What Does Educational Equity Mean?

Monday, May 17, 2021, marked the 67th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which banned racially segregated schools and unequal access to education. Over more than two decades, NAACP attorneys Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall built up a series of court precedents leading to the 1954 decision in Brown, which declared that educational opportunity, “where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” However, two-thirds of a century later in most places in the United States racial separation and inequity remain the conditions of our children at school.

Among advocates for educational equality, there has, for decades, been an ongoing conversation about the definition of equity. Iris Rotberg, a professor of education policy at George Washington University, recently published a column in which she quotes Thurgood Marshall’s definition all those years ago:  “We sit… not to resolve disputes over educational theory but to enforce our Constitution… I believe the question of education quality must be deemed to be an objective one that looks at what the state provides its children, not what the children are able to do with what they receive.”

Rotberg interprets Marshall’s words: “The government’s responsibility, therefore, is to ensure equal opportunity, not to debate its link to student achievement.”  She is interpreting Marshall’s definition of justice to mean equality of educational inputs and not a comparison of test score outcomes.  She is advocating that states be held accountable for equalizing resources and that we reject what has come to be known as outcomes-based school reform which punishes schools and school districts where scores don’t quickly rise.

In its Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Schott Foundation for Public Education called America’s attention to disparities in educational inputs by demanding that we stop judging schools exclusively by standardized-test-score achievement gaps and instead try to conceptualize and measure opportunity gaps faced by the children across many parts of our country.  This spring, for example President Biden has recently taken the same approach, asking us to recognize opportunity gaps by including a provision in the American Rescue Plan, the recent COVID relief bill, to expand the Child Tax Credit to $3,000 per child ($3,600 for children under six-years-old), and make it fully refundable for families too poor to pay enough taxes to benefit from this measure.  Biden has been concerned that until now the current Child Tax Credit has left out the poorest children in this country. Their extreme poverty has created an opportunity gap that affects every aspect of their lives.

In education policy itself, equality of school inputs is a matter of school funding. Congress addressed this issue back in 1965 by establishing Title I to provide federal compensatory funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty, but that program has long suffered from underfunding.

And during 2018 and 2019, in huge statewide Red4Ed walkouts in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma and big strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland and Chicago, schoolteachers helped us better grasp opportunity gaps. They protested that their students were suffering from shortages of school social workers, guidance counselors and school nurses; overcrowded classes of 40 students; lack of enriched curriculum and art and music; and shuttered school libraries.

Historically, as Thurgood Marshall recognized, unequal school funding has also accompanied school segregation as a driver of educational inequality.  When Reconstruction collapsed in 1868, legislators in the states of the former Confederacy did everything they could to segregate schools and drive money to the schools serving white children. In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black explains how, in post-Reconstruction constitutional conventions across the South, legislators not only segregated schools but also introduced the idea of making school funding reliant on local property taxes: “Make school funding dependent primarily on local tax revenues and give local officials more discretion in operating their schools. This would do two important things.  First, it would make vast inequality possible. Wealthy areas could spend as much on education as they wanted, and poor areas—areas heavily populated by blacks—would remain, well, poor. Second, wealthy white communities would effectively be relieved of the duty of supporting black education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 145)

In her recent column, Rotberg rejects the other failed education “reform” strategy lawmakers have been trying out for several decades: look at student outcomes as measured by standardized tests and then sanction schools and school districts that can’t quickly raise test scores: “(T)he United States focused on initiatives that had no direct link to equity, but that reformers hoped would raise student test scores and reduce the achievement gap—(in Marshall’s words) ‘what the children are able to do with what they receive.’… The second approach did little overall to make the country more equitable or to strengthen academic attainment.”  She is talking about outcomes-based accountability: ” ‘fixing’ the education system and rewarding or punishing teachers for students’ test scores… Three main reforms have dominated the education system and education policy research: charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools; holding teachers accountable for student performance; and curriculum standards to guide instruction. The results show little evidence that the reforms led to a more equitable society or to national gains in student achievement.”

Ohio provides a perfect case study for Rotberg’s argument for the state’s provision of adequate and equitable public school resources. In recent decades, Ohio education policy has relied heavily on the test-and-punish philosophy that Rotberg bluntly rejects. Ohio ranks schools by their test scores and brands the poorest districts with “F”s and wealthy exurban schools with “A”s on the school report cards the state issues. Ohio has rapidly expanded private school tuition vouchers and the state has expanded charter schools, but Ohio’s mechanism for school privatization reduces fiscal resources in the public school districts serving poor children. The state locates EdChoice voucher qualification only in school districts with Title I schools and deducts the vouchers right out of the local school budgets. And it permits the location of privatized charter schools only in the school districts where standardized test score outcomes are low. The state has seized three of the states poorest school districts and imposed emergency overseers without any observable school improvement.

While all this was going on, Ohio entirely abandoned the state’s constitutional mandate requiring adequate and equitable school funding. This month the Legislature is considering a new Fair School Funding Plan as part of the budget which must be passed by June 30. Experts have regularly pointed out the collapse of the state’s school funding formula—leaving school districts overly reliant on unequal local property taxes.  In a House Finance Committee hearing on December 2, 2020, Ohio school funding expert Howard Fleeter explained: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a (working) school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.” Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton adds: “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”

In Ohio and across many states, it is a good time to reconsider Justice Thurgood Marshall’s definition of equity: “I believe the question of education quality must be deemed to be an objective one that looks at what the state provides its children, not what the children are able to do with what they receive.”

No Child Behind Failed, But Kevin Carey’s New Article Doesn’t Go Deep Enough to Explain Why

On Wednesday, Kevin Carey published an important piece in the Washington Post—a profile really of Amy Wilkins, currently the chief lobbyist for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and formerly a lobbyist for many years at The Education Trust.  Carey, the Vice President for Education Policy at the New America Foundation, also worked for three years as a policy analyst at The Education Trust, from 2002-2005, in the years right after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In this week’s article, Carey accurately identifies The Education Trust, founded and directed for many years by Kati Haycock, as “a pro-school-reform organization.” He explains that The Education Trust’s mission grew out of the promises of the Civil Rights Movement—grounded not only in commitment to school integration, but endorsing the mission of the No Child Left Behind Act that test-based school accountability would ensure that schools better served black children, who had for generations been left behind.  The organization was a cheerleader for ending what was often described as the soft bigotry of low expectations: “National tests showed that white students were, on average, far surpassing their black and Latino peers, and that low-income students were falling behind. The Trust called this the ‘achievement gap.’… After the long, inconclusive battles for desegregated and well-funded schools, the federal government would finally ensure that the most disadvantaged students got the good schools they needed.”  The Education Trust also supported expanding school choice through the proliferation of charter schools.

