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.”

Why We Should Talk About Opportunity Gaps Instead of Achievement Gaps

Last week, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) devoted its newsletter to exploring the meaning of the words we use to describe and compare educational attainment. NEPC reports that according to a web search, “use of the phrase ‘achievement gap’ has been trending downward in the past decade and a half.  However, searches of ‘opportunity gap’ have shown only a slight uptick.” NEPC’s newsletter wonders: “Will 2020 be the year of acknowledging opportunity gaps?”

What is the difference between “achievement gap” and “opportunity gap?” Does it matter what words we use to describe educational inequality?

Researchers at the National Education Policy Center believe it matters because the the words we use expose how we think, and reflexively the words we use also shape how we think: “When educators, policymakers, and parents emphasize the ‘achievement gap,’ they’re focusing on results like disparate dropout rates and test scores, without specifying the causes. They are, often unintentionally, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the children themselves. Listeners adopt the toxic presumption that root causes lie with the children and their families. In truth, outcome gaps are driven by input gaps—opportunity gaps—that are linked to our societal neglect of poverty, concentrated poverty, and racism.”

NEPC’s newsletter emphasizes how the focus on achievement gaps has affected the thinking of teachers and why this needs to change: “(P)lacing blame on children and families is pervasive. A 2019 EDWeek survey of more than 1,300 teachers found that more than 60 percent of educators say that student motivation has a major influence on differences in Black and White educational outcomes… The 2019 EdWeek survey found that teachers who use the term ‘opportunity gap’ instead of ‘achievement gap’ to describe differences in average educational outcomes of Whites versus Hispanics or Blacks appear to think differently about the root causes of disparate outcomes.  For instance, 43 percent of teachers who use the term ‘opportunity gap’ say that, when it comes to differences in the educational outcomes of Black and White students, society bears more responsibility than individuals or the community.”

Certainly  teachers’ unconscious assumptions about their students are an important subject for NEPC’s newsletter.  But moving toward a broader understanding of the term “opportunity gap” in the broader society outside of school matters just as much. Doesn’t the term “achievement gap” embody the very meaning of the last quarter century of test-and-punish public school accountability?

The whole thrust of this movement has been drilling down, not expanding opportunity. The sanctions-based No Child Left Behind Act and later programs like Race to the Top rewarded schools that showed they could quickly close achievement gaps as measured by standardized tests.  Schools, and later even individual teachers, were judged by the test scores they produced, not the experience they provided for their students during the school day. Very real punishments for schools were imposed by Congress and state legislatures when scores failed to rise on time.  Federally imposed turnaround schemes included reconstituting the school by firing the principal and some of the teachers, closing the school, or turning the school over to a charter management organization. In the same spirit, states began assigning letter grades to schools and school districts, taking over the “D” and “F” school districts,  closing so-called “failing” schools, and expanding privatization through charters and vouchers.

The Harvard expert on the construction and use of standardized tests, Daniel Koretz explains that students in schools serving concentrations of very poor children whose academic needs are the greatest have been the most likely to find their teachers and schools under pressure to raise standardized test scores at any cost and therefore to narrow the curriculum to tested subjects and engage in drilling and test prep instead of more enriched instruction:

“(A) study that examined reading scores across a number of states found that (score) inflation was much more common among students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches than among other students… (I)t is not just about the poverty of individual students that predicts the amount of (score) inflation, but also the concentration of poor students in a school… Lower performing schools often face severe barriers to improvement—for example, fewer resources, less experienced teaching staff, high rates of teacher turnover, higher rates of student transcience, fewer high-performing students to serve as models, fewer parents who are able to provide supplementary supports, and less pressure for academic achievement from parents among other things.  Faced with these obstacles, teachers will have a stronger incentive to look for shortcuts for raising scores. Ironically, one of the elements of school reform intended to help low-achieving students appears to have backfired, making these incentives worse. The key is that the performance targets are uniform and are coupled with real sanctions and rewards. When these targets require faster gains than teachers can produce by legitimate means, teachers have a strong incentive to search for whatever methods might raise scores quickly.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 68-69)

We now know that accountability-based school reform—epitomized by No Child Left Behind, which mandated annual standardized tests and then judged schools by students’ scores—didn’t accomplish its stated goal of closing gaps in student achievement as measured by standardized tests.  Academic research continues to demonstrate that the test-and-punish regime did not address the causes of gaps in test scores.  In a massive, new, data-based study, Is Separate Still Unequal, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon explains that we must reconsider our analysis and think about opportunity gaps: “By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… Differences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

The terms “achievement gap” and “opportunity gap” are central to two very different stories with different plots and different protagonists.  In the achievement gap story, the protagonist is the individual—the child who needs to be more motivated—the parent who needs to try harder and engage more with school—the schoolteacher who isn’t working hard enough to make students’ scores rise. Our societal response has been to blame these individuals and punish them to make them try harder.  In the opportunity gap story, the protagonist is society itself, which has failed to consider and invest in ameliorating racial and economic inequality. The widespread promotion of the achievement gap narrative has made it hard for us even to consider the public responsibility required and the possibilities potentially to be realized if we were to embrace the other story.

