forum 2020. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers deserve thanks not only as primary funders of the event but also as conveners of an astounding partnership of sponsors, who brought organized urban parents, organized teachers, organized education support staff, civil rights organizations, philanthropic organizations, public school students and advocacy organizations to be part of an open conversation with the candidates for President. This was the most diverse and inclusive event I have ever attended. Organized teachers and the dues they pay were essential for bringing 1,500 representatives of an incredible coalition—the Alliance for Educational Justice; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the Center for Popular Democracy Action; the Journey for Justice Alliance; the NAACP; the National Education Association; the Network for Public Education Action; the Schott Foundation for Public Education-Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; the Service Employees International Union; and Voto Latino—together in common purpose.

Jitu Brown, executive director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, described state takeovers and school closures and declared, “We don’t have failing schools, but we have been failed…. People are fighting for justice (in their public schools) all over the country.”  One questioner—a public school student from Camden, New Jersey, plaintively asked the candidates why his school doesn’t have a librarian or a music teacher when he knows about other schools near his which have a library and a music program. A participant in the 34 day hunger strike which, in 2015, saved Chicago’s Dyett High School from closure asked a candidate, “What will you do to help local schools avoid closures forced by privatizers?”  Several questioners asked candidates to support full-service, wraparound Community Schools, voiced support for culturally responsive curriculum, and asked candidates to address the school to prison pipeline with restorative justice programs.

At the Public Education Form 2020, several candidates including Joe Biden went on record to promise that if elected, they would prioritize tripling the investment in Title I, the federal education program whose purpose is to provide additional funding for public schools serving high concentrations of very poor children. Candidates were asked by participants to address the federal government’s chronic failure to live up to its promise to pay 40 percent of the cost of programs mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, while this year, Congress is paying less than 15 percent.  And there was discussion of the outrageous lack of oversight in the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program.  Not one of the candidates for President endorsed standardized test-based school accountability.

I know that this spring teachers deserve all the praise they are receiving for staying in touch to support their students and helping children transition to online learning while schools are closed during the pandemic. But my special thanks this year in Teacher Appreciation Week must go to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, along with all of their state and local affiliates and also to independent teachers’ organizations for their policy leadership. Organized teachers speaking on behalf of children, not merely for their own financial interests, have been instrumental in shifting the national conversation away from test score outcomes and back our collective responsibility for equalizing resource inputs.

One of my biggest worries during upcoming months is that with schools closed, with the media attention focused on the medical and business implications of the pandemic, we’ll all lose track of what public school educators have been teaching us all through the strikes and the incredible December forum in Pittsburgh.  A deep recession will inevitably follow the economic shutdown due to the pandemic, and the collapse of state budgets will inevitably threaten public school funding.

Privatizers and Disrupters—people who are unlikely to give up easily—are sure to seize the pandemic months as a time to restore their agenda in the public mind.  In his 2011 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why business interests and privatizers are likely to push back: “The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states… Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

This week, to organized teachers who have been teaching us all how we have failed our public schools and our children, and to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, I say thank you!  Please keep on keeping on.

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)

Forgetting to Address the Cause of Educational Injustice

Teachers’ unions are criticized all the time for putting the needs of teachers first. Far-right astro-turf organizations like Students First and Stand for Children have made sharing this myth their raison-d’etre.  But in my long work as an advocate for justice in public education policy at the federal level, I discovered again and again and again that the myth isn’t true.  Teachers’ unions work assiduously for laws that help children; the teachers who belong to the teachers’ unions fund these organizations well enough that they hire expert policy analysts; and the teachers’ unions do more than almost any other organization to reach out to the broader community on behalf of public schools.  I have come to believe that far-right ideologues trash teachers’ unions because those same ideologues believe in cutting taxes, and they want cheap labor in the classroom because their persistent tax slashing makes it impossible to afford expert professionals.  This is all designed to destroy teachers’ unions as part of a race to the bottom.

Over the weekend the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union provided another piece of evidence that teachers’ unions are intent on keeping us focused on what matters for the children in our public schools.  On Saturday, the National Education Association pointed out that, while the new bipartisan bill proposed by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act may eliminate some of the most horrible aspects of test-and-punish school policy, its authors forgot about the federal government’s primary role for addressing vast educational inequality in school resources that exists across the states.