It is significant that in his recent article Carey acknowledges the collapse of the two-decades-long national school accountability narrative. While Amy Wilkins hasn’t compromised her belief in test-based accountability and the creation of escapes for some children into charter schools, even Wilkins concedes a shift away from the vision she continues to endorse: “Amy Wilkins hasn’t given up on school reform.  She remains ‘struck by how politics allows the stubborn self-interest of adults to undermine again and again what’s right for poor kids and kids of color.’ But she says, ‘I have to believe we’re just at the wrong end of the pendulum swing.'”

In addition to profiling Wilkins, Carey also examines the ground shifting underneath public education policy. It is here where I believe his assessment falls short because he neglects to examine a mass of research demonstrating that disruptive, test-and-punish driven school reform has failed our nation’s poorest children.  And privatization through the expansion of charter schools has aggressively robbed the public schools that serve the mass of our children of essential dollars to keep class size small and to retain enough social workers, counselors, certified librarians and school nurses.

As evidence of a shift in the national narrative about education policy, Carey points to Elizabeth Warren’s education platform during her recent campaign for President—a proposal to end the federal Charter Schools Program and quadruple federal Title I funding for public schools serving concentrations of poor children: “Warren wasn’t the only politician who had turned hard against school reform. As the Democratic presidential candidates rolled out their platforms in 2019, they promoted unprecedentedly generous plans for education. Sen. Bernie Sanders called for tripling Title I funding and providing free prekindergarten for all. Former vice president Joe Biden also called for tripling Title I and free pre-K.  Meanwhile, school-reform ideas that had been staples of presidential agendas since the 1980s were nowhere to be found—unless they were being stridently denounced.”

So, what happened?  Carey traces pressure from schoolteachers who have consistently pushed back against the narrowing of the curriculum and the increased drilling that inevitably followed intense pressure to raise scores. Carey also reports on the failure of charter schools consistently to raise scores, the extremely disparate quality of charter schools, and the lack of transparency in these schools which are publicly funded but privately operated. He quotes Wilkins’  assessment of of her movement’s failures: “She… looks back on the school-reform tidal wave she helped unleash in 2001.  One crucial mistake, she says, was making all of NCLB’s consequences fall on individual teachers and schools, not the school districts and state education departments. And she says, ‘we should have been more aggressive about school funding equity. Far, far far more aggressive.'”

Carey’s own critique is deeper.  He explores the paltry fiscal investment Congress made in No Child Left Behind when it ramped up the emphasis on testing and punishing the schools unable quickly to raise scores.  And he reports on evidence that No Child Left Behind and the expansion of charter schools have neither significantly improved achievement overall nor closed achievement gaps: “Did school reform work?  High school graduation rates have improved over the past two decades, probably in response to accountability… NCLB produced modest bumps in student achievement on federal and state tests in the early ears.  Those gains, however, were concentrated in math in the early grades and seem to have plateaued or possibly reversed in recent years… As for charter schools studies have shown that they have not on average performed appreciably better than regular public schools.”  To his credit, Carey explains that mistrust threatens human relationships and institutions, and he criticizes No Child Left Behind for driving mistrust of teachers and public education in general. In fact, the law’s primary mechanism was to threaten educators with punishments if they could not produce ever higher test scores. It blamed schoolteachers for problems we now know they cannot control.

While  Carey is correct that support for the test-and-punish strategy of No Child Left Behind has waned and that skepticism is growing about the rapid expansion of charter schools, his analysis fails to explore several of the most important reasons for the failure of of the reforms The Education Trust endorsed.  Certainly his focus on Amy Wilkins narrows the issues he emphasizes.  Here are academic researchers addressing three problems Carey fails to address:

FIRST  In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on standardized testing, documents research exposing flaws in the entire strategy of No Child Left Behind.  While Carey quotes Wilkins alleging that teachers should have been tougher and resisted pressures to narrow the curriculum and drill for the tests, Koretz describes social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes (in the case of No Child Left Behind–closing schools, charterizing schools, firing principals, firing teachers) are tied to a quantitative social indicator (the assumption that teachers can produce higher aggregate student test scores year after year): “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)  Koretz shows that imposing high stakes punishments on schools and teachers unable quickly to raise students’ scores inevitably produced reallocation of instruction to what would be tested, caused states eventually to lower standards, caused some schools quietly to exclude from testing the students likely to fail, and led to abject cheating—as happened in Atlanta under Superintendent Beverly Hall.

SECOND  Research has demonstrated not only that state legislatures have persistently underfunded their public schools, but also that the rapid expansion of charter schools has been draining millions of dollars out of the school districts where the charter schools are located.  The best documented example is in the Oakland Unified School District, where political economist Gordon Lafer reports that charter schools drain $57.3 million dollars annually out of the public schools.  Here’s why: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

THIRD  Despite many people’s hope that if public schools worked harder and smarter, our society could leave no child behind, it is now well documented that public schools by themselves cannot solve economic inequality and child poverty. David Berliner is the Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University, former president of the American Educational Research Association and former dean of the College of Education at Arizona State University.  Berliner explains: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services. These are often families to whom low-birth-weight babies are frequently born, leading to many more children needing special education… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.” “We certainly do not have the legally sanctioned apartheid of South Africa.  But we should recognize that we do have heavily segregated systems of housing. In New York and Illinois, over 60 percent of black kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are nonwhite and mostly poor.  In California, Texas and Rhode Island, 50 percent or more of Latino kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are also not white, and often poor. Similar statistics hold for American Indian kids.” (Emphasis in the original.)

To summarize the urgent realities that Carey omits from this week’s article but which, together, discredit twenty years of test-and-punish, accountability-based school reform, we can turn to the National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who explain that school reform must address the enormous disparities in opportunity among our children.  Such an an effort would address school funding inequity—the reason Democrats running for President this year have endorsed quadrupling or tripling the federal investment in Title I. It will also be necessary to define the problem not merely as an achievement gap, but instead as an opportunity gap:

“We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society. No Child Left Behind had the explicit purpose of all children achieving high standards and thereby closing the achievement gap by 2014. It did not close. Noting the widening academic achievement gap between rich and poor, Sean Reardon found the gap ‘roughly 20 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier… In an economic and social shift, he reports that family income is now nearly as strong a predictor as parental education. The income achievement gap, which is closely tied to the racial gap, is attributable to income inequality, the increased difficulty of social mobility, the bifurcation of wages and the economy, and a narrowing of school purposes driven by test taking… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children soaring 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. 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.”