It is important for NEPC to remind teachers to reconsider the assumptions embedded in the term “achievement gap,” but at the same time we need to give schoolteachers themselves credit for demanding that our society address glaring opportunity gaps in their schools. For two years now,  public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have been showing us that, too often, children coping with poverty at home find themselves in classes of 40 students and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses.  Striking teachers have shown us how far our society has fallen below a standard anyone could possibly consider equitable.

For a decade now, the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s Opportunity to Learn Campaign has used the term “opportunity gaps” to describe the needs of our society’s poorest children.  In December, the Chronicle of Philanthropy (paywalled) published a profound reflection by John Jackson, the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation about our society’s responsibility to address the huge opportunity gaps posed for America’s children today. His commentary was reprinted by the Schott Foundation: “American public schools, as our nation’s only mandatory network of institutions for children and families, are a lifeline to opportunity in every urban, suburban, and rural community. That’s why we believe the public education system is also the lifeline for advancing our democracy. For young people, our public schools are where they often experience their first engagement with society or initial feelings of being pushed out. It’s also where they are first protected or over-policed, learn about justice or experience injustice. And it’s where parents and everyone else in the community have the best opportunity to advance efforts to create a more just society, whether that is by putting pressure on local school boards or dealing with local control of state funding. Our educators can’t help young people achieve their learning goals without adequate resources, and that financial support is key to tackling the disparities that today mean our schools offer unequal education depending on a student’s race, gender, disability or socioeconomic status… To what degree are (political) candidates’ policies and proposals seeking real change—or simply attempting to once again justify the denial of rights and opportunities to those long marginalized by our American system and society?”

William Mathis: What Americans Think About Their Schools

Every September Phi Delta Kappa conducts and publishes a poll tracing Americans’ opinions about public education. The findings of the first PDK poll were published in the Kappan magazine in November 1969, and the poll has been published every year since then.  Phi Delta Kappa (PDK), a professional association of educators, brings together educational leaders and teachers to collaborate and inspire one another.

Who better to help us put the findings of this year’s fiftieth annual PDK poll into perspective than William Mathis?

A lifelong public school educator and an academic, Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Mathis has also spent his working life in public schools and he knows from experience what matters in schools. He is the former superintendent of schools of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year.  Today Mathis serves on the Vermont State Board of Education.

Mathis has given me permission to share this column about the implications of this year’s fiftieth PDK poll.

William J. Mathis

“Schools are not as good as they were in my day. Kids had to mind then. Not like today. Things are out of control.”  Said in a variety of ways, over half the population agrees.

The truth is that schools are a lot better in many ways — and worse in others.

Among the better ways, since 1971, when reliable records became available, 9 and 13 year olds have registered steady improvement in reading and math while minority students are closing the achievement gaps. The national graduation rate is at an all-time high of 84% and it has steadily increased since we passed 50% in 1948.  Serving needy children is now the law of the land.  There is less smoking, bullying and drinking.  That is not a bad picture.

But the citizens have reason to see it differently.

On the nightly news, the latest school shooting will be the lead and the villain will be glorified with name, picture and amateur psychoanalysis (Note to Media: Don’t give the perpetrators personalized attention). School lockdowns, police tactical squad exercises, allegations of impropriety, privatization lobbyists, religious objectors, sports parents, angry parents, gun toting teachers, juvenile drug pushers, opioids, school closing controversies, publicity seeking politicians, and discrimination charges all find their way into the headlines and ooze into our collective psyche.

To get an even handed picture of the public attitudes toward education, Phi Delta Kappa, an honorary education society, sponsors an independent national poll each year. This year, it has some positive results and some things we should worry about. Perhaps the most important finding in this time of calls for charter schools and privatization is that 78% of Americans prefer to reform the existing public school system rather than replace it with something else. This is the highest support level in the past 20 years and is an affirmation of the public’s will to look to the common good. Perhaps people are concerned about the fragmenting of the values that held us all together, the things that make us a nation.

As elections get closer, the perennial question of taxes is raised. Here we might be surprised. Even though the single biggest cost of education is teacher salaries and benefits, two-thirds of the citizenry think that teachers are underpaid while “an overwhelming 73% of Americans say teacher pay in their community is too low” and 73% would support teachers going out on strike for higher salaries, including about 6 in 10 Republicans. This is the highest support for teacher pay seen in the 50 years of the poll. For the last seventeen years, the lack of funding has been named as the biggest problem facing their local schools.

