New Reports Confirm Persistent Child Poverty While Policymakers Blame Educators and Fail to Address Core Problem

On Tuesday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a stunning analysis, by the newspaper’s data analyst Rich Exner, of the school district grades awarded by the state of Ohio on the state report cards released last week.  The new report cards are based on data from the 2018-2019 school year.  I encourage you to follow the link to look at Exner’s series of bar graphs, which, like this one, present a series of almost perfect downward staircases, with “A” grades for school districts in communities with high median income and “F” grades for the school districts in Ohio’s poorest communities.

The correlation of academic achievement with family income has been demonstrated now for half a century, but policymakers, like those in the Ohio legislature who are debating punitive school district takeovers, prefer to blame public school teachers and administrators instead of using the resources of government to assist struggling families who need better access to healthcare, quality childcare, better jobs, and food assistance.

Ohio’s school district grades arrived this week. At the same time, and with less fanfare, arrived a series of reports on the level of federal spending on children, reports documenting that, as Education Week‘s Andrew Uifusa explains: “The share of the federal budget that goes toward children, including education spending, dipped to just below 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2018—the lowest level in the decade.”

On Tuesday of this week, the Urban Institute released a new report detailing trends in federal spending on children’s needs: “(O)verall spending on children represents a relatively small share of total federal spending, and that share is dwindling. In 2018, overall federal spending on children younger than 19 fell from recent years to about $6,200 per child.  Education and other discretionary spending categories saw the steepest declines last year, as they were squeezed by growing spending on health and retirement programs, as well as interest payments on the national debt.”  Further, federal spending on children is growing thin in particular areas as children’s needs compete with one another: “Increased mandatory spending on health programs for children and adults is putting pressure on education spending and other discretionary spending on kids. In 2018, federal spending on education dropped by $1.9 billion.  This is part of a long-term trend, as 2018 federal spending on elementary and secondary education was 48 percent below peak spending during the recession (in 2010) and 14 percent below pre-recession spending (in 2008).”  “As spending exceeds revenues year after year, the national debt will continue to climb… Under current policies, interest payments on the debt are projected to exceed spending on children in the next few years.”

A new report this month from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Children and Families in Trouble, examines the persistence of child poverty and the federal government’s failure to address it: “Poverty in the United States continued a sluggish decline in 2018, falling to 11.8 percent, with children and young adults still experiencing the highest rates.  Child poverty (ages 0-18) and young adult poverty (ages 18-24) remained unacceptably high at 16.2 percent and 15 percent respectively with alarmingly large racial and ethnic disparities in poverty.  Young children, under age 5, remain the poorest of all, at 17.7 percent….”  “Racial disparities are persistent, stark, and caused by structural factors… Black and Hispanic children are more likely to be poor (29.5 and 23.7 percent respectively) compared to 8.9 percent of non-Hispanic white children, despite high levels of work among their families.”

CLASP reports relatively high levels of employment among families with poor children, but problems with the kind of work available, the wages, and the conditions: “More than two-thirds of poor children (70.3 percent) live in households with at least one worker. Low wages, inadequate hours, and underemployment mean that work still does not pay a family-sustaining wage for millions of households. While unemployment remains near historical lows, a substantial share of low-income workers is employed part time involuntarily, meaning they would prefer to be working full time but are unable to find full-time work or get sufficient hours from their employer. Low-wage jobs predominate in the fastest-growing sectors, such as retail and food service. Such jobs are characterized by few benefits; unstable and unpredicable schedules; and temporary or part-time status.”

In the 13th annual release, last week, of its proposed Children’s Budget, First Focus on Children summarizes several areas in which Congress needs to support children with increased spending:

  • “Almost 80 percent of eligible 3-5 year old children lack access to Head Start programs.
  • “The Federal Government is not fulfilling 55 percent of its funding commitment for Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) grants.
  • “Of the households on the waiting list for housing assistance, 60 percent are families with children.
  • “75 percent of poor families in the U.S. who are eligible for cash assistance do not receive it.
  • “Nearly 83 percent of children who receive free or reduced price lunch during the school year do not have access to the summer meals program.”

The Trump administration has now also proposed a new “public charge rule” which would eventually deny green cards and application for citizenship to members of immigrant families who use public benefits. The new rule will apply in the future to the possible citizenship of today’s infants and children in these families.  In its recent report CLASP highlights special problems for immigrant children if, at the end of a 60 day posting period, the rule goes into effect (on October 15, 2019): “Among children, 425,000 more were uninsured in 2018 versus 2017, reversing a decades-long trend toward greater coverage. This concerning reversal, including a significant worsening among Hispanic children and among young children… likely reflects multiple attacks on health insurance coverage for people with low incomes. Notably, the Trump Administration is waging ongoing efforts to undermine the ACA and Medicaid access, and a hateful anti-immigrant agenda… (is) causing a chilling effect on immigrant families’ access to public programs.”