NEA is the only national organization, so far at least, to have noticed this egregious hole in the proposed law.  It is a very serious omission from Senator Alexander and Murray’s bill.  After all, the law being reauthorized has Title I as its centerpiece—the program designed in 1965 to address the needs of poor children and the schools that serve them with federal aid to education.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post explains: “The head of the country’s largest teachers union said that her organization does not support a bipartisan proposal in the Senate to replace the nation’s main federal education law because it does not go far enough to create equal educational opportunities for poor children.  ‘We keep asking ourselves, ‘Does this move the needle for kids?  Will a child see something better in his or her classroom?’ said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country. ‘And this bill in the Senate doesn’t do it. We’re not at ‘better’ yet.'”

Layton explains that new data demonstrates persistent inequality of opportunity: across the states, less money—often far less—is spent on the education of children living in poverty than on children in wealthy communities.  And federal funding is so meager that it fails to come close to making up the difference.  Layton links to Emma Brown’s recent Washington Post article that describes new data from the National Center for Education Statistics: “Children who live in poverty come to school at a disadvantage, arriving at their classrooms with far more intensive needs than their middle-class and affluent counterparts.  Poor children also lag their peers, on average, on almost every measure of academic achievement.  But in 23 states, state and local governments are together spending less per pupil in the poorest school districts than they are in the most affluent school districts… In some states the differences are stark. In Pennsylvania, per-pupil spending in the poorest school districts is 33 percent lower than per-pupil spending in the wealthiest school districts.  In Vermont, the differential is 18 percent; in Missouri, 17 percent. Nationwide, states and localities are spending an average of 15 percent less per pupil in the poorest school districts… than they are in the most affluent… In general, wealthier towns and counties are able to raise more money through taxes to support their schools than poorer localities can.  Many states have developed school-finance systems that send extra dollars to poorer areas in an attempt to mitigate those inequities.  But state aid is often not enough to make up the difference.”  Title I helps, but it is not enough.

Layton explains NEA’s new advocacy effort for equalizing opportunity in the reauthorization of the federal education law: “No Child Left Behind has judged states and school districts based on student outcomes, largely by relying on test scores.  But they should also be evaluated based in inputs—whether they are evenly distributing resources from school to school.”  Eskelsen-Garcia explains: “We’ve been talking about this to every senator we can.  It is time for accountability to mean that all kids are getting what they need.”

NEA is asking Congress to make “any new federal law hold states responsible for reducing the resource gap between schools.”  NEA is also asking for more transparency to raise awareness about the size of opportunity gaps by asking that Congress require school districts to publish “opportunity dashboards” to “disclose how much each school spends on teacher salaries, the number of experienced teachers and counselors they employ, access to Advanced Placement and honors courses and other indicators.”

When a national Equity and Excellence Commission appointed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the request of Representatives Chaka Fattah (D-PA) and Mike Honda (D-CA) reported on federal policy in public education, the members declared: “There is no constitutional barrier to a greater federal role in financing K-12 education.  It is, rather, a question of our nation’s civic and political will; the modest federal contribution that today amounts to approximately 10 percent of national K-12 spending is a matter of custom not a mandate.  The federal government must take bold action in specific areas… Direct states, with appropriate incentives, to adopt and implement school finance systems that will… provide a meaningful educational opportunity for all students… Enact ‘equity and excellence’ legislation that: targets significant new federal funding to schools with high concentrations of low-income students, particularly where achievement gaps exist…. Provide incentives for states to explore and pursue ways to reduce the number of schools with concentrated poverty…. Reassess its enforcement regime with respect to issues of school finance equity…. Ensure that its dollars are not used to perpetuate or exacerbate inequities.”

Fifty years ago, the federal education law that now faces Congressional reauthorization was created primarily to address the injustice of unequal opportunity for children. As Congress considers the reauthorization of this law, thank you, National Education Association, for reminding us that poor children most often live in school districts without small classes and without enough counselors and enough sports and debate teams and enough music programs—the very privileges middle and upper class children in the suburbs and in smaller cities and towns across America take for granted.