The citizenry also shows a strong commitment to equality even as the news brings us disturbing pictures of some folks wanting to refight the civil war. There should be extra programs and resources for children with special needs say 60% of the sample. The public also realizes that the achievement gap is also the opportunities gap. While recognizing the racial and geographic differences, the root problem is the income gap. We should be disturbed about the increasing segregation of schools and society. Low-income areas have lower expectations, lesser resources, and lesser achievement.

As an educator the most discouraging finding is that parents don’t want their children to be teachers. The public, nevertheless, has high regard for teachers but that does not translate into a livable wage for half the teachers in the country, reports Education Week. Teacher benefits are better than what are provided in other fields but the astronomical increase in medical and prescription costs is pushing negotiators to ask the teachers to pay an ever increasing share. Add a crushing college loan debt and the field becomes a poor economic choice. Teachers fundamentally like their work but the finances and ever increasing laws generate a bureaucratic deterrent. We face teacher and administrator shortages in a state that is losing student population.

As a society, we can be proud of our educational system and we honor our teachers. Large crises loom on the horizon particularly as manufacturing is off-shored, middle class jobs are eliminated, medical costs threaten people’s ability to afford care and as our nation ages. Of course, the answer is investing in our future and providing the skills and opportunities a new generation needs to sustain our nation and our planet.

The fiftieth Phi Delta Kappan poll can be found at http://pdkpoll.org/results.

William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center and Vice-Chair of the Vermont State Board of Education.  The views expressed are not necessarily the opinions of any group with which he is affiliated.

How We Define Teaching Makes All the Difference

In the beginning of I Married a Communist, a novel about the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, Philip Roth, who died in May of this year, introduces a character who, everybody would agree, is a model high school teacher. Mr. Ringold, the teacher, and his student (Nathan, the novel’s narrator) both live in Newark, New Jersey. Mr. Ringold teaches kids from his neighborhood, students he deeply understands. He cares about them, but more to the point, he cares about what they read and insists that they learn to think about it.

Here is a short excerpt, a dialog between Mr. Ringold and Nathan, then an adolescent, who rides his bicycle past the teacher’s house on the way to return books to the library:

“Mr. Ringold had stepped over to where the books had tumbled from the basket onto the pavement at the foot of the stoop and was looking at their spines to see what I was reading. Half the books were about baseball… and the other half were about American history.” One is about the life of of Tom Paine.

“‘You know what the genius of Paine was?’ Mr. Ringold asked me. ‘It was the genius of all those men. Jefferson. Madison. Know what it was.?'”

“‘No,’ I said.”

“‘You do know what it was,’ he said.”

“To defy the English.”

“A lot of people did that. No. It was to articulate the cause in English. The revolution was totally improvised, totally disorganized.  Isn’t that the sense you get from this book, Nathan? Well, these guys had to find a language for their revolution. To find the words for a great purpose.”

“‘Paine said,’ I told Mr. Ringold, ‘I wrote a little book because I wanted men to see what they were shooting at.”

The teaching continues as Roth sets up the plot through the first chapter of the novel. Mr. Ringold, attentive to every opportunity to challenge his student, holds himself accountable—personally responsible—for challenging Nathan to develop probing intellectual habits.

Compare Mr. Ringold’s understanding of education to what Stanford University education professor emeritus Larry Cuban recently described as the wave of school accountability that has swept the country since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983: “The current donor and business-led resurgence of a ‘modern cult of efficiency,’ or the application of scientific management to business can be seen at a host of companies and in U.S. schools…  Turn now to schooling. The… focus on student outcomes can be seen in the standards, testing, and accountability movement launched over three decades ago…. Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., ‘effective,’ using students’ test scores has occurred in many states and big city districts. Such outcome measures should not shock anyone familiar with the spreading influence of the business model (e.g. earning profits, market share, and return on investment) upon schooling.  Policymakers’ concerns over inefficiency in sorting effective from ineffective teachers… led to an embrace of an economic model of providing incentives to increase organizational productivity and efficiency… Faster and better teaching through new technologies producing improved student outcomes in less time and money….”

Technology and data are the key. Financial bonus incentives—not teachers’ personal responsibility for their students—are understood as the motivator. Forgotten is the human connection— the teacher questioning, cajoling, encouraging, enjoying learning with her students.

Cuban quotes Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Education Secretary, who was a primary driver of the cult of efficiency: “Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an add-on for a high-tech reproduction of current practice.  Again, we need to change the underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money. By far, the best strategy for boosting productivity is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.”