In late August, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) highlighted “Six Ways Trump ‘Public Benefits’ Policies Harm Children.” NEPC’s newsletter examines how the Trump administration’s proposed new rule would constrain opportunity for children in vulnerable immigrant families: “On August 12th the Trump administration proposed a new rule to change the criteria considered when the U.S. government decides whether to extend visas or grant permanent residency (‘green cards’).  These criteria—which are inextricably tied to a history of bias in the immigration process—have long included evidence about the likelihood of the immigrant becoming dependent on public benefits. But the approach that is now used focuses on cash benefits, such as Supplemental Social Security (‘disability’) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (‘welfare’).  The proposed rule will expand that to the main non-cash benefits used by immigrants: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps; Medicaid; and housing vouchers and other housing subsidies.”  NEPC continues: “(Seventeen) states plus DC have brought two lawsuits against the administration, alleging that the rule redefines the term ‘public charge’ inconsistently with Congress’ intent in the Immigration and Nationality Act; that it violates constitutional equal protection guarantees by effectively targeting immigrants from poorer areas in Asia, Latin America, and Africa; that it infringes on states’ rights to protect their own residents; and that it punitively, arbitrarily and capriciously targets immigrants for using public benefits programs that are used by about half the country’s residents.” While school breakfast and lunch programs are not directly affected, “current policy automatically enrolls students in the federal free and reduced-price school meal program if their families receive food stamps… Accordingly, if immigrant families avoid SNAP, (their children) are less likely to receive the meals.”

My reason for quoting all of this information about persistent child poverty is to make the needs of America’s poorest children visible. The bar graph produced by the Plain Dealer‘s Rich Exner clearly shows that child poverty affects academic achievement. Policy makers, however, in the spirit of test-based, sanctions-based school accountability, are instead determined to impose punishments on the school districts serving poor children. They imagine that if they shift the blame onto teachers, nobody will notice that they are themselves failing to invest the resources and power of government in programs to support the needs of America’s poorest children.

William Mathis: What Standardized Tests Measure and What They Can’t Tell Us

Since 2002, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, American public schools, and later their teachers, have been evaluated by the standardized test scores of their students.  States have been required to punish the schools with the lowest scores—firing their principals or some of their teachers, closing the schools, or turning them over to charter schools.  But the idea that we can judge schools and judge teachers by metrics—by the aggregate test scores of their students—evolved long before the passage of No Child Left Behind—even prior to the publication in 1983 of the A Nation At Risk report that is said to have begun the wave of standards-based school reform. Perhaps it has been part of growing enchantment with our society’s advancing capacity to collect and analyze data.

Today it is becoming widely acknowledged, however, that the strategy of test-and-punish didn’t improve public schools, didn’t identify the best or the worst teachers, and didn’t help students who had been left far behind.  Even so, the narrative that we should judge schools by their test scores has become what everybody just believes—the conventional wisdom.

In a new commentary, Education Reforms: Everything Important Cannot Be Measured, (also published here), William Mathis, the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, traces the long history of our belief that raising test scores will be the solution to our society’s problems. And he identifies two primary flaws in this thinking.

First, Mathis reminds us that the standardized test scores which carry so much weight these days measure more about what happens in children’s lives outside of school than the tests measure the quality of the school  As a society, Mathis explains, we misread test scores: “That is, the low scores are strongly affected by circumstances outside the schools. Children coming from violent, economically challenged and drug addicted homes, as a group, are not going to do as well as their more fortunate classmates. As the family income gap between children has widened, the achievement gap has also widenedA Stanford professor compared all the school districts in the nation using six different measures of socio-economic well-being and found that a stunning 70% of test scores could be predicted by these six factors.  When the PARCC tests, which are used to test “college and career readiness” were compared with freshman grade point average, the tests only predicted between one and 16% of the GPA. What this means is that the tests do a better job of measuring socio-economic status than measuring schools. This pattern has been solidly and consistently confirmed by a mountain of research since the famous Coleman report in 1966.  It pointed to family and social problems rather than schools.”

Second, much of the most important contribution of schools to children’s development can’t be measured at all by standardized tests. Mathis concludes: “In focusing on what is easily measured, rather than what is important, we fail to grasp the real problem. To be sure, tests measure reading and math reasonably well and we need to keep tests for that purpose. But that’s only one part of education. Schools also teach children to get along with others, prepare young people for citizenship, encourage creativity, teach job and human skills, integrate communities, teach tolerance and co-operation, and generally prepare students to be contributing members of society. These things are not so easily measured.” “By concentrating only on the easily measurable, we squeeze the life out of schools. We devalue, de-emphasize and defund things that lead to a better life, better schools and a better civilization…  Parents want their children to grow and lead productive, happy lives and contribute to society. They want their children to practice civic virtue and have loving relationships. But these things are not easily measured by a test.”

