State Takeovers: Radical Seizure of School Districts vs. Organic, Community Grounded School Improvement

This blog will take a one-week, mid-summer break.  Look for a new post on Monday, August 5.

We are in the midst of a wave of state school takeovers.

On Tuesday evening In Providence, Rhode Island, the state Council of Elementary and Secondary Education granted the authority for Rhode Island’s recently appointed State Education Commissioner, Angelica Infante-Green, to take over the Providence Schools. A new and scathing report by a team from John Hopkins University had criticized the current operation of the school district—already under mayoral governance.  For the Providence Journal, Linda Borg reports: “Under a 1997 statute, Infante-Green now has the power to revamp the teachers’ contract, revise how the school district is governed, even make decisions over hiring and firing… Infante-Green also confirmed that she will hire a superintendent to takeover the schools by early November. In fact, she is already speaking with several individuals, although no one has been named.”  Diane Ravitch provides some background about Angelica Infante-Green: “Infante-Green has never run a school district. She has never been a school principal. She entered education through Teach for America, then ran bilingual programs in Bloomberg’s (NYC) Department of Education. She belongs to Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change.”

In Benton Harbor, Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer continues to threaten to close Benton Harbor’s high school or take over the school district.  In a commentary for Bridge Magazine, Tom Watkins, the state’s school superintendent from 2001-2005 warns that shutting down the high school or taking over the district won’t solve the core problem: “The Benton Harbor school crisis is ground zero for a dysfunctional educational funding model and a state government that has been pretending to address the problem going back decades… If you have a hole in your roof, pretending to fix it does not keep the rain out. Our system of funding our schools is fundamentally, structurally unsound….”  In a recent podcast (link includes a transcript), the education writer Jennifer Berkshire and Massachusetts education historian Jack Schneider add that Michigan’s system of cross-district open enrollment conspires with structural racism to undermine poor school students by driving out students, each one carrying school funding away from places like Benton Harbor. The system is set up to progressively threaten the fiscal viability of majority poor and majority African American school districts.  This blog has covered the current situation in Benton Harbor.

And  in Ohio, where state takeovers of Lorain and Youngstown have proven catastrophic, the Republican dominated state Senate has refused to repeal a 2015 state takeover law, even despite bipartisan passage of a repeal in the Ohio House by a huge 83/12 margin. Legislators finally agreed to compromise with a one year moratorium on state takeovers in the new state budget while the Legislature deliberates. Three districts—Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland—are currently under state Academic Distress Commissions, while ten additional districts face takeover within the next two years—Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill.  This blog has covered Ohio’s current and threatened state takeovers.

Whether you think state takeovers of public school districts are a good or a bad thing depends on how you think about school reform. Chiefs for Change, the organization of “corporate reformer” state superintendents and now also local school superintendents even posts on its website guidance on how to do a state takeover. Chiefs for Change was spun off several years ago from ExcelinEd, Jeb Bush’s corporate reformer think tank. Its state takeover guidance, The Hidden Equation in School Improvement: Lessons Learned About Governance-Based Strategies, lists three types of “governance-based” school improvement efforts: turnaround zones—in which a state creates a turnaround district which subsumes a number of so-called failing schools, sometimes from several different distinct school districts; receiverships—commonly called state takeovers, when a state takes over the operation of a particular school district; and charter school expansion.  Chiefs for Change prescribes three conditions its think tank advisers believe are necessary to ensure the success of any governance-based reform:

  • A strong “new leader to make decisions that unflinchingly put the needs of students first.”
  • Autonomy, including “control over staffing, budget, schedules, teacher collaboration opportunities, and school culture in ways that are often politically difficult in traditional school systems.”
  • A third-party consultant “external to the school system has helped guide nearly every real transformation we’ve seen.”
  • Flexibility because, “Successful changes aren’t one-size fits all models.”
  • Accountability. “It must be clear who is responsible for achieving results and what happens in the event improvement goals are not met.”

Chiefs for Change’s model is the one being adopted in Ohio and, I suspect, in Providence, Rhode Island.  School improvement in this model is measured by standardized test scores—how much and how quickly they rise.