Jeff Bryant Interviews New NEA President Who Is Not Afraid to Speak Truth to Power

In its new president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the National Education Association (NEA) has a gifted spokesperson for school teachers and for public education.  Eskelsen Garcia knows the issues, connects the dots, and frames a pro-teacher, pro-public education agenda that puts into words the kind of commitment to children and public schools that I have observed over many years to be the priority of the NEA.  In an extensive interview with Jeff Bryant, Eskelsen Garcia discusses her priorities.

When Bryant asks Eskelsen Garcia about the resolution passed at NEA’s recent convention, a resolution to demand Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s removal, she replies: “I will own this; I share in their anger.  The Department of Education has become an evidence-free zone when it comes to high stakes decisions being made on the basis of cut scores on standardized tests.  We can go back and forth about interpretations of the department’s policies, like, for instance, the situation in Florida where teachers are being evaluated on the basis of test scores of students they don’t even teach… But he (Arne Duncan) needs to understand that Florida did that because they were encouraged in their applications for grant money and regulation waivers to do so.  When his department requires that state departments of education have to make sure all their teachers are being judged by students’ standardized test scores, then the state departments just start making stuff up.  And it’s stupid.  It’s absurd.  It’s non-defensible.  And his department didn’t reject applications based on their absurd requirements for testing.  It made the requirement that all teachers be evaluated on the basis of tests a threshold that every application had to cross over.  That’s indefensible…  The testing is corrupting what it means to teach… They still don’t get that when you do a whole lot of things on the periphery, but you’re still judging success by a cut score on a standardized test and judging ‘effective’ teachers on a standardized test, then you will corrupt anything good that you try to accomplish.”

Eskelsen Garcia clearly connects the dots between today’s federal demands and state legislative policies that are undermining public schools.  Bryant asks Eskelsen Garcia about a conversation she had with Arne Duncan after the recent NEA convention. She reports that Duncan suggested NEA is not giving the Department of Education enough credit for its efforts to promote preschool and to make college more affordable.  Then she describes, “how I put it to Duncan.  We now have bad state policies that insist, for instance, a child can’t go to fourth grade because he didn’t hit a cut score on a standardized reading test, and the state legislature did this in order to get Race to the Top money.  You can say you didn’t require the state to do that.  But when you required states to base their education programs mostly on test scores, and let states respond with ‘OK, we’ll just do this,’ you encouraged bad policy.  You became the catalyst for something really idiotic.”

At the conclusion of the interview, Eskelsen Garcia speaks about the necessity that NEA, the nation’s largest union, defend the future of public education itself.  “We also know the stakes have changed.  We always had to fight legislators in order to fund us.  Now we have legislators who want to dismantle us brick by brick.  The existence of public schools was always something you could take for granted… Now we know we’re fighting for our existence.”

These days it too often seems to much of the public as though policy just sort of happens—because it really wasn’t the federal government that passed it—but instead it was a response from a state legislature whose members did it to please Arne Duncan and his staff—all  for the purpose of making federal money flow to the state.  It is difficult for the public to parse all this out, particularly because the press can’t seem to sort it out either.  With his friendly handshakes, aw-shucks manner, and federal policies that control laws and programs enacted by state legislatures (due to federal requirements), Arne Duncan is accustomed to deflecting criticism.

Now NEA has a president willing to get the details straight and place responsibility squarely where it rests: in the policies of the department and the implementation of programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, Innovation Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers negotiated between states and staff at the U.S. Department of Education.  And she is willing to tell us we had better pay attention.

Good for Lily Eskelsen Garcia for telling the truth and assigning responsibility for what has to change.  I urge you to read Bryant’s interview with NEA’s new president.

NEA Repudiates Arne Duncan, Demands America Pay Closer Attention

It shouldn’t really be surprising that the delegates at the National Education Association’s recent convention passed a resolution calling on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign.