In the passage Cuban quotes, Duncan’s thinking is depersonalized. The subjects of the sentences—the forces conducting the educational action—are abstractions: technology, the military and “the best strategy.” It is as though Duncan, who never taught school prior to becoming CEO of the Chicago Public Schools or becoming U.S. Secretary of Education, lacks any feel for teaching.

Through all these years of data-driven, outcomes-based, efficiency-framed education theory, Mike Rose, the education writer and a UCLA professor of education, has continued to remind us that schooling must always be about human relationship. Rose just posted a new piece: Teaching As a Way of Seeing. He begins: “‘The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,’ says Hazel of her automotive technology instructor, ‘is that when she looks at you, she sees the finished product.’ What a remarkable kind of seeing Hazel describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible. Over the past several years, I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professionals in their fifties and sixties, about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives. A number of the people I talked to used some variation of Hazel’s statement about seeing, some visual metaphor of validation.”

Rose continues: “These teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior—or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend. Through the way they teach, through mentoring, or some other intervention, these teachers help develop the abilities they perceive. We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks.”

Rose quotes a high school teacher who aspires to be the kind of teacher Philip Roth created in Mr. Ringold: “‘I was a strange kid,’ a high school English teacher says reflecting back on his time in twelfth grade, ‘but not to [his English teacher] Mrs. Howard. She saw me the way I wanted to be seen. It changed my life. Every day I work to see kids the way they want to be seen.'”

Public Schools Alliance Releases One Year Report Card for DeVos: She Gets an F

Did you remember that today is Betsy DeVos’s first anniversary as U.S. Secretary of Education? One year ago, on February 7, 2017, the U.S. Senate confirmed DeVos’s nomination by the barest margin. Mike Pence, the Vice President, had to be brought in to cast the deciding vote.

Today, in honor of DeVos’s first anniversary as Education Secretary, a coalition of education, civil rights, labor, religious, and community organizing groups—the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools grades DeVos on the quality of her work to implement the K-12, public schools mission of the U.S. Department of Education.

Here is how the Alliance defines its rubric for evaluating DeVos’s performance: “To assess the Secretary’s leadership, we reviewed the U.S. Department of Education’s mission and purpose statements and identified four specific roles in public K12 education on which to review her work…

  • “Supplementing state and local resources for schools and districts, particularly those serving low-income students and students of color…
  • “Ensuring access and equity in public schools for all students…
  • “Protecting students’ civil rights…
  • “Promoting evidence-based strategies for school improvement.”

Overall, the Alliance comments: “We give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos an “F” for failing to pursue the mission of the U.S. Department of Education.” “In each area, it is clear that the Secretary, far from leading the agency to fulfill its mission, is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. This is not based on incompetence, but on a fundamental disdain for the historic role of the federal government in ensuring access and equity to public education for all children.” “In her first year at the Department, DeVos has proven to be disinterested in, or actually hostile to her agency’s mission. Instead of taking steps to strengthen public schools, and to ensure equity and access, she has proposed slashing budgets. Instead of fighting to protect students, she has hamstrung her own Office for Civil Rights’ ability to conduct thorough investigations of claims of discrimination and has eliminated scores of civil rights regulations. Instead of promoting what works, she has declared her allegiance to one thing only: privatization.”  In the Alliance’s statement, the details explain how DeVos has undermined the Department’s capacity to carry out its mission in each of the four areas.

Identifying the one most urgent concern for our nation’s children and for the public schools that serve them, the Alliance comments specifically on DeVos’s failure to ensure that the Department addresses wide disparities in the opportunity to learn for poor children and especially children of color.  Title I, the Department’s oldest and largest program, was designed in 1965 to address the needs of vulnerable children and their schools; DeVos has ignored the need to strengthen Title I.  The Alliance addresses Title I not as a single issue, but speaks to the principles that were the foundation for the original 1965 federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act:

“Public schools are the vehicle through which we guarantee all children a free education from kindergarten through 12th grade. In our collective interest, we promise that poor children and rich children, students with disabilities, students of color, immigrant and non-immigrant will have access to an equitable, quality public education, paid for by taxpayers and controlled by local communities.  Yet across the country, we continue to invest more in schools serving white children than in schools serving African American and Latino children. And as the number of students living in poverty has risen in the U.S., state and local funding for public education has decreased in the past decade, deepening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Two critical and historic roles of the U.S. Department of Education are to address these disparities, and protect students from discrimination in their educational experience.  But over the past year, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has deliberately refused to fulfill this mandate.”