The Long Shadow of Poverty and School Segregation by Income

One of the serious problems posed by the likely Trump administration’s policy on public education is that it sidesteps entirely the deeply troubling challenges on the ground for children and their teachers.  While the only education idea being mentioned by the new administration is the rapid expansion of privatization—a kind of school choice which has shown itself not only to be unavailable to the poorest children but also threatening to the financial stability of the public schools in the poorest communities, there is indisputable evidence that the standardized test scores by which we now judge schools derive far more from poverty and economic segregation than the school teachers we are blaming.  Yet addressing poverty both outside the school and inside has slipped off the radar as, once again, the proposal to privatize is being prescribed as a remedy.

Last fall’s issue of the Russell Sage Journal, The Coleman Report and Educational Inequality Fifty Years Later (Vol 2, No 5) calls our attention back to the matter we need to be considering. The journal is edited by Karl Alexander, the Johns Hopkins University sociologist who authored a longitudinal study reaching back to the 1982 first grade year of a group of Baltimore’s young adults: The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood. Alexander introduces the collection of articles with a short history of 50 years of research on the topics of The Coleman Report: Is It Family or School? Getting the Question Right.  His topic and the subject of all the studies in this journal is to further untangle and identify the many strands of the opportunity gap across our nation’s schools.

Alexander explains that The Coleman Report, published in 1966, has been misconstrued over the years by those who have used it to prove that “schools make no difference” and to insist that we accept a binary explanation for school achievement as driven (or held back)  by either the school or the family.

Here, according to Alexander is what may be fairly concluded from the 1966 research of James Coleman and his colleagues: Family background is of great importance for school achievement; the influence of the family does not appear to diminish over the child’s school years. Neither the impact of one school or another nor the impact of facilities nor the impact of curriculum is as great as the impact of the student’s family background. Of in-school factors that matter to children, the teacher is the most important.  Finally, “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

Overall, writes Alexander as he summarizes the meaning of The Coleman Report: “Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all: The schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context.”  Alexander elaborates: “In fact, school influence on children’s achievement is so deeply embedded in children’s family life that they hardly are separate.  These tight linkages across institutional contexts additionally imply that the social organization of schooling, as constructed back then and still today, functions mainly to maintain or reproduce children’s place in the social order. To illustrate, in 2005 nationally, poor students were in the majority in 84 percent of schools with minority enrollments of 90 to 100 percent; in schools with minority enrollments of 10 percent or less, just 18 percent of schools had majority low-poverty enrollments.  The insight that the social composition of the student body is the strongest school-based correlate of student achievement, independent of the child’s family background, pinpoints the particular mechanism that channels family influence through the school: neighborhood residential segregation… High poverty neighborhoods and high-poverty schools are population aggregates.  Their properties do not inhere in any single family, and they have consequences beyond those located at the interior of family life… As the national commitment to school desegregation has waned, segregation at the school level has increased…”

Alexander briefly reviews five decades of research on the effects of family, school, and neighborhood (including residential segregation) and summarizes: “Attempts to parse the ‘whether’ of school versus family seek a definitive answer, but this false dichotomy fundamentally misconstrues the backdrop to children’s learning.  Family matters, to be sure, but school also matters, and it is how the two intersect that sets children on their developmental paths… In generating opportunity, family and school are indeed in tension, but it is a tension not captured in the ‘school versus family’ framing…. (W)hat counts is the balance between private family resources and public resources in support of children’s learning.  At present, the private and public resources invested in children’s schooling are highly unequal, and they favor families of means.”

Alexander adds, however, that even the poorest schools are positively impacting the lives and learning of their students: “But it also needs to be said that schools do not simply reinforce patterns of family advantage and disadvantage. Rather, poor children fall behind when their learning depends on the sparse resources available to them at home and in their communities. Their schools, even those burdened by concentrated poverty, help them to keep up academically. From research on summer learning loss we learn that the portion of school influence that is separable from family serves to lift up poor children, not hold them back.”

NY Times Muddles Education Debate

Last week, Connecticut Judge Thomas Moukawsher released a school funding decision in the case, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell.  Judge Moukawsher found Connecticut school funding unconstitutional, but at the same time his decision was anything but clear.  The Connecticut Supreme Court had already recognized the state’s allocation of educational resources and their alleged deficiencies, and had remanded the case back to the lower court with the expectation that the judge would examine the evidence and determine to what degree Connecticut’s level of investment in the plaintiff school districts meets the adequacy standard.  Writing for the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker, an expert on school finance and an attorney with the Education Law Center, explains: “At trial, the CCJEF plaintiffs (had) put forth overwhelming evidence of severe resource deficiencies of inputs such as: academic and social intervention for at-risk students and students with special needs; guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, services for English Language Learners, music, art and other subjects; and reasonable class size. Judge Moukawsher’s charge was to examine the resources in the districts at issue in the case…. However, nowhere in the opinion does the judge systematically look at the actual resources present or absent in each district.” (On Tuesday, this blog commented on the Connecticut decision).

In his decision, the Connecticut judge also chose to range far beyond the funding issue at the center of the case.  In his decision, Judge Moukawsher condemns a range of policies and practices in education that have little to do with school finance. The decision is confusing and the NY Times, which has covered the decision, has neither identified nor explained the pertinent issues. Instead, praising the decision as A Holistic Ruling on Broken Schools, the NY Times Editorial Board declares: “These rulings have focused mainly on money. But a sweeping opinion issued last week by a state judge in Connecticut went beyond criticizing funding policies. He ordered the state to revamp major aspects of the system—including special education services, teacher evaluations and hollow requirements that ‘in some places have nearly destroyed the meaning of high school graduation and left children rising from elementary school to high schools without knowing how to read’…. The blistering ruling should shame lawmakers, who have for decades looked away from the problem of educational inequality… After seeing the vast gulf between achievement levels and graduation rates in poor and wealthy communities, the judge chastised the state for standing on the sidelines, ‘imposing token statewide standards’ that had no demonstrable, verifiable connection to student learning.”  Using a complex school funding decision as a springboard for a wide ranging education policy debate before clearly exploring the meaning of the decision itself is a dangerous press strategy as we shall see.