  • Arne Duncan, through regulations of the U.S. Department of Education, has made the granting of federal waivers from the most onerous penalties of the No Child Left Behind Act contingent on states’ evaluating school teachers based on econometric formulas derived from students’ scores on the state standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind.  This despite a warning from the American Statistical Association that such formulas are likely to be unreliable.
  • Arne Duncan called what happened in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane that destroyed much of the city and paved the way for the firing of all of the city’s public school teachers and the subsequent charterization of the entire school district a great opportunity.  Duncan said:  “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster.”
  • Back in 2010, Arne Duncan lauded the so-called “turnaround” of the high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, a restructure based on firing the principal and all the teachers.
  • Arne Duncan once announced at a meeting I attended: “Good charters are part of the solution; bad charters are part of the problem.”  Yet, despite that his Race to the Top program created huge incentives for states to eliminate any caps their legislatures had imposed on the number of new charters, and despite that the Department of Education makes grants to support the expansion of charter schools, Arne Duncan has never suggested any regulations to prevent academic failure or financial fraud in the bad charter schools he has himself named as “part of the problem.”  What is almost always left unsaid in the conversation about charter schools that are so heavily supported by the Department of Education is that the vast majority of teachers in charter schools are non-unionized; their lower salaries undermine the teaching profession.

This week Jeff Bryant, in his column for the Educational Opportunity Network, points out: “For quite some time, close observers of the nation’s education policy have been calling attention to the fault lines between education progressives in the Democratic Party and Third Way-style centrists, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Democrats for Education Reform, who lean toward a market-based, econometric philosophy for public education governance.  As Furman University education professor Paul Thomas recently wrote for Alternet, ‘While the Obama administration has cultivated the appearance of hope and change, its education policies are essentially slightly revised or greatly intensified versions of accountability reform begun under Ronald Reagan.'”

Duncan’s Department of Education has been unwilling to invest in well-researched strategies to address the deep issues of poverty and the accompanying challenges for teachers in the schools that serve children in communities where poverty is concentrated.  As an example of the policies Duncan has ignored, Bryant points to a resource from the Opportunity to Learn Campaign that names strategies to improve the recruitment and ongoing support for teachers in impoverished communities and to fund the reforms necessary to compensate for the disparities in taxing capacity across school districts.

There is also a significant body of academic literature about reforms that would support teachers in struggling schools, while Duncan has emphasized punitive policies.  A well-known book about what will be required to address the needs in schools overwhelmed by the conditions of their students’ lives, Organizing Schools for Improvement, a project of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, concludes: “Community social capital is a critical resource for advancing school improvement… We have documented that the density of children living under extraordinary circumstances within a school community can create a significant barrier for improvement…  Taken together, a weakness in community social capital combined with a high density of student needs marks the social context of truly disadvantaged schools.” Not surprisingly the Consortium describes budgetary investments that improved learning in one such school by supporting the teachers and their students: “On the academic front, (the school) sustained its focus on aligning curriculum with standards schoolwide, building common instructionally-embedded assessments… and coupling this with extensive supports for professional development and attention to recruiting and nurturing capable new staff who were committed to teaching in this school community.  Complementing this and equally important was an unrelenting focus on garnering community resources to respond to the extraordinary needs present in this school.  Establishing a sense of safety and organizational order was an essential first concern to address.  Assembling a first rate social services support team and accessing external program services that extended well beyond the meager ones offered by the school system was a key sustaining piece in the school’s reform agenda…  Reconnecting to families and supporting them in the education of their children was another interrelated element.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 194-195)

It is an important development that the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has by its recent action demanded that the public scrutinize Arne Duncan’s education policies. Conor P. Williams, of the New America Foundation, notes: “education is rarely a determinative political issue at the federal level — and it’s only marginally more so at the state level.  It’s rare that voters will allow a candidate’s education platform to sway their vote if they disagree on other, more provocative issues.  Politicians know this, which leaves them relatively free to govern education—and set its budgets—without attending too carefully to public opinion.”

Duncan’s Department of Education has sought to blame and scapegoat school teachers for test score achievement gaps at the same time the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the federal government, with leadership by Duncan, has cut spending since 2010 for Title I by 12 percent and for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by 11 percent, at the same time 35 states are spending less on public education than they did prior to the 2008 recession.  According to Five Thirty-Eight, overall federal per-pupil spending for public education fell by more than 20 percent between 2010 and 2012.  The real question is how to make the schools that serve our poorest children places where the learning climate and the salary schedule attract our very best teachers. Arne Duncan’s education policies have condoned our mass denial of what ought to be obvious: raising school achievement will require an investment of money and political capital; it cannot be accomplished by punishing teachers.