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is a coalition of the following national organizations: Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, American Federation of Teachers, Center for Poplar Democracy, Gamaliel Network, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, NYU Metro Center, People’s Action, Service Employees International Union, and Schott Foundation for Public Education.

On this first anniversary of DeVos’s confirmation, please read the Alliance’s very thoughtful assessment of DeVos’s work and the condition today of the U.S. Department of Education.

Instead of Building More Charter Schools for the Few, Improve Public Education for All

Roland S. Martin is a journalist and the host and managing editor of TV One’s News One Now. For years he has promoted market-based school choice. He recently moderated a town hall, “Is School Choice the Black Choice?” at Howard University. All the while Martin has been promoting school choice, Dr. John Jackson and the Schott Foundation for Public Education (of which John Jackson is the President and CEO) have instead made the case for closing opportunity gaps in the public schools as the responsibility of a just society.  Here in a short, two-minute video from the Howard University town hall, is John Jackson, challenging Martin’s “false narrative” that public schools have failed the African American community. I urge you to watch the short video.

The town hall at Howard University followed the adoption last month of a resolution by the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, demanding investment in improving the public schools that serve the majority of children in our nation’s poorest schools and a moratorium on the expansion of charters until:

  • “Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.
  • “Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.
  • “Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate.
  • “(Charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

Back in 2011, John Jackson was part of another panel moderated by Roland Martin. On that occasion, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was also one of the speakers.  As Martin continued to push the speakers to support school choice as the best way to meet the needs of our society’s poorest children, Rev. Jackson declared: “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.”  In the recent video, John Jackson asks how many Howard University students in the room attended public schools. When a mass of hands go up, Jackson notes all the high achieving African American public school graduates at Howard University and wonders, since most American students attend traditional public schools, why the better strategy for supporting black students wouldn’t be to ensure that the public schools in poorer African American communities are resourced generously.

The Schott Foundation’s headquarters is in Cambridge, and in A Question of Better Education for All, John Jackson elaborates on why improving the public schools that serve the many is a better idea than Massachusetts Question 2 that would lift the cap on the charter schools that serve the few: “For the past decade, Massachusetts has led the nation in academic achievement. Our students have even been top ranked internationally in a time when the country’s educational outcomes have slid year by year.  Massachusetts accomplished this by taking bold steps that impact all students, most importantly changing the state’s school funding system to invest more in schools in high need, low-income areas so that all students have a better opportunity to achieve. There is still critical work to be done to close persistent opportunity gaps in the system, but we won’t get there if we go in completely the wrong direction.  This would be to allow state officials to give up on investing in improving a system that serves all students in need.”

Jackson elaborates: “When charter schools, which now serve only 4% of the state’s public school students, were added to the Massachusetts model, they were never intended to be a comprehensive ‘education plan’ for a state or locality, but rather an experiment that might provide sparks of innovation whose best practices would be integrated into the main system. It is in that system that the great majority—a full 96%—of Massachusetts students are educated… Public schools and an equal commitment to all children are pillars of our democratic system… Charters run directly counter to this democratic value.”

“When the corporate concept of ‘competition’ is used to justify the argument for increasing the number of charter schools (and student enrollment in them), we need only remind ourselves that competition means winners and losers. Why would voters ever want to substitute that value for a commitment to ensuring a high quality education for every child?… Expanding the number of charter schools reinforces a caste system of private, charter and public schools… Equal education for all breaks the cycle of intergenerational poverty; it is the path to economic opportunity.  Investing in a great education for all children in the Commonwealth is the only way to create a broad-based, diverse, well-educated workforce that is a magnet for employers and can fuel economic growth across the state.  It also ensures full participation in our democratic society.”

Schott Foundation-NEPC Infographic Depicts What’s Necessary for Justice in Our Schools

Twitter was all-a-twitter last Friday about the new infographic, Lifting All Children Up, from the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the National Education Policy Center.  I think this educational resource deserves more careful attention than Twitter can provide, however, because it not only defines and locates our society’s biggest educational challenges, but it outlines the strategy we must undertake to undo years of injustice.  Take a look here:

balloons-nepc-infographicWhile the Bush and Obama administrations under the federal No Child Left Behind Act told us that we could reform our schools to help the students who need help by punishing teachers and closing schools, by privatizing and charterizing, and by testing and doubling down on standards, the school-based strategy outlined here by the Schott Foundation and the National Education Policy Center would invest in experienced and expertly trained teachers, expand pre-Kindergarten preparation, offer family supports in Community Schools, affirm children’s own language and culture at school, fund schools adequately and equitably, and reduce class size to ensure that caring, prepared teachers and other adults have enough support and small enough classes to have meaningful relationships with students.