As a public school educator and an academic, Mathis brings a unique point of view to this topic.  Under his leadership, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) publishes expert research on education by academics at major universities.  NEPC also publishes expert, third-party reviews of selected non-peer-reviewed publications—many of them reviews of so-called research from ideological think tanks.  NEPC’s website declares: “Using academic peer review standards, reviewers consider the quality and defensibility of a report’s assumptions, methods, findings, and recommendations.”

But Mathis is also a lifelong public school educator.  He has spent his working life in public schools and he knows from experience what matters in schools. He is the former superintendent of schools of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year.  Today Mathis serves on the Vermont State Board of Education.

Baffled by the test-and-punish policy our society has been actively pursuing for decades—despite massive evidence that we ought to be addressing poverty, inequality and segregation along with improving our public schools—Mathis ponders the path we’ve chosen to follow: “We collected more data. We now have ‘data dash-boards.’ Countless ads on the web tout this lucrative market and proclaim how people can ‘drill down,’ create interactive charts and visuals to provide ‘deep learning.’ They display all manner of things such as differences by ethnic group, technical education, graduation rate and a myriad of exotic esoterica.  By all means, we need to continue to collect this important data. The problem is that we already know what the dash-board tells us.”

However, “What it doesn’t tell us is the nature of the real problems and how to correct them. First, we must look to those things outside the school that affect school performance. Second, in addition to hard data, we must use on-the-ground observations to see whether we provide legitimate opportunities to all children, whether the school is warm and inviting, and whether the curriculum is up to date and well-delivered.”

Laurene Powell Jobs’ Glitzy Projects versus School Reform that Is Basic and Essential

Here are two fascinating and radically contrasting articles on the subject of school reform. They tell us about the different ways people think about school reform, about the factors that determine which reforms begin to permeate the public mind, about what does or doesn’t seem to matter to reformers prescribing particular ideas, and about the long term political effects the language and framing by which policies are sold.

The first is David Montgomery’s Washington Post profile of Laurene Powell Jobs, her philanthropy—the Emerson Collective, and several of the Emerson Collective’s projects, including the XQ Institute and College Track. Laurene Powell Jobs is Steve Jobs’ widow, and among America’s tech-multi-billionaire philanthropists. Montgomery describes the way Powell Jobs has structured her philanthropy: “She set up the collective as a limited liability company rather than a foundation, not unlike the three-year-old Chan Zuckerberg Initiative established by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. This gives flexibility to do more than just make grants to nonprofit groups… Emerson invests in private companies, Powell Jobs said, not because the goal is to make money but because Silicon Valley has shown her that ‘amazing entrepreneurs who… are 100 percent aligned with our mission’ can find solutions that might not occur to a nonprofit. Emerson is also able to back advocacy groups, launch its own activist campaigns and contribute to political organizations… The LLC structure also means Emerson need not disclose details of its assets and spending… For the crew Powell Jobs has assembled, being tapped to join the collective was like being called to a mission.  In early 2016, shortly after he had left the Obama administration, Arne Duncan mentioned to Powell Jobs his idea for a novel experiment to confront the gun carnage in his home town of Chicago.” She also hired Russlynn Ali, Duncan’s assistant education secretary, to run the XQ Institute.

Like other mega-philanthropists, Powell Jobs is leveraging her voice through the media, though she insists that her money is not driving the content. “(L)ast year, Powell Jobs unleashed a series of dramatic moves across a three-dimensional chessboard of American culture. In July, Emerson Collective purchased a majority stake in The Atlantic, a 161-year-old pillar of the journalistic establishment. In September, an arm of the Collective and Hollywood’s Entertainment Industry Foundation co-opted the four major networks in prime time to simultaneously present an hour of live television, featuring dozens of celebrities inviting the nation to reconceive high school.  Over the following weeks, the Collective partnered with the French artist JR to create two monumental pieces of guerrilla art on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border that went viral on social media as satirical critiques of the border wall. In October, she bought the second-largest stake—about 20 percent—in the estimated $2.5 billion holding company that owns the NBA’s Wizards, the NHL’s Capitals, Capital One Arena and several other ventures… In February, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant announced he was committing $10 million to help create a Washington-area branch of a program that Powell Jobs had co-founded, which supports students to and through college in nine cities.”

The second article is featured in the Summer 2018 Issue of American Educator, the journal of the American Federation of Teachers. The piece is written by scholars at Stanford University’s Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. In Community Schools: A Promising Foundation for Progress, Anna Maier, Julia Daniel, Jeannie Oakes and Livia Lam present the well-researched case for bringing full-service, wraparound Community Schools to support children and families, particularly in the public schools in our society’s poorest neighborhoods.