Education-Labor Collaboration Marks Important Beginning

What makes the tide of public opinion turn against the conventional wisdom?  It can happen.  I remember the nation slowly turning against the war in Vietnam.  The struggle involved rancor and violence. One reason opinion shifted on Vietnam is that the military draft ensured that most families were personally touched by the war.  The media played an important role, and major political leaders took sides, which created a very public debate.

Turning the tide today against the test-based accountability movement in public education brings a different kind of challenge.  Less than a quarter of households have children in school with the rest less personally connected. The conversation is being driven by federal policy, and yet we know that education is low on list of issues that preoccupy the President.  Neither any member of Congress nor a governor of any of the states has made improving the public schools a signature issue.

Despite these challenges, there has been some shifting of opinion.  Although in 2002, the federal testing law No Child Left Behind passed with wide bipartisan support, today most people will at least quietly admit what data demonstrates: the law failed to improve student achievement overall or close achievement gaps.  Many of us who have worked hard to discredit the law can tell you about the succession of white papers, joint sign-on statements, studies, and resolutions prepared, presented, and passed that have pushed this change along.  Masses of articles and blog posts and books have helped, culminating perhaps in Diane Ravitch’s 2010, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which the author told the story of her own transformed thinking.

Now, three years later and five years into the Obama Administration’s competitive Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants and the No Child Left Behind Waivers that demand punishments for so-called “failing” schools, many public school supporters continue to try to turn the tide.  The Obama policies remain grounded in the same business-accountability philosophy that drove No Child Left Behind, a strategy that emphasizes punishments for public schools that struggle, blames school teachers, and posits that privatization can more efficiently raise test scores.

Three weeks ago, Diane Ravitch published a new book, Reign of Error, a casebook for this effort.  And last weekend in Los Angeles, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign pulled together their allies from organized labor, the education community, and community organizations in a very significant event.  By bringing over 400 advocates and community organizers from across the states, the sponsors sought to begin weaving an effective protest against the proliferation of state legislation being spawned by the competitive grant programs of today’s U.S. Department of Education.

The Obama Administration’s programs—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and the No Child Left Behind waivers that help the states escape from the  requirement that test scores rise perpetually each year or schools be labeled “failing”—require states to establish their own laws and regulations that close schools, encourage privatization, and base teacher evaluations on students’ test scores.  These are the conditions which states must enact into law before they can qualify for the Department of Education’s competitive grant programs.  The reforms happening across the big city school districts that qualify for federal competitive grants may be similar, but they appear in each case via state laws while the hand of the federal government remains hidden. Creating a strategic movement to protest policy that appears so scattered is the logistic challenge last weekend’s planners sought to undertake.

The American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and National Opportunity to Learn Campaign brought together just the sort of coalition that can work at the state and local level where the policies are playing out and at the same time address the federal competitions that are the source of the state-by-state policies.  The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, and the Philadelphia Student Union can collaborate to protest the school funding crisis and rash of school closures in Philadelphia, just as the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Pilsen Alliance, and Chicago Teachers Union can work in Chicago to protest school closures, and as the United Federation of Teachers, New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, New York Alliance for Quality Education, and Urban Youth Collaborative can join to protest co-location of public and charter schools in New York City.  Together these groups and dozens of other local, state, and national partners from across the United States who participated in last week’s conference can push back against the competitive grant strategy at the federal level.

If you are reading this, you probably know about Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst campaign, framed around the idea that teachers put teachers’ needs first and ignore the needs of their students.   I can report that while two of the prominent sponsors of last weekend’s conference were the teachers unions, I did not experience any workshops, presentations or conversations that suggested putting teachers first.  The event’s focus was how better to equip public schools to serve children.  I sat in one workshop after another where teachers and parent community organizers grieved together that public school closures and privatization hurt children, undermine neighborhoods, and destabilize schools where staff are making an earnest attempt to educate children.  And I heard seasoned organizers training less experienced groups, organizations talking about how to work together, and educators working hard to engage community groups from city to city and state to state to advocate for enough school funding to provide the staff, services, and programs that children need—need desperately in many public schools where counselors, libraries, nurses, the arts, and music have been slashed and class size has shot upward.