Many who reject the “corporate school reform model” understand that public schools are intended to be democratically governed local institutions operated within their communities.  And many of these advocates recognize that schools being seized in state takeovers are nested in Black and Brown communities where poverty is concentrated.  These advocates recognize that challenges for educators and students in these districts are associated with generations of under-funding of schools along with poverty and racism. The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Dr. John Jackson characterizes the underlying issues beneath state takeovers of public schools:

“First, it’s important to understand that these state takeovers are taking place in the context of decades of disinvestment in public schools.  Due to tax cuts and austerity budgets at the state level, schools in poor communities have suffered increasing inequities in funding for vital education services.  Recent studies document that states taking over the democratic rights of local citizens and elected education officials have themselves failed to meet their own constitutional obligation to provide the locality with equitable resources needed to provide students with a fair and substantive opportunity to learn… It’s also impossible to dismiss the disparate racial impact of state takeovers.  An overwhelming percentage of the districts that have experienced takeovers or mayoral control serve African American and Latino students and voters.  The fact that this trend only occurs in districts like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Detroit and Chicago that are made up predominantly of people of color raises serious federal civil rights issues. The same communities that often face the greatest barriers to the ballot box are those susceptible to further disenfranchisement by removing local control of schools… Take away democratic rights and the ability to vote to influence schools—the most meaningful public institution in any community—and you take away citizens’ greatest opportunity to become civically engaged, to work together to improve schools, to build healthy living and learning communities…”

Three organizations supporting organic reform within traditional public school districts, along with reforms in funding and wraparound social and health services inherent in the Community School model, have released major reports about strategies for addressing the challenges facing our society’s poorest school districts.  After profiling disastrous state takeovers takeovers in New Jersey, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools lists specific reforms likely to be more supportive of students and democratic community engagement:

  • “Curriculum that is engaging, culturally relevant and challenging;
  • “An emphasis on high quality teaching;
  • “Wrap-around supports such as health care, eye care and social and emotional services available before, during and after school and provided year-round to the full community;
  • “Positive discipline practices such as restorative justice; and
  • “Transformational parent and community engagement in planning and decision-making.”

The Southern Education Foundation prescribes the same kind of interventions as an alternative to radical imposition of governance changes like mayoral control and state takeover.  And the Center for Popular Democracy recommends the same formula for school improvement. This report’s authors also warn about a record of significant failures in the corporate reform model: “Children have seen negligible improvement…state takeover districts have been a breeding ground for fraud and mismanagement… staff face high turnover and instability… (and) students of color and those with special needs face harsh disciplinary measures.”

Going deeper than the recommendations in the previous three reports, just this month, the National Education Policy Center published Recasting Families and Communities as Co-Designers of Education in Tumultous Times, from academic researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, Northwestern University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder. This new report rejects top down, “corporate” reform and makes a strong case for school reform which engages parents and community in the collaborative transformation of their schools:

“In a national moment of political tumult and violence directed at immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized groups, our education systems need new strategies to meaningfully engage families and communities in ensuring equitable learning for our youth.  Not only do families and communities bring historical and lived knowledge about how to persist through these challenges, they can also bring critical expertise in how to advance educational justice and community well-being… System, school, community and foundation leaders committed to racial equity and family co-design work should: support initiatives that tap into and develop the collective leadership of families and communities of color in improving schools… rather than programs that seek to change parent behaviors to better support schools’ agendas; prioritize school change efforts that engage families and communities with educators and seek to build solidarities across racial and professional divides…; partner with community-based organizations and public agencies to enact educational change; invest in building and supporting the capacity of local leaders (not policy elites) to facilitate meetings and conversations across racial, cultural and other differences; (and) recognize that histories and systemic inequalities shape how families and communities experience and participate in formal spaces, and that patterns of inequity tend to re-assert themselves despite good intentions.”