What is a Community School?  “Community schools represent a place-based strategy in which schools partner with community agencies and allocate resources to integrate a focus on academics, health and social services, and youth and community development, and also foster community engagement. Many operate on all-day and year-around schedules, and serve both children and adults.  Although this strategy is appropriate for students of all backgrounds, many community schools arise in neighborhoods where structural forces linked to racism and poverty shape the experiences of young people and erect barriers to learning and school success. These are communities where families have few resources to supplement what typical schools provide.”

The article outlines the four conceptual pillars of Community Schools:

  • Patch together resources to bring integrated student supports—medical, dental and mental health and social services inside the school;
  • Expand learning time and opportunity with after-school, weekend and summer programs, and added individualized learning opportunities;
  • Bring parents and other community members into the school for enrichment and shared decision making regarding the school.
  • Build collaboration among all partners led by a community-school coordinator who brings together the academic program with medical, social service, extracurricular, and parental support programming.

The authors summarize the evidence from 143 research studies and conclude: “Community schools cannot overcome all problems facing poor neighborhoods—that would require substantial investments in job training, housing, and social safety net infrastructures, and other poverty alleviation measures. However, they have a long history of connecting children and families to resources, opportunities and supports that foster healthy development and help offset the harms of poverty. A health clinic can deliver medical and psychological treatment, as well as glasses to myopic children, dental care to those who need it, and inhalers for asthma sufferers.  Extending the school day and remaining open during the summer enable the school to offer additional academic help and activities, such as sports and music, which can entice youngsters who might otherwise drop out.”

The contrast between Powell Jobs’ philanthropy and the movement for Community Schools is not about the purpose or worthiness of Powell Jobs’ projects versus the value of Community Schools.  Montgomery describes how Powell Jobs, by creating an LLC instead of a philanthropy, can engage in political advocacy, including an effort to get some kind of Dream Act passed to protect students in the threatened DACA program.  In several cities the Emerson Collective is paying for programs to help high school students apply to college and providing non-financial supports to help them stay there and graduate. And in Chicago, under Arne Duncan’s direction, the Emerson Collective is working to connect young adults with work.

Here is what is different.  The authors of the American Educator‘s article on Community Schools represent major academic institutions—the National Education Policy Center and Stanford’s Learning Policy Institute. And the article is published in the journal of one of the two largest organizations representing the primary practitioners of education—schoolteachers. It’s purpose is to make the case, documented by the kind of research required in the academy, that Community Schools represent an innovative and at the same time responsible investment of tax dollars. Such schools, defined loosely enough to be locally adaptable from place to place, have been proven a worthwhile public investment.

In contrast: With $20 billion to invest, and the freedom from any kind of oversight (by government or any outside agency), Powell Jobs can experiment. With so much money involved—and so many celebrities assembled—her experiment has a glitzy profile.  Her four-network TV special on high school disruption typifies her way of operating.  Montgomery describes: “The long list of storytellers in acting and song who participated in last fall’s prime-time education reform special—from Tom Hanks and Viola Davis to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andra Day—(who) did a good job of selling Emerson’s approach to reimagining high school. The XQ Institute, Emerson’s independent education arm, has pledged $115 million to 18 schools across the country pursuing their own innovative approaches…. Without prescribing exact models, the group wants to focus on the competence a student achieves in a given subject more than the number of hours she sits in that class. There’s an emphasis on knowledge relevant to employers of the future. However, some reviews of the televised special were skeptical: ‘Encouraging such tinkering is a fine use of philanthropic dollars,’ Jack Schneider, assistant professor of education at College of the Holy Cross wrote in the Washington Post. ‘But that isn’t what the XQ project is promoting.  Instead it is publicizing a historically uninformed message that today’s technologies demand something new of us as human beings and that our unchanging high schools are failing at the task.'”

When someone’s so-called philanthropy is big enough to purchase TV time and the participation of a cast of celebrities, it is easy to forget that Powell Jobs has not really confessed that her XQ Institute is a mere experiment: pouring $115 into 18 high schools just to watch how the money might transform them. Like the Gates Foundation’s failed experiment to replace comprehensive high schools with small high schools or Gates’ other failed experiment with evaluating teachers by students’ scores and offering incentive pay, Powell Jobs’ experiment may never come to anything helpful. But, as Schneider explains, there is political content—trumpeted by celebrities on TV—to the whole endeavor: to discredit America’s high schools in some vague, undefined way.  We’ve been watching the creation of a similar stereotype for several decades: America’s so-called “failing schools.”

I think it is far more worthwhile to pay attention to the American Educator‘s report on full-service, wraparound Community Schools. There is a political agenda in the movement to expand Community Schools, but it is explicitly stated and the method carefully defined. The political goal is to patch together social service, Medicaid, and education dollars to create full service institutions in America’s poorest communities. Evidence has been amassed to document that such wraparound institutions support children and their families, and that where teachers, social workers, counselors, doctors, dentists and Head Start teachers work together, children thrive and do better in school.