Yesterday, the NY Times continued with its attempt to use the Connecticut court decision to jump start a national discussion about education policy under a headline that screams, Is School Reform Hopeless?  Kirsten Moran introduces a series of short articles representing all sides of the education debate with the question, “Why is failure so widespread and persistent in poor districts and how can it be resolved?” In a series of short commentaries, experts respond to Moran’s question by promoting their particular areas of expertise and their particular biases. The newspaper is careful to achieve balance by sampling proponents from both sides of the education war:

  • Prudence Carter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, explains that school reform won’t come cheaply, that schools need in-school wraparound health and social services to serve children in poverty, and that, “Schools have to attract experienced teachers and leaders with the right sensibilities and training to educate youth from diverse social and cultural backgrounds.”
  • Elaine Weiss of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education advocates for support for teachers who face daunting obstacles, and for in-school wraparound health and social services.  “Effective teaching and leadership,” she writes,”are, for sure, critical to great education, but reforms can’t be focused on removing and replacing individual educators without acknowledging the reality that schools are complex ecosystems situated within larger systems—their surrounding communities.”
  • Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, the organization that promotes a school governance plan called “portfolio school reform”—marketplace school choice in which appointed school boards open and lose schools as though the district were a business portfolio.  Not surprisingly, Lake writes that we need to truly equalize funding “by having state and local money follow students”—students carrying their funding to their school of choice. “All families deserve choices…. Every school should be expected to grow, get support and intervention, or be replaced by another promising set of educators.”
  • Carola Suarez-Orozco, a professor at UCLA whose specialty is the needs of English language learners, declares: “Our current accountability mandate is predicated on standardized assessments, but those assessments were not designed with English learners in mind… We… must prepare our teachers and administrators to learn how to serve these students and their families.”
  • Ron Ferguson, who directs the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, notes that while participants in Harvard’s seminars in closing the achievement gap agree that, “People are overwhelmed by the complexity of the challenge” of raising achievement and narrowing gaps, “some inner city schools decode the complexity and work through it. They create orderly climates that facilitate learning. Through extraordinary acts of persuasion, persistence and sometimes even coercion, leaders assemble skilled and relentless teaching and counseling staffs….”
  • Marguerite Roza at Georgetown University explains that a focus on rewriting funding formulas hasn’t “reversed a general trend of rampant school failure in poor districts.  Schools with greater concentrations of poor students, by and large, still do poorly.” Current reforms have, she writes “produced  a compliance-orientation to schooling that leaves school leaders in a virtual straitjacket.” “School leaders need more control of spending.”

As these experts speak briefly and superficially to their own specialties and sometimes their ideologies, we are not helped to put their comments into any sort of frame or context.  And we are left with the sense that problems in public education today are broad, confusing and hopeless. I do not believe our challenges are hopeless, but I do believe they must be sorted out and addressed clearly and directly.

Of course our education system is complex: Public schools serve 50 million children across a broad range of cities, suburbs, towns and rural areas.  Some students bring the challenges of their families—divorce or abuse; others bring the challenges of poverty. Some bring the need to learn English. Others need to learn despite physical and mental disabilities. A startling example of overwhelming need in the hometown of the NY Times is documented in a report released in August about the 82,000 homeless children enrolled in the public schools of New York City. Here are just a couple of facts from that report: “Forty percent of homeless elementary students living in shelters transferred (from one school to another) during the school year compared to just 9% of their housed peers.” “Across grade levels, homeless students living in shelters had higher rates of chronic absenteeism…. More than one in seven homeless students (15%) missed 40 or more days of school—roughly 20% of the school year.” Clearly there are no clear-cut, one-dimensional solutions to the mass of challenges facing our nation’s over 90,000 public schools.

What is very clear is that the Connecticut school funding decision is not the ideal lens through which we should examine American public schools’ many challenges.  Not only does the judge’s decision fail proactively to define how to remedy the shortfall in resources in Connecticut’s poorest school districts, but Judge Moukawsher wanders into other issues in which his decision raises thorny problems.  Attorneys at the Connecticut firm of Pullman & Comley LLC published an analysis: “The judge, however, did not stop at the funding issues. Judge Moukawsher reviewed not only the State’s school funding system but also the ‘major policies’ carrying these resources into action.  Finding many of these policies to be unconstitutional, the judged ordered the State—by March 7, 2017—to undertake the following additional actions…. submit an objective and mandatory statewide high school graduation standard…. submit a ‘rational, substantial, and verifiable definition of elementary education’… submit plans for a ‘rational’ system for evaluating and compensating education professionals…. submit new standards which ‘rationally, substantially, and verifiably link special education spending with elementary and secondary education’…. Finally the judge also appeared to order the State ‘to assume unconditional authority to intervene in troubled school districts’ and ‘redefine the relationship between the state and local government in education.'”

The analysis from Pullman & Comley LLC concludes: “This post cannot do justice to the significant issues raised by this decision…. That a judge has now ordered the legislature to address the State’s educational funding system as a result of this case may not be a surprise; the changes the judge has ordered (without any corresponding increase in the aggregate amount of spending) may lead to numerous school districts receiving significantly less state funding, some of which may not be ‘rich’ districts. Equally as important, the judge has mandated a veritable revolution in almost every aspect of public education, which could eviscerate many state laws and result in both intended and unintended consequences.  The orders with respect to the teacher evaluation and compensation system would lead to massive changes in the collective bargaining and teacher tenure systems… In special education, school districts may eventually be placed in the position of receiving less state funding for expensive out-of-district placements, but still facing the prospect that in the course of interpreting and applying federal and state special education laws, special education due process hearing officers will continue to order such placements… Finally, the judge’s ruling appeared to place a higher premium on high stakes testing at a time that there is a backlash against such testing.”

I suppose it is understandable that such a decision may be viewed in some newsrooms as an opportunity not only to consider the perennial topic of adequate school funding, equitably distributed, but also to seize the judge’s wide-ranging critique as grounds for posing the provocative debate prompt, “Is School Reform Hopeless?”  I believe, however, that the choice by the NY Times to use the controversial Connecticut school funding decision as a springboard for discussion in what is already a highly charged and polarized policy environment can only confuse.

The importance of educating our children requires precise, reasoned, and informed reporting.