But, according to the experts at the National Education Policy Center and philanthropists at the Schott Foundation, school-centric reforms cannot by themselves ensure opportunity for children who are living in shelters or doubled up with relatives or strangers, for children whose parents cannot earn a living wage even when they work full time in the service economy, for children who are hungry or lack healthcare.  “The evidence is clear: when obstacles are removed and students are given the resources to thrive, and when families and neighbors are meaningfully included in school communities, all students learn more.”

My favorite definition of justice in our society’s institutions like public schools comes from an ethicist, J. Philip Wogaman, who frames his definition in the theology of Christianity.  His definition could as well be contextualized in any of the world’s major religions:  “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society.  Ultimately that notion has theological roots. If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is unjust to treat people as though they did not belong. And it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217. Emphasis in the original).

Much of our politics today blames the victims, in this case the teachers and students who fill America’s poorest schools.  For too long we have assumed that public schools in the poorest communities can simply pull themselves up. Strategies that slash state taxes and reduce resources for public education cannot fulfill the clear and simple vision outlined in this excellent new resource from the Schott Foundation and the National Education Policy Center.  A good society would create the political will to guarantee an opportunity to learn for every child.

Network for Public Education Rates States’ Support for Public Education

On Tuesday afternoon, the Network for Public Education (NPE) released a report that evaluates the states by what is today an unconventional set of standards. States earn points if they have valued school teachers and supported the professionalization of teaching. States earn points for having invested in adequate school funding equitably distributed and for investing in research-proven programs.  And they gain points for reducing poverty and integrating schools racially and economically. The report takes away points from states that have attached high stakes to the federally mandated standardized tests. NPE removes points from states that have privatized schools.

Here is NPE’s description of the principles affirmed in the new report: “NPE values specific policies that will make our public schools vibrant and strong—a well-trained, professional teaching force, adequate and equitable funding wisely spent, and policies that give all students a better opportunity for success, such as integrated schools and low stakes attached to any standardized tests they take. We applaud those states that have resisted the forces of privatization and profiteering that in recent years have been called ‘reforms.'”

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, our society has increasingly evaluated schools by the test score outcomes they are said to “produce”  with lessening attention to measures of opportunity—the resource inputs necessary for ensuring that children have well-prepared teachers, small enough classes for children to be known and supported by an adult, enough funding for competitive salaries, and a rich curriculum including the arts. The report ranks the states by their policies that guarantee the provision of such resource opportunities.

In the section on “professionalization of teaching,” the report confronts policies in some states that view teachers “as interchangeable—experience is discounted, even viewed as a flaw.”  Instead, “Teaching should be a long-term career commitment.  Research shows that experience matters and leads to better student outcomes, including increased learning, better attendance and fewer disciplinary referrals.  Advanced content degrees, especially in mathematics and science, have a positive effect on student learning and good pre-service field experience builds teacher effectiveness, confidence and job satisfaction.”

Money matters, and provides smaller classes and more support staff.  “More spending is positively associated with better learning outcomes,” but, “During the past decade… the gap in spending between rich and poor districts grew by 44 percent.”  The report ranks states by their school funding adequacy and the equitable distribution of resources across school districts.

The report ranks states by their investment in specific programs known to support children, especially those whose needs are greatest: “We believe we must invest tax dollars in the classroom to reduce class size and invest in early childhood education.  Because the relationship between students and teacher is vital, we are also concerned about the growth in online learning and virtual schools.”

The Network for Public Education also rates the states on the degree to which they have adopted what NPE views are the most damaging policies of test-based accountability and privatization.

Standardized tests are made more damaging for students, teachers and schools by the high stakes that are attached:  “Every time high stakes are attached to test scores to determine grade retention, high school graduation, the dismissal of a teacher, or a school closing, there are negative consequences for students.  In NPE’s rating system, the states that lose the most points are the states that have attached the most high-stakes consequences to their testing.

In her introduction to the report NPE founder and president, Diane Ravitch declares NPE’s commitment to public education as a “pillar of our democratic society”: “We believe that public schools can serve all students well, inspire their intrinsic motivation, and prepare them to make responsible choices for themselves and for our society.  Public education creates citizens.  Its doors are open to all, regardless of their race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or disability status… Educating all children is a civic responsibility, not a consumer good.  Sustaining a public education system of high quality is a job for the entire community, whether or not they have children in public schools….” States gain points if they have invested in strengthening public schools. States lose points if they have privatized public education with vouchers, charters, or parent trigger laws that, “take the governance of schools out of the hands of democratically elected officials and the local communities they serve, and place it in the hands of a few individuals—often elites or corporations with no connections to the community.”