I wish Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective would invest its vast resources in an already well known reform. Research has documented that the expansion of Community Schools would support the children enrolled in our nation’s most vulnerable public schools.

School Ratings Not Only Tell You Little about Schools, They Contribute to Economic Segregation

Jack Schneider, a professor and education historian at the College of the Holy Cross and director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, points out that the school district in Boston, Massachusetts encourages parents to choose from among the public schools across the district.  In a short commentary,  State School Rankings ‘Virtually Worthless,’ Schneider explains that many parents make that choice pretty much based on overall school ratings assigned by the state.

How does Massachusetts calculate its school ratings?  “Each year, the state classifies schools into one of five levels, with the ‘highest performing’ designated Level 1. This practice, though distinct in its details, is in keeping with what is done in the vast majority of states. The theory behind such rankings, whether devised as numerical scores, A-F grades, or narrative labels, is that parents and communities want a clear and simple indicator of school quality. Unfortunately, there are… flaws that make these levels virtually worthless. The first and most obvious problem with state-issued ratings of schools is that they are based primarily on a flawed measure: student standardized test scores.”

Schneider believes such school “grades,” “report cards” and rating systems show parents very little about the quality of schools. Schneider explains all the factors about school quality that test-based ratings omit: “Last fall, MassINC conducted a poll of Boston parents and found that more than two-thirds of them identified as ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’ all of the following: the quality of the teachers and administrators; school safety and discipline; the school’s academic programming; college and career readiness; class sizes; facility quality; the values promoted by the school; the school’s approach to discipline; and the diversity of the teachers and administrators. These critical dimensions of school quality are mostly ignored in the vast majority of statewide rating systems….”

Also, explains Schneider, “(S)chools are not uniformly good or bad. As most of us know from experience, schools—as structures, organizations, and communities—have different strengths and weaknesses. Schools that are struggling in some ways may be thriving in others. And schools with illustrious reputations often have a lot to work on.”

And finally, Schneider names the reality that school ratings are shaping our society: “Perhaps most importantly, ratings shape the decisions parents make about where to live and where to send their children to school.”  Although Schneider does not explore the details of this important observation,  academic research demonstrates the reasons why school ratings are likely to reinforce growing housing segregation by family income.

Over a half century of sociological research (dating back to the landmark 1966 Coleman report) demonstrates a strong correlation between overall school achievement and aggregate family income. When states rate schools by their aggregate test scores, the schools whose students are wealthy tend to get an A, and the schools serving very poor children too frequently get a D or an F.  Here are academic experts discussing how test scores reflect a community’s aggregate economic level, not school quality.

In 2011, the Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon showed here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Based on Reardon’s research, in a 2016 report from the National Education Policy Center warning against the continued reliance on No Child Left Behind’s strategy of testing children, rating schools by scores, and punishing the schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo caution policymakers: “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries.  We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our highest scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board. We must also deal with governmentally determined housing patterns that segregate our children… One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality. This has not happened. Shining a light does not provide the social and educational learning essentials for our neediest children.”

William Mathis and Kevin Welner, in another 2016 National Education Policy Report, summarize what was misguided about school accountability policy imposed by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act: “As policymakers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty. Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding. The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less. This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.”

How does this relate to test-based school accountability?  Last fall, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz explains: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) Policymakers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124)

Test-and-punish accountability since 2002, when No Child Left Behind was enacted, has condemned as “failing” the poorest schools and school districts whose test scores, according to academic research, are undermined by the economic circumstances of their communities and families. In lock-step, states have bought in to holding schools accountable and exacerbated the problem by ranking schools with numerical rankings or letter grades—again based on standardized test scores—that encourage wealthier families who can afford it to move to affluent communities that brag about A-rated schools and to abandon the schools in poor communities. For sixteen years, school accountability policies mandated by federal and state governments have been contributing to the economic resegregation of America’s metropolitan areas.

National School Funding Expert Shreds Far-Right Rationale for Portable School Funding

Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has gone around relentlessly announcing her philosophy of education, even in places where the message might not be age-appropriate. For example, last fall to celebrate the beginning of the school year, DeVos visited a K-8 school in Casper, Wyoming, where she told the children: “Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education ‘system.’ What’s an education ‘system’?  There is no such thing!  Are you a system?  No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers. Here in Casper, and even within your individual families, the unique needs of one student aren’t the same as the next, which is why no school… is a perfect fit for every student.  Schools must be organized around the needs of students, not the other way around…”  Earlier in the summer, she had said the same thing to a more comprehending and likely audience at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council: “There are individual men and women and there are families… and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

DeVos’s words have been consistent, despite that to me they sound like gobbledygook. How do we separate the needs of the individual children being educated from the system of schools our society has set up for that purpose? Is DeVos’s message really just an empty, educational-libertarian linguistic construction to convey the message she stated bluntly in another 2015 speech, when she declared, “Government really sucks.”?

Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, now renamed as ExcelinEd, recently released a brief to help us understand what DeVos means when she says, “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families.”  The new brief, Student-Centered State Funding: A How-to Guide for State Policymakers, purports to tell states how to remake their school funding distribution formulas in order to make each child’s school funding fully portable—a little backpack full of cash that the student can carry with her as her parents choose the school they believe will perfectly meet her needs. The brief seems to emphasize public school choice across school districts, but the implication is that the state/local public funding would be fully portable to whatever school, public or private, the parent might choose.

ExcelinEd’s brief says there are five simple steps for remaking a state’s school finance: “(1) Establish a base funding amount that every district receives for each student served… (2) Require local funding for a district on a per student basis…. (3) Structure all funding for students with special needs or disadvantages as a weight…. (4) Adjust funding for districts each year based on the number and characteristics of students they are serving. (5) Remove restrictions on how districts spend money….”  ExcelinEd defends its new strategy as more transparent, more empowering of districts and parents, and fairer.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado asked Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, to evaluate ExcelinEd’s new plan.  NEPC just published Baker’s review.

Baker is not impressed: “First, the brief advances the false dichotomy that state and district school finance systems should focus on funding the child, not funding the (bureaucratic, adult-centered) institutions that serve those children. This false dichotomy wrongly asserts there is no benefit to children of equitably and adequately financing educational institutions, and ignores the fact that it ultimately takes institutions, institutional structures and governance to deliver the relevant and appropriate programs and services… Second, the brief is based on overly simplistic, frequently misrepresented, and often outright incorrect versions of the status quo.  This includes overbroad mischaracterizations of how schools are currently financed…  Third, the details of the brief’s proposals and espoused benefits are entirely speculative and unsubstantiated….”

In its brief, ExcelinEd describes its theory about how states currently operate public schools: (1) that, “states fund specific staffing positions, services, programs or schools rather than students,” (2) that “states have hold harmless provisions such that districts get the same funding even if they lose students,” (3) that “states allow local funding of districts that is not dependent on the number of students,” and (4) that “states provide additional funding to districts that have a relatively small number of students.”  Baker  demonstrates the flaws in ExcelinEd’s argument: “The authors appear to be unaware or simply ignore the vast body of peer reviewed literature for guiding a) the setting of foundation levels, based on ‘costs’ of providing children with equal opportunities to achieve common outcome goals, b) the determination of additional costs associated with variation in individual student needs and in collective student population needs, c) the additional costs associated with differences in economies of scale and population sparsity, and d) the differences in costs associated with geographic differences in competitive wages for teachers and other school staff.  Additionally, literature dating back nearly 100 years addresses methods for determining equitable local contribution toward foundation spending levels.”

Baker condemns ExcelinEd’s brief for ignoring that school funding inequity is universally connected to disparities in the local property taxing capacity of local school districts. He explains that a primary purpose of state aid formulas is to equalize—to compensate for unequal local capacity—“to… keep in check per-pupil inequity resulting from local property tax revenues.”  “But the obsession in the ExcelinEd policy brief seems to be primarily on the fact that available funding for school districts is not 100% linked to the coming and going of individual students… ExcelinEd offers a bizarre illustration of how districts could increase or decrease their property taxes as enrollment shifts occur, with no consideration whatsoever of the primary basis by which local contributions are determined…. That is, to ensure that local jurisdictions, regardless of their wealth, can attain adequate and equitable per-pupil resources… The authors do not address the property wealth equalization goals of state school finance formulas….”

Baker further condemns ExcelinEd’s failure to acknowledge the role of concentrated student poverty across a local district’s student population, and failure to distinguish concentrated poverty from any individual student’s personal lack of resources. While it would be relatively easy to compensate for a child’s personal poverty with weighted additional funding the child would carry in his personal backpack full of cash, concentrated poverty is a more serious challenge that is glossed over in ExcelinEd’s brief.  Here is Baker: “Student demographic factors that affect the institutional costs of achieving common outcomes come in two parts—individual factors related to specific-student needs (language proficiency, disability) and collective population factors, including poverty, the concentration of poverty, and interaction of poverty with population density.  These ‘social context’ factors do not simply move with the child. A specific child’s marginal cost in one social context setting might be quite different than in another.” “Here the authors choose to outright deny that the marginal costs of an additional low-income student in a predominantly low-income setting might be different from the marginal costs of that same student in a higher income setting, and that accommodating those costs might improve equity…. (T)his means simply ignoring a legitimate driver of the cost of providing equal opportunity and thus knowingly disadvantaging students in schools with higher concentrations of poverty, merely to preserve their dogmatic view that all funding can and should be ‘student centered.’ That is, the authors are rationalizing the maintenance of inequality, because it’s just too hard to accommodate in their pro-choice framework.”