Organic school improvement is likely to be accomplished over several years. State takeovers—in the corporate, Chiefs for Change model—routinely define penalties if quick turnaround, defined as raising standardized test scores—isn’t accomplished by a one-year or two-year deadline. State takeovers are cheap, technocratic, top-down schemes prescribed by politicians who know very little about building trust among parents, teachers and school administrators. Too often, their “unflinching” leaders create community chaos—what has been happening for the past year in Lorain, Ohio under the takeover czar David Hardy.

There is one other big problem with the corporate, state-takeover model. It is almost always imposed as a way to “fix” schools without the kind of school finance reform necessary for generating adequate investment when our society’s poorest children are concentrated in a school district or neighborhood.  In his (2018)  book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University school finance expert addresses the always unmet financial needs of the poorest school districts:

“Because student backgrounds vary, because students are so unevenly sorted across schools, and because backgrounds and sorting lead to disparate outcomes, we must do everything we can to leverage resources to mitigate these disparities.  For without equitable and adequate resources, there’s little chance of achieving educational opportunity.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, p. 52)”  “(A) substantial body of research addresses how child poverty, limited English proficiency, unplanned family mobility, and school racial composition may influence the costs of achieving any given level of student outcomes.  The various ways children are sorted across districts and schools create large differences in the costs of achieving comparable outcomes, as do changes in the overall demography of the student population over time.  Rises in poverty, mobility due to housing disruptions, and the numbers of children not speaking English proficiently all lead to increases in the cost of achieving even the same level of outcomes achieved in prior years. This is not an excuse. It’s reality.  It costs more to achieve the same outcomes with some students than with others.  These differences exist both across school settings and over time as student population demographics shift.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, pp. 198-199)

Baker writes in the dry language of a school finance economist. The relevance of his point to this post, is that state legislatures will do almost anything (appointing state takeover czars) instead of raising taxes and restructuring state school finance systems to invest adequately in our society’s poorest school districts.

To accomplish educational equity, however, state governments need to be spending far more on the school districts serving our society’s poorest children.  As Baker explains, when state funding and local property taxes are massed together, “The models included here suggest that, in some states, the highest-poverty quintile of districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, p. 213)

Skepticism Grows About High-Stakes, Test Based School Accountability and Privatization

Nick Hanauer’s confession that neoliberal, “corporate accountability” school reform doesn’t work is not entirely surprising to me.  After all, No Child Left Behind was left behind several years ago.

And Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on our 25 year experiment with high stakes, test-based accountability, says: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge. Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale. Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents… The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary school math that don’t persist until graduation.”(The Testing Charade, p 191)

Nick Hanauer is a smart venture capitalist who has been paying attention, so it isn’t so surprising he has noticed that we still have enormous gaps in school achievement between the children raised in pockets of extreme privilege and the children raised in the nation’s very poorest and most segregated communities. Because he is an influential guy, however, I am delighted that Hanauer published his confession in The Atlantic:

“Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system… This belief system, which I have come to think of as ‘educationism,’ is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world…  But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way.  We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall.  School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy.  As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class… Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission… All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools… American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again… But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong.”

Hanauer—along with Bill Gates, the Waltons, and other philanthropists—has continued to invest heavily in the growth of charter schools.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss interviewed Hanauer last week about his recent confession: “In 2009 or thereabouts, I had an awakening. A friend sent me the IRS tax tables that showed the changes in income distribution that had occurred over the decades I had been working on education. The story those numbers showed was devastating.  When I graduated from high school in 1977, the top 1% of earners got less than 8% of national income. In 2007, 30 years later, that number had increased to 22.86%.  Worse, the bottom 50% of Americans’ share of national income had fallen from approximately 18% to 12%.  I was horrified by these trends, and frankly, shocked.  I had put so much work and so much faith in the Educationist theory of change, and all my work had amounted to nothing…. Nevertheless, I was under pressure to keep grinding on the same stuff in the same way, only harder.  You get a lot of strokes in the community for working on public education, and I did.  I was ‘the education guy.’  But it just didn’t feel right.”