Opportunity Gaps Confirmed by New Federal Data

Many of us whose children attend school in a middle income or more privileged community may assume that all of the students in the nation’s 95,000 public schools have access to pretty much the same courses and school experiences as our own children do.  Hence, when less advantaged students lack the skills our children have developed in school, we imagine that those children and adolescents have failed to take advantage of what was provided.  However, new 2013-2014 data disaggregated by race and ethnicity—data released by the U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday—demonstrate just how mistaken are those assumptions. Here are just some of the opportunity gaps exposed in the new data.

First there are shocking disparities across America’s high schools in math and science courses offered: “High-rigor course access is not a reality across all of our nation’s schools: Nationwide, 48% of high schools offer calculus; 60% offer physics; 72% offer chemistry; and 78% offer Algebra II… 33% of high schools with high black and Latino student enrollment offer calculus, compared to 56% of high schools with low black and Latino student enrollment.”  And in a society with a growing percentage of English learners, the data show that English learners make up only 5% of students in high schools that offer Algebra II and 4% of students enrolled in Algebra II.”  English learners make up only 1% of students enrolled in calculus. What about high school students’ access to advanced courses?  “Black and Latino students represent 38% of students in schools that offer AP courses, but 29% of students enrolled in at least one AP course.”  English learners make up only 2% of students enrolled in at least one AP class.

The new report does not track class size, but it does document very unequal access to experienced teachers and to school counselors.  Schools with a high percentage of black and Latino students have twice as many teachers in their very first year of teaching than the schools that serve fewer black and Latino students.  “Nearly 800,000 students are enrolled in schools where more than 20% of teachers have not met all state certification or licensure requirements: 3% of black students and 2% of Latino and American Indian or Alaska Native students attend these schools, compared to 1% of white students.”

Over 1.5 million students attend a school with a sworn law enforcement officer but not a school counselor, and 21% of American high schools do not provide their students access to any counselor.  Emma Brown of the Washington Post explains the significance of the lack of this support staffing: “High school counselors often have tough jobs.  They keep track of their students’ progress toward graduation.  They help students apply to college and navigate the financial aid process.  They also help kids navigate their lives outside of school, which can be made complex by poverty, violence and family trouble. And because counselors often are one of the first positions to be cut when budgets get tight, there are almost never enough to go around.  The national average is close to 500 students per school counselor; many students have no counselor at all.”

But schools are spending more on disciplinary staff.  Here again is Emma Brown’s explanation: “The 2013-1014 Civil Rights Data Collection for the first time counted how many schools have a sworn law-enforcement officer: 24 percent of elementary schools and 42 percent of high schools.  Among high schools with predominantly black and Hispanic populations (i.e., more than 75 percent of students were black and Latino), more than half—51 percent—had an officer.”  It is, therefore, a relief to discover that, as reported by Evie Blad of Education Week, the new data document that out-of-school suspensions are down by 20 percent.  But the Department of Education’s report traces what continue to be very disturbing trends in the unequal application of punitive discipline: “Black children represent 19% of preschool enrollment, but 47% of preschool children receiving one or more out-or-school suspensions; in comparison, white children represent 41% of preschool enrollment but 28% of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspension.” “Nationwide, 2.8 million K-12 students received one-or-more out of school suspension: These include approximately 1.1 million black students; 600,000 Latino students; 660,000 students served by IDEA; and 210,000 English learners…  While 6% of all K-12 students received one or more out-of-school suspensions, the percentage is 18% for black boys; 10% for black girls; 5% for white boys; and 2% for white girls.”

School opportunity gaps are the differences from place to place in resources and conditions that society provides for children in school.  Most public policy today remains focused on demanding that teachers work harder to raise teat scores, but there has been insufficient effort by federal and state governments to close the kind of opportunity gaps documented in the data released this week.  And lots of important things are not even covered in this report.  What about unequal class sizes?  What about disparate access to enriching and challenging electives in the humanities? What about inequality in access to art classes and the chance to play in a school band or orchestra?  What about inequitable access to challenging co-curricular activities—the chance to write for a high school newspaper—to be part of a debate team—to be a long distance runner or a pole vaulter?

Two Myths Are Part of Shaky Foundation of School “Reform”

Here are two of the myths that underpin the school “reform” movement.  First, there’s the myth that the real problem with American schools is that teachers hold low expectations.  You’ll remember that the No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to address “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” And the second myth: schools and especially high schools fail because they are modeled after factories. For seven years, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has insisted that public schools are trapped in the dated industrial model and stuck in the 20th, not the 21st century. These ideas are rarely questioned. What do they mean?  Here are recent articles that examine some of their implications.

Myth 1: Children are falling behind because their teachers hold low expectations.

Gary Rubinstein is a math teacher at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, and a former teacher with Teach for America (TFA), the two-year alternative teacher preparation and recruitment program. Rubinstein publishes a thoughtful blog that critiques TFA and more generally the school “reform” movement.  In a recent post about TFA, Rubinstein digresses into a fascinating reflection on teaching itself and the role of teachers’ expectations:  “How I wish that low expectations were the main difficulty in education. It would be so easy to improve. Teachers would just raise their expectations: Teach a little faster, assign a little more homework, make the tests a little longer, a little more difficult—more ‘rigorous’ if you will.  While I’m certainly not an advocate for low expectations, I think it is definitely naive, and even a bit dangerous, to too blindly believe that the act of just having high expectations will cause students to learn more.”

Rubinstein describes the teacher’s job from the point of view of the practitioner.  And he describes his own experience as a high school math teacher who has considered how to help his students meet expectations: “As a teacher, one of the most important skills to have is known as ‘scaffolding’ where you break down a skill into sub-skills and then teach the kids those sub-skills which you then build up to the big skill. Is that not some form of low expectations?  If I’m an English teacher I suppose I could tell my class to read The Grapes of Wrath in one night.  That’s setting some pretty high expectations.  But will this work?  Or will it discourage kids by asking them to do an unrealistic task.  So I guess I’m an advocate for appropriate expectations, something that a teacher is best able to gauge.”

Myth 2: American Schools Are Like Factories That Process Students Along an Assembly Line

In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss recently published an examination by education historian Jack Schneider of the idea that American Schools Are Modeled After Factories and Treat Students Like Widgets. Schneider charges: “The claim has been repeated so often—by entrepreneurs, by policy wonks, by the secretary of education—that it has achieved a kind of truth status.  And increasingly, it is a rallying call for reform.  Our schools need reinvention, reformers assert.  If we want to promote real learning, we need to tear down the factory and rebuild around technologies of the Information Age.  It’s the stuff of great TED talks.  It just happens to be wrong.”