Baker notes that ExcelinEd’s brief denies the existence of stranded costs when children leave a school district for school choice: “(T)he authors’ treatment of funding related to declining enrollment fails to comprehend institutional cost structures…. Rather, in their view, any dollar that does not travel immediately with the child is a dollar spent inequitably and/or inefficiently…. (I)nstitutions providing services to the state’s children must manage fixed costs (institutional overhead, including capital stock), step costs (classroom/level site expenses, which do not vary by student), and costs which vary at the level of the individual student. All costs do not, nor can they, nor have they ever, regardless of institutional type, vary at the level of each individual student.”

Baker condemns ExcelinEd’s promise that school choice and portable funding will contribute to equity: “The brief’s central premise is that adopting ‘student-centered’ funding to enable parental choice of schools necessarily leads to a fairer and more transparent system for financing children’s schooling…. (T)he brief is predicated on the wrong assumption that most if not all state school finance systems and district budgeting models… operate in a way that favors institutions (and adult interests) over children.”

“Finally, to the extent that the end goal is to increase choice, it should be noted that increasing choices among different types of operators, with different financial and student service incentives, and different institutional cost structures and resource access, tends to erode, not enhance equity.  That is, increased choice in common spaces often leads to increasingly unequal choices.”

Everybody Should Read This New Policy Brief: Lessons from NCLB for ESSA

In the context of President-elect Donald Trump’s promise that his education plan will be based on the ideology of increased privatization, it is refreshing and instructive to read the new research-based (seven and a half pages of footnotes for a 15 page paper) policy brief from the National Education Policy Center on Lessons from NCLB for the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The style is charming and the paper non-technical.  Anybody who cares about the role of the federal government in education ought to read it. It could profitably be the basis of conversation in a community group or a PTA.

Here is how its authors, Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo begin: “If Lyndon Johnson were alive today, he would undoubtedly be discouraged to see what has become of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that he signed into law fifty years ago as part of the War on Poverty… (O)ur lawmakers have largely eroded ESEA’s original intent.  Moving from assistance to ever-increasing regulation…. (a)t each step, our educational policies became more test-based, top-down, prescriptive, narrow and punitive, and federal support to build the most struggling schools’ capacity for improvement faded.”

How does the new version of the federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (passed last December) compare to its No Child Left Behind predecessor?  “(A)t its core, ESSA is still a primarily test-based educational regime. Annual standardized testing in reading and math is still mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Science testing at benchmark levels of schooling remains. The criteria for requiring schools to write improvement plans have been revised, yet standardized test scores continue to comprise the largest share of these criteria. Identification of schools in need of improvement continues to depend mostly on scores, but now also includes one or more other academic and quality indicators. Formerly rigid prescriptions for school reforms have been relegated to districts and states, although the expanded range of potential reforms still encourages and funds charter schools and requires other NCLB-like ‘corrective actions.’  State accountability systems must be federally approved and mechanisms such as turnaround-driven layoffs, conversions to charter schools, and school closures are likely to continue even though they have not been proven to consistently improve schools in struggling communities. Punishments for continued low test-performance persist. The most substantial difference is that the power to decide which test-based consequences for under-performing schools resides once again in the states, not the federal government.”

After an introduction, the short brief is organized into five sections: NCLB and ESSA: Commonalities and Contrasts—First-Order Lessons for ESSA—Lessons for State Accountability Systems—Recommendations for Policymakers and School Practice—and The Moral Imperative: Adequate Inputs and the Opportunity Gap.  Whether you are a parent, a citizen, a teacher, a state policymaker or a member of Congress, there is important information her for you, and the presentation is lucid and non-technical.

Mathis and Trujillo believe the primary lesson from No Child Left Behind is that, “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities…. Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools.”

What about the rationale often used to justify all the testing mandated by No Child Left Behind?  “One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality.  This has not happened.”

The authors refute the idea that high-stakes, test-based accountability improves learning. And they present research to show that the school turnarounds prescribed by NCLB caused “disruption, decreased efficiency, and human capital and organizational commitment losses” instead of helping children.  They reject test-based teacher evaluation, a strategy used by 74% of schools that received School Improvement Grants: “Evaluating teachers by test scores breaks down in several logical and empirical ways.  First, students must be randomly assigned, which is demonstrably not the case in school practice. Some teachers teach remedial classes while others teach advanced placement students.  Further, a given teacher could be (and has been) rated a success in one year and a failure in the next simply based on the students assigned. Second, the error rate inherent in this approach is so high that it simply precludes its use in high-stakes circumstances. Third, there is no general teaching factor that is universally applicable to all cases. This renders the model invalid for general application. Fourth, alternative explanations of gains (or losses) caused by factors outside the teacher’s control have typically not been properly considered. The use of value-added measures provoked the unusual response of a cautionary statement by the American Educational Research Association as well as a warning from the American Statistical Association.”