Strauss describes how the priorities of hedge fund leaders, venture capitalists, and giant philanthropies dovetailed with the education priorities of the Obama administration, “which launched a $4.3 billion education initiative called Race to the Top.  It dangled federal funds in front of resource-starved states if they embraced the administration’s education priorities.  Those included charter school expansion, the Common Core, and revamping of teacher evaluation systems that used student standardized test scores as a measure of effectiveness….”

Barack Obama jumped on the education “reform”  bandwagon early, back in June of 2005, when, as the junior Senator from Illinois, he spoke at the launch of Democrats for Education Reform. In his, 2011, history of education “reform,” Class Warfare, Stephen Brill describes the players in the effort to lure Democrats into embracing corporate accountability for schools.  DFER was launched by a bunch of New York hedge fund managers when Obama was in New York City raising money to run for a second Senate term: “While in town he helped Boykin Curry, John Petry, and Whitney Tilson launch a group they had created called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Obama had agreed to be a guest at a party they had put together for people who shared their interest in school reform and wanted to get involved. Curry, Petry, and Tilson had chipped in a little of their own money plus some from a few friends, to start DFER.  The fourth member of their board was Charles Ledley, another value investor friend… Curry, Petry, and Tilson were immediately smitten with Obama, who seemed to talk about education reform as if it was no big deal for a Democrat to be doing so.  He recalled visiting a successful Chicago school where one teacher had complained to him about what she referred to as the ‘these kids’ syndrome that prevailed at traditional inner-city public schools, which, she explained, ‘was the willingness of society to accept that ‘these kids’ can’t learn or succeed.’… Obama… spent part of his talk extolling charter schools and what they demonstrated about how all children could learn if they had good teachers in good schools.” (Class Warfare, pp. 131-132)

Obama was, of course, merely articulating what had become the conventional wisdom among wealthy hedge funders, philanthropists, and even Democratic politicians. The term, “conventional wisdom,” was defined by economist, John Kenneth Galbraith as, “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” The “corporate school reform” conventional wisdom—about the failure of traditional public schools as the cause of a wide achievement gap between white children and children of color and between wealthy children and poor children—had been cast into law in the No Child Left Behind Act, passed with bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush in January of 2002.  The law was designed to pressure staff in low scoring schools to raise expectations for their students or their schools would be sanctioned with a cascade of ever more punitive consequences.  No Child Left Behind’s strategy was neither to increase public investment in the schools in the poorest communities nor to ameliorate child poverty.

Last week, after Hanauer published his admission that he no longer supports school reform based on high stakes, test-and-punish accountability and the reliance on privatization as a turnaround strategy, former President Barack Obama responded.  Valerie Strauss quotes the response to Hanauer tweeted by President Obama: “This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all.  As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.”  In his response to Hanauer, Obama doesn’t fully reject the school turnaround strategies embedded in his administration’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs, but he admits that he has himself done some rethinking.

It is significant that Nick Hanauer, one of America’s financial and philanthropic glitterati, is openly questioning corporate, accountability-based school reform ideas, and it is also a good thing that former President Obama, who promoted such policies, is listening.  But it should concern us all that the ideas and biases of the wealthy have such inflated influence on public policy these days. How did it happen that those who have shaped the conventional wisdom about education blamed the professionals in the schools instead of listening to school teachers?  And how did policymakers miss an enormous body of academic research that has shown for half a century that poverty and inequality are a primary cause of gaps in school achievement?

In November of 2016, in a brief from a leading center of academic research, the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo warn about Lessons from NCLB: “The No Child Left Behind Act was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with great fanfare and enthusiasm. Granting more power to states and curbing what was seen as federal overreach was well received.  Nevertheless, the new system remains a predominantly test-based accountability system that requires interventions in the lowest scoring five percent of schools.  The new law… shows little promise of remedying the systemic under resourcing of needy students.  Giving the reform politics of high-stakes assessment and privatization the benefit of the most positive research interpretation, the benefits accrued are insufficient to justify their use as comprehensive reform strategies. Less generous interpretations of the research provide clear warnings of harm. The research evidence over the past 30 years further tells us that unless we address the economic bifurcation in the nation, and the opportunity gaps in the schools, we will not be successful in closing the achievement gap.”