For the first time the teachers unions, other national organizations, and a coalition of state and local organizations have been able jointly to negotiate a statement, The Principles that Unite Us, that pushes directly against today’s crisis: “the corporate model of school reform that seeks to turn public schools over to private managers and encourages competition—as opposed to collaboration—between schools and teachers.” Many of the organizations participating in last week’s event sent representatives to regional town halls and a national drafting meeting earlier this year, a grassroots process by which the statement was developed.  Close to a hundred national, state and local organizations— representing education, labor, and community—have endorsed the statement, thereby declaring their belief “in strengthening, not dismantling public education.”  “Our interest is in public schools that serve all children…. schools that are rooted in communities…. schools where those closest to the classroom share in decision-and policy-making at all levels.” (I blogged about the statement itself last weekend here.)

The Principles that Unite Us is an inspiring document. I urge you to read it.  The sponsors invite additional organizations—national, state, and local—to endorse the statement. If your organization will sign on, please contact Eric Zachary at the American Federation of Teachers: ezachary@aft.org

Teachers Unions and Their Allies Proclaim Core Value of Public Education

Tonight 400 members of the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, Communities for Education Reform and allies of these organizations joined AFT’s Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference in Los Angeles where the sponsors released a new set of principles on which they have agreed.  When AFT and NEA along with allied organizations agree on joint principles, it is an indication of deep concern and broad consensus.  There are well over 3 million public school teachers in the United States, the vast majority of whom belong to one of the unions.

Event keynoter, the Rev. William Barber, the prophetic leader of North Carolina’s NAACP, declared: “When we stand together, our diversity is our strength that can help this nation move closer to what our founding documents say on paper.” Noting that today’s political battle is one of “extremism vs. those who believe in the Constitution,” Barber challenged Friday night’s crowd: “We are in a soul-changing moment as a nation.” “There’s been too much progress in America for us to go back now!”

For 20 weeks, Rev. Barber has been leading “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina. Marchers have been protesting North Carolina legislative actions this year that have eliminated the earned-income tax credit for 900,000; cut Medicaid coverage for 500,000; ended federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 in a state with the country’s fifth-highest jobless rate; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; and slashed taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent.

Endorsed by AFT, NEA and allies, The Principles That Unite Us, is a statement of seven primary values that address what is happening due to federal incentives for states to impose punitive school reform in the context of austerity budgeting across many states: closing schools, rating teachers according to students’ test scores, and privatizing schools—all policies that target the poorest communities.

  • Public schools are public institutions, while, “The corporate model of school reform seeks to turn public schools over to private managers and encourages competition…”
  • Voices of teachers administrators, school staff, students, parents and community members matter.
  • Schools are community institutions that should help coordinate services for students and families to address poverty and other challenges children bring with them to school.
  • Assessments are critical to help teachers guide lesson planning, but are “misused when teachers are fired, schools are closed and students are penalized based on a single set of scores.”
  • “Teaching is a career, not a temporary stop on the way to one.”
  • Schools should be welcoming and inclusive.  Schools must not push out vulnerable students or treat parents as intruders.
  • Schools must be fully funded.  “We have not come far enough.  Today our schools remain segregated and unequal. When we short-change some students, we short-change our nation as a whole”

And from the introduction that frames the principles:  “We believe that the only way to give every child the opportunity to pursue a rich and productive life both individually and as a member of society is through a system of publicly funded, equitable and democratically controlled public schools… Our interest is in public schools that serve all children.  We need schools that are rooted in communities, that provide a rich and equitable academic experience and model democratic practices.  We want schools where those closest to the classroom share in decision-and policy-making at all levels.  We need schools where students feel safe, nurtured and empowered to become productive adults—that provide an alternative to the prison pipeline that too many of our children are caught in.  We believe that the only way to achieve these schools is by strengthening the institution of pubic education.”