Recommendations for states?  “Above all else, each state must assure that students have adequate opportunities, funding and resources to achieve state goals.” “States must shift toward an assistance role and exercise less of a regulatory role.”  “States and districts must collaborate with social service and labor departments to ensure adequate personal, social and economic opportunities.”

And there is one special opportunity afforded by the Every Student Succeeds Act that was absent from No Child Left Behind: “Under ESSA, school performance will now be measured using a system that incorporates one or more non-academic indicators—chosen separately by each state. These non-academic indicators provide states their strongest new tool for maximizing educational equity and opportunity and bringing attention to the nation’s broader educational purposes.”

Here is the moral assessment that concludes this short, readable brief: “The nation has become a majority of minorities and the common good requires all students to be well educated.  Yet, we have embarked on economic and educational paths that systematically privilege only a small percentage of the population. In education, we invest less on children of color and the economically impoverished. At the same time, we support a testing regime that measures wealth rather than provides a rich kaleidoscope of experience and knowledge to all… The greatest conceptual and most damaging mistake of test-based accountability systems has been the pretense that poorly supported schools could systemically overcome the effects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation by rigorous instruction and testing.”

New Book Gathers Research Proving False the Myths and Promises of NCLB and RTTT

What if it became fashionable to reform social work by ignoring the Schools of Social Work in our major research universities?  Or to run hospitals according to the theories of the Business Schools instead of Colleges of Medicine?

Essentially that is what the past two decades have done to education. Generations of learning theory, educational philosophy, and child psychology out the window. Revert to Gradgrind’s idea, satirized in Charles Dickens’ 1854, Hard Times—classrooms made of, “little vessels… there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.” Bring in Teach for America with its Ivy Leaguers—posting high SATs and spilling over with knowledge—to pour in facts. Consult the Business Schools to make schools efficient; talk to tech wizard entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley; listen to gurus promoting competition in Departments of Social Entrepreneurship.

In Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms the education research professors and philosophers and psychologists and the people who teach teachers how to teach strike back. The National Education Policy Center has gathered two decades’ of thinking by academic educators about accountability-based, test-and-punish school reform. If you were to undertake a research paper on the impact of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, here collected in this new volume is much of the scholarship you’d need. These studies and articles are organized in several sections—foundations of market-based reform, the evidence about sanctions-based school policy, false promises and myths that underpin recent “reforms,” effective and equitable policies needed for operation of our public schools, and a conclusion—lessons (for federal and state policy makers) that, research says, should be part of implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, last December’s update of the federal education law.

The editors introduce the book’s contents: “This volume presents a comprehensive collection of the most rigorous research evidence about both the test-based reforms and policies that have become the new normal, and the less common, most promising strategies for the future.  In many cases, the chapters reproduce previously published solid research that has existed for some time, but that has been ignored by decision-makers when designing successive iterations of federal and local education policy. Other chapters provide new analysis of some of the most recent reforms.” “In its entirety, the scholarship in this volume points overwhelmingly to one unambiguous conclusion—heavy-handed accountability policies do not produce the kinds of schools envisioned under the original ESEA (passed in 1965 as the centerpiece of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty). By punishing, rather than nurturing, our most fragile schools and children, the policies steer us further away from ESEA’s initial goals to foster a more democratic, equitable system of schooling for all students. They do so by diverting attention away from the conditions in which our most challenged schools are embedded.” (pp. xix-xx)

The book includes David Berliner’s profound paper, “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform,” published in the Teachers College Record in 2006. For the new volume, Berliner has penned a 2016 introduction—itself a profound summary of the conclusions of the esteemed academics whose papers fill this book: “It is now clearer than it was a decade ago that life for poor people in the United States is hurting our nation, not just the schools, about which I wrote… We might now call many of the problems I describe (in the 2006 paper) an opportunity gap.  In our country, so prideful of the fact that we are the land of opportunity, the existence and growth of this gap is even more abhorrent and more embarrassing than it might be elsewhere. We now know that the gap in educational achievement, as measured by standardized tests, between the child born of a family at the 90th percentile in wealth, and the child born to a family at the 10th percentile in wealth has grown significantly. In the 1940s the gap was about .6 of a standard deviation, but now it is about 1.25 standard deviations. The educational achievements of the children of the rich and the poor are vastly different… Educators now know, though politicians seem not yet to understand, that the No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB) and its successor, Race to the Top (RTTT) are failures. Besides stipulating impossible goals (NCLB) or invalid measures for evaluating teachers (RTTT), both pieces of legislation looked to the schools to solve some of the problems that plague our nation. Schools cannot do that… As the late Jean Anyon put it, attempting to fix schools that serve the poor, without also trying to fix the neighborhoods in which they are embedded, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.” (pp. 437-438)

The subtitle of NEPC’s new volume is Lessons for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  We’ll hope the politicians begin listening to the experts.