Schneider identifies some factory-like characteristics of American public schools.  There is “bulk-processing.”  Our schools serve approximately 50 million students who are clustered by age into groups.  And there are assembly-line kinds of problems: “The typical school curriculum, for example, precludes students from pursuing genuine interests at an individualized speed.  Perhaps most obviously, schools, like factories, are generally geared toward producing a fairly uniform product, rather than a series of custom-built objects d’art.”

But, Schneider continues: “The root causes of disengagement and shallow learning, as it turns out, aren’t design problems at all.  They’re problems inherent to the concept of schooling.  Young people would rather be socializing than learning, and though some learning can happen through play, much of it can’t.  Young people, like adults, would also like to avoid exhausting and effortful work; but thinking is hard, and much of learning involves thinking.  Finally young people aren’t naturally interested in many of the things we want them to learn in school; yet as long as school is designed to serve the needs of society and not just the desires of the individual, much of education will involve steering students away from what they are naturally interested in and towards something else.  These are big problems that can’t be wished away or solved by new technologies.  They can, however, be ameliorated by great teaching.  And that’s what we should be focused on if we’re going to talk about improving learning outcomes.”

After he challenges the myth of the school as factory, Jack Schneider asks us to contemplate a very different metaphor: “(S)chools are much more like gardens than they are like factories. And great gardens aren’t the result of modernist design or entrepreneurial innovation. They are products of attention, devotion, and love. They are complex systems that demand our time and respond to our care.  And in a thousand different blooms, they reward us with their beauty.”

America Tries to Fix Achievement Gaps on the Cheap without Addressing Opportunity Gaps

It is a truth universally acknowledged (in the research literature) that schools themselves do not cause achievement gaps and that schools by themselves cannot close achievement gaps.  But we prefer to believe something else.

We blame schools when they don’t close the gaps quickly. We close the schools or fire their principals and teachers.  Or we create state “achievement” districts with distant overseer superintendents who monitor test scores.  Or our states create emergency managers with absolute power to override union contracts and fire entire school staffs if they like.  Or, for so-called “efficiency,” we turn the schools over to private management companies.  Cause and effect logic doesn’t operate much in the realm of school “reform.”

Today, this blog will review the evidence about the root causes of school achievement gaps and then look at the new study released this month from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. about the achievement gap in place across America long before children enter Kindergarten.

Back in 1999, well before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act that set out to close achievement gaps through test-based accountability, Helen Ladd and colleagues writing a school finance book for the National Research Council declared, “Achieving the goal of breaking the nexus between family background and student achievement requires special attention.” (Making Money Matter, p. 47)

Ten years later, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focuses on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm.  They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480.  They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present.  The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released massive data reports confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income across America’s large metropolitan areas. Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In 2013, here is what the historian Michael Katz and the professor of education Mike Rose concluded at the end of a book of academic essays about the current wave of school reform: “(A) rough consensus which crosses political lines blames poor teaching, ineffective teacher preparation programs, teachers’ unions, the lack of accountability for results, and monopolistic public systems for the failures of student achievement measured, primarily, by test scores.  In mainstream reform discourse, teachers and their unions emerge as the major villains…. Powerful foundations, the national government, and the media… reinforce and disseminate these views.  The reform agenda includes two primary components: first, hold teachers accountable for student achievement… and second, break up public monopolies by introducing choice, mainly in the form of charter schools…. The fact of the matter is that the ‘problem’ of American eduction is to a large extent a problem of poverty. By international standards, American students who attend schools where only a small percentage of students come from families with income below the poverty line measure up well against the best in the world.” (Public Education Under Siege, pp. 223-224)

And in 2013, Diane Ravitch summarized the dilemma: “Still the question remains: Should we ‘fix’ poverty first or ‘fix schools first?  It is a false choice.  I have never heard anyone say that our society should ‘fix’ poverty before fixing the schools.  Most thoughtful people who want to help children and families speak of doing both at the same time, or at least trying.  Yet here are all these powerful people saying we should ‘fix’ the schools first, then, someday, turn our attention to poverty.  Or maybe they mean that fixing schools will take care of poverty.  The reformers’ case is superficially appealing.  It ought to be easier to ‘fix’ schools than to ‘fix’ poverty, because poverty seems so intractable.  Our society has grown to accept poverty as an inevitable fact of life and there seems to be little or no political will to do anything about it.  It should also be cheaper to fix schools instead of poverty, because no matter how much it costs to fix schools, it will surely be less than the cost of significantly reducing poverty in a society with great economic inequality like our own.  The problem is that if you don’t really know how to fix schools, if none of your solutions actually improve education, then society ends up neither fixing schools nor doing anything about poverty.”  (Reign of Error, pp 92-93)

In this context, Emma Garcia of the Economic Policy Institute just published research that documents Inequalities at the Starting Gate, sizeable achievement gaps relating to income inequality that are well established before children enter Kindergarten.

Here is Garcia’s conclusion:  “Gaps based on socioeconomic status are very significant and prevalent, while those based on race/ethnicity are largely sensitive to the inclusion of socioeconomic status…  These findings indicate that inequalities at the starting gate are largely the result of accumulated social and economic disadvantages; that socioeconomic status or social class, is the single largest predictor of early education gaps and that gaps based on race are primarily a result of the many factors for which race mediates and that minority groups disproportionately experience.”

Garcia presents the demographic data that describes the children entering Kindergarten today: “Over half (52 percent) of white children are in the two highest socioeconomic quintiles (high-middle or high), while only 8.9 percent fall into the lowest SES quintile.  A similar pattern is true among Asian kindergartners: 59.9 percent are in the highest two quintiles, and 11.8 percent are in the lowest.  For black and especially for Hispanic children, however, the situation is reversed.  Over half (56.8 percent) of black children and over two-thirds (66.6 percent) of Hispanic children are in the two lowest quintiles, and fewer than one in 10 of either group are in the highest SES quintile (8.3 percent of black children and 6.8 percent of Hispanic children).  Another angle through which to see these numbers is the proportion of children who live in povery by race/ethnicity: 13.1 percent of white children, 17.3 percent of Asian children, and nearly half of black children (45.5 percent) and Hispanic children (46.3 percent).”