I think NPE’s greatest contribution is in its definition of the principles by which the new report suggests we evaluate schools—by identifying the factors that expand opportunity and by showing which states have instead moved toward test-based accountability and privatization.  The report is more interesting than the letter grades it assigns.

My only quarrel with the report is in its final category that evaluates states on their chance for success depending on the amount of family poverty in each state and the degree of racial integration in each state.  Today’s policy makers are not responsible for the basic demographics they have inherited in their states.  What they can control are the policies they enact to ameliorate poverty and reduce segregation by race and economics.  The report would be stronger if this category focused on specific policies some of the states have enacted—efforts to ensure affordable housing, policies to increase the minimum wage, laws to outlaw just-in-time employment scheduling.  And despite current U.S. Supreme Court decisions that severely reduce permissible remedies for racial segregation, some states have developed innovative plans, for example, Hartford, Connecticut’s magnet schools.  The report would be stronger if it awarded points for the practical and innovative efforts some states have made.

Reduce Poverty and Ensure Equity: The Key to Education Reform Is Not the Common Core

Last week three prominent education and civil rights leaders confronted what has appeared to be a civil rights establishment defense of annual standardized testing as the necessary centerpiece of a reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act.  John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Pedro Noguera of New York University, and Judith Browne Dianis, director of Advancement Project—a national racial justice organization, published an op-ed in The Hill in which they declared: “In recent weeks, a few national civil rights organizations including the National Council of La Raza, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens and National Urban League have vocally opposed efforts to highlight the dangers of high stakes testing by students and parents opting out of annual assessments.  United under the banner of the Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, these groups are urging parents to comply with annual testing requirements.  We strongly disagree with their position.”

Jackson, Noguera, and Browne Dianis call Congress to focus the reauthorization of the federal education law on eliminating the opportunity gaps that federal policy in education was originally designed to address: “We now know students cannot be tested out of poverty….”  “We should all remember that NCLB (No Child Left Behind) was originally enacted in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty.  The measure was designed to compensate for disadvantages in learning opportunities between low-income and middle-class children.  While it was never adequately funded, ESEA was envisioned as an ‘anti-poverty’ bill.”  “Schools serving poor children and children of color remain under-funded and have been labeled ‘failing’ while little has been done at the local, state or federal level to effectively intervene and provide support.  In the face of clear evidence that children of color are more likely to be subjected to over-testing and a narrowing of curriculum in the name of test preparation, it is perplexing that D.C. based civil rights groups are promoting annual tests.”

In his commentary for the Education Opportunity Network last week, Jeff Bryant proclaims the same theme in, Dumb Arguments About the Common Core Distract from What Matters Most.  Bryant writes: “While it’s refreshing to see K-12 education become a prominent issue in the very early stages of the 2016 election campaigns, it’s unfortunate to see support for the Common Core—the contentious new standards adopted by most states—become the focus of the debate… For sure, inequity is a problem—if not the problem—in American schools.  Inequities related to students’ race, ability levels, English language proficiency, and income characterize nearly every aspect of the outputs and inputs of the system.  The achievement gap between white students and their black and brown peers has been at the center of education policy discussion for years.  Students with learning disabilities experience a similar gap when compared with their mainstream peers.  Racial discrimination also plagues school discipline policies resulting in black and brown students disproportionally being targeted for punishments, expulsions, and push-out into a school to prison pipeline.  And many states discriminate against students on the basis of income by giving richer school districts more money than poorer ones.”

Suggesting that Democrats running for office should focus on other educational issues instead of the Common Core, Bryant writes: “If Democrats want to present real arguments for education equity, they should propose what the federal government should do about the 23 states who give richer school districts more money than poorer ones.  They should call for measures to ensure the federal government fulfills its original promise to fund 40 percent of special education services (it has historically provided only 18.5 percent or less).  They should explain how a federal administration rededicated to equity would intervene in the twin crises of black males and females being pushed out of education into the criminal justice system. They should propose plans for federal support of community schools that can provide the range of education, health, counseling, and cultural services needed in communities traumatized by poverty.”

I urge you to read both articles carefully (here and here) and circulate them.

On ESEA’s 50th Anniversary, Jack Jennings’ New Book Traces History of Federal Education Aid

Tomorrow, April 11, 2015, is the 50th birthday of the federal role in education. On April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  I decided to honor this important anniversary by spending yesterday and last evening reading Jack Jennings’ new book about the federal role in public education, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools: The Politics of Education Reform.  Jennings knows his subject.  During much of the history of ESEA, from 1967 until 1994, Jennings served as subcommittee staff director and then general counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.  In 1995, he founded the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, which he led until his retirement in 2012.