School reform, according to the theories of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, and giant philanthropies, is emblematic of the sort of policy—driven by elites— that Anand Giridharadas warns us about in his, 2018, book, Winners Take All: “What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things, but first things first, seek to protect themselves… We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (Winners Take All, pp. 10-11)

Research Summarizes the Public School Advantage

A book like Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms from the National Education Policy Center—a compendium of two decades’ of academic research on today’s public school ideology, policy, and trends—is invaluable even for a non-expert, citizen-reader who just wants to get informed. After all, most academic research is published in the paywalled academic journals, and more specialized books are unlikely to appear in smaller, regional libraries.  There is a lot that I miss, even though I do a lot of searching around in books about education.

One book that I have always felt I ought to read is The Public School Advantage, by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois. Here in NEPC’s new compendium is a chapter from the Lubienskis’ book—“Reconsidering Choice, Competition, and Autonomy as the Remedy in American Education,” (pp. 365-391 in NEPC’s compendium). The Lubienskis conducted an enormous study of the practices and student achievement in public, private and privatized schools. Their finding: “Despite what many reformers, policy makers, media elites, and even parents may believe, public schools are, on average, actually providing a relatively effective educational service compared to schools in the independent sector.” The Lubienskis continue: “(O)ur analyses indicate that public schools are enjoying an advantage in academic effectiveness because they are aligned with a more professional model of teaching and learning.” One reason people turn away from the public schools, they write, is simply that many believe that if people are willing to pay for private schools, they must be the superior model.

Other reasons people desire school choice?  “Obviously, some parents will prioritize safety…. Many parents consider extracurricular options or perceived pedagogical fit…. (F)or many families, finding a school that reinforces their values may be more important (religious schools)…. Some children enroll in schools that their friends are attending or where other families look like they do.”

What about the belief that expanding charters and school vouchers is a good way to boost achievement for the children our society has left behind?  “Although marketists believe that choice will open up opportunities for disadvantaged children, the data show that private and independent schools under enroll such students… (D)isadvantaged and minority students who are in most such schools are on average, no better served then they are in public schools, diminishing hope that private sector-based strategies have much potential to reduce achievement gaps between groups… Once we account for the SES (socioeconomic status) differences between the populations of students served in the different sectors, it is clear that the variables that differ between sectors are not significant predictors of achievement… The extended infatuation with vouchers for private schools, for instance, or the nationwide effort to expand charter schools, regardless of the thin empirical basis for these policies, speaks to the power of… belief to guide policy.”

The Lubienskis summarize a half century of economic theory and the role of organizations representing economists’ ideas to normalize assumptions about the benefits of privatization—Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and their neoliberal philosophy, and free-enterprise organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute. “When the traditionally centrist Brookings Institution began producing pieces favorable to private/independent models, as with Chubb and Moe’s seminal 1990 work, the agenda really moved into the political mainstream.  Now advocacy groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and the Alliance for School Choice actively promote evidence that they see as favorable to private and independent models.”

Philanthropists—notably Gates, Broad, and Walton—“have been instrumental in shaping the policy climate around education issues by providing political and financial support for pilot programs, stipulating particular policies from grantee districts, and underwriting researchers and research organizations that are predisposed toward their agendas.”  These philanthropies are underwriting think tanks that mask themselves as academic departments at major universities: “(T)hese major funding agencies have also directed strategic support to individuals and units at respected institutions, such as the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard or the Hoover Institution at Stanford.  In this way, they are able to capitalize on recognizable institutional brands in adding legitimacy to their policy claims, regardless of whether or not the rigor of research coming from these institutions merits the weight that is given to the studies in media and policy-making circles… The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to the PEPG at Harvard, which is run by a stable of pro-voucher scholars and public figures on its board. Similarly, the Walton Family Foundation was instrumental in creating the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which is led by a PEPG associate and staffed with pro-voucher theorists and researchers.”