Garcia writes: “Overall, our results—showing significant socioeconomic-based gaps in cognative skills—confirm what multiple other research analyses (e.g. Reardon 2011) have found: that students’ levels of readiness and development are closely associated with their parents’ socioeconomic status.  Unadjusted differences in cognitive domains indicate that each move up a socioeconomic quintile in the SES distribution is associated with approximately a quarter of a standard deviation… improvement in performance in both math and reading, with students in the top quintile… scoring nearly a full standard deviation above students in the bottom quintile….”

Garcia attributes these results to the challenges experienced by children living in the lowest SES quintile and the enrichments being showered upon children in the top quintiles as inequality widens and affluent children are exposed to added travel and other programs and lessons.  Robert Putnam agrees. In his new book on the impact of rising inequality on children’s opportunity, Putnam describes the investments of middle and upper class parents in child-rearing: “Concerted cultivation refers to the child rearing investments that middle-class parents deliberately make to foster their children’s cognitive, social, and cultural skills, and, in turn, to further their children’s success in life, particularly at school…  Parents from all social backgrounds nowadays invest more money and more time in raising their kids than was true a generation ago…. but because affluent, educated families have not only more money but also more time… they have been able to increase their investments much faster than poor parents…. As a result, the class gap in investments in kids has become wider and wider.” (Our Kids, pp. 118-124)

Emma Garcia concludes her new report with suggestions about closing the opportunity gaps that exist long before children reach Kindergarten.  She absolutely endorses expanding the affordability, availability and quality of child care and pre-Kindergarten education.  She also advocates improving funding and programming in the public schools in our poorest communities.  But she adds: “The most straighforward way to decrease poverty among children and thus increase the resources available to them is to boost their parents’ incomes” including “policies aimed at increasing  overall wages and employment, especially at the lower rungs of the employment and wage ladders.” “Raising the minimum wage would also help ensure that parents working full-time do not have to rely on public assistance to provide their children with the basic necessities… We could also make those wages go further by increasing the earned income tax credit and child tax credit….  Raising incomes for middle-and low-social class families is key to ensuring their children do not grow up in poverty… Closing education gaps… calls for policies that address…  structural factors that influence a child’s odds of growing up poor.”

Atlanta Sentencing Trial: Whose Truth Is Really the Truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poverty, Inequality, Blocked Opportunity, and the No Child Left Behind Reauthorization

In a recent analysis at the California website Capital & Main, Bill Raden reflects: “It’s been just over 30 years since war was declared on America’s public schools.  The opening salvo came with 1983’s A Nation at Risk, the Reagan-era Department of Education report that alleged that lax schools and ineffective teachers constituted a dire threat to national security.  Yet three decades later, and in spite of the opening of a second front comprised of school vouchers, a 2.57-million student charter school network and a classroom culture tied to test preparation, the nation’s education outcomes have barely budged, and rather than narrowing the education gap, the chasm between rich and poor appears only to be significantly widening.  But what if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions got it all wrong in the first place?  That’s the conclusion being drawn by a growing number of researchers who, armed with a mountain of fresh evidence, argue that 30 years of test scores have not measured a decline in America’s public schools, but are rather a metric of the country’s child poverty—the worst among developed nations—and the broadening divide of income inequality.”

“What if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions got it all wrong in the first place?”  It is the essential question, especially this year as Congress once again considers the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Act, whose most recent version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a version that folded teacher bashing, punishing struggling schools instead of helping them, and privatizing schools into the law of the land.  But the news is not new to researchers, who have for some time been reporting evidence that refutes such an assumption. Test-and-punish school reform, long supported by politicians, has been exhaustively questioned over the years by academic research.

Raden interviews Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara, the husband and wife directors of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Orfield tells Raden, “I studied a really rich district in Massachusetts, and the kids from the housing projects in the city were just hugely behind when they arrived at school.  The schools actually made as much progress each year as the (wealthier) kids did, but the gap never closed at all.  So the schools were doing their job, but society wasn’t.”  Gandara adds, “I think fundamentally the problem is that other developed nations have social systems that support families and children in a variety of ways: with childcare, with good health care, with recreational opportunities—with lots of things that support healthy development.  We have dumped it all on the schools and said, ‘We’re really not going to provide any of these services. You deal with it, schools.'”

Orfield has been confronting the strategies embedded in NCLB for many years, as have other researchers at the Civil Rights Project, whose April 2009 study by Heinrich Mintrop and Gail Sunderman came to the same conclusion.  In the forward to that report, Orfield wrote: “Now, as the country thinks about what to do next, it is important to focus on some fundamental design problems with the NCLB that undermine its very important goal of increasing the equity and success of American schools.  The first is that it was not designed around real educational experience, nor does it utilize what research has shown about the sources of educational inequality or the possibilities and conditions necessary for reform work.  Instead, NLCB is based on the dual assumptions that children are falling behind very largely because educators don’t care enough and that deadlines and strong sanctions imposed by the federal government can cure the problem so that all subgroups of children will become proficient by 2014.  The second problem is that it often punishes schools that are making a positive difference for students, discouraging the staff and undermining future prospects for the school.  The third is that it has a very narrow definition of education that not only diverts attention from other vital goals but also produces a strong focus on tactics that create a semblance rather than reality of success in those limited areas.  The fourth is that all schools are being required to attain goals that are impossible to attain on any broad level…. At the same time, the law raises the pressure for schools, by themselves, to produce equal outcomes while other social policies bearing on the lives of poor children have been cut back  The dominant rhetoric has ignored the reality—reflected in countless studies over the past four decades—that poverty, low parent education, poor health, and inferior segregated schools all contribute powerfully to unequal outcomes, and that those conditions can only partially be addressed inside the schools… Blaming schools and their teachers takes the pressure off political leaders (and privileged communities) to play a serious role in solving the problems in a society that tolerates a level of child poverty higher than any other nation of similar stature.”

Academic research has continued to document the trends that have been known since James Coleman conducted research in the 1960s that identified students’ poverty and segregation as challenges to academic achievement.