In his book, Jennings suggests a new way to conceptualize the role of the federal government in a renewed ESEA.  He calls his proposal a “United for Students Act” that would be designed to address: needed preparation for schooling; improvement of teacher quality; extra resources for difficult schools; the need for more challenging content; and adequate and fair funding.  I encourage you to read Jennings’ book and consider his proposal.

In this post, however, and in honor of tomorrow’s ESEA birthday, I want to share some of the story Jennings tells about ESEA’s origin and its changes over the years.  Jennings explains: “The congressional creators of federal aid in the 1960s believed that the obstacle to better schooling was a lack of money: once sufficient funding was provided to equalize expenditures among school districts, it was assumed that educators would know what to do to improve education.  In contrast, the architects of the standards/tests/accountability reforms of the 1990s and 2000s believed that student academic achievement could be improved by setting high academic standards, using tests to measure attainment of those standards and holding teachers and schools accountable for poor results.  Providing more money to assist with this job was not necessary in the minds of many proponents of this second reform.  Neither of those two extremes has proved to be correct in its assumptions.  The past fifty years’ experiences have shown that education is too complex to have easy answers.” (pp. 4-5)

In every chapter, however, Jennings reminds all of us who have spent the past fifteen years trying to swim in a  sea of rhetoric about  accountability that ESEA’s original goal was very different from No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB’s) goal: expanding educational opportunity for poor children through federal investment in their schools which were also underfunded.  The realities of funding inequity continue today: “First, per-pupil expenditures in the United States are not equal for all students; instead, the pattern is the opposite of what it should be.  Students from families of higher socioeconomic status often have more resources spent on their education than do children in low-income families… Second, most of the increased spending over the last several decades has gone toward the extra costs of services for children with disabilities and to school lunch programs and other indirect expenses.  Only a fraction of the increases has gone toward improving regular instruction for the majority of children.” (pp. 179-180)  A primary flaw in Title I, according to Jennings, was not its strategy of focusing on funding so much as the meager level at which Title I was funded: “Providing a little extra help for disadvantaged students, while laudable, is not nearly enough in a school system that permits spending far more money on advantaged students than it does on those who are disadvantaged… The current (Title I) policy of inserting a little extra help for students into an inequitable system of schooling has not brought about the quality of education we need.  The other current federal strategy—demanding extensive testing of students—has not resulted in a broad increase in student achievement.” (pp. 7-10)

Quoting from David Cohen and Susan Moffitt’s history of Title I, Jennings acknowledges the contributions of Title I despite its limitations: “If we consider where America was in 1965 with respect to the education of disadvantaged children, Title I had made significant progress by the end of the 1970s.  It delivered funds that were reasonably well targeted to schools with disadvantaged students.  It helped to make better education for disadvantaged students a new educational priority.  It moved local use of federal funds from diverse and non-instructional services to instruction…. Despite its modest size and grave weaknesses, it also stopped the relative slide in achievement for many of its students and enabled them to make small relative gains in the early grades.” (Jennings, pp. 44-45) (Cohen and Moffitt, The Ordeal of Equality, pp 97-98)  In the early 1980s, before President Ronald Reagan’s administration reduced education revenue from federal sources by roughly 30 percent, the Title I program served more than 4.75 million children, provided 3.5 million children with supplementary reading instruction and 2.2 million with supplementary math instruction, and paid for 160,600 full-time equivalent staff. (pp. 45-47)

The recent NCLB version of ESEA, in contrast, has made enormous demands on already underfunded schools without providing commensurate federal funding, despite a small bump in federal funding in NCLB’s very early years:  “The New America Foundation, which monitors federal appropriations, concluded that since NCLB was enacted in 2002, ‘federal appropriations for Title I have remained fairly flat.’  They suggest that the (funding) increases immediately after the passage of NCLB did not amount to much.  Therefore, states and school districts were left to foot the bill.” (p. 149)

Jennings goes beyond presenting ideas for his United for Students bill.  He adds up the costs he believes it would be necessary for the federal government to cover—$35 billion. “The federal contribution to public elementary and secondary education would thus be doubled, from $35 billion to $70 billion…. The federal government now provides about 10 percent of the country’s total costs of elementary and secondary education.  This proposal would increase that amount to 20 percent.  The federal government has the fiscal capacity to make this increased contribution because it has broad taxing powers and a national taxing base.” (pp. 199-201)

While Jennings willingly describes the shortcomings of Title I as a relatively small, unregulated funding stream, he tracks the urgent need for greater federal financial investment in educational equity through every single chapter of this book.  We must ask more from Congress—as it considers the reauthorization of ESEA—than merely cutting back on test-and-punish. Even as Jennings sets some new goals for the federal role in education, he insists that the federal government must do more to help pay for a system that prioritizes expanding opportunity for America’s poorest children.