What are the assumptions underneath the movement to privatize public education?  First is the belief in public sector failure.  Second is the belief that consumer choice ought to be a right: “This recasts the beneficiaries of public education from the wider community to a focus on more immediate chosers…. Fundamental to the theory is that parents are wise and informed consumers acting on behalf of their children, and many are.  However, much evidence suggests that many parents do not have access to useful information on school options.. and that such information—and the tendency to use it—is unequally distributed, with children most in need of better quality options least likely to have parents willing or able to effectively advocate for their children.”  The third assumption is that competition spurs school improvement. In response to this third assumption, the Lubienskis recognize a reality that is neither acknowledged nor examined by proponents of school choice: precisely because of their public mandate, public schools cannot cut costs to be competitive or emphasize the mere elevation of overall test scores as their sole mission. “(M)arket theory misses the fact that the multiple responsibilities placed on public schools as institutions created to serve common, nonmarket goals often require that they be shielded from the competitive pressures of the market.”

For me, the Lubienskis’ most important critique of privatization is their attack on the privatizers’ contention that school choice will expand opportunity by offering power to families and children who have heretofore been left behind. The Lubienski’s remind us that research documents the impact of peer effects on children’s school achievement: “Regardless of school type, having a child in a school with students from more affluent families with higher academic aspirations can have a beneficial impact on that child. Yet, choices based on such criteria can also lead to greater social sorting… As policy makers increasingly seek to shift students en masse from public to private or independent schools, or to privatize public schools, our analyses and the analyses of others indicate that such efforts can create a less effective (and more socially segregated) system of schooling.” “Even when they are working well markets can lead to inequitable outcomes, since those with resources are better positioned to use markets to increase their advantages and pass them on to their children.”  This gets at the ethical dilemma in competition-based school choice, a problem pointedly described by the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

NEPC’s inclusion of this chapter from the Lubienskis’ book motivates me to locate and read The Public School Advantage.

Test Scores Poor Indicator of Students’ Life Outcomes and School Quality: New Consensus?

According to Education Next, “Jay P. Greene is endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.” This Arkansas “Department of Education Reform” epitomizes the far-right think tank posing as a university department. For years, Greene has been at the center of education “reform” orthodoxy, and yet today he is questioning one of its primary tenets—the use of short term test score gains as the primary measure of school improvement.  While federal policy in education as prescribed in the new Every Student Succeeds Act continues to prescribe annual testing and the requirement that states develop plans to turn around schools that can’t quickly raise scores, there seems to be growing consensus in the academic world about problems with accountability that is purely test-based.

Here is what Professor Greene posted on his blog on Tuesday:  “I’ve written several times recently about how short term gains in test scores are not associated with improved later life outcomes for students. Schools and programs that increase test scores quite often do not yield higher high school graduation or college attendance rates. Conversely, schools and programs that fail to produce greater gains in test scores sometimes produce impressive improvements in high school graduation and college attendance rates, college completion rates, and even higher employment and earnings. I’ve described at least 8 studies that show a disconnect between raising test scores and stronger later life outcomes.” Greene devotes the rest of his post to describing a new study that replicates these findings.

Greene concludes: “It’s time that people start paying a lot more attention to this pattern of a disconnect between short term test score gains and long term life outcomes. We can’t just dismiss this pattern as a fluke… If we think we can know which schools of choice are good and ought to be expanded and which are bad and ought to be closed based primarily on annual test scores gains, we are sadly mistaken.  Various portfolio management and ‘accountability’ regimes depend almost entirely on this false belief that test scores reveal which are the good and bad schools. The evidence is growing quite strong that these strategies cannot properly distinguish good from bad schools and may be inflicting great harm on students.”

Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed, describes educational research that confirms Greene’s concerns about test-based accountability.  Tough explains the research of Kirabo Jackson: “What he found was that some teachers were reliably able to raise their students’ standardized-test scores year after year… But Jackson also found that there was another distinct cohort of teachers who were reliably able to raise their students’ performance on his non-cognitive measure.  If you were assigned to the class of a teacher in this cohort, you were more likely to show up to school, more likely to avoid suspension, more likely to move on to the next grade… Jackson found that these two groups of successful teachers did not necessarily overlap much.” (pp. 69-70)  Tough is describing teachers and schools that build intrinsic motivation and that attend to challenging students, connecting them with other students, and building autonomy. And Tough describes schools that are supportive, not punitive: “When kids feel a sense of belonging at school, when they receive the right kind of messages from an adult who believes they can succeed and who is attending to them with some degree of compassion and respect, they are then more likely to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student’s school day.” (p. 73)

This week  the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado released a policy brief that cautions about condemning schools that continue to struggle rapidly to raise test scores even as they are in the midst of concerted reform and turnaround.  NEPC’s brief warns:

“Attempts to dramatically turn around schools to show quick improvements in student outcomes are often counterproductive, resulting instead in school conditions associated with persistently low performance. Many quick school turnarounds, like those initiated via the federal School Improvement Grant program, were associated with unintended, negative outcomes such as high teacher turnover, large numbers of inexperienced teachers, administrative instability, poor school and classroom climate, and socioeconomic segregation.”

NEPC instead endorses comprehensive reforms that address the multifaceted issues that are known to affect test scores: “Part of the challenge in turning around schools is that outside-of-school factors likely account for twice as much of the variance in student outcomes as do inside-of-school factors. Accordingly, the community schools approach—one of the most prominent and research-based approaches to sustained reform—addresses the academic, social-emotional, and health needs of children as well as the capacity to systemically meet these needs in communities of concentrated poverty.”

Academic reforms—beyond the social and health reforms that surround children in a wraparound Community School—also take time: “Research offers strong caution against claims of miraculous school change.  Instead, changing a school’s culture and practices in sustainable ways that improve student learning takes years of commitment by all the stakeholders in the school… Effective schools have stable leaders who support teachers…. Effective schools have teacher leadership that’s distributed through the school and that facilitates a continuous improvement cycle…. Effective schools meaningfully engage families and the community.”

The NEPC brief concludes: “Policies that demand rapid school turnaround largely ignore the complexity of reforming schools for sustainable improvement and also ignore out-of-school factors such as poverty, race, and systemic funding disparities. These mistakes arise, in part, from an imbalanced focus on test scores that can be gamed to show temporary and shallow improvements.  Instead, policies should look to a broad range of appropriate interim indicators to assess whether a school is improving.”

All this research points to the need for a radical shift in America’s domestic policy agenda. Our society will be required to reverse tax policy that has slashed public education budgets across many states and also to invest in the institutions, including public schools, that serve America’s poorest children living in concentrated and sometimes extreme poverty across our urban centers.

K-12 Inc., Largest Education Management Organization, Pays CEO $19 Million from Our Taxes

This week the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado published the fourteenth edition of its report, Profiles of For-Profit and Nonprofit Education Management Organizations.  According to NEPC’s press release, “The real growth in the for-profit sector is with companies that operate virtual schools.  The growth of virtual schools, which is fueled by millions in advertising dollars is astounding because of the sketchy academic results reported by the schools that operate online.”  According to NEPC, K-12 Inc., the largest for-profit Education Management Organization, now enrolls 87,091 students in the 57 virtual schools it operates across the states.

It is therefore appropriate that the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) recently launched a new series of profiles, “America’s Highest Paid Government Workers,” on its OutsourcingAmericaExposed.org web page with the story of Ron Packard, the CEO of K-12 Inc.  CMD’s “highest paid government workers” are people who work for private companies and contractors but whose salaries are paid with our tax dollars.  CMD reports: “K-12 Inc. is a publicly traded, for-profit, online education company headquartered in Herndon, Virginia.” “In 2013, K-12 Inc. took in $848.2 million from its businesses, with $730.8 million coming from its ‘managed public schools’ with 86 percent of the company’s profits from tax dollars.  According to CMD, Packard made $19 million from tax dollars paid to K-12 Inc. in 2013.