In Public Education Under Siege, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) educator Mike Rose and historian Michael B. Katz describe the greatest problem for public education in America: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (p. 228)  In 2013, the Southern Education Foundation documented the poverty concentration across America’s cities:  “The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools.  Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011. In 38 of the 50 states, no less than half of all children attending public schools in cities… were low income.” Low-income children make up 83 percent of all children in Mississippi’s cities, 78 percent in New Jersey’s cities, 75 percent in Pennsylvania’s cities, and 73 percent in New York’s cities.  In Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois and Oklahoma, according to the report, poor children also make up more than 70 percent of the public school enrollment in cities.  In Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Perspectives and Strategies for Challenging Times (Harvard Education Press, 2012) Thomas Timar, a professor at the University of California at Davis explains: “While manifestations of the achievement gap are to be found in rural, suburban, and urban areas, the evidence is rather compelling that the achievement gap is largely a problem of urban education:  Black children are more likely to live in conditions of concentrated poverty…. Child poverty rose in nearly every city from 1970-1990…. Urban students are more than twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools…. In 1990, the child poverty rate for the United States as a whole was 18 percent. For the ten worst cities it was between 40 and 58 percent.” (p. 232)  In America’s large cities many children live in extreme poverty, that is half the federal poverty line, which is around $11,925 for a family of four. Children in such circumstances are very likely to struggle at school. The census tells us that although 12 percent of white children in the United States are poor, 39 percent of Black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty—more than a third in both of those groups.

Standardized test scores have always served in large part as a wealth indicator. According to a chapter by Christopher Tienken and Yong Zhao in Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance (Oxford University Press, 2013): “as a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112) And from long-time education researcher David Berliner:  “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives…  But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.”

Our society continues to become increasingly segregated not only by race but also by income—with the rich living near each other in wealthy enclaves and the poor concentrated in intergenerational ghettos.  Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon documented in 2011 research that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

There is one exhaustive new book that connects the dots between poverty, inequality and school achievement.  In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015) Robert Putnam asks: “Do K-12 schools make the opportunity gap better or make it worse?  The answer is this: the gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school, and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them.  The American public school today is as a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids.”  (p. 182)

In Reign of Error (Knopf, 2013), Diane Ravitch’s indictment of the education “reform” movement, she wonders why, with the enormous mountain of evidence that we must help poor children with poverty and segregation, we persist in assuming the problem can be fixed by punishing teachers: “Should we ‘fix’ poverty first or ‘fix’ schools first? It is a false choice.  I have never heard anyone say that our society should ‘fix’ poverty before fixing the schools.  Most thoughtful people who want to help children and families speak of doing both at the same time, or at least trying.  Yet here are all these powerful people saying we should ‘fix’ the schools first, then, someday, turn our attention to poverty… The reformers’ belief that fixing schools will fix poverty has no basis in reality, experience, or evidence.  It delays the steps necessary to heal our society and help children.  And at the same time, it castigates and demoralizes teachers for conditions they did not cause and do not control. ” (pp. 92-98)

Once again, the Congressional debate about reauthorizing NCLB seems to be falling apart.  I think this is probably a good thing.  There is no agreement about reducing test-and-punish. The civil rights community, alarmed by the continuing racial achievement gap, is understandingly demanding that someone be held accountable—-through continued annual testing and disaggregated reporting, and Congress seems ready to accept that test-and-punish must continue.  Congress seems at the same time poised to push for a continuation of austerity budgeting by extending the sequester that would cripple our federal government’s capacity to do anything at all about addressing poverty.  While the data about what’s wrong isn’t new, there is a massive consensus among the experts about what is blocking opportunity for so many of our society’s children at school and at home.  That conversation needs to seep into our political conversation.  What can we do to make that possible?

Senators Sherrod Brown (OH) and Jack Reed (RI) and OH Rep. Marcia Fudge Introduce Bill to Equalize School Resources

As a citizen of Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, I am proud to congratulate and thank our Senator Sherrod Brown and my Congressional Representative Marcia Fudge for stepping out to provide leadership in the struggle to equalize educational opportunity.  For too long Congress has gone along with the conventional wisdom that has demanded accountability for educational outcomes—higher test scores—without demanding that states equalize provision of the resources necessary to support students and teachers in school districts where poverty is concentrated and schools lack adequate programs and support for children.

For too long it has merely been accepted that the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities where poverty is highly concentrated must be shaped up not through the kind of investment the rest of us take for granted, but instead by punishing them and their teachers for failure.  The editorial board of the Rethinking Schools magazine has decried this sort of thinking by declaring that school “reform”based on ranking schools by high stakes tests disguises class and race-based privilege as merit.  Wealthy and homogeneous suburban school districts—able to fund themselves by taxing their own property wealth—thrive, while schools in big cities are closed and privatized at the same time they are being starved of funds by their state legislatures.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has joined Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed to co-sponsor the Core Opportunity Resources for Equity and Excellence (CORE) Act in the Senate.  Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge has introduced companion legislation in the House.  Introduction of the CORE Act will require Congress to discuss and consider the necessity of closing opportunity gaps as a first step to closing test-score achievement gaps.  According to the press release describing the bill:  “The bill aims to tackle existing disparities in public education by establishing accountability requirements that compel states and school districts to give all students equitable access to the resources necessary to achieve college and career readiness by high school graduation.”  The law would amend Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965.

The CORE Act would disqualify any state from applying for federal competitive grant programs operated by the U.S. Department of Education under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act if the  state’s accountability system does not require and measure fair and equitable access to core resources for learning and provide a plan to identify and address inequities.  The state must also demonstrate that it is making annual progress in eliminating disparities; if it fails to make progress for two or more consecutive years, the state would be barred from applying for federal competitive funds.  The CORE Act would also require states to comply “with any final Federal or State court order in any matter concerning the adequacy or equitableness of the state’s public school system.”

The CORE Act enumerates resources states would be required to provide for all public school students and requires that states report annually to the U.S. Department of Education to identify school districts and schools where inequities remain and the measures that would be taken to address them.  Resources states would need to provide for all students include:

  • High quality instructional teams including licensed teachers, principals, librarians, and counselors;
  • Rigorous academic standards and curricula accessible to all students including those learning English or who have disabilities;
  • Instructionaly appropriate class size, equitably provided;
  • Up-to-date instruction including technology;
  • Effective school libraries;
  • Environmentally sound facilities and well-equipped learning settings that include technology;
  • Teams of support staff that include counselors, social workers, nurses, and other necessary, well-qualified professionals; and
  • Effective programs for family and community engagement.

Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond commented on the importance of this bill: “The CORE Act is an important advance…. We cannot expect students to meet common high standards if they do not have in common excellent teaching, equitable curricula, and adequate support.  This bill begins to close the opportunity gap that creates the achievement